Eileen walked out onto the Burren, the lunar limestone karst landscape of the west of Ireland. She walks here every Halloween night. She used to walk it with her mother, but she has long since returned to the soil and Eileen’s daughters have no interest in the ‘old ways’.
So she walks alone.
Except she is never really alone. That is why she walks this road on Halloween night. It is the famine road. Inhabited by the ghosts of those who did not survive the Great Hunger. They walk here every night and sometimes during the day. But on Halloween night when the veils between the worlds are thin, they and their hunger, is especially close.
Eileen’s ancestors are among them, including Caitlín her great aunt whose husband died on the boat to America and left her with two little ones to feed. They all perished. But their hunger lives on. Some say it is woven into the very fibre of the land.
This is why Eileen leaves the warmth of her stone cottage at the edge of the Burren to come here. She knows that if the hunger of her ancestors, and their neighbours and all those who died, is not appeased, that they will cross the veil and drift into the world of the living to satisfy their cravings.
She knows first hand what this looks like.
When she was six years old her father who was gifted at calving cows, was helping a neighbour on the other side of the Burren. Her mother had warned him to be home before dark, even if it meant leaving the cow and her calf to fend for themselves. “Your life is more precious than that calf’s tonight,” she had warned him. “Don’t be travelling the road when the veil is thin”.
Liam, Eileen’s father winked at his wife and young daughter and ensured them both that he would be back in time.
But he wasn’t.
It was after midnight when he returned and he was not himself. Eileen’s mother found out later that it had been a difficult birth and that Liam wouldn’t leave until the calf had safely arrived. To celebrate the new arrival, and being the night that was in it, he had taken a drop of whiskey with Padraig his neighbour before leaving for home.
Liam burst in the door of the house on his return. “I’m hungry woman”, he roared, waking Eileen and her mother who were curled up together in bed. In the few moments that it took Eileen’s mother to reach the kitchen, Liam had already eaten the plate of bread and cheese that she had left out for his supper and was tearing the kitchen apart looking for more food. When he found the whiskey that was usually kept for guests he put the bottle to his lips and drank it down like a man parched with the thirst of others. It was then that Eileen’s mother knew what had happened.
It took her three days to gather all that she needed. And in those three days Liam was like a man possessed, gorging on food and drink wherever he could find it. On the evening of the third day, Eileen’s neighbours arrived at their cottage to care for Eileen and her father. “Don’t set a foot outside that door until I get back” warned her mother. “And don’t let your father leave either.” And with that she stepped across the threshold into the darkening night.
She lit the fire at the place where she thought Liam would have crossed the famine road. She had gathered every piece of dry wood that she had been able to find, not an easy task during this damp season. Padraig had helped her, heavy with guilt for what had happened to his friend. “You may let go of your heavy heart Padraig, or they will feed on that too. What’s done is done, now let’s put an end to it.” she said.
The bonfire raged, fuelled by dry wood and a rising wind. Eileen’s mother started with the old songs, which told the tales of how it used to be. Of when the land was lush and the seasons honoured and the forests were filled with plenty. She told the stories of the ancients who walked with honour and pride, the warriors and the kings. And then when the remembering was done, she made her offerings. Her neighbours had been baking and emptying their own larders on her behalf for three days. Cakes and bread into which they had poured their own stories and their love. Remembering their loved ones and ancestors who had been lost to the hunger, whose ghosts still walked upon the road. “I won’t be giving you whiskey”, she said to the fire. “We have suffered enough at its hand”, “But everything else I offer you freely to appease your yearning, in the hope that you will return my husband back to me.”
They watched over the fire until it was embers, all the offerings having been absorbed into the flames. Then walking back to the cottage in silence, afraid to speak in case it might break the spell. “Where’s your father?”, asked Eileen’s mother as soon as she walked in the door, instantly noticing that Liam was not sitting by the fire where she had left him. “He’s asleep mam”, said Eileen, “he seems peaceful, he hasn’t been hungry for over an hour.”
It was a long night, they all took turns sleeping, keeping vigil over Liam, afraid to say too much, or wish too much while waiting for the arrival of the dawn.
© Catherine Maguire, 2017
Image by: Rob Adams