THE KILKENNY OBSERVER CHRISTMAS SHORT STORY SERIES
CELEBRATING WRITERS IN OUR COMMUNITY ’23
The Kilkenny Observer Newspaper is delighted to present our ‘2023 Christmas short story series’. We have invited four writers from Kilkenny to submit a short story over the coming weeks, which we hope you will enjoy. For this, our second week, we welcome Zurich based writer Catherine Cronin
It was early on December 23rd when Finn learned that heavy frost overnight had made the already snowy paths too dangerous for walking. The living who worked at the castle had no choice but to keep the gates shut to visitors. Finn supposed they couldn’t have people breaking ankles or crashing down on their tailbones that close to Christmas.
It was unfortunate as this year there was a special exhibition of old Christmas cards and photographs from the castle’s history due to open that very day. So, everyone, particularly the castle’s ghosts, had been looking forward to lots of merry attendees eager to see long-forgotten faces.
Finn did not feature in the exhibition for he had lived in a time before pictures. But other ghosts were thrilled to see themselves from Christmases long ago. Some were so giddy, they were more childlike than Finn, which made his spectral glow brighten in amusement.
Still, the closure was disappointing for the young ghost. Finn could float over the ice so he hadn’t noticed the slippery paths. He would miss seeing living children come through the gates as usual excited to experience the castle’s festive welcome.
“Don’t you remember, Finn?”, asked Lady Butler. “They always close the castle when the paths freeze”. Finn had forgotten. He was a very old ghost but still a young boy, so his memory could be a bit scatty. “I think so”, he lied. “But I love seeing the living visit at this time of year.”
“What makes this time anymore special?”, asked an Earl. Finn thought about this for a moment. There were lots of reasons. Maybe it was the brightly-coloured novelty Christmas jumpers. Maybe it was the excited exchanging of Christmas wish lists in the playground. Or maybe it was seeing the rosy cheeks he no longer had.
Then he remembered. “I like having other children around at Christmas,” Finn admitted. “because it reminds me of when I spent Christmas here with my friends.”
The living made the castle feel less empty. While there were lots of ghosts at the castle, they were grown-ups. And some of them were practically invisible, even to other ghosts for they liked their privacy. So did Finn when he was in a bit of a grumpy mood, or like now, feeling a bit fed up. He decided to float up to the Parade Tower for some quiet time.
He passed Sir Langrishe and his dog playfully moving back and forth over the tower’s threshold. They were pushing up the visitor numbers on the gadget the living used to count guests. It was funny to see staff on the morning shift be spooked by the high night-time figures, concluding that hundreds of ghosts must be haunting the tower.
But tonight the hoax did not cheer Finn as usual.
He was alone, looking out to the Christmas market on the Parade when he suddenly became aware of a presence in the tower with him. He looked around to see an old dog gently glowing in the corner. It was Sandy, the dog from the graveyard. He rarely left his spot down in the park, much less visit the tower.
Finn went to him and hunkered down on one knee. “What’s wrong with you, fella?” The dog pounded the ground with his front right paw and turned towards the park. Finn was confused. He continued to ask questions and every time the dog did the same thing with his paw.
Sir Langrishe appeared at the doorway. “He can’t dig, Finn. The ground is too hard.”
“But he’s a ghost. He can’t dig at any time!” Finn exclaimed.
“Ah, he’s an old dog, Finn,” said Sir Langrishe. “He doesn’t know the difference. Poor thing”.
Finn looked sadly at old Sandy.
Sir Langrishe noticed. “But, you know, you could keep him company, until the ground thaws.”
“He’s not exactly the friendliest.”, an unconvinced Finn observed. This was true. Sandy liked his own company. Finn tried lots of times to play with him, but he just wasn’t interested.
“He’s not a playful kind of dog, I know”, said Sir Langrishe, as if reading Finn’s mind. “But still, it might be a nice distraction for you both, if you tried”. With this, he left.
Finn looked at Sandy for a while and then decided to bring him for a walk. Surely, ghost dogs liked walks too. But this dog was set in his ways and did not want to go to the woods, pond, or even the rose garden. Every time Finn walked too far for Sandy, the dog pounded his paw and turned back.
Finn tried to play fetch with him, tossing an imaginary stick out towards the icy expanse of the park. The dog’s gaze did not break away from Finn’s face, as if judging the young ghost to be stupid. He looked at Finn with his beady deadpan eyes and pounded the ground with his paw again.
“Oh, I give up!”, cried Finn. “I don’t know what you want!”
Sandy blinked, cocked his head to one side, and walked away. Finn followed him.
When they reached his grave, Sandy, pounded the ground with his paw, circled the spot and lay down, defeated. Finn felt bad.
Sandy must have once been a fun pet for someone. Finn looked at the holly wreath on Sandy’s grave, his eyes drifting to the words on the headstone:
‘Dumb creatures we have cherished
shall give us joyous greeting
when we pass the golden gate.’
Suddenly, Finn had a realisation.
It took some coaxing but he eventually convinced the old dog to follow him back to the castle. Finn remembered seeing a younger Sandy before.
They reached the gallery with the Christmas exhibition. Finn showed Sandy a very special Christmas card on display. It took Sandy’s old eyes a moment to focus. But then he started panting excitedly and wagging his tail.
The card showed a picture of him and his owner, Elizabeth, 3rd Marchioness of Ormonde. Finn knew she was not a ghost at this castle. So, Sandy had not seen her for a very long time. The card was signed, Love me, Lilah. Love my dog, Little Sandy.
Sandy barked loudly, twirled on the spot, and glowed with glee. Then, he shot out of the gallery towards the park. Finn rushed after him.
Other ghosts heard the commotion and gathered on the lawn with Finn. They watched the happy, frenzied dog pound the frozen grass, howl, and glow. Sandy was glowing so much that the frost around him was disappearing. Finn was amazed.
Soon, he and the other ghosts were glowing too at the sight of this once shy pup, thawing the park with his joy.
“He’ll have the place fit to be open for Christmas Eve,” chuckled Sir Langrishe. “Nice job, Finn – whatever you did.”
Tomorrow, the living would see the card that caused this little miracle, unaware of its magic. When Finn looked at the castle entrance where visitors would pass through, the Christmas lights arching it seemed to form a golden gate in greeting.
Catherine Cronin is a writer originally from Kilkenny but currently living in Zurich, Switzerland. After a breast cancer diagnosis, writing became essential for coping with her new way of living. Catherine continues to write poetry and plays today. Her one-woman show, Orphan Disease, came to the Watergate Theatre in 2021, and her play, Caged, opened with Close Encounters Theatre in Zurich in 2022. Her short stage piece, Ancestor, is currently being adapted into a short film.
*Photo: the portrait of Elizabeth Harriet Grosvenor, 3rd Marchioness of Ormonde, hangs at Kilkenny Castle. Used by kind permission of OPW.