The Road Not Traveled
I know it’s an awful cliché, but it truly was a dark and stormy night.
The rented car I was driving didn’t make it any easier, either, as the defroster didn’t work worth a damn. As a result, I was almost driving with one hand, and wiping the windshield – I mean “windscreen” – with the other most of the time.
It seemed like such a nice idea to drive from Sligo to Donegal in the afternoon. An easy drive, less than seventy kilometers with occasional breathtaking views of the cliffs overlooking the North Atlantic, and perhaps with the chilly, brilliant Autumn sun glinting off the ocean waves. An easy and pleasant hour’s drive.
And so it had proven, driving southwest from Donegal to Sligo in the bright sunshine of two days before. It was, in a very appropriate word, enchanting.
But after a couple of days in Sligo, finishing up my genealogical research, I was due back in Donegal town, not only because I had pre-paid my night’s lodging with the reservation, but also because I was due to have a late supper with my god-cousin.
That, perhaps, takes a bit of explaining. My godmother was Irish and had lived in Donegal. Her daughter was Elizabeth, named after me since she was born three years later, and thus, as far as the two of us were concerned, we were god-cousins.
It didn’t usually mean much – Christmas cards and the occasional phone call. But whenever she was near Central Canada, or I was in the British Isles, we would try to get together, usually staying in one or the other’s homes.
Unfortunately, this time her husband’s family – mother and step-father – were staying with them for a while, and there was no room for me. But we were going to have a slap-up meal together, and get silly over a bottle of red wine before her hubby came to retrieve her.
Which meant I had no choice. This was the only night we could make it work, so I had to be back in Donegal town.
Unfortunately, after much rooting around in the Sligo library and city hall without much luck, purely by chance I had met an elderly library volunteer. She had shown up that afternoon in Sligo, and knew, personally, a great deal about my family, root and branch. More, she knew where all the necessary records were, and found what I needed quickly and seemingly effortlessly.
As I had come to Ireland primarily to trace my family’s roots, I felt I had no choice but to learn as much from her as I could, and stayed far later than I had intended. And my persistence was rewarded: my head was now spinning with generations of ancestors on all sides, plus a plethora of names, some familiar, some quite alien to my ear, all of them related to me.
But the price was that I was driving back to Donegal after sunset. Along the cliffs. In the rain.
On a dark and stormy night.
I was going much more slowly than I had on the trip down, and felt, at times, that I finally knew what they meant when they said: “his heart was in his throat.” Several times the combination of the pitch darkness, and the rain pelting on the windscreen meant that I was driving blind – or as close as I ever want to.
Yet, I was making progress and was really looking forward to a warm pub, a hot meal, and a shot of Irish whiskey before diving into the red wine with Lizzie. So, I was not expecting someone to appear suddenly before me in my headlights, waving his hands and screaming something at me.
I slammed on the brakes and skewed the car sideways, and still almost hit him. Plus, I stalled the engine as it had been quite some time since I’d driven a manual stick shift.
Whoever he was, he seemed unconcerned about his close call and ran to my side of the car. I reluctantly rolled the window down a crack, just enough to hear him, while working to restart the engine in case I needed to take off.
“You can’t go that a-ways!” he shouted. I won’t try to reproduce his accent. For one thing, the Irish brogue is difficult to transcribe in Canadian English, and for another, I had the devil’s own time understanding him. Most of the people I had met in Ireland had what I considered an accent, but nothing like this!
“And why should I not?” I asked. I realized that I was doing my usual trick of falling into the patterns of speech of the country I was in. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it’s just embarrassing.
“The path has washed out, lass. You’ll fall into the sea, you will.”
I sat there, trying to decide what to do. I had to get to Donegal, but I clearly didn’t want to fall into the sea!
“Look…I must get to Donegal town. Is there another road?”
He looked at me as if I were daft. “Another way? To Donegal town? In this weather?”
I just nodded.
He put his hand to his face and wiped some of the rain off, apparently thinking. That gave me a chance to look him over, and I was puzzled by what I saw.
His face was round and puffy, and his nose was large and looked more like a potato than anything else. I’m sensitive about noses as I was often teased about my own honker as a child, but mine was nothing compared to his blue-ribbon winner!
His clothes were odd. They were ill-fitting and looked rough and poorly done. His shirt, which pulled over and tied at the neck, was a very light brown, almost an unbleached color, and he had a darker brown kerchief knotted inside the collar. His pants seemed to be held up with a length of rope and were another shade of dull brown. His hat was a faded black, as best I could tell, and just about shapeless.
He almost looked like a cartoon.
“Well, I’ll tell you, lass – there is a cart trail, but it meanders a bit. It’s just off over there a ways. Not far.” He waved off into the darkness.
I looked away, reflecting that everyone I’d met in Ireland when asked directions, would inevitably wave a hand and say something like, “Oh, it’s just down there a bit. Not far.” But it usually was. Far, I mean.
“How might I find this…cart trail?”
“Auch…you’ll never find it.” He rubbed his face again. “Why are you needing to go all the way to Donegal town on a night like this?”
So, I explained about my god-cousin, which led to me explaining about my godmother, and various other things of no possible interest to him. I finally realized I was babbling, and just stopped.
And was surprised to see that his face had split into a big grin.
“Sure, you remind me of me own wife, you do. If you asked her how she was on a morning, she’d tell you about the rise of Spring, and the water babbling through the valleys. If you’d asked if we had any milk today, she’d tell you about how the bees were making honey, and why the barn needed mending. She was a right one for talking, she was.”
He stopped, and I could see the grin fade a bit. Then his eyes focused on me again from the far distance where they had been.
“Oh, but you’re not wanting to hear about my Bess. Tell you what, I’ll show you this track, and give you directions. You can’t miss it!”
My experience with people who tell you that you can’t miss something is that it’s actually impossible to find, but I didn’t know what else to do.
Then was surprised when the passenger door opened, and he was suddenly sitting there, next to me. I wondered if I should be concerned – but something in his face suggested that I shouldn’t worry. That, plus his comments about his wife.
There was silence for two beats, then I put the car in gear and said, “Which way? And I’m Liz, by the way.”
“And you should be calling me Diarmuid…Diarmuid O’Morrison at your service, miss. Now, look sharp – there’s a bit of a bounce just here.”
He directed to me off the road and onto what looked like a broken track – and he was right about there being ‘a bit of a bounce!’ I think there were more rocks than track on his trail, to be honest, and I hoped the rental’s suspension would hold up until I could return the car. Meanwhile, I could see nothing of the surrounding area, and could only just see the track through the headlights.
I found myself hoping this guy wasn’t an ax murderer, or I’d never be heard from again!
Yet, he kept up a running commentary about the various farms in the area, and who was doing well, and who wasn’t, and why, plus disparaging comments on the characters of most of them, affectionately given.
I reflected that if his – dead? – wife liked to talk, he wasn’t far behind.
But finally, he called, “Oh now, stop here and I’ll alight.”
I looked around and could see that the road had re-appeared ahead off to our left.
I turned to thank him to see him leaning through the open door.
“You mind how you go, now, yes? You should be fine from here. But it’s still a good ways to Donegal town. Are you sure you have to go that far, lass?”
I just nodded.
“Well, you’ve a mind that’s not going to be unset, I can see that.” He smiled again. “Like me own Bess.”
He slapped the hood of the car, then turned, waved, and disappeared into the rain and darkness.
I sat there for a moment, amazed that such people still existed, willing to go well out of their way to help a stranger, even in Ireland. It would surely be a long, wet trek back to his home, wherever it was. I knew of Irish hospitality, but this seemed beyond anything I’d experienced.
After a moment, I shrugged, then, not knowing what else I could do, I put the car in gear, and drove cautiously back onto the road, then carefully north towards Donegal.
I arrived a while after that with no further mishaps, though the night remained ugly. I pulled into the Abbey Hotel, which Lizzie had recommended and I had booked online. Grabbing my things from the backseat, I pushed open the car door, picked my way quickly through the puddles in the car park, and shoved open the bar door, figuring I needed a drink before I did anything else.
I shook the rain off myself and my belongings in the doorway then walked slowly towards the bar.
“You look like you could use something warm inside you,” the bartender smiled. Normally, I would have used that as an opening, especially as he was about my age, and cute. But now I just wanted a drink. Later I might come back and answer in a different way.
“A Jameson’s, double, neat, with water on the side, please.”
He looked at me, eying my wet clothing, and suggested, “I could put it in a warmed glass for you if you like.”
I nodded, “Please. But hurry. I’ve had the most God-awful drive.”
“Have you now? And where did you blow in from?” He reached into the just-done dishwasher and pulled out a wet, steaming glass, and started drying it with a dishcloth.
“Sligo. I was doing research on my family, who came from around there three generations back. I met a…what’s wrong?”
He chuckled and said, “Well, you may indeed have had a hell of a ride, but you can’t have come from Sligo. We got word from the police over an hour ago that the road is closed. Apparently, the ground collapsed near the coast, dumping a large chunk of it down the cliff. A couple of drivers were blessed lucky and managed to stop before they went over with it!
“You would have had to fly to get here from Sligo – unless you went somewhere else after you got near Donegal?”
I was busy shaking out my coat, and putting my things down on the floor or the next barstool, but looked up at him. “No, I came straight through. I know about the road collapse. A local – a farmer I think he was – flagged me down, then showed me a cart path around the collapse. It was mostly rocks, but it got me here.” I smiled. “I’ve heard about Irish hospitality, but to be out on a night like this, flag me down, and then show me a detour that must have taken him quite a long way from his home – that’s above and beyond, even for the Irish!”
The barman put my drink down in front of me, then straightened up, looking puzzled. “I grew up down that way, and I don’t know of any cart path that would lead you off the road, then back onto it. Did you get the name of this farmer?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, he talked so much, it’s almost hard…his surname is O’Morrison. That much I remember because my family name is Morrison. And his first name was…Damn. I can’t remember!”
“It wasn’t Diarmuid O’Morrison by any chance, was it?” said a scratchy voice from behind me.
There was a general chorus of guffaws from various points around the bar, which surprised me. I looked around, then thought for a moment, and said, “As a matter of fact, it was Diarmuid O’Morrison, now that you mention it. But why is that funny?”
The barman was smirking at me, “Sure it was that you met old Diarmuid? He’s been dead nigh on … what? a hundred years or more, right, Fergus?”
I turned and found myself looking at the elderly man who had hauled himself upright. “A hundred and twelve, if the records are to be believed.” He wasn’t laughing.
“And you said your name was Morrison,” the older man said, “Might I enquire as to your Christian name, lass?”
I looked at the barman, then back at him. “Elizabeth. Elizabeth Morrison.”
The man stared at me. “Diarmuid O’Morrison’s wife fell off those cliffs at about where the road collapsed this evening, Ms Morrison. And her name was Elizabeth.”
The room went quiet. Then someone called out, “Oh, sure, it’s the phantom savior of the highways, now, is it?”
And there was another round of laughter, then people went back to their own conversations.
Fergus walked slowly towards me. “These yahoos…they don’t understand. Diarmuid saved me own grandparents from falling off that cliff – some forty years after his own death. They swore it was him – and they knew him when he was alive.”
I just stared at him, then turned to the bartender. “When did the police say the road collapsed?”
“They said that according to the cars that almost went over, it collapsed at around 7:20 this evening. Why?”
I looked at the time on my smartphone. “Because that must be about when he…whoever he was…flagged me down. And I didn’t see the collapse myself so it had to have been in front of me.”
The barman stared at me, then shrugged and said, “Well, there’s a mystery,” and walked back down the bar to serve other patrons.
Fergus eased himself down on the barstool at the other side of me, and said, quietly, “Young lady, the part of the legend that most people don’t know is that Diarmuid went off his head from grief after his wife died, and vanished, leaving his two sons on their own, both in their teens.”
I shook myself, then remembered something. I dug into my bag and pulled out the genealogy notes I’d taken in Sligo. I shuffled through the papers, then found what I was looking for.
I looked up at Fergus and said, “The librarian in Sligo said that my great-great-grandfather’s name was…Diarmuid O’Morrison.”
Fergus looked at me steadily, then nodded. “Diarmuid swore to God that he would save Elizabeth O’Morrison, or he would never rest – even though she was already dead. My guess is that he just has.” Fergus stood up and shook my hand.
“Let us pray that he finds peace in the saving of your life.” He nodded to me and turned towards the door. “Good night, Miss.”