At six o’clock on a Sunday morning in July, Molly
Breen removed her clothes and ran naked along the beach.
On Doagh Island, Joe Doherty rubbed his eyes and blessed
himself. A late session in The Pollan Bar left him befuddled
and astray from the caravan he kept near the Point. Struggling
to his feet, mouth sour with last night’s Jameson,
he shaded his eyes. In the light tumbling down the dunes
across the Bar Mouth, a slim creature, red hair flying,
was running by the water. Her naked white body disturbed
Joe greatly. The sun dazzled his vision and he lost her
in the long grass about the sand hills.
“I seen a fairy beyond at Goorey.” he whispered
to Nora Kearney in the shop at Clonmany after Sunday Mass.
Busy with newspapers, hands smeared with print, Nora slapped
Joe’s change down on the counter. “By the smell
of the whiskey on you, Joe Doherty, ‘tis a wonder
you see anything!”
“I swear to God I saw a wee fairy on Lagg strand at
six this morning. Not a stitch on her but the red hair on
“Will ye go away and say your prayers. Haven’t
I enough to do without being pestered by you and your fairies?
Gripping the News of the World and a carton of milk, Joe
Doherty shuffled into the glare of July to find his bicycle.
He spat in the gutter and peddled off to Ballyliffin for
Ten years later on another bright Sunday morning, Molly
left Lagg chapel after mass. Her four girls – hair
brushed, bodies washed and smelling of soap – chatted
and laughed as the Peugeot bumped along the shore road.
Molly was still a pale creature, slightly built, with a
crown of exuberant red hair. In the rush for the chapel
she had only time to pull it back from her face and fix
a green ribbon. Her eyes were rimmed. Sleep was hard. Her
mouth felt dry and her hands were tight on the steering
“I’ll take the weans to see Mammy,” offered
Dennis Hennigan when they clambered from the car. You have
a few hours to yourself. You look tired,” he said
touching his wife’s cheek.
Molly didn’t object. Eileen Hennigan would love to
have her son fussing over her. “And where’s
she?” Molly could hear her say; “gallivanting
I suppose!” Then the sniff and nod of the head as
the old woman catalogued her ailments. “Will you put
the kettle on Dennis? I’m not able. The leg it is.
All the way up.”
It was the Glorious Twelfth. Cars from Derry and Tyrone
trailed along the Lagg Road heading for Five Fingers Strand
and Malin Head. Molly parked her Peugeot at the Back Strand
below Quigley’s Hill and crossed the shore. The tide
was out, moving fast at the Bar Mouth. She clambered over
stones and kicked off her shoes. Sand seeped between her
toes. Behind her the stones were warm. She selected a white
pebble, fingering its roundness and blew the sand out of
its crevices. The colour matched her skin.
Bleeding had started a month ago. At first she thought her
periods were dizzy but the blood was different.
“Isn’t Dennis with you?” Doctor Anne had
asked in the surgery at Carndonagh.
“I haven’t told him yet. Nobody knows but you.”
Dennis wasn’t able to cope with stress. As long as
his job in the Council Office at Carn was safe and he got
his car allowance, Dennis was fine. A few pints at weekend
with the lads and an occasional meal out with the wife was
all he wanted. Fussing about his mammy’s ailments
was the limit of his concern for others. After a few drinks
he would grope at Molly, reeking of stout and mumbling how
lovely she was. Passion expended, he fell away snoring.
“Dennis wouldn’t cope, Doctor,” whispered
Molly. “I’m as well hearing it on my own.”
Her knuckles were white with tension. She sat rigid in the
chair, teeth clenched, red hair pulled back tight in pony-tail
“The results are back from Dublin…” Anne
Sheridan paused and squeezed her fountain pen. Why wasn’t
the husband here? She swallowed and continued.
A cormorant flew down the bay, dam buster style, long neck
inches from the ocean, wings flapping. Splash! Spray flew
white above the blue grey sea and glinted in the mid-day
light. Molly held her hand above her eyes to ward off the
sun. Leaning on one arm, her hip formed a niche in the sand
as she inhaled the warm air laced with salt. Beyond her
toes, on the horizon, a thin line of whiteness marked the
meeting of sea and sky. Here waves broke on the five rocks
that gave the strand its name. Above this thin white line
the dome of the sky blended greys and blues. Clouds hung
like washed clothes, strung across the ocean.
Molly’s gaze turned inwards. Anne Sheridan had diagnosed
cancer of the uterus; malignant cancer. It would probably
kill her. Poor Dennis! How would he cope with four children,
four little red haired girls? They would remove her womb
of course. In Dublin. Probably before the month was out.
Then they would know for certain. Four girls without a mother.
How was she going to tell them? What can she say to Dennis?
They had married at Lagg chapel because Dennis didn’t
want his parents to travel down to Dublin. “We’re
not able for the journey,” they chanted. That refrain:
“We’re not able” was to haunt her. She
saw it pass to Dennis and sour his ambition.
It had been an enchanting July. The white chapel in the
sand dunes bathed in light. Photographs on the strand. The
purple ocean. Fuchsia. Honeysuckle. Curlews crying on the
shore as they lay, twined around each other, in the dawn
of their wedding night.
She had been so excited that she had not slept the night
before the wedding. It had been hot and her mouth was dry.
Scents of wild garlic drifted through the night. At six
in the morning she went to the shore bare footed, in shorts
and a red tea shirt. In the dunes, above a ridge of pink
and blue stones, an Oystercatcher circled, piping anxiously.
His long thick bill shone bright orange. “Like Dennis
tonight - I hope!” she screamed. And she discarded
her shirt and shorts and ran naked in the sand, yearning
for the delights of her wedding bed.
“What will I tell him? That I’m going to die?
That he will have to rear the girls on his own? No more
love making. No looking forward. Only memories. How will
he handle his mammy? Poor Dennis!”
The sun was turning her pale skin pink. She’d be like
a gaffed salmon if she stayed. ‘Lady in Red’
Dennis had called her when he first undressed her. Molly
looked down the beach. Ridges formed in the sand where the
receding tide had whirled. Yellow wrack and seaweed glittered.
A couple strolled hand in hand, their shadows stretching.
She smelt salt and blood. Her hair was flying. Beyond the
Bar Mouth on the Island children were laughing. A fisherman
was waist high in the water, fingers on his line, rod poised
to cast. Dare she?
On Doagh Island Joe Doherty was fiddling with a pair of
binoculars. They were a birthday present from his grandson.
He was on the rocks outside his caravan with a bottle of
Smithwicks at his feet.
“What did Jamie say?” he muttered as he tried
to focus on the Lagg shore, eyes filled with sweat, “Twist
the nob in the middle for the left eye. And this yoke for
the other one…” His mouth fell open. “Holy
God, she’s back!” He blessed himself.
“I swear to God I saw her again,” he protested
later in the Pollan Bar, cradling a large Jameson. “The
whiteness of her; the red hair flying and not a stitch on
her! Running from the Fairy King, I tell you, and him beyond
in Goorey on the heights, up in Ard na Si.”
The sun had gone, dipping behind Glasheedy. Night came
slowly, dark and soft. Sheep bleated for each other. Micky
Davitt had been making hay. The smell of cut grass flooded
the bedroom where Molly lay bathed and still, her red hair
splayed across the pillow.
She heard the crunch of gravel as Dennis lurched up the
street from Doc’s Bar. The latch dropped. He was taking
off his shoes. Under the duvet she turned on her back and
slipped off her shirt. She was ready.