'The Impasse': A Short Story Set in 5th Century Ireland

Europe, in the middle of the 5th century A.D., was in darkness and fear was dominant. The Master (the druid) sensed fundamental change. The Roman legions were advancing rapidly and had already crossed the Rhine. A new religion was upon him and his people.

In the cool of early evening they would gather in the grove, beneath the sheltering embrace of the sacred white oak tree. The Master had carefully dowsed the area, and had chosen it for the serene beauty and peaceful aura. The salmon-filled, crystal clear waters of the river wound a course through the center as it made the long journey to its birthplace, the sea. On the west bank, high atop the sacred hill, stood the ‘Stone of Fal, the place where the Kings were crowned, the royal fort encircling the area with its’ thick, safe walls. In the distance, above the east bank, the holy mound of ‘Bru Na Boine’ stood in erect majesty, proclaiming its presence in reserved, silent testimony to their forebears. And so it was, they met there every year at the edge of twilight on the last day in October, to thank their ancestors, the providers, for their bounty. They referred to this day as Samhain, the end of summer and the eve of the New Year.

The gentle breeze wafting through the dying leaves caused the long shadows to flit and dance, as if eager to join with them in their joyous celebration. As they waited for him, they reflected on the year that had just passed. It had been fruitful, the crop yields being more abundant than usual. The plantings had germinated earlier than expected, and the oats and barley seemed to have been pushed upward from mother earth by a loving, enthusiastic, unseen hand. The children, ruddy cheeked, were vigorous and never happier. The Master had said that they needed to grow faster now, and had cast many spells over their heads. There were those among them who swore that they could see and hear the growth, and would look at each other knowingly. The livestock were healthy, and many young had been born in the spring. Several sets of twins had been produced that year too. It was a good time to be alive and feel a part of it all. Not even the rumors of the foreigners in the land to the east worried them. They had heard of the slaughter on the other island and were frightened, but he had assured them that they would not come here.

For centuries the tribes had managed to keep one step ahead of the violent legions by moving swiftly, always at night. He had taught them how to shape shift and blend in with their surroundings. Eventually they made their final stand on the rocky, desolate Isle of Angle that lay off the coast of the Welsh lands. Some of them fled to the highlands in the north hoping for refuge there. Others would stay and fight, even though he had advised against it, there being too many of the enemy. Now, as they advanced, he assembled his people and advised that they set sail as quickly as possible. Working together, they gathered the ash and birch saplings, the hides of their sacrificed animals, and built the Curraghs, the small boats which would bring them to the new land.

On a cold, wet, cloud shrouded dawn, they bade farewell to their brothers and sisters and made their way down the cragged headland, to the shoreline. Dark, white capped waves, swept ashore by a fearsome gale, crashed angrily at their feet. The rain, relentless in harsh, slanting sheets, whipped about their bodies and stung their frightened faces with cold, cruel ferocity. They looked as one, toward the Master, their eyes searching his face for answers, then watched as he climbed, surefooted, to the top of a flat, lichen covered rock. As he stood facing the sea, he raised his arms toward the frightening sky. In his right hand, grasped firmly, was his old, oft used staff, the symbol of his otherworldly power. Standing there, with his long, windswept hair streaming about his broad face, his cloak billowing like a sail unfurled, he began to chant. Softly at first, his voice soon soared upward and became louder than the very wind itself. In that instant, the clouds dispersed, and the sea became a flat, blue, welcoming expanse. The Sun’s rays, in their brilliance, warmed and dried them and they began to smile in the knowledge that all would be well. They were grateful to him for his guidance and strength, as he saved them once again. Fearless, they cast off into the open sea, tacked west, and sailed out into the unknown.

The new land was a wondrous place. Many forests, teeming with herds of fallow deer, provided them with meat, hides and timber for their dwellings. The diverse species of trees were revered by all for their magical powers and the fruits they bore. The oak was the king and his fruit, the acorn, was particularly prized. They had watched as he dropped small berries from the hazel tree in the river and wait for the salmon to surface and eat of them. They were amazed as they observed him deftly grasp the swift, slippery fish directly from the rippling waters, eat the raw flesh to gain the ancient knowledge, then share it with them. The rowan was a powerful tree as well and he always cut from its thick inner growth, a staff and a dowsing rod, the symbols of his power. From the elder and blackthorns he taught them how to brew elixers using the ripe berries mixed with the sweet honey from the bees. He had shown them how to make a potion from the leaves and berries of the mistletoe and then feed it to the animals in the rutting season. This would ensure vigorous and abundant offspring. As they waited, they hoped he would come soon, so that the celebrations could begin.

Recently, rumors were again spreading of a lone stranger landing on their shores to the north, speaking in a strange language about new things. The Master had heard that he had gone to a rowan tree and cut a staff from it. He knew of this stranger and understood he would have to face him soon. He did not fear the violent strangers to the east but this lone figure scared him with his other worldly knowledge. Until now, he had guided his people in all things, the best time to plant, when to reap, what herbs to use to cure illness. He was the teacher and knew all and when they had doubts and fears he reassured them, without him they would be lost. His lineage stretched back for eons and the secrets were passed down orally to him as they had always been. No written records were kept for fear of them falling into the wrong hands and being misused. But now he felt threatened. What was he to do? As his people stood there in the glade waiting, their robes fluttering in the soft evening breeze, they believed all would be well.

Earlier in the year, on a warm summer afternoon, the Master, beset with feelings of unease and worrisome thoughts, had retreated to the forest. He sat alone at the mouth of the black cave deep in contemplation, his purple robes and long red cloak fastened about his neck with a golden clasp. His long hair and beard were silvery as a moon's glow and neatly combed. His brow, deeply etched, spoke of the many years of worry endured on behalf of his beloved people, but his bright blue eyes were clear and focused. His sturdy staff rested on a moss covered rock by his side. As he sat, he read again, the old Oagham inscriptions which were cut into the outer cave wall. He had added his own over the years, using a sharpened piece of flint. The carvings always gave him inspiration in times of doubt, and he had doubts now. So many relied on him alone that his broad shoulders sagged slightly as he worried about what was to come.

He always entered the silent realm when vital decisions had to be made. As he pondered, the veil slowly parted and he was granted a vision. With piercing clarity, he could see a robed stranger standing on a pebbled beach, on the northern shore. In his right hand he held a staff with a crooked top. A deep sense of foreboding swept over him then, like a cold ocean wave, and soon he was awash with dark, dreadful thoughts of self-doubt and insecurity. This stranger had come, not with an army but with symbols more powerful. What was he to do? He had heard that the stranger had been here once before as a boy, taken by a raiding party from his home in the land to the East and had lived as a sheep herder on the slopes of Slemish, the fiery mountain. But that was many years ago, and the boy had since returned to his own people across the sea. Now he had come back. Why? What did it mean?

After consulting with the yellow robed lawmakers, the Brehons, and telling them of his vision, he had asked for their advice. They listened intently and advised him to make the journey to Tara, and meet again with them there. He set off early on the appointed morning, before the dew had dried off the grasses. At the top of the low hill above the river he glanced over his shoulder, and directed his gaze toward the village in the valley below. The clay and wattle built dwellings were quiet, smoke from the peat fires curled upward and mingled with the fading mist, all was peaceful. Satisfied, he then turned his footsteps toward the west, and began his journey. The trek to the sacred mound took two days to complete. After placing his offerings in the inner chamber there, he continued further westward along the river, to the ring fort on the hill. There, king Laoghaire and the Brehons were waiting. He smiled, recalling his last visit when he had attended this new king's coronation. As he approached the ramparts he was met by the ever alert gatekeepers, and after crossing the deep earthen ditch, was escorted inside the walled enclosure. A sense of humility descended upon him then and he immediately felt the serenity of oneness. Once inside the great hall he had stood with head bowed, and waited. 

 He knew that his people were waiting patiently for him, but first he had something more important to do. As he sat outside the cave once more, on the eve of Samhain, his mind returned to Tara and the advice given him there. He would heed their advice as always, but before doing so he would consult the ancestors again, just to be sure. He reached into the deerskin pouch that hung about his waist and brought out the small, inscribed stones from within. There were seven in number, and had been passed down to him by his father many years ago. As he shook them in his loosely cupped hands, he chanted the spells that would invoke the wisdom of the ancients, and cast them on the ground.

Bending over to read, he noticed the dark eyed, dappled fawn emerge from the cool forest, and after passing through a patch of fading sunlight, approach him unafraid. This was not unusual, and as she came closer and nestled at his feet, he reached out to her, as if to greet an old friend. As he stroked the silken fur on her breast, gently, she licked his hand. At that moment a wren lit on the branches of a small blackthorn tree nearby, and sang her song for him. He smiled then knowing what he must do. Another glance at the stones confirmed his belief, and picking them up, returned them safely to their resting place. He then rose to go to his people, tell them of his decision and fulfill his destiny with no regrets.

From "Don't Die with Regrets: Ireland and the Lessons My Father Taught Me," 

For Sale at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0615975860

Also for Sale:

The Journey: A Nomad Reflects.


Views: 462

Tags: History of Ireland

Comment by annette counihan on March 9, 2015 at 3:34pm
lovely article did you write this yourself..?
Comment by John Anthony Brennan on March 9, 2015 at 3:53pm

THank you Annette, I'm glad you liked it, and yes I wrote it myself.


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