It was the first time that I had ever been to Ireland. I don’t know why I had put off coming here, as it is a lovely place. I mean, I’d been to France, and Germany, and so on, but I’d never popped over the Irish Sea.
I could just have gone to Dublin, and had a great time there. But I wanted to get away from the normal tourist trail. Ireland is a lot more than shamrocks and Guinness. I wanted to go where the tourists don’t normally go to. I wanted to see the real Ireland.
That explained why I was now in a place which should officially have been called the Back of Beyond. I was somewhere in the west of Ireland, walking down a road towards the village of Bailidhmagh, which I could not even find on my map. Find it on my map? Hell, I could not even pronounce the name of the place.
I’d just been dropped off by a trucker, anyway, who was on his way to Galway. I waved as he turned onto the turning which led to Galway, and away from Bailidhmadh. Without him picking me up I would have been miles away, hiking along the road, as where I was there did not seem to be buses, let alone railway trains. Or, if there were buses, then they were the sort who only ran once a week, on some Wednesday afternoon. But I didn’t mind that – at least I knew that there should not be many other tourists in the place where I was. Wherever that was.
I could see the village ahead of me. It looked to be a collection of only a few small, white-washed houses. I could see, behind the houses, the stone spire of some old church. But it wasn’t a church which I needed, but somewhere to stay.
I didn’t expect there to be a hotel in this place, but maybe there was a YMCA. Failing that, if this place had a pub, I could always try staying there. It was either that or sleep outside – which I did not fancy, as I did not have a tent with me, or anything like that. Oh, well, in an emergency I supposed that the priest might not object to me sleeping on the pews of his church. I have slept in worse places in the past.
I walked the main street of the town, which also turned out to be the only street of the town. There was a small shop, and a post office, and there was a pub. But there wasn’t any YMCA.
The pub wasn’t open yet, so I couldn’t ask them if they would put me up for the night. I decided to have a walk along to the church, and have a look at that.
The church was behind the town, along the road a little away. There was a lych-gate which allowed access, and I walked through that, rather than the main entrance, which was farther down the road.
I don’t really know anything about architecture, so I couldn’t guess how old the church was, beyond the fact that it had to be at least a couple of hundred years old. It looked a little desolate, and I could actually see a couple of slates missing from its roof. That was something which surprised me, as I knew how religious rural Irish people were supposed to be (if you go in for stereotypes).
I walked over the doors leading into the church, and tried them, but they were locked. I suppose that was not all that surprising, though, as it was a weekday, rather than a Sunday. I could see a little cottage, behind the church. I walked over, intending to ask the priest if it was okay if I had a look around the church.
I knocked on the front door of the cottage, and waited. But nobody came to answer the door. I knocked again, but there was still no answer. I walked to the side of the door, and had a look though the window. I could not see anybody inside, though. In fact, it had a whole air of desolation about the place, almost as though nobody lived there. I had a look around the churchyard, but I could see no sign of the priest.
I walked back into the town. I went to the shop, and bought a packet of chewing gum.
“Is the priest around?” I asked, as I handed over the money for the gum. But the old woman behind the counter answered me in Gaelic, a language of which I don’t speak a single word.
“Do you speak English?” I asked. Again I was greeted in what I presumed was Gaelic. I got the message that if this woman spoke any English, then she was not going to speak it to me. I’m sure that if I had spoken to her in Gaelic the response would have been different. But all I had done in the way of languages at school had been French and German – and I had not actually done all that well at those.
I took my change and left the shop.
It was still too early to go along to the pub, so I decided to have a look at the area around the village, and see what this place had to admire. So far I had seen very little.
The village was in a slight dip. I walked up onto the very low hills around the town.
I could see quite a way, and not a single tree could I see. I could see the road the truck had come down, and where he had dropped me off, at the turning. I couldn’t see a single car anywhere on the roads.
I could see a few sheep, here and there. I hadn’t got a clue what breed of sheep they were. They had dark faces, anyway.
Down at the bottom of these low, rolling hills I could see a flat area which reflected the sun. It was a lough, although it was more like a bog around the edges. It looked like the sort of area that a person could sink into and never be seen again. in fact, only the centre was dark, open water, and it really was more bog than lake. It made me think of the Grimpen Mire from the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.
I walked down the slopes, a bit, towards the bog. There was a weird feeling in the place. It was almost entirely silent, apart from the distant baaing of the sheep. It seemed that they had learned not to come down to the bog. Or maybe those sheep which had not learned had sunk beneath its waters.
The place felt strange, almost mystical in nature. There were no insects over the mire, which I found a little strange. But there was a stiff and increasing breeze, which perhaps had blown away any flies.
I looked at the centre of the water, where it reflected the sky, like some great glass mirror. But I had the feeling more of a doorway than a mirror, a gateway to some other, fantastical world.
I spent a little longer walking around the place, before walking down into the village. I decided that, if the pub wasn’t open, or they couldn’t put me up, that I would walk along the road to the next town along, while it was still light, and I wasn’t too tired. Even if I stayed here the night I would still be moving on in the morning, anyway.
When I got into the town the doors of the pub were open. I went inside, thinking that I could murder a pint of something; and my stomach was wondering if they had any pub grub, as well.
There was a fair bit of chatter inside the pub. I could hear it as I walked inside. It was like in one of those Westerns, when the bad guy gunslinger walks into the saloon, and suddenly everything goes as quiet as the grave. All that it needed was some tumbleweed blowing past outside.
I could feel every eye in the place on me. I had very much the self-conscious feeling of being an outsider in this place. For a second I wondered if I should just turn around and walk back out. But I decided that I wanted my pint of beer.
I walked over to the bar. There was a woman in her forties behind it. She was somewhat stocky, and she nodded towards me.
“Hi.” I said. “I wonder if I could have a pint of beer?”
I was not sure if she was going to speak English, or if I was about to get the Gaelic cold shoulder again. But she asked me what I wanted, and I settled for a pint of a type of stout which I had never heard of before, and that I reckoned must be a local brew. I sat on a stool at the bar, and slowly sipped my pint.
Conversation slowly continued in the pub around me. But all of it was in Gaelic. If any of these people, bar the woman who had served me, knew any English then they had deliberately chosen not to use it. But I had been in places in Wales like that, in the past. Maybe they were scared that I might try to eavesdrop on them, or something.
As I neared the end of the night I broached the subject that I was looking for somewhere to stay, and that I was hoping to move on in the morning.
“Are you here on your own?” the woman asked, as she polished one of the glasses.
“Yes, I’m on holiday in Ireland.” I said. “I thought that I would come over here, and try to get off the usual tourist trail. Just go where the roads take me, and try to find the hidden side of Ireland, and all that.”
“Does your family not worry about that? I suppose you’ve been telling them where you are.”
“No, I don’t have roaming on my phone.” I said. “I left it at home. Besides, if I had brought it with me work would probably have rung me, wanting me to come in, whether I was in Ireland or not. I just wanted to get away from it all, you know.”
“Well, you will have told your girl that you are here.” the woman said.
“Nope, just going where the road takes me.” I said. “Can I have another pint? Anyway, if you don’t think it too rude, I was going to ask whether I could stay here tonight. I mean, I’ll pay for my board and lodging and everything. I don’t want charity, or something.”
The woman glanced off to her side. I just managed to catch some man who looked to be about fifty or sixty odd nod back in her direction. He was a big chap, broad and with a thick blonde-brown beard. Maybe he was her husband or the landlord or both.
“That will be fine.” she said.
I relaxed. I would not have to walk on to the next town – and I doubted if I could get a lift, not considering the fact that I had not seen a road vehicle since that truck had dropped me off earlier in the day.
I settled down to enjoying a few beers, as I didn’t have to worry about somewhere to stay. I decided to quiz the woman behind the bar about the church (not that I was going to bother to look around the church now).
“We don’t have a churchman.” she said. “We haven’t had one for years now.”
She did not elaborate on that. But it was pretty obvious that I was not going to get a look around the inside of the church. I still found it a bit odd that there was no churchman, though. I wondered what these people did when they died, or when they wanted to get married. Perhaps they had some Catholic priest come in from outside.
I didn’t ask any more questions about the church. I had a look around the insides of the pub, from where I sat at the bar. There was not that much to see, really. There was some old sepia-tinted photographs on the walls, one of them being of the outside of the pub, the others being of various old people from Victorian times. Some of the men in the photos had really long beards, the sort which went down to their waists. Nobody in the old photos looked rich – a lot of the people did not even have shoes on. But nobody in the pub at the moment looked particularly wealthy. I guessed that this was a village which had never been anything but poor.
I had another pint of beer. They were beginning to go to my head, probably due to the fact that I had not had anything much to eat that day.
“Is there anywhere in town where I can get something to eat?” I asked the woman behind the bar. I had to eat something to soak up the alcohol, or else I would end up with a stinking hangover the following morning.
“I’ll do you some stew.” the woman said. “It’s the least I can do.”
“Oh, right, thanks.” I had no objection to stew. Even a sandwich would have done at that particular moment in time.
It was not long before I had a bowl of Irish stew in front of me. Considering the amount of time, she must already have had some stew on the go.
“What do I owe you for the stew?” I asked, getting my wallet out.
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” she said. “It’s on the house.”
“Thanks. Thanks very much.” I said. I had thought, on arrival in this village, that the people were pretty frosty towards outsiders. But that was not the way that I felt at the moment. Maybe I had misjudged the people. Maybe they simply did not actually know all that much in the way of the English language.
I ate my bowl of stew. I’m not really a stew person, but this bowl was very good, especially as she gave me a couple of crusty, freshly-baked rolls to go with it. I ate up every drop of stew in the bowl.
Afterwards, I had another pint of beer. But about halfway down the pint I began to feel very tired. I guessed that going on holiday could be tiring. Or maybe it was all of the fresh air which I had had as I had been walking around the village earlier in the day.
“Look, I know it’s early, but would you mind if I went up to that room you said you’d got?” I asked. I then yawned, and could hardly stop, although I managed to put my hand in front of my mouth. At least I had not forgotten all of my manners.
“Of course, my dear.” she said.
She showed me up the stairs, and along a passage, to a very small room which I guessed was the spare bedroom. But I did not really care about the size of the room. It was not as though I was going to be awake, anyway.
The woman closed the door on me. I realised that I had not even got her name. I would have to apologise for my rudeness in the morning, when I settled up.
I slung my stuff on the floor. I had a glance around the room as I began to get undressed. There was the single bed, which looked very welcoming at this moment in time. There was a small window which looked out over the low slopes around the town. From where I was I could just about see the bog in the distance. I was a little bit surprised to see that it was still light outside.
The ceiling of the room was uneven, and had to be the original ceiling, Victorian or older. It was bisected by an old, oak beam, supporting it. I could see that faces had been carved into the wood of the beam. For some reason the faces reminded me of the grotesques and gargoyles which you saw carved into the stonework of some churches. One of the faces was something which I had thought I had seen before, some bearded man looking out of foliage. But I felt far too tired to wonder about it at the moment.
I did not even finish getting undressed. I managed to get my jacket and shoes off, but then I plonked down on top of the bedclothes, still wearing my shirt and jeans. I was asleep in seconds. I fell into a deep sleep, one without any dreams.
Suddenly I was awake. I had been brought to wakefulness because rough hands were dragging me up off the bed. I opened my eyes, but I could not see anything, because some sort of hemp bag had been put over my head and tied around my throat. The bag was porous enough that I could breathe without being suffocated.
“What’s going on?” I shouted out, my voice probably being muffled by the bag over my head. Whoever had lifted me off the bed, and put me on my feet, did not bother to answer me. I struggled, but only to discover that my wrists had been tied together behind my back.
There had to be more than one person doing this, as I felt a person either side of me grabbing my arms and forcing me out of the room.
“Help! I’m being abducted!” I cried out. No one said anything. No help came. But I kept calling out for the next few minutes, as I was forced out of the pub, and onto the road outside. I could feel the hard and cold road surface under my bare feet.
I could tell that it was still night, even with the hood over my head, as light would have filtered through the hemp (and some had, while we had been in the pub), even though I could not see where we were going.
“Look, if this is your idea of a joke, it’s not very funny.” I said. “Let me go now and I won’t say anything more about it.” Nobody said anything, and they did not let me go, but I still hoped that this was the villagers’ idea of some sort of weird practical joke. Play some big joke on the stupid English visitor, make him think that he was being kidnapped or something. I tried telling myself that people really did not get kidnapped from sleepy little Irish villages.
I was marched on, and I felt grass underneath my feet. The grass was damp and cold, and I wished that I still had my shoes on my feet, and that I had not taken them off when I had collapsed onto the bed.
Suddenly it occurred to me that, even with the pints of stout that I had drunk, that I had gotten very tired very quickly. I wondered if I had been slipped some sort of Mickey Finn – maybe into that Irish stew which I had been served up with. I had not noticed any odd taste, but I was sure that there must be plenty of knockout drops which did not have a taste to them.
I could hear some other people moving around, other than my two captors. The others were singing something in Gaelic. I tried calling out to them to help me, but nobody came to my assistance. I was marched onwards across the cold, damp grass.
I was jerked to a stop, by those rough hands which held me. The cloth hood was removed from my head. At least I could see.
It was still technically night, but the sky in the east had turned rosy. I could tell that soon the sun would be up. Soon it would be dawn.
In front of me, though, lay the bog. I was being held upright close to its edge. The waters of the bog looked black, at the moment. It did not look like a mirror at all. Just like some hole, an entrance to a very bad place.
I turned my head to look over my shoulder. It looked like the entire village was there. Some of them were wearing robes, includi8ng the woman who had served me at the pub. She was wearing black robes. I also saw the man with the beard who she had nodded towards. He wore robes of brown.
He was carrying something in his hands. It looked like a mask, probably made out of papier-mâché. But the horns coming out of the top of the mask looked real to me. They were not really horn, but the antlers of a deer.
As I was stood there, facing the bog, with those strange people watching me, I began to know real fear, as the people in the robes continued to chant. I felt that I was almost in some old Edward Woodward movie. Except that this was really happening to me, and was not some old British horror movie.
“Let me go.” I said. “Don’t do this. I won’t say anything if you let me go. I’ll just go on my way, okay?”
Nobody bothered to listen to me. They just chanted, or stared at what was some sort of pagan religious ceremony. The chanting went on and on. I kept turning my head, as light on the eastern horizon suggested that the sun was just about to show itself.
The guy with the beard was now wearing the headdress with the deer’s antlers poking out of it. The mask entirely covered his head, making him look like some sort of anthropomorphic deer.
And then, as the sun came up in the east, I suddenly felt a leather cord around my neck. It tightened, and tightened…