Sometimes, on my way home, I pass an old lamp post. Every time I touch it, I see a woman.
The Lamp Post
Warning: forcible removal of children, and religion-based punishment of women
I won’t get too ahead of myself, but, if you’ll believe me, this is the story of how I met my husband.
I work in Claddagh. My straightest walk home through Galway passes an old lamp post. I don’t often take that route, preferring a longer walk that avoids the indomitable crowds and surfeit of tourists on pedestrian-only avenues. It’s the way home to take, though, if I want a drink in a pub or don’t care to be on my feet any more than is necessary.
I’m remembering something from a good ten years ago now, but I recall it clear as day. The evening was fair and warm as I took the straightest route home, and the buskers were out along the cobbled pedestrian street. I slowed as a young man with hands clasped behind his back sung out the bracing chorus of Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile to the strains of a button accordion.
People had already begun to form a circle around the buskers, watching the group of young men ready with drums and two guitars. It promised to be more than a near-acapella rendition of the song, and I came to a stop by an old lamp post, curious to hear it.
More of the young men joined in on the next chorus, calling it out to the street together like the song should be sung: as a rousing welcome for returned soldiers in a coming summer. The slow beat of the drum picked up like the anticipatory pounding of war drums, and I saw an elderly man across from me smile. A woman beside him was mouthing along with the words.
‘I’m forty two percent Irish!’ an American tourist said, though it sounded more like a loud announcement to everyone within a twenty kilometre radius. ‘But I swear I’m completely Irish – because I love Irish music!’
The woman accompanying her nodded soberly. A man behind her cast her a bemused look, one eyebrow raised, as I tried not to laugh. “Irish music” incorporated a lot of different things, and were Irish music installed in “heritage”, music tastes wouldn’t be something an entire country’s worth of people butted heads on. That the song contained lyrics about removing the foreigners from Ireland was an irony I doubted the American woman recognised.
The loud tourist mercifully shut up to listen after that, letting us pay attention as the song built, two bodhráns joining in, the young men’s voices growing louder to a steady beat. Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile is a song I love, when done right – and these young men were smashing it, chills of recognised bravery and longing zinging up my spine.
I shifted aside for a group of lads passing through the crowd, shuffling closer to the lamp post, a hand ready to catch it. I’d opened my mouth to sing along, but what came out instead was a breath that evacuated my lungs.
My hand had connected with the cool iron pole, and, in a split second, the scene of young men busking proudly was gone. Like the circle of light it would cast when the sun went down, the area around the lamp post had faded into another time – another view. I could still hear the rousing rendition of Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile, the drums pounding out and guitars plucking as the singers called for the return of Irish soldiers, but I couldn’t see them.
Instead, I saw people in dour button-down coats and old-fashioned hats, the colours of the street muted and the lettering on signs replaced with a font and style far more rudimentary. Rather than a cobbled pedestrian avenue, the road was dirt, puddles collected by the footpaths. Foot traffic skirted an old motor car, its wheels contained in arched wheel wells, as a horse and carriage, containing crates of vegetables, clattered up behind me.
Before me had been a camera shop. Now it was a jeweller, though the old clock remained embedded in its façade. I stared about, my fingers winding tight around the lamp post. As though in areas where the lamp’s light would disappear to shadow, I could still see the modern present peeking through: the edges of the crowd around the buskers; the brighter colours of signage and clothing on milling people down the street. But around the lamp post, the world was grey like a low cloud had drifted overhead. Here, the people were not seeing or hearing the rousing singing of the buskers. They were walking along, a man in a bowler hat tapping his walking stick as he went; a woman behind him in a shawl, apron, and floor-length skirts.
And, just beside me, was another woman. She was dressed neatly, like a well-off woman in the 1940s might be. Her jacket was fitted and flattering, her skirt pleated and coming to a stop at her calves, where nylons gave the backs of her legs a line to her polished leather shoes in low heels.
A light breeze tousled her dark hair. It was down, but pinned, the woman staring off down the lane as she gripped the lamp post just below my hand.
Slowly, she pulled her eyes away. Her hair whipping around, she turned her head to stare in the other direction, up the street as another ancient motor car crunched along the dirt road.
Perhaps it was the song still reaching my ears, melded with the way her mouth closed sombrely, her gaze longing and anxious… but I thought of men sent off to war. Thought of a lover the woman was searching the passers-by to find. She looked young, perhaps not yet twenty. I watched her standing in ‘40s clothing, in a street from the history archives, and thought of a missing lover who’d turned soldier for World War II.
The woman’s mouth opened, and she spoke. It was so quiet I leant nearer this strange apparition to hear better.
‘Come back to me, my dearest one,’ the woman whispered. ‘Come find me, my darling…’
It was then that I let go of the lamp post. My view of history long past melted from my eyes, the street returning to a scene of people in the early 2010s watching buskers, in their t-shirts, jeans, and smiles.
The drums were rattling my eardrums, the calls for soldiers to come home helping fuel the chills along my spine. I stared at the lamp post, my eyes following it up. In cast iron, its top was decorated in Victorian gloom – very unlike any other lamp in the city. Another lamp post was down the street from me. It stood tall and innocuous to light the way for traffic. Nearer, lamps were attached to the fronts of varied establishments, none of them mounted on posts in the narrow lanes walked, now, only by pedestrians.
But I still had a sense of the woman from the ‘40s, and the trundling wheeled traffic no longer allowed down the centre of the avenue.
Shaken, I staggered away, reaffirming in stares around me that the world was as I knew it: modern and normal. The American tourist was still there, experiencing the buskers’ performance from behind her camera. No one noticed me as I edged away. I checked no horse and cart were coming along the cobble street before I hurried from the crowd and headed home.
It was a conscious decision, to understand what I’d seen as a flight of imagination and fancy. There was such tragic romance to the idea of a woman waiting by a lamp post, many years ago, for a lover to return from war. For my fascination I blamed my love of literary history, and, perhaps, my lasting singleness. That lamp post wasn’t far from Claddagh, the place where the eponymous rings originated: symbols of enduring love, loyalty, and friendship. I daydreamed about the woman on occasion, during moments at work staring out to sea, or even while washing my dishes alone at home. I daydreamed about the soldier she was waiting for coming to find her, and a smile breaking out on her face.
A morning when I had to get to work early was the next time I passed the lamp post. I’d been avoiding it, but that autumn morning I took the most direct route to work, wanting to get there as quickly as possible. A fog yet to be burnt from the earth lingered through the streets, forestalling the oncoming brightness of day. Turning into the cobbled street from a road where sparse early morning traffic rumbled, I saw the lamp burning bright, casting its glow and shadow to light the fog and pick out highlights in shop fronts and uneven stone.
My feet slowed on the footpath. No one else was around, the city not yet awake enough to crowd these avenues. I felt my feet reach the penumbra of the lamp’s light like a confirmation I remembered what I’d seen last time – like I was walking into a beckoning beacon.
It was the only lamp post in the avenue, standing as a relic of times long past. And for that it was handsome: proud and steadfast, despite the change around it.
I hadn’t wanted to dawdle, but the lamp post in the fog, lonely on this street, was a powerful attraction. I walked toward its brightness, eyeing its wrought iron twists and twirls. Standing right beside it, dawn light and fog in a battle for supremacy, I felt ready for what I might see if I touched it. So I lifted a hand, and clasped the cool metal pole.
The change around me wasn’t as dramatic this time, but it did happen again. The fog disappeared from the range of the lamp’s shine, though it was still dawn – still as dim and quiet in the street as it had been when I’d entered it; for all, yet again, I could see the street was dirt and the camera shop was a jeweller’s.
The major difference was that in this avenue where previously I had been alone, I was now standing right next to that same woman I’d seen last time. She was huddled up more warmly, a scarf tied above her fitted coat and gloves on both hands. But she was there, right next to me and looking around, as though waiting for someone to join her.
She didn’t see me – not even looking towards me, and, somehow, knowing she was an echo of the past made me sure she couldn’t notice me. The chills were back, scudding along my spine, but I was less astonished and scared this time. I moved, still gripping the lamp post, to see her better.
Young: definitely. At least five years younger than me. The woman was fresh-faced, her cheeks bitten by a brisk wind I could see rustling her hair but couldn’t feel on my skin. And she was anxious, that same longing stare in a face with mouth pinched tightly as she stared up the street, then around her, and down the other way.
A moment passed, then another. And then I saw a tear bubble on her lower eyelid. It fell, trickling down her face. She didn’t wipe it away.
She didn’t speak this time. She just stared and stood, waiting by the lamp post until I finally let it go, and, I was sure, waiting there in her own time long after. But I didn’t see it. Letting go of the lamp post, for me, meant the past disappeared, and the street around me was back to the lonely and foggy dawn it had been.
I didn’t seek out the lamp post often after that. But when I passed it, I couldn’t help but touch it. It didn’t work with gloves on, I discovered in the winter. I had to pull the glove off and grasp the lamp post. But every time I did, the woman was there, right beside me: searching for a loved one she longed for. A loved one who never arrived.
Over the months, then years, I saw the woman many times. Sometimes she was older, in her fifties or sixties, standing in a street where boxy cars drove by. Sometimes she was young again, her face round and innocent. I assumed this woman had been a real person, and started to become sure she’d spent her entire life searching for someone. Waiting, at that lamp post, for them.
Because, even in her older age, she always had that look of anxious yearning on her face. She was always searching the street for someone I never saw appear. World War II had ended long before the 70s and 80s, but I saw her by that lamp post, in a street that looked more like the one I knew, still waiting for someone I was sure had never returned to her. Someone she had never seen again.
No longer scary, the lamp post became something I found sad. I stopped doubting what I was seeing easily, but my hesitation to approach and touch the cool metal grew. For a reason other than fear.
I’d touch the lamp post one day, and see a young woman, searching with hope in her eyes for someone to join her. Then, a month later, I’d touch it and see a much older woman, looking aged for all she was merely in her sixties, the lines on her face deep, her pallor unhealthy, and see that same hope as she searched the crowd.
It wore on me. Knowing she hadn’t found the one she was waiting for. One vision of the woman I’d seen had her leaning heavily on a cane, looking sickly and tired, a thick shawl over her coat. I couldn’t imagine she’d lived on long past that day, some three decades ago at least. Certainly not lived on long with health robust enough to walk to the lamp post and stand there waiting for endless hours.
I went home after seeing her old and sick, and cried for her. She’d become something like my constant spectral friend: there, always, in the moments I touched the lamp post. Perhaps a part of me wondered why, if she’d lost a lover in WWII, she’d have hung onto the hope of seeing him again so long – been tormented by it her entire life, rather than let him go. But that she had was deeply sad to me. It felt like an end, seeing her sick and old like that, of a decades-long hope that would never come to fruition. Like I’d seen her for the last time she’d been able to get up, go to the lamp post, and wait.
But, the next time I touched it, she was there again.
Some part of me had decided the last time, when she’d been old and sick, would be the end of it. That I’d never see her again. But I built up the courage to try as I wound through the crowds, approaching the lamp post after a long day of work. Reaching it, I lifted a hand, as I had done many times before, to grip it.
The woman appeared, right there beside me, in a street where an old bus powered along a dirt road. She wasn’t as aged as she had been the last time I’d seen her, but she wasn’t as young as the first time either. Perhaps around thirty, she was in a belted print dress suitable for a warm summer, and proper enough to cover her to the calf.
Again, I saw her look of hopeful anxiety. But there was something different this time. An eagerness, or desperation, maybe, that had her demure face fierce.
For four years, by this point, I’d watched her. Seen her search the street. I’d never seen that look on her face before – never seen her at this stage in her life before. It was almost as though she’d decided me loyal enough a watcher to see it now.
I jumped when she spoke. But for the odd plea for her dearest to return to her, I’d never heard her speak. And I’d definitely not heard her speak like this.
‘You call it “St Mary’s”!’ she shouted to the street and all the people in it dressed in dour trousers and print frocks, going about their day. ‘But it is no Home the Virgin Mary has blessed! You call them the “Bon Secours” Sisters, but they do not offer caring assistance! It’s a home of terror – of horrors unimaginable! And you all ignore it! You all pretend you’ve never heard its name!’
The woman’s lower lip was trembling. The passing crowd had taken note of her. I saw the looks askance as some people hurried up to avoid the woman. I watched her lower lip tighten to stop the trembling as she stared around at the faces who avoided looking at her.
‘You all know!’ she cried. ‘You pretend you don’t, but you know! You pretend you’re loving in the image of Christ, but you do not care!’
That had caught the ire of an older woman. She cast a venomous glare as she passed by, and leant in to hiss, ‘Spare your poor mother this shame! If it pleases God you will see the inside of a Magdalene Asylum. It might be your rightful home, but spare a thought for the shame of your mother!’
Next to me, the woman’s mouth tightened up, but it wasn’t only the one person interested in silencing her. I saw the crest-adorned caps of the Gardaí – the police – through the crowd.
‘They are cruel!’ the woman shouted from beside the lamp post. ‘Like of all of you: they do not care! They pretend succour –‘
I watched, while the woman shouted, the two Gardaí close in, their authority evident in those caps and sleek black jackets. Felt them pen me in with the woman – saw one pass right through me. I was in the midst of it like a spectral observer as they called for her to quiet herself, and when she shouted back, I was there, useless in the frantic battle, as they grabbed her – watched them escort her off, their grips on her arms absolute even as she cried and fought to return to the lamp post.
And then I let the lamp post go, and stood in the normal bustling street, with the dawning horror of what I’d witnessed.
‘All right, are you?’
I blinked and met the gaze of a kindly-looking woman. Middle aged, she considered me with sympathy, hauled her handbag higher up her shoulder and bustled nearer, her gaze turning to the lamp post.
I nodded, pulled a smile, and babbled something about being fine.
‘It’s a sad story, how she waited at the lamp post…’ the woman said. ‘I saw her myself, when I was a girl. Seemed she was there every day.’
It was only after I got home that I thought to wonder whether she’d meant she’d touched the lamp post and seen the woman, or seen her in the flesh before she died.
“Magdalene Asylum” I’d heard the woman at the lamp post be threatened with, and as she’d been marched off by the Gardaí, I could believe she’d ended up there. Perhaps that’s why I’d seen so little of the woman in her middle adulthood: she’d spent those years incarcerated.
We know them better today as the Magdalene Laundries: workhouses for “fallen women”. What constituted a “fallen woman” broadened in the 20th Century, any woman who transgressed narrow social boundaries locked up without trial in brutal institutions under the banner of “Christian charity”. The last one closed in 1996.
It was what the woman had said about St Mary’s and the Bon Secours Sisters who’d run that Home that was the greater revelation for me. All this time, I’d thought the woman’s endless wait at the lamp post was for a lost lover. Now, I was sure she was waiting for someone she’d loved more dearly than that.
We all know about the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, not far from Galway. Not a week before I’d seen that echo of the woman at the lamp post, I’d read the latest revelation in the news. In a not-too-distant past where being pregnant out wedlock was an unthinkable sin, an integral part of the Home’s offering for the women confined there was punishment. And without the women’s consent – often without even their knowledge – the nuns would adopt, foster, or board out their children, the women never to see them again.
That was, if the women and children survived. Often without midwifery care, the treatment offered was mere degradation befitting a heinous criminal, the women’s children immediately separated from them. And the nuns had little charity for those children. Malnutrition had the Bon Secours “good help” Sisters filling an old septic tank on the Home’s grounds with the children’s dead bodies.
Not a lover, I thought. The woman had waited for decades at the lamp post for her child. A child who wouldn’t know her as mother – may never learn who she was. A child who, if they’d survived, could have been sent to the other side of Ireland, or a different country entirely. It was too obvious why the woman had waited to the end of her life: that child would never return to her.
I passed the lamp post almost every day after that revelation, and watched on in sadness as, in both youth and failing health, the woman waited through the years for her child. There was a notable lack of her thirties and early forties. It was hard not to assume it confirmation she had been unable to wait by the lamp post while control of women had the socially unacceptable behaviour scrubbed out of her at a Magdalene Laundry.
I noticed, too, that her clothes in later life were far more drab and poorly-fashioned than they had been in youth. “Fallen woman” indeed – because a society that lavished punishment on women decreed it.
‘Find me, my dearest one…’
They were words spoken in a hoarse voice, cracked by the coughs she smothered in a handkerchief. The woman was old this night. The air was cold and blustery for me. For her, she pulled her shawl tighter against an unforgiving drizzle. Separated only by time, the lamp lit us both, standing together on a street otherwise populated only by those hurrying home at the late hour. Her time had a car definitely not from my century parked just down from us. Mine had a gay couple laughing together as they sought home against the wind.
I was out late because I’d had dinner and drinks with co-workers in a pub. The woman was out late to wait. And this time, for the first time, she chose to leave before I did.
Her hand, gnarled by arthritis, let go of the lamp post. For a wild second, I wanted to grab it in my own hand – clasp it tightly. But I couldn’t touch her, and I had nothing to offer her even if I could. All I had was a shared understanding that, at this point, the woman hadn’t many years left to wait at the lamp post.
The woman didn’t move off immediately. She tucked the shawl around her head, but took a last look first up, then down the street. In a rare moment, I saw that look of anxious longing sink from her face, turning into one of hopeless despair.
‘I hope you are well, my sweet one,’ she whispered. ‘Wherever you are, I just pray you’re happy and healthy.’
And then, coughing into her handkerchief, she shuffled away. I let the lamp post go, the 80s disappearing from the lamplight. It was a cruel truth: the woman’s child could well have endured a worse fate than hers. Even if I knew the woman’s name, chances were despite the internet and a government investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes, I’d likely be unable to find her child for her.
Were it not for the woman’s words, I’d have started doubting my assumption she was waiting for a child. It struck me on that windy walk home just how vain a hope it was that her baby would know, young or grown, to find her at the lamp post. Not just that her child could have ended up anywhere: no baby separated early from their mother would even recognise their mother’s face, let alone remember an instruction to meet at the lamp post. But hardship, I supposed, bred vain hope sometimes.
And that vain hope was back in the woman’s face the next time I touched the lamp post. Rather than work, I’d passed it on my way to do a bit of shopping. The day was bright for me, the sun high overhead and making strides toward warming the earth. For once, the woman’s day, back in the late 40s or early 50s, was identical. If she hadn’t appeared beside me – if the camera shop hadn’t returned to a jewellers – I’d have thought the lamp post had stopped working.
Rather than old, this time the woman was in her late twenties like me, us standing like friends on either side of the lamp post. The narrow wheels of an old motor car crunched past on the dry dirt road; the woman’s dress was a pale blue like the sky above us.
There was a freshness in her face today, the sun making her skin shine. Her hair swishing, she turned to stare straight through me up the street. And I saw her gaze lock on something. She started to smile.
The change the smile made to her face was staggering. It was like a wholesome glow took over her features. I stared at it – not once before having seen even the ghost of a smile on the woman’s face. And then I followed her eyeline, turning around to stare up the street.
I didn’t have to look far. A man about our age with dark hair had come to a stop in the crowd. It took me a moment to recognise him as not from the woman’s time, but mine. In jeans and a t-shirt, he had a backpack over one shoulder. Yanking it to reach a pocket, he fetched what looked like a badly aged photograph from the bag, and unfolded it.
I swung back to look at the woman, but she wasn’t there any longer. My hand was still wrapped around the lamp post, just above where hers had been mere seconds before. Her hand was gone. The shop behind where she’d been standing sold cameras, not jewellery; the people around me were dressed in the bright colours of my time, wheeled traffic blocked off from the pedestrian avenue –
The man with the photograph was looking from it to the lamp post, comparing the two. I wanted to race at him – grab him and make him explain, sure he had the answers.
I made myself take a breath – decided on a less confronting way to approach – and let the lamp post go.
‘Hey there,’ I said, stopping by the man, ‘need a hand looking for something?’
The man looked up from the photograph and met my eyes.
‘Nah,’ he said, and his face spread into a smile. I stared at it, recognising it. Just seconds before I’d seen the exact same smile on the woman’s face. The man held up the photograph, showing me. ‘I actually think I’ve found it.’
Badly worn around the edges, it wasn’t a photograph. Or, it wasn’t only a photograph. It was a postcard, the woman’s lamp post in the centre, and, behind it, a jewellers that had a clock in its façade.
‘Know how hard it is to track down a lamp post when all you have is a photograph?’ the man chuckled, his eyes creasing and his accent American. He shook his head, amused. ‘Guess I can tell grandpa he comes from Galway! He’s not up to travel anymore, so I said I’d come have a look for him – here on business anyway.’
‘I… imagine it’s very hard,’ I agreed. ‘To,’ I hastened to clarify, ‘find a lamp post with a photo.’
‘Ah – sorry,’ the man said, and chuckled again. ‘You were just offering directions! I won’t take up your time!’
I shook my head hastily. I more than wanted to hear it.
‘No way!’ I denied. ‘You’ve got me curious. Your grandfather was from here?’
‘Well he didn’t know,’ the man said. ‘But he did one of those genetic testing things, and that said he was Irish. He doesn’t remember it – was adopted when he was a baby. But he had this old teddy bear he’d been sent over to America with. We found it when we were helping him move in with my dad, and this,’ he held up the postcard, ‘turned out to be sewn up inside it. We only noticed because the old thing was falling apart. See?’
The man had flipped the postcard over, showing me the back. I swallowed as I read the words written hastily in faded sepia fountain pen:
Come find me at the
lamp post dear one,
if ever you are able.
I will wait for you.
But be healthy, be happy,
if you can’t. I will love you
forever and always.
It took a lot to keep myself from crying. I blinked hard at the threatening tears, swallowed again, and met the man’s smiling look with a smile of my own.
‘I know the story,’ I told him. ‘A woman who waited for years at the lamp post…’
‘Oh yeah?’ the man said, interested. He glanced up the street, tipped his head toward it, and continued, ‘If I buy you a drink, will you tell me?’
I’d have told him even without the offer of a drink, but I took him up on it.
‘Know who my great-grandfather is also?’ the man asked as we set off together up the street.
I doubted anyone even knew whether that man was lover or rapist. What he’d done had only meant something to the people who’d paid for it. But I didn’t say that part aloud.
The drink turned into a dinner, as he told me his grandfather’s story – a happy and, until his old age, healthy one. Then the dinner turned into much more, but I won’t bore you with the details.
I will tell you, though, that I met his grandfather. That somewhere in there, I admitted my ghostly apparition at the lamp post to the woman’s great grandson, largely just to tell him that the woman who’d waited not just her whole life, but long after, had smiled the moment she’d seen him find her. And I’ll tell you that I walked down the aisle to meet him at the alter this year, while our one year old son served as chub-cheeked ring bearer.
Though I still touch the lamp post whenever I pass it, I can tell you this too: the woman’s wait is finished. I haven’t seen her since that day she smiled.
This story, like many of mine, holds kernels of truth. The Bon Secours Sisters did run what is now known as a Home of horrors, called the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland. There were a handful of such Homes, and this story is only one of many that tell tales of this terrible history. Many stories you will find are real ones, from real people who lived through this. The bodies of babies were found in the old septic tank used by the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home – first discovered in the 1970s and forgotten again for decades. The Magdalene Laundries also existed, and the last closed in 1996.
A bit of trivia, if you’re interested: the clock on William St in Galway states “Dublin Time” underneath it. In the old days, Galway time was 11.5 minutes behind Dublin time. This, however, was an issue for train schedules, which must run on a standard time – and the standard was set on Dublin. So this clock showed Dublin time for the benefit of passengers wanting to catch the train.
There are no lamp posts that will meet this description in Galway. I’ll admit I invented it!
In part, I wrote this story out of fear that the Western world, at least, could ever go back to such a society that punished women for sex. In the past 10 to 20 years, many Western nations have progressed on reproductive and women’s rights. Perhaps I am being melodramatic, but looking at the USA today, I worry this is a fragile progression, and one not to become complacent about.
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