When Juan Quirk was a bit of a boy, nothing would do but his mother must tell him a story every night before he went to bed. And a special kind of story it had to be. He was all for stories of Manannan, him that used to be King of the Isle of Man in the times long past.
“Tell me about the mist cloak.”
“Tell me about the boat that could sail on sea or land.”
Tell me about his white horse that could gallop over the water.”
“Tell me about the sword that could kill a hundred men all at once.”
His mother wished he would change his tune and she offered to tell him about the good people or the black dog of Peel Castle or The Buggane of Saint Trinian’s, but Juan didn’t want to hear tell of them.
Manannan it was and Manannan it must be!
Then one evening his father came into the house with a big shiny silver cup in his hands. He put it on the mantelpiece and it was like a bright star in the little dark kitchen.
“Where did you get it?” asked Juan.
“I won it at a ploughing match,” says his father.
“Your father’s the champion ploughman of the parish, ” said Juan’s mother. “Think of that, son.”
Juan did think of it and from that minute onwards his tune was changed. No more stories of Manannan and his horse and his boat and his sword and his mist cloak for him! He wanted to hear all about the two horses his father ploughed with at the farm where he worked as a ploughman.
Dapple and Daisy they were called, and every night his father had to tell him stories about them. Where they lived, what they ate, what they did when they weren’t ploughing, the fields they grazed in, the harness they wore. When at last he put his head down on the pillow and went to sleep it was with dreams of the day when he would look after two horses and be a ploughman like his father and bring home shiny silver cups to put on the mantelpiece. Indeed he could hardly wait for the day when he would leave school and go to work on a farm as a ploughman.
As you may think, at last the day did come and when Juan was hired by Chalse Sayle at Hollantide Fair to work on his farm, he wouldn’t have changed places with the King of England. Right in the centre of the island the farm was, its wide fields open to the sun and wind and sea and mountains. That evening as he drove with Chalse Sayle to the farm, he kept saying to himself, “Tomorrow I’ll be harnessing two fine horses and away off with me to the fields to plough.” He thought how he would stride behind the plough and call, “Come you on, now! Get up and out of that!” to the horses. He would plough a fine straight furrow and the seagulls would be flying about him under the blue sky with the sun on their wings.
True, he didn’t know how to plough. But what did that matter? Every person had to learn, and he could learn as well as the next.
But life is nothing if not full of surprises. Chalse Sayle already had two ploughmen and Juan’s job turned out to be very different.
“Let you gather the eggs Juan. And see can you find the black hen’s nest. She’s laying away.”
“Go and find me a few bits of sticks. The fire is going out on me and it’s very near dinner time.”
“Get two or three buckets of water from the well and fill the crock.”
“Give me a hand with the churning. Here am I hard at it for hours and the butter still not come.”
That would be herself.
Then himself would be after him, if he wasn’t running for one he was running for the other.
“Feed the calves.”
“Clean the cowhouse.”
“Cut the turnips.”
Next would come the words Juan hated most of all. “When you’ve done these few jobs, go you up into the top field and pick stones.” All day and every day that winter, when his work round the farm was done, Juan had to pick the cold, sharp-edged stones and put them into piles ready to be carted away. A weary job it was in that wide lonely field where nobody came to talk to him and the wind cut like a knife and his fingers were raw and cold.
There was only one thing Juan liked about this field. At the highest point was a patch of grass and gorse that was never ploughed. Three rough steps led up through the grass and gorse to a high flat rock in the centre. Sometimes he would snatch a few minutes to stand on the top of the rock, for here he felt he was on the roof of the world and could touch the sky.
He could see all about him for miles and miles, white cottages, farms, grey stone walls, fuchsia hedges, cattle and sheep and horses in the fields, men and boys at work, digging and draining and fencing and ploughing, and at last the blue mountains on one side and the sea on the other. Indeed the picture was fit to take your breath away, but what Juan liked best of all was to see other people working in the fields like himself, for then he felt less lonely at the sight of them. One day however, the master came unexpectedly to the field and caught him up there. He gave Juan a few sharp words and drove him back down to the stones pretty quick, as you can imagine.
With all this disappointment, no wonder Juan envied the two ploughmen as they set out with their horses each morning, and one day he could keep his thoughts to himself no longer.
“I wonder when himself will let me do some ploughing?” he said.
“You do some ploughing?” They laughed fit to kill themselves. “You’ll never make a ploughman! You’re far too thin! You’d be better stuck up in yonder field as a scarecrow. You would indeed.”
They thought this was a fine joke and laughed at it every day till April Fool’s day came round and they thought of another. Juan took all their jokes in good part though, and never once did he give up hope that one day he might indeed be a ploughman.
One day in May the sun was shining from a clear blue sky and everywhere, especially round the rock, the gorse was a dazzling gold. Juan was busy at his usual job and wishing he dared climb to the top of the rock and look out at the wonderful view, with the bright golden gorse, the sparkling sea, the blue mountains and above all, the ploughmen striding out with their horses. However, he wanted no more of the sharp edge of the master’s tongue, so he fixed his eyes on the ground and got on with the job.
All of a sudden he felt as though it was growing dark. Cold little fingers were touching his face and his hands and moving in the air about him. He looked up to find the bright sun and the blue sky had gone and the mist had come down so he couldn’t see from one end of the field to the other. A moment later he fancied he heard a horse galloping by quite close to him, then all was silent and he went on with his work. A little breeze sprang up then and he looked up again to find the mist had parted like a curtain, the sky was blue, the sun shone. Then Juan looked towards the rock and he could hardly believe his eyes.
At the foot of the rock stood a horse, a white horse, with a long flowing mane, magnificent and strong. At once Juan knew it could go on sea or land unafraid and gallop like the wind. On the rock above stood a man, taller than any man Juan had ever seen. He was wearing a long robe that was one moment grey, then green, and then blue as the light fell upon it. Over the robe was a golden cloak and he had golden sandals on his feet. He stood on the rock, still as a statue, his face towards the sea. After a moment he turned towards the mountains, but Juan hid his eyes, for he dare not look on the man’s face. It was like looking into the heart of the sun, when the sky is all gold at sunset. The brightness was more than his eyes could bear.
A moment later the mist came down and all was hidden again but Juan stood like a person bewitched. He rubbed his eyes and wondered if the gold of the gorse had dazzled him. But no! Again and yet again, three times in all, the mist curtain parted for a moment, and each time Juan saw the man and his horse. Then as suddenly as it had come the mist cleared away, the field was empty and the sun was shining.
Juan didn’t know what in the world to do. Could it be that he had really seen Manannan? And that white horse? Was it really Aonbarr that could ride over sea or land? How could such a thing have happened to him? The wonder of it made him afraid in that wide lonely place with no-one to speak to. He must tell someone what happened. But who?
Maybe he should tell the master. Then he thought of Chalse Sayle’s sharp words about wasting time up on the rock and thought better o fit. No use telling the two ploughmen. They would only laugh at him and there were times when Juan got tired of being laughed at. In the end he decided not to tell anyone but to listen to see if anyone else had seen anything of this strange sight, on that day or on any day.
But no! Not a word about such things from anyone.
Next day he got a change from picking stones. “I want you to help me to drive some cattle to the mart,” says the master.
“Maybe I’ll hear something today,” Juan said to himself.
But not a word here either. It was, “Did you get a good price for your calves?”
“How is wool selling this year?”
“Is a person likely to do better at Ramsey or at St John’s and him with pigs to sell?”
Then something happened that made him put the strange sight on the rock to the back of his mind for a time. The master came up to him one day and said, “It’s time for you to be putting your hand to the ploughing, boy.”
Juan could hardly believe his luck. It turned out to be very hard work, far harder than he ever thought it could be. At first he fell into bed at night with an ache in every bone and of course the two ploughmen had many a good laugh at him. Juan didn’t pay too much heed to them though, and when the master said, “Yes. You’re doing middling, boy. We’ll make a ploughman of you yet.” Juan forgot all his troubles.
One day, not long after this. Juan was just finishing his tea in the kitchen when the master came in and with him was a stranger. He had a Sunday suit on with a tie and collar although it was a weekday, his boots were made of fine black leather and polished – you could see he’d never walked in the mud – and his fingers were so long and white you could see he’d never handled a spade or a plough or a scythe in all his born days. Juan couldn’t make him out. He hadn’t come to sell cattle food or buy wool and yet by his tongue he was from across the water.
“I understand you’ve a high rock in the centre of one of your fields, Mr Sayle,” Juan heard him say.
“We have,” said the master.
“What name do you give it?”
“I never heard tell of any name on it.” The master sounded impatient as though he wanted his tea. “If you’re wanting to see it, Juan there will show it to you.”
Juan got up eagerly. After all this long time here was someone asking about the rock. Would he maybe understand what had happened on that day in the spring?
He led the stranger up into the field and watched him walk up the rough steps and stand a moment on the rock, look about him and then come down.
“What is the place?” asked Juan.
“One of the many spots on the Island where Manannan is said to still appear.”
Manannan! So it was Manannan he had seen that day, he thought, as the stranger began to talk about Manannan – the mist cloak, the boat, the white horse, the sword. Though he’d been driven from his Kingdom all those years ago, the story was he still came back from time to time to take a look at it. Juan could hardly wait for him to finish. Here at last was someone he could talk to!
“I know!” he cried when the stranger had ended his story. “I saw him myself when I was working in this field one day.”
The stranger didn’t hear him. He was too busy searching for things in his pockets. At last he brought them out, a pencil, a notebook, a measuring tape.
“If you would hold that,” he said, handing the tape to Juan, “I will take careful measurements and make a drawing of this rock. I can then compare it with those other places in the island.”
He set about measuring and drawing and writing and the minute he’d finished he thanked Juan for his help, bade him good day and walked off. No use to talk to him about the day he’d once seen Manannan! Him with his drawings and measuring and writing and comparing!
In the kitchen the master listened impatiently to what the stranger had been doing.
“Capers! Talk and nonsense! Measuring rocks indeed! I don’t know what the world is coming to or what people will be thinking of next. You give your mind to the ploughing, boy. That’ll do you far more good than listening to talk like yonder.”
Juan took his advice and soon he could plough as straight a furrow as any man in the parish and people began to say there wasn’t his equal for a horseman on any farm in the neighbourhood.
If Juan was in a ploughing match no man had a chance against him. Indeed, before long, he was champion ploughman of the parish and it was keeping work with herself to polish all the shining silver cups he’d won.
So at last Juan’s great wish was fulfilled and he was happy for that, but as you may think there was one other wish that he had – that he could find someone to listen to that story of the wonderful sight he’d seen and him only a bit of a boy picking stones in the field.
When he married Margaid Quilliam, a maid at the farm, and they went to live in a bit of a cottage close by, he thought maybe he would tell her. It was a winter’s night and they were seated by the fire. Margaid busy with her knitting when he began to tell his tale. He was half way through when Margaid interrupted him.
“My old grandmother was just such another as you for the tales and stories, Juan,” she laughed. “But the dear be good to me! While I’m here listening to you I’ve forgotten to prepare the broth for tomorrow,” and she was away to the back kitchen.
At that Juan thought to himself, ‘I’ve married the best wife in the world. There’s not her match anywhere for churning and washing and baking and cleaning. But she doesn’t want to listen to my story, that’s certain.’
The time went on and the time went on and two children were born to Juan and Margaid. Finlo and Fenella they called them. As soon as they were old enough the pair of them would be following their father about like shadows – in the barn, in the stable, in the cowhouse, in the fields. Now one wet day in November when there was no work outside for man or beasts, Juan was in the barn mending corn sacks. Finlo and Fenella were playing with the dog when all of a sudden Finlo says, “Tell us a story, da.”
“Yes, da. Tell us a story,” says Fenella.
Juan had never had much luck telling a story but there were the pair of them looking up at him for all the world like birds waiting to be fed. So he started to tell them about that day in the field.
Without a word they listened right to the end, their eyes growing big with the wonders he was telling them.
“Can we go and see the place?” asked Finlo.
“Yes, if you’re sure you won’t be afraid.”
“We won’t be afraid if you’re with us,” said Fenella.
“Let’s go now,” said Finlo.
“No, we can’t go now. We must wait for the gorse to be out on all the hedges in spring and a quiet day with no wind, when the mist might come down. That’s Manannan’s weather.
“Do you think we might see him, da?” Fenella’s voice was full of excitement.
“Well now, I think we might. You see I’ve a notion he still comes there and I’ll tell you why. It’s a very strange thing that every time I look at the place I fancy the grass looks richer and greener and the gorse brighter, and yonder high rock where I first saw him is more and more like a throne.”
So as he waited with Finlo and Fenella for a day of Manannan’s weather you may think Juan was happy at last. Not only was he able to share his great secret with two children he loved best in the world, but he knew also that they thought it as great a wonder as he did.
(source: from Twisting the Rope by Kathleen Killip (1980); photograph is of the statue of Manannan mac Lir by John Darren Sutton which was recently stolen and vandalised http://bit.ly/1LNptaA)