Gemma traced the map route northwest to Achill Island. “I’m looking forward to seeing this place. I’ve heard it’s beautiful. The first time I saw the name, I pronounced it
a-CHILL. An Englishwoman corrected me. ‘It’s AK-ull, luvvie,’ she said, but she didn’t know what it meant. Do you?”
Ben shot her a “Get Serious” grin. “Achill is Ireland’s largest offshore island. Settled since the Neolithic period, five or six thousand years ago. Has the highest sea cliffs in all of Europe. The name is commonly thought to come from the Irish word, eccuill, or acaill, which in turn derives from aquila, Latin for eagle. Two types of eagles lived on Achill in medieval times.”
His use of the past tense saddened her. “Not in modern times?”
“No. The white-tailed sea eagle became extinct there in 1875. Achill’s golden eagles vanished around 1912.”
“That’s too bad. At least I know about the name now. Thanks, Ben.” She studied the map.
“Looks like the first town we’ll pass through is Newport.”
“Yes. A pretty place, right on Clew Bay. The old railway used to run through it.”
How had Kay Noonan put it? Ben knows his onions. “When did the train run? Why did it stop?”
He slowed at a pint-sized bridge to let an oncoming car cross first and didn’t respond until he’d crossed the bridge himself. “Before I answer that, I’ll tell you a story. Have you heard of Brian Rua O’Cearbhain?”
“Brian Roo O’Carabine,” she repeated slowly. “No, I haven’t. I know that rua means red. I assume he has red hair.”
“He did. Brian Rua lived on Achill in the seventeenth century, nearly four hundred years ago, in Cromwell’s time. A prophet of sorts, the legends say. As a young man, he came across a heartless landlord evicting a widow who couldn’t pay her rent. Brian Rua paid it for her. When he awoke the next morning, he found a jewel on his coat sleeve that let him envision the future. One of his prophecies said that one day, messages would be sent over the tops of poles from Dublin to Blacksod Bay faster than a hawk could fly.”
“Telegraph and telephone. Interesting.”
“Yes. He also said the day would come when the fruit of the earth would turn black.”
Ben’s head dipped in further confirmation. His ready smile had vanished. “His most famous prediction concerned the railroad. He said that one day, iron-wheeled carts blowing smoke and fire would carry corpses on their first and last journeys to Achill.”
Icy pinheads needled Gemma’s skin. “And?”
Ben stopped to let a car on a side street enter the thickening traffic. As he did, the news came on the radio. He turned the volume down. “In 1894, the railway line from Westport to Achill was still under construction. It was hoped that the train would help boost trade and tourism and improve western Ireland’s economy. Especially Achill Island’s. If the economy improved, the locals wouldn’t have to travel to Scotland to work.”
The driver who’d come from the side street waved his thanks, and Ben drove on. “Achill is a beautiful place,” he said, “but the people couldn’t live on the scenery. A lot of them traveled to Scotland and made their rent money picking potatoes. Tattie hokers, they were called. That summer, a group of about a hundred and ten people sailed from Achill to Westport to catch the ship to Scotland. Their boat capsized in Clew Bay. Thirty-two of them drowned. The railroad wasn’t finished, but the authorities commissioned a special train to return the bodies to Achill for burial.”
“How awful! And so creepy. So the first train carried corpses. What about the last?”
“In 1937, the railway owners realized they were losing money. They decided to close the line. That summer, ten young tattie hokers burned to death in Scotland. The very last train into Achill brought their bodies home.”
Gemma stared out the window. A glittering stream played peek-a-boo in the bushes lining the roadside. She asked what it was, unable to keep her voice from trembling. Ben gently said that the stream was a branch of the Black Oak River, and yes, the pub in Westport was named for it.
He turned left and drove through a town so old, tufts of greenery grew from cracks in the walls along the sidewalks. Several pubs and an archaic hotel lined the winding streets, so different from Westport’s tidy linear lanes. Declining his offer to stop if she wished—stopping would spoil the magic—Gemma admired the colorful storefronts: restaurants, butchers, grocery stores, book stores, craft and auto repair shops, many in ancient stone buildings. And then they were out of Newport.
An instant later, the sky grew dark. Rain activated the windshield wipers.
“That’s more like it,” Ben said merrily. “’Twouldn’t be a proper Irish tour without a shower or two, and we do need the rain.”
Gemma wasn’t worried about weather spoiling the tour. Patches of blue already poked through the clouds, the perfect time to see a rainbow. “My grandmother used to say, ‘As long as there’s enough blue in the sky to make a sailor’s jacket, the day will be a fine one.”
Ben chuckled. “My grandmother said something similar. And the day already is a fine one, Gemma.”