In the old times, long before the birth of the Irish Free State, a young woman called Brigid McLaughlin went down from Derry to work in southern Donegal. Her job was to look after two children, a girl and a boy, aged nine and seven, orphans. 'The children were beautiful,' we are told, 'especially the girl. She was dark, the boy was fair. They spoke Irish only.' Fortunately, Brigid spoke Irish, too. She had a year's contract, 'but she was not, for all of that year, to leave the children out of her charge and was never to take them away from the house itself.' The children were charming and well-mannered, and every day they visited their parents' grave behind the house, and sat there for a long time. On a bad day in autumn, rain pouring down, Brigid forbade them to do this, and had her first quarrel with her charges. Not only that. In the morning they had exchanged their hair colour, the boy was now dark, the girl was fair. And yet they insisted that they had always been that way, that nothing was different. When Brigid took them to the priest, they promptly switched back again to their original dispensation. Later the children exchanged voices, even sexes, and Brigid discovered that they could not be seen in a mirror. 'She knew now that she was being challenged by evil, and the children were being stolen from her by whatever was in that grave out the back.' Finally, the grave won out, and the children were gone for good. Brigid returned to Derry 'completely strange in the head', and gave up talking. Once a year, on the anniversary of the children's disappearance, she would sing an Irish song the children sang just before they left. No one in Derry understood the words.
LRB 5 September 1996 | PDF Download