I’m at the age when memory begins to
fail me. People say, ‘Don’t worry, it happens to everybody
at your age.’ Maybe so, but I don’t think it’s
fair and it makes me angry with myself. I’ve always prided
myself for having a sharp memory; at instantly being able to recall
names, faces, events - indeed any scene from the past, from all
my decades and many different countries. Memories would rush to
my mind, dancing fresh, sharp and alive. Now, when they come,
they are reluctant and ragged, presenting themselves like tired,
grey ghosts, each one irritated at being wakened from its death-like
sleep. But I suppose Mother Nature knows what’s best and
perhaps not every memory is worth keeping.
The memories which come
easiest now are those from earlier parts of my life. They leap
to mind with greater clarity than events from last week. I don’t
understand it but they do. Often, the sweetest though sometimes
more painful recollections are triggered by a casual word, a familiar
sound or sometimes even a particular scent.
This evening it was
a combination of all those things - a distant dog barking in the
frosty night air, the sweet aroma of a hazel-wood fire and the
sharp, cold twinkling of a star away to the north. I was sitting
alone in my kitchen with the clock ticking off the minutes, when
I had the urge to breath in the autumn night air. I stepped outside,
looked skyward and without warning, I was propelled back down
the tunnel of time’s memory. For a moment I was ten years
old again and sitting by a campfire with Rory Dubh, ‘Black
Rory’ the Traveller, the Last Prince of Thomond.
now. These days travellers are greeted mostly either with suspicion
or outright aggression and hostility. It was not always so. There
was always a welcome extended to travellers who called to our
door. In those days we called them ‘tinkers’ in our
house at least. Only Rory Dubh though commanded the title of ‘traveller’;
setting him apart from others.
the real Irish,’ my father told us. ‘They were driven
off their rightful lands by Cromwell and his cursed armies and
forced to take to the roads as a way of life.’ They were
the great clan of the Dispossessed traversing the highways and
byways, following the seasons and the old camping grounds. Most
of the travelling families were known to us by name and they arrived
and departed with the waxing and waning of the moons. I was more
exited at their arrival than if they were the circus.
‘The tinkers are
coming! The tinkers are coming!’ we would shout and my brother
and I ran to witness their arrival. Looking for all the world
like a cross between a tribe of plains Indians and a frontier
wagon train they trouped by our house and set up camp on one of
their traditional sites nearby. Overnight we would have a bustling
village of new neighbours. I would follow the carts and caravans
at a distance to watch the activity. I watched fascinated as the
shawled women set blackened pots over cooking fires and their
swarthy, black - haired men erected tents to the laughter of barefoot
children, the yelping of dogs and the bleating of tethered goats.
Nearby, the piebald ponies were loosed to chomp the sweet grass
at the roadside.
The arrival of the tinkers
was always something to look forward to. Not so the lone, dark
travelling man who showed up at our door without warning, This
man we feared. We feared his aloneness, we feared the two brooding
dogs seated on his red - wheeled cart which was drawn by a tired
old pony. We feared his silent arrivals and departures, but most
of all we feared the dark eyes which flashed from his furrowed,
threatening face. I don’t remember the first time I saw
Rory ‘Dubh’ O’Brien but I do remember, as a
very small child, scurrying like a frightened rabbit to the safety
of my bedroom on his arrival at our door.
‘If you misbehave,’
my mother warned us whenever childish high-jinx got out of hand,
‘I’ll give you to Rory Dubh and he’ll put you
in his sack and take you away with him.’
The sight of Rory Dubh on his cart arriving in the farm-yard with
the first November frosts would send us scampering to the safety
of a bedroom closet or underneath the bed to wait out his departure.
Hidden, we were safe but we stayed out of sight in case mother
should decide to carry out her threat. From our secure havens,
we heard Rory Dubh thump the kitchen floor with his blackthorn
stick, chuckle gently and ask my mother, ‘Any children to
give away today, missus?’ We held our breath, tingling and
giggling with fear and fascination. We knew well of course, that
Rory Dubh would once again depart with nothing more in his canvas
bag than the potatoes, bread and meat given to him by my mother
and we would come tumbling with laughter from our hiding places.
Time passed and we no
longer feared the strange, silent traveller who came to our door.
‘He’s the last of the Princes of Thomond,’ my
father often said.
He would tell us about Rory Dubh’s aristocratic O’Brien
ancestors who once ruled over half the province as kings, princes
or chieftains. I could tell from the way my father spoke to him
and of him, that he held Rory Dubh in high esteem.
One sharp, frosty November
evening as darkness fell I passed close to the site where Rory
Dubh had made camp. From a distance, the perfume of his hazel-wood
fire wafted gently in to the still air. The glow of his campfire
looked as a fallen star. In the half-light he recognised me and
called out for me to join him. I approached the fire with caution.
After all, this was the same man whose very name had filled me
with such dread not too many years before. His two dogs, I knew
well, were none too friendly. But I was fascinated by the man,
by his aura of fierce independence, his aloofness and most of
all his aura of royal mystery. I was much in awe of this ragged
old travelling man’ this prince of his tribe - maybe even
a king - who summoned me to his court. He motioned me to a seat
on an up-turned butter-box by the campfire. I clutched the hot
tin mug of sweet tea he poured from a billycan heating on the
glowing embers and answered his many questions.
What age was I? Did I like school? Was I good
at lessons? Did I read books?
‘Books are better
for you than bread,’ Rory Dubh said, puffing his pipe and
stirring the fire with his blackthorn stick. After a long silence,
he pointed the stick upwards,
‘There’s my book,’ he said softly, ‘the
book of the sky.’
My eyes followed his stick to the heavens.
‘Do you know anything
about stars atal?’
His eyes burned bright as the hazel embers. I shook my head and
gazed up at the carpet of diamond-hard stars twinkling overhead.
‘There’s the Great Bear … there’s the
Plough and there’s the North Star … the traveller’s
friend … but there …,’ he swept his arm in a
wide arc, ‘is the mighty Milky Way.‘
My eyes followed the sweep of his arm.
‘Do you know what
it’s made up of?’ I shook my head again.
‘Souls, the souls of the dead,’ he said softly. The
words chilled me to the bone and seemed to send a shiver through
the arc of stars like a soft wind stirring wind-chimes.
His voice sounded far away as he continued,
‘When we die our souls fly up there to join all those who
have gone before us and get in line to enter Heaven. Every star
you see is a soul waiting its turn to go through the Gates.’
I stared at the great trail of shimmering lights across the heavens
and tried to imagine how many millions of souls went to make up
this vast highway in the night sky.
‘Every time you
see a star fall it’s another soul let into heaven,’
Rory Dubh spoke so softly his voice was but a brittle whisper
and I knew he spoke only to himself.
‘We’re all heading for a place on that road of souls.
All my own people are gone on ahead now just waiting for me to
join them. His old eyes scanned the flight of stars.
‘I’ll be there a lot sooner than you, young fella!’
He jabbed his stick at me across the blazing sticks and twigs.
He looked upwards again and said, ‘And the better we are
on this journey here below the brighter our souls will glow on
that journey above.’
He grinned a rotten-tooth
grin and added, ‘I’m sure you will make a grand bright
star, but not for a good long time yet with the help of the Man
We sipped the hot, sweet
tea and lapsed into silent communion. The hazel-wood fire cast
dancing shadows on the nearby stones and whitethorn bushes and
its sparks seemed to jump directly into the Milky Way to join
the throng of shining souls on their journey.
Rory Dubh turned his
face toward the stars and for a long while I watched the glow
of the fire light the years on his lined, weather-worn features.
When he looked at me again across the campfire I saw his eyes
were glistening with tears. He sighed, smiled a slow secret smile,
reached inside his canvas sack and said gently,
‘Would you like a piece of rhubarb cake? It’s your
mother’s. She makes the best in the whole county.’
I wanted to say yes but refused.
He sighed again, nodded
his royal head and retreated deep inside his tattered greatcoat.
He rubbed his hands and turned them towards the dying flames,
‘It’s going to be a cold night … maybe you’d
be better off home with yourself, young fella. We’ve a long
journey ahead of us on the morrow.’
I left Rory Dubh’s
camp and made my way home. My head was full of sky and stars.
A pale winter moon rose to the east, turning stones to gold. Behind
me I heard Rory Dubh talking quietly to his pony and dogs. Warm
and secure later on by my own fire, I longed to be with Rory Dubh
the Traveller at his campfire and gazing deep into that starry
road of souls.
Early the next morning
I returned to his campsite but he had moved on. The only sign
of his stay were the ruts cut in the frosted earth by his cart-wheels
and the cold, dead hazel-embers within a stone circle. I never
saw the old man again. Some months later we got news that the
Rory Dubh the Traveller, last Prince of Thomond was dead. He had
been found underneath his cart one freezing January morning watched
over by his trusty old pony and faithful dogs. They said he was
laid to rest in a graveyard near the road so he could hear the
traveller’s caravans and carts go by when spring and autumn
came. That night I went outside to catch a glimpse of the Milky
Way and whisper a prayer for that gentle roadside emperor and
descendant of Kings.
I wish I could remember
all the interesting facts I ever learned about the sky and stars
in my life but as with so many important things, I’ve forgotten
much of what I learned about them. But, as I said, I figure that’s
the way Mother Nature means for things to be, especially at my
age. That way, only the really special memories will surface from
the misty places of the mind.
My memory, as I mentioned
earlier, is not as sharp as it was but tonight, as I catch scent
of a hazel-wood fire, hear a forlorn dog baying somewhere in the
distance and look at that splash of light across the moonlight
sky, I remember and cry a silent tear for Rory Dubh the Traveller.
I fancy I see his star light up the Milky Way; brighter than the
rest as he makes camp, reunited at last with his own people on
his final journey along that endless road of souls.
The years that have
separated him and I grow heavy on my shoulders and it probably
won’t be too long before I set off down that road on my
own last journey. I long to sit with Rory Dubh again, to warm
my bones by his fire and watch it cast shadows which dance across
the universe, to drink his sweet tea, to gaze again into his wise
old eyes and outward to other lights and other stars, and remember.
Taken from ‘Viewpoints’
(1995), pages 8-13.