In The Green Grass of Ballyvaughan

By Terrence Coffman

"I am a man upon the land; I am a Silkie in the sea, 
And when I'm far from evíry strand, my dwelling is in Sule Skerry."

The seabirds flew in from Galway Bay where they settled upon the field in front of Newtown Castle. They were there to feast on grubs and worms that had come to the surface of the summer grasses. On the hills across the valley the hazel and hawthorn nodded to the cashel of the old Celtic Chieftain O'Loughlin. Even after a thousand years, his childrenís children and the generations they spawned still own vast tracks of the Burren Land. And just as the turloughs flow to the sea, their domain and influence continued to shape the place that Cromwell and his English army could not tame. From the heights of the Burren crags where monks once prayed and ancient cairns still stand, the mountains flow into the patchwork of fields to kiss the shoreline and the small fishing village of Ballyvaughan. 

 It was on this summer morning while Mary was swimming beside the dolphin that her Michael collapsed and died on the field at Doonbeg.

I have hid my sealskin many times over and so it is that I know the language and ways of the human beings. They foolishly believe they can chart a course and reach their destination without storms to set them adrift or to collide with sea monsters whose intent it is to devour them. The Universe requires the power of waves take hold of their rudders and push them towards either wonderment or into the abyss. They raise and fall again to sink or swim. Sometimes I will dance beside them, other times I will accompany them to the floor of the sea. At first they donít understand the unfamiliar shore upon which they land, but with time and wisdom they learn it is the place of their becoming, the place they were meant to be.

For a long time now I have been swimming beside a human female the land people named Mary Hawkes. As a child she was raised in the place the Landers call Ireland. It was during the last years of the humanís God being strictly adhered to. She was reared in an inland house far from the Burren rocks and the sea where I came each spring from my home of ice and green. A kind father and a wise mother cared for her. And like my own father, herís was not a creature of outward affections and yet there was no doubt he loved her. Before sleep he would come to her carrying an old hat box filled with biscuits. He leaned to her side and sang the old songs until she fell asleep. 

We Silkies are singers as well. We are quiet creatures by nature and when we shed our sealskins and become human we wander from our Lander home and go to the sea cliffs to sing. And if our fishermen-husbands are lost in the sea, we sing from the cliffs to pilot them home. 

At home Nora Hawkesí daughter was expected to be well behaved, and certainly not liberal, or independent, in thought or deed. After all, this was the time when a human girl child could be banished because she smiled at a young male or was too beautiful for her own good. Not that Maryís family would have done such a thing, but fear of the worst imagined consequences was motivation for a human child to be walking the straight and narrow road. A young silkie knows the same; we donít swim against the tide.

Maryís mother was known for educating the young males and females of Limerick. She took them into her school where Mary was also taught the ways of the land creatures. So it was that she was brought up with grave responsibilities and filled with expectations and with no room for folly. If she passed someone on the road she was not called Mary, no, the humans would say, "There goes Nora Hawkeís child."

Like her mother, Mary grew to be a teacher. The year of her fatherís dying she had been teaching on the other side of the land in the old Viking city on the river near the Britannia Sea. She returned to her home to be with him. That was also the summer I first caught hold of her scent. 

The blood of Norsemen flowed through her soul. From her birth she was a sailor searching for something she did not know, yet hoped would be revealed. In the winter months she stayed home to earn money so that once the weather was warm and the currents calm she could put out to sea once more. Mary was a spirit free of whirlpools. In summers she would leave her home to live in the land of Abraham, or near the City of Light in Frenchland or on the surface of the place where Poseidon resides. It was on Greek islands that Maryís passion for swimming in the sea took hold. Leaving Ireland, she believed, was vital to finding herself. But then came the summer and she could not escape. It was the time when the Universe intervenes. 

Maryís younger sister knew a fellow by the name of Liam who lived by the shore of the Burren land. It was near the place where the warm water moves through the ocean and creates a path for our return home to the land of ice and green. 

Her sister was fond with the boy and the fishing village where he lived. His home was not far from where my young son and I had come to rest on our journey north. She told Mary a road festival was being planned and the village would be alive with banners waving in the wind. There would be grape and mead from far away places, laughter and merriment and if they were to go they would certainly find good fortune. And so they took the Corkscrew Road and reached the O'Loughlin lands and village of Ballyvaughan before the middle of the day. Mary Hawkes found the Burren lands and tiny fishing village to be the most beautiful place she had ever seen, and told herself she could live there forever. 

They drank the wines and sampled morsels of lamb, lobster and cattle. The earth plants were mostly sweet but sometimes pungent upon their lips, and the brown nectar made from the barley made their heads light and their laughter grand. As the sun went down over the water Mary and her sister went to an inn for more refreshments. There behind the bar, serving a host of merrymakers was a handsome dark-haired man. His soulful eyes and the cut of his lean body captured the Hawkes girl. He was as handsome as a silkie male in human form. 

Our silkie males have great powers to seduce your women, especially married women who are waiting for their fishermen husbands to return from the sea. If a woman wishes to make contact with a silkie she must to go to a beach and shed seven tears into the sea. And if the silkie comes ashore his heart will ache and long to return to the sea. And in order to leave he must put back upon his body the sealskin he has hidden from the Landers. His eyes will be filled with tears for the children he leaves behind upon the land and after seven years of swimming, he may return and take his young son or daughter away with him to the land of ice and green. 

Maryís sister whispered in her ear, "This Michael has a reputation of being a ladyís man", she said. 

"Ah, but heís so handsome and Iím not lookiní for a husband." Maryís eyes flipped to another, a man named Patrick. "An what about him", she asked.

"Heís a fine man Mary," her sister replied. "More handsome, donít you think? And he doesnít spend all his time workiní behind the bar such as the man your paying far too much attention to."

"Iím not swooning over that Michael fellow."

"Oh yes you are, I know that look in your eyes. Iíve seen it before. You canít fool me sister."

"Oh go on about your own business, Iíll not be needing the help of the likes of you when it comes to choosing a man for myself." Mary replied.

"You donít say! Your man Michael works day and night in this Hotel and heís ruled by his granny, auntie and mother. And might I ask you, how would you fancy a man whoís under the thumb of three women?"

Mary wiped the froth of a Guinness from her mouth saying, "I assure you Iím not here for the match making. Iíll be heading out for South America as soon as next summer. I donít need to be dragging some man around as baggage, I promise you that I do!" 

"Why would you want to go to such a far away place?"

"Why not! I want to see where the Aztecs lived and go to those Islands where the big sea turtles are, the place where Charles Darwin found his wonderful creatures."

"And what for Mary? Why do you need to be going all around the world? Canít you be happy staying in Ireland?"

"That may be fine for you and our brothers, but I want to see the world. I want to swim in all the seas."

"Ahh, youíre loony you are." Anita replied.

Michael Greene paid Mary no mind until the Patrick fellow came to her side. The laughter between the two then became of concern to him and so he leaned across the bar and with his big dark eyes twinkling, he said to her, "Could you lend a hand and help me pour pints?"

The answer was favorable; Michael smiled, took her hand and led her through the opening at the end of the bar. He looked back at the Patrick fellow and shrugged his shoulder as if to say, "Youíre no match for me."

Liam Connor, the man who Anita was attracted to, leaned across the bar and bent his head low to the barman, and like two footballers in a scum, their heads touched and he passed a message to Michael. "The girl loves swimming in the sea, especially at night." 

Michael took his hand and placed it on Connorísí head and rubbed it briskly. "Youíre a good man. Can you find me some transportation?"

After Hylands closed, Michael got the car that was left on the corner near the old water works fountain in the center of the village. It was a gorgeous night with a full moon. Michel took her up the road to Bishopsquarter. They drove down the long narrow drive to a stone wall and parked the car. Connor had thrown a blanket in the back seat and Michael brought a bottle of the finest French wine from the hotel. 

It was a warm and balmy night. They walked across pebbles and sand towards the lights of New Quay. Seaweed and shells littered the shore. She talked about the beauty of the places she had seen on her summer travels and the waters she had swam. Michael, in his own quite way, listened to Maryís tales without comment or question. They came to a place where there were soft dunes; they spread the blanket over the sand and sat in silence looking at the sea. They watched the waves gently lap the shore and the moon reflect across the bay. Michael poured wine and the conversation was easy and free. Mary suggested they go in for a swim. Michael pretended that he was enthusiastic, but in fact he was no fan of swimming in cold waters. Mary could tell; they removed their outer clothing and walked to the edge of the bay. He said it was freezing. She touched his hand and they walked into the sea and swam out to the place where I was floating in the fronds of kelp. 

They did not know I was beneath them, but I felt her falling in love with the man who was swimming beside her. They floated and danced in the water, they laughed and they touched. When they returned to beach they lay side by side talking until dawn. 

The Universe smiled and my young son and I swam northwest towards home.

At dawn Michael drove Mary to Liamís house where Anita was staying. She quietly went to her room and slept till half past noon. The two sisters packed and made ready for their return to the Hawkes home in Limerick, but before heading up the Coast Road, Mary insisted they stop at Hylands to say goodbye to Michael. She sat in the pub area and had a spot of tea while Michael was scurrying around serving the guests who were staying in the hotel. He of course wanted to sit with her, but bar and hotel tending was the way his life. From the time he was a child, outside of school and sport, working in the family hotel was all he knew. There had been many women in his life; some local girls had their hearts broken pining for his affection and there was an abundance of female tourists to dally with. Mary Hawkes was different and he knew it. Finally Mary figured there was no time to sit a while longer and waved to him as she walked out the door. She was pulling away when she saw him in the rear view mirror running towards the car. She was half way to OíBrienís Pub when he put his hand on the boot of the old green MG. Even though he was a sportsman, he was out of breath when she stopped and turned.

Huffing and puffing, he blurted out, "Would you be willing to go with me to a wedding here in the village?" 

"I would."

Our route between the warm and cool waters was interrupted by human folly and so I did not come back the Burren land for many years. Finally, after their steel war ships disappeared and the black smoke and drowning men no longer floated on the sea, we returned to the currents of our migration. 

It was then that I came ashore for the first time as a man. I washed up on an island that was just a short swimming across from the Flaggy Shore. This place almost touched the mainland; long ago it had been a part of it, but a great wave formed by a crest of fire under the sea rolled across the water and tore the land apart. 

The day of my landing, I hit the big rocks, that were near and far from the place where the Lander children had once drowned in a boat, too full with their young, on a tide that was too fast at its running. As I struggled to reach the sand, the rocks cut my sealskin and my blood stained the shoreline. The only witnesses to my arrival were the cattle above the cliffs. There were caves under the grasses and I slept there until night. The slice on my fin made it easier for me to remove my sealskin. When I emerged I beheld my other self. I was frightened and unsure how to stand. My webbed feet pushed against the sand and I balanced myself against the wall of the cave to slowly rise. My skin was human, fresh and very white and I saw that I was a male. My eyes could not focus as they did in the sea. I smelled myself and licked my arm; and the seawater tasted bitter. I became sick. I touched my head and felt hair, I pulled at it, some remained on my hand, it was black in color and not smooth or shiny as when my nature was that of a seal.

In the morning I ventured out and wandered upon the field. A cow came near to me and in the distance two hares ran through the gorse and grass. I was a man on the land, no longer a silkie in the sea. 


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