Coming Home to Write

An Irish Fairy Tale or Is It?

Photo by Josep Castells

It was not my intention to write a fairy tale or to reveal a bit of family history. Sometimes no matter if I have a plan, the writing goes where it will. It certainly did in my play Irish Mist.

Timothy has come from Ireland to visit the U.S. He meets a group of women in a pub under renovation. This is a story that Timothy tells them one night.

In a time long before Queen Maeve, and long, long, before High King Brian Boru, there was the pipe. It was on a day, very much like today, a day almost as dark as night, when a young lad named Seamus was hurrying across his land trying to get home through the storm. The mighty wind kept beating him back, tearing at his clothes until he believed he would lose them. Seamus was no more than halfway home when the rains fell, the droplets like a thousand sharp pebbles piercing his skin. “Is there nothing to shelter me?” He was crossing that part of his field fully open to the sky, not a mound, not a tree, not a bush. “The lightning will surely strike me now.”

Then suddenly, he heard a voice calling from behind.

“Help me. Please, help me.”

He knew he could pretend not to hear, he knew going back to help would most certainly cost him his life, but he turned and listened for the voice to call again.

“Please, please help me.”

As he started back, suddenly out of the blackness, an alder tree appeared. The gale was whipping her right and left. Seamus ran to her and tried to hold her slender trunk steady. He fell to the ground to avoid being struck by her wildly swinging branches.

“I am so afraid,” said the tree. Oh, how Seamus tried to hold her steady. “Will you sing to me?” she pleaded.

Seamus looked up at her through the rain. “Will you sing to me,” the tree repeated.

“I’m sorry,” thought he. “Oh, sweet tree, if only I could, I would so like to sing to you.” Seamus could only think his answer for, you see, in all his life he had never been able to utter a sound. But the tree clearly heard his thoughts. She braced herself against the wind and bent down one of her limbs. “Hurry, use your knife and cut one of my small branches.” Seamus did. And then she told him how to carve the first pipe. “Hurry, hurry play your pipe,” she cried.

The storm heard this and tore at her and the lad with even greater fury. It was now the storm who was frightened. The tree with her last bit of strength bent toward Seamus encircling him with her branches and whispered “Play, Seamus.” And when he began to play the storm gave one last angry cry and then the rain slowed, the wind calmed until finally, the storm was no more.

“My Seamus, is the greatest piper in all of Ireland,” said the alder tree.

The O’Hanlon pipe. We always carve them from the branch of an alder tree. Oh, the journeys this one has been on. Long ago, a descendent of Seamus Under the Alder Tree, brought the pipe all the way to America. His name was Timothy, too. The story goes that Timothy loved Anna, a lovely laughing girl from County Mayo. He was the best piper in all of Galway and she the best dancer in all of Mayo. When they married, triple rainbows swept across the cloudless blue sky and the wedding feast went on for days and days. Piping and singing and dancing, and I’m certain much eating and drinking. And as often happens, children soon followed. Bridget then Seamus then Brendan then Patrick then Maeve then Gerald. Timothy piped for them all. But then there came a dark time, the time of the great hunger in Ireland. Little Maeve with a laugh like her mother’s was the first to die. Then baby Gerald.

When the family began the long walk from County Galway to Dublin town, Timothy wanted to leave the pipe behind, but seeing the sadness this caused in sweet Anna’s eyes, he put it in his pocket instead. Timothy took the pipe, but he never played it along that sad-filled road. He was to play it only once more in Ireland. For his fair-haired Patrick being left behind because he was too weak to board the ship bound for America. As the boat pulled away, Timothy stood on the deck playing a tune so mournful that the crowds on board and dock grew silent. Timothy did not play it while crossing the wild Atlantic. He could not lift it to his mouth as he watched the bodies of Bridget and Brendan and his lovely wife Anna being tossed into the sea, being tossed with the garbage into the sea.

It was only Timothy and his eldest son, Seamus, who reached the far shore alive. Seamus lived to tell his brother, Patrick, back in Ireland, the story of the day their father died. It was difficult to find work in America. Signs in shop windows, “No Irish need apply,” words scrawled on alleyway walls, “Die, stinking Irish.” Many a night they went to bed hungry and cold in that great land of promise.

But finally, Timothy found work building wagons, and every morning after he fed his son and before he went to work he would go to meet the ships arriving from Ireland. He was always looking, always searching, hoping to find a little boy named Patrick, a little boy sent to join his father across the sea. Seamus told of how he’d pull up in a wagon in front of the bad men with mustaches and big bellies, stand up, make a speech demanding that they cease their evil doings, that they arrest captain and crew of any ship maltreating its passengers then he’d go off to the docks. There he did what he could to help the sick and hungry. He kept giving his food and money away. He grew weak from hunger. The story goes that the last time he stood up in the wagon, he was so weak that he could not speak. He took out the pipe and “like a miracle” said Seamus, was able to play. Some of the emigrants rose to their feet and began dancing on the dock, others pulled from frayed pockets their own pipes and began to play, too. The mustached and big-bellied men stopped what they were doing to listen if only a little. Only a priest and a nun or two had paid enough attention to him to try and get him to eat. He stood up in the wagon one too many times. Weak from hunger… he hit his head when he fell. Some say it was Timothy’s death, that turned the day, but many more believe it was his playing of the pipe.


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