On landscapes, inspiration and writing
I like to write. I’ve been writing for years but not always for my own benefit and not always by putting pen to paper. If I’m honest, it doesn’t often get past the thinking about it stage but that is where most of the pleasure comes from: the idea forged in the imagination. Writing itself can be quite a tedious task without a ready-made audience and requires a lot of mental effort after the initial buzz of creation has passed. I guess I’m a lazy writer. When I worked as a teacher, I wrote my own stories or examples of certain types of writing for my classes, mainly because the resources I needed were either not available or so bad that I just had to produce my own. There was an impetus to do it. One of the things I hoped to do after moving to Ireland was to write more. In some ways I succeeded but in other ways there’s still lots to do.
Last year, I won the Ardagh heritage and creativity centre’s Halloween flash fiction writing competition here in County Longford. This involved producing a story in no more than three hundred words which, if you try it, is really quite a challenge. I entered three stories (although I wrote five) and the winner ended up being a Great War battlefield gothic. Inspiration came from sources as diverse as Sven Hassell, Pat Barker’s book
Regeneration, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, M R James’ ghost stories and the numerous history books on the First World War that I have accumulated. Basically, it was an expression of references and images I’d had stored up for years and it is a subject about which I’ve read extensively. The challenge, of course, is to continually find new inspiration otherwise you end up just re-cycling the same ideas. That was something I went looking for when I moved here.
I didn’t have to look beyond home to find inspiration although I did have to struggle to craft it into something beyond more than just a shadow of a notion.
One of the stories I wrote is called The Rush Rattle and was inspired by our field here at Bramblewick House when we first moved across. A description of a field covered in rushes, brambles and thick with stones and couch grass in the story matches it quite succinctly although I admit to being a little more prosaic. I don’t imagine anybody has ever tried to plough our land but it served a conceit as somewhere that had defied cultivation and human improvement. I remember walking through it. That was an exhausting experience.
The rushes had grown to an incredible thickness and to such a height that they jabbed up into my face. Brambles snaked unseen through the grass, acting like snares. It was a place on the edge of wildness – out of hand and untended but still a field that within the past few years had held cows. It felt like a liminal space which I tied in with a burgeoning interest in the murkier spaces of history, both here and in Britain, to create the setting for the story.
These are spaces where myth and history blur and where folklore grows; where kings and chieftains, long subsumed into legend, slugged it out along the borders of kingdoms that fell and disappeared a long time ago.
That blurring of lines is found in the prehistoric landscape around and about us in places like Rathcroghan in Tulsk with its fabulous heritage centre just over the way from us in County Roscommon, the Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath and the Hill of Tara in County Meath not far from Navan just over an hour away with the world heritage site of Newgrange only a little further along the road.
All are sites linked to rites of sacral kingship that were shaped to incorporate monuments from the Neolithic onwards into ritual landscapes by later people. All are places that represent a different way of relating to the world, one that we may find alien today and which evoke individuals who stand at the crossroads where legend and history meet.
Such a character is the great queen Medb of the epic tale Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle raid of Cooley) who is said to have resided at Rathcroghan although it is far more likely that Medb, whose name is often interpreted to mean she who intoxicates, was a sovereignty goddess that the king ritually married much like Medb Lethderg at Tara and Eriu at Uisneach. It is possible to trace the movement of Medb’s army into Ulster and to where she is supposed to have camped overnight in County Longford by following the Tain trail signs posted across the country. The site of Medb’s death is supposed to be on Inis Cloithreann, an island on Lough Ree on the southern edge of the county, to where she retired in her later years.
In another example of landscape taking on mythical associations, Medb’s killer, her nephew Furbaide, is supposedly buried on top of Corn Hill in the same county although the cairn tombs associated with him predate the legend by millennia. These can be reached up a steep but relatively short, solid road and views from atop the hill are more than impressive on a clear day. Although there have been attempts to locate the events of the Táin Bó Cúailnge in a historical timeframe, it is far more likely that the story is a fiction woven together with cosmological and cultural references that those who heard would have been able to pick up on and understand. As I said before, it represents a different way of relating to the world.
Rathcroghan is also home to one of Ireland’s most enigmatic sites – Oweynagat or the ‘Cave of Cats’ which has ties to the myth of the underworld, the fearsome Morrigan, goddess of battle, and the story of the Wooing of Etain based around Ardagh near Longford. Having been on the tour and down into the cave, I can attest to how worthwhile it is. I have never been anywhere as dark. The centre also conducts Samhain (Halloween) tours of the cave. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer may be interested to find out that Oweynagat was known to Christian monks as the gateway to hell and was believed to be linked to another hell mouth at Kesh Corran. Guided tours of the Rathcroghan complex can be booked by contacting the heritage centre and it also holds conferences throughout the year on subjects that range from archaeology to contemplation of Ireland’s wonderful heritage of myth.
Tara is famously associated with the stone of destiny and the high kings of Ireland, particularly Niall of the Nine Hostages, who is reckoned to be at least semi-legendary and is thought to have reigned in the fourth to fifth century. Over one hundred monuments from the Neolithic to the early medieval period have been detected in the landscape around Tara so far which should signify its continuity of use and cultural importance. Both of these amazing sites are actually free to visit although there is a small fee to get into the heritage centre at Tulsk and for the guided tour.
Some may say that the Hill of Uisneach is of greater significance and its status as the original royal centre of the country has managed to exert an influence up to the modern age. Like the other centres of ancient kingly power, Uisneach is a mass of different prehistoric monuments but at its centre lies a huge six metre boulder estimated to weigh in the region of thirty tonnes. This is the legendary navel of Ireland where the four provinces were supposed to meet and where the goddess Ériu is said to lie. Those claiming the high kingship of Ireland most likely had to go through some form of ceremonial wedding here to the goddess. It is also here that the god Lugh is said to have met his end in the lake at the top of the hill and it is after Lugh that the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasadh is named.
This festival, like Beltaine, involved the lighting of fires on hill tops around the country and it is said that Uisneach’s Beltaine fire was used to usher in summer’s dawn with no other being lit until it flared bright. In more recent times, it was used by some of Ireland’s political revolutionaries to address rallies. Uisneach now lies on private property but it can be explored through booking a guided tour. Attendance at its Beltaine festival can likewise be booked through their website Although Uisneach is claimed to be the navel of the country, the geographical centre lies here in County Longford. We are the actual heart of Ireland.
Figures like Niall and Medb carry the same mythical associations as King Arthur who also dwells in that netherworld between historical reality and its poetic afterglow. Many of the sites associated with him (Cadbury castle for one) were undoubtedly occupied by people who will never be known to history but I find great satisfaction in reading about the archaeology and putting imaginary flesh on its bones.
For that reason, I incorporated one of these king-like (or rather warlord-like) figures in the story but tempered his ghostly figure with the grisly reality of the fate of someone like King Oswald of Northumbria killed in battle by Penda of Mercia. I wanted to also give a sense of the landscape as a place that is active, that acts upon us and where people interact with it in different ways so there are hints of other stories associated with it and I made it act as a charge to the behaviour of the central characters. Like many ghostly or supernatural stories, there is also a warning here that we should be careful what we wake in these places. I leave it here for you to read and comment upon as you may see fit.
The Rush Rattle
The rushes swayed and hissed in the wind with a rattling sibilance. That’s how the field got its name – the rattling acre or rush meadow, or the field of rushes or whatever our childish imaginations decided upon for that week, just like we named every other part of the world that rose and swelled to the purpling horizon around us: Barrow tor, Arthur’s cairn, Giant’s bed, Boggart hollow, and Crow wood. We were the children of field and hedgerow, of tumbling beck and fort-haunted hill and this was how the world formed in our heads.
Rush meadow of course had another name in the adult vernacular. We’d heard it from rough unguarded lips or traced it at fingertip on deeds tucked away in the dark varnished desk Jack’s father kept in his study. Whatever it had been called, nobody from the dim past up to now had ever made it pay: it was a morass of sodden layers of couch grass and bramble and stone and rank upon rank of needle topped rushes all packed inside the peaty loop of a moorland river butted up against the heathen wilds of the uplands. It lay like a hinterland, caught between the tamed and the abandoned where mechanization had found its edges blunted and bent and eventually defeated. Our fascination with it that day lay in whatever it was that poked just barely visible above and sometimes through the tangle of vegetation – something not seen by us before or recorded anywhere lay near the centre.
Man-made or natural we couldn’t tell for it was like trying to focus on a picture that wouldn’t stay still. Sometimes it looked like a pale jumble of stone piled upon stone, sometimes a solid formation of rock but it always hovered just on the edge of distinct vision out amongst the waving rushes. We decided that this was where the war band, lead in person by the king on the hill, ambushed and caught with its back against the river, had made its final stand. The meadow had rung with the clash of iron on iron and blood had misted the air beneath a jagged moorland sky. We sang our tales to the hill tops and as we sang we cavorted like wild things.
“Cut down in the meadow
By sword and spear
The men from the hill
All fell here.”
Maybe it was the burial chamber of the king, carried down from his feasting hall and laid out with his arms and regalia, forever within sight of his seat of power that sat dark and brooding above us.
“He’s buried here
Is the king from the hill
And with sword and lance
No more he’ll kill.”
More likely, it was the house of one of the area’s famed witches, dragged out to the river and floated by a baying mob, then hung, choking and spitting curses until the end.
“What shall we do
With the witch, witch, witch
Hang her high
And her feet will twitch.”
We sat on the gate opposite the field, thinking our musings out loud as the clouds slid shadows over field and furrow and the sun slanted spear-like through the canopies of the trees scattered along the hedgerow boundaries. I had turned my gaze upwards to search for shapes in amongst the clouds when Jack suddenly seized me by the top of my arm, so much so that I cried aloud. “Shhh,” he hissed, “you’ll scare it. Look!” His eyes were fixed on the meadow.
“Scare what?” I replied, prising my arm away from his grip and rubbing where his fingers had dug into the muscle. He kept his head still and sighted down his pointing finger.
“Just there on top of the mound. There’s something sitting, just behind the rushes. I’ve seen it move.” Half suspecting some sort of joke, I looked. Sunlight dappled the field and a light breeze rippled through the rushes but I couldn’t see anything.
“Nothing there now. Probably just a rabbit or deer you saw,” I suggested.
“No it wasn’t. Look again.” I was wary of some stupid trick but stared intently at the patch of waving green. Then, ever so briefly, it flickered into view. I couldn’t say for sure what ‘it’ was but it had limbs: stick-like, angular, the sort that moved in a scuttling insect way – like the kind of thing that dodged brushes in the corners of our homes when Autumn’s chills drove the outside indoors. I moved my head slightly and it became a tangle of shadow-striped reeds again; I turned it back and there the thing squatted, unmoving and folded in on itself – just an effect of the sun playing on the rushes. I told Jack so but he would have none of it and pushed himself off the gate, his shadow leading him across the road towards the rush filled meadow. It was time to stop pretending and to find out what was there.
That was easier said than done. Over the tumbledown dry stone wall and ten yards into the field, we found ourselves sunk knee deep in sodden vegetation and ensnared by tendrils of bramble and dog rose that snaked hidden through the grass. We waded through it, adopting a thigh-aching, exaggerated high step and all the while we pushed through thick clumps of rushes that stabbed painfully upwards into our faces and eyes. Jack pushed on, ignoring my complaints with a silent stubborn determination, even when the ground dipped without warning beneath our feet and left us tumbling and splashing into stagnant water where a swarm of biting insects rose in a gossamer haze.
But I’d had enough. I swatted ineffectively at the floating horde as Jack clawed his way up the other side of the ditch. He clutched at bramble and nettle, seemingly oblivious to the stings and lacerations.
“I’m going,” I shouted at his back. “This is pointless.” He turned at the top and stood, hands on hips, silhouetted against the sky where the clouds had greyed threateningly around the edges.
“Suit yourself. Don’t bother waiting, y’ big baby,” he sneered. He sounded changed, angry, and that last comment was intended to hurt. It conjured up ugly memories of leering red faces and a press of bodies crowding round me in the school playground as tears stained my cheeks and the bully punched again. If it was designed to get me to change my mind, it failed. Anger fuelled my ascent out of the ditch. At the wall, I looked back but he had disappeared amongst the waving rushes and the first heavy spots of rain spattered on the road home.
It wasn’t until I sat eating my tea at our kitchen table, the lamps warming the room with their treacle glow, that I thought about the time and registered the sound of the rain beating against the windows. It was late and unseasonably dark. Then there was an urgent hammering at the door. Mother stopped eating and looked at father who was already rising out of his chair.
“I’ll get it, May,” he said, gesturing that she should stay sitting. He was in his shirt sleeves and waistcoat from which he pulled his pocket watch and popped open the cover. He squinted at the numbers on the face. The door shook again under the sustained hammering. “Alright, alright,” he shouted. “I’m coming.”
He undid the latch and pulled open the door to reveal Jack’s father, his lantern held high, rain streaming from his cap and cape and his face set grim. Behind him stood Jack’s mother, her fingers as pale and frail-looking as a bird’s bones, winding a cage out of her anxiety. She blinked through the rain at us. Behind her, more lights bobbed and swung in the street. Jack’s father spoke.
“Our Jack hasn’t come home. He hasn’t been seen since this afternoon when he was out with your boy.” He tried to peer round my father into the kitchen. “Is he there?” He looked pensive. My father turned to me. I had the gut-clenching uneasy feeling that being the focus of unwanted adult attention always brought.
“Know anything about this, son?” he asked. I’d learnt not to be afraid of my father unless of course I chose to lie to him. Somehow, he always knew. Then his outer calmness would crumble into anger and his hand would streak in a blur, connecting with my face and leaving me stunned by the speed of the concussion before the stinging pain and rawness crept in. Just what did I know?
“I…I…. left him at the field just before it started raining. He thought he’d seen something,” I stammered. “He wouldn’t come back.” Jack’s father looked like a man desperately trying to hold himself back from the brink of something and pushed forward against my father’s arm that barred the doorway into the house.
“Easy now, Pat,” he said. There was something immovable in those words that reached through to him. Jack’s father stepped back.
“Which field?” he snapped, his eyes fixed on me. They bulged in his head. “Think now!”
“Rush meadow,” I replied. It was the first thing that came into my head but I could see it meant nothing to the adults in or outside the room. The field’s real name unrolled in my head, crinkling like the parchment I’d read it on. I didn’t want to say it. Jack and I had only said it in secret to each other in the shadowed hush of the study. I braced myself for the retribution that must surely follow the utterance of such words. “The rancorous bastard!” I forced out through wavering lips. They knew where that was.
My father disappeared with them into the rain and the darkness of the surrounding countryside. From my bedroom window, I watched the lanterns bobbing into the night like the lights of ships at sea.
Jack wasn’t in the field when he was found. I listened from just behind the twist on the stairway as my father towelled himself dry in the kitchen below. The searchers had split up to cover as much ground in the surrounding fields as possible. A group of them had blundered into the hollow where I’d last seen Jack and, in the dark, had found it impossible to make any headway. In desperation, his father had torn himself to ribbons on the brambles, trying to clamber up the other side but the rain had slicked the sides and his feet slipped from under him. He yelled Jack’s name as he splashed backwards and forwards in the dark, searching for a way up. It was then something had made my dad wander a little further down the road.
At first he thought he was hearing things – maybe the chuckling of running water. With the rain still lashing down and bouncing off the ground, it was hard to tell but that soon morphed into a more human sound as he approached a half flooded ditch. There, in the dim circle of light cast by his lantern, he’d found Jack curled up into a ball, his eyes squeezed tightly shut, muttering incomprehensibly between sobs and chattering teeth. He’d pulled him from the ditch though Jack had flailed at him with his fists and screamed and kicked like a demon even when his own father had taken him and run down the road back towards the village. And in all that time, my father had said, Jack had never opened his eyes but that wasn’t the strangest thing. I peeked round the bend on the stair and saw him hold something up under the kitchen lamps to show something my friend had been clutching in his fist. At first, I couldn’t make it out but then he shook it and it hissed and rattled in a disturbingly familiar way.
It was lying on the kitchen table in the morning – a small bundle of rushes tied round the thicker stem of a bull rush like a green horse hair fly switch. There was something unsettling about it. It was like some of the things I’d seen in a book about wilder, older places around the world – the kind of places that still pulsed with drums and the slap of dancing feet on bare earth. Mother saw me looking and quickly scooped it away into a drawer and then returned to fixing my breakfast.
“Doctor’s been to see Jack,” she said. “Seems like he’s developed a fever but he should get over it. Good news, eh? Maybe you can go and see him in a little while.”
“Maybe,” I replied, still remembering the cruelty behind his last words to me and still annoyed that he could put his own curiosity before his best friend. I was inclined to think he deserved his fever but then I was only a child with a child’s sense of justice.
I did go and see Jack. He was my friend and my anger with him couldn’t last. He looked pale and tired in the weak light that filtered through his bedroom curtains and his eyes looked wide and glassy. I sat on the end of the bed and traced a finger round the bed spread’s patterns.
“You want to ask what happened, don’t you?” he said. His voice was quiet – whispery. “Well, I don’t know. I remember getting up off the gate and…” He held his hands up to show the scratches and lacerations. “I don’t know how I got these…” And then, “I must have done something horrible to make you leave me.”
I told him what had happened but he just shook his head and stared at his fingers. Suddenly, he looked up sharply.
“I’ve seen the king, you know,” he whispered. I stared at him.
“The king from the hill.”
“Jack, we made that up. There is no king.” The same expression that I’d seen in the field flashed momentarily across his face. Then I realised he was trembling.
“Well, I saw him here, last night, in my room. He was angry and told me I’d disturbed him. He had…” He took a deep shuddering breath. “He had this huge cut across his head and there was a hole in the side of his chest I could see into… and he sounded all dry and rustly like dead leaves. He stood there,” Jack pointed to a spot next to his bed, “and leaned over and looked at me and…he touched me here, on my forehead. He was so cold it hurt.” By now, Jack looked even paler.
“It was a nightmare, Jack.”
“That’s what mum and the doctor said…something to do with the fever… but it felt real.” He slumped back onto his pillows, exhausted. The door opened and his mother told me that was enough for today, that Jack needed to sleep and that I could come back tomorrow. By the door, I turned to say goodbye and saw my friend lying unmoving under a gossamer shroud of sunlight.
Jack’s fever didn’t go away. It got worse and the next day his mother appeared hammering at our door where she screamed that I was a wicked, wicked child and was to stay away before hurling something onto our step and storming back up the village to their farm house. Ma opened the door and stared at what lay there. Without a sound, she picked it up and stalked across the kitchen to a drawer where she took out the thing my father had taken from Jack. She turned around and slammed two of them side by side onto the table and fixed me with the kind of look that even father feared. I shook my head.
“I didn’t. I… I wouldn’t,” I stammered. She scrutinised me a few moments longer, nostrils flaring with anger.
“If I ever…” She left the threat unfinished, snatched up the rattles and hurled them onto the fire where they hissed and smoked with a sickly yellow looking hue before sullenly burning.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Twice in quick succession during those restless hours, I heard the sound of urgent footsteps pass our house and then later a slower heavier set made the return journey on its own. Somehow, I knew that Jack was dead.
It wasn’t until after the funeral, when we’d carried my friend along the lychway across the moor and the wan wraith-like figure of his mother had left the village, that we found out about that night. Jack’s father had taken to spending most days and nights drinking his grief away in the pub and
it was there that the cruel details poured out – details about how Jack had screamed at shadows that danced and twitched across the wall; how he’d raved about the coldness of dead hands pulling at him up and clawed at ranks of invisible nameless horrors whilst his sheer, naked terror had driven his desperate mother close to insanity; how at the end the room had swelled with a monstrous rattling and hissing with no earthly origin and the adults in the room had looked on in terrible helplessness as Jack’s back had arched, taut as a drawn bow, and with a final tortured shriek he’d collapsed: dead.
In the middle of the now silent pub, Jack’s father drained his drink and walked out into the darkened street.
I was there when his bloated body was pulled from the rushing beck, his mouth and throat clogged with rushes and mud. And even though that is all but a childhood memory and I no longer live in the village on the edge of the moor, I watch my children with care and listen closely to their songs. There are barrows on the skyline and stones canted with age linger in fields hedged with black thorn and brier. Who knows what waits to be woken into horror by the most innocent of curiosity.
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