Caught by the River

Creagh, West Cork, 1975

18th October 2022

Read the first chapter of James Yorkston’s newly published ‘The Book of the Gaels’ — the tale of two kids and their struggling, poet father, set between West Cork and Dublin in the mid-1970’s.

Due to the proximity of the house to the lough, or perhaps more accurately, the proximity of the house to the cess pit, there was always an army of flies around, and they were more often in the house than out. I’d say the constant rain was an irritation for them, and here inside they’d find enough scraps and scrapes of food to get by. We’d watch them squadron around the house, up and down the staircase, in and out of rooms, groups of twenty or so, sometimes interacting with smaller groups, buzzing, conversing. We’d be sitting there, my wee brother Paul and me, commentating on their battle manoeuvres, the flies from upstairs being the rotten Jerrys, and our brave Scottish brigade gallantly guarding the foot, the exit to outside. What helped our fantastic little game was that on occasion a fly would all of a sudden drop out of the air, dead. It’d lie beside us, give us a last shimmy, a shake of the legs and be still.

We discussed when it had last been to Confession. Would its soul be clean? Bless me, fly-father, for I have sinned. It has been two long minutes since my last confession. In that time, I have landed on an apple and wandered around a bit before taking off again for the big light, you know, the one in the kitchen…

Once, a fly death-valleyed in Paul’s hair, and sensing it wasn’t on the hallowed ground of the window sill or the staircase, or the sink or the fruit bowl, or a shoe or drink, it fuzzled for a good minute longer than we were used to. Paul was screaming Get it off! Get it off ! And I was dancing around him like a puppet master, invisible strings to Paul’s head, scared to touch him, scared to see the fly. When the buzzing stopped, Paul sat on the stairs weeping and I, bravely, looked through his hair and removed most of the fly.

Is it all gone?
It is.
It wasn’t, but the most of it was. I think maybe I lost a leg with the combing, and maybe a wing, but nothing one wouldn’t get riding down the path outside on a pony or a bicycle.

Once the bodies were dead for sure, safe, still, we’d pick them up by shuffling them on to pieces of paper using one of our father’s old books, until we had a bunch, twenty or so, then we’d carefully carry them to the top of the stair. We’d position ourselves and wait, waiting for the next battalion of flies to emerge from below. When they arrived, or when we had become bored, we’d throw the entire lot of carcasses into the air and down the stairwell, shouting Attack! Attack! And Hiawatha!

I have no idea what the other flies thought, if anything. Seeing their dead cousins springing briefly back into life then falling like a stone once more on to the ribbed stair carpet below.

Next time we scooped them up, they’d be missing legs, half their bodies, wings… Where did it go, all this excess?

Come supper, I’d stir my soup with caution.


‘The Book of the Gaels’ is out now, published by Oldcastle Books, and available here (£9.49).