Confessions of an Irish Werewolf
by Desmond MacNamara
The horse tram rattled and jerked to a stop as two passengers rushed from the curbside and mounted the steps on to the platform, the man helping the lady past a pile of fresh horse droppings and puddles in the more sunken parts of the cobbled road. The fare was a penny from near the Stoker house at Marino to the Five Lamps on the North Strand: a straight run across the River Tolka and then the steeply embanked canal bridge. The city of Dublin had been spreading in size since the latter part of the century. With the Act of Union in 1800, induced by Protestant panic and colossal bribery, Dublin lost its well-intentioned Protestant Commons and Lords and became the administrative centre for the four Irish provinces of Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht. The brandy continued from France, thanks to O'Donnell, the smuggler of national salvation during England's wars with Napoleon. The Irish fought on both sides: anything to pay the rent or entertain lofty Jacobin ideals.
The city slumbered for a few decades, until now, the late 1860s; but the failure of the potato harvest for successive murderous years jolted it into life again. Lawyers were in demand, and corn merchants, as well as linen weavers and civil servants. The city started to spread, north, south and west, along the vale of the Liffey. The east was blocked by Dublin Bay, ringed by the Hill of Howth in the north of the bay to the Wicklow hills to the south.
I should not go on with these panoramic perspectives. But then I am very different from the others, or so I tell myself. I do not feel different from my fellow beings apart from living longer and a tendency at times to yield to an urge to tear apart the flesh of strong wayfarers and, in the early days, this in itself counted for little in this blood-soaked and lovely land. Things improved slightly through the long centuries of change.
It's not as if I lack feelings of tenderness, affection - you might even call it love at times. Does a fox feel love for a vole or a rabbit, as it follows its deadly chase? I doubt it. But I often feel a reverent awe and something like love for a slim girl or a plump girl or a sportive and lightfooted lad. I often wonder if what amounts to the Gothic term Werewolf applies to me at all. There was a cat demon or non-human entity somewhere in Sligo, before the Contention of the Bards at Drum Cett: name of Irusan. A sharp-clawed creature that tore people asunder if they couldn't answer a riddle. Heaven knows how far back his murky past went.
I must keep my eye on the girl with the galoon ornament on her tightly-buttoned swelling bosom, chamfered into an insect waist. Quite well-dressed when you come to think of it. She climbed on at Annesley Bridge over the River Tolka. Oh the smell. Rotten eggs. Disgusting. These Home Rulers on the Dublin Corporation. Just as corrupt and snobbish as the Anglo-Irish lot.
Imagine planting a vitriol works on the estuary of a trout stream. The trout are still there about two miles upstream, but from Annesley Bridge the water boils corrosively. Brian Boru's son was drowned there at the Battle of Clontarf, 1014. Before my time. His bones wouldn't be worth crunching if he fell in now. They would have been seething bubbles in ten minutes.
I must keep to the main object, but an excessively long life has made me reflective and a prey to memories. I was once a man of action. What else is a werewolf? But now my thoughts stray: not so much with pleasant memories but with items of interest.
It should be and was my obsessive predilection to tear flesh asunder and, a long time ago, consume it. Then followed a century or two of just ripping asunder. The intimations of middle age came to me during what the English call the 1641 rebellion: O Neill's War. Terrible things were done and one morning I found a young woman weeping by a burnt-out castle. Everyone seemed dead or dismembered. Great beams still smouldered and she had a fragment of blown cinder in her eye. It was agonising but had probably shielded her mind from shock.
When I approached her, in something like English dress apart from my shoes and headgear, she was not frightened. I deftly flicked her eyeball clear. As the reflex tears flowed from her eyes I became carnivorously detumescent as it were. I lost entirely my desire, my need to tear her pink and juicy flesh and swallow it down in glorious jawfuls. It was a strange and disturbing feeling and as I took her arm tenderly to lead her to the haven of some peasant's hovel I tried to suppress my lupine howl as much as I could. She probably mistook it for half-smothered lamentations of sympathy.
Things are coming to a pretty pass when the Damned turn to virtue out of boredom or impuissance.
My little quarry is sitting circumspectly beside a large woman with an extravagant bonnet trimmed with imitation jet. This is a great age of imitation. Electroplated silver on copper, imitation ivory, pearls, stone, Egyptian tombs, Greek mausoleums; even imitation male members for Sapphic women to play the man or girls of the demi-monde to amuse their lovers on jaded afternoons.
Several growlers pass us in either direction, their jarveys pretending to flick their long whips over the trotting horses to make them lift their knees in a braver showing. The passengers are usually invisible in the leather-smelling upholstered carriage. My girl watches them carefully: jealousy, curiosity or expectation? But none of them pulls over to slow the tram or diminish the crested panoply of the clopping shires, their harnesses jangling with ornamental brasses, corporate, municipal or even religious. The curling tresses at their fetlocks twirl and gyrate like the sea foam beneath the hooves of the steeds of Mananan Mac Lir, the shadowy sea god who gave his name to the Isle of Man and Mona, which the English call Angelesea, the island county. The Romans crucified the members of the druidic colleges there, but what did the Angles do? And how did they claim the Menai Straits as their sea? All before my time, of course, but one becomes so provincial, living in Ireland so long. The fate of England was decided, I suppose, at a battle near Dumbarton. I can't recall anything about it, except for the defeated Gaels and Picts. Doubtless every English schoolchild can recite its legend by heart. I can hardly remember my Welsh or my French. 600 years is a long time, even for a semi-immortal like me.
My young lady is getting restless. Descending from the vehicle? Large Palladian boulevards stretch north west. Visiting there perhaps. One road is blocked by a herd of lowing cattle, another with herds of bleating sheep, pushing traffic and pedestrians to the walls and railings: on their way to the steam packet to Liverpool to reappear in the cities of the Empire builders. Not very proud of their Empire, are they? Within days these cack-rumped beasts will be dissected and displayed in butchers shops labelled Prime English Beef or Yorkshire Lamb.
There seems to be an awful lot of dairy shops selling milk, bread, bags of coal, small bottles of castor oil and elixirs for ladies or the petit mal. Everything for a penny, except the coal. Best Wigan nuts, fourpence a stone. The thickening commerce means that we are nearing Amiens Street railway, the terminus for Belfast and the nine counties of Ulster.
The tram rattles and jangles to a stop outside the railway terminus. A flight of steps in fine-cut stone lead to the ticket offices and departure platforms. Foot passengers must climb these as German and English gentlemen climb the Spanish Steps to Trinita del Monte and the Villa Borghese in Rome. Even people like me have done a trans-alpine tour, since the advent of the steam locomotive, apart from a few daysí coach journey across the Alps. Travellers who arrive by growler, jaunting car, trap or vis-a-vis, ascend to the lofty platforms by a cobbled ramp in a side street. Again an echo of the Rampa by the side of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The engineers who built the station were self-conscious Romantics.
I must still my mind to the task in hand. It bubbles like pink champagne. The girl has arisen and is moving towards the steps. Other passengers jostle behind her and I join them, but in time to descend before her as she hesitates because of her restrictive skirts or the shining piles of horse ordure left on the road by a hundred cabs and lorries and drays. As if by a courtesy offered by sheer chance I offer her my hand, which she bends slightly to take. She smiles, not shyly but in a friendly manner. Her hand has strong bones but is adequately covered with soft flesh, and cushioned. I take her leaning weight for a second or two and she is on the wood blocks which pave the road. Smiling and nodding and then relinquishing her eyehold, I lead her deftly past the horse droppings, take her weight for a second by the kerb, let go her hand, bow slightly and say brightly, "A pleasant journey, Mademoiselle" and leave her at once, starting towards Sheriff Street which runs by the side of the station.
I stopped there, halted by a small herd of bullocks bound for the steamship on the North Wall of the River Liffey. This gave me an opportunity to see that she had ascended the steps out of sight. I changed course and tripped rapidly after her. She had apparently bought her ticket and was walking towards the side platform, not the main platform throughout North Leinster to Ulster and the teeming city of Belfast.
In Belfast people work in industry, unlike Dublin, where those who work, excluding the professions and the British administration at Dublin Castle and the Vice Regal Lodge, are servants, grocers, purveyors of all kinds and to the British Army, with its red-jacketed soldiers, smart with their swagger sticks and tightly sheathed bottoms. These are greatly admired by the servant class of young women.
Oh hand me down me petticoat
Oh hand me down me shawl
Oh hand me down me petticoat
For Iím off to the Linen Hall.
If you go to the Curragh Camp
Just ask for Number Nine
Youíll find three Redcoats in a row
And the best-looking one is mine.
They live short lives, these humans, and they gambol like lambs in an upland meadow, fecklessly thoughtless of the winters and miseries ahead.
My little lamb has stepped up into a Ladies Only carriage in the first coach, flashing a pretty ankle as she mounts the step. Hastily buying a ticket, I enter the last carriage of the last coach. On a midday noon there are not many passengers bound for Howth, a mountainous peninsula, almost an island and about three miles long. Only half a dozen miles from Nelson on his high-fluted column in the centre of the city. "The one-handed adulterer" he was known as; apt, since he adulted himself royally from the Caribbean to Naples and back to Picadilly and Wimbledon. Must have been tricky with only one arm, but sufficient, one assumes.
After a long delay, during which my mind generally races, we exuded a little steam amongst the wheels, puffed and clattered bumpers and then began to thrust and retract our pistons with greater and greater rapidity, along an embanked railway, past the backs and yards of grimy houses, our own sharp-smelling smoke adding to the acid grime. Safe on our highly embanked track, which traps a large area of sulphuric puddles from the vitriol works, mixed with tidal rivulets of salty scum, we entered the mainland again, heading towards the narrow isthmus of Sutton, with the sea visibly lapping on either side.
Passengers descended onto the platforms at Killester and Raheny and sand-silted Sutton itself before we plunged into a cutting to emerge into Howth Terminus by the west pier of the harbour. The humps and perpendiculars of the island of Ireland's Eye lay a mile or so across the rising and falling tides. Fishing boats were lowering their sails and a steam launch chugged and spat its way towards the steps on the West Pier. Seagulls circled and screamed at the fishing boats unloading their creels of fish. "Fresh Dublin Bay prawns. Thruppence a dozen. Stiff mackerel."
My girl descended rapidly and walked impatiently along the harbour front, beneath the village on its steep hill and the ruins of the old Abbey. Fishermen are still buried there.
In the bright distant sea light she seemed slimmer (or thinner) than before. Maybe she was thin, and her bosom and bum were stuffed more acceptably by a skilled tailor. I've seen many strange fashions come and go and should be more accurate in my estimates.
Anyway she stopped by the east pier end near the hamlet of Balscaddon and spoke to a fisherman or harbour hanger-on. There are always such people residentially contemplating the tides and the gull-circled sky in such places. They both set off together along the lower tier of the pier to a flight of granite steps leading down to the water.
I stayed near the Balscaddon hilly path watching the top of the steps about 100 yards along the pier. Vision was screened by the granite blocks into which the steps were built. Then I saw them both in a wooden boat, dinghy or whatever they call them in Howth. Every few miles of coast boats have different names and styles. Howth is an old fishing village where the native Irish of Ben Edair intermarried with Norsemen from Dublin. To begin with the "Strangers" may have used a little force on the native girls, but within a few generations they were speaking Norse-Gaelic and cohabiting lustily to replenish the yearly toll of drowned sons.
I realised that she was being rowed to the Island by the harbour lounger. One of his functions, perhaps. Why? To sketch the landscape of the mainland, to compose verse or to meet somebody? Impossible to guess.
Realising that she could not escape unseen over the wide expanse of water, I dallied for a while over a pot of stout at the harbour tavern. Shebeen is perhaps a better word. The fishermen who have spoken English for a couple of centuries were engaged in a mock argument with the kipper-smokers and paid little attention to me. I was dressed in a coat and cape, typical of a Dublin professional gentleman, like Sir William Wilde or Surgeon Stoker, who took some interest in early history. I appeared to be in early middle age, dark-haired and well groomed and neatly bearded. I had a choice of beer or goatís milk from the old lady by the boatslip, and had little difficulty choosing which. I had to delay before requesting a boat to Ireland's Eye.
I was in that strange state of intoxicating optimism which comes with these obsessive needs and moods. After all, I intended to kill, dismember and perhaps eat a young woman: a breast or a half buttock maybe. Raw meat requires a lot of chewing. I have never been caught. Suspected a few times, but that was long ago. And yet I behave very openly, as I was then doing. It is a state of mind, and innocent certainty that turns people's minds away from rational suspicion. But in my quieter moments I can see the risks.
As it happened this time I overheard the arrangements being made for an egg harvest on the island cliffs by a group of locals, some boys, some sinewy men. Expressing an interest is sea birds, quite truthfully, I sought a passage with them, and was accepted. A half crown was the signet to the agreement.
We embarked with coils of rope, wooden stakes and baskets in a tarry and well-patched skiff, and were soon clear of the harbour lighthouse and on a fairly smooth sea, but our rise and fall relative to the pier breakwater suggested a deep swell. There was a rocky landing in an inlet across the island, but the best port was the silvery strand, about a quarter of a mile long with a Martello tower at one end. With moderate waves, this was most convenient, since the boat could be drawn up, releasing all eight men and boys and, of course, me. These Martello towers were impregnable, circular cut-off towers, originally mounted with cannon on the roof. They dotted Dublin Bay to protect the Viceroy and the Lord Lieutenant from Napoleonís fleet about 70 years ago. Some were inhabited by tenants now, but some, like this one and another on Dalkey Island, on the south side of the bay, had been abandoned.
We duly landed in the ankle-deep wavelets and made our way to the high cliffs on the other side of the island. I went with them. I was curious about the egg collecting and the behaviour of the guillemots, puffins and razorbills that inhabited the ledges. It also gave me an innocent chance to spot the girl, who did not appear to be near the strand or its circle of dunes.
Treading our way through goat paths in the bracken, we reached the lower cliffs on the seaward side and followed uphill until we stared down at the distant water and the tops of birds, diving, circling and screaming warning to each other. On the northern horizon the larger hilly island of Lambay was lit by sunbeams that parted the changing clouds and invited apostolic fingers of light to streak the sombre sky and make the blue sky above us seem more transitory and perilous.
Ropes were unwound and fixed to leather harness straps around the egg collectors. One by one they were lowered over the edge, far above the screaming razorbills and guillemots. The ropes were braked by passing them around a wooden peg hammered into the thin dense turf which lived on the night mist on the clifftops. The collectors called out their fortunes, movements and complaints to the ropemen and their bags began to fill with sturdy pointed eggs. Nature had designed these to roll in a circle and not off the sparsely cushioned ledge.
By this time one of the egg crews had finished its mission, leaving enough inaccessible nests to ensure the next generation of birds. None of the Howthmen would admit the prudence of this, but some would reveal it as a folk gesture of good luck under remorseless questioning and a few pints of black porter. St Fintan was the local saint and his thorn bush was aflame with fluttering rags of offering: birds' eggs, fish, ladies' complaints, broken bones, rheumatism and tertiary fevers.
I had wandered westwards down the bracken paths towards the bare bones of an old church. Who founded it? Norse Christians, native Irish. Both favoured islands for organising bloody forages or communing with God on a diet of shellfish and eggs. My companions attributed it to St Fintan. Maybe so. What drove people all those years ago, long before my time, to fly to desert caves and rocky islands to affirm their faith? The latest fashion from Alexandria or, in Ireland or Scotland, a tradition of contemplation before a poem or a prophecy?
When I feel this urge rising through my body, my loins, my jaws and my hands, my mind races. I observe keenly, my mind accurately editing the inessentials and I speculate on causes or chains of causation. It is a strange condition of being, the sheer efficiency of which is the most satisfactory aspect of living. I have no certainties, of course, but I have also no doubts.
I strode with certainty, unconcerned that one of the young men was following me. The urge was so strong that where deeper soil had collected on one side of a boulder and the bracken grew very high, I saw something gleaming: a twisted piece of linen or cotton. Such fragments of town life are constantly being washed up on these shores from coastal steamers, the Holyhead mail packet or even from the Atlantic emigrant ships out of Liverpool.
I lifted it carefully. It was a single leg from a pair of womenís drawers, made of very fine bleached linen. Petticoats and chemises are frequently lost by ladies, at remote bathing places: amorous couples disporting alone with the sand martins or giggling girls taking a skin splash for invigoration or to stay a consumption. An incoming tide soddens a dropped garment which cannot comfortably be resumed and is often abandoned to be carried out by the receding tide. The losers return home decently covered by skirts or dresses, feeling a little draughty up their legs but none the worse. But what do they tell their anxious mothers, I wonder.
This piece of underwear was of a fine white material with quite heavy lace at the bottom of the leg: about knee level for the wearer. The top was finished with a hollow seam through which the drawstring once ran and which joined the piece to the other leg by the same drawstring running through the seam around its top. The two separate halves of the garment were therefore joined together by the drawstring tape which was tied by a bowknot across the belly. This is why they were called drawers, one supposes: two separate legs of a pair of frilly breeches joined at the top by a drawstring.
I examined the half garment. The lace was about an inch and a half deep with quite an attractive pattern, fashioned on crochet needles rather than on a lace cushion. Furthermore the fabric was not cambric cotton but very fine linen, as light as any silk. I pondered on all this, as I stood in the bracken-covered slopes. Why was it abandoned? If the owner had undressed, why only one half of her buttocks? Where was she? Was she my quarry? There was no sign of the girl having left the island unless she returned with the hired dinghy and oarsman who brought her there. There was no sign of her from my vantage point, but the island abounded with cliffs, fissures and rocky inlets, as well as the Martello tower.
By this time the boy or young man from the egg harvest had joined me: Michael McConkey. I held up the frilly leg and he sniggered. He knew well enough what it was although it is unlikely that anyone in his family or neighbourhood wore anything like it. These women and girls wore nothing under their petticoats, and passers-by thought nothing when one of them straddled slightly and peed noisily onto the granite floor of the Howth peninsula. But young McConkey must have picked up fashion gossip, as children do, apart from spying on courting couples from Dublin playing nymphs and shepherds on the island or under the rhododendrons by Howth Castle, the bastion of the St Laurences, an old Norman family.
A tumult of shrieking sea birds circled overhead, possibly to warn their kin on the Big Rock that marauders were coming. I continued downhill towards the Martello tower, followed by Michael, who was still sniggering guiltily about what city people get up to. What do these fisherfolk do in the rutting season, I wondered, but then stopped myself. They may be unlettered, or most of them, but they build their homes, sell their hard-won fish, fresh or smoked, and build their boats. Anyone who has ever seen a boat built can feel the poetry and the intricate grammar of the process. These people have been building fishing boats since Dublin was a Norse city and every bended plank was a family skill like that of a skald or a bard.
Slightly chastened by my thoughts, I reached the tower. I ordered Michael to give me a stirrup to the entrance door high on the wall, and I scrambled into the interior. It was very dark after the sea sky without, but after a while I was able to see around the circular room, lit by small puddles of light from door and window slits sunk tunnel deep in the massive stone structure. There was no furniture, of course, but a fire grate for domestic and defensive purposes was in fair trim and full of charred remains of picnics or fishermenís debris.
The spiral staircase drilled upwards through the massive walls to the roof. I ascended it. At the top it joined the cannon ball hoist and led onto the heavily walled roof, the stone floor edged by a breast-high wall, the top of which sloped downwards over about 8 feet of surrounding wall. In the centre there was a stone mount for a swivelling cannon and a circular track of wrought iron on the floor to take the supporting wheel. The gun had long since been removed by the government or the locals. Napoleon had been dead for fifty years and his nephew was building new empires for France. Anyway there was no sign of the girl from the train.
Descending the narrow spiral of cold stone, I found Michael McConkey poking around the cold embers of the fireplace. A half burnt shoe, some driftwood and unidentifiable charred detritus. Nothing suspicious or even revealing.
I stood in the doorway looking down at the rocks beneath. Why only one drawer leg? Who abandoned it and was it relevant to my quest? Fine linen rather than Manchester cotton suggested an Ulster link. Thatís where Irish linen is grown and where it is spun and woven so excellently. The stitching was neat and even, betokening a skilled seamstress, and the lace was in crochet, a method more easily done by hand, on a hooked needle and a cotton ball. All this suggested to me a neat family home on a northern farm: by the shores of Lough Erne or the tidy fields of Tyrone or North Armagh. I fancied the gloaming light where a loving mother or aunt stitched swiftly against the fading light; or stitched in the last few inches of cotton yarn into a length of lace. Lace to make the knees of the wearer more enticing, for trousseau purposes only, of course. So, the wearer had marriage in mind? But what young woman has not?
Perhaps all this reasonable supposition was no more that airy speculation. After all, Limerick is famous for its lace, and the O Driscoll women of Baltimore are skilled seamstresses, I am told. Nonetheless I have a feeling about the neat circumspect sensuality of Ulster about the garment, or half garment.
By now, most of the eggs had been collected at ropes' end from the dangerous cliff ledges. The fishermen judge things very accurately, by experience and astute observation, and not many eggs would prove addled when tested against the dawn light from over the Welsh mountains, seventy miles to the east.
I joined them for the return to the mainland, helping to push the sea skiff into the modest waves and clambering aboard with wet feet. I resolved to return on the following day to search for further clues. I felt certain that the girl had not returned to Howth harbour and, indeed, nobody had seen her. She might have gone to Sutton creek, to the west, but by swimming - surely not. She could hardly have done so naked because of social problems after landing. Fully dressed, except for one drawer leg, seemed equally unlikely. All this called for an unlikely answer, which I proposed to seek on the following day. I arranged with one of the men to row me out next day, and sought advice on comfortable lodging for the night.
By now the destructive blood lust had cooled in my veins and I was no longer perturbed at possible actions on my involuntary part. Indeed, I felt quite exhausted and momentarily frail.
All of Howth village is on a steep hill and paths stray beyond it onto the heathery heights of the summit ridge. Another Martello tower looks down on the main street and the ruins of the old Abbey. They were really worried about Napoleon a generation or so ago. The joke was that when he did send fleets they came to the West and SouthWest. Napoleon wasnít a great general for no reason. He had thousands of Irishmen eager for his help and accurate at spying. "The best laid schemes oí mice and men/ Gang oft agley." But the worst laid schemes more often, I protest. I have always revered, as a gemstone of human folly, the employment of the Patriarch of Constantinople and a boatload of Metropolitans to throw divine curses on strips of paper, stuffed into dead mackerel. This was to destroy a whale that threatened shipping in the Bosphorus.
This command came from the Emperor of New Rome, chosen by God, the green chariot clique and the eastern legions. Ah me. I recalled those years when I eagerly awaited the next volume of Mr Gibbonís splendid volumes. How the months dragged between one volume and the next. From Geneva to Galway the world waited. The Duke of Devonshire, to whom this library of wisdom was dedicated, stuck to his dual pursuits, card playing and horse racing.
I stayed overnight with a Protestant lady, a widow who kept spotlessly starched rooms for gentlemen taking the sea air. Of Huguenot stock, she filled her house with cold sea air through every open window, despite the general knowledge that consumption and fevers were carried by dark heavy night air.
The following morning I breakfasted on fried rashers, and slices of cured ham. After a bout of ìmy old troubleî I felt the need for flesh, to prevent my blood thinning too much. More usually I ate toasted bread. There are few morning pleasures as great as watching a skilled woman crouching over a glowing fire with a slice of bread on her wire trident. I happily paid her five shillings, twice the usual price, but I was beginning to feel elated and benevolent.
The morning sun had not yet dispersed the dew and my young boatman looked chilled and hungry as he waited. I dispatched him to the old lady who sold milk from her cow at the bottom of Tower Hill. He chose a mug of sharp buttermilk and a quarter of a soda farl to warm his veins, and I ordered a jugful to take with us and a fat disk of appetising wheaten bread to serve us later.
The air warmed as we crossed the swelling sea to the rocky island. A flock of herring gulls followed us hopefully and wheeled off in search of strayed cliff-bird chicks when we had no offal to lighten their day. The beach is silvery and fine and is flanked by rocky outcrops at either end. The slightly tapering bulk of the Martello tower is anchored to one of these outcrops and the sand on the quarter-mile stretch of beach rises to low dunes and marram grass which changes to bracken as the island rises to high cliffs on the opposite side. Our keel touched the sand and we splashed out and dragged the boat up beyond the tide mark.
The young boatman answered to the name of Ricky, a corrupt Norman form of Richard, there being no ëchí (as in church) in the Irish tongue. I didn't ask him for help but he followed me along the streak of dried tide wrack.
"I'm looking for signs of a woman, a young woman, who may have got lost yesterday," I explained. He was quite observant, and excavated odd scraps of jetsam from the tide line. Pieces of wood, decayed pieces of canvas from the sails of fishing boats, the odd bottle: nothing of consequence.
As we burrowed and busied behind the rocks and boulders and in and around the massive tower, we encountered the kind of oddments one might expect on a desert island, accessible to boat owners and fisherfolk; or people in search of the solace of wild nature conveniently close to man. For months, nobody might set foot on the island, although it dominates the seascape from the village of Howth and from the summit of the mountain of Ben Edair. Then comes the brief puffin season and then the odd courting couple seeking privacy or the bucolic parties of both sexes, often family groups in search of a convivial dejeuner beneath the skies, and above the waters that lashed the cliff base far below the wheeling birds.
We found ITEM 1: a part of the Book of Common Prayer in old typeface on antique paper, ITEM 2: a fragment of a suicide note, unsigned, undated and uncollected. ITEM 3: a combined penknife and pencil holder in German silver. This in itself is interesting, since the proliferation of the steel pen with detachable nib will, one imagines, soon make penknives obsolete and the geese happier. The trackless acres of bracken were beyond our searching capacity.
Within the tower there was surprisingly little. People climbed into it, explored its darkness in a cursory manner and then climbed the spiral stone stairs to the to view the memory of a French fleet that never sailed into Dublin Base to dethrone the Viceroy or the Lord Lieutenant. The view was splendid. On the horizon was the larger island of Lambey, another Norse stronghold. A Viking marauding post where the distant raiders could rest, get fat on seal meat and make bloody excursions to the rich pastures of Dublin and Meath. It lay like a humpbacked whale on the horizon, which was lightened by the sails of fishing smacks out of Lough Shinny or some pocket-sized port of a couple of hunched inhabitants and a Dublin train connection. Aspects of rural life had vastly changed in the last thirty years, thanks to steam locomotion. But I digress. Stray thoughts crowd my mind, already crammed with centuries of memories. What goes on in the human brain, let alone the brain of a reasonably intelligent lycanthropist . . .
I, or rather we, rigged up a stretch of abandoned sailcloth inside the narrow door of the tower, six feet up its wall. Angled on bits of flotsam, this served to reflect a considerable amount of light into the main floor. As noted the previous day, there was the embered remains of an earlier and possibly irrelevant fire in the stone and iron fireplace. On a stone hob, however, I found a scrap of paper, a letterhead with some writing ending in a deckled char. On the floor flags nearby I found a small apothecary's bottle, as for rhubarb juice or the Oil of Radium or laudanum, such as could be purchased in any medical hall or a well stocked village shop. I pocketed these carefully since they could have belonged to a more recent miniature bonfire.
On the top of the spiral staircase leading to the roof there was a small side compartment, for holding charges of powder, wads, saltpetre tow, who knows? Later wars in the Crimea or America have introduced new designs and practices in ordinance. But on the flagged floor of this alcove I found a half of a lace handkerchief. Crocheted lace, like the leg drawers from the previous day.
The bracken maquis up to the cliffs would need an army to search, systematically. We returned to the boat, drank our buttermilk and set off home towards the massive harbour of Howth. I gave the boy a florin, a princely payment, and feeling a little queasy bought a few fresh mackerel which I carried up Balscaddon Hill onto the heathery slopes and devoured raw, spitting bones and fins onto the ground, to the delight of an army of insects. This may be cheating, in werewolf terms, but it assuages the bestial appetites which a long unsuccessful pursuit can arouse.
Feeling that the bird-shrieking cliffs of Howth had nothing to offer me in evidence at that moment, I paid off my decent and scrupulous Protestant landlady, and walked along the harbour to the railway terminus, admiring the pattern of brown and russet sails being raised on the fishing boats as they prepared for their trawl across the eight miles of bay to Dalkey Island.
I am not sure what the landlady made of me. I can pass as Protestant, a civil engineer perhaps, or a brewery official. But I can be a convincing Papist as easily, although a loyal Castle Catholic, of course. Every forty or fifty years I have to disappear, sell my property or leave it to a "nephew" who arrives from overseas to claim it. Relative immortality requires preplanning. The greatest offence in this world is to be "different."
As an established "werewolf", I belong to neither persuasion, of course, but generations of robust living have rounded off my sharp Norman corners and I can pass myself off agreeably in hall or hovel. Always, though, people find me a bit "apart". But that's no problem. Mostly they respect you for it. One could be an English spy or an Irish Jacobin. Who can be sure?
I waited on the platform, which was as modernised as the Dublin terminus with its advertisements for patent liver pills, spring elixirs, Ladies' Pills and Tullamore Dew Whiskey. The efficient locomotive pulled our coaches at a spanking 17 miles an hour through outlying villages. At one point we passed a wild graveyard by the sea. A ruined church was in its centre. I remember when the New Religion took over in the reign of Edward VI which rejected it as too poor. Now, desolate, a thousand Brent geese cackled and gobbled by its grassy verge.
I have an extensive farm about 30 miles north in County Louth: light soil, suitable for vegetables. It was in the care of Mrs Whelan and her husband Packo. Reliable people. Packo came from a squireen family: a large cavernous house, large debts and no pretensions. He managed my land and the remnant of his own that the duns had left him, and everyone was content. I must arrange for his continuation when next I "die", and a new "nephew" arrives from the goldmines at Ballarat, Australia, to take over.