I remember the summers best, when the days rested in the long arms of the evening, and the sounds around Slieve Gullion were as muted as benediction. Only the faint barking of distant dogs cut the stillness as farmers drove their cattle home. Smoke curled from cottage chimneys and children gulped down tea so they could return to play while time hovered between day and night like a gift from heaven.
On such an evening, when I was eight years old, I lay in the tall grass in front of our house with my ear pressed to the ground. If you listened hard enough, Da had told me, you could hear the fairies dancing down below. But this evening all was quiet. I sat up. My brother Frankie, a year older than myself, was torturing the life out of a worm, hacking at it with a sharp stone.
“Stop that, Frankie,” I said.
Frankie shrugged. “I’m only trying to see if it’s true.”
“That it grows itself back again if you cut it in two.”
I sighed. Frankie was always doing things like that – cruel wee things. I put it down to his being a boy. I lay down on my back. A brown and orange butterfly circled above me. I put up my hands lazily tracing its flight.
“I wish Da was home,” I said.
I heard his voice long before I saw him. His lovely sweet tenor carried from the distance, lilting across the fields that spread out below our house. I scrambled up and raced toward the road. Frankie dropped the worm and followed me. Our old Irish setter, Cuchulainn, picked up his ears and barked.
We shaded our eyes as we squinted into the setting sun. Da appeared at the brow of the hill. He stood up in the cart, his hands loosely holding the pony’s reins. His crop of red hair glowed like a halo around his head as the fire of the sun caught it. I imagined him the great Irish warrior, Hugh O’Neill himself, returning from the battle, riding out of the sun. How I loved my Da.
“Da’s coming, Mammy,” I shouted back to the house, “Da’s coming.”
Frankie and I ran toward the cart. Da stopped singing and waved at us.
“Hello darlin’s. Up with you now.”
Da was a wiry man, of medium height, with a face so full of life it shone even on the dullest of days. He was dressed today, as always when he went to town, in a brown suit and a white cotton shirt with a clean starched collar. “Dandy Tommy,” the villagers called him. He wore no cap and his curly hair sprang out around his head like a laurel wreath.
He slowed the pony and the cart stopped. Frankie and I clambered up, shoving each other to get in the seat beside Da. Da chucked the reins again, and the pony began to walk. She was a sweet little Connemara pony, grey and white, with eyes like silk.
“On now with you, Rosie,” Da said.
Mammy stood at the front door, holding my little sister Lizzie by the hand. Lizzie strained to get away.
“Dada, Dada,” she crowed.
“She was lovely and fair as the Rose of the summer.” Da crooned the words of The Rose of Tralee. It was his favorite song, one that he sang often to Mammy. The girl in the song was named Mary, the same as Ma, and Mammy always smiled when he sang it. The cart trundled through the gate which led to our farm. It had broken long ago and was never closed. Red summer roses clung stubbornly to the rotted, splintered wood, trailing down over the low stone walls on either side. They were Mammy’s roses. She loved flowers.
“What’s this, Da?” Frankie said. “What’s in these buckets?” Frankie tried to pry the lid off a tin bucket in the back of the cart.
“Wait and see,” laughed Da.
Rosie halted in front of the house and we climbed down. Ma came forward, still holding Lizzie’s hand. She looked down into the bed of the cart.
“And what in the name of God have you there?” she said. Mammy’s voice was always soft and slightly hoarse as if she had a catch in her throat.
“Paint, my lovely Mary Kathleen,” said Da, jumping down from the cart.
“Aye, paint. Buckets of lucky yellow paint to mark the grand anniversary.”
“What are you talking about?” Mammy dropped Lizzie’s hand and the baby toddled forward and wrapped her arms around Da’s leg.
“The anniversary of the day my Granda Hugh O’Neill won back this house and the O’Neill family’s honor along with it. In 1805 – a hundred years ago this very day!”
Frankie and I giggled, while Ma shook her head and sighed. Wisps of long black hair played around her face. She put up her hand to shove them back.
“Will you go on with yourself,” she said. “Sure you have no notion of when or even how your grandfather got this house.”
Da straightened his back and put on a look of mock outrage. “Don’t I know my own family’s history Mary? Didn’t I hear the story many’s a time from Hugh himself? He won this house back from the Sheridan family….”
“In a game of cards,” put in Mammy, resting her hands on her hips.
“Aye,” said Da, “but the house rightfully belonged to the O’Neills. The Sheridans only had it at all because King James gave it to them. Stole all the land off the Catholics so they did, and gave it away to the English who were loyal to the Crown, and….”
“Och, we’ve heard it all before,” said Ma, cutting Da short before he could gather steam for one of his big speeches.
“Da, Da . What’s the paint for?” Frankie cried. He had managed to lift the lid off one of the buckets with the help of the sharp stone he still had.
Da turned to us. His blue eyes were bright with excitement.
“For the house, darlin’s. We’re going to paint the O’Neill house yellow. You’ll be able to see it from the top of Slieve Gullion itself, so you will. It will be like a giant sunflower standing in the middle of the fields, so bright it would dazzle a blind man.”
“Did you bring the meat? And the flour?” Mammy wasn’t smiling like the rest of us. I thought maybe she didn’t like the yellow color.
Da slapped his forehead. “Ah love, sure didn’t I forget in all the excitement. I’ll go back for it tomorrow. But in the meantime I have a case of porter – enough for a good party. P.J. and the boys will be up tonight and we can celebrate.”
Da put his arm around Ma, but she pulled away from him.
“The paint was half-price, Mary,” he said quietly. “I just took the notion and bought it. To cheer us all up, you see. To celebrate.”
Mammy sighed. “I don’t see much to celebrate.”
There were tears in her eyes. She cried sometimes at night when she thought no one was watching. I didn’t want her to be sad. I walked over and patted her sleeve. She pulled me close to her.
Frankie stirred the paint in the bucket with a stick. It was the color of daffodils, but it had a sharp smell that made me wrinkle my nose. “Can we start painting now, Da? Can we?” he asked.
Da turned away from Ma and lifted the buckets down from the cart. He lined them up outside the front door like tin soldiers. “Of course you can,” he said. “There’s still plenty of light. I brought brushes for everybody.”
“But Da – it’s too high,” I said, frowning up at the two story house with its massive chimneys on each end of a gabled roof.
“Ah, my little Eileen, don’t you be worrying your head. My friends and myself will climb the ladders. You just start where you can reach. Here’s the brushes. You too, Mary.”
Da held a brush out to Ma but she turned away and shoved me toward the side of the house.
“Eileen, help me take in the washing.”
Mammy’s voice was sharp. It frightened me. I didn’t want her to be mad at my Da.
“But we’re supposed to be celebrating, Ma,” I whined.
“Fetch the basket,” was all Ma said. Furiously she unclipped the pegs from the line, tossing the white sheets into the basket. Her lips were pursed in a thin line. Then she took the basket from me and walked into the house, slamming the door behind her. Da took a stick and stirred the paint in each of the buckets. The golden yellow crust, like the foam on top of fresh buttermilk, dissolved through the rest of the liquid, leaving only bubbles on the top. Frankie had already started slapping paint on the graying white walls of our house and it dripped down in uneven ribbons.
“He’s doing it wrong, Da,” I said. Frankie glared at me.
“Ah, he’ll get the way of it, Eileen. Here, you start over there.”
Even Lizzie had a brush, although she dabbed more paint on the grass than on the walls. She trailed after Frankie calling his name and laughing. She was the only one of us who could coax a smile out of our Frankie. His brown eyes softened as he looked down at her. “You’re a wee pest,” he said, as he guided her hand so she could dip her brush in the paint. At last Ma came out of the house. Her face was softer now, but tiny red lines ringed her eyes. She lifted a brush and started painting along with us. She smiled at Da.
“Don’t be getting paint on my flowers, now,” she said, indicating her rows of scarlet poppies, yellow anemones, and blue forget-me-nots planted in a bed along the front of the house and in the window-boxes.
Da laughed. “I’ll mind the flowers,” he said, “but I can’t say I’ll mind you.”
He danced toward Ma and daubed yellow paint on her arm, then danced away.
“Tom!” she squealed. “If that’s the way you want it, here goes.” She landed a daub of yellow paint on his cheek. Frankie and Lizzie and I laughed, and the knot in my stomach went away.
I recall that day now through the haze of time and memory. But the yellow has never faded. It is as vivid in my mind as the day we covered the house and ourselves in yellow paint and danced like canaries around the garden.
Epilogue – 1924
In the summer of 1924 a final border was drawn around Ulster. With the skill of surgeons the politicians amputated part of the province from the rest of the island. Glenlea was imprisoned within that border. Slieve Gullion spread her robes and welcomed home Ulster’s warriors and dreamers. The warriors now lie in her bosom in a restless, bitter sleep, while the dreamers pen their songs and laments for their lost land.
I, too, have drawn my own borders around myself. I have drawn close to me those things that matter – love, family and home. I have left outside the borders anger, fear and regret. I am at peace now for a time, just as is my beloved Ulster. Now my warrior sleeps while wisdom stands watch. Wisdom is my new companion, a wisdom forged from the fires of battles fought and lost, and life lived. And my dreamer lies awake, guarding memories past and memories yet to be born.