The Tale of the Guardian Angel
"Hugh, what do you think of angels?"
I had forgotten how persistent a younger brother can be. Persistent? No, precocious. No,
not precocious. Bothersome? No, not bothersome. Like a young puppy he was, tagging along,
getting in the way, skipping ahead, running back, lagging behind, flitting from one subject
to another, always--
"Angels, Hugh. What do you think of them?"
Imperious, impetuous, impatient--
"Yes Hugh. Are they real? Can you see through them? Don't they get cold feet from never
wearing sandals or pampooties? How do they get down here, and back up to heaven? Are there
holes in the sky and they just fly through? Or do they use a ladder? What do they eat? Is
there special angel food, like cakes and farrels and stuff? What about the baby angels? Do
they wet the clouds like Fergus wets the bed mat? Is that what makes rain?"
Fergus is his younger brother, still too young to take on walks along the winding river
This is my second day home after a hard season's learning. Twelve hard years, all of them
under Ollave Teige, my master in poetry and rhyme, in eulogy and genealogy. And a hard
master he has been.
Maybe it was his deformity made him so harsh. Teige Cam, lopsided Teige, one shoulder
permanently hunched up. We used to make fun of him. Growing up on a mountainside, how else
could he be? One leg longer than the other just to keep his balance!
He knew we made fun of him but never let on he knew, and we knew he knew, and in turn
never let on we knew--
"Yes, young Brian. You were saying--"
"Angels--do they have things--"
"What do the monks at the abbey tell you they are?"
Better get on safe ground. A young poet, newly graduated, couldn't afford any taint of
heresy. Besides, angels were outside my domain. I would be more concerned with mortals,
with chieftains and clan leaders, singing their praises, celebrating their battles, their
marriages, their generosity, lauding their forbears, ensuring their memories are preserved
for untold generations to come.
"I can't ask them, Hugh. You know that! We have to be as quiet as can be in class. No
talking. No sneezing. No coughing. No questions. Just listen and learn, listen and learn.
"Father Canice says I've got a guardian angel, but he won't tell me what colour! When I
asked him I got a rap of his knuckles on my head. Said I was being facetious, whatever that means, and he'd talk to Mammy and Daddy the next time he saw them."
Poor Brian Og. I remember what it was like. We all went through it. And if he thinks it's
going to get any better later on, he's in for a big surprise.
If he's to follow the family calling, wait till he finds out what it's like to lie in a
darkened bothy, day in, day out, mentally composing, endlessly revising, recasting, melding
and formatting words and phrases, seeking meanings, putting colours into language, into
sounds, nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, alliteration and onomatopoeia, consonants
and vowels, spelling and gender, slender to slender and broad to broad, beginnings and
endings, and middles to match, on whatever subject Teige Cam takes into his head to set
for each day.
And, through it all, the anticipation of the evening's recitations when, to the music of
the clairseach, students speak their poems for all to hear, to judge and be judged,
praised or ridiculed as the Ollave himself deems fit. Twelve long seasons of it.
"Hugh! The angels!"
"Let's sit down, Brian, and talk about angels. I know a song about angels. It goes
something like this : "Oh, I wonder, yes I wonder, will the angels way up yonder, will the
angels play their clairseachs for me."
"Hugh, can't you be serious? You're making fun of me, and I know it! I've been waiting all
spring for you to come home so we could talk. Nuala and Una are girls. Daddy is lost in his
books, and Mammy--"
"Hush, Brian. Listen!"
There was something in Hugh's voice stopped my childish prattling. He went rigid in the
grass. His arm pressed me into the ground.
Then I heard it. The tramp of feet, many feet, not far off, and the whinny of a horse.
Hugh raised his head, slowly, without a sound.
"Mother of God!"
"What is it?"
"The O'Neills. A whole host! No time to talk. Brian, you've got to do exactly what I say.
I was scared. My eyes told him so.
"There's a ledge just behind me, under the river bank. Slide over. Quick! Hide! Don't come
out! No matter what!"
Quietly I rolled over, slid under the ledge, and hid.
"Say a prayer to your guardian angel!"
Then he was gone.
The soldiers gave a great shout. They saw him run like a deer. Back along the river bank,
to warn our people. They gave chase, and me they never saw.
Faintly, from a distance, I heard the sound of fighting, the clashing of swords, yelling
Below me in the river a family of water rats swam with the current.
Soon the rushing water drowned out the last sobbings of women and children. Fergus, Nuala,
I shook as the sunlight dimmed, hidden by a bank of cloud. Dark smoke rose from burning
I prayed, prayed hard. That day I learned there are angels and that I, Brian Og
Mac-an-Bhaird, had my very own guardian angel who saved me from the fury of the O'Neills.
A hawk, circling high over castle and ford, saw all that I have told, and all that is now
narrated in the annals of our country.
"The Age of Christ, 1522. Very great war arose in Ireland this year and particularly
between O'Donnell, namely Aedh, and O'Neill, namely Conn, son of Conn...O'Neill...went into
Tir Aodha and burned and destroyed much of the country and took the castle of Ballyshannon
and slew many persons in it... There was slain there also a good learned person, namely
Diarmait, son of Teige O'Cleirigh, one eminent in history and a good poet...And there was
slain there also on the same occasion (the 11th day of June) the son of Mac-an-baird (Ward),
namely Aodh, son of Aodh Mac-an-baird, one likely to be a good poet."
(The Annals of Ulster).
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