The elf of Sligo

C.J. Sullivan encounters a mystical man in Ireland's Sligo County, who teaches him about fairies, monks, Yeats and giants.

By C.J. Sullivan

Published March 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

A few years back I went to visit the country that gave birth to my ancestors, Ireland. Having heard all the tales about the "land of scholars and saints" from my grandparents who were raised there, I thought I knew the country. What they didn't prepare me for was my meeting with a mystical elf who knew all about Yeats, giants, queens and fairies.

I flew into Ireland's west coast Shannon Airport. The Air Lingus plane broke through the early morning fog on a spring morning and I gasped when I saw just how green the countryside was. Half asleep, I went through customs and got my passport stamped by the most polite civil servant I had ever run into. Soon I was struggling with groggily driving a stick shift rental car on the wrong side of the road.

I headed north and wound up in the city of Galway, which had a good bed and breakfast and wonderful pubs. The next day I took a boat out to the Aran Islands and spent a day riding a bicycle through the sand-swept roads of a lonely island. I stopped for lunch at a pub and was greeted by 12 dour men who started talking Gaelic as soon as I entered.

I left Galway and drove up to Sligo. I had always wanted to see Sligo, I guess because it's Yeats country and also I liked the name: It slid off the tongue. I rested awhile and around 6 ate a delicious dinner of shepherd's pie at the B&B.

After dinner I decided to take a walk around the town and wound up in Abbey Street. I saw an old abbey with a wrought-iron gate around it, a relic from another time. I walked in and around the open stone walls. It was twilight and the shadows from the walls grew long and dark. No one else was around, so I started poking here and there.

"Do you feel them?"

I jumped when I heard the voice. Then I turned around and saw a little old man with a knit sweater on and a head full of white hair. His blue eyes twinkled and he gave me a big smile.

"Feel what?" I asked.

"Ah, you're a Yank from New York. Do you feel the spirits in the abbey?" he said, sweeping his arm around the ruins.

"No. What spirits?" I replied dumbly.

The man clapped his hands. "I'm the caretaker here. The abbey is quite a place. It's been burned down three times by the Brits when they sacked the town. Once they killed all the monks here. At night, if you listen, you can still hear them chanting."

We introduced ourselves but I didn't catch the old man's name. He repeated it and I still didn't catch it. I grew up in a house full of Irish accents and have no trouble following them, but it seemed to me that the old guy was purposely mumbling his name. I wasn't going to ask again so I decided to just call him Sir.

The old guy went on to tell me about the joys and charms of Sligo. He asked if tomorrow I'd like a tour. Sure, I said.

"Well then, lad, you're on. Come by me house at 11. I'll be there. Now if you'll excuse me I'd like to say a prayer with me Dominican friends." He walked into the shadows mumbling. I left and walked the streets of Sligo. Near a small bridge by my B&B I watched the Garavogue River flow by till it got dark.

The next morning after a delicious meal of eggs, bacon, fresh bread, blood pudding, countless cups of tea and two copies of local Sligo papers, I got up to leave. I asked the man who ran the B&B about the caretaker of the abbey.

"Oh, a wonderful fella."

"Do you know his name?"

"Tom, I believe it is."

I drove to Tom's house at 11. He was already outside. With a quick step he grabbed open the car door and said, "Come on, we'll go up to Lough Gill."

He directed me up Mail Coach Road and we made a left on Cleever Road.
The sun was brilliant and it was a fine fair spring day. The woods
on both sides of the road were quiet and there were no other drivers on the

"Ah, lad, you'll want to mind your car just now," Tom said in a low


"Your man will be coming down. This road is winding. Be careful."

I looked at Tom and almost said, "What are you taking about? There are
no cars around." But I didn't. I figured the old guy was talking about the
monks. A few seconds later a small car came whipping by us down the hill.

"How the hell did you know that car was coming?" I asked.

Tom gave me a big smile, "I know t'ings."

We pulled over on an overlook and got out to look down on Lough Gill.
The lake was vast and the wind started to hit the water, making it choppy.

"There is spirits in that lough, boyo. Every year she claims a few
fisherman. Don't go in it. Just look at it." Old Tom sat on a rock and told
me how Yeats probably sat right here and wrote his great poetry about Sligo.
And in a deep voice he started quoting Yeats. After a line about a terrible
beauty being born, he pointed out two mountains, "Ah, this is a fine country. Those are Knocknarea and Benbulben
mountains. Majestic. On top of Knocknarea is a cairn. You know what a cairn

"I guess it's a gathering of stones."

"Right, Yank, and underneath that cairn on the mountain lays buried
fair Queen Maeve, the high queen of all of Ireland. I won't take you there,
but you're free to go. Just go in the daylight. Don't venture on mountains
in the dark."

"Why, the spirits?" I asked.

Tom laughed, "Well, maybe, but you don't strike me as a woodsman. A
mountain in the dark is no place for city folk. You can get lost or hurt
tripping over rocks. Course if you want me to make up a tale about fairies, I
will. I've never seen them there but just because I don't believe in fairies
doesn't mean they don't exist. The fairies probably don't believe in me."

Tom went on to tell me that two miles from the mountains was an ancient
burial site that predates the pyramids. He described how to get there and
to look for a series of circular stones with two stones standing straight up
and a slab across the top.

"They'll say they don't know who's buried there but I know who lies
under that ground." Tom took an apple from his pocket and bit into it.

"So who's buried there?"

"The giants of Ireland. The lost people, lost race."

Tom went on to tell me that the main tourist attractions for the local
people of Sligo are the strands of Strand Hill where the sea comes in like a
tyrant and the strands of Rosses Point where the same sea comes in as calm
as a prayer.

We got back into the car and drove to the Holy Well, an outdoor altar
where Catholics came to have mass said when the Brits didn't allow it. A
metal stand held rows of candles and Tom stared at them.

"I'm going back into the car. Light a candle for me. A man like me
needs a candle lit once in a while. And while you're at it, Yank, say a prayer
for us."

I smiled, lit a few candles and said a prayer for Tom -- and for all my people
who once lived in this country.

C.J. Sullivan

C.J. Sullivan is a writer who lives in New York.

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