Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
The ocean wind clutches at my upturned collar as I write this on the deck of the ferry, bearing up at the rising silhouette of the approaching island through the frosted glass of the grey morning. The little outcropping looks to all the world like it’s considering succumbing to the roiling waves. From what I have seen of life amongst Ireland’s storm-battered Atlantic coastline, I can’t say I blame it for entertaining the thought; I doubt anyone on the mainland would notice the absence of the small clutch of houses which huddle by the shore. I admit this travel diary is an exercise in purple prose, but I console my ego with the fact it is also suitable for some important facts; evidently my hatred of texting on a tiny phone screen persists.
Innishmurray, or Crawley’s Gate as it’s been nicknamed by the locals, is incorrectly listed on government census data as “uninhabited.” Yet here I am being tossed about the waves for the sake of scribbling a puffed-up promotional piece for the tourism boards new ‘Wild Atlantic Way’. Wild indeed: rose-tinted portraits of forlorn looking fishermen and motherly housewives mixed with some Leprechaun depiction of these shit covered rocks to awe the American tourists.
What little of the island’s history I have actually dug up is from the sensationalism of 17th Century British accounts pulled from the Dublin library. Apparently their travel columns filled the penny dreadfuls of sneering Londoners once upon a time, their rising empire giving them a hunger for the exotic and the alien.
Supposedly the native islanders of this place had sought God through solitude, abandoning the mainland and resettling as a monastic community amidst the ruins of a pre-existing Megalithic society, converting calcified pagan temples to Christian worship. Time and a schism in the islander’s ranks had excommunicated all but one of their religious leaders, whose rule saw the altering and mingling of the Christian faith with certain rites gleaned from howling midnight sermons with the storm-ravaged winds.
When the hermit community was rediscovered by British sailors a century later they were viewed as wholly evil and sick, wielding all the iconography of their Christian precursors in service of Gods no longer Christian. Anderson, a cartographer attached to the expedition, writes of “Father Molosh”, the craven wooden idol the locals grovelled in worship to, and an altar within a ring of stones on the cliff-side which they beseeched to punish and drive off trespassers. Anderson attributes the death later of his wife and most of the sailors on his expedition to this vengeful curse.
Practically nothing remains of that first community. The Vikings came upon it in 807 AD and burned it down with all of its residents in their wrath; the British razed it to the ground again in horror and disgust upon their discovery, shattering the altar and casting the idol into the sea.
Yet that altar remains, still inscribed with the partial Latin phrase “Hie Dormit…”. What little was left was claimed in the strange storm on December 21st, 1926, which drove waves hundreds of feet high over the island to drown the settlement and all of its people, snatching them away over the western cliffs to be dashed and sucked down into the swirling currents from where they could not rebuild.
The modern inhabitants are the descendants of the distant Mainland cousins of that doomed community, and have only begun to return to their ancestral island as late as the 1980’s, always returning to the mainland come the winter. Nothing remains of that original settlement or its whispered practices, other than the fragment of altar and the strange idol of Father Molosh which resurfaced a few years later and now sits mislabelled in a Dublin museum.
My principle contact at Crawley’s Gate was the local priest, a Fr. Daniel O’Toole, who had suddenly uprooted and retired to this place from his Dublin parish, settling to serve the disenfranchised locals in the company of his adopted son, Simon.
What I had hoped to be a cursory interview has completely evaporated; instead of the priest, I was welcomed by a funeral procession. Both Fr. Daniel and his son are apparently dead, one having followed the other in an act of suicide. Questioning the locals only netted me some sideways stares, and I was referred to the village pub until they had completed the grieving. Stewing over my bad luck, I resolved myself to meet with Fr. Daniel’s next of kin, to offer my sympathies and possibly glean some information from this mess.
It would appear the isolation of this place is more than just geographic; there is no reception out here, and the owner of the pub where I was to spend the night cheerfully informed me that the place doesn’t have electricity so that guests, and I quote, “can really get away from it all.” Get away from sanity maybe. In the morning I will make contact with Fr Daniel’s brother to salvage what I can of this incident and be back to civilisation by dinner. It has begun to rain outside.
-30 October –
It was early morning and I hadn’t slept. The bed I had rented was in the loft above the village pub, an airy attic filled with rows of beds of which I was the only occupant. I had spent the evening in the bar below, needling the owner with questions of how they keep a business running on an island whose population hardly reaches double-digits. It would appear that despite all appearances this forlorn place does enjoy a singular brand of tourism.
Every day the ferry splutters back and forth to the mainland, depositing handfuls of silent arrivals without luggage, who file out across the island’s shoreline, picking over the honeycombed caves and chalk-covered cliffs. They rarely talk to the locals or purchase return passage on the ferry, merely emptying their wallets at the pub until the onset of evening. Forming grim processions, they trek out of the village into the silent night, and vanish amongst the western cliffs. Their bodies occasionally reappear along the rocky coastline, but far more often are never returned by the ravening currents that rage within the islands subterranean labyrinth of limestone caves.
The Irish government has scrambled to suppress the publication of this fact, either in fear of adding sensationalism or, as I suspect, damaging their campaign to tourist-ise the harsh barrenness of this place. Only the locals seem willing to talk, their eyes losing all the initial warmness of hospitality as they recount their individual story of this or that stranger – from all corners of the world – whom disappeared after a brief conversation.
One man I spoke to recalled the November night he, alongside the other locals, returned to the mainland as was their yearly ritual. He spoke of the twinkling lights of row boats glimpsed from his cottage window, inextricably creeping out into the abysmal waters towards the island’s shadow. Rows of empty boats were found come the spring, littering the shoreline and choking the harbor entrance.
The cocktail mix of these haunting revelations mingled in my mind and ensured I didn’t sleep. I felt the mattress shift beneath me and contemplated the previous souls who likely occupied it. Did they feel relief at the end, or merely hopeless resignation? I could feel them in every rhythmic shift of the waves outside my window, which seemed to drag every sound and smell of the teeming shoreline up from the harbor to be deposited in my bedroom.
When I woke from whatever sleep I eventually managed the sun was cresting the horizon through the window, anemic and pallid like an inflamed eye. I scratched at the ring of calcified gunk that sealed the corners of my lips and eyes, and slid from the bed with all the weight of a troubled night. Suddenly, a hunched figure slid from under the bed to meet my feet, brushing it with a coat of knotted fur. I jumped against the hanging roof beams, hurling clothes and notebook against the thing and sending it scurrying into the corner of the room.
It was a dog, hunched low with age and aches after having sat silent and unnoticed beneath the bed throughout the night. Its head rose to sniff at me, revealing a skull that had been shaped expecting eyes, but which lacked everything but a probing snout extending from a mangle of sparse fur stretched over puckered skin. The flat wrinkled skin where eyes should have been shifted and moved as if staring, finally signalling me with a downward flick of the tail which hung limp in unwelcoming hostility. It silently paced by me and out the door without acknowledgement, and I resolved to not go back to sleep.
I had waited for two hours on the frigid harbor pier at low tide before the ferry crept timidly into view from the distant mainland. Standing there with upturned collar, wracked with tiredness and a raking cough, I passed the time puzzling over the skeletal remains of fish and pale sea creatures that collected on the stony shore beneath my feet. They lay there undisturbed, looking up with hollow eyes and sand-filled mouths. Why hadn’t any seabirds come to pick them over? The vision of the cliff-jumpers came back to me and I impulsively scanned the slime for other bones that may be submerged there. I shivered then, and stuck my hands in my pockets.
When the ferry finally pulled into harbor a single squat little man in a grey parka stepped ashore; the lack of any other passengers comforted me. The man did not shake my outstretched hand but merely told me his name was Patrick, and that he was Fr. Daniel’s brother. I would quickly learn that Patrick was a quintessential piece of shit.
Leering out at me like an eternal enemy from a furrowed little face taut formed by a lifetime of scowling, mounted on a wide body and skinny legs, he looked like a caricature of some mobsters’ goon. Giving him my name was pointless, he’d already settled on calling me “Big Man”, and did not ask for my credentials, merely assuming I was some official involved in his brother’s funeral. He spoke with a gruff accent that refused to distinguish sarcasm, joke, or insult. I’d soon learn to assume that practically everything Pat said was an insult.
He talked the whole way up the craggy path that hugged the shoreline, leading up towards Fr. Daniel’s now-derelict house. Pat seemed to hold me indirectly responsible for the whole affair which had dragged him out on his weekend to a God forsaken rock, which valued non-electric rusticity when the football was on. At intervals, I peppered him for information of his brother and son-in-law; something from which to salvage a story to replace my torpedoed tourism piece.
What I learned was that Fr Daniel’s choice to relocate to the island was only partly motivated by altruism and service to his parishioners. Evidently, at some point he had heard of the morbid phenomenon of the island and had trekked out here to establish a sort of beacon for those who stalked the cliffs. He would spend his evenings strolling the winding paths late into the night, armed with a cup of tea and a kind word to coax them back from the precipice. Most of them jumped regardless, but some were persuaded at the last moment to turn towards the welcoming glow of his kitchen window and bright-eyed son, a lighthouse casting dual beams out into the void.
But of course, that was all over now, snuffed out and snatched away by the sea winds, leaving only the shell of an empty house for scavengers like Pat to pick over like an engorged seagull. He had resumed his onslaught of complaints and accusations at my inquiring, punctuating each remark with a finger stuck in my face which oozed a fingernail cocktail of tobacco, shit, and orange peels. I gagged and made use of my ‘big-man’ legs to outpace the squat freak, crunching stones and fish bones rhythmically as I strode up the beach.
There really were a lot of fish now; every rock and pebble was bedecked in crenulated slivers of silvery bone, and flagged with waving strips of translucent scales which flapped in the breeze. Looking around for birds of any kind I saw only the fossilized nests of marbled eggs which dotted the chalk-white cliffs. After a day and a night being drip-fed the history of this awful place my sleep deprived mind played tricks with the pencil smudge typography, and I thought I saw here and there inscriptions scratched into the chalk like long goodbyes.
We arrived at the house hunched low and invalid from the clutching wind and oncoming storm clouds. The place was a stocky standard cottage crouched right up against the cliff-edge as if daring itself to look over. I tried to roll a cigarette whilst Pat dug out the key to the front door from his puffed-up parka coat. Rain clouds glutted the horizon, and I thought it looked like they were psyching themselves up for their chance to finally erode this onerous place and drive it back underwater. Absentmindedly the cigarette had burned itself up to the filter and singed my fingers; I cursed and flung it off over the yawning precipice. Pat clicked the door open, and we stepped inside.
The scene that greeted us was one of complete schizophrenia. Layers of handwritten pages covered the floors and walls, interspersed with what looked like tidal maps and pages of the bible. Here was an 18th century admiralty chart, there pages of the Book of Revelations scoured with notes and torn apart in frustration. The whole interior was damp, and clumps of waterlogged pulp shook themselves free from the dangling stalactites and plopped to our feet. We stood in silence. Whilst Pat collected himself I began pacing from the nearest wall, tracing the fluttering papers for a starting point from which I might begin to unravel some message or meaning.
It was only when I had moved to studying the third wall that I noticed there was no furniture in the house; every inch of space had been dedicated to the rampant expansion of handwritten notes. Pat, who had recovered himself and trudged upstairs in search of valuables, shouted down that everything had been dragged up and piled there like barricades, and he balked at having to crouch and squeeze through to the bedrooms. I took the opportunity to pocket what seemed to be a stack of diary entries neatly piled on a space of untouched floor apart from the rest of the room. Skimming through them, snippets of words and passages leaped off the pages and pricked at my guts, chilling me deeper than anything managed by the rising winds outside.
The accepted story of what had happened was that the son Simon had stumbled from the cliff-side on the way to school and Fr. Daniel, broken in grief, had followed shortly after. But the scrawled entries of the old priest told a different story. They were full of tangled thoughts and furtive descriptions of shimmering things seen through binoculars in the low surf; of oily tracts on the beach; of the image of a child’s brightly colored schoolbag disappearing over the cliff edge, hand-in-hand with a shadowy figure. Of strange piping sounds that mingled with the sea wind, and at night things that came down to perch on the rooftop that were not birds but fed on the birds.
I peeled handfuls of the sheets from the sodden walls and filled my pockets. Pat materialized behind me to protest the theft of ‘his’ property; I shot him a glare that dared him to make something of it and he slunk back upstairs to rifle through drawers. I left the house,still grasping the damp pages in my pocket.
Walking back alone, I reached the village just ahead of the storm I had seen gathering from the cliffs. The windows of the pub were slathered with condensation and I perched on a bar stool by the fireside with a beer and began processing the dark shadow which the day’s events had cast over my psyche. By midnight I had the majority of the snatched notes compiled and fermenting in my brain alongside a few pints. Propped up on one elbow as I transcribed my notes to stop from swaying on my stool, the pen having to circumnavigate the dark rings left on the paper by drinks I didn’t remember drinking.
It was in this state that Pat materialized from some shadowy nook and stuck one of his awful fingers into my back, barking that I talk to him in private about the days events and something important he had discovered. I let the half-heard order hang in the air, assuming that he was going to demand again that I return the notes I had taken, or that I assist him in transporting some of the antique furniture. After an interval of silence, he jabbed his finger into the back of my head and repeated: “eh, big man?”, and that was it.
A chemical current washed away everything else in my pickled mind; I skipped the escalation of words and cracked my pint straight down over his ridged forehead, scattering him across the bar floor in a shower of glass. He was up and on his feet in an instant, and met me halfway through my follow-up with a fist that sent my brain to the back of my skull and nearly left my teeth floating in mid-air as my head snapped back.
The room blurred around me, but I remember suddenly being picked up and deposited back on my stool, dripping blood from some gash in my head that I could not locate. The large arm of the bartender was patting me on the back consolingly as he roughly shoveled the notes back into my hands and refilled my glass without asking permission. I looked about with my one good eye I saw that Pat was gone. Something brushed past my feet and I saw the blind dog with its head low and tongue lolling out, rhythmically lapping up the flecks of blood in silence.
-31 October –
By the morning my eye had swollen shut and I was alone; Pat’s belongings were missing from the bed he had purchased opposite mine, and I wondered where had he slept the previous night. The rain outside was ceaseless, tapping upon the wooden roof lest it be forgotten, and I lay in my bed nursing my ego and guilt about the nights events. I concluded that a walk would clear my head of whatever those pages and the barman had poured into it, and resolved to trek back up to Fr. Daniel’s house, either to return the notes to Pat whom I expected was already there, or at least chase this story to its conclusion. Besides, even in an apology it would be my pleasure to put a boot through the front door, now that it belonged to Pat.
Getting back into the house was no difficulty; Fr. Daniel’s door was designed to welcome in visitors, not repel intruders. The scene was as we had left it the previous day: fossilized and stuck in space like a time capsule. Multi-lettered stalactites shivered above me, and dripped paragraphs down onto the inscribed floor. Pat was nowhere to be seen, and I resumed searching the walls for a coherent beginning, a scribbled first page from which all the interlocking madness of Fr.Daniel’s brain could be compartmentalized. However, panic seemed to be the only theme of his writing and whatever code he had used to follow these tangled tangents died with him. But, from what I could deduce from the gibberish took on a scientific, almost geological shape. The word “minerals” showed up again and again like a cipher.
The kitchen had been turned into a canvass of criss-crossing chemical equations which I could not decipher without an internet connection. From his personal diary entries, Fr. Daniel had evidently begun to expect everybody, though of exactly what was never said, only that it tied them all back to that doomed ancestral settlement of heretic monks which had been swallowed by the sea. The village, the ferry, the villagers with their smiling unquestioning disregard for the vanished tourists, all of it was in service to a pantomime façade which drew in and encouraged the people who came here, leaving them at the mercy of their own minds and slowly pulling away all avenues of escape. My mind ran parallel to Daniels thinking and summoned the image of the owner of the pub from the previous night.
Despite his help there had always been a sense of the surreal with the man; he was always so eager to please, with that strained look and twist of the mouth that I not leave just yet and order another drink. He had been eerily upbeat when discussing the missing visitors that filled his empty pub, like he was discussing something as trivial as the weather. He had deflected my probing questions into why he didn’t seem to show any concern for profiting from their demise, replying with a wry smile and dismissive wave of the hand that reached to offer me another drink.
The upstairs of the house was a scene of calm normalcy, juxtaposed against the chaos downstairs. Nothing was disturbed; the bedsheets in the dust-covered bedrooms were neatly creased, and the smiling faces of Daniel and Simon shone out from picture frames on the bedside table. The only details which stood out as peculiar to the scene were the fact that the door on Simon’s bedroom seemed too new for the house, the heavy bolt on it seeming out of all proportion to the quaint civility of the rest of the place. There was also some sort of greasy puddle soaked into the carpet in what looked like a wide indentation, like something heavy and wet had oozed there.
All this had done nothing to calm me as I exited the house and sheltered from the driving rain beneath the overhanging porch. Frustrated from my lack of progress with the melted notes I sat on the wooden porch steps and lit a cigarette. Looking out at the yawning vista I saw what looked like snow, blowing sideways from somewhere out of sight. I traced it with my gaze and saw it was coming off the exterior of the house.
I tracked around to the kitchen window, the path between it and the open drop of the cliffs keeping me close to the wall. There, clumped and pasted against the glass was the remains of a child’s school textbook, smeared in a semi-legible hand that formed a single sentence. I read it, and it’s message sent me sprinting back to the waning light of the village, the yawning storm behind me summoning a piping scream from the cliffs below.
-1 November –
They are leaving. All of them. All the islanders are departing for the winter with not so much as a warning. I saw half-abandoned dinners through the windows I passed, as families donned their scarves and coats and trounced down to the ferry all smiles like it was the most natural thing in the world. I pleaded with them at the harbor as they boarded, hounded them, screamed for recognition of what I saw at the house, what they can’t or refuse to see.
They blinked back at me with the same vacantly placid gaze which strained to understand and reassure with no glint of genuine concern or motivation to listen. They clapped me on the shoulder and tried to coax me onto the ferry, but I shoved them aside and took off back into the hills. They can leave if they want, but I’ll see this thing to the end. I will stare this thing down and know that I am stronger than it. I will not leave here on their terms or the terms of any other power but my own. God, will this storm ever pass?
I lost my way in the storm and could not navigate the interminable ridges and crevice’s which pockmark this place. The cliffs always seemed to be yawning right before me in the dark; it seemed to heave up towards me, clawing itself further inland and snatching the world away until every step in any direction threatened to send me over. I stumbled blindly in the piercing rain and collided with something solid, something soft. I probed it with shivering hands and felt it to be the pulped paper markings of the house. I brought down the door as I collapsed into the interior, weeping and delirious from exposure.
The script-strewn walls swirled around me and rearranged itself into perfect sense. I felt a tugging at the ends of my trousers and knew I needed to descend, to drive myself to the bottom of the cliffs and see with waking eyes the manifestations that Daniel had glimpsed but failed to understand, and the jumpers had failed to convey in their visions. I poured forth from the house, guided by the glow of the kitchen window suddenly alight, it’s lighthouse beacon beckoning me out over the edge. I stood at the precipice of that Tartarian pit and felt the grass whip my ankles to teeter, and the wind at my back driving me to topple like a fallen tree. I looked below me, in all that cacophonous maelstrom. And I saw it.
There were lights below; little candles beneath the waves like the luminescent bulbs of deep sea fish. Behind them were flat, two dimensional things, the faces of men and women with mouths all agape and full of salt and chalk. They darted to and from the mouth of the submerged caves, looking up at me with sorrowful, curious, childlike, questioning, pleading, empty eyes. From their pale mass a thing quivered up out onto the surf, low on its belly.
It clicked its way onto the beach in jittery larval jerks on useless upturned limbs, brushing past the shoals of skeletal fish. It arched its head up toward the derelict house in front of which I stood. A human tongue flopped in a bovine jaw as it struggled to speak with a mouthful of chattering teeth and salty froth. It managed a mournful pipe-organ sound, and I saw on its back it wore a child’s school bag. The cliffs edge drew away from me and I felt myself hurled back from the void, crashing back into the house and onto the wooden floor, my own written diary entries spilling out to mingle with Daniel’s. I had regained my sanity and fled, down the hill away from that house, through the empty village with its shuttered windows and bolted doors, the darkness all the while regathering itself and pursuing me.
I trampled onto the pier where the absent ferry once stood, and dove into one of the discarded row boats that littered the shore, driving myself out and away from the masses that teemed up the cliff walls and pierced me with their piping eulogy. From my seated position I faced back toward the village, and saw a gathering light emanating from the distant hills on which the ruins of that very first settlement stood eternally vigilant around their shattered altar in silent prayer for the return of their accursed idol. Visions flashed before my half-blinded eyes, of a robed man throwing his arms open to the gathering storm, and a titan that rose from the waves to counsel him.
My arms are torn and bleeding from the strain of the oars and the mad scramble down the cliffs edge. I am exhausted and see that I am nowhere near as far from the island as I should be. If anything, it seems to be getting closer; the awful currents which spew forth from those subterranean caves have seized me. I will fill my coat with these pages and stuff them into the bottom of this boat. Maybe they will be found by the returning islanders, when they discover my empty boat nestled on the shoreline. The piping has become human speech. They are beckoning. Will this storm ever end?
Credit : Fitzroy Lagan
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