By Joe McMaster - Click for Bio
The old storyteller sat by the fireside and stared at the smoldering lumps of peat in the soot-covered hearth, and as he gently poked and prodded at the sweet smelling turf, the fire hissed and crackled back into life once again.
A well worn, grubby looking old cooking pot forever a prisoner now hanging on a chain was set off to the one side of the fireplace as the old man wrapped the poker sharply against the cast iron grate and dislodged a burning piece of peat from its sharp harpoon-like end. With a deep soulful sigh and a much needed breath he did what he did best, he began to recite for us his tale of death and woe.
As if to help light up the cold dark night someone picked up a burning ember from the crackling fire and with it breathed new life into an old oil lamp sitting in the bare cabin window. While off in the shadows as if by magic, two unseen hands picked up and lovingly embraced an old violin. And with fingers that must surely have been guided by an angel's touch, a soft and sorrowful lament fell gently upon those of us gathered there in that sparsely furnished cottage.
By the flickering light, our shadows frolicked about in fun like fashion around and about the white-washed walls in perfect time to the dancing flames.
A gentle touch on the old storytellers shoulder brought with it a much welcomed mug of homemade whiskey and as he sipped on it ever so slowly, the homemade 'Poteen' warmed and soothed the old man as not another peat fire in all of Ireland could ever do.
To the haunting strains of some ancient Irish lament whose dead author’s name had long since now been forgotten, the old storyteller spoke to us of the death of both neighbours and friends. And one by one, he made mention of them all by name, and with the kindest of remarks about the recently departed he sipped once more on his whiskey. And all the while a soft gentle rain fell upon the fields just outside the door.
These were the same fields in which row after row of potatoes had been ravaged and killed off recently by the blight. And with the coming of the blight, the hopes and the dreams of those inside the cottage now lay dying in the very same ground as their failed potato plants.
But it was inside in the warmth of the cottage that the notes from the old violin changed, and not by chance but now by choice. And as the music picked up in tempo and spirit, the old lament faded off into the night and disappeared to the merry sound of more 'Poteen' being poured into mugs … mugs that were eagerly held in outstretched hands.
It was then that out from the shadows in the corner came a young girl dancing, in a tattered dress of faded colours and with feet as bare as the clay cabin floor she danced as only a young life could. With her fiery red hair bouncing off of her shoulders, in a fairy like flight she danced in perfect time to the airy whispered notes coming from the violin player’s magic fingers.
When she chanced to look at me, her eyes sparkled and spoke to me not of death ... but glistened and gleamed with a fondness for life. And all the while the light from the lamp in the window and the peat fire burning in the hearth threw her ghostlike dancing shadow around the room.
Slowly, ever so slowly, so as not to spoil this moment, I arose and walked quietly away from my seat by the fire and as I closed the old cottage door behind me, the uniformed attendant standing outside asked me politely if I had enjoyed my visit. I could not in all truth talk to him about my visit but suffice to say that I asked him about the family that had once lived in the cottage, the cottage here at the outdoors museum.
The attendant recited by name all those who had lived in the old cottage, and after hesitating briefly he told me they had all died, all save one during the famine years.
With a mischievous wink of his eye he added that they had gone out in grand style, "Yes sir! it seems as if they had thrown a bit of a party on their very last night, if you know what I mean sir!”
I pulled up my collar against the gently falling rain and as I walked away from him, I thought that yes indeed, I did know what he meant.
"I think that a young girl was the only one to survive sir." he yelled down the pathway after me as I walked towards my car, and I could not help but smile as I turned around and called back to him, "Yes, I know."
And then the tears began to well up in my eyes and spill over, as I held onto the old piece of tattered cloth in my pocket ever more tightly.
The same old tattered piece of cloth with the faded colours which once upon another time …had belonged to my great grandmother’s dress.
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