Michael Harding: Belief in banshees marked my mother out
All the orthodoxies of Christianity were to my mother as naught compared with her conviction in this single truth about banshees
Photograph: Getty Images
I didn’t just get roses for my birthday. I got wireless speakers as well. This long single bar of smooth, black plastic could be hidden underneath the bookcase and caused the music to sound as if it were coming out of the ground.
Before I went to Cork I put the roses in a vase on the old dining table. I was heading to a hotel in Bantry to give a week of workshops at West Cork Literary Festival. One morning I was having breakfast with a young woman who ordered kippers with a poached egg on top. My stomach was fragile from too much brandy the previous night, and my hand shook as I tried to spread butter on the toast, but I was mesmerised by the poached egg on top of the kippers.
“That’s an amazing image,” I said, as she swallowed the egg like a cat that had been out all night.
“Would you like some?” she asked, dangling the fish on her fork in front of my nose. Of course I couldn’t refuse.
In the workshops I talked about opposites, images made up of separate parts. It’s something I learned from Bryan MacMahon years ago. He said that if you get two opposite ideas and put them into a story or into a sentence, then you have succeeded in recreating the world as a fiction. A spider, he said, is not very interesting. And a billiard table is even less so. But when you describe the spider walking across the billiard table, you have become a storyteller.
That’s what I said in the workshop. And we spent the week talking about that, and everyone went away happy.
On my way home I went through Mullingar to visit the General. He was in the conservatory with his mouth open and a sound coming from his throat like the snore of a bear in a cave after a hard day looking for nuts. His eyebrows were like black, hairy mollies crawling across his forehead.
“Guess where I was?” I said. “West Cork!”
He groaned with envy.
“Oh, the fish– the fish in Kinsale,” he sighed, like an exile on a foreign shore remembering home.
“But have you ever seen a poached egg sitting on top of two kippers?” I wondered. His eyes opened and he sat bolt upright.
“My dear boy,” he exclaimed, “I was reared on them.”
When I arrived home in Leitrim I found a magpie’s feather lying at the back door. It was a black blue feather, so intense that I picked it up, wondering if Charlie the cat might have gone feral in my absence. Although mostly he is friendly to the magpies, even when they come to his bowl to pick up scraps of dry food that he leaves behind.
The feather reminded me of a comb I found one day as a child. I brought it to my mother, who said to throw it away. She said it might be a banshee’s comb. Banshees sat on the ditches at night, she said, combing their white hair when someone was about to die. And all the orthodoxies of Christianity were to my mother as naught compared with her conviction in this single truth about banshees, which caused me huge anxiety on stormy nights when the wind was screeching through the galvanised roof of the shed outside.
Banshees in my childhood were a wild grammar of uncertainty. They compelled me to imagine an invisible world; much like quantum physics persuades me now to trust in something beyond the known “me”.
Belief in banshees marked my mother out as different from women who played golf and came to tea on summer evenings, full of a new dry secularism that gripped middle-class life around the time that the Latin Mass was abolished. My mother fed them salads of lettuce, beetroot, scallions and hard-boiled eggs while a large pot of tea sat under a cosy at the centre of the dining table, and the ladies would talk about the future of the world, or their husbands’ transgressions, with the grim uncertainty of the educated classes.
My mother’s faith in the music of banshees never arose. Her convictions and superstitions were the antithesis of their mannered modernity, their repressed anxieties and posh table manners. She was neither posh nor well-mannered. And a magpie’s feather at the door would have lit up her eyes. As would the red roses on her old mahogany dining table, or the sound of Seán Keane’s haunting voice rising up from the floorboards underneath my father’s dusty old bookcase.