It was way back in 1947 when I was 7 years old that one of my most beautiful memories came to me. Nowadays, whenever I sit in front of the open fire and let my mind wander, I think of all the heartache that surrounds that period of my life but at the same time, I think also of the beautiful things that made my young life so worthwhile.
There were only twenty small cottages in the village at that time and with the one roomed schoolhouse and small chapel by the crossroads, my friends and I would sit on the corner and watch the world pass by. Not that much ever happened during the winter months once Christmas and the New Year had been celebrated.
We would sit and count each day as it passed waiting for spring when we could again partake in our favourite pastime. As soon as the birds began to nest, we would have a competition to see which of us could find the most and the rarest nests. We had heard of boys and even men who collected birds’ eggs but we never did. The priest had called it a sin against nature…..
Shaun Magee was a year older than Fineen Burke and me and he was always the one to climb the highest trees to check the crows and jackdaws nests. We could never compete with him on that level. The three Dwyer girls, Mary, Kate and Eily were the sharpest at finding the tom-tits’ and the wrens’ nests in the holes in walls and in the ivy on trees. They always won the highest number of nests, but Shaun always got the rarest.
One fine January morning, it must have been a Saturday as there was no school, as we sat and talked on the crossroads corner, the Postman on his bicycle stopped and gave us the news that lifted us up. “‘Tis Old Caoch the Piper who is on his way in a day or two, and his singing and storytelling, let alone his piping will bring some life to the village after them winter months”. I could hardly remember the last time he had been but I had heard all the stories that he told, over and over again from various grownups. It was indeed something to look forward to.
Well we waited and waited after Mass on the Sunday and after school on the Monday but no sign of him could be seen. We asked about him of any people passing through the village but none could help with any information. We became frustrated waiting.
On the Wednesday morning as I got ready for school, I heard a dog barking outside the half-door when suddenly a face appeared across the threshold. “God bless all here,” a sweet mellow voice said. My mother who had been preparing breakfast at the stove, dropped everything and ran towards the door. “Come in mo croi, and God be with you Caoch. Is Pinch with you?” As she opened the half-door, a little shorthaired Jack Russell dog ran into the room.
Carefully the old man felt his way into the house with his pipes slung across his right shoulder. On the other shoulder hung a beautiful green and yellow tartan holdall. His clothes were old but immaculate and you would have thought that instead of walking some distance that morning, he had in fact stepped out of a tailor’s shop window. It was obvious that he had been a fine looking man in his youth, but age was catching up on him fast.
Without any hesitation, my mother placed the almost prepared food on the table in front of old Caoch and said to me: “I want you Michael, to cut his rashers and fried bread, put a portion on a fork and hand it to him: now be a good lad and do as I ask you”.
It was then and only then that I realised that he was blind. Sure now, I wasn’t to know that ‘Caoch’ meant blind in Gaelic – we had not learned it at school. As I sat on the bench beside him, old Caoch turned his head towards me, stretched out his hand and ran it through my hair. “Woman of the house”, he again spoke in a soft tone “and what would be the colour of young Mickeleen’s hair?” “Sure, ‘tis as golden as the wheatfields in July and he only seven years” my mother replied. Caoch again placed his hand on my head and whispered “May your years be long, my son, and may they all be happy ones”.
I fed him his breakfast and handed him the large mug of tea that mother had prepared. With each forkful, he thanked me as if it were the finest food he had ever tasted and the sweetest tea he had drunk in years. Pinch in the meantime was chewing on a large bone that mother had saved since she had first heard of their coming.
I did not eat anything that morning; not even a slice of bread as the excitement was far too much for me. Mother sent me to the neighbours to tell them that there would be a ‘session’ in our house tonight starting at seven o’clock. As I ran from door to door, the news preceded me and at least one neighbour was at the door by the time I got to each house.
I had not returned to our own home more than a minute when in ran Fineen, Shaun and the three girls. They had been on the way to school when they heard the news. Old Caoch blessed each one of them in turn and they spent the next ten minutes making a right old fuss of Pinch.
That day in school was one of the longest days of my life. The minutes passed like hours and the hours like days. Mr. O’Shaughessy, our teacher had also heard the news and decided that not much would be learned that day. He let us out early to prepare for the evenings entertainment.
I ran all the way home, as did my friends and as I entered our house all I saw was my mother busy preparing food for the guests who would attend later. Pinch sat close to the fire but there was no sign of Caoch. Mother guessed what I was thinking and spoke in a quite voice “Leave him be now Michael, he is having a little sleep before the music and dancing begins”.
As was normal whenever we had a visitor, I had to give up my room and bed but I did not begrudge him it in any way. It suited me perfectly, as I would have to be allowed to stay up until the party was over. I would then sleep on the floor close to the fire wrapped up in spare blankets.
I sat and listened patiently for any sound from my room. It seemed like ages before I heard the notes of Caoch tuning his pipes. I nodded at mother and she poured out a mug of tea. “Take this in to him quietly now and don’t disturb him” she whispered to me.
I knocked on the door and he called “Come in”. I passed him the tea and when he realised it was me, he softly said”Have you ever heard this one Mickeleen? – ‘tis called ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’”.With that, he pumped up the pipes and I saw his long thin fingers move gently across the notes as softly as a butterfly lands on a flower on a calm summer’s day. The beautiful sounds took me to some far distant place and I was lost in wonderment and amazement how such wonderful music could come from such a strange looking instrument.
The neighbours and friends from other nearby villages began to arrive at about seven o’clock and each and everyone brought something, be it food or drink or in some cases, both. It was as if Christmas, Easter, Saint Patrick’s Day and my birthday all came at once. There was lemonade and other juices for the children and bottled stout and porter and some poteen for the men. I noticed that mother had taken out her bottle of Sherry from her secret hiding place that only she and I knew about. This was for the ‘special’ female guests.
Father took pride of place in the centre of the room and acted as the man in charge of proceedings. The music struck up, stories were told, poetry was recited and the three Dwyer girls danced some beautiful Irish reels to the music of Caoch.
I can honestly say that it was the most wonderful evening of my life, then and now. It was something that will go with me to the grave. Not one harsh word was spoken yet much alcohol was drunk. And not only that, but also some tears were shed when Caoch recited some poetry of the Great Famine. Some of those present had grandparents who had suffered the consequences of the Blight………….
However, all good things must come to an end and before he left, our teacher, Mr. O’Shaughessy, much the worse for having consumed far too much porter and poteen, proudly announced that the next day was declared a ‘Bank Holiday’ and that there would be no school.
Next morning, bright and early, I was awoken by mother preparing the breakfast. Old Caoch and Pinch came out of the bedroom and quietly sat at the table. I took his breakfast to him and cut up his bacon and eggs. Having eaten it, he quietly picked up his holdall and pipes, slung them across his shoulders and as he walked out the door, he called back “God bless all who dwell within, and you young Mickeleen say a little prayer for old Caoch every now and then”. With that he walked away quickly followed by Pinch. He never looked back, for had he done so, and had he not in fact been blind, he would have seen the tears flow down my cheeks.
Fineen Burke and Shaun Magee immigrated to America and never sent as much as a single postcard home to tell their parents how they were doing. I remained in the village but never married. Both my parents died some fifteen years since Caoch had been and although I was alone, I was not unhappy. I had wonderful memories of all aspects of my life and not one single regret.
I often thought about my friends when things were quiet and I sat before the open fire smoking my pipe. Several of the small houses in the village were now derelict and unoccupied. The way things were going it would be like the deserted village with all the young people moving to the cities. The schoolhouse was long since gone and what children there were left were taken by bus each day to the nearby town to school. Village life had changed beyond all recognition.
At least twenty years had past, when on a beautiful June evening, I sat in the doorway catching the last of the sun before it set. Once again I was thinking of times and friends long since gone.
Suddenly, a tired old Jack Russell dog came limping up the road. I noticed that it was a stranger to the village so I took a closer look. About twenty yards behind it was a stooped old man. I stared in disbelief. Was that a set of pipes across his shoulder? It couldn’t be – or could it? I had often thought of old Caoch and Pinch but had thought them both long dead and buried. As Pinch came to the door, he stopped and barked a low sound back to the old man. I jumped from my chair and ran towards him.
“Good God Almighty” I exclaimed. “It is, it is, it’s Caoch”. He had been old when last I had seen him but now he was a shadow of himself. He was old and grey, his clothes which used to be immaculate were now threadbare. His tartan bag was also threadbare and covered in patches. However, he had obviously maintained his pipes, as they looked as new as the day he had first come to the village.
He stopped as I approached without saying anything. He obviously sensed my presence as he called out “Does anybody hereabouts remember Caoch the Piper”. I grasped his hand and held it tight and softly said “You are as welcome now Caoch as you were twenty years ago”. As I led him into the living room, he touched my head and asked “And where is that lovely head of hair that once adorned this head?” I laughed and broke the silence of the room. He cocked his head as if listening to that same silence, “And where is all the merry-making that I left behind when I passed here those twenty years past?” “All gone Caoch, some to their maker and some far away. We are but two, or three if you count Pinch”.
I sat him down at the table and quickly prepared some hot food. As I did so, Caoch spoke softly”Will you please let me stay, young Mickeleen, my time has come, I will not keep you waiting. My peace is made, my prayers said and I’ll go home tomorrow”. I knew that there was nothing I could say for he had the look of death upon his face.
“And you shall have my pipes and dog Michael, for I’ll not need them anymore. And all I ask in return is that now and then you say a prayer for Caoch O’Leary”.
He slept in the same bed he had slept in twenty years before and Pinch and I kept vigil all night. As dawn broke, he peacefully passed away holding my hand. Not a word was spoken. The following day, Mass was said for him and he was buried not far from the three Dwyer girls.
Weeks later I placed a small headstone above his grave which merely says ‘God Rest You, Caoch O’Leary’.