A Story by Gay Lynch
We served a man in Walsh’s bar whose foot had been hacked off with an axe. In famine times, girls in the village wed late. I poured uisge beatha on the High Street. The drink brought succour. No one talked about secret societies but when riders thundered down the hill with news about the house of Clanricarde we cheered. My grandfather watched, he said, from the top of the hill as the smoke and flames devoured Portumna Castle.
Garrick Lynch was always wild. Every night he drank with us. Every morning he pumped the bellows and hammered iron at his forge. A Galway man, with Norman and Spanish blood, coursing and cursing through his veins, he could cant and gammer with horse traders. For his scant rations, he was built strong. When he bent to lift a jar of drink his eyes bored through me until I moistened.
We all knew he railed at illegal meetings against the Marquis, and surmised him, likely soon, evicted. Packed off to the colony of South Australia. All the same. Forbidden thoughts sent me hop stepping from my corner. Not to the priest. And in no time, I had gathered herbs for putting a comedher on him. Not come hither exactly. Enchantment and a snub. Then preternatural boldness.
At the June Fair – after the Solemn Novena and nine rosaries – he lifted me off my dancing feet as easily as he would an armload of birch twigs. Powerful I felt. By the time he laid me back in the fleabane my feelings had not changed. In a show of reluctance, I crossed myself and sat upright. ‘Look out,’ I cried, ‘is it a hound I heard, rustling in the bushes?’ While he looked away, I slid a little sponge between my legs.
My drawers stayed clean and sweet smelling a month past and I prayed that Garrick might honour me. But away he rode, forcing me to eavesdrop in the public bar. Some said he went about his other business and left the shop in his brother’s hands. Others sniffed around me, as if they intuited change. With little faith in the sponge I brushed them aside. God would do exactly as he pleased. Men had been made to his likeness. Granny Spain’s screeing divinations would prove more reliable. After Garrick had been gone so many weeks, and feeling queasy, I rose early to finish my chores that I might read my novel in the heat of afternoon.
May Saturday, carrying water up from the river, I wreaked a prayerful spell that set me stumbling to my knees. My buckets clanked to the cobbles and spilled their contents. Fresh as the morning, two dragoons stepped onto Barracks Lane, firearms on their shoulders, both known to me from the inn. Plain things they were. The Connemara man bouncing on his bandy-knees; the other, taller with a pock-scarred face and missing teeth. Full of fear they might detain me, I scrabbled to right the buckets. Gunshot saved me. We all spun our heads, like dheamhan fola smelling blood, towards the Derrycrag Woods and they set off, running to their horses.
‘Hup,’ one shouted. Hooves drummed as they wheeled into Upperforge Road.
I lift my head to watch them crest the rise, lest they remembered me. I stepped to the street, past the church, in the opposite direction.
Up Barkhill I went, armed with a blackthorn cudgel. To pray for a peck of luck for a wedding. I would face the dragoons soon enough. Once the banns were up, right and proper, there was no doubt where my loyalty lay – with a Woodford man. If he lived. Close to the woods came the scraping cry of a corncrake. Scarce they were, so it had to be lucky.
Along the path, I picked a grand posy. Sweet William from cracks in the dry-stone walls, sword ferns and pink foxgloves from the glades, hyacinths and tiny daisies, untangled from the pathways, and fuchsia from the hedgerows. Pressed against my bodice the nosegay smelled of spring. The woods were beautiful – what was left of them. I ran through the blue-eyed grass to the Holy Well.
At the shrine, sunshine at my back, I rested for a wee while to tidy the flowers. Surely Our Lady loved all maidens. On this day, I said five paters and five aves and tied my coloured beads and rags to a tree, no longer having the need of them. I laid the posy at her feet and drank from the well.
Ripe with new-mown hay, drafts of air twitched in my nostrils. Over and over, I sneezed. Catkins landed on my head. Light dappled through the oaks. Rooks cried from their oak nests. Creatures – pine martens perhaps – slid and scuffled in the grass as I leaned back against the sacred stone. My body stirred with sensation. Idle hand beneath my smalls, I enjoyed the sweet ripe fragrance on my fingers, daydreamed about the first time Garrick rose over me in the grass, and how I bucked and wept with the slippery joy of it all.
‘I believe in ancient arts, I do, and in God and the Blessed Mother,’ I intoned, before with one last, furtive finger-flick, I subsided in the long shadows of the rowan. The air chilled and darkened out of pity or shame.
Scrying the sky distracted me but there were no revelations. I would need ritual. With petticoats and skirts rucked and bunched, in my pantaloons, I crawled forward on my knees. My shins were often blue and battered from carrying pig pails, but nothing prepared me for that pain. Three times I crawled around the well, head full of prayer. At six times three, I muttered, ‘God grant me good luck.’ Nettle welts flourished roseate on my knees. At nine times three, blood drenched my petticoats. I limped to the well to wet my skirt and squeeze cool water through my fingers. Moaned and cursed.
Gunfire, it may have been deer hunters, pierced my misery. The aftersound reverberated in the air around me. To complete the charm, I quickly turned my jacket inside out. Four more shots rang out before I ran from the well, dodging branches, tripping in muddy badger holes, striding the best way I could with my poor sore knees. As I reached the Mountshannon Road and swung my head in dread, a horse exploded from the trees. It kept on coming. Hung low over the horse’s neck the dragoon, in his dirty red and white tunic, hauled on my arm as he overtook me. Knocked me sideways.
‘Wait,’ he cried as I rose and ran again.
It was the Connemara lad.
‘State your business,’ he roared.
‘I am a good girl. I visit the Holy Well,’ I replied, anger and fear all mixed up.
‘Alone?’ he shouted.
I tugged at my beads.
His boy eyes darted like birds scared from a hide.
I scanned the slope.
‘There are men meeting in the woods,’ he shouted. He cast looks fore and aft. ‘Swear on the Bible you were not with them?’
Turn and face him down, I rebuked myself.
Wrenching my wrist, he scanned the forest for torch-bearing scoundrels.
He should not blame me for the flushing out.
‘Are you acquainted with Lynches?’
My heart stopped. ‘Of course, I know who they are. I live in Galway.’
He swung his leg over the horse’s withers and strengthened his grip on my arm, as if to snatch me up with him and gallop away.
Sure, I’d made up my mind to resist him, when the fabric of my sleeve finally gave way with a shriek, and I dropped to my knees. Mother, meticulous with French seams, entered my mind, working every evening in the dim fireside light. There was so much to lose. Faster than burning gorse, words flew from my mouth. ‘Lynches fled to Tuam. I heard said.’
‘No.’ He looked frightened for his life, the little myrmidon. ‘Bound, you’d be to lie.’
Tall and steady as a dancer, up I stood.
‘Do I know you?’ he upbraided me.
‘Do I stir your punch at Walsh’s?’ I replied.
‘Is your name Eilish?’
Behind the low stone wall on the far side of the River Aughty, the barracks loomed as gloomy as the winter coats of cattle. I swore I would not flee from such a dullard. On the gatepost, a splash of colour drew my eye – a bedraggled bird with beads of blood at its throat. Who would fling down a pheasant, unless their life was in danger?
I edged sideways, but the fresh-faced spalpeen did not bayonet me. For a long moment he stared. Then to my great relief, fled back up the hill and turned into the woods. Had I diverted him long enough – for them to get away, their meeting abandoned? Perhaps their lookout saw that I was safe. Perhaps, they didn’t care two figs for me at all. On I ran, pheasant dangling from my hand. Then whisked it through the back door at home, keeping one eye in passing, on drinkers at the bar.
The old men who congregated in back rooms and doorways and who stayed late in the woods, came down to the village one at a time, to pass the Galway Tribune from hand to hand. Dared I ask them about the fracas on the hill?
But then from behind me, I smelled wood smoke and sweat and something else – gun powder. Felt a hand at my girdle, fingers twirling laces. Him rearing up behind me, nudging my hips and toin.
‘Eilish.’ Honeyed with mead.
I brushed his hands away as I turned. Then snatched them back, raised them to my breast to still my heart and breath before returning to pour ales. Slante. Blessed Lady.
After midnight, when few remained, most of them drowning in their cups, I beckoned him with breast of pheasant and bread sauce, to the foundry gates in the yard behind the inn, and snapped, ‘were you in the woods at sunset?’ He proffered a fistful of pamphlets. ‘By the crass,’ I said. ‘You’d vex a saint. Where have you been?’
‘If there was trouble in the woods,’ he said, ‘I would toss my weapons into Lough Aterick, melt into the Sleive Aughty Mountains, and soon be over the border to a safe house in Clare.’
‘A fine marriage we’ll have with you cooling your heels at the barracks; or drawn and quartered in Galway Town.’
‘Despite your good opinion, they’ll never find me.’ In his cocky way he scooped up sauce with a fist of soda bread. ‘Nil aon údar imní ann. At dusk, I spied a little green bird beneath the beginnings of a moon. I heard the corncrake, and I knew you were safe?’
‘And what if I told you that a soldier kissed me in the woods?’
‘I’d fight him at the Loughrea Fair,’ he replied. ‘And, I suppose, I’d kill him.’ He lifted an ingot and struck it down upon the foundry gates – throwing sparks and making a fearful harsh high note.
Eventually, I took the plate from him and said, ‘I did not kiss the soldier. I am a good girl.’
‘True enough. I watched you from the top of the path to Knockanroe.’
‘You needn’t have. I’m my own keeper and carry a blackthorn cudgel beneath my skirt.’
‘There was a lot at stake,’ he said, mouthing the skin on my shoulder.
‘Little you knew how much. Not only fear for you.’
He rested his hand on my belly.
‘But he let me pass.’
‘Should we sail…and should we wed?’
‘The answer to both questions would be yes.’ I moved his fingers beneath my skirt, as if one of us or both were blind. The sateen crackled as I guided him to where our little one had entered. A bat fluttered past and I smiled. God grant me good luck.
Gay Lynch’s novel Unsettled was reviewed in our January edition.
Note from the Author: Maria and Martin Lynch, the subjects of my frontier novel Unsettled (2019), left the village of Woodford, Galway in 1852. ‘A Good Girl from Graigh na Muilte Iarainn’ is a prequel to that novel and my imagining of their courtship. In 2005, seated beside the Holy Well in the dappled sunlight of Derrycrag Wood, it was easy for me to think of enchantment and, of course like the lovers, I have taken liberties, with the truth. In my efforts to negate the good white women trope, I created several stories for Eilish the Lynch mother. They were edited out of the novel, partly because it was long and complex already. Oral stories told by Lynch patriarchs agree that down the generations Lynches taught talking about secret societies was forbidden.