"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Irish culture & folklore
"...stories birling through my mind..."
A dirl of rhyme filtered through the scullery as Cassie stacked the last wheaten farl onto the cooling-tray. Granny was singing about urchins, her hands twisting and plaiting a wisp of straw in her lap.
‘‘Hae ye a wisp for the whole o Ballygally forbye Cairncastle?” teased Cassie, eyeing the overflowing basket by Granny’s feet.
Granny gave a smile as taut as the straw she held in her hand. ‘This bonnie wisp is goin naewhere.”
“Da saes ye’ll hae the devil upon us, with your Hogmanay.”
“If your da spent less time thinkin aboot the deil,” said Granny, “he’d hae less work on his hands.”
Cassie began clearing up the kitchen. All work had to be done before the first-footers crossed the threshold on New Year’s Day, one of the superstitions Granny held onto despite her son-in-law’s censure.
“It’s brave an early to redd up the trimmings,” said Cassie as she lifted the prickly holly from the chimney-brace.
“A clean hoose keeps bad omens oot!” said Granny.
“There’ll be nae talk of bad omens in this hoose!” trumpeted Cassie, mimicking her father’s unyielding voice.
Granny replied with a smile that doubled around her lips like a plaited wisp of barley. It was a fearless expression, ready to deflect any man’s chiding.
Cassie looked across the silver line of hawthorn outside the window. The moon shone white on a navy sky and the lights of the Maidens’ lighthouses blinked yellow. She pictured her mother by the window, her paintbrush pointing to the horizon, her expression fearless.
Cassie clanged the brass bells to mark midnight and sipped back her whiskey. Granny leaned in close on the settle. “I met your granda at Hogmanay, ye ken?”
Cassie dropped her empty mug. Granda Scott’s name was never mentioned.
“Och aye,” said Granny. “The good Lord blow’d him through thon door. Hair as black as coal. I was leukin oot for weans beggin for bread and coal. But here, dear. The first-footer was Hamilton Scott frae Donaghadee. Loast in the fog efter a danner up Sallagh.”
Granny held up the short wisp of straw to reveal a heart shape where the loops of her creation intertwined. “I’d a wisp like this yin in my hand for the weans.”
“Och, Granny,” said Cassie, laughing. Hammy Scott was said to have died at sea, but Cassie had overheard a different tale the night of her mother’s wake.
As the sound of the fiddle echoed in the scullery, Granny Armstrong had whispered the truth to her sister, that Hamilton Scott had been a figment of Letitia Lynch’s imagination. The pair of them had leaned over the open coffin and prayed for the soul of the dearly departed — Charlotte Scott, the bastard daughter.
“It’s a cryin shame the weans dinnae come first-footing roon here,” said Cassie.
“Your da wudnae stand for it. Beggars, he’d call them.”
“Ma wud hae said the same.”
“Och, och anee,” rhymed Granny. “Yer ma liked the oul ways when she was a wean. She aye gien your da his place as the heid o the hoose. And rightly so.”
Cassie thought about her mother and her illness, the fatigue that died in the dim light. She would stay up half the night painting and then she would lie for days, not fit for lifting a hand. The Armstrongs said that Charlotte Scott was too much the lady, with her painting and resting.
Cassie missed her ma, but she’d never been drawn to the landscapes painted by her hand. She’d never been drawn to their colours, as dark as Haleve nicht.
“Granny,” said Cassie. “Ye know there’s mare a chance o’ a draft blowin through thon door than a first-footer. Come on tae bed.”
“Young yins! Where’s the magic? I believed in magic. And leuk at me.”
“Aye, leuk at ye, Granny,” said Cassie, as she rattled the last of the slack from the bucket. “An oul widow wi naethin but a sixteen year-oul tae warm them cowl feet. Let’s get ye til yer bed.”
Cassie’s mind birled from the whisky. She tossed and turned half the night. At the stroke of five, a cold wind skimmed across her cheeks.
She slipped her hand into the icy air and switched on the lamp. Wind whistled through the chimney flue.
Cassie pulled back the heavy quilt and there was Granny. Nose tipped up. A gladsome smile. White hands gripping the heart-shaped wisp like a prayer.
Hands as cold as linen.
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
Kailyard & Dusty Bluebells
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl