The Sad and Bloody Stones of Kerrigan’s Keep, by Robert E. Furey
You could not really say that I was a non-believer, maybe a reluctant non-believer. My universe had been quite nicely organized and comprehensible, yet still there were shadows in the dark. Above all else, I wanted to look directly into them before they had a chance to disappear. And that, I can honestly say, I did.
What had started as a lark, quickly became the outline for a quest of sorts. I had found an old book years before. It would be misleading for me to refer to this book as if it had the appearance of a grimoire or some arcane hornbook, or to imply that it was bound in some suspiciously soft and fine leather binding. It wasn’t. The book–still sitting on my shelf–is cloth bound with a time-dulled acorn squash and tan cover. Inside the cover tendrils of fraying threads snaked from the spine. And a squat crudely drawn map of Ireland, much wider than tall, extended oddly from the inside cover across the first page.
As distorted as the map clearly was, it held clues to what we were looking for. That is to say, clues to find the houses with stories attached; history that insisted on being heard; history that refused to die. As I said, I am a reluctant non-believer. But if anywhere in the world, there where bits of my DNA swirled through the blood of the island, I would find the shadows somewhere on the Old Sod.
Once the seed had been planted, everything else fell into place.
“I tell you, Brad, the trip will be great,” I said. With a sweep of my thumb nail across my upper lip, I squeegeed away the cafe-au-lait foam from my last draft of Guinness. We were already getting into the spirit.
If there was anyone to travel with, it was Brad. He is the strongest man I have ever met, and one of the nicest. That is to say, sitting together over a pint or standing back to back, Brad is good people.
He nodded, smiling, then took his own deep swallow of rich, black stout. “So, let’s decide which one,” Brad said using his pint glass to gesture toward the open book sitting on the varnished table top.
The map was hardly visible. It contrasted weakly on the yellowed paper. The pub’s hanging Tiffany lamps, designed with harps, shamrocks and brass-buckled high hats — Ireland’s own cultural invasion — spread colored shadows through the tenebrious clouds of tobacco smoke. Spinning the book toward me, I squinted at the hand-penned town names. This was not the first time we had spoken about the goal, and a name seemed to rise again.
“Somewhere in there,” I said, poking the map between the names Kinvarra and Ballyvaughn, “is Kerrigan’s Keep. I still vote for Kerrigan’s Keep.”
In a time in Ireland when all that was needed to be a king was a castle and someone to fight, Kerrigan built his battlements on the Atlantic coast and quickly got to the business of bloodshed. During a treaty negotiation at his castle, Kerrigan had a visiting king and all of his gallowglass retainers murdered, their bodies hidden in the keep.
A tale unforgotten is a tale for the day. It is said that across the centuries the treachery of their deaths at the hands of Kerrigan’s men has served to bind those fallen to the earth. Exorcists and adventurers sought out the Keep and the souls trapped within. The slain gallowglasses killed those who entered, drove to madness those that managed to escape. But if eyeless sockets cannot clearly differentiate friend or foe, the dead should be forgiven for that.
The story of Kerrigan’s Keep has surely changed through the centuries; it is something the Irish do. But nevertheless, the keep is there and something did happened inside; they say things still happen today. We wanted to know.
“Kerrigan’s Keep it is!” he said, raising his pint glass.
* * *
We rendezvoused in Paris and left by car for Ireland. Somewhere along the way la Manche became the English Channel, then beyond the Straights of Saint George and the Irish Sea. Finally the car rolled down the iron ramps at Rosslare, leaving the sleek hulled catamaran behind.
In front of us fluttered a large banner, “Fáilte!” it welcomed in runic lettering. Ireland has experienced a reawakening of interest in its culture, both from the inside as well as out. Consequently we, two Americans in a French registered car, found ourselves in a long line of tourists in line to go through immigration.
We drove to town and walked along the waterfront while waiting for the banks to open their exchange bureau. Delivery trucks, or lorries now I suppose, rumbled along cobbled streets. Drivers, whose hats sat close to their scalps slung at precise angles, lugged huge trays of steaming bread or dented aluminum kegs. And everywhere English transformed to music by the brogue.
At 9 am we made our way to the bank: “Oh, man, look at that,” Brad said, indicating a pair of lines snaking along the sidewalk. “We should have come over right away.”
The sudden and unexpected crush of tourists at the exchange bureau promised to keep us in line for almost an hour. But we had just arrived in Ireland and so I for one felt no need to rush.
“We’ll be out of town soon enough,” I said. “I’m sure once we get outside the city it’ll be great.”
After what turned out to be a much shorter than expected wait, we took our handful of new Irish Punts to a tiny corner restaurant where the air was surprisingly thick with American, British and French accents. After a heavy Irish Breakfast, we took the winding road west toward Limerick. Just outside of Rosslare we saw directions to the new John Fitzgerald Kennedy Arboretum. The world loves JFK, and the Irish would beatify him if they could. Later, entering Limerick, we drove along the reconstructed battlements of King John’s castle still brooding above the city and glaring across the River Shannon with silenced cannon. This had been one of the last strongholds of British rule in the Republic, and yet they have rebuilt it as well. For the tourists.
Ireland’s roads are not designed to accommodate the traffic that has suddenly descended from the Continent. Approaching each of these attractions the main arteries tended to slow and even stop.
“This is not what I expected,” I said, tapping my claddagh ring against the steering wheel. “I don’t know, Brad. Maybe we want to stop at a few of the sights along the way? It’s better than waiting in lines just to hurry up and get to the next traffic jam.”
Brad was in the process of refolding the map to a new section. “I think we aught to stick with the plan for now. We might not find Kerrigan’s right away. And anyway, after we do we can come back if we want to.” I knew he would say this. We had fallen into the pattern of keeping each other on track since the dreaming stage of the trip. And for now, double-decked tour busses stopped in the road or no, we just kept the car rolling ahead as best we could.
In early afternoon we arrived at the Cliffs of Mohar, where we did stop. Past the crowded souvenir shop, we went to hang our heads over that granite precipice above the sea. Fog-laden winds blew in from the Atlantic where the cliffs redirected them into a vertical river of super-saturated air, as if a rent had opened in reality. Wheeling sea-gulls faded in and out of view like fey voyagers through that mist. Suddenly Kerrigan’s Keep felt very close.
For the rest of the afternoon we hugged the coast road until arriving at the brightly painted town of Ballyvaughn. Here we took our second stop, for food, directions and a camp site. We hoped the final leg to the Keep would be on the following day. Then we got a break; the waiter that served us the steamed fish and potatoes knew just where we needed to go.
“Sure I know where is the Keep. ‘Tis a dark place people should’ve left alone,” he said as he placed a pint of black porter in front of each of us.
“We’ve come a long way,” Brad explained, “too far to turn back now.”
After taking a long swallow of porter, I took up the story: “We want to see for ourselves if the story about . . .”
“I know well the story,” he interrupted, nodding his head. For a moment he fixed his gaze on me, then he said, “I see the very map of Ireland in your face, boyo. Don’t go there.”
I looked over at Brad, whose eye-brows had climbed painfully high on his forehead. The pit of my stomach had fallen away and the porter I poured into myself seemed never to hit bottom. For a moment we might have decided to abandon the Keep then and there, but too much jolly-bravado feedback prevented it. And after all, we did come for the fear.
Later, the dreary grey sky seemed to reach down and press our shoulders as we pitched the tent. We set up camp in a tiny patch of lawn squeezed between two in-town houses, amid dozens of other brightly colored nylon domes and A-frames. In spite of the fact that it was not raining, the mist had soaked us both to the skin by the time we crawled in and zipped the door and rain fly shut.
* * *
In the morning, we wandered to the corner where we had noticed a tea-room the previous night. A tour bus had just pulled in and disgorged gaggles of loud American tourists. Fortunately they all seemed to want scones and Irish breakfast tea and so left the espresso machine free for us. We gulped and were gone.
Between the map and the directions from the waiter, we were confident we would find the old castle as we drove away from Ballyvaughn and into the surrounding hills. The road got smaller the farther into the Burren we went, and more lonely. Ireland rolled to the sea in great fractured slabs of stone and tumbles of shattered boulders. Brave trees, anchored in rare pockets of top soil, bent to the perpetual wind from the ocean in twisted, hunched shapes. Clouds of heavy mist scuttled over the stone sweeping open pockets across Ireland’s spectacular desolation.
Away from the crowds, away from the busses and traffic, far from the pandering, the Burren seemed immune to the invasion. And it was there that rose the lichen covered tower of Kerrigan’s Keep. As we rolled through the foothills, it dipped beneath the mist bathed horizon, jutting again as we topped the next rise, as if it were diving in and out of time.
And then we saw the sign.
“Welcome to Kerrigan’s Keep,” it proclaimed in bold green lettering. “Come see the haunted Castle!”
“Shit, Brad,” I said, “so much for that.
“You’re not kiddin’,” he said leaning closer to the windshield.
The closer we got the worse it looked. Kerrigan’s Keep did exist, very much as I had pictured it. Only we found it to be flanked by a new asphalt parking lot, souvenir shop and soft ice‑cream stand. We parked in the still empty lot and wandered toward what appeared to be a ticket booth.
There was a ten punt entry fee, expensive but we paid. After the freckle-faced girl stuffed our bills into a shiny new strong box, she pointed toward a hole in the stone wall. Descending steps disappeared in shadows within the Keep.
“Right through there, with yea,” she said. “Don’t be too afraid.” She smiled for us.
Down we went. Shiny handrails were fixed into the stone walls. Fresh mortar shown white between the old rocks. Deep-red light lit the chamber below, as if not to disturb sleeping bats. And our rubber-soled hiking boots squeaked on the time polished granite steps.
In spite of the months of preparation for this descent, when the rumbling began my footsteps faltered. And when the moaning started out of the murk below I stopped outright. Somehow I knew it was not a “Pirates of the Caribbean” down there. My brain stem knew and shrieked at my reptilian brain to run. But I didn’t. I paused and we continued down.
They were still boiling from the earth when we reached the bottom of the stairway. Stones flew through the air and crashed against a thick barrier of plexiglass. Waves of hatred and despair transmitted from those expressionless bone faces of all but forgotten soldiers. Rusted weapons pulverized and skeletons disarticulated battering against the barrier wall; then they reintegrated to hurl themselves to dust again in a relentless drive to defend the ancient castle. I watched the cycle of resurrection roll impotently against the plastic.
And no, before you ask, they did not frighten me, those ember-eyed revenants. As I stood watching them, my fingertips just touching the plexiglass wall, I was acutely aware of the banners snapping in the wind outside the refurbished keep, the flickering shadows of bloody neon glow within. I even wanted to release them, let them out to rage across a world guilty of betraying a devotion and honor more powerful than the passage time and deaths cold grip.
I turned away from the pounding on the plexiglass wall as a tour‑bus pulled in, spewing a hoard of Japanese tourists. With their mouths covered over by cotton air filters and cameras swinging from tethers around their necks, they flowed past me as if I wasn’t there. In the darkness below, the viewing chamber filled with their chattering and the whirring of electronic cameras that almost — almost — drowned the frenzy from beyond the wall.
I couldn’t sure, but it sounded as if the pounding on the plexiglass grew louder.
Rob Furey earned his doctorate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in the Life Sciences program with a specialization in ethology. His work was centered around social aspects of spider behavior, but his interests have broadened to include areas of astronomy, physics, geology and forensics. Before coming to Harrisburg University Dr Furey has been associate professor of behavioral science at the Université Henri Poincaré, Vandouvre les Nancy, France, visiting European researcher at the Free University of Brussels, and assistant professor in New Century College at George Mason University. Dr Furey won numerous awards for innovative teaching from both academic and business groups, and was invited to present a broad integrated science course to a pedagogy group at NASA Ames. He has been working closely with the Dauphin County Coroner’s office as a sworn deputy since January 1, 2006. His current position in Integrative Sciences at Harrisburg University is well suited to his interests and teaching style. Complimentary activities include director of the environmental education center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, guide and science adviser to a Partridge Films film crew in Equatorial West Africa and regular science columns in Aeon Magazine and IRoSF. Is fiction has appeared in several anthologies; he is a member of the ElectricStory community, and a Clarion West alum.