A BOY HE WAS, AND BEAUTIFUL
Oisín Doyle’s mother died seven minutes after he was born, never having even laid eyes upon her son. But what a beautiful boy he was on that day. His father, Declan, saw his beloved wife’s light and love in his little son’s eyes, and though he would never have told him, he couldn’t help but love him for that—though it also grated on him a bit as well.
Declan took the child home to meet his toddler daughter, Grace, who took to Oisín immediately, though she did express some confusion about where her mother was. The family lived on the small and isolated farm that Declan rented from the landlord in the Urris Hills, in northern Donegal, and since Grace didn’t have that many friends her age to play with, her new little brother quickly became her primary playmate and favorite pastime.
As time went on, Oisín grew into a thick and strong young man, but the very things that made him such a sweet-looking infant increasingly made him a rather ugly-looking child—especially to Declan. His cheeks were too plump, his nose was too bulbous, and his eyes still reminded him of his lost Aibreann. As time went on, every time that he looked at the boy, he seemed just a little bit more disappointed with him.
But Grace loved him, and loved to be with him. As they grew, she regailed him with stories of the great heroes of Ireland’s past that she read about in her books—the hunters and warriors and poet-kings who took their stands against monsters and ogres and invaders alike. So Oisín grew up with tales of Cú Chulainn to wake him in the morning, and the Tuatha Dé Danann to keep him warm as he slept. He was a happy child.
It was hard for them to be able to get to school, of course, so both of them spent most of their time working at home. Grace took care of the house, for the most part, while Oisín helped Declan in the fields, moving stones, digging stumps, and helping to till the ground. It was a good life, out there in the fresh air and sunshine. Oisín loved to work up a good sweat, feeling the callouses build on his hands and knowing that each day, he’d taken just a little bit more of the chaos of the soil and helped to turn it just a little bit more into something that would provide for his family’s needs. And then he’d climb to the Mamore Gap overlooking Buncrana and listen for the sea-sounds, close his eyes and try to breathe in the scents of the sea, and pretend that he was waiting for the Vikings or the Fomhóraigh to come ashore, so that he could fight them all off again.
Invariably, his father would tell him to stop acting the maggot and get back to work. But he liked to think of it as a game that they played together, and at the end of the day, Grace would make up a story for them all about how Oisín had done some amazing feat of strength and she had done something amazingly clever, and about how together, they’d pushed the invaders back to the sea.
But by the time that Oisín was twenty-one, their father was in a bad way. He’d taken ill after a particularly wet and cold winter, and he’d never really recovered. Grace wrote to their Grandad for some help, since their father had always told them that the old man had more money than Croesus, whoever that was. But Declan had been estranged from their grandfather for years, and Grace never heard anything back from him. For all they knew, Grandad had already passed on. For all they knew, the three of them were all that each other had in the world, and even Oisín’s prodigious strength couldn’t work the fields alone.
So because Grace needed to stay to take care of their father, it was up to Oisín to go find work in far-off Letterkenny to try to provide for the family and their father’s mounting medical expenses. Declan reminded him that he had no education to speak of—and, to be truthful, he wouldn’t have fared well in school if he’d had the opportunity, since he was so far removed from the intellect of his older sister—so he took the first job offered to him and began working with a construction crew that was erecting a new building that sounded like it was to be easily twice as large as any structure that Oisín had ever seen, including that church building that he’d seen when he was a boy. They needed a strong back, and they let the workers stay for free in tents just outside of town, so the situation seemed simply grand to him.
Every day, he’d load his wheelbarrow with large chunks of stone, and every day, he’d haul them up the road to the construction site, where they’d be broken down and fitted by men with so much skill that Oisín was transfixed when he watched their careful work. In order to save time so that he could be able to watch them longer, he loaded his wheelbarrow with more and more stones each day, and soon, he was hauling more than any two other workers. “Oisín an Buabhall,” they called him—“Oisín the Buffalo”—and he enjoyed being liked by his new friends.
But on the weekends, the men from the tents would often go into Letterkenny to get drunk and to flirt with the pretty girls in the pubs, and it always made Oisín feel uncomfortable. He thought of Grace, all alone and taking care of their father, and he knew how bad he would feel about wasting the little money that he was making for them on drinking and laughing and eating rich food. He also thought of her when he saw the men dancing with the girls, and how hurt he would feel if anyone had ever showed such casual disrespect to his sister the way that some of the men did toward the girls in town. Each of those girls probably had a Dad and a Grandad and a brother as well, didn’t they? And weren’t they just as decent folk as his own family, back in the Urris Hills? Besides, Oisín felt that a good man should treat every woman like a lady, no matter where she was from.
But of course, he also knew from the one time that he had gone into town with his friends that the girls in Letterkenny had no interest in a bulky Ulsterman with shaggy hair and a lumpy face. Liam Cunningham always had a girl for himself on each arm, but there were none to be had for Oisín Doyle. It made him sad to know that his father’s name would almost certainly die with him—that though he knew that Grace would someday find a good man and start her own family, the Doyles would surely never outlive Oisín himself. But the thought didn’t make him sad for long, because he would sit out by his tent at night while the young men were in town, and he would look to the North, and he would think of his Dad and of Grace, and he would be happy knowing that they truly loved him.
He sent letters and money back to Grace every week, and she sent happy letters back to him. She would always write him a little poem, or come up with a joke that would make him laugh, but he did miss hearing the sound of her voice, and he missed her brownbread. Oh, the food at his construction camp was fine, though some of the men complained for reasons that Oisín never really did understand. But there was something about coming home after a long day in the fields and smelling Grace’s warm brownbread, being refreshed with a nice, cold cup of clean water. The thought of it smelled like home to him, and it warmed his heart.
One day, while he was carting his wheelbarrow full of stone to the construction site, the gaffer came to him in the company of a man in a fine suit, whose name was McMurtry. The well-dressed man looked Oisín over and told the gaffer that he’d do well in the Féile Ghaelach, but Oisín didn’t understand what they were talking about. So the gaffer explained that the Féile Ghaelach was a festival that was coming up, and that it would finally be held in Letterkenny this year, and that it would be filled with people and food and music and games and prizes. Oisín agreed that it sounded like a grand time, but he didn’t know what it was that Mr. McMurtry needed from him.
The gaffer told him of a game where men would carry large stones up a hill, and the one who carried the most stones would win a special prize—nothing less than £50! Now, that was more than Oisín was going to see in a year’s worth of work, and for doing exactly the same thing that he did every day anyway! So he was happy to agree to be in the games, and he let the gaffer sign him up. But Mr. McMurtry said that he couldn’t tell anyone about any of it until the day of the Féile Ghaelach, because no one knew who he was, and that it would help with some sort of business dealings that Mr. McMurtry would have regarding the competition. He just patted Oisín on the shoulder, gave him a big grin, and told him that he would make them both a great deal of money. Oisín was so excited that he wanted to write a letter that night and send it off to Grace, but he remembered his promise to Mr. McMurtry, and he kept the matter to himself.
But every day, he took to putting an extra stone into his wheelbarrow, just to help himself to grow a little stronger. And he took to moving a little faster when he was pushing the wheelbarrow, just to build up his legs and his lungs. He thought of climbing the Reachtain Mhór back home, and picturing the Urris Hills always made him happy. Maybe, if he made enough money at the Féile Ghaelach, he could get to go home that much sooner and see his family again. He slept well every night thinking about that, and he woke up every morning so excited to get to work that his friends laughed at him, but he just laughed along with them.
On the day of the Féile Ghaelach, he splashed his face with water, and then he went to the gaffer’s home to get a ride to the festival. The gaffer’s wife was a nice woman who made him bacon and eggs, which he ate along with a thick chunk of brownbread slathered in butter, washed down with a large glass of fresh milk. It was the grandest breakfast that he had ever eaten in his whole life, and afterwards, he felt just like Cú Chulainn himself, ready to do battle. He thanked her with such a sincerity that the woman seemed almost embarrassed by the praise, but she genuinely appreciated his good heart, and she wished him well at the games.
And it was a beautiful day that day. The sun was warm and shining, but the clouds were thick enough to keep the light from blinding everyone. The gaffer led Oisín to a small but steep hill with a bricked platform on top, which had a huge pile of large stones at its base. Nearby, he saw a number of strapping men stretching and flexing their muscles, surrounded by pretty young girls who cooed and flirted with them. All of that made Oisín uncomfortable. But then he saw Mr. McMurtry in the crowd and waved at him, though Mr. McMurtry seemed more frustrated by the familiarity than appreciative. Nonetheless, Oisín decided that it was good to have a friend in the crowd.
As a smiling woman pinned numbers on each of the competitors, a judge told them the rules—that at the firing of his pistol, they would each grab whichever stones they wished, carry them to the top of the hill, and then set them down into the area on the platform marked by the number that the woman had pinned on their shirts. They could stop picking up stones any time that they wanted to be done, but if they ever dropped a stone, then they would be immediately disqualified. That seemed simple enough to Oisín. Apparently, when all was said and done, the stones would be weighed, and the man who had been able to haul the most weight to the top of the hill would be declared the winner of the £50 prize, while the man in second place would win £25, and the man in third place would win £10. Even third place sounded like a small fortune to Oisín, and he was excited to begin.
With the number “4” pinned to his shirt, Oisín took his place on the line next to a giant of a Scotsman called Fraser. He wished the man good fortune, but Fraser just growled in return and spat on the ground. Oisín didn’t understand why the man seemed so angry with him, when all he did was to genuinely wish him well—but then again, he remembered that he had never actually met a Scotsman in person before, and he thought perhaps that things were different in Scotland.
At that, the judge fired his pistol, and the men all ran to the pile of stones. Oisín waited for the others to pick their stones, and then he picked a smallish one, just to get a sense of its weight. He carried it easily to the top of the hill and placed it into the spot labeled with the number “4” on it. Then he trotted back down the hill to pick up a slightly large stone and repeat the process. By the time that he had picked his fourth stone, several of the other men were already red-faced and winded, but Oisín was just catching his stride.
He decided to pick the largest stone that he thought that he could reasonably carry, so that he could haul it up the hill while his muscles were still strong and fresh. On the way up the hill, he passed by a red-haired man who was trembling as he carried a stone of about the same size. Oisín placed his stone onto the platform, then turned back just in time to see the other man trip and drop his stone right before he reached the top. As the other competitors bustled past them both, Oisín knelt down to make sure that the red-haired man was all right. What a sad thing it must have been, to have worked so hard, and then to have been disqualified simply because you caught your foot on a brick!
Oisín helped the red-haired man to his feet, assured him that he had done a splendid job, really, and then encouraged him to enjoy the rest of the festival. Then he made his way back down the hill to the pile of stones and picked out another one, carrying it back up the hill again.
Soon, he noticed that there were fewer and fewer men carrying stones alongside of him. He didn’t know if they had been disqualified, or if they had simply gotten too tired to go on, but by the end, it all came down to Oisín, Fraser, and another man with a tattoo on his neck. The crowd was cheering them on, and for the first time in his life, Oisín felt something like pride—like perhaps, if only for that moment, he really was a hero like Cú Chulainn or Brian Boru or the like. The cheering pushed him to carry on, even though the muscles in his arms and shoulders began to burn. He thought that he could hear his father and Grace there in the crowd, standing by Mr. McMurtry and cheering him forward, and his face broke out into a huge smile as he carried his stones up the mound and dropped them onto the bricks.
With a loud shout, the man with the tattoo screamed out a profanity that made the ladies in the crowd gasp, flinging his final stone onto the bricks. He threw up his hands and grumbled something about not seeing the need to carry another stone if he was just going to end up with a measly £10 no matter what he did from this point forward. Oisín dropped his own stone into his spot and then reached out his hand to congratulate the man for his hard work at carrying so many stones. The tattooed man looked shocked, then let out a huge laugh, and finally shook Oisín’s hand, slapping him on the back and calling him a name that Oisín didn’t understand. He wished him well, and then told him to go grab another stone and put that Scotsman in his place.
But Fraser was doing an amazing bit of work, Oisín thought to himself. He was carrying stones up that hill that Oisín knew that he himself could never have even lifted. But he also knew that he had carried up more stones than Fraser had—and more quickly—so perhaps they might total more weight by the end of the day. Then again, he’d more or less stopped focusing on all of that somewhere along the way, and simply set his mind to carrying one stone after another up the hill.
But after a while, it became harder and harder to even pick up the stones in the first place. His legs were burning, and the blood from his hands made it hard to get a good grip on the stones. But he thought of his father, and he thought of Grace, and he thought of his Grandad—who had all the money in the world, but couldn’t spare a shilling to help his own son. Oisín worried about his father back at their little house, but he also found himself becoming worried all the more about his Grandad. Sure, Declan had Grace there to be with him, but what if his grandfather had no one? What if he was sitting out there right now, even as Oisín was carrying this next stone, alone in some cold, big house with no one to take care of him in his old age? Here Oisín had been so blessed—even after the passing of his mother—to have been loved all his life by such a good family, and maybe his own Grandad had nothing but gold to his credit. He promised himself that he would use at least a little bit of his winnings to find his Grandad and show him that he wasn’t really alone—that there were still Doyles in this world who yet cared for him.
But his legs were moving slower, and Oisín’s feet were finding it harder to dig in for the trip up the hill. On this final climb, Fraser brushed past him, and he felt the heavy stone slide out of his gore-covered fingers. His heart skipped a beat, but he immediately fell to his knees on the side of the hill so that he could catch the stone against his thighs. He almost fell backwards from the sudden shift in weight, but then he righted himself and caught his breath. He watched Fraser drop his stone onto the platform, and then finally tumble over himself, collapsing onto the bricks.
Oisín tried to stand, but struggled to make it to his feet on the steep slope. He couldn’t just sit there, but he couldn’t release the stone without disqualifying himself, so he didn’t know what to do. He tried again, but his legs felt like noodles in a stew. All of that work, all of those stones, and here he was, letting Mr. McMurtry down, and the gaffer down, and his father down, and Grace down.
He pictured climbing Reachtain Mhór again, and what a glorious climb it was. And then he pictured looking out over beautiful Buncrana, watching the waves break against the shoreline. He could almost smell the salty sea air, and almost smell Grace’s baking brownbread, and almost hear her cheering his name. He thought to himself that a buffalo would never just sit there on the slope of a hill with a great stone in its lap, and he promised himself that it would just be this one, last stone to carry. All that anyone ever has to carry in this life is just one more stone, really—and how hard is that?
Oisín took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, knotted his great, ugly, lumpy face, and pulled the stone back upon his belly, scooping his arms beneath it and pushing up again with his legs. They trembled like a baby goat who was standing for the first time, but he got himself up to his feet again. He pictured Mr. McMurtry cheering him on, and he took one step toward the bricks, and then another. He couldn’t actually hear the crowds any more because the blood was rushing so loudly in his own ears, and because his lungs were rasping so loudly in his own chest, but he could still imagine their shouts nonetheless.
He reached the platform and was about to drop his stone into its spot, when he saw that Fraser still lay in his path. Oisín was ashamed that, for a fleeting moment, he almost considered dropping the stone into the corner of his area, even though it would’ve crushed the poor Scotsman’s hand. So he stepped to the side, and then stepped to the side, and then carefully dropped it nearby, so that it didn’t roll back onto Fraser’s unconscious form.
And then he looked up into the bright afternoon sky with a great, beaming smile, and collapsed as well.
But he was quite awake again by the evening, when the judges had weighed all of the stones and the smiling woman who’d pinned the number to his shirt came to the pavillion tell him that it was time for him to receive his prize. Then she looked down at his hands and she began to cry a little, weeping for what he’d done to them—and her tender heart moved Oisín to tears as well. She was so sweet about washing them with clean water, and then gently wrapping them with strips of linen. She was thanking him for stopping to take care of her brother, the red-haired man who’d fallen at the top of the hill, but Oisín’s hands hurt so badly that he couldn’t really follow what she was saying.
But then, after she was done bandaging his hands, she stood up on her toes and gently—ever-so-gently—gave him just the tiniest kiss on his lumpy cheek. He blushed, and she blushed, and then she ran out of the pavillion with a little giggle. He didn’t understand why any woman with such a sweet a smile as she had would ever kiss such an ugly cheek as his own, but he reached up to touch where her lips had brushed his skin, and he realized that he had quite altogether forgotten the pain in his hands.
The gaffer then came to get him, and brought him to the review stand alongside the man with the tattoo and the giant Scotsman. The judge was shouting to the crowd about spectacles and heroes and prizes and glory, but Oisín’s thoughts drifted somewhere between the Urris Hills and the warm spot on his cheek. In the end, the judge gave the man with the tattoo some money and a beautiful green sash. And he gave Fraser a beautiful blue sash and even more money. And he gave Oisín his very own beautiful red sash, and pound notes totaling £25—the most money that he’d ever seen all at one time in his life!
The crowd was cheering all three of them, and he looked for Mr. McMurtry among them, though he didn’t see him anywhere. In fact, he never saw the man again. But Fraser frowned and growled as he cheered back to the people, promising something about doing even better next year when the games were in Scotland. Oisín reached out his bandaged hand to the Scotsman, so proud to have been beaten by such an amazingly strong opponent. Fraser laughed at him—a different sort of laugh than the tattooed man had laughed—and just walked away.
But Oisín stood in the waning sunlight, wearing his red sash, holding his fortune, and listening to the sounds of his friends in the crowd, and he was happy. The man with the tattoo came over, slapped him on his shoulders again, and told him that he was a beautiful lad with the heart of a hero. It was at that moment that Oisín looked up and saw the woman smiling at him from the crowd, next to her brother, with a look of pride and excitement in her face that he didn’t really understand.
But he knew that he would be going home soon, and that he would tell his sister and his father that this had been simply the grandest day in the history of the world.