To me, west Cavan was the most beautiful place in the world

Michael Harding: Christmas brought emigrants home, and they triggered a rash of house parties and Hughie’s special song

'Forestry is a bitter sight in rural Ireland. It teaches a salutary lesson: That everything passes, and nothing remains the same.'

'Forestry is a bitter sight in rural Ireland. It teaches a salutary lesson: That everything passes, and nothing remains the same.'

 

Inside every song there is a silence. A silence between each note. A silence when the song ends. It’s a Zen moment. A sense of impermanence.

That’s the lesson I learned one night in 1976, in the hills above Blacklion. To me, west Cavan was the most beautiful place in the world. No other mountain in the universe could equal the remote serenity of Cuilce, when the snow was deep in the gullies, and the moon was full, and the silence on the ridges above the little houses was only broken by the bark of a lonesome dog. A silence that opened my heart to Zen, and the exquisite taste of tea made with spring water, and other small things. 

In that long ago winter, people lived in cottages from whose windows there issued soft yellow light, illuminating the deep snow outside, where men smoked cigarettes, and urinated at the ditch, and listened to the music within, or just talked about London.

I hoped he would sing. I would have crossed the arctic circle to hear him sing

Because Christmas brought emigrants home, and emigrants triggered a rash of house parties.

Some of those houses are now derelict and the forestry has encroached and smothered the memory of all that fun. And even where I live today in the hills above Lough Allen, I see the same saplings rising, and I know that they will smother the houses here too, some day, and hide the beauties of Lough Allen from hill walkers. Forestry is a bitter sight in rural Ireland. It teaches a salutary lesson: That everything passes, and nothing remains the same.  

What made that night in the hills above Blacklion special, was Hughie’s song. A white haired man in his 80s, enthroned on a hard backed chair by the range. 

I hoped he would sing. I would have crossed the arctic circle to hear him sing. And no amount of snow could stop me getting to his house for that particular party. 

Snow came regularly back then. In July the iron in the mountain caused every stream to shimmer like the flank of a bay mare, with a white froth on top; but in winter the streams closed over in black icy silence. People talked of earlier winters, when old folk were rescued from their houses on stretchers that volunteers needed to raise above their heads  as they burrowed through trenches of snow on either side.

I never saw anything like that. Although we still drove old Volkswagens, Ford Anglia’s and Cortina’s in 1976, up narrow farm laneways with shovels in the boot to dig drifts from the wheels, if the cars got stuck.

From the moment I stepped into the kitchen, and saw old Hughie in the corner, smiling at me, I knew he was going to sing.

“Tis a cold night, master,” he said, addressing me as the schoolteacher I was.

“Tis warm where you are sitting . . . master,” I replied, addressing him as if he were my Zen teacher.

I knew this was the one and only moment I would come so close to all that was lost in the turbulence of history

Jimmy McBarney sang that night. And someone played a hundred tunes on the accordion. And Eddie McManus sang Spancill Hill. And an emigrant from Australia sang about Killarney. And after all the famous songs were sung, the singers sang the local songs. The Wooden McCarthy, Rise up Willie John, and The Second Hand Trousers I Bought in Belcoo.

But the climax was Hughie’s intervention. We waited for hours. And in the end, when the moon had gone down and the night became a bottle of spilled ink on the white papery snow outside, the ghostly old man sang his song in phrases as soft as the moss below the bilberries.

“Is trua mise, i Sasanagh,” he began, “agus b’aon amháin as Éireann liom.”

Few people know that Glangevlin was once a Gaeltacht with a language summer school, where people still spoke and sang in the soft Irish of south Ulster up until the early 20th-century. Hearing Hughie sing was like hearing the last breath of an ancient poet. Like hearing the last song of the last swallow. It was like hearing the snow melt. Because I knew this was the one and only moment I would come so close to all that was lost in the turbulence of history. 

When he was finished the song he smiled at me, because I had been holding his hand, coaxing him, and he said, “There you are. You have it now. You have it all.” 

And mid-winter never passes without me remembering that moment. And the wisdom of Zen. That everything dies. And nothing is permanent. Even the snow, when it does fall nowadays, falls less often, and I gaze at it occasionally, with a quiet and uneasy nostalgia.

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