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Ireland’s Ghosts are On the Move


It’s not every day that you hear ghosts singing in a graveyard, not even in a place as famously haunted as the west of Ireland. So I’m not surprised that my memories of it are still as clear as Waterford crystal.

That morning started just like the three previous mornings I’d spent in Sligo, with breakfast in the dining room on the main floor of the White House Hostel where I was staying. While I ate my toast, I listened to the conversation between one of the women staying at the hostel, and her young daughter, Deirdre.

“Practice time, Deirdre. Give us a tune.”

“Can’t. I ‘ave no rosin.”

“C’mere. Let us wipe your face. You can’t play fiddle with a dirty face.”

“I can’t play it with a clean face, either.”

Bernadette’s daughter, Deirdre, was about three years old. Seeing children at hostels is a bit unusual, but it does happen. Luckily, Deirdre wasn’t your typical screaming brat. The way she held her fiddle in her arms, close to her chest, implied that she knew that it was more than just a toy. She seemed to have a curiously adult understanding and way of talking – old before her time. I thought Deirdre’s maturity had something to do with her mother’s nature too. Although she was loving and tender with her daughter, Bernadette also bore an air of quiet confidence that was frankly intimidating.

I’d been talking to Bernadette the night before about my plan to visit Carrowmore. “It’s the largest stone-age cemetery in Ireland, you know,” she said. “Just imagine, it contains some of the oldest structures built by human hands. Archeologists think some of the tombs and stone circles go back to about 4600 BC. Older than Newgrange. Have you seen that?”  I nodded. I’d been to that magnificent mound not far from Dublin the week before. Newgrange is a manmade hill, about the size of a small walk-up apartment building. Five thousand years ago, someone built it and hollowed it out for burial and ritualistic purposes. The ashes of cremated humans were found inside. No one is sure what kind of rituals were performed in its narrow, eerie passageway decorated with circles and swirls. But like other sites aligned with the solstice, there seems to be some connection with the worship of the sun and moon.

Bernadette continued. “They’ve found the remains about sixty-five separate megaliths at Carrowmore so far, but only about twenty-five are still in decent condition. They’re all sprinkled along the edge of a hill in a shallow valley about six kilometres from here. From the gravesite you can see another important site in the distance, Knocknarea Mountain. Our old Irish stories say that Knocknarea is haunted by an ancient queen who is buried under the mound.”  

Now, I’m not particularly morbid, and not in the least superstitious. And I don’t usually spend my vacations hanging out in graveyards. But Carrowmore is considered unusual and it seemed a shame to pass it by without paying my respects – especially to the ancient Queen. If nothing else, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

My journey to Carrowmore began on the outskirts of Sligo, with a leisurely stroll along a road lined with one-story cottages. In front of the homes, tiny checker-board yards burst with flowers of endless variety and shade. Keep on this road, Bernadette told me, and you will eventually come to a fork. Follow the sign pointing to Carrowmore. You’ll see a dirt path, lined with farms and wooded patches where the farms have given up and gone back to nature. Keep a sharp eye to your left; you’ll see a dolmen in a field even before you reach the gravesite.

I followed the directions carefully. At the promised fork, the road narrowed, and for a few minutes a green canopy of trees shaded my progress. When I hit sunlight again, it almost blinded me. I blinked. In a field to my left a rabbit was standing on its hind legs, ears alert, staring in rapt attention. When I moved forward for a closer look, it darted away.

For twenty minutes I walked and saw no one: not a single car, bicyclist, or pedestrian. Cows flicked their tails at flies and gazed softly at me with their damp, dark, mooey eyes. I passed an abandoned stone cottage—a common sight all over Ireland. The roof was gone but the walls were still standing. A tree growing inside the walls reached out to say hello. Hardy green weeds and wildflowers grew from the moss in the crevices of the walls. The pink of the petals against the grey stone was shocking and delightful. Bees buzzed loudly all around.

Just when I thought I’d gone astray, I spotted the dolmen. To be honest, I’m still not really sure if I saw it or felt its presence first. In any case, there it was, as big as life—or death, I should say—a massive triangular capstone perched on three stumpy stone legs. Around the grave, life went on with nonchalance: grass grew, sheep munched, lambs rushed to the mothers, squealing for milk.

The thought of milk reminded me of the brown scones I’d purchased on the way out of town that morning. Suddenly I was hungry, and a gap in the stone field along the road provided a perfect seat for me to rest and take a tea break.

After my break, I shuffled on and arrived eventually at the Carrowmore Interpretation Centre. The centre looked like any small farmhouse, except for the large visitors’ parking lot beside it. I picked up a map in the main room, and stepped out into the hallowed ground. A huge green field on the side of a low hill confronted me. For half the morning I wandered the hillside with map in hand, trying to make sense of the archeologists’ contradictory theories. At lunch time, I lounged on the grass, and gazed in wonder at the Knocknarea Mountain, the burial place of Queen Maeve that Bernadette had mentioned. The enchanted mountain looked purple from a distance—a pregnant belly clad in royal velvet.

After lunch I stumbled on a “fairy rath”. My guidebook identified it as the remains a court cairn. It looked to me like a campfire, complete with stone boulders for chairs. I took a seat on one of the rocks. Forsaking at last what the learned archeologists said in my pamphlet—so little, so pathetically little—I let my imagination soar.

If I close my eyes, I can still see the startling image that came to me that day. 

The sky darkens with purple storm clouds. I’m no longer alone. On each rock in this circle sits an ancestor. Their forms are translucent—I can see grass through this one’s chest, and part of a farmhouse through that one’s face—but they are there, nevertheless. In the centre, a fire is burning. Their lips are still, but I hear voices in the air, singing. I don’t understand the words, but the tune makes my heart beat faster.

I’m not sure how long my séance lasted. Ten minutes? An hour? A split second? When it was over, I felt embarrassed. My cheeks burned. I looked about hastily to make sure no one had observed me staring wide-eyed into the invisible fire. I hoped that in my trance I haven’t spoken aloud. Chastened, I headed back down the hill, eager to rejoin my own familiar reality.

***************

When I returned to the hostel late that afternoon, I buried myself in the easy chair in the corner of the living room. The sun was starting to wane. My legs, dangling over the edge of the chair, ached from the day’s journey. The girl in charge of the hostel was talking to Deirdre’s mother about some music she had brought back from Dublin. Normally the house was full of sweet folk music, but the last cassette had ended and no one had replaced it. Instead, I listened to the music of their voices and the comforting sounds of dinner preparations: pans being pulled from cupboards, drawers being rifled for silverware, water filling a generous black-bellied kettle.

Suddenly, from the dining room, came the notes of a fiddle. Deirdre began to play.

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