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FIERY ROSES
by Pat McDermott

When the Leader of Ireland's Fianna tasks Princess Talty with a high-priority mission,
Neil flies her to Carrowbeg Manor in County Mayo.
Join them and their Fian escort for a ride aboard
The Morrigan, a very special helicopter!

Carrowbeg Manor is the home of Lord Fintan Desmond, the Earl of Carrowbeg, an eccentric old rascal who carries an ancient blackthorn stick wherever he goes. It protects him from fairy mischief, he says, and I don’t doubt he needs it. Carrowbeg is a remote and eerie place. The house stands on the remains of castle dungeons, one of its spookier features, but the gardens are spectacular, and Cousin Fintan is a hoot.

I’m thrilled skinny to be going. Mayo is lovely, and the people are so friendly. I’m sure I’ll have no trouble learning whatever I can for Uncle Peadar simply by visiting little shops and making a purchase or two.

* * * * *

The Morrigan was one of my more prudent purchases, one realized with the generous bequest I received when the sole surviving member of my second husband’s family passed away. I named the helicopter after the shape-changing goddess from Irish mythology who specialized in swooping over battlefields in the guise of a big black raven to spur the warriors on beneath a rain of fire and blood.

I like that.

My Morrigan is a shiny black multi-mission helicopter. Her retractable weapons and modular components allow her to easily transform herself from a luxury aircraft to a lethal gunship. When an invasion recently threatened Ireland, she blew the stuffing out of an enemy arsenal and blasted a missile-wielding gunboat to the bottom of the Irish Sea.

The Morrigan has the teeth to keep peace, but she was in executive mode the day we flew to Mayo. The ground crew configured her white leather seats for VIP transport and stocked the galley with a variety of culinary delights. Our favorite music played on the entertainment console, and the two-zone environmental unit kept the humid outside air at bay.

With Neil content in the pilot’s seat, I set out some snacks and found a deck of cards to help pass the hour-long flight. A game of rummy with our two-man security escort ensued.

Barry Malone sat opposite me, next to a big round bulletproof window. The dark cabin wall provided a dramatic contrast to his short-cropped yellow-white hair. “This is the first time I’ve been in this thing that she hasn’t been in combat mode,” he said in his easygoing way. “She rides quieter than my old da’s car.”

“The soundproof cabin is a pleasure,” I said, shuffling the cards.

Rory Doherty tapped each card before he picked it up. Neil often said he’d never met a better flight engineer or winch operator than Rory, this young fella whose nose was a tad too big for a face framed by short brown curls that always seemed in need of a comb. I’ve met many superstitious people, but none come close to having the faith in magic our Rory has. He walked around his chair three times for good luck while I dealt.

Apparently, it worked. He took the top card from the stockpile and wasted no time setting down his discard. “My old granny’s advice, God rest her, has never failed: circle your chair three times while the sun shines on your opponent to get good cards.”

Barry rolled his eyes. “Oh, that really makes me want to keep playing.”

“My old granny saw her father floating on the ceiling the night before she died, y’know.”

Furrows of annoyance creased Barry’s forehead. “What the devil are you talking about?”

Undaunted, Rory sat back looking like Saint Smug. “Everyone knows when you’re about to die a loved one who’s gone before comes to meet you. To show you the way. Granny never knew her father. He died when she was three, and she only ever saw a picture of him. It was that picture she saw floating on the ceiling. Her father himself, coming for her, to show her the way.”

“I wish someone would come for me so’s I won’t have to listen to your blathering.” Barry drew the next card. “You’re astray in the head!”

While Barry studied the card, I studied him. A handsome man, our Barry. A fine winchman/paramedic, he was the cousin of a cousin and wasn’t afraid to call me Talty.

He grew surlier with each game Rory won. “What’s in your pocket besides your luck penny? Boiled daisies and gooseberry thorns? I’m within an aim’s ace of tossing in my cards.”

Glancing up from the cards he held in his left hand, Rory picked an almond from a bowl of nuts. “That’s a fine attitude. Giving up like a jellyfish, and you supposed to be laying down your life to guard Neil and the Lady Princess while we’re in Mayo.”

Barry slammed his cards down. “I’ll be better at that than at playing cards with you!”

“Big feat!” Rory popped the almond into his mouth. “There’s nothin’ in Mayo but a bunch of fuckin’ cows.” And then his eyes bugged. “Oh, excuse me, ma’am!”

I pressed my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing and offered to fix everyone a sandwich. Before I got busy in the Morrigan’s little galley, I slipped into the cockpit and kissed Neil’s cheek.

“Would you like something to eat?”

“No time. We’ll be landing in a few minutes. Go buckle in, love.”

“It’s been an hour already?” Standing on my toes to see past the empty gunner’s chair, I peeked through the windscreen. Carrowbeg Manor sat below us, a jewel in a ring of eighty green and glorious acres. I returned to my seat and snapped the safety belt around my waist. Moments later, Neil set us gently down on Carrowbeg’s brick helipad.

We’d barely landed when an earsplitting caterwaul akin to the prolonged honk of a lovesick goose brought Rory galloping into the cockpit. “What the devil is wrong, Neil? I’ve never heard that before!”

Neil grinned and completed the shutdown process. “It’s not the chopper,” he replied, raising his voice to outdo the din. “Look outside. Old Fintan has a welcoming committee standing by, complete with bagpipes.”

As the Morrigan’s normal landing sounds receded, the bagpipes grew louder, sounding now like the bray of a mortally wounded donkey. Clearly amused, Neil descended the air steps and took my hand. The four of us walked toward Fintan as solemnly as we could, no easy task, as we were all struggling to contain our laughter at the worst pipering I’ve ever heard.

The piper stood with several members of the house staff, some of whom I recalled from prior visits. A bouquet of pink Princess Taillte roses rested in the head housekeeper’s arms.

The lord of the manor stood apart, his six-foot frame proud and erect, his white beard blowing in the breeze. Dressed in his best tweeds—the outfit included an American baseball cap—Fintan held his man-sized blackthorn stick in his left hand. His right hand held a leash attached to a panting wolfhound whose gorgeous gray head was as high as my chest.

I curbed the urge to give Fintan a hug. The old relic obviously planned to do it by the numbers, so Neil and I waited in our formal stance while the piper finished doing whatever it was he was doing.

Joy shone in Fintan’s clear brown eyes. He bowed ever so slightly and pointed his blackthorn stick toward the three-story mansion. “Welcome, royal kin, to Carrowbeg Manor.”

I held out my right hand, as was proper. He grasped it and kissed it. “Your visit honors us, Your Highness.” I stepped aside and patted the dog’s head while Fintan repeated the process with Neil, who hadn’t been a prince long and was unaccustomed to people kissing his hand.

Neil introduced our Fian escort. Handshakes followed, and then Fintan nodded to his glowing housekeeper. She presented the roses to me, and we all went in for tea.

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