Written by Patrick McCloskey

The Morrígan

The Morrígan by Patrick McCloskey

Re-telling of a Mississippi Delta Blues legend based on an old story of a hoof at Dungiven Castle. Robert Johnson sells his soul to ‘The Morrígan’ to win a Championship with Dungiven.

“I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees,

I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees,

Asked the Lord above, “have mercy now, save poor Bob, if you please”

 

1947 

McGuigan, the groundsman, did his rounds faithfully as ever. ‘An Geimhreadh Mór’, the Great Winter, some of the older people had called it. But the grass – supple and fresh – bore no scars of the cold. Philosophers of the time wrote much of the arrogance of a world of oil and iron, and of how the great evil had been borne of the determination to make Gods of men, and reforge the earth in their image. But to McGuigan and his kind, the tempering of nature to their own will was no new science.

Where there was discord, he brought harmony. The workings of the earth and the sky were not to him geography and meteorology, but mischief: the conspiracies of powers greater than himself ever assailing his beloved ground. But this was his cross and he carried it willingly. It was in this toil that he formed mastery of the elements. In biting winters, he sheltered the ground, sustaining its life and vitality. In piercing suns, he transplanted the life of the river into the parched grass. With great tin buckets, scalding to the touch, he’d trek to and forth the Roe. His flesh blistered and his muscles aching, he’d nonetheless conduct these pilgrimages balanced gracefully as the scales of Themis.

On this morning, the second sunday of January, McGuigan looked over his field and was glad. This was to be the first training of the new season and he was sure that Michelangelo or Caravaggio never enjoyed a canvas so fine as that which he had offered to the Dungiven senior team. He took a final inspection of the field, seeing nothing out of place; rejoicing in the trigonometric perfection of its lines and the solace of his lonely vocation. Finally, he set himself towards the changing rooms.

He was met by Eddie Kealey, full-back and club captain, polishing the leather of his boots. “Who’s on the far end of that pitch?” asked Eddie in place of a greeting. Now it should be said that McGuigan – for all the admiration and gratefulness the people of Dungiven held towards his craft – was the object of a fair share of the town’s sharp wit. A man of extraordinary cantankerousness, he was quick to rise to any wind-up, particularly when it came to the matter of the field, and the people of Dungiven never tired in riling McGuigan until the redness of his cheeks and the purpleness of his veins could not contrast anymore with the greyness of his curt mustache. He saw Kealey’s gambit as but another smartarse prank. Not ten seconds had passed since McGuigan had walked alone through the field. Had he not been to mass that same morning, McGuigan doubted he would have had the grace to hold his tongue. “Suit yourself”, Eddie muttered.

In time, the rest of the side dwindled in. Arthur, Jim, Willie and Johnny each arrived with the same question: “McGuigan sur”, they’d say “who’s on the far end of that pitch?”. Even the grace of God has its limitations and with each jibe, McGuigan found it ever more difficult to restrain himself. Finally, Peter, the corner forward arrived and, pointing to the far end of the pitch, posed the same question. McGuigan’s store of serenity had at last been depleted.

McGuigan had the method of communication one inevitably develops from years of perennially protesting at corrupt referees and roaring at incompetent half-backs. His voice could rise or fall seven octaves between words and he spoke with a speed greater than the rate at which a referee’s eyes transmit neurosignals to their brain.

Forf***sakebaws,” he shrilled, “what – in – under – God is thef***ingcraichere? There’s nomore a man on that pitch” Typically, then, this would be the climax of the joke, with McGuigan screeching and raging to the crowd. But there was no prank at work. There was a man at the far end of the pitch and if McGuigan – who would be thought of at times as ‘not keeping very well’ – couldn’t see him, then that was a cause for some concern.

With gruff clarity, Eddie looked to set McGuigan at ease. “McGuigan”, he stated, “there’s a man on the far end of that pitch”. But McGuigan’s tantrum only worsened. He clasped at his hair and lashed out at walls and spat poison with his tongue. “EddieKealeysur” he screamed, “if you say that tay me wanmoretime, I sweartay God you will be on your back sur”.

Even in his delirium, McGuigan – short and plump – knew he couldn’t swing for the full-back. To silence the mockery he had no choice but to go out and look at the pitch and then when he – he who had dug and planted and loved that pitch for their sakes – would gesticulate and roar that there was not a soul out there, there would sound a chorus of cheers and laughter at his expense. Once again, the rise would be got from McGuigan. But at least then it would be over.

So he stormed to the door and thumped down the handle and threw it back with a force he knew would crumble plaster and and looked out with the assured expectation of seeing nothing but his own humiliation and he saw, at the far end of the pitch, a man kicking footballs. And now McGuigan, who knew more acutely than anyone that there were days when he didn’t keep very well, had some cause for concern.

ii

It was not so much a great season as it was the great season and – this being Dungiven – there was no shortage of parties willing to come forth and receive the allocades. Roe, the manager, planted in his corner of McReynolds, was generous of his own contribution and attributed the season’s glory to his pioneering methods of coaching. “The modern game, baws”, he’d announce between pint-supping “is all science, so ‘tis. I’ve every man on that team at the least – theveryleastsur – taking two more fags a day, just to keep the lungs tickin’ over, soahdo”. And while Roe took rest to sup more of his pint, Mudra, the number nine, would come forth with his own theories. “The modern game, baws”, he’d say – and the others would think this was a very familiar opening line – “is all about off the ball, so ‘tis. Now when I – *hiccup* – see my man makin’ his move, whatahwouldsur do is ahwould take my hand and drive it into the back of his throat – and if it weren’t for th’on court case, then I’d say it was nearly too good”. And the patrons would listen attentively to these lectures and give all the “aye, you’re right Roesur” and the “aye, you’re not wrong Mudrasur” they could muster. In secret, however, it was known that the triumphs of the year had little do with Roe, or Mudra or indeed any one from Dungiven it all. It was the newcomer – the man from the far end of the field, ‘The Morrígan’.

There were, as far as anyone could tell, three things known of The Morrígan. The first, very simply, was that he was called Morrígan. Now it was not known if this was is his Christian name or his surname, or indeed if he had both a Christian name and a surname. But when asked his name, he would reply: “Morrígan” and – as his legend spread – this materialised as ‘The Morrígan’.

The second was that he was from “the south”. Again, precisely what “the south” meant was unknown. He’d surrender nothing more than a compass point. There were times when he was taken for Mediterranean, with olive skin and dark eyes. And then there were times when he could be taken for pure Celtic, his eyes green-blue and his skin sandy and pale. In fact, in between sights of him, no one could ever recall exactly what The Morrígan looked like such that it could never be known if The Morrígan always looked different or if he always looked the same or of he looked like anything at all. But when The Morrígan was there, it was unmistakably known that this was The Morrígan. His presence was felt more than seen.

The third was that he was – as McGuigan put it – a “quarefootballeraltogether”. He never missed. In fact, he never did anything but score. He never tackled, never solo’d, never passed. For a man who never ran, he was forever in space. Unmarked, unchallenged and unflinching he had put over so many scores that Dungiven ploughed their way through the senior championship, never winning by a margin of less than twelve points.

iii

They were to meet Lavey in the final and it was thought that The Morrígan was now to meet his end at the hands of Ó’Loinsigh. Ó’Loinsigh was a purebred full-back of the South Derry genome. A lumberjack by trade, Ó’Loinsigh conceived of cute-hoor-forwards as he did of fir trees: as but gangly planks to be chopped down. He pledged to silence the talk surrounding this ‘newcomer’.

Ó’Loinsigh’s rare breed of biblical brutality proved extremely profitable. Lords and Ladies across Ireland sought out the ‘Sperrin Savage’ who felled trees in a matter of blows, and forests in a matter of days. Yet Ó’Loinsigh was no mindless barbarian, no hulking mass of muscle without contact with his cerebral faculties. His mother had been a literary woman of the Gaelic Revival. She had read to him of the stories of the Fianna who in the midst of battle would let out the Dord Fianna, a war-cry which could not pierce armour but shattered spirits and courage. And he had read himself of ‘El Deguello’, the song of the throat cutting. Besieging their enemies, Bolivarian revolutionaries of Latin America would sound the tune as an omen of death; disarming minds before clashing swords. Ó’Loinsigh knew intimately the force of psychological warfare. Games were, he theorised, won and lost in the preliminary handshake. With his great forearms moving like the pistons of steam engines, he’d crush his adversary’s hand, humming softly the ‘El Deguello’, his gaze focused and unblinking, locking down his hand as if proposing to collapse arteries and grind bone to dust.

With this intention, Ó’Loinsigh approached The Morrígan. He tensed his arm, preparing to exert the paralysing force of his vice grip. He took The Morrígan by the wrist but before he could contort his hand into position he felt his muscles weaken and his arm fall limp. He felt the blood in his fingertips curdle and watched as his veins decayed to black and expanded and then bubbled like the boils of a bubonic plague. And he felt it usurp his bloodstream, his organs producing now only foulness and acid and it moved through his neck and then blinded his eyes and flooded his mind.

And then he was eight years old again and he and his father were on the Glenshane and he was playing around with a spade, grasping its handle as he swung round and round. His father was telling him to stop but he was lost in circular momentum, overcome by this hypnosis of locomotion and so he kept spinning and spinning and his father came towards him to seize the spade but he kept spinning and then the full weight of gravity seemed to hit him at once and dizziness set in and he stumbled and he let go of the spade and he fell to the ground. When the dizziness had settled, he rose from the turf, awaiting the sound of his father’s laughter, but no laughter came. His father lay still on the ground and the spade, its rim stained red, lay beside him and in the tear in his father’s trousers he saw a gash and in this wound he saw dirt and blood and blackness and in this he saw death.

And then he saw Dr. Quinn in the kitchen and he was explaining to his mother that even if he takes the leg it might not be enough.

And then he was in the wakehouse. He sat beside his mother and she pleaded with him again and again that it wasn’t his fault and that God doesn’t punish accidents and the old women came to kiss his cheek and the old men to rustle his hair and they all sighed and said he was only a wein and he would never be judged for it. But he knew that in truth they all hated him and he understood because he hated himself.

And then he was lying on the grave. The prayers had been said and the crowd had dispersed and now there was only rage and he screamed high and wailing as a child struck by plague and he screamed low and murderous as a killer and with his fists clenched like hammers he beat the ground again and again and again until the soil flew in his eyes and he clawed at his skin and when he had exhausted himself of this he lay and he cried with such terrible grief that his body would never allow him happiness again.

And then the ball was thrown in. Ó’Loinsigh stumbled and twitched and groaned. As The Morrígan scored time and time again, the Lavey support demanded Ó’Loinsigh return to his senses, but he could not be revived of his stupor. When the game ended and Ó’Loinsigh had been soaked and shaken and slapped into a state somewhat semblant of consciousness, Ó’Loinisgh began to mutter of “the hoof”. As the weeks passed, Ó’Loinsigh pieced together more of his story and urged the people of Lavey to remember that The Morrígan did not have a left foot, but a hoof. And as the years passed, Ó’Loinisgh would recount this story to the doctors in the hospital and they would nod blankly, note their charts, put away their folders and prepare their needles.

iv

2018

The work began in the summer. Free from the shackles of school, Robert Johnson re-commenced his education. Johnson was Aristotle’s maxim made flesh: ““excellence is not an act, but a habit. We are what we repeatedly do”. His father had told him that in the summer of his youth, Joe Brolly could be found alone on St. Canice’s Park, practicing taking points from all angles obtuse, acute and elaborate. Johnson, then, devoted each morning to precisely this task, interspersing his sessions occasionally with some of the more specific ball drills he had designed to test the weaker aspects of his game . This complemented very nicely indeed the afternoons he spent in the gym – the ‘Cathedral of Iron’ as he liked to think of it, as part of his own ‘Theology of the Body’. In his evenings he studied video footage of the greats of game while he prepared the perfectly crafted concoction of proteins and carbohydrates which would fuel the following day’s training.

Johnson did each of these things every day and did each of them awfully and thus he was awful. In his practices, it was only ever with the assistance of a rogue gust of wind that he came close to putting the ball over the bar. In the gym, it was in spite of the assistance of every form of ergonomic, chiropractic and orthopedic aerodynamic performance enhancing accessory that he struggled interminably to bench more than thirty kilograms. Yet Johnson walked daily through the valley of death with the indefatigable certainty of one day stumbling upon the promised land. He prayed to every God he could find. The walls of his bedroom were tattooed with the words of Malcolm X and Maya Angelou and Barack Obama and Pat Spillane and he knew absolutely of the nothingness of impossibility and prophesied that one day his sweat would crystallise as diamond.

And Johnson was to get his chance. By a tragic constellation of injuries, work obligations, family commitments, weddings, funerals and undiagnosed alcohol problems, the Dungiven senior panel had been reduced to a meagre fourteen. From the manager, Burke, came a message to the side. “Hi baws”, he Whatsapped, “get me a player. Anyone. Anyone but that Johnson man”.

The search began. The minor panel was investigated, but to no avail. Hordes of protective parents, conscious of the upcoming exam season, jealously guarded their sons from the distracting influence of St. Canice’s. McReynolds’ Bar – so often where the disenfranchised and oppressed sylloquized of the intercounty career they could have had but not for the injustices of politics – proved, surprisingly, an equally infertile soil.

So bingo halls were raided. Cafes, libraries and chippies were ransacked for any footballing talent they could offer. Notices were read at mass. Notices were read at the Free Presbyterian Church. Fr. Hassan was commissioned to send word to the divine. McKenna, the resident scientist, was offered all the funding and technology he required to produce a fully sentient android capable of hand-to-toeing by Sunday. The Satanist Society of Foreglen – or, as it is more commonly known, Foreglen GAC – was asked to inquire if the occult had anything to offer.

Indeed, Gerard Roe, who was that weekend camped in Derryware, received the call to arms. But when he refused, Rosaline was approached. And when she too refused, Philomena was called upon and when the nurses refused her leave from the care home, it was finally decreed by Burke, “f**kitsur, we’ll go wey fourteen”. But when it was observed by Ó’hOisín that this measure would be in contravention of the Commandments as inscribed by the Elders of the County Derry Board, Johnson – finally – got his chance.

Johnson proved everyone wrong. For the entirety of his short and tragic life he had been dismissed as the worst player in the history of the club, and quite possibly the county. After the game, however, it was concluded that he was in fact the worst player in the history of Ireland and there were arguments submitted in McReynolds’ to the effect that the continuation of his life should be seriously called into question. Acerbically, he was denounced by Chris McCann of the Irish News as “unquestionably the worst thing to happen to Gaelic football since evolution caught up with the people of Tyrone and they developed a prefrontal cortex some time in the late 1920’s”.

But of all his critics, Johnson was the harshest. His remarkable capacity for seemingly perpetual hope had capitulated. The motivation posters were torn from his walls. His eleven ‘Clubman of the year’ medals were cast in the skip. His vast inventory of protein powders and recovery gels and nutritional supplements were burned in his back garden. The way of diligence and of virtue had failed. There was now only the Other way. He would go to Fadrick.

v

Before there were asylums for the criminally insane, there was Dernaflaw. Fadrick would walk from his home here to Dungiven every morning. He’d pour himself into a seat at Jim McReynolds’ and here he would stay until closing, nursing the same pint for the duration of his visit. His father had been a seanchaí, a carrier of the old stories and Fadrick had imbibed his every tale, weaving together ancient folk legends with material reality such that his understanding of the universe was one where pixies hid amongst the banks of the Roe, where leprechauns buried treasure on Benbradagh and where the devil had played for Dungiven.

In his most famous yarn, Fadrick spoke of how every year on the second sunday of January, the devil returned to the St. Canice’s Park. The floodlights would glow and in the spectral green-light they produced, the devil – the one they knew as ‘The Morrígan’- could be seen taking points on the far end of the pitch with a black ball; its stitching red and roasting as if from the end of a blacksmith’s poker. On each spire of the goal-post, a crow would be perched, their wings and feet and eyes and beaks an unbreakable and terrible black except for a chasm in their middle where the workings of their stomachs were visible – worms being eroded by acid, eyes plucked by beaks decaying and churning and swirling. When the ball was struck over and landed behind the net, the crows would caw and soar down and claw at each other and butt heads and stab their beaks and the victor would pluck the ball and carry it back to The Morrígan. According to Fadrick, the one who accosted the devil would be endowed with unfathomable skill in exchange for their soul.

To prove to both Fadrick and themselves that the tale was false, the occupants of McReynolds’, one second sunday of January, took to the stand of St.Canice’s park. When Fadrick announced that the lights had flickered on and that through the skeletal mist, ‘The Morrígan’ stood taking his scores, the vast crowd that had congregated saw nothing. Fadrick’s story was confirmed a falsehood, and he to be a liar or a lunatic. Fadrick, for his part, was unperturbed. The crowd, he said, saw nothing as they wanted to see nothing.

Johnson wanted to see something. On the night Fadrick prescribed, January 13th, Johnson waited in the stands. He waited anxiously for some hours until he found the blackness around him to be broken and The Morrígan at last visible. Again and again, The Morrígan struck the ball over and waited as his crows plied for the honour of deliverance. When Johnson at last began his approach, The Morrígan turned to him and the crows took flight from their posts and assailed him. With their talons piercing the skin of his shoulders they carried him to the Morrígan. The Morrígan did not speak. He held the ball out and gestured that Johnson should take it. Johnson grasped the ball with both hands anticipating a great metallic weight, but found the ball to be awkward to handle but not heavy – not at all like the real weight of a barbell, but limp and gelatinous like a corpse. It was not cold and sonorous and dense as he had expected but soft; soft as if composed of organs and tissue and he could feel it pulsing. It pulsed with regularity and violence such that his own heart felt weak and overcome by its inferiority to the vitality of the ball. The Morrígan still did not speak but willed on by the force of the ball, Johnson dropped it and swung out his leg and saw it fly over the bar and then the light vanished and the blackness returned but before they did Johnson could have sworn his foot had somehow transmogrified and became a black clump and from his ankle there were coarse, long wires of red hair. He groped at his foot in the dark but felt felt nothing unusual. Scrupulously, he later conducted an autopsy in the light of his bedroom and again found nothing strange. His diagnosis was mere stress. He had imagined it.

vi

In the estimation of many, Limavady Wolfhounds are the Vietcong of Derry football. Burke himself had served several tours of duty in The ‘Vad. He thought of himself as a veteran, as battle hardened by years of conflict with the likes of Winger McLaughlin, Paddy McKeown and Stubby Boyd. A particular school of East German psychoanalysis had at one time described Burke’s symptoms as the phenomenon: “Post-Wolfhounds Stress Disorder”. He’d never speak of the horrors he witnessed. When asked of what happened in the long grass of Pairc Na Cúnna, Burke would reply, “You weren’t there, sur”.

Thus, although the game at hand was not for any league or championship, the term ‘friendly’ would be something of a misnomer. At the 60th minute mark, Wolfhounds found themselves ahead by six. Burke was furious. He had traversed up and down every inch of the sideline. He had uttered every swear and curse he knew. The referee, Carlin – a proud and well known Slaughtmanus man – had already been coloured as fifty different shades of a “cheatin’ Tyrone b***tard”. And Johnson was coming dangerously close to putting Burke over the edge.

Despite having made such a volcanic embarrassment of himself only a week before, it seemed Johnson’s infamously irritating enthusiasm had only intensified. Knowing of the upcoming mid-week ‘friendly’, he had rang Burke’s mobile somewhere in the region of eighty-seven times to request a place in the panel. He arrived at Burke’s door and knocked continuously for forty-five minutes, but to no answer. So he waited, knowing Burke would have to come out eventually. And when Burke came out for work the following morning, he found Johnson, sitting cross-legged in his front garden as a meditative Buddhist monk who had lost himself somewhere between Beijing and the Ballyquin Road. “Johnsonsur”, Burke roared, “if you value your life sur, you will get aff that good grass a’ mine”.

But Johnson defied him. To and fro school everyday Johnson had walked by the same mural: “I’ll wear no convict’s uniform, nor meekly serve my time…” and with every bully who beat him and laughed at him he’d imbibe the force of these words in his spirit and they would galvanise his exoskeleton such that, for all his notorious lack of strength, there was no beating he could take from he which wouldn’t rise again. Perceiving the steel in Johnson’s eyes, Burke relinquished. With some reluctance and indeed – though he wouldn’t admit it – some admiration, Burke granted Johnson his spot on the bench as number 25. Johnson thanked him up and down and hugged him and told him he wouldn’t let him down and Burke said “right gone f**k off now Johnson sur” and Johnson thanked him a few more times and finally went home.

Burked regretted his generosity enormously. “Manus sur,” he said at half-time to his assistant manager, “you’ll have to hold me back before I clip this Johnson man”. Johnson had shadowed his every step, poking and prodding and pestering persistently about when he’d get on. But now, as Wolfhounds put another over and extended their lead to seven points, Burke once again acquiesced to Johnson’s insistence. He’d put Johnson on to drown his players in ignominy, convey to them the full extent of his rage and – more selfishly – to give his own head peace.

Harry McLaughlin, Limavady’s full-back and one of the more promising prospects in Derry football, had thus far put forth a valiant display. Embodying the spirit of the oakleaf county, he rooted himself firmly in the backline, unbuffeted and unfaltering by blows of attack and when the winds changed in favour of going forward, the other branches would sway freely around the solid base he lay. But upon shaking hands with Johnson, McLaughlin decayed. He stood pale, forlorn, his hands shaking and his lips trembling but unable to exert force nor sound. Unmarked and unable to miss, Johnson put over nine points in the final ten minutes and St. Canice’s took victory from Na Cúnna. With use of ammonia inhalants, the club physician, Gormley, re-stimulated McLaughlin’s nerves, but McLaughlin was taken to hospital nonetheless with suspicion of head trauma as he told everyone over and over again about “the hoof”.

vii

Johnson repeated this form in training. Contrary to tradition, he arrived not first and chirpy but last and silent. Contrary it seemed to the laws of nature, he amassed such a volume of scores that Burke – incredulous and awestruck on the sidelines – abandoned the task of keeping count. But even this was insufficient to displace the lifetime precedent of uselessness he had firmly established. Johnson was not to start the first game of the Championship at Newbridge; earning only a place on the bench.

Again, as the game drew into its final third, Dungiven found themselves overrun. With a five point deficit and no indication of an impending resuscitation, Burke turned to Johnson and now Johnson – once the punchline of Dungiven – was the great new hope. Another full-back was stupefied and, by the unfailing foot of Johnson, Dungiven won by three.

With Johnson now the permanent spearhead of the attack, Dungiven plundered their way through the senior Championship. The rise of Johnson transpired as legend and engendered terror on both sides of the Glenshane. Into the late hours of night, clubhouses throughout the county were ‘dubh le daoine’, black with people. Debates were had with such veracity and vigour that one would have thought that before these forums lay the Treaty of 1921 and the very future of Ireland. Clubs were besieged by the terrible anxiety of appointing a champion to mark Johnson. From Swatragh, Anthony Tohill proposed Conor McAtamney and pledged to place McAtamney in his esteemed tutelage in the weeks prior to the game. But McAtamney fell as McLaughlin did. Mark Lynch was elected from Banagher. James Kielt from Kilrea. Emmett Bradley from the Glen. Each was instructed to forget about the game at hand – “just get Johnson”. Each suffered the same shattering of nerves.

Bans and boycotts of all sorts were proposed. In bars and committee meetings, it was submitted to no end that Dungiven, or at least Johnson, should be disqualified. After their own fifteen point annihilation, the town of Magherafelt declared an official trade embargo against Dungiven. Yet no one could manage to adduce any evidence of foul play or dark magic before the County Board.

There remained, then, only Slaughtneil to cease the crusade of St. Canice’s. Brendan Rodgers would be the last and the most formidable of the number three’s to face Johnson. Meticulously, he was prepared for war. Legions of the Slaughtneil faithful were deployed to the Vatican and to the Holy Lands to pray that Rodgers be kept from the wickedness and snares of Dungiven.

Like Soviet peasants forced to sacrifice their crop for the motherland, the people of Slaughtneil surrendered every source of protein they had to the plate of Rodgers. No chicken was safe. No salmon went unhooked. The already booming health food industry enjoyed record profits. From the Slaughtneil people, he took the ‘neart ár ngéag’, the ‘strength of our limbs’. Rodgers was not to face Johnson with the elegance and swiftiness of a modern Gaelic footballer, but with all the courage and might of an old Gaelic Chieftain.

Yet the armies of Gaelic Chieftains fell to an Empire greater than themselves and so too was Slaughtneil’s Army of One overwhelmed. All the physical force of this world will succumb to the darkness of the Other. For all his resolve and skill, Johnson was rendered numb and senseless as all before him. Dungiven, with Johnson taking every score, won by fourteen points.

viii

Johnson ascended at once into the Dungiven pantheon. Letters were addressed to the Holy Father demanding his immediate canonisation. A billboard was erected opposite John T’s Bar: “For God so loved Dungiven that He gave His only begotten Johnson” – Johnson 3:16. It was decreed that never again would Johnson’s hand near his pocket in any bar in the parish. Indeed fights broke out amongst those vying for the honour of buying Johnson’s first post-Championship pint.

But Johnson felt no joy. The Championship medal – so long the object of his dreams – felt against his hand as if it were not made of metal, but of flesh. It pulsed. Its beating was hollow and feeble and irregular as of a diseased heart and as he held it he felt his own heart align its patterns and fate with that of the omen in his palm.

He refused all invitations for pints and parties. His cheeks did not gush red with pride as he was paraded and poeticised. His complexion gaunt and morose, he retired to the darkness of his bedroom and waited.

At an hour so late that even the most raucous and bombastic of celebrants could not be found on the streets, Johnson left his bedroom. The medal in his hand beat more weakly and sporadically than before. Its animus and his own now merged, he was guided to the pitch. As he neared the field he began to notice a noise which with every step become more defined and abrasive. His consciousness was dimmed but at length he interpreted it as a clip-clop sound. He allowed his neck to give away so that his eyes could point to his feet and he saw a hoof where earlier his foot had been. He arrived at the pitch. The soft grass muffled the hoof. He approached the far end of the field and The Morrígan. In the phantom glow of the floodlights specks of his skin floated around him, becoming more dense and concentrated as ligaments and bones of his face became visible. He stopped before The Morrígan and, accepting his end, took the ball again from him.

And he felt his blood turn against him and his veins flood with bile and filth and burn through the linings of his stomach and his liver and invade his lungs with the mutative scorching influence of barrels of tar and then choke his neck and infect his eyes and fuse with his mind.

Then it was thirty years later and he saw himself and the sun shone gloriously and triumphantly over Croke Park and on the front of his coat was emblazoned the unmistakable red-and-white of the oak leaf and on his back the letters ‘BAINISTEOIR’ were engraved and with the high note of the referee’s whistle came ecstasy and a whole stadium and a people looked upon Johnson, the architect of their jubilation who had with earnest graft humbly defied his limitations and found his calling. He was lifted and thrown in the air and embraced and loved and as he was raised above the shoulders of the crowd he saw the silver glint of Sam and the podium that awaited his presence and Johnson felt viscerally such ineffable pride and relief that he had pursued the path of integrity and resisted the corrupting allure of Fadrick’s lore and then there was a cawing of a crow.

He was in a hospital. He saw a great hulk of a man in a white gown fastened down to his bed by a sinister combination of belts; his limbs straitjacketed and with doctors stood around him and flashing lights in his eyes and injecting needles in his veins and this enormous man screamed with all the helplessness and cursed innocence of a child and above his head there was a file filled with charts and dockets and on its front it read: “Patient: Ó’Loinsigh’.

And then he was back on the field of St. Canice’s again and where The Morrígan stood was now a black goat and on its back was a crow and the goat squealed and before the crow’s beak gutted the sockets of Johnson’s eyes he saw a murder of crows flocking together in unnatural numbers and size and then in his blindness he felt them scrape through his skin; every nerve and synapse he felt burn and rupture and the vast murder of scavengers tore at each other in competition to violate and destroy and consume his flesh and tissue and bone and life.

ix

McGuigan Óg did the rounds faithfully as his grandfather before him. He brushed the terrace, bleached the showers, lifted litter and inspected the pitch. He found only at the far end, buried slightly in the grass, a medal. He lifted it and tossed it and tapped lightly and noticed it was solid silver. On the back, engraved in a strange script, he read, “Robert Johnson. Derry Senior Football Champion. 13/01/2018”. McGuigan took a brief look over his shoulder. Seeing no one else around, he pocketed it, locked up the changing rooms and the gates, and returned home.

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