"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Nostalgic Irish prose
Irish culture & folklore
Ulster-Scots short stories
"...stories birling through my mind..."
The Hiring Fair was black with people.
The piper boy stood on his father’s wooden case and peered over the backs of two stout, dun heifers. There he saw a barefoot boy, who held onto the beasts with a rope. The barefoot boy said the farmer had paid him half a shilling to walk them five miles.
The piper boy had been told that he would never go barefoot or be short of a coin as long as he practised his chanter. And so, he placed the mouthpiece to his lips and fingered a merry tune.
A girl in a ragged, red dress was crossing the green. She had a straw in her mouth like a maid for hire. She had a head crowned with two flaxen plaits, yet a thick brown main coursed down her back. She stopped and turned towards the music. She did not have the crimson cheeks of the poor maids who skipped around the Maypole in their neat white dresses and plaid shawls.
The piper boy packed away his bagpipes and followed the girl in the ragged, red dress. He stood before her and took off his cap. She spoke words through the straw, words of a tongue he did not understand. She smiled, tilted her head and bid him to follow her.
The piper boy followed the girl in the ragged, red dress. He followed her past the damn with its sweet stench of retting straw. He followed her by the grassy rath and onto the road out of town. He followed her bruised, bare feet as his leather boots crunched a marching tune on the path.
She took him to the shore, where boulders and shingle tumbled from the white cliffs; where snowdrops and bluebells sprouted amidst the limestone rocks.
The piper boy stopped by a rockpool. He dipped his hands into the water and dragged up a crab. The girl in the ragged, red dress picked off the whelks and limpets clinging to the rock and held them up.
The rockpool eyes of the girl in the ragged, red dress swam with curiosity, not hunger.
The piper boy poked flesh free from the shell of the whelks. He laid out dry sticks and pulled flint and steel from his pocket. The girl in the ragged, red dress got up and and collected snowdrops, bluebells and dandelions in her skirt and laid them on the rock. The piper boy waved his finger. He set the poisonous bluebells and snowdrops to the side, but she placed them back onto the rock, making a circle of purple and white flowers into a decorative plate.
The girl in the ragged, red dress cupped her hands in the water of the rock pool. The piper boy shook his head and pointed towards the cliff where clean water trickled over caves.
He followed her into the Black Cave. He followed her into a long corridor and watched as she ran her hands across its emerald walls.
They went back to the shore and played. They skipped over rocks. They skimmed stones. They swam back and forth in the silver sea.
The sun was low when the girl in the ragged, red dress got up. She got up and walked back to the green. The piper boy took out his bagpipes and played a merry tune. The girl turned towards the music and waved a fond farewell.
The piper boy travelled and learned his trade.
He travelled with his father, and when his father piped his last breath, he travelled alone. He was always shod; never short of a coin.
He learned how to impress magistrates. He learned how to speak the tongue of four countries.
He played for dignitaries. He played for paupers. And in his dreams, he played for the girl in the ragged, red dress.
The Hiring Fair was black with sorrow. The piper stood tall and peered over the backs of two bony dun heifers. There he saw a barefoot boy, who held onto the beasts with a rope. He said the farmer had paid him a handful of oats to walk them five miles.
The piper told him that he would never go barefoot or be short of a coin if he took up the pipes. He offered the boy a shilling and held out a chanter. But the barefoot boy did not take the coin. The barefoot boy did not take the chanter. He walked to the church and stood behind a girl in a tattered white dress.
The piper followed the murmur of hungry children to a soup kitchen.
And he saw her. A head crowned with two flaxen plaits. A thick brown main tied up in white lace at the back. She stirred a pot of nettle soup and wore a green velvet dress.
She said she had always known that her piper boy would come back.
The piper followed the lady in the green velvet dress. He followed her past the the damn with its putrid stench of retting straw. He followed her by the grassy rath and onto the road out of town. He followed her silk shoes as his leather boots crunched a marching tune on the path.
She took him to the shore where a new road cut through boulders and shingle; where snowdrops and bluebells shot up from limestone rock.
They sat on the rocks that had been scraped clean of limpets and whelks. They watched hungry children forage for nettles, dandelions and kelp.
The lady in the green velvet dress told the piper that she was the magistrate’s daughter. She told him that she had gone to the Hiring Fair that day to be like the barefoot children.
She pointed to the low purple hills and said she would like to live there, away from all the disease, away from all the hunger.
The piper said that he was once an urchin from the high purple hills, that he had been adopted by a wandering piper and had never been barefoot or short of a coin. He told her that he would travel far and wide with his bagpipes, that he would teach a boy his trade, that he would take him away from all the disease, all the hunger.
The lady in the green velvet dress laughed. She said a child needs only food. Not a coin. Not a chanter.
The piper played ceol beag for the lady in the green velvet dress.
The piper tried to play ceol mor for the lady in the green velvet dress.
She called it the little music and the big music in her tongue. He composed her a comely tune and named it the ‘Girl in the Ragged Red Dress’.
The weeks passed by and the love between them grew, but they both thinned and weakened. The lady in the green velvet dress pointed to the low purple hills. She asked the piper to take her there to a home with a hearth and a table for bluebells and snowdrops. She told him that even a magistrate could not stop disease and hunger.
The piper was torn.
The piper was torn between the road his father had travelled and the lady in the green velvet dress.
He had never known a home with a hearth and he knew that he would hunger for his trade as a wandering piper.
The sun was low in the sky when she got up and went to the water’s edge.
He took out his bagpipes and played a merry tune. He saw her turn and look around.
And then she was gone, over the ridge of a boulder and into the water. He laid down his bagpipes and ran past the silk boots and green velvet dress. He leapt into the sea and swam towards an empty horizon.
He returned to the shore and his voice bellowed its own sorrowful ceol mor. He hid his bagpipes in the Black Cave and walked back to the green.
The magistrate was angry. The magistrate was heartbroken to have lost his only daughter.
The piper did not impress the magistrate. The piper did not impress the the dignitaries or the paupers. They said that he had drowned the magistrate’s daughter.
The piper hungered for half a life in gaol. The piper hungered for half a life with no music. His hair was a tangle of white rope when he returned to the cave to fetch his bagpipes from the emerald walls.
He bathed in the water in darkness. He ripped up snowdrops and bluebells before they bloomed. And when the moon released its grip from the sea, he scoured the beaches and lived off whelks and limpets and dandelions and nettle.
The wandering piper only wandered up and down the emerald walls of the Black Cave.
And he played his lover’s lament over and over, a lament that echoed along a corridor of emerald rock, underneath black boulders, across shingle, towards the low purple hills.
At the foot of the low purple hills lived an old lady in a ragged, red dress.
She was the widow of a fisherman and the mother of three daughters.
She had taught her daughters how to forage for crabs and limpets, how to make fire with dry sticks and flint and steel, how to find clean water from springs trickling over caves.
Her youngest daughter heard the music one day and turned. She called her mother from her kelp hut.
The old lady in the ragged, red dress listened to the lover’s lament and told her daughter the story of the wandering piper.
The youngest daughter listened. No wandering piper had ever passed through her craggy townland. No wandering piper had ever come with days of music and days of joy.
And she asked her mother why she had chosen a full belly when her soul had no music.
The old lady in the ragged, red dress told her daughter that a piper hungers not for his travels, but for his little music and his big music. She told her daughter that she had given the wandering piper the gift of a lover’s lament. She had given the wandering piper the gift of his ceol mor.
Angeline King is the author of:
Irish Dancing: The festival story
A history of dancing in Ulster with a focus on the festival tradition of Irish Dancing. Clickhere to buy.
"An enjoyable coming-of-age tale with a Belfast twist" (The Irish Times)
Click here to buy
A Belfast Tale
“Uniquely, authentically and enjoyably Belfast" (Tony Macaulay, author of Paperboy.)
Click here to buy.
Children of Latharna
Lyrical and nostalgic; wistful and humorous, Ian Andrew, author.
Click here to start reading.
The Piper of Black Cave
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Last Day of Summer Scheme
Uniquely Girls' Brigade
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
A dander around Larne
God Created Butlins
History & folklore
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