One Night

Tonight The Pensive Quill features a short story by guest writer Thomas Dixie Elliot

A reddening Irish sky casts a bloody reflection on the long narrow lake. The lofty mountain on the eastern side of the lake gradually loses it’s purples and greens to the dark grey shadows of dusk.

The incessant cawing of crows as they circle above pierces the quietude like an angry crowd. One of their number, perhaps tired after a day of foraging, alights on a fence post for momentary respite. It looks out over the valley before spreading it’s wings and flying off to join it’s comrades on their obstreperous flight. They merge into a darkening sky that draws the night like a curtain.

As the moon rises from behind the mountain casting light upon the inky landscape, clouds change shape and form as they drift across the night sky. Faint lights in the darkness indicate where those who work the land rest up before the coming day brings further toil. This land is hard but beautiful, as are those who eke their existence from it.

On the western side of the lake fields; like a dark tapestry stitched by stone walls, stretch away into the hills beyond. A twisting road no more than a track cuts across the landscape like a tear in it’s fabric and along this road in the shelter of wind blasted trees a thatched building casts light from a single window. Above the door a fading and peeling sign states Teach Tabhaire, for this is a pub where the local drinkers speak Gaelic while sipping stout or drams of the water of life, whiskey.

Inside the native tongue mingles with the sound of musical instruments being readied. A few blocks of turf are thrown on the fire which crackles up and takes on new life. The smoke from clay pipes and woodbine cigarettes hangs in the ceiling while those partaking of this unhealthy enjoyment cough and splutter into their drink or the fire.

A whine as bow crosses fiddle signals the beginning of the music and the flames seem to dance in the hearth as bodhr√°ns, tin whistles and tapping feet throw out a merry tune in rousing accompaniment.

The smoke from the dancing flames drifts up the chimney and off into the night and the music seems to follow.

Across the bog an old thorn tree gnarled by the ravages of time and storm shakes gently in the night breeze. Beneath it a light dances back and forth across the rushes. Is this a lantern of the Daoine Sidhe; the little folk out to dance in the moonlight? Perhaps it is the wandering soul of Jack the Blacksmith who made a deal with the devil, or could it be a Will-o’-the-wisp, the ghostly light of the marshes?

Hurried footsteps on the road and a thirsty farmer makes haste towards the pub. The light in the bog stops him in his tracks and a superstitious belief in these tales forces a hurried sign of the cross before he hurries on to the safety of a pint and a seat by the fire. As he nears the pub something white swoops from the darkness. He pulls up in shock, but it is nothing more than a owl.

As the pub door closes the owl alights on the branch of a tree which overhangs the swaying foliage of a potato field. Something catches it’s alert eye. Something moving among the potato plants. Two figures seem to be on hands and knees clawing at the soil; a mother and child wretched in appearance seeking to stave off their hunger in another time of blight and starvation. Or they might only be shadows thrown by the moon and given movement by the wind which cuts across the field? The moon goes behind a cloud and they are gone.

The owl stays alert and watches as a sudden movement makes it shift on it’s perch. Moonlight returns just as a mouse makes a dash for freedom. The owl takes flight and chases the fleeing creature as it darts through the field, then under a gate, across the road and into the graveyard beyond. The owl swoops and misses while the mouse escapes into the tangled overgrowth between headstones. The headstones that gave it another night of life mark where those, who once lived hereabouts, now lie in eternal rest. The owl lands on one ancient headstone engraved with the name of a long dead seancha√≠. A name partially hidden by lichen. From here it watches intently, hoping it’s prey will be foolish enough to return.

Beyond the graveyard and along the lakeshore a long derelict train station is a decaying monument to past generations forced to leave their native land in desperate need of a better life. The starting point on a journey to Liverpool or Ellis Island no longer echoes with the sound of sad farewells and the line that led far from home for many is now overgrown by bramble and nettles. A long mournful wail pierces the night and with a flap of wings the white owl takes flight, while tiny creatures, her prey, scurry here and there through the undergrowth all terrified by the caoin of the Banshee. Close to the crumbling walls of the train station she continues her sad lament for someone soon to die. In the semi-darkness she combs long hair which falls over a ghostly white face without features. The wailing continues until a cat springs from the thicket where the Banshee sits and disappears into the night. Something brushes against the Banshee and exposes her to be nothing more than a bush moved by the wind and her face no more than moonlight shinning through a gap in the foliage. Another trick of the night. 

A fox emerges from the undergrowth and looks around for the wailing cat but it has long gone. Stealthily it moves through a field, ever watchful and then bounds off towards the lakeshore. The moon casts it’s light across the lake like a silver path. The fox pauses at the water’s edge and observes. It sees silhouetted in the moonlight a shape which floats lazily towards the shoreline; by all appearances it is a boatman doing some late night fishing. Unflinching the fox watches as the nocturnal fisherman draws ever closer. Close enough to see that it is nothing more than a dead tree floating on the lake.

The fox leaves the lakeshore and curiosity leads it to the pub. It stops close by and listens. Not a sound comes from within for the punters have long since drunk up and gone home and the musicians have packed their instruments and followed. The fox turns it’s nose to the sky and sniffs. There’s a hint of grey beyond the hills and the fox smells the approaching dawn in the air. It moves away and fades into the murky shadows. Through the window of the pub a solitary flame flickers in the hearth, seemingly dancing one last time before it fades and dies.

A commotion in the branches of a nearby tree is followed by the sound of flapping wings as the white owl swoops out and away into the twilight, departing with the night.
Gradually the morning sunlight flows across the sky casting long shadows before it. It pours into the lake and skims across the hills and over the mountain bringing with it the colours lost to the night. A lamb bleats in the distance while birds complete with each other in melodious celebration of the new day. The crows return in the same disorderly formation in which they departed, cawing hoarsely as they seek out sources of nutrition.

A solitary crow breaks off from the others and finds it’s way to a crumbling pile of stones that once was a building. Alighting on what remains of a gable wall it eyes with head bent sideways an interior that nature has invaded. Brambles complete with long grass and nettles to conceal the past. A past that echoed to the sound of fiddles, tin whistles and the rhythmic beat of a Bodhran; that had voices raised in traditional song, when Gaelic was spoken between sips of stout or whiskey. A time when the smoke from a turf fire mingled with the smoke of clay pipes and woodbine cigarettes.

These crumbling overgrown stones are all that remain of the pub and close by stands it’s modern replacement complete with signs that advertises the music which entertains a new generation.

Was the previous night just a dream or merely a haunting reminder of times past?


  1. Dixie,

    as always thanks for your contribution. And a nice change of genre

  2. Thanks Mackers.

    The area described is actually Fintown Co. Donegal. The pub came from memories of childhood fishing trips there with my father. It sat at the junction of the road from Letterkenny and the road from Fintown to Ballybofey.

    At the time it was a decaying building and I remember my father saying that the owner opened it a few times each year in order to keep the licence.

    Many years later after I got out of jail we returned to the area and the pub had gone replaced by a modern one which sits back from the road.

    The train line was reopened in recent years as a tourist attraction.

    The story began life as a storyboard for an animated short with traditional music and the only words spoken being the end line...'Was it all a dream or a haunting reminder of times past' spoken in Gaelic.

  3. Dixie,

    I laughed at the Woodbine reference. My da used to smoke Woodbine before switching to Park Drive. Then Park Drive became my favourite smoke. They were so strong. In the cages myself and Kevin Crossan used to love it when the parcels arrived and the 'Parkies' were there! Haven't seen either Park Drive or Woodbine in yonks