"Sure enough. May we ask on the banks of what river?"
The boy glanced again at his adored father.
"Isn't it the Boyne?"
At a noise from outside, the Storyteller swung his head hopefully. The door heaved open; a man and woman ambled in with two daughters, aged about twelve and eight. One was blond and one red-haired, and they wore flowered pinafores. The younger girl was directed to join the boy on the high bench by the fire, where she sat watching the Storyteller with wonderland eyes.
A coal fell forward on the hearth. The Storyteller sucked vigorously on his pipe, and it made a little dottle of noise. Next moment, the audience increased againanother couple strolled in from across the lane with their young daughter.
Word had obviously spread. Perhaps someone among the farms had earlier seen the tall stranger's descent through the misty fields and guessed who or what he was. So he would have an audience tonight. Whether he would have one tomorrow nightor a venuewould depend on him.
"What would you like in your whiskey?" asked the host.
One neighbor said, "More," and they all laughed.
After some minutes of talk and smiles, everyone settled down. No electricity in the houses in those days; an oil lamp in the window and another with a glass sconce on the wall laid gilded shadows into the room. The firelight played on the Storyteller's long face. He jiggled his pipe, eased back in his chair, spread his shoulders, and began.
EVERY WORTHWHILE STORY BEGINS WITH THE immortal words, "Once upon a time." Never did a phrase ring so true as it will this evening. I have come to this hospitable and decent house to continue my life's work, to do what I do every night of the year. And that is, to tell the story of Ireland.
The tale I shall render you this evening concerns the most brilliant Irishman of all time. He was the architect of Newgrangebut, as all stories should, this one begins before its own beginning. And that was a long, long time ago, before there was ever a place called Newgrange, before there was ever an architect to build its famous work, even before there was a country called Ireland.
So: once upon a time, the ground upon which we walk was no more than a lump of stone down at the center of the earth. It was part of the thick shell containing that furnace that rages down there night and day. And that thick shell was always kept cool by the oceans that covered it. But in the early days of our planet, the shell was weak in places. The flames burst through again and again, and vast layers of rock were flung up into the seas.
This boiling volcanic surface spread over the prehistoric oceans. It split and re-formed into wide lands of nothing but black rock. And these split and re-formed and cooled and split again until, two thousand, five hundred million years ago, there were five continents. These continents became all the countries of the world.
And so, every land on this planet is the child of ocean and rock, water and stone. Every day and every age since then, some rock or island somewhere crumbles and breaks off at the edge of some landmass.
Many of those fragments still retain the shapes of the countries and continents to which they were once joined. On the maps of my schooldays, some of them look like couples who have gone to sleep close to each other and then floated gently apart in the night. Tomorrow, take out your atlas and look at Ireland and Britain. Together, they look like a child curled up asleep near a larger child, who is then curled up in the lee of the parent continent, Europe.
From Ireland by Frank Delaney. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission, Harper Collins. Copyright Frank Delaney 2004; all rights reserved.
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