The Castlerock Diary 2: Faeries, ghosts & sacred space

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A friend of mine said there’s a ghost story behind every hedgerow in Ireland. Or something like that. When I arrived here in Castlerock, there was only me in this cottage. Then I heard a woman clearing her throat with a gentle cough. Was it someone next door? Was it someone walking past the house?

Well, the cottage is detached. So it couldn’t have been a lady next door clearing her throat. And it couldn’t have been a number of ladies clearing their throats, one after the other, as they passed the house – unless it was a crowd leaving the Castlerock branch of the Convention for Phlegmy Women.

IRISH PSYCHE

So there I was, sitting in the lounge, late at night, wondering where on earth this woman’s cough was coming from. If it were a ghost, then I would do well to name her. I thought I would call her ‘Bertha’. I went upstairs to check the rooms, to see if Bertha could be found. There was no one around. No Bertha. Then I found the source of the gentle cough. It was coming from a tiny flap over the fan in the bathroom wall. The wind would catch it, and the action would produce a noise that sounded like a lady clearing her throat. How very odd. But here’s a stranger thing. Last night I went out to test the local taverns, and found a pub called Bertha’s Bar. Now I didn’t make that up.

I have also been to see some friends around Derry – in particular a couple called Donal and Teresa, who run what must be one of the most wonderful B & Bs in the world. If you stay there in the winter, as I have done, Donal will light a log fire and bring you a glass of Bushmills. Or at least he did for me!

Anyway, I was chatting with these delightful people, and with some of the guests currently staying in their house. We got talking about fairies. I learned that belief in the little people still lingers in the shadows of the Irish psyche. For example, some farmers will leave hawthorn bushes well alone. To this day, you will find a freshly cut field, with a hawthorn in the middle, totally untouched – because the farmer won’t disturb the ‘faerie tree’.

MECCANO SET

Now some people would call that superstitious nonsense. I would not be among those people. How often we search for evidence to refute the secularists’ rant that people need science – not the supernatural. And here we have an example where totally practical people – labourers of the land – still choose to believe in the ‘faerie tree’, to the extent where they will work round it. Doesn’t that indicate a yearning within us all to create some kind of sacred space? Science doesn’t tell us everything. It tells us ‘how’, but it doesn’t tell us ‘why’. And like eternal children, we still want answers to both questions. So next time you see a hawthorn bush, thank God for the ‘faerie tree’. It reminds us the universe isn’t a machine. There is more going on than planets turning like cogs and wheels in some mighty Meccano set. Much more.

This morning the weather girl on local TV proudly announced with a bounce in her step and a smile on her face, ‘It’s going to be bright, blustery and showery all week!’ Back home in southern England, that would be a seriously bad development, spoken with a note of deep regret. But here it’s a bubbly footnote to the news. I decided to go out in the wet weather, and it was very bracing. I walked along the beach, zipped up to my ample chin in a showerproof fleece. I came back to the cottage and had a warm shower. Nice.

An ancient letter written for the earliest Christians in southern Europe tells us to ‘walk in love’. That could mean love towards God, love towards other people and love towards creation. I walked in love today, appreciating the mist-veiled grandeur of an Irish morning. (Photo: Clive Price)

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