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Madar's Tale

Madar knew. Long before anyone else. He saw it coming. He read it in the clouds.

A strange man, Madar. Lives by himself. Old. Wrinkled. Weather beaten. A beard down to his middle. Long white hair. Beard and hair blowing in the wind, answering to every breeze.

Studies the clouds, does Madar. They say he reads them. They say he knows things, things from the old times. Some say he's descended from the primitives who always lived down by the estuary flats. Eats nothing but shellfish. Gathers dulse. Sloke, too. Loves to chew on carrageen.

Big man. Must have been a powerhouse in his prime. Still sturdy, but bent, like a tree lashed by the west wind over the years, over the decades.

Every day he stands on Sheegus, face to the bay, wind whipping his hair, his beard, his brat. Head uplifted, eyes searching far out over the sea, focused on the sky, following the clouds. Nothing moving but his eyes, pale blue eyes, paler than the palest egg of goose or tern. Seeing clouds as no one else can see them. Letting their images and patterns flow through iris and pupil into mind and heart and being. Absorbing clouds. Becoming one with clouds. Me--I don't know clouds at all. But Madar does. And when he speaks I listen to him. I learn a lot that way.

It was a bright clear day in May when he gave the first inkling he knew what was coming.

"Trouble," he said. Just that. Not another word.

His eyes were fixed over the southern sandhills where an oddly shaped cloud was stuck in the sky. I watched it with him. It took forever to move. Why? Because, you omadhaun, there was no wind to move it!

In spring the weather went crazy. There was very little rain. Then the heat began to build. It was only spring, but in a week it became summer, a hot summer, a dry summer, a hotter and drier summer than any living mortal could remember.

Of course the old ones had their stories of weather that was hotter, of tales handed down to them of the year of the big drought. They said the Erne shrank to a stream, the loughs shrivelled into ponds, and the very Falls of Assaroe were reduced to a whisper.

Next day he spoke again.

"Sickness." He raised his arm, his left arm, hand and first finger pointing, and there was another cloud, a twin of the previous day's, out in the bay, over Coolnargit's sandhills grey.

Was he mad? Was old age affecting his brain? "Trouble." "Sickness." What sort of prophecies were these? If the monks heard he was up to his old tricks, pretending to read clouds, raising mischief, reminding people of old superstitions, of how things were before Patrick came and taught us to be Christians, it would go hard for him. That's why we never told. We protected him with our silence. Maybe Madar did have the sean eolas, the old knowledge of the druids. Deep down inside there is something of Madar in all of us.

Myself, I never questioned the old knowledge of herbs and healing, of leeches and cobwebs, poultices and bone-setting, and the curing solace of honey and whiskey, uisce beatha, the water of life.

As ollave in medicine to An Dalach, the O'Donnell, my reputation depended on the efficacy of the old and the new. For some, the old worked; for some, the new. And when neither works, sure God takes those he wants, and when he wants. Being a medical man, I've learned to live with death.

But plague! Death on a massive scale! That's different. That's hard to take, hard to live with, harder still to die with. That's what Madar saw, and that's what we got.

A ship from Spain brought it. Bringing wine for the Mass, and more wine for the masses. Great men for the wine, the O'Donnells. Some of their women too. "Turlough of the Wine" was one of them. Everyone knows his story. No need to repeat it here.

I'll never forget it all. No sooner did the ship put in at Port na Long than two of its crew went to meet their Maker. "Sick for four days," said the captain.

Next, one of the men unloading the casks fell ill. Shivering. Vomiting. High fever. Bowels tighter than a bung in a barrel. He was a sorry looking case when they sent for me.

Prescribed the monks' purgative, rhubarb. Great for getting things moving again. A great medicine entirely. A great plant, too. The stalks do the trick, and the big soft leaves make grand back wipers.

Next day he was dead. Before he was buried, his wife was stricken. Then his children. Within a week half the people on one side of Port na Long were in its grip.

I tried everything. Went back to the old cures. Not even whiskey and butter worked, and, as the old saying goes, what whiskey and butter can't cure, can't be cured.

The death toll mounted. Soon the plague jumped the ford. The north bank was infected.

It spread upriver, across the Moy, through the loughs, through Maguire's land, through Tir Eoghan, and hurdled the Sperrins. The Foyle and Swilly carried it to the groves of Colmcille's Derry, and from there it reached Inishown. Round by Lough Neagh it went where the Mountains of Mourne sail down to the sea.

Death and suffering, weeping and caoining, Ulster reeled under the scourge.

The days grew hotter. The drought worsened. The Spanish ship had long departed, the captain frightened, its crew hell-bent on leaving this accursed place. Little good did it do them. They carried the seeds of their own destruction with them.

My son, Fergus, not ten years old, fell victim.

Each day, morning, noon, night, I insisted my household wash hands and feet. I set the example. Made a game of it for the young ones. "Here we go washing our hands and feet, hands and feet, hands and feet; here we go washing our hands and feet, and the last one to finish is an eejit!" The simple rhyme caught on and they washed with a will, not willing to be the last to finish.

I knew from long experience what dirt can do in a wound. Maybe dirt caused the plague. Who was to know? At least washing couldn't hurt, and might do some good. That was my reasoning, and that was how I stumbled on a clue.

We all had our hands in the big wash barrel when I saw the fleabite on Fergus's arm.

Fleas! In my home! In the home of the ollave in medicine to the O'Donnell!

"Let me see that. Where did you get it? Can you remember, Fergus?"

"From a rat, dad. An old dead rat I was throwing into the harbour."

That night the fever seized hold. Sweat broke out all over his body. Tell-tale nodules sprouted in his armpits and groin. He was dead before the moon waned with the dawning of day.

A fleabite. From a rat. Maybe a rat from the Spanish ship. Did it make sense?

When I tried to tell people, they laughed. Just as they laughed at Madar.

"He listens to Madar," they said.

"One's as bad as the other," they said.

"They're both mad, mad as hares in March," they said.

Maybe I am. Maybe listening to someone who reads clouds is madness. But Madar knew. Long before anyone else. He saw it coming.

Maybe it was the rats. Maybe the fleas. Maybe somewhere, someplace, sometime, someone won't think me mad.

Today, I was bitten by a flea.

"The Age of Christ, 1478. A great plague was brought by a ship into the harbour of Assaroe. This plague spread through Fermanagh, Tirconnell, and the province in general. MacWard (Godfrey) of Tirconnell died of it, and great injury was done by it all through the province."
     (The Annals of the Four Masters).
Hawk of Erne, beak, talons, feathers untouched by vermin, eater of fish, unscathed by plague, serene, secure, survived it all.

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