Next Of Kin

Entry by: Paul McDermott

17th September 2015
There are a couple of [borrowed, non-English] words I really wanted to Italicise in this entry but they're self-explanatory ...

Next of Kin

The final rays of the summer sun caught the base of the gathering clouds, infusing them with a delicate shade of pink. The heat of the day would be trapped under their duvet throughout the night: the village community would sleep comfortably without needing central heating, a gas fire or even a minimum weight blanket. The Twentieth Century had been a relative latecomer in this corner of Co. Roscommon, and while all the usual gas and electric appliances considered absolute essentials in larger towns were available and installed, almost every household had preserved the traditional turf-burning fires for their day-to-day heating and cooking requirements.

Even as the brassy, self-assured new Twenty-first Century announced itself in a bewildering fanfare of Cable TV, Sky Satellite, I-Pods, PCs and Tablets, the community looked and listened but was not tempted to sample the wares. While most houses could boast a television set, it tended to be an ornament in the room, a repository for vases filled with fresh-cut flowers which filled the room each day with their constantly changing scents and aromas. Every house, however, had at least one radio. This remained the community's preferred medium for news and information.

Entertainment was something entirely contrarywise - or in local parlance, "a different mash o' tay". There was no bush telegraph, formal invitation or other consensus involved but that evening, as the last natural light of the day ebbed below the horizon, almost everyone in the village made their way to one cottage which stood in its own well-tended garden. Flanking the garden, a narrow stone bridge arched across the rapid flow of a clear stream trying desperately to convince itself it was really a river which marked the westernmost point of the village.

The cottage was marginally larger than any of the other houses, and the most natural building to be considered a meeting place. Tomàs lived there, the village's Eldest Resident. It was the custom for others to visit, sparing him the inconvenience of leaving his favourite armchair.

"Grandfather, tell us one of the old stories."

Liam had been raised by his grandfather and never tired of hearing the telling and retelling of the oldest traditional tales in which the boundaries between myth, legend and recorded history were vague and indistinct. They were also central to the history of Liam's heritage, the history of the Clan MacDairmada.

Many years had passed since Tomàs had taken on the mantle of Seanch'ai, or Storyteller, from his grandfather. As the Eldest Resident he had made the role his own, carrying on the Oral Tradition which predated even the most basic "Three R's" education by hundreds of years as a tried and trusted method of recording the Clan's history. It was almost always Liam who begged the Seanch'ai for a story, and the Eldest Resident never disappointed.

"A tale, you say. And one of the 'old stories', indeed!"

He eased himself into a slightly different position and stared for a moment into the tiny clear blue flames which flickered around the edges of the turf in the heaarth: the smoke rising from the sod smelt sweet, burning so cleanly that the smoke curling up the chimney and beyond the thatched roof tresses was all but invisible.

"A tale there is, as tragic as it's true" Tomàs began. The faintest of sighs rustled once around the room. Every ear and every eye was turned upon the Master Storyteller as he wove his unique magic.

"At the time Cormac Rú was Prince of Coolavin and Ard Rhi, High King of the Seven Kingdoms of Ireland."

"His only daughter Una Bhàn was very beautiful and was courted by many. Her soft silken hair was the purest white, so long it reached her knees. Her eyes were the blue of a cloudfree summer's day."

"Cormac was immensely proud of his daughter and wanted only the best for her. In his eyes, none of those who sought her hand were ever good enough for her, though they were all from noble families and there could be no doubt about the sincerity of their affections."

"One of these was a close neighbour, Tomàs Costello. His lands adjoined Cormac's. His family was well respected, and his love for Una Bhàn was clear for all to see."

"Still. Cormac could not approve or give his consent, and had his daughter locked in a tall tower of the Clan castle on Trinity Isle. Una Bhàn wept bitterly, without ceasing."

"When Tomàs heard of this, he rode at once to Loch Cé and swam to Trinity Isle to comfort Una Bhàn and declare his love for her."

"When Cormac heard of this he was furious. He forbade Tomàs from making further visits and banished him from his lands. Before leaving, Tomàs vowed that if he did not receive word that Cormac had relented before he crossed the river which separated their estates, he would never return."

"When Cormac saw how true his daughter's love for Tomàs was, he did in truth relent and despatched a messenger immediately to inform Tomàs of this. Unfortunately, the messenger did not reach Tomàs before he had crossed the river. Being bound by his solemn oath, Tomàs could not return."

"Una Bhàn refused all offers of food and drink, sinking deeper into despair with every passing day. Her father's banishment of Tomàs broke her heart, and she died."

"When Tomàs heard of her death he took to riding each night back to Lough Cé, where he swam to Trinity Isle to hold vigil over Una Bhàn's body. Following eight nights of swimming in the freezing waters he contracted a fever and lay dying."

"Knowing that he was about to die, Tomàs begged Cormac to allow his body to be buried alongside Una Bhàn's on Trinity Isle. Cormac agreed to this: as soon as the lovers were laid side by side in their graves, a rose vine sprang around them, entwining over their heads in the shape of a heart, and can still be seen to this very day."

The turf fire settled as the Seanch'ai came to the end of the tale, spreading a subtle touch of extra warmth into the heart of every spellbound listener in the room and a suggestion of light chasing darkness from the shadows which lurked in each corner.

Tomàs' eyes were the palest imaginable watered-silk hint of blue, almost colourless, They'd remained open for most of the time he'd been recounting the tragic tale of Una Bhàn and Tomàs Laidír Costello, but focussed on some far-off image visible to none other than the Storyteller himself.

Now he turned to Liam: suddenly his eyes were fully focussed, sharp, no longer vague or distant.

"I heard that tale from my Grandfather, sitting at his knee before the hearth as you do now, Liam. And he heard it first - and second, and tenth, for all I know! - from his grandfather before him. Thus it ever was, and ever will be for all I can tell one generation teaching another the links to their past, perhaps hinting at the future shape of events ..."

"You are the only Kin I have, Liam. I have seen how much you love the old stories, the traditional ways. You may not be aware of this yourself, but tonight I noticed that your lips were moving as I told the tale, silently mouthing each word as it passed my lips, anticipating each word, making no mistakes. You may have barely seen seven summers, but you are without question ready for this."

Tomàs paused, and eased a ring off the third finger of his left hand. He held it high for all present to see. The tiny blue flames in the turf of peat had taken a stronger hold, and were somehow magnified as they caught the ring's highly polished band until it looked as if Tomàs' hand and the ring itself had become a living flame. Slowly he lowered it, rolled it onto the flattened palm of his hand and held it out so Liam could examine it and the claddagh design mounted on the plain band.

"This precious metal, airgead - silver - is not the noblest, or the most valuable, but in the right hands it becomes a powerful tool."
"In the right hands, or on the right hand: the Ring tells me my stewardship will soon end, and it is time for me to pass it to the next Bearer."

"Come, Liam! I received the ring from my grandfather on a night such as this, when I was about your age, just as he in his turn was given it by his kinsman. As Sench'ai, your knowledge of Clan history and your skill in storytelling are the only tools you will require."

Liam climbed onto his grandfather's knee, and Tomàs slid the ring onto the young boy's finger. Liam was amazed: it was a perfect fit, though the difference in the size of their hands should have made this impossible.

"Like calls to like, and kin recognises kin" Tomàs said, playfully ruffling Liam's hair. "The RIng acknowledges you as rightful heir. It will grow with you through the years, as it did with me, and remain a snug fit until the time comes (as it must for us all) for you to pass it to your next of kin."

He held up his hand to show all present the pale shadow on his finger where the ring had always been.

"I knew my time to relinquish the ring was close when it suddenly became several sizes too big to wear comfortably. The ring has clearly accepted you as it's new Guardian, Liam. The most skilful silversmith, the best gabha in Ireland could not hope to sculpt a more perfect fit!"

Indeed, the ring seemed to have been crafted and moulded for Liam, and for him alone. Even in the subdued lighting of the turf fire and a few candles randomly scattered throughout the room, it pulsed with power.

Liam stood off his grandfather's knee: Tomàs appeared to doze. All present turned to face the newly-appointed Seanch'ai, greeting him with a word or a gesture.

A full moon of pure spun silver rode over Lough Cé, picking out every detail of what remained of a former Chapel on Trinity Isle. A couple - from their apparel, a noble prince and his consort - stood holding hands, gazing into each other's eyes, oblivious to the world around them.

They kissed and swiftly disappeared, leaving behind a scattering of rose petals, though no rose had ever been planted on Trinity Isle.