The Lament (a Story for St. Patrick’s Day)

House on the Hill - Irishmanlost (Flickr)The north wind was relentless. It clawed at and slammed the wooden shutters of the old house as the dark skies swirled menacingly overhead. Haunting screeches and unearthly moans rose and fell over the surrounding moors. It was as if the heavens were at war with the earth; a thunderous echo from the past. For 900 hundred years the MacLoughlin family lived in the hills overlooking Baile an Mhargaidh (Bally an Margah). They were one of the original families there from the time of kings. It was a time when ruling clans fought for the lands, the winners claiming victory over their enemies only when the head of the clan lay open eyes unseeing. It was a time when betrayal was common and everything was uncertain. There was, however, a certainty for the MacLoughlins that befell them every 50 years. Each generation would pay the price for the broken oaths of their forefather, Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn, who bound and blinded the ruling king who had unseated him. With these actions, he incurred the vengeance of St. Patrick. Everyone inside the house knew when the rains came they would bring with them an inescapable fury that would encompass the house until it could claim its victim. Once again, the curse was upon them.

James, seventeen and the oldest son of Ronan, huddled quietly by the hearth in the great room while smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves. The rest of the family had taken refuge in the kitchen, but James wanted to be alone. The hysteria that hung in the air in that room with them was too much for him to bear. It was hard enough on the nerves not to collapse on the spot with each clap of thunder or flash of lightning without having to listen to his mother’s and siblings’ sobs or his father’s heavy sighs. James’s large frame nearly overwhelmed the small armchair he had pulled up to sit upon. What he really wanted was a glass of whiskey but his father had banned all alcohol from the house on this occasion. It was a move that James has argued against but it was tradition and his father would see no other way. It had something to do with appeasing the soul of St. Patrick, something about paying dues with a clear mind and heart. As far as James could see they had already paid too dearly for the errors of their foolish forefather. Someday the curse had to be broken. Someday they had to break even.

James furrowed his dark brow as his thoughts turned to the woman in the market. A few days before, his mother had sent him and his younger brother, Seán, to pick up some staples in town as they had done every week since James had turned 12. Walking through the market had always filled James with the energy of life. The hum of a hundred voices, the clacking of carts, the flapping of the awnings in the gentle breezes reminded him that there was more to the world than just the barrenness of hills and moors. Of course, the place of his home held treasures that could never be found in the town, but James enjoyed the contrasts and made a point of acknowledging as many as he could. This last time, however, he had detected a strange kind of sombreness that he had never felt before. At first, he couldn’t really figure out from where it was emanating. On the surface everything looked the same as it always did. But then he saw her, almost hidden in the crowds, a stunning beauty with long golden-red hair crying as if her heart had been broken into a million pieces. “Look!” James had shouted urgently to his brother. “What’s wrong with her?” When Seán seemed unable to spot her, James grabbed his arm and they moved toward her location, but she must have seen them and moved on, for when they reached where she had been standing, she was gone. In fact, after several minutes of searching the market grounds, James decided she had left altogether.

Or had he completely imagined her? Seán claimed he never saw her. He was just following his brother’s lead. In fact, when asked, people who had been in the vicinity of where she stood also claimed that they had neither seen nor heard her. As James sat staring into the fire in the hearth and listening to the storm raging on, he shook his head, completely perplexed. Why did he even care about this young woman anyway? Surely her plight was no more dire than his own. A deafening clap of thunder shook the old house right at that moment as if to underline James’s thought. He brought his trembling hand with the cigarette to his lips and took a long, slow drag. As the smoke filled his airways, James closed his eyes. The woman’s image came clearly into his mind. Her skin was so fair, fairer than any he had seen, and her hair was brilliant like fire but soft and flowing. Truly she was a combination of Irish perfection; a fantasy he would have held onto if he’d thought he had time to enjoy it. Someone would die in the house tonight and James believed it would be him.

The suspense had gotten to Ronan. He could no longer handle waiting to find out which member of his family was going to die tonight. It truly was a sick joke that haunted each generation. How the MacLoughlins managed not to die out over these 900 years was a miracle. Perhaps instead of having an average of six children each, if they stopped procreating, St. Patrick would have no one to take anymore. But then, the extinction of the line was probably what that bastard saint wanted anyway. At the very thought of cursing St. Patrick, Ronan swallowed hard. “Fuck you!” he muttered aloud and then braced himself for a bolt of lightening to strike him where he stood. It didn’t happen and it wouldn’t. His generation had already lost a soul; Ronan’s little brother Colin who had only been 5 at the time. Now it would be one of Ronan’s own precious children.

Ronan walked purposefully to the cupboard where he’d hidden the alcohol. Swiftly he pulled out the whiskey, opened the cap and took a swig. It burned as it went down and, almost immediately, he could feel it coursing through his bloodstream into his fingers and down his legs. Before he could take another swig, his wife let out a bloodcurdling scream. “What are you doing?! This is strictly forbidden!” The agonized look on his wife’s face was almost too painful to bear. “What difference does it make, Siobhan? It will happen sooner or later. I’d prefer to get on with it.” He couldn’t look his wife in the eye with that statement. “Get on with it?!” She shouted incredulously. “My god!” Suddenly the thunder shook the house as though it were made of cardboard. The storm was right on top of them now. Somewhere a window shattered and Ronan bounded from the room, closely followed by the rest of the family, to find James.

This was her family, the MacLoughlins, and the sadness she had endured these many centuries, was almost too much, even for a Bean-sidhe (banshee). She knew he had loved her at first glance in the market and she appeared to him again, as the young woman of fiery hair and milk-white skin, before he was taken. James’s frightened brown eyes had softened as she took his hand. She helped him forget, momentarily, she comforted his heart and soul. She held his gaze as the thick, old, oak beam crushed his skull when it loosened and fell from the vaulted ceiling above. She didn’t let go of his hand until his last breath escaped his lips and his heart beat its last. Any young death was a tragedy, but she had seen one too many here. In agony she crashed through the window and screeched, unrelenting, upon the moors, wailing as though it would tear her apart. When she returned to the window, the family was there with him. She stood, in mourning, outside the broken window of the great room, her white skin a flicker in the moonlight and her long white hair tossing in the strong winds. Her wails blended with those of Ronan, Siobhan, and the children. The Caoineadh (coeeneh), the lament, had begun.

Note: This story is mostly fictional. Please forgive me, MacLoughlins of the world, I dearly hope no such curse exists.
Anna’s Irish Folklore – Banshees
Wikipedia – Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn


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