Seven Times Around The Black Church by Ken Foxe

They say if you run around the Black Church three times anti-clockwise at midnight, the devil will come to greet you. They’re wrong – you have to do it seven times. How I came to find that out can only be explained by an unusually warm evening, the five pints of beer I had drunk, and that I ended up walking home alone a little earlier than expected.

The Black Church is a peculiar old building. It’s marooned between two roads on a concrete island with calp limestone that turns ashy in the rain. Its thin spire and brickwork would put you more in mind of a castle than a place of worship. It’s a curious part of Dublin, neither city nor suburb, a mix of fading red-brick terraces and flat blocks. You don’t see that many people walking nearby and maybe that’s just as well.

The church’s real name is St Mary’s Chapel of Ease, the “ease” part of it because it was more convenient for mass-goers back in the days travel was not so straightforward. It hasn’t been a church for a long time now, has been converted to offices. It was deconsecrated years ago – it’s just a pity nobody thought to tell the devil.

I had been out with my friend Aidan, enjoying myself in Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street. It was one of those near-equinox June evenings when it seems darkness will never come. We stood happily out on the road in short sleeves, gulping down our drinks, and convincing ourselves there was nowhere better than Dublin on those rare days the sun shines.

After a few drinks, Aidan always got a craving for a cigarette and he went to cadge one off an attractive woman, who was standing by herself, quietly smoking and sipping on a bottle of Danish beer.

He began to talk to her; a lost cause so far as I could see. I remember assuming her boyfriend would turn up but a few minutes passed and they were still engrossed in conversation. Next thing I knew we were being introduced, and she explained how the friend she was supposed to meet had cried off at the last minute.

Then, there were three of us in our little circle. I bought another round of drinks but I knew my presence was no longer required. Nobody wants to be a third wheel, and Aidan and I had a long understanding when it came to such things. Stay a little while, don’t be too obvious in running off, but make yourself scarce. I demolished my last pint, made my excuses, and said I had an early start the following morning even though I had the day off. I gave my friend a nod and a wink as I went.

I went walking up O’Connell Street and there was that intoxicating buzz in the air, of alcohol and summer, aftershave and fast food, and that ever-present side order of anti-social edginess. I felt a million dollars, or a million euros at least. I had a spring in my step but nowhere to spring to.

I gulped in the warm night air and before I knew it, I was walking past the Rotunda Hospital, the place I came screaming into the world thirty one and a bit years earlier.

I still had it half in my mind I should have another drink, that it was too early for the bed, but it was only a half-formed intention. And I was thinking too if I went home then, I might yet escape a hangover and have a productive Monday. I told myself I didn’t need to make my mind up yet, at least until I reached Phibsboro, where maybe Doyles, the Hut, or the Bohemian would be open for a nightcap.

But as I was coming up Granby Row, I glanced at my watch and saw it was nearly midnight. Far later than I thought, the inevitable by-product of those lovely languorous evenings in the public houses of Dublin. My only option now was McGowan’s – a late-night spot full of people much younger than I – and thoughts of standing there solo seemed a little desperate, not least because I was newly married.

The Black Church was ahead of me, stranded there in the middle of the two roadways. There was nobody around and something took a hold of me and I began to run. My lungs felt good, filling as I completed my first circuit, the unspent energy of the evening put to some daft use.

I kept going, seven laps in all and came to a stop. I was a little breathless and I leant up against the iron railing. I heard the sound of footsteps behind me, and quickly turned. A man came wobbling past; he was much drunker than me and lost in his own private reverie. Chuckling to myself, and hoping nobody else had seen me, I started on up the road headed for Cabra. ‘Time for bed,’ I told myself.

I walked up along the Royal Canal Bank – a lovely little linear park that once a time was a working inland waterway plied by barges, heavy-laden with coal and spuds. Its disconnected canal basin still remained, and I looked through the iron gate across the deathly still water, even the ducks and swans gone to sleep. There were wooden benches along my path and I took a seat because, in truth, after the seven laps of the church, I was starting to feel a little breathless.

I took a puff of the Ventolin inhaler I carried round with me at all times and let it do whatever magic it needed to open back up my airways. A middle-aged man approached; an unkempt beard and glasses, wild eyes, his jeans well-worn and dirty, his teeth stained nearly brown, some broken.

He sat down at the other end of the bench, started to laugh uproariously at some unspoken joke from the machinations of his mind. I edged away a little but I wasn’t frightened; there was a harmlessness about him. He began to root around in a plastic bag on the ground, took a can of Leffe from it, and offered it to me.

“My favourite,” he said, and the funny thing is it was my own favourite beer as well.

We got to talking about Dublin’s Gaelic team, Bohemians football, our favourite pubs, and the best place to get a pint of Guinness. All the usual old sh**e but pleasant all the same beneath the moonlight of the early summer. He started to search for something inside his sports jacket, took out a penny whistle, and started to play it – beautifully.

I fell into a silent bliss, a combination of the strong Belgian beer, the reel he was playing, and the unusual warmth that remained in the air. My eyes were half-closed and a sort of rapture descended upon me, an overwhelming sense of well-being, of simple things and just how good they can be. Suddenly, the music came to a stop and my new acquaintance stood up. I unclosed my eyes, awoken from my trance. He was standing directly over me and his eyes seemed different now, much brighter and whirling in the glimmer.

“I’m Tony by the way,” he said, his friendly demeanour restored. He held out his hand and for a second I paused because it seemed a long time since he last washed, and there was enough dirt beneath his fingernails to support plant-life.

“Nice chatting with you,” I told him, gripping his hand with mine. And all the while, telling myself to scrub it thoroughly once I got home.

“Tomorrow,” he whispered, “the 3.30 race at Fairyhouse, you put a hundred euro on a horse called Rosie’s Choice and you won’t be disappointed.”

“I’ll remember that,” I said - not entirely sure if I would.

“And if you ever need me again, you know where I am.”

I watched him amble off down the path, before abruptly turning and disappearing into the Blessington Basin, even though I was almost certain its iron gate was locked.

The morning after, I awoke with a mild, but tolerable, throb in my head.

“A late one?” asked my wife Sofia.

“Not too bad,” I said, “Aidan met himself a nice lady, so I had to make my excuses.”

“Lovely,” I said, “bring us two paracetamol while you’re at it please.”

Sofia kissed me on the forehead, and I shut my eyes again and dozed.

It was around lunch time and I was down at the local shops, happily eating a toasted sandwich and drinking a cappuccino in my favourite café. I had my iPad with me and I remember I was trying, with limited success, to relearn Irish on Duolingo. The prepositional pronouns were confusing me and the very slight hangover did not help with my cognition.

When I finished, I headed for the bookies shop, a place I always steered clear of except for the big horse racing festivals of Cheltenham and Punchestown, and the day of the Aintree Grand National. My father always told me you never saw a rich man in a betting shop unless he owned the premises, and he wasn’t far wrong.

There was the usual mix you would expect in there, guys who’d lost their jobs with nothing else to do, tradesmen taking a break from work and having a quick flutter, pensioners who hung about all day making endless small bets because their wives were dead. The only women there worked behind the counter. But it had a convivial atmosphere; it was a place where you could come for a bit of company or a brief respite from the humdrum day.

I walked up to the sheets of newspaper, which along with more than a dozen flashing TV screens, decorated every wall. They gave the runners and riders for every meeting that day in Ireland, England, and even further afield. It was quiet, just the low hum of chatter and the sound of the Racing Post pages being shuffled.

Fairyhouse racecourse, that much I could remember but the name of the horse escaped me. I scanned through the early races and nothing seemed familiar. But when I came to the card for the 3.30 – the bell of half-memory rang in my head. Rosie’s Choice. That was the one my ‘friend’ Tony had mentioned.

I checked my wallet and saw I had sixty euro. The horse was 10/1 and I backed it thirty euro each way. It was about as big a bet as I’d ever made. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford it. I had a good salary from the bank; it was just racing and betting had never been of much interest to me.

I made my way home, watched two episodes of Seinfeld that I’d seen a hundred times before, and dozed off on the couch. It was after four by the time I woke. I won’t lie but I had a tiny butterfly doing cartwheels in my belly as I keyed through my mobile phone to check the horse racing results. My winnings came to nearly €400. Hardly life-changing but enough for a nice night away at one of those luxurious Blue Book hotels for me and my Sofia.

I never did think too much about what happened that night in the few years that followed. Life trundled on quite pleasantly, and without surprises. We were not long married and we both had good enough jobs that we could travel widely. We drove the Great Ocean Road in Australia, snorkelled in the pristine water of Kauai, and watched ancient tortoises rambling the Galapagos. We never wanted for anything.

It was about four years later that we made the firm decision that it was time to expand our little family. We weren’t ‘not’ trying. But we were still enjoying our carefree life even while its novelty began to diminish ever so gradually. The absence of any plus sign on a pregnancy test, we put that down to simple chance.

It wasn’t luck though, as we found after a long series of appointments with doctors at the Rotunda Hospital. I used jars for ‘sample collection’ in toilets furnished discretely with well-thumbed magazines that were supposed to help. Sofia grew weary walking the corridors and offices of the private fertility clinic. Eventually, it was made clear that we couldn’t have a child and that was that. There was no fix. There would be no endless torturous rounds of IVF – or any other treatment. It just was not going to be.

It changed things for us. We’d always taken this as a given that when we’d had our youthful time, we would move onto this next stage. Within a year, we both found ourselves with prescriptions for anti-depressants; I suffered panic attacks for the first time in my life. We sat together with a counsellor, who gently cautioned us our relationship would need reinforcement, extra scaffolding to protect it. We never did slip apart. At least that didn’t happen. Tentatively, we began to travel abroad again but I’d only be lying if I said it was the same as before.

One night, I was out again with my friend Aidan. I had been quietly avoiding him for months – these type of minor social occasions had begun to take on a daunting life of their own. We were sitting in Briody’s on Marlborough Street, two freshly poured pints in front of us and a pack of King crisps torn open to share. Suddenly, I was overcome with an overwhelming urge to be elsewhere.

I stood quickly so that I gently knocked the table, unbalancing it, the glasses quavering on top. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, sat down on the toilet and broke down crying. It was a deep empty weeping, so unstoppable it almost physically hurt. It took me five minutes at least to compose myself. “Think I’ve got a dicky stomach,” I said to him as I returned. He understood; smiling: “An extra pint for me so,” he joked. I just hoped he hadn’t seen the redness in my eyes.

I raced along Marlborough Street, almost like an Olympic speed walker. I turned onto Parnell Street, the smell of noodles, kimchi, and MSG hanging in the air. The Rotunda was ahead. That venerable maternity hospital, for most of my life, was simply the place that I was born. Now, it was the place where the dreams of my wife and me had perished.

I went up through Parnell Square and the Black Church was in front of me. The adrenaline of blind panic was still coursing through me and I broke into a trot. Round and round I went, seven times in all. And every lap, I cursed my stupidity and the misfiring synapses of my splintering mind.

I plodded on up the road, taking two puffs of my Ventolin inhaler as I walked. I took a seat on the Royal Canal Bank, put my head in my hands and began to cry again. I knew I was broken in a way that I did not know how to fix.

Faintly in the distance, I heard the sound of a penny whistle – low at first, but creeping closer. Beneath the shadows of the trees, a man emerged. He handed me a can of Leffe. He had not aged, nor it appeared had he changed his clothes or washed. Through his wild eyes and fractured teeth, he broke into laughing.

“How have you been?” said Tony, and again I saw that momentary transformation in his eyes. “Not so good by the looks of things.”

He sat down beside me, threw an arm over my shoulder. I remember steeling myself for the scent of body odour, but he smelled instead of expensive aftershave.

I told him what had been happening, of dreams dissolving, found it all pouring out like vomit in some bizarre moment of catharsis, how we could never be happy now knowing what was lost.

“There ain’t no such thing as never,” he said. “And don’t leave it so long next time to ask for help.”

He began to play his tin whistle again. I allowed my eyes to close, let my head rest lightly on my shoulders, could feel myself drifting off. When I awoke, he was gone.

There were many times over the next forty years when I found myself running, jogging, later walking, then shuffling slowly seven times around the Black Church. Our family grew to become five, and later even bigger with six grandchildren. Every time something threatened to disrupt our lives, my whistling friend on the Royal Canal Bank would intervene.

Our daughter Máire contracted meningitis when she was thirteen and doctors told us to expect a ‘worst’ that did not happen. A highly suspicious smear test for my wife Sofia aged fifty one turned out to be a false alarm. There was the time I got made redundant at fifty eight, thought I was for the scrapheap, and got offered a new better-paid job soon after.

As my three kids grew older – my circumambulations of the Black Church became more frequent. Where once, it was only for an emergency, now I needed hardly any excuse. I became greedier for money, so that I could pass it on to my children, pay their college fees, replace a car that had broken down on the M50, help them pay the deposit for their dream home.

There were selfish things too, a sailing across the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary 2, but bivouacked in a Royal Suite. There was a brand new Tesla car, even though I barely knew how to work most of its features. On the day I retired, a Breitling watch hung upon my left wrist and it hadn’t been a parting gift from my colleagues. Thoughts would sometimes surface, that a time would come when repayments were to be made. But I swept them off into the part of the brain kept for things better left unconsidered.

Then came a racking cough, which would not improve even after three courses of antibiotics and six daily puffs of a steroid inhaler. It turned out as bad as bad can be. One last time, on a cold clear November Dublin evening, I managed to drag myself around the Black Church seven times. Sitting on the familiar bench on Royal Canal Bank, Tony never came.

As I lay on my deathbed, our marital bed, old friends and distant relatives came to hold my hand and say their farewells. Sofia nursed me at home with the help of my three now adult children. A nurse from the hospice would call each morning and evening to make sure I was never in too much pain.

My dwindling days grew shorter as more and more hours were spent in a drug-assisted slumber. I did not suffer too much, and for that I suppose I should be thankful.

It was a Sunday afternoon; Sofia knocked gently on the door of our room to see if I was awake.

“There’s a man in the front porch,” she said, “he says he is a friend of yours.”

I could see an uncertainty in her eyes, like she wasn’t entirely sure what to do. People had been coming and going from the house for months now to offer condolences and say goodbye. But the look in her eyes suggested this was somehow different.

“Who is it?” I said.

“I’ve never seen him before,” she said. “It’s a little strange because he kind of looks like a tramp. Says his name is Tony; that you were expecting him.”

Even through the opiate haze, I could feel my pulse quickening, my senses more vivid. “What does he want?” I asked.

“He said,” Sofia replied. “He said he wants to play you one last tune.”


Ken Foxe is a writer and transparency activist in Ireland. He is the author of two non-fiction books based on his journalism and writes short stories of horror, SF, and speculative fiction.

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Author's note

The tale of the devil and the Black Church is a really well-known part of the mythology of Dublin. The church itself looks very unusual, almost as if it was designed for scaring children and ghost stories. My story is influenced by a lovely children’s book by Nicola Colton called A Dublin Fairytale, which I used to read to my daughter when she was younger. I wanted this story of the Black Church to feel like a modern adult Dublin fairytale that was steeped in the geography, architecture, and ambience of the city.