It all happened because of Dair Dockery. If he hadn’t been in Tulsk that day and if the skies hadn’t opened, forcing him to spend the night at his sister’s house, and if he hadn’t met the Shannike, then there would be no story to tell.
The Shannike looked old. How old was difficult to say, but he had a gently creased and weather-beaten face. His bushy gray hair spilled out from under a red stocking cap. He wore a long black coat, which he would never remove, over what looked like hand woven dark wool pants. A sturdy pair of well-worn brown boots completed his outfit, save for the canvas bag he carried slung over his shoulder. The women, much more so than the men, remarked on his bright blue eyes that seemed at the same time to be warm and welcoming yet also piercing, as if they could see right through a person.
It was a very special occasion when a Shannike, a mysterious mendicant storyteller, came to town. Everybody in Roscommon, if they had never actually heard one speak, knew of their ability and skills. Children from infancy learned the stories of Irish ancestors from their grandparents and parents, who in turn had heard them directly from a Shannike.
And if Dair hadn’t been so bold as to ask if he would come to Four Mile House, this story would never have seen the light of day. Of course, Four Mile House was not a house as anyone in Roscommon would tell you, but it was almost a village. The land was mainly peat bog and flinty soil. Life was harsh, the only comfort coming from being close-knit families. The people were so poor, uneducated and the place so small, no Shannike had ever paid them a visit. Nobody would have dreamed that it could ever be possible.
The man only asked two questions. “How many families are ye?”
“Seven,” Dair answered.
“And what’s your name?”
“Dair Dockery, sir.”
Then, with a faraway look, the Shannike said, “So, your name is the seventh letter of the alphabet (Gaelic), and it means Oak. You are the seventh son of the seventh son.” And laying a hand on his shoulder continued, “The ladybug has seven spots, the number of planets with the sun and moon is seven and so too is the number of the colors of the rainbow. On the day of seven weathers there will be high wind, rain, frost and snow, thunder, lightning, and sunshine. Tomorrow will be that day. So, I will come. I will spend seven days with you.”
After rushing home to share the news, the excitement was palpable as the heads of each family squeezed into Oonagh Dockery’s kitchen and in almost disbelief discussed the Shannike’s coming. They were poor, but their welcoming would be rich. They were determined he would take away happy memories from Four Mile House. He would spend one night in each cottage, but the last night would be with Dair, Oonagh, his wife and their seven children.
Sensing their inquisitiveness, on the first night, the old man (no Shannike ever had a name), said, “I will allow one question or request from each family.” But nobody dared respond save one small child who innocently asked, “Why do you wear a red hat, sir?”
“Red is the color of magic,” he replied, “and it has been so since the beginning of time.”
As darkness came, his story telling began. Nobody wanted to sleep. People were overawed, enthralled as the man effortlessly shared fantastic tales, one after another. It amazed everybody that in the morning after only a little sleep, they felt fresh and energized.
Each night, after he had told his last story, the Shannike offered a piece of wisdom to that household. Nobody in Four Mile House could write, but the head of each family tried to preserve what he heard by sharing it with the neighbors. “There are two things not easily controlled and they are hunger and jealousy,” Fintan O’Flynn recalled. “Trees are silent guards, they are listeners, and they hold knowledge mankind has long forgotten,” repeated Cahir Mulloy. “Don’t sell your hen on a wet day,” Aidan O’Connor recalled with a frown of incomprehension. But everybody else just nodded in false profundity.
As he walked around the village watching them at work, people smiled and waved. Since his arrival, everyone’s spirit had changed. Families were happier, children cried less and after that first day, the weather changed, turning to blue skies and sunshine. He noticed an old, dirty white cart horse, its bones sticking out and its coat course and patchy, pulling a plough. Then he saw Dair behind it.
“Is that your horse?” the Shannike asked, approaching, and touching the horse's face.
“It is, sir,” he replied.
“Then feed him well tonight. He’ll be traveling soon.”
Not fully understanding what he heard, but nonetheless unwilling to contradict the old man, he decided to do what he had requested.
The seventh night filled them with mixed feelings, knowing it would be the last time the Shannike would be with them. However, excitement grew as he told the stories of The Dream of Aengus, where the 'Dagda' cast a spell to make the sun and moon stand still for nine months, so Aengus could be conceived and born on the same day. It scared the young ones when he recounted the history of The Children of Lir, where a Druid’s wand turned four children into white swans.
Pausing between stories, the oil lamp caused a glint from the gold ring on his finger. Oonagh had noticed it the very day he arrived. It was unlike anything she had ever seen and was curious.
“I have a question, sir?”
His kindly eyes and a nod showed she could continue.
“Can you tell us about your ring?”
In a strong but soft voice, the Shannike began, looking around the room at all the faces hanging on his every word.
“Long ago, a fisherman from the Claddagh near Galway, engaged to be married, was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Algeria, North Africa. He became the property of a rich Moorish goldsmith, who trained him until he became a master craftsman and a free man. Never forgetting the girl he had left behind, he fashioned his first Claddagh Ring in solid gold as a gift for her, then came back home only to find she had married another and left the town. He died of a broken heart. But his people adopted the ring. It is always made of solid gold and known only by its Irish name of Fáinne Claddagh. It shows two clasped hands, a heart in the middle, and a crown at the top. The heart symbolizes love, the hands friendship and the crown loyalty and fidelity. If the heart points outwards, it means the person is courting a woman. If it points inwards towards the heart, it symbolizes marriage.”
The old man held up the back of his hand so Oonagh could see it better.
“It must be worth a fortune,” she replied and then daringly asked, “with the heart down, then there must be a woman in your life?”
The Shannike’s eyes sparkled, and he paused as memories of another time flooded in. “You know, I cannot answer,” he said, “that would be a second question. So now I’ll tell you the story of Tir na Nog.”
“Many years ago, there lived a great and noble warrior name Oisin, the son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the leader of the Fianna clan. While hunting, they saw an extraordinary sight. A young woman came riding towards them on a spirited snow-white horse. She was the most beautiful person anyone had ever seen. With long red hair down to her waist and wearing a pale blue dress, she seemed surrounded by light.
As she brought it to a stop, the horse's hooves struck some stones, sending small sparks into the air, and in a voice that sounded like the music of a harp said, ‘I am Niamh, and my father is the king of Tir na Nog. I am looking for the great warrior Oisin to invite him to return with me to the Land of The Eternal Young.’ Oisin stepped forward to greet her. As his eyes met Niamh's, it was love at first sight.
‘Come with me to Tir na Nog,’ Niamh pleaded. After only a moment's hesitation, Oisin swung up behind her onto the snow-white horse and together they crossed the sea to Tir na Nog.
Having grown up in Ireland, Oisin would never have believed that a more beautiful land existed. In this magical place, Niamh and Oisin's love grew deeper as she shared the treasures of her enchanted homeland. Three hundred years passed as though it were but a single day. No one in Tir na Nog fell sick. Nobody knew of sadness. Nobody aged. They lived in endless, youthful moments filled with happiness.
Despite a life of pleasure, and his deep love for Niamh, a small part of Oisin's soul was lonely. Such feelings were unheard of in Tir Na Nog, but his longing to return to Ireland overwhelmed him. Niamh couldn’t ease his loneliness and allowed him to go, reluctantly agreeing because she loved him. “You must go and ride my snow-white horse there,” she said, but then added a serious warning. “If you ever get down from my horse or set foot on Irish soil, you can never return to Tir na Nog.”
Riding the snow-white horse, Oisín reached his homeland and found everything had changed—to him it felt as though just three short years had passed, but it was actually three hundred. His family and friends had long passed away. The Fianna no longer hunted in the hills, and the castle he once called home was now in ruins. In his quest to find his family and his grief at their loss, he forgot to care for the beautiful snow-white horse. Despite its hunger and fatigue, the mare continued to respond to Oisin. Finally, with a sad heart, he turned the horse back toward the sea to return to Tir na Nog.
He came upon a group of men working in a field, and as the mare reached them, her fatigue caused her to stumble. Her hoof hit a stone. Oisin bent down to pick it up, planning to take it to Tir na Nog. He felt certain that carrying back a piece of Ireland would ease his sadness. But as his hand grasped the stone, the straps holding his saddle broke, and he fell to the ground. Within moments, Oisin aged three hundred years. Without her rider, the mare reared up and rushed into the ocean, returning to Tir na Nog and her beloved Niamh.
The men in the field were amazed at what they witnessed. Not only had they seen a young man age before their eyes, but they also saw a tired old plough horse race into the sea.
Rushing to his aid, the men carried him to St. Patrick. When he met the Saint, Oisin spoke about his family history, his love for Niamh and the Land of Eternal Youth, Tir na Nog. But St Patrick could not console him, and the old man simply lay down and died.
Even to this day, the fishermen and lighthouse keepers still tell of foggy nights when the moon is full, and they see a shimmering snow-white horse dancing in the waves along the shores of Ireland. Some say that the beautiful red-haired maiden, in a pale blue dress who rides the horse, still searches for Oisin.
There were gasps around the cottage as he finished his story. Children just stared in awe at the Shannike, not fully taking in what they had just heard. Men looked shocked. Women wept.
When everyone had left, and the children put to bed alongside the animals, knowing they would be warm there, Dair said, “We have prepared our bedroom for you. Let me show you where it is.”
“Thank you kindly, Dair, but I’ll not be needing it. Rest there with your wife and young ones. I’ll sleep here in the rocking chair next to the fire. If you would throw another piece of turf onto it, I’ll be just fine.”
At that moment, Oonagh came in and stood quietly listening.
“Before we sleep, let me give you both a final word for your kindness and generosity. ‘Running water reveals the sounds of the Otherworld, to those who know how to listen.’”
As the night noises nursed everyone to sleep, the Shannike listened. The wind gently rustling through the thatched roof and the faint tap tap of the loosely fitting shutters provided the music he needed. It was time to go. He’d prepared for this moment. As the red glow from the peat fire warmed his body, the Shannike felt himself slowly being transformed. First his feet began to melt, then his legs and next his torso stopping just below his heart. Life stood still for one last second as he smiled and nodded, then he was gone. All that remained was a pool of wax on the rocking chair which turned into water. But as it evaporated, something else was lying there. Shining brightly from the light of the fire was his Claddagh ring.
When Oonagh came in to replenish the fire in the morning, she saw the empty chair and the ring and wondered. There was no sign of the Shannike, then she heard the sounds of their white plough horse galloping into the distance, and she knew.