Port na bPúcaí

The Blasket islands as seen from the road above Dunquin

This is the story of the Faeirie’s Lament.

Up late with the dying fire, the woman asleep, the wind fussing around, above and beyond, at first he does not notice the sound. Warm in the stone home, high on the back of the southern Inis. The only man on Inishvickilaune. Nothing through the small, deep-set window but the night, and black it is. Nothing to see, nothing to hear but the fizz of the dying fire, the woman’s breath, the wind. And the slow tune he plays for himself, and for her, in this lonesome place, the bow rubbing a string at a time. Angels weeping, the sound of it. Calling.

At first he does not notice the other sound, in the wind, above and beyond. Then it comes, a cold hand on his neck. Outside, in the night, behind the glass, unseen, but heard: a female voice. One long mournful note, then a falling, twisting refrain like the wringing of hands, or a wandering mind. Climbing, climbing, seeking rest, then tumbling down; a cry of bereavement, sorrow, loss. It blows away, on the wind, and he holds his breath until it returns, at first barely, then beside him in the room, as though being sung for this man, in this place, and no-one else, ever.

Every part of him is turned to the wall, to the window, although he does not move. Every cell that can hear is straining to do so. He has become a human instrument, ringing with the pure, clear sound. Over and over the song is sung, wordless and wonderful, until the fiddlers arms unfreeze and his fingers feel for the bow. Breathless and alive, he pulls notes from the air – now following, now anticipating the flight of the melody as it glides, then beats its wings, then glides again, in the night and in the room with him, without and within. Again. Again. Until the night begins to lift, and light falls in the scattered raindrops of dawn, and the music grows faint. And stops.

He has it now, in his mind. All through the commonplace struggles of daytime, the common life of man and woman tending sheep on an island, the tune does not leave him. He will not let it. Late in the evening, when the fire is covered and the woman sleeps again, the fiddler shoulders his instrument and plays, hoping that the singer will return.

She never does. One night, back on the great island, he plays the tune and tells how it came to him, embroidering the detail and relishing the attention. Others memorise the melody, take it to the mainland and conjure their own accounts of its origin. One says it was a woman sitting on a stone who heard it first, another that the melody came to an old couple asleep in their bed. There are words, says a third. They do not fit the tune, but this is spirit music, sung by a tongue that had been silent for too long:

“I am a woman who has come to you from among the faerie people, who has come by wind and wave. It was by night that I was stolen far away, to live with them. I am wandering this earth again by the grace of faerie women, but it is only for a time. When the cock crows I must leave this world behind, in sorrow.”

The tune becomes famous: first in Dunquin, then the peninsula, then Ireland. It is passed on, as these things are, from player to player, session to session, bar to bar, country to country, wherever the Irish gather. It crosses the Atlantic and is recorded by many people; and every time, the tune is a little
different, the phrasing changes, the story evolves. The poet Seamus Heaney links the spirit song with the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost and the big music that Rilke heard in the storm, and writes a poem called The Given Note. The tune becomes known as Port na bPúcaí, the sound of a spirit mourning the death of another as it is carried for burial behind the impenetrable wall of rocks on that island in the west.

Perhaps it is really the sound of a seal weeping in a cove. Or the cry of a hump-backed whale in a school moving under canvas boats. Or, as Robin Flower writes in The Western Island, “a lament for a whole world of imaginations, banished irrevocably now.”

. . .

Extract from Hungry For Home: A Journey To America From The Edge Of Ireland by Cole Moreton (Viking Penguin 2000).

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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