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The Banshee’s Wail

He had not expected to experience the freezing sensation that moved so quickly up his spine. His complexion turned as pale as that of a corpse, and his body began to tremble excessively.This is the post excerpt.

Throughout Ireland’s history, and even in the present day, many have professed to have seen the Banshee as she goes wailing and clapping her hands in grief. On those rare occasions when more than one Banshee has been present they have wailed and sang their haunting songs in chorus for the death of some great leader or holy man. There is, also, among the records of those who have seen the Banshee, reports that on some occasions she is accompanied by a large, black coach, upon which is mounted a coffin. This so-called “Death Coach” is drawn by huge, black, headless horses that are driven on by a headless coachman. From out of the darkening sky the coach will rumble its way to the door of your house, seeking to transport the souls of those who are dead to their final resting place. It said that if you open your door to the “Death Coach” a basin of blood is thrown into your face as a sign of purifying the house and dead person by removing evil spirits.

bansheeIt is the way of the Banshee that not every Irish family can claim the honour of having one attend to them. According to custom the family must be respectably descended from a long and ancient line if it is to have a warning spirit of their own. At the same time the Banshee does not appear to be influenced by any difference of creed. Providing there is no other impediment even Protestant families of Norman and Anglo-Saxon origin are able to boast of having their own Banshee. It is with some pride that even in our modern times several noble and distinguished families in Ireland can claim that this mysterious being continues to watch over them. Furthermore, it appears, she is not influenced by the circumstances of rank or fortune. In fact, the Banshee is more often found frequenting the homes of the lower classes than the homes of the rich and influential. It will interest you, therefore, to read that the following tale is one told by a member of a humble family that has claimed the honour of an attendant banshee for many years.

This story, then, is only one of many witness reports.

Not so many years ago there was a farmer, who lived in the vicinity of the beautifully scenic Glens of Antrim. At this stage of the story it is not necessary to disclose this man’s name, but we can tell the reader that he never saw the need to get married. In the same house lived the only child of his deceased sister, a son, and his elderly mother who acted as housekeeper in the home over which she was once mistress. The old woman and her grandson were both followers of the Roman Catholic Church, into which the farmer himself was baptised. For reasons best known to himself the man’s faith lapsed and he was like a man in search of faith. As he grew older, however, the farmer’s search for a loving God to believe in appeared to waver and he became more a theistic in his outlook. He had no time for church going people, or the idea of sin, preferring to enjoy the fruits of life and not have to worry about accountability. He developed a rather dark, unattractive personality and kept himself aloof from others. He appeared sullen most of the time and showed himself to be a man of gloomy temperament. All of these personality imperfections, aligned with his well-known distaste of anything religious, only helped make him somewhat unpopular amongst his neighbours.

He may not have been well liked by his neighbours but he was generally respected by them. In his dealings with them he never insulted or antagonised them, and was considered by most to be an honest, inoffensive man. More importantly he was a large and muscular man who, even when he was younger, had a reputation for toughness and being able to handle himself in a scrap. It comes as no surprise then that there were very few of his neighbours and acquaintances who desired to disturb him, even if they felt they had they cause to do so.

It was not only toward religion that this farmer’s hostility was directed. Having been well educated in modern science he was very much hostile to every kind of superstition, and he was constantly berating his old mother about all the superstitions she held to. The old woman was an extremely superstitious person, and she allowed others to believe that she was entirely conversant with everything concerning witchcraft, the spirits and the fairy world which she was certain surrounded them.

Although his farm bordered the lands of several neighbours he rarely set foot across the door of any of these. Moreover, he seldom asked any of his neighbours to enter his home and preferred to spend his leisure time reading books from a wide variety of genres. He also spent time in refurbishing his farm tools and equipment, which he viewed as vital to his livelihood. Occasionally he would spend time listening to and laughing at the wild, often blood thirsty stories told by his old mother, Mary. She was an endless repository of such stories and she enjoyed relating them to both her son and grandson.

This farmer had reached the age of forty years by the time our story takes place and old Mary had become extremely feeble with age. Her body was greatly stooped over and wracked with arthritis, while her face was made ugly by her dry and wrinkled skin. One cold November morning the farmer got out of bed before the first rays of daylight had broken through the darkness of the night. As he came out of his bedroom he was somewhat surprised to find his aged mother in the kitchen, sitting over a fire she had raked-up in the hearth. She sat there in a very serious and meditative mood, smoking an untipped cigarette. “Good morning, Ma,” he greeted her. “What are you doing up out of your warm bed so early in the day?

Ah sure I don’t rightly know what’s wrong with me,” she answered him. “I have had such a bad night, altogether. Sure I never slept a wink and thought I would get up for a cup of tea and a smoke to see if it would help.

And what ails you, Ma? Are you sick, or what has come over you?”

No, son. Thanks be to God I am not sick, but my heart seems that it is ready to burst, and there’s a such a heavy weight on my body that it makes me feel so weak.”

Maybe it’s just a bad dream, Ma, or maybe a wee bug of some kind,” he said to her, in a tone that showed that he did not take her complaints too seriously. He was sure, from previous experience, that the old woman’s complaints could be put down to her simply feeling her age and not willing to admit it.

A bad dream!” repeated old Mary, with a bitter sneer. “You think I’m imagining it; I wish to God that it was only my imagination, son. But, unfortunately, I am very much afraid that it is a lot worse than that. I have a notion that there is great trouble and misfortune hanging over lives at this moment.”

And what makes you think such things, Ma?” he asked her with a half-suppressed smile on his face that demonstrated doubts. Mary, however, was well aware of his strong hostility toward every mention of superstitious beliefs and signs. She, therefore, chose to remain silent, but she bit her lower lip and shook her grey head despairingly.

Why don’t you answer me, Ma?” the farmer again asked the old lady.

Pay me no mind,” said Mary, “Sure I am just an old woman and don’t really want to tell you, because you will only laugh at me and think that I am going crazy. Nevertheless, you can mock and laugh at me, but, I will tell you there is something bad hanging over this place. The banshee was about this house all through the night, and she has almost frightened me out of my wits with her shouting and bawling.”

Naturally, Mary’s son was fully aware of the banshee having been long supposed to haunt his family. In the past the man had sought the truth of the tale and was frustrated in his efforts. But, although he doubted the creature’s existence, and had not heard of her visiting the place in many years, he was totally unprepared for Mary’s announcement. He had not expected to experience the freezing sensation that moved so quickly up his spine. His complexion turned as pale as that of a corpse, and his body began to tremble excessively. It took several moments for him to gather himself together and with a forced smile he asked his mother, “And how do you know it was the banshee, Ma?”

She looked up at her son in disbelief that he would ask such a question. “How do I know?” Mary questioned him with a taunting sneer. “Sure didn’t I see and hear her several times during the night? And more than that, didn’t I hear the cursed dead-coach rattling round the house, and through the yard, every night at midnight this last week. I was afraid that the house would be shaken so bad it would crumble around us!”

That forced smile was not yet gone from the man’s face. He was frightened by the prospect of the banshee’s presence, yet he was ashamed to show any fear to his mother. He asked her, “And did you ever see the banshee before, Ma?”

Of course I have,” Mary insisted. “I have seen her on many occasions. Didn’t I see her when your father died? Didn’t I see her when your sister and her man passed away? In fact, there is not one member of this family that has passed away in these last sixty years that I did not both see and hear the banshee.”

Tonight, where did you see her? How did she look?” he questioned further.

There was a sort of reddish light that lit up the entire house and caused me to waken,” she began. “It was then that I saw her at the little window over my bed. I could clearly distinguish her old, pale face and glassy eyes staring in at me, and she was rocking herself to and fro, clapping her tiny, withered hands, and crying out as if her heart was about to break in two.”

Nonsense!” he told her. “It’s all in your imagination; go, now, and get the breakfast ready. I need to go into Ballymena to-day to get a few things. If I can get into town early enough, then I can ensure I will be home early.”

A sudden feeling of cold caused the old woman to tremble. She looked at him with a tear forming in her eye and implored him, “For Heaven’s sake, John, don’t go to-day. Please stay and go to Ballymena another day. I am afraid for you, son, I have a terrible feeling that should you go to town to-day there will be something bad happen to you on the road.

Nonsense, woman!” said John. “Don’t worry your head over such stupid things and get me my breakfast, please.

Mary, with tears now flowing from her eyes, rose from her sea and began to get John’s breakfast ready for him. While she made his breakfast John washed, shaved and began to dress for the journey to town. Finally, having completed his preparations in the bedroom, John returned to the Kitchen and sat down to a breakfast of porridge, followed with tea and toast. John enjoyed his food and quickly ate all that was set before. With breakfast concluded in silence John got up from the kitchen table and moved to put on his overcoat before leaving the house.

At this point Mary moved as quickly as she could toward the door. Flinging herself to her knees she cried out to him loudly, “John, John, please listen to me. Don’t go to-day! Please take heed of my warning. Although an old woman, I know more of the world than you do, and I can plainly see that if you go from here today you will never enter alive through this door again.”

John would not allow himself to be influenced by the drivel of wild superstitions from an old, doting woman. He gently pushed her out of his way with his hand, and, proceeding to the farmyard, mounted his Yamaha motorbike and departed. With great sadness Mary watched him as he rode out of the yard, the tears still flowing from her eyes. When he went outside her range of vision she turned back through the kitchen door, sat down by the fireside, removed her handkerchief from her apron, and she wept bitterly for her son.

The day was a bitterly cold one and John went about his business in town quickly. Then, as soon as his business was finished, and feeling the chill of the day, he decided to visit a local public-house. On entering the bar John immediately ordered a glass of hot whisky to help him remove the chill on his body. As he drank at the bar an old friend entered and greeted him warmly, insisting that John have another glass with him before he left. The friend had not seen John for over a year and he was keen to catch up on any gossip and other things that John might know. As is always the case in such circumstances, one glass brought another, and it was late afternoon before John decided that he needed to get home. It was already getting dark outside and, having nearly ten miles to travel, it would be night time before he would reach home again.

John’s friend, however, was not prepared to allow him to leave the bar when the craic was so good. The order for more hot whisky and Guinness was called and it was not until well into the night that the friends finally parted in a much inebriated state. Of course John was fully aware that he should not ride his motorbike while he was drunk. But, good sense had long departed and, having mounted his bike, John switched on the engine, turned the accelerator and roared off from the space in which he had parked earlier. Somehow he did not have any problems moving down the streets of the town and once outside its boundaries he dashed along at a rapid pace through the gloom and silence of the winter’s night. John had driven almost five miles from the town when, on arriving at a very desolate part of the road, a gunshot was fired from behind the bushes along the roadside. In that instant John was knocked of his bike, which crashed into a large oak tree. He was dead before he touched the ground, the victim of a stray shot fired by one of two poachers in nearby woodland. The two poachers rushed to John’s body, lying at the side of the road and searched him for identity. They found and took his wallet full of money and, afraid of the consequences of their actions, the two men disappeared into the night before any other person came on the scene.

In the house Mary did not go to bed that night, but sat at the fireside impatiently waiting for her son to return home. In the silence of the kitchen she listened for even the slightest sound that might indicate the arrival of his motorcycle. But all Mary’s listening and waiting was in vain. No sound met her ear except the sad wail of the night wind, which moaned fitfully through the tall bushes that surrounded the old house. Standing at the kitchen door Mary could hear the sullen roar of the narrow, dark river, which wound its way through the fields a short distance away. Overcome with tiredness; watching and listening for such a long period of time Mary finally fell asleep in the armchair that stood by the hearth. But the old lady’s sleep was not a restful one. She was constantly disturbed and awoken by frightful and appalling dreams that incessantly haunted her imagination.

At long last the greyness of early morning appeared, struggling through the wintry clouds, and Mary again opened the door to look out. She was dismayed to find no sign of her son’s motorbike, but her hopes were raised by the sound of a car engine as it entered the yard. Her hopes were quickly shattered, however, when she noticed two policemen get out of the vehicle. At that moment she knew that they were not bringing her good news and she expelled a great scream of grief as she fell to her knees. The two policemen rushed to her aid and several neighbours quickly gathered to see what was amiss. Working together they raised Mary to her feet and returned her to the comfort of her armchair in the kitchen. It was then that the policemen explained that her son had been shot and was dead. Mary was told that a few hours previously a police patrol had found his body lying at the side of the road, about five miles from town. John’s body had been found stretched on his back at the side of the road, immersed in a pool of blood that appeared to have its origin in a bullet hole to his head. The police further explained that when his body was examined at the scene no wallet or money was found on his person. The body was subsequently taken for a post-mortem and the enquiry declared John’s death to be unlawful killing by a person, or persons, unknown. After the inquest John’s body was returned home to be waked, as was traditional, before being committed to the family grave in the small rural graveyard next to the local church.

Having no legitimate children, the nearest heir to his property was his nephew. But he was too young to inherit and the old woman was considered too old to look after him properly. There was a nephew of Mary’s living in England who would be the ideal guardian and Mary immediately wrote a letter to him explaining what had happened. He was asked to help the family out and while they waited on him two young men from a neighbour’s family were appointed to take care of the place.

This is not a new thing in rural Ireland. Traditionally rural people help each other out at times of harvest and times of difficulty, and the two youths delegated to act as guardians had been well known and respected by John. Jack Donnelly was, like Mary, also a Roman Catholic and was a stoutly-built, handsome fellow, who always had a pleasant word for everyone he met. He was full of life, energy and the bravado that is so typical of all young men and not just those who live in Ireland. Jack was considerably younger than John and was an active member of the local Parish, but very republican in his political outlook. He was a young man with the courage of a lion and was never afraid to stand up to any man. He was, however, extremely superstitious and would walk miles out of his road to avoid a “Fairy Tree”, or an ancient “Rath.”

Jack’s best friend, Harry Baker, on the other hand, came from a staunch, Loyalist and Protestant background. He was a tall, genteel-looking man with a proud and imperious manner, full of reserve and haughtiness. There were not many who could tolerate Harry, but Jack saw his friend’s manner as being a natural consequence of his political consciousness, religious background, and his superior intelligence and education. Just like his friend Jack, Harry also enjoyed a glass or two of good whisky and stout. Unlike Jack, however, he was of a more peaceful disposition and was utterly opposed to any superstitious beliefs. Considering himself to be better educated and more intelligent than most, Harry scornfully laughed at the very idea that such things as ghosts, goblins, and fairies existed.

It makes you wonder how Jack and Harry could be such good friends when they were diametrically opposed to each other in every point except their love of the gargle (Alcohol), and yet both men never failed to seize every opportunity of being together. There were occasions that they would physically fight each other, often blackening each other’s eyes when discussing their political and religious disputes. Despite this, their quarrels were always settled in an amicable way because they were never happy unless they were in each other’s company.

Both Jack and Harry had been staying in Mary’s house for about seven nights and they had been doing everything they could for her on the farm. As was usual the two men would sit in the kitchen at night, where they would share a few drinks before getting some sleep. The nights were getting colder and a large turf fire blazed brightly on the kitchen hearth, keeping them warm. Meanwhile, in her small adjacent bedroom old Mary was in a deep sleep, stretched out upon her good sized bed and wrapped in warm blankets. Between the two friends, stood a small oak table, upon which was placed a large bottle of whisky, a kettle of boiled water, and a bowl of sugar. Knowing there was still a chance that cattle and sheep thieves might target the farm. But, to give them an added sense of security and comfort Harry had brought his shotgun and placed it on one end of the table. As they sat and talked both men constantly recharged their glasses from the bottle of whisky, laughing and chatting as they recounted stories of their youth. Although they tried to be as quiet as possible the house was filled with a sense of mirth that had not been seen for many a long day. It was during one conversation that Jack mentioned the story Mary had told about the Banshee’s appearance, and he expressed a sincere hope that she would not come that night to disturb their comfort.

Banshee? Not that bloody nonsense again?” Harry shouted. “You papists are an awfully superstitious lot! I would like to see the face of any man, dead or alive, who would dare to make an appearance in this place to-night.” He reached over and put his hand on the double-barrel shotgun and with a wicked smile he told Jack, “By all that’s holy, Jack, I will let them have both barrels in one go if they annoy us tonight.”

It will not help you to shoot your gun at a banshee,” laughed Jack.

Rubbish!” said Harry and he gave Jack a contemptuous look across the table.

Anyone that comes here tonight will be no spirit but a being of flesh and blood. I wouldn’t think twice about pulling the triggers on them, you can be sure of that.” As if to seal his oath Harry drained another tumbler of whisky-punch.

But, forget all that, Jack,” said Harry unexpectedly. “Now that we are in such good humour, give us one of your songs.”

No problem,” replied Jack. “What song would you like to hear?”

Anything you please; you choose the song but don’t sing it too loud and awaken old Mary,” answered Harry.

Jack put his hand to his mouth and, after coughing and clearing his throat, he began to sing softly. In quick succession he sang “The Orange Cat” and a prolonged version of the “Lakes of Killarney.” Both songs were not exactly poetic ballads but Jack sung them because they expressed sentiments that were hostile to the British. They were songs that were popular among the more republican minded people of the North but antagonistic toward the Protestant, unionist population. Harry, however, just laughed at his friend’s foolish efforts to annoy him and quietly applauded when Jack had concluded his little concert. “Well done, Jack,” said Harry with a smile as soon as the singing ended, “You have a great singing voice but not much taste in songs.”

Then you give us a wee song then,” said Jack.

Harry, without hesitation cleared his throat and began to run through his scales. Jack noticed a wicked smile on his friend’s face, but sat back in his chair to listen to Harry’s song. With his deep, soft, and sonorous voice, Harry began to sing:

It is old, but it is beautiful,

And its colours they are fine.

It was worn in Derry, Aughrim,

Enniskillen and the Boyne.

Sure my father wore it in his youth,

In those by gone days of yore,

And on the twelfth I love to wear,

The sash my Father wore.”

Jack, from the beginning of Harry’s song, facially exhibited his aversion to the sentiments it expressed. But, when Harry began to repeat the song as a chorus, Jack lost all of his patience. He jumped up from his seat and bent over the table toward his friend. He swore vehemently at him and threatened to “break his gob” if he didn’t stop singing his song immediately.

Cool the jets, Mate,” said Harry laughing. “I didn’t take the bait when you sang your songs just a while ago. Besides, sure it is only a bit of craic and nothing to get irritated about.”

Jack was quickly pacified, and Harry continued with a new song.

Of all the money that ere I had, I spent it in good company.

And of all the harm that ere I’ve done, alas was done to none but me.

And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I cannot recall.

So fill me to the parting glass.

Goodnight and joy be with you all.”

“Of all the comrades that ere I had, they’re sorry for my going away, And of all the sweethearts that ere I had, they wish me one more day to stay,

But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise while you should not,

I will gently rise and I’ll softly call,

Goodnight and joy be with you all!”

“Oh, if I had money enough to spend and leisure time to sit awhile

There is a fair maid in this town that sorely has my heart beguiled

Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips, she alone has my heart in thrall.

So fill me to the parting glass.

Goodnight and joy be with you all

Jack was so pleased with the surprise of Harry singing his favourite song that he joyfully stretched out his hand, and even joined in chorus to the concluding stanza.

It was getting really late by this time and the fire had now almost died away on the hearth. More importantly, the whisky-bottle was almost emptied and the two friends were getting very drowsy. Jack turned off the lamp and laid his head down on the sofa to sleep. Harry, in the meantime, settled himself down in the big armchair at the side of the hearth. The singing and the laughter were now hushed, and no sound was to be heard in the house but the incessant “tick, tick,” of the clock on the wooden dresser that stood in the kitchen. Jack and Harry did not know how long they had slept when, suddenly, the old woman awakened with a wild shriek that swept through the entire house. In a panic Mary jumped out of bed, ran into the kitchen and on  to the sofa beside Jack. While Harry fell out of the armchair in a state of shock, Jack struggled to remove Mary’s terrified grip from around his neck. “What the hell has happened?” he shouted from beneath the sprawled figure of the old woman.

It’s her!” she screamed in answer. “The banshee, the banshee! Lord have mercy on us! she has come again, and I have never heard her wail so wildly.”

Jack, of course, immediately believed old Mary’s explanation. Harry, however, was not so easily convinced and thought it might be some person who was trying to play a not too funny joke on the old woman. Both men listened attentively, but they could hear absolutely nothing. They opened the kitchen door, but all outside the house was still in that fine, calm night, under deep, blue-black sky filled with myriads of twinkling stars. As they went around the hay-sheds, all was calm and lonely, and the only sound that greeted their ears was the shrill barking of some neighbouring dog in the distance. It was so quiet, indeed, that the sluggish murmuring of the little tortuous river could be clearly heard nearby. Finally satisfied that everything was alright, the two men decided to return to the kitchen of the house, where they would replenish the still glowing embers of the fire. Now that they had been awakened again both agreed that it was a good opportunity to finish whatever still remained in the whisky-bottle that was left on the table. But, they had not been sitting at the kitchen for many minutes when a wild, unearthly cry, originating from outside the house, broke the calm.

“It’s the banshee again,” Mary said in a faint voice. Jack’s blood drained from his body and with it much of his courage. Harry jumped up and grabbed hold of his shotgun.

When Jack saw what his friend was doing he caught hold of his arm. “No, no, Harry, you can’t do this,” he said firmly but in a shaking voice. “Just sit down quietly, for there is nothing to fear. Nothing is going to happen us.

Without a single word of protest Harry sat down again, but he still maintained a strong grip on the shotgun. Jack took a cigarette from a packet left on the table, lit it with a match, and took a long slow drag from it. Meanwhile, old Mary had gone down to the floor on her knees, striking her breast, and repeating a litany of prayers with great determination.

The sad wailing cry was again heard, though much louder and fiercer than before.

One moment it seemed to originate from the window, and the next moment it appeared to be coming from somewhere near the door. The men could see nothing, but could hear everything. At times the wailing seemed as if it was in the distance, then again it would appear as if it was coming down the chimney, or springing up from the ground beneath their feet. Sometimes the wailing resembled the low, plaintive cry of a woman in great distress. Then, a moment later, it was more like a prolonged yell, loud and furious, and as if it being issued by a thousand throats. There were times when the sound resembled a low, melancholy chant, and then there were other times when it quickly changed to a loud, broken, and demoniacal laugh. This was how the noise continued, almost without a break, for about a quarter of an hour or more. The sound then died away to be succeeded by a heavy, creaking sound, as if from some large wagon that was approaching and, in the middle of this, the loud tramp of horses’ footsteps might be distinguished, which were accompanied by a strong, rushing wind. To their ears this new, strange noise appeared to travel around and around the house two or three times. Then, very suddenly, the sound seemed to make its way down the lane that led from the house to the road, and was heard no more. Jack stood dumbfounded by the experience, while Harry, despite all his philosophy and scepticism, was completely astonished and frightened by what he had heard.

This has been one hell of a night, Mary,” said Jack, at last.

Indeed,” she replied. “That was the death-coach. I have often heard it before and have seen it once or twice.

Did you say that you had seen it?” asked Harry. “What was it like?”

Old Mary thought for a moment or two before telling Harry, “It’s just like any other horse drawn coach, but it is twice as big and is drawn by headless black horses. It is all hung over with black cloth, and there is a black coffin on the top of it.”

God protect us!” exclaimed a frightened Jack.

It is very strange phenomenon,” remarked Harry.

But,” continued Mary, “the coach always comes before the death of a person, and I wonder what brought it now, unless it came with the banshee.”

Maybe it’s coming for you,” said Harry.

No, no,” she said; “I am not one of the select.”

For a few minutes all three persons stayed silent awaiting for the sounds to return. They even began to believe that the banshee had now vanished, until once again the dreadful cry sounded loudly in their ears.

Quick Jack, open the door and we will send out ‘Butch’,” said Harry, urgently.

Butch’ was a large and very ferocious Rottweiler that belonged to Jack, and always accompanied him wherever he went. Hurriedly Jack opened the door and attempted to coax the dog to go out, but the poor animal refused to go. When Jack attempted to grab him and force him out through the door, ‘Butch’ curled up and howled in a loud and mournful tone.

Go get him!” urged Harry as he helped get hold of the dog and wrestle it out of the door. Almost immediately the dog was lifted up into the air by some invisible power and within seconds he fell again to the ground lifeless, and the door step was covered with his entrails and blood.

It was the final straw for Harry. He had lost all patience and he once again made a grab for his shotgun and called to Jack, “Come on, Big Lad, grab something heavy and follow me. This damn thing has really pissed me off now and I have to get a crack at it. By God it will rue the day it annoyed me.”

I’ll follow you anywhere Harry,” said Jack, “but I would not tackle any banshee for a million pounds.

Mary took a strong hold of Harry by the trousers and screamed at him, “Don’t you go out there! Just leave her alone while she leaves you alone! You can have no luck in this world or the next if you make any attempt to attack a banshee.”

Hush, woman!” Harry snapped at her and he pushed her away contemptuously.

Jack now “bit the bullet” and followed Harry out of the door. The wild crying continued, and it seemed to come from somewhere near the big hay barn behind the house. The two men went around to the rear of the house and paused for a moment. Again they heard the fearful cry and, in response, Harry raised his shotgun.

Don’t fire,” pleaded Jack.

Harry did not reply and gave Jack a scornful look as he placed his finger on the trigger and squeezed it. “BANG!” the gun exploded with a great thundering sound. An extraordinary scream now filled the night air, which was ten times louder and more terrifying than they heard before. Their hair stood erect on the two men and huge, round drops of sweat ran down their faces in quick succession. There was a glare of reddish-blue light that illuminated the entire hay shed and, at the same time, the rumbling of the death-coach could again be heard coming toward them.

 The coach drove right up to the house, drawn by six headless black horses and the figure of a withered old woman encircled with blue flame was seen running floating across the yard. This spectral image entered that ominous carriage and they drove away with a horrible sound following. In an instant the coach swept through the tall bushes which surrounded the house and, as it disappeared, the old spectre let loose one last scream at the two men, while she waved her fleshless arms at them angrily. In moments it was lost to sight, but the unearthly creaking of the wheels, the tramping of the horses, and the appalling cries of the banshee continued to fill the night for quite a considerable time afterwards.

Their bravery tested, the two men quickly returned to the safety of the house, making sure that the door was once again made fast. They need not have worried because there was nothing that came to disturb them the rest of that night. In fact, they were not disturbed for the rest of the time they stayed there, which was only a couple of days more until the arrival of Old Mary’s nephew. Old Mary, however did not live long after these events, for her health declined after that terrible night. She received all the sacraments of her faith and her remains were decently interred in the churchyard where her beloved family had all been buried.

The banshee has never returned since that night, although several members of that same family have since come to the end of their mortal existence. That fearful, warning cry was never heard again and, it is said that the spirit will never visit again until every one of the existing generation shall have gone to their eternal rest. Both Jack and his friend Harry lived on for many years after the events, their friendship undiminished by the years. Often, over the odd bottle of whisky, the two men would laugh as they recounted their strange adventure with the banshee. Sadly, however, its all over with them too and their tombstones stand tall in that lonely churchyard.

Niamh’s Folk – PART I

If you ever chance to go to the County of Armagh in the Northern portion of Ireland, you would be reasonably safe in addressing a man as “Mr. McCann!” If that should fail to gain his attention then you could try Murphy, or Quinn. And if this does not give you a positive result, then there is still the surname of Wilson to fall back upon. But, I would certain that failure in using all these surnames is next to impossible! Niamh, however, did not have any of these names, although she lived with her maternal grandfather, who was called Hughes.

Niamh was one of those beings that the people call a changeling, and any of those people residing in the Parish of Derryhusk would tell you so.  There were one or two people in the area who would smile when they told you this. Her grandmother, Catriona Hughes stated it as fact, and Catriona had been given the second sight, which allowed her to see more than most other people. Nevertheless, she was held in high regard within Derryhusk Parish because of her ability to see beyond that misty veil which mercifully hides the future from ordinary beings. The old woman had long said, almost from the day the child was born, that the girl was a changeling. Her daughter, poor Anna had died when Niamh was born, and her father Robbie O’Neill had been tragically drowned. It was, you can see, that the baby had been surrounded by great tragedy and sorrow from birth, and the ‘good people’ had stolen her away, leaving Isabelle in her stead. At least this was the story that was common among all in Derryhusk.

When growing up, Niamh had always been something of an odd child, Catriona had insisted to her friends and neighbours. She would tell all that Niamh, with her ruddy, tawny locks, and sloe-eyes, elfish and silent, would do the oddest, uncanny, unaccountable things, as her moods swung between bouts of sadness and bouts of happiness. As for Niamh, she grew up in the confines of Derryhusk, and had never displayed any wish to leave, though she had been given opportunities to do so. Instead, she lived with Catriona until she was nineteen, and helped her with her spinning and knitting. It was her duty to milk the cows, and to maintain the home for her grandmother. But, the young girl’s head was filled with her grandmother’s teaching, convincing her to believe in the existence of the fairy folk, although she rarely ever spoke about them. Often, her cousin Dermot would find her seated in the middle of the fairy-ring on the small hillock, that stood above the cottage, picking the green grass absently, and gazing blankly into the distance.

One day, she told herself. she would hear the tapping of fairy feet as they danced upon the stone path, or a tiny voice which would call on her to enter into a magical world that would be so very different from lovely Derryhusk. On several occasions she thought that she was on the brink of meeting the little folk, only for someone to come and interrupted the moment. There was one night as she came home over the moss from Ardee that all was quiet and the only sound she could hear was that of her own footfall. Nearby the narrow stream ran, richly brown with the peat over which it gurgled, and the air was filled with honeyed scents, while distant hills faded into the lovely purple of the night’s embrace. Niamh was sure she heard a voice calling her then, and she had wandered up amongst the furze bushes, her face eager and filled with expectancy. And there above her on the small grassy hillock, appearing to flit between the grey lichen-covered boulders, she was certain that there were tiny white figures, waving her to come forward. In her eagerness she began to run towards the top of the small hillock, but, just as she approached that place, Dermot’s voice called to her from the high road. “What are you doing there?” he asked. “Is it the way home?” Niamh almost burst into tears as she descended the hill once more. For she could see nothing near the boulders at that moment but the waving cotton-grass and furzes amongst the peat bog.

Niamh's ArgumentIt was a lovely September, and the hill-sides were a splendour of tawny colouring, the fading furze and bracken, golden and brown, and orange, and gold, and dusky indescribable grey. The sunset came early, and tingeing and stained the nearby tarn, while the cragged rock known as “The Hound’s Tooth” stood out sharply against a rose gold background caused by a descending sun.  Niamh had gone to fetch fodder for the cows, and the fodder was a great pile of pale yellow bracken, which she bound together and fastened on her back. Carrying this load, she moved along the road, pausing now and then to lean her load on one of the rough trackside banks that bordered the ‘moss’. It was nearing evening, and shadows were creeping over the moss, while the small stream became a dark and sullen-brown now as it began the hoarse song that it sings only in the dark. The deer in a nearby woodland hear and love this river-song and they creep down cautiously, light-footedly, turning startled graceful heads from side to side, and they pause a moment, poised with listening ear, before they bury thirsty soft noses into the cool rushing water. The deer paid no attention to Niamh’s presence for they seemed to know that she posed no danger to them, though it was scarcely dark enough for the deer to make an appearance. There was still light enough in the sky to see a passing tourist from Liscorr, coming from popular Corrig on his way home. Niamh paused to rest and laid the heavy load of bracken on the grassy bank, where the yellow fern made a lovely background for her tawny-coloured hair and dark ebony-coloured eyes. Along the track she suddenly spied two men approaching, and she waited for their arrival with some apprehension until she realised one of the men was Dermot McCann. He was her cousin, short, swarthy, black-browed, with a twinkle of cunning in his grey eyes, and a jolly lilt in his voice. The other person Niamh had difficulty naming, although she had seen him playing hurling in Liscorr. Yes, yes, she knew him and had admired his steady ‘puck fada’ on the field of play, and his name was Ruairi McFee. Oh yes, Niamh remembered Ruairi very well, and a little smile melted over her red lips, and lurked in the depths of her lovely eyes as Dermot made himself known to her. Ruairi had recently rented the small farm next to Catriona’s, and he had been invited by her to supper. It was time, Niamh decided, that she was at home.

The Christening

A tale of 19th Century Rural Ireland

There was a large turf fire blazing upon the broad, pleasant hearth of Matty Carr’s cottage, filling the entire house with its sweet, fragrant scents. In those days the turf was plentiful on the “Selkie Moss” and it was likely that the supply would last for a few hundred years yet. Bella, as Matt’s wife was called, was very much a house-proud woman, who was convinced that nothing makes a home more cheerful than a bright, warm, and welcoming fire in the hearth. Although she was usually a thrifty and frugal type of woman, Bella would build up the bricks of peat into a glowing pile with unsparing hands until the kitchen felt as hot as a kiln. The floor was so clean that you could have almost eaten your meal off it, and every pot and pan was washed and cleaned to such an extent that they looked like mirrors hanging from their hooks. The wooden dresser that stood against the wall was looking fresh in its white gloss finish, and everything in the house had the definite appearance of absolute cleanliness.

In the corner of the kitchen, near to the fireplace, there was a clumsy-looking, home-made cradle, in which slept the newest and most precious addition to the Carr family. Every now and again, Bella would stop in the middle of her household chores to take a look in at the sleeping child, and she would whisper sweet blessings over her new-born infant.

Hey, Bella!” Matt shouted. “Was there anybody touching my razor?” He was calling to his wife from the next door room, where he was getting himself dressed for the very important ceremony that was soon to begin.

For Jaysus sake, man dear,” she called back to him in a loud whisper, “could you not speak just a bit softer, ye eejit, or you’ll waken the child!” At the same time, on her tip-toes, she hurried to the door of the adjoining room.

Matt was in a bit of a temper with himself about something, or other, which was not uncommon and Bella could see his mood quite clearly.  He was standing in the room and facing Bella when she came to the door of the room, and he held the cut-throat razor in one of his hands. His face was plentifully lathered with shaving soap, but from one side of his chin she saw that there was a cut from which blood flowed quite freely. Matt held the razor out toward her, ensuring that she had a clear view of the condition in which he had found the edge of the blade.

Aah, wee man! Have you cut your wee self?” she asked him with a false tone of pity, although she was concerned that he would be alright.

Cut myself?” he replied impatiently, being none to pleased with his wife’s tone. “Well, I think I have, or maybe I’m sweating blood! With all your blatherin’ maybe I will even bleed to death just for you. Now, just get me a plaster will you?

Returning to the kitchen, Bella fumbled in the dresser drawers and found a box of plasters, from which she took one and gave it to her angry husband. She knew that Matt was a good man, but he was also the type of man that occasionally lacked patience, and he did not suffer fools lightly. He had absolutely no doubts that some of the children had been using his razor to sharpen their pencils or other items. Matt’s mistake was simply that he had failed to check the edge of the razor before he began to shave with it. “Would you get the leather strap for me, Bella?” he asked her.

You know, maybe the strap will not be good enough to put an edge on the blade. I might have to take the bloody thing to the anvil and use a sledge hammer to put a proper edge on it. Then, if that works, I could polish it up by rubbing it along the big sharpening stone that I use for the scythe,” he told Bella in a half-joking tone of voice.

While Matt was talking to her, Bella returned to the dresser and fetched a huge glass jar, filled with a golden coloured liquid. Matt had a bright twinkle in his eyes when he caught sight of that jar in his wife’s hands. The corners of his mouth began twitching with anticipation as he came to understand her intentions. Nevertheless, he kept complaining and moaning until, finally, gave him a large tumbler filled with whisky that had been drawn from the jar.

And what’s that?” asked Matt, who was still not in the best of humour.

Aah, sure take a wee drink, darlin’. It’ll calm you down and steady your hand. It might even help stop your bleeding,” said Bella with a comforting smile.

Matt, being the sort of man that he was, did not need a second invitation to have a drink of whisky. He put the razor down by the washing bowl on the dressing table and gently took the tumbler of whisky from his wife’s hand. “Here’s to you, Bella,” he laughed as he emptied the glass in one drink.

Jaysus, Matt, you’ll have to take your time with the rest,” Bella insisted.

By God, Bella, sure you never spoke a truer word,” Matt replied. “There was a time that I could’ve drunk a river of that stuff, dry.

Indeed, you could have, wee man,” smiled Bella. “These days I would rather see you bringing in a bag of “Inglis'” flour than a jar of whisky. We can have more fun making things with the flour.

Don’t be daft, woman!” sneered Matt. “There’s more fun in that jar of whisky than there could ever be in “Inglis'” flour, even a cart load of it!

That may well be the case, my dear,” Bella replied to him. “But, like everything else, darlin’, whisky is very good as long as you keep it in its right place, and you do not abuse it.

Aye, and aren’t I just the man who knows where that right place is, and able to put it into it?” Matt laughed heartily, but Bella was not amused. He held the tumbler toward Bella again, saying, “Bella, just give me another wee measure and then I’ll quit.

But, the jar was closed and Bella had placed it back on the dresser, totally unwilling to replenish her husbands glass. “You have had enough for the time being,” she told him and began to walk away.

Och, Bella, just one more wee glass,” he pleaded with his wife. “Just to keep the first one company. You know, a bird cannot fly with only one wing.

ChristeningBella, of course, gave way to Matts pleas, as every dutiful wife would do. Matt now quickly forgot the bleeding cut on his face and, with a few strokes on the leather honing strap, the razor soon became as sharp as it had been previously. His face was soon shaven cleanly and he dressed in his best ‘Sunday Suit’. In less than half-an-hour he was standing at the front door of his cottage, waiting to welcome his invited guests. Matt had a quick eye and was able to distinguish objects at a distance from him. With that keen eyesight he scanned the various roads that led away from the house, and as soon as he saw certain people coming into his view he would call out to his wife, “They’re coming Bella! Here they are! Are those glasses ready? And the boiling water and the whisky? Is there something a little softer for the lasses, such as lemonade or cider? By Jaysus, woman, but this will be a well-remembered day and night! Sure this well may be the last christening we’ll ever have, so to hell with the expense!

It was absolutely amazing the number of people that Matt Carr was able to squeeze into that small house of his. There was both young and old, but it was mostly adults who were in attendance. They were put into the kitchen and the bedroom, and in every vacant space that was available inside the house. The first of the guests had begun arriving in the afternoon, but they were mainly the older women who came to give Bella a hand in making the needful preparations, and attend to the wants and needs of the children.

Matt was now in his glory. If you could have heard him talking to the guests you would have heard him talking to the guests, you would have thought him to be the ‘Lord of the Manor’, instead of the hardworking, hard-fisted mechanic of Ballyfoss. But, Matts heart was bursting with happiness and he would not have changed places with the proudest man in Ireland.

In a comfortable chair close to the blazing fire sat Biddy Brown, who acted both as a nurse and a midwife for almost the entire district. On her head she wore a white hat and she was dressed in a spotlessly clean, blue and white checked uniform. As she sat there near the turf fire there was a look of quiet contentment and grave responsibility on her face, which is so common among the nursing profession. On her knee slept the Carr baby, dressed in a snow-white gown, which was neatly embroidered and adorned for its imminent baptismal ceremony.

Matt, of course, attended to the duty that he saw as being his main responsibility. He was distributing the whisky around his guests. Each had a glass tumbler in heir hand or near at hand, which Matt filled from a small jug that he replenished from the large glass jar mentioned earlier. As he moved around, serving each guest, he talked to them in a warm and friendly fashion. “Now, Mrs. McCall,” he said to one guest, “Not one drop have you taken from your glass since I put that first drop in your glass.

Ah, sure, dear God, Matt,” she answered him, “this is two or three times you have filled my glass. And, honest to God, my boy, I couldn’t take any more.”

Jaysus sake, Matty,” said another lady. “Please don’t offer me any more, for that must be one of the jugs that never empties and my head’s spinning circles already!

Thus it continued. Some protested and yet, as they did so, they still held out their glasses for a fresh supply. Others, however, really meant what they had said and refused to take any more of Matt’s whisky.

Aah, Biddy, we almost forgot you,” said Matt as he approached the nurse and replenished her glass. “What do you think of the new baby, Biddy?

No nicer baby has ever come into this world!” Biddy told him as she softly kissed the baby’s head. “And may it be a blessing to its mother and father, as well as a credit to the old country.

Amen to that,” came the response from most of those around them.

Well, Biddy, there could be no better judge than yourself,” exclaimed Bella and Matt. “Because you have put a good number of them through your hands this last fifty years, and now I’ll tell you one and all what I’m going to make of that child you see there –” Matt ended his speech abruptly at this point as the latch on the door lifted and into the house walked the priest, who was to christen the child.

As the priest entered the house everyone rose in respectful silence as the priest came into the cottage. Father Toner was a man with a fine physique and a commanding presence. He had gained a wide reputation for his blood and thunder homilies, in which the assembled congregation could almost smell the sulphur of hell. But, outside of the pulpit, he was much admired for his genial manner and his great kindness toward others. “A good evening to you all,” he said as he stepped forward to shake Bella’s hand, and then he had a warm handshake with a kindly word for everyone else in the house.

At least a half-an-hour was filled with conversation among all those who had gathered in the house and, by the end of those preliminaries, it was time to make preparations for the christening. But, by this time also, Matt was in a condition that was far from suitable for the occasion. His frequent journeys to the big glass jar were now beginning to tell on both his speech and his equilibrium. There was a definite glitter in his eye and an unsteadiness in his gait that he tried to hide from others, because it was not appropriate to the occasion and those duties that he would be called upon to discharge.

Father Toner began the ritual with a heartfelt prayer and then he asked that the child be brought forward to him. There were a lot of nudges among those in the crowd, and quite a few of them had great difficulty in restraining their laughter as they watched the tremendous efforts made by Matt to appear both sober and solemn. Matt’s condition, however, did not escape the keen, observant eyes of Father Toner, and there was the faintest sign of twitching at the corners of his mouth as he lifted the child up, placing it into Matt’s arms and asked, “Are you able to hold up the child, Matthew?

Am I what?” asked Matt in inebriated surprise, “Able to hand it up! Indeed, I am Father, aye, even if it was the weight of a two year old bullock!

This remark was more than the assembled crowd could stand. At first there was a titter of laughter, but this quickly burst out into unrestrained hilarity. Even Father Toner could not hold back a smile as he demonstrated the difficulty he had in maintaining the solemnity befitting the occasion. But, nevertheless, things were going very well until the priest poured some drops of cold water upon the sleeping baby’s head. The effect was quick and immediate. The child awoke instantly and gave an ear piercing wail. In response, Matt turned angrily toward old Biddy, the nurse, and upset the gravity of the occasion once again by hissing at her, “For Christ’s sake Biddy, why didn’t you take the dead cold off the water?

Finally, it was all over and Father Toner handed the child back to its parents with a final solemn prayer. He apologised to them both that he could not stay for the celebrations that had been arranged and made ready to leave. As he bid them all farewell, the priest began walking toward Betty Gray’s house, nearby.

God go with you, father!” cried Matt as soon as the priest was beyond earshot. “Aye, God go with you, for I never feel right in myself when there is a clergyman around the house. Come on, Bella, get those tray things together and let us all have something to eat!

Bella, of course, did as she was asked, drawing a large table into the centre of the kitchen and quickly loaded it up with home-baked bread of various kinds. There were oat-cakes, potato-cakes, pancakes, soda-farls, wheaten bread, and may other products. Cheese, butter, eggs and jams were in plentiful supply, and those who could grab themselves a chair were soon at work on this feast. As it was impossible to accomodate all their company at the table, so many of them were obliged to hold their teacups and sideplates in their hands, or on their laps.

There was much discussion among the gathered crowd and many subjects were touched upon by them, from the condition in which the country found itself, to the possibility of a neighbour girl being married soon. “Did you hear about Jenny Early being three months gone?” asked Bella.

Get away with ye!” exclaimed several of the female guests. “Tell us what you know.

Well, you know Jenny’s not just the full shilling,” said Bella and several of the ladies nodded their heads in agreement. “Someone has made friends with her, but she wouldn’t tell anyone who he was. But, this man asked her to come and see his lambs and then took advantage of her in the hay shed. He told her that it was the sort of things that friends do and she, knowing nothing better, allowed him to have his way.”

“The dirty old ba….”

“Wheesht!” said Bella. “Hold your tongues for here comes Betty Gray and she has a mouth as big as Belfast Lough!”

End

Biddy

At the end of the nineteenth century the only good and reliable washerwomen that existed in England were women from our own ‘Emerald Isle’. It was often said that laundresses were “two a penny”, while real washerwomen were thin on the ground and all of them were Irish. What made them so valuable was that when an Irish Washerwoman promised to wash the muslin curtains as white as “a hound’s tooth”, and as sweet as “new mown hay;” she told the truth. But when she promised to “get them up like new” she usually fell short of her promise. In the vast majority of cases, the Irish Washerwoman often marred her own admirable washing abilities by a carelessness in the final process. She often made her starch in a hurry, though it required great patience in its blending. It had to be stirred incessantly, almost constant boiling, and in the cleanest of all large metal pots. Unfortunately, tradition and lack of education appeared to prevent her from accepting the superiority of powder over ‘laundry blue’, which was a household product that was used to improve the appearance of textiles, especially white fabrics. She would simply snatch the blue-bag, usually made from the “toe” of a stocking, from its storage place beside a shapeless lump of yellow soap, left over since the last wash. She would squeeze the bag into the starch, which she may have stirred with a dirty spoon. From that moment there could be no possibility of clear curtains, or clear anything.
“Biddy, these curtains were as white as snow before you starched them.”
“That’s true, ma’am dear.”
“They have now turned blue, Biddy.”
“Not all over, ma’am.”
“No, Biddy, not all over. But, here and there.”
“Ah, get away with ye, ma’am, will ye? Sure, it’s not that I mean. There’s a hole that’s worked in the blue-bag, bad luck to it, and more blue than I wanted got out. Sure, didn’t the starch get lumpy and became all bollocksed up?”
“It would not have got ‘lumpy’, Biddy, if it had been well blended.”
“Sure, didn’t I blend it like butter; but I just left off stirring for a minute to look at the parade.”
“Ah now, Biddy, an English laundress would not have stopped to look at a parade!”
This remark by her mistress offended Biddy’s scruples and she went off in a “huff,” muttering to herself that if they didn’t “look after a parade, they’d follow behind it. English laundresses indeed! Sure, they haven’t the power in their elbow to wash white.”
Biddy said all this, and more, for she was proud of being an Irishwoman, and wondered why anyone would prefer anything English to everything Irish. But, she knew that the fact remained that the actual labour necessary at the wash-tub is far better performed by the Irish than the English. But the order, neatness, and exactness required in “finishing off,” is better accomplished by the English than the Irish. This state of affairs, she accepted, was perfectly consistent with the national character of both nations.
Biddy Mahony was said by many to be the most useful person that they knew, and she was fully aware of that fact. But, she knew it, and yet she never allowed herself to be presumptuous. It was not only as a washerwoman that her talent shone out, and she got through as much hard work as any other two women. Nevertheless, as she says herself often said, “the mistress always finds fault with my finishing touches.” But, although she was not young, she was still a fine-looking woman with a large mouth that was always ready with a smile. She had the features of a person filled shrewd good humour, her keen grey eyes were alive to everything around her, not resting for a moment, and filled with female cunning. The borders of her cap were always twice as deep as they needed to be and flapped untidily about her face. She wore a coloured handkerchief inside a dark blue spotted cotton gown, which wrapped loosely in front, where it was held in place the string of her apron. Biddy’s hands and wrists had the appearance of being half-boiled, which looked more painful than it really was. She did not use as much soda as an English laundress would, but she did not spare her personal exertions, and rubbed most unmercifully. Then, one bitter frosty winter’s day, Biddy was seen standing near the laundry window, stitching away with busily.
“What are you doing, Biddy?”
“Oh, never heed me, ma’am.”
“Why, Biddy, what a state your left wrist is in! It is positively bleeding. In fact, it looks as if you have rubbed all the skin off.”
“And aren’t I going to put a skin on it?” she said, smiling through the tears which had been drawn from her eyes by the pain she was suffering, in spite of her efforts to conceal them. In her hands she was holding a double piece of wash leather which she was sewing together so as to cover her torn flesh. Now, that was heroism, and Biddy was a heroine, without even knowing it.
Biddy The Washerwoman 2Like many others of her sex and country, her heroism is that of being a patient, self-denying character and does not show her true thoughts to others. She was an extraordinary patient person, who could bear a great quantity of abuse and unkindness and knew quite well that to a certain degree she was living in an enemy’s country. Half the bad opinion of the “low Irish,” as the English often insultingly termed them, arose from old national prejudices, while the other half was created by themselves, by often presenting themselves as being provokingly uproarious, and altogether heedless of the manners and opinions of those people among whom they live. This, however, was not the case with Biddy. She had a great deal of cunning and tact. While you thought she was only pulling out the strings of her apron, she was always alert, listening, and understanding, like a stalking cat. If she decided to make some kind of quiet joke about the peculiarities of her employers, there was nothing particularly vicious in it. After all Biddy’s betters often did the same and called it “teasing”. Unfortunately, however, the poor are not always judged on the same level as the rich.
Among all the young servants in the house the Irish Washerwoman was always a favourite. She was cheerful, turned a cup to read someone’s fortune and usually, I am sorry to say, had half of a dirty and torn pack of cards in her pocket for the very same purpose. She would sing at her work, and through the wreath of curling steam that wound from the upraised skylight of the laundry, could be heard some old time-honoured melody, that in an instant brings the scenes and sounds of Ireland to the listener. She will soften the hearts of her listeners with “Danny Boy,” or “Noreen Bawn,” and then strike into “Galway Bay” or “St Patrick’s Day,” with the feeling and heart that only an Irish person can bring to the songs of the old country. The Old English servants regarded the Irish Washerwoman with deep suspicion. They thought she did too much work for the money she received, which reflected on attitude the “Missus” had toward their wages, and yet they were always ready enough to put their own “clothes” into the month’s wash, and expect Biddy to “pass them through the tub;” a favour she was always too wise to refuse.
The upper classes were happy that the management of their households did not bring any temptation to thievery, which they believed existed in the homes of the Dublin gentry. They believed that servants in Ireland were allowed what was termed “breakfast money,” which meant that they were not to eat their employers’ food but were to ‘look out’ for themselves. Not surprisingly, such a restriction was considered to be the greatest possible inducement to picking and stealing. English gentry were happy to believe that their English servants had no need to steal the necessaries of life, because they were fed, and they were treated as human beings. As a consequence, they thought that there was not a fraction of the extravagance, the waste, and the pilfering that took place in Irish kitchens. They were too blind to see that it was the system rather than the servant that was the true problem. Meanwhile, washerwomen like Biddy continue to adjust to every modification of system in every house she goes to. The only thing she cannot bear to hear is her country and its people being abused, even when such abuse takes the form of a joke. In such circumstances the blood would rise and her cheeks flush with anger, and some years ago there was an occasion when Biddy answered in an appropriate way. One thing about the Irish that lifts them above others is their earnest love for their country when they are absent from it. Your polite, diplomatic Irishman might look a little disconcerted when you question his country, and with an oily, easy, musical swing of his voice asks innocently just how you knew he was Irish. They might even suggest, “that people cannot help their misfortunes.” The working-class Irish, however, will not be so pleasant, just as Biddy did when she was challenged as to her nationality.
“Aren’t you the clever one, madam? I am Irish, sure, and my people before me, God be praised for it! I’d be a long and sorry to disgrace my country if I denied it, my lady. Fine men and women live in it as well as those who come out of it. Sure, it’s an awful pity that so many need to leave. It’s well enough for the likes of me to leave it, for I could do it no good. But, as to the gentry, the sod keeps them, and sure they might keep on the sod! Ye needn’t be afraid of me, my lady; I would do nothing to disgrace my country. I am not afraid of my character, or the work I do, for it’s all I have to be proud of in this wide world.”
How much more respect does this attitude deserve in every right-thinking mind, than any mean attempt to conceal a fact of which we all, as well as poor Biddy, have a right to be proud! Biddy’s reply to someone of her own social stature might have received a much different reply such as – “Am I Irish? I am to be sure! Do ye think I’m going to deny my country, God bless it?! Truly I am proud to be born Irish and to be called Irish! I cannot think of anything else that I would want to be!”
You should have a great deal of sympathy for poor Biddy, because her life has been one long-drawn scene of incessant, almost heart-rending labour. From the time she became eight years old, Biddy earned her own bread and it is a wonder that having endured such a hard life that Biddy retained her habitual cheerfulness. Every evening her hearty laughter could be heard echoing through the house, while she would treat the servants at every kitchen Christmas party with a lively Irish jig. But, one Christmas, Biddy was not as happy as she usually was. One of the pretty housemaids had, for the past two or three years, made it a regular request that Biddy should put her own wedding ring in the kitchen pudding. No one knew why Jenny continually made such a request because she never had the luck to find it in her slice of the pudding. But, she did.
Christmas eve was always a merry night in the homes of ‘the Quality’. The cook, in herBiddy The Washerwoman 3 kitchen, was puffed-up with her own importance and weighed her ingredients according to her recipe for “a one-pound or two-pound pudding.” She would inspect her larded turkey and pronounce her opinions upon the relative merits of the sirloin which was to be the “roast for the parlour,” and “the ribs” that were destined for the kitchen. Although she had a great deal of work to do, like all English cooks, she maintained a most sweet mood, because there was a great deal to eat. She looked proudly over the dozens of mince pies, the soup, the savoury fish, the huge bundles of celery, and the rotund barrel of oysters, in a manner that had to be seen to be believed. At the same time, the housemaid is equally busy in her department, while the groom smuggled in the mistletoe and the old butler slyly suspended from one of the bacon hooks in the ceiling before he kissed the cook beneath. The green-grocer’s boy would have been scolded for not bringing “red berries on all the holly.” Then the evening would be wound up with drinks, a half-gallon, of ale and hot elderberry wine, and a loud cheer would echo through the house when the clock struck twelve. In those times a family would be considered to be very poor if they had no meat, a few loaves of bread, and a few shillings, to distribute amongst some old pensioners on a Christmas Eve.
In that particular household, Biddy had been a positive necessity for many Christmas days, and just as many Christmas eves. She was never told to come, because it was an understood thing. Biddy would ring the gate bell every twenty-fourth of December, at six o’clock, and even the English cook would return her national salutation of “God save all here,” with cordiality. Jenny, as I have said, was her great ally and had been found at least sixty husbands, in the tea cups, in as many months. One Christmas Eve morning, however, Biddy didn’t come to the house. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, and still the maids were not up and at their work. They didn’t know what time it was because Biddy had not rung the bell and the entire house was collapsing into a state of commotion. The cook, in her panic, declared, “How will it all end? Isn’t it always the way with those Irish. The dirty and ungrateful woman. Who is going to heat the water, boil the ham, look after the celery, butter the tins or hold the pudding cloth?
“Or drop the ring in the kitchen pudding!” whimpered Jenny
Instead of the usual clattering domestic bustle of old Christmas, everyone looked sulky, and, as usual when a household is not fully awake in the early morning, everything went wrong. The lady of the house was not at all pleased with what was happening, but she had promised herself that she would never speak to a servant when she was angry. Instead, she put on her fur coat, and set out to see what had become of the poor industrious Irish woman. She went to the place where Biddy lived on Gore Lane and made her way into the small cottage that the washerwoman rented. Although it was not a tidy house it was, nevertheless, clean. She found Biddy sitting over the embers of a dying fire and, instead of being greeted with the usual beaming smile, the washerwoman turned away from her and burst into tears. This was not what she had expected and the anger she had felt back at the house now disappeared entirely.
Biddy had happily rid herself from the burden of a drunken husband several years ago, and she worked hard to support three little children without ever having thought once about sending them to a workhouse. She had people for whom she washed at their own houses, and even took in work at her small cottage. To help her in this task she employed a young girl called Lisa, whom she had taken in from the streets and saved her from ‘a fate worse than death’. Biddy had found Lisa starving on the streets and she brought fever amongst her children. At the same time Biddy lost much work through her charitable act but she nursed the young girl through her sickness, and never regretted having befriended a motherless child. People who demonstrate such charity to others deserve any praise they might receive, and Biddy acted like a mother to the girl.
Turning to her employer Biddy began to explain her absence, and the cause of her tears, “I came home last night, as usual, more dead than alive, until I got sitting down with the children. As usual I put two or three potatoes on to heat on the stove and then, tired as I was, I thought I would iron out the few small items that Lisa had put in to wash. These included a clean cap and handkerchief, and the aprons for to-day, because you like to see me nice and presentable. My boy got a prize at school, where I took care to send him that he would get the education that makes the poor rich. Well, I noticed that Lisa’s hair was hanging in ringlets down her face, and I says to her, ‘My honey, if Annie was you, and she’s my own, I’d make her put up her hair plain. It’s the way the quality wears and I think it would be good enough for you Lisa.’ Then says she to me, ‘It might do for Annie, but for me it’s different because my mother was a tradeswoman.’ I tell you, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from hurting her feelings by telling her exactly what her mother was and bringing the blush of shame to the girl’s cheeks.
“But I waited until our work was finished over, and, picking her out the two potatoes, and sharing, as I always did, my half pint of beer with her, I tried to reason with her. Then I looked across to where my three sleeping children were lying, little Jimmy’s cheek was blooming like a rose, on his prize book, which he had taken into bed with him, and I promised God that although my heart was drawn more to my own flesh and blood, I would look after her as I would them.
“She didn’t answer me, but put the potatoes aside, and said, ‘Mother, go to bed.’ I let her call me mother,” continued Biddy, “it’s such a sweet sound, and doesn’t do any harm. Saying might have helped her not feel so alone in the world. The word can be a comfort to many a breaking heart, and can calm down many a wild one. As old as I am, I still miss my mother still! ‘Lisa,’ says I, ‘I’ve heard my own children’s prayers, why not kneel down dear and say your own?’
“‘My throat’s so sore,’ said she, ‘I can’t say them out aloud. Don’t you see I could not eat the potatoes?’ This was about half past twelve, and I had spoken to the police to give me a call at five. But when I awoke, the grey of the morning filled the room. I knew where I should be, and I quickly got dressed in my clothes. Then, hearing a policeman below the window, I said to him, ‘Please, could you tell me what time it is and why you didn’t call me?’ ‘It’s half past seven,’ says he, ‘and sure the girl, when she went out at half past five, said you were already up.’
‘My God! What girl?’ I asked him, turning all over like a corpse, and then I missed my bonnet and shawl, and saw my box empty. Lisa had even taken the book from under the child’s cheek. But that wasn’t all. I’d have forgiven her for the loss of the clothes, and the bitter tears she caused my innocent child to cry. I’d even forgive her for making my heart grow older in half an hour, than it had grown in its whole life before, but my wedding ring, ma’am? That girl’s head often had this shoulder for its pillow, and I would throw this arm over her, so. Oh, ma’am, could you believe it? The girl stole my wedding ring off my hand, the very hand that had saved and slaved for her! The ring! Oh, there is many a tear I have shed on it, and many a time, when I’ve been next to starving, and it has glittered in my eyes, that I’ve been tempted to part with it, but I couldn’t. It had grown thin, like myself, with the hardship of the world, and yet when I’d look at it twisting on my poor wrinkled finger, I’d think of the times gone by, of him who had put it on, and would have kept his promise but for the temptation of drink, and what it leads to. In those times, when trouble would be crushing me into the earth, I’d think of what I once heard that a ring was a thing like eternity, having no beginning nor end. I would turn it, and turn it, and turn it and find comfort in believing that the little penance here was nothing in comparison to that without a beginning or an end that we were to go to hereafter. It might be in heaven, or it might, God forbid, be in the other place; and,” said poor Biddy, “I drew a great deal of consolation from that, and she knew it, the serpent. She that I shared my children’s food with, knew it, and, while I slept the heavy sleep of hard-work, she had the poison in her to rob me! She robbed me of the only treasure, barring the children, that I had in this world! I’m a great sinner; for I can’t say, God forgive her, nor I can I bring myself to work. The entire thing has driven me away from my duty and Jessie, the craythur, always laid ever so much store by that ring, on account of the little innocent charms. Altogether, this has been the worst Christmas day that ever came to me. Oh, sure, I wouldn’t have that girl’s heart in my breast for a golden crown, her ingratitude of beats the world!”
Lisa’s actions were truly the most callous case of ingratitude that I have ever known. What a wretch she was to rob the only friend she ever had, while she slept in the very bed where she had been attended to, and cared for, so unceasingly. “She could have taken all that I had in the world, if only she had left me that ring” Biddy repeated continually, while she rocked herself backwards and forwards over the fire. “The little bit of money, the rags, and the child’s book. She could have had them all and I would not have cared a bit. I could have forgiven her from my heart, but I can’t forgive her for taking my ring. Not for taking my wedding ring!”
This was not the end of it. The girl was soon traced and taken into custody by the police and, that same day Biddy was told she must go to the police station to identify the prisoner. “Me,” she exclaimed, “Sure, I never was in a police station before and don’t know what to say other than she took it.”
In an English police court of the period an Irish case always created a bit of jollity. The magistrates would smile at each other, while the court reporter cut his pencil and arranged his note-book, and the clerk of the court would cover the lower part of his face with his hand, to conceal the smile that grew around his mouth. They watched, amused, as Biddy attempted an awkward curtsey before she began to speak. She began by wishing their honours a merry Christmas and plenty of them, before expressing her hope that they might continue to use the power of their office to do good until the end of their days. Then, when Biddy saw the creature whom she had cared for so long, in the custody of the police, she was completely overcome and mixed her evidence with so many pleas that the girl be shown mercy, that the magistrates were sensibly affected. Though there had only been a short time between Lisa’s running away and her capture, she had pawned the ring and spent all the money. There were, however, at least twenty people who extended their helping hand to the Irish Washerwoman with money to redeem the pledge.
Poor Biddy had never been so rich before in all her life, but that did not help console her for the sadness she felt at the sentence that was passed upon Lisa and it was a long time before she was able to regain her usual spirits. She weakened, and she grieved, and when the spring began to advance a little, and the sun began to shine, her misery became quite troublesome. Biddy’s continual cry was, “for the poor sinful creature who was shut up among stone walls and would be sure to come out worse than she went in!”
The old English cook lived to become thoroughly ashamed of the things she had both thought and said about Biddy, and Jenny held her up on every possible occasion as a being the ideal image of an Irish Washerwoman.

Witches of the Bog

In every corner of Ireland you will hear wondrous stories of various Witches and Pookas, and the great influence that they have had on the lives of the people in any particular area. My Father, may God rest his soul, was a Tyrone man, born and reared and, when I was a young boy, we would visit many of his friends in the countryside around Carrickmore. It was during this period of my life that I was told the following story by one of my father’s oldest and most trusted friends. He told me that, not so many years previously, there was a small party of young and boisterous men who arrived in the area to enjoy several days of hunting and fishing.

Within the County of Tyrone hunting and fishing are still popular and very much loved past-times among the local country folk. But, in those days, the visit of several very well-dressed young men from the city was a rarely seen event so deep in the county’s heartland. My father’s friend told me that, at that time, there were very few visitors from outside of the county, because there were very few inns, hotels, or other facilities to accommodate them comfortably. To the locals the visit of these young men came as quite a shock, especially when it was known that they had brought their own tents and camping equipment with them. Along the bank of a small river, flowing with clear mountain water, the men established their camp just below a hill, known locally as “Sluggan Hill”. The hill itself was covered by thick woodland of mixed deciduous and conifer trees, which the local people called “O’Neill’s Planting.

The hunting party that had come out of the city was comprised of four tall, well-built young gentlemen, who wasted very little time in erecting their tents, and establishing their campsite on the river bank. One of their number placed a kettle of water upon the camp fire and, when the water was boiled, they each had a cup of hot, sweet tea with some sandwiches before they set out on their first hunt. As soon as the hunters had eaten their fill they gathered their guns and ammunition belts before they moved across the stream into the woods, where they immediately began to seek out their prey. Stealthily, with all the trickery of a hunter, the four men moved through the trees and bushes. All the while they attuned their senses to the cry of a pheasant or woodcock, or the rush of a big, buck hare breaking cover. Onward they went until one of the men was alerted by movement in some nearby bushes, causing him to raise his gun in anticipation. Before he had raised the shotgun fully, a huge hare jumped from its cover in the undergrowth, and he fired a shot in the direction of the scampering animal.

The first shot missed, but was rapidly followed by shots from the guns of the other hunters as their sights lined up with the escaping hare coming their way. The rapid fire of the shotguns had broken the quiet of the woodland like shots from a machine-pistol, but none of the bullets hit their target, and the lucky hare continued on its merry way. These keen young men were, however, not prepared to accept anything that even resembled failure, and they immediately began to pursue the fugitive creature. They followed the escape route of that lucky hare, through trees, bushes, and the undergrowth, occasionally firing their guns as they moved along. Yard after yard they continued to chase the hare until it, finally, rushed through the open door of a small, thatched and white-washed cottage, which had been virtually hidden by all the greenery of the woodland. The cottage appeared from its condition to be unoccupied and they carried out their pursuit up to the door of the building. Just as they made ready to step through the door, they were brought to an abrupt halt when they were confronted by a huge, snarling, black dog that barred their way into the cottage.

Devil dogThis huge dog was a vicious black creature that resembled something which had been thrown up from the deepest bowels of hell. It glared at the men, baring its great ivory teeth, as if ready to tear them from limb to limb, and growling like the remnants of some great thunderstorm. Those glaring eyes of the great hound glowed red, like wooden embers taken from a blazing fire, but the creature itself was being restrained by a large, ringed-chain, collar around its thick neck, which was attached to a robust metal leash. There were great amounts of foam and spittle gathered around the hound’s snarling mouth as it continued to growl and snap at the unwanted visitors, increasing the very real sense of danger that they were now beginning to feel.

The man closest to the cottage door and, therefore the hound now turned towards his friends and called out to them, “Shoot that black devil!” This young man was of average stature, although he did have broad, muscular shoulders, and he differed from his friends in that he had bright, copper coloured hair. Even as he called out his orders to the others he was lifting up his own shotgun and began aim it directly at the monster dog. But, before he could raise his gun level with the target, the huge dog lunged at him and grabbed the barrel of the gun in its massive mouth’s vice-like grip. The hound’s great teeth bit into the gun barrel, chewing on it for a few moments before spitting it out on the ground outside the door. Such was the shock that all four companions suffered by this incident that they were frozen to the spot where they stood by fear. One of the taller four men came quickly recovered his senses, and immediately began to raise his gun slowly. The gigantic dog, however, was not about to allow itself to be taken unawares and it began to lunge at each one of the men, in turn, seizing their weapons in its jaws and destroying them before they could be fired.

As the last of the young men’s weapons fell, uselessly, to the ground the huge monster of a dog began to growl threateningly at the men. This was a deep eerie growl that sounded like nothing on this earth and it added greatly to their growing sense of terror. Each of the men took a step back from the door as their sense of vulnerability grew and, with the proximity of the monster to them, death seemed to them to be imminent. But, much to the amazement f the four friends, an old and bent over woman suddenly came to the door. She was almost bent double and she was dressed all in black, with long silver-coloured hair that hung limply over her face, almost covering her bright white eyes that appeared to be missing an iris. Those haunting eyes sat either side of her long, slender, crooked nose, below which her long, white, sharply pointed teeth protruded from her thin, bloodless lips.

Just what are you doing with my wee puppy dog?” she asked the men in a shrill voice that sounded like a steel rod being dragged over a pile of broken glass.

Although he was filled with a great fear, the young man with the copper-coloured hair, hesitatingly stepped forward to speak with the old woman. “We were hunting in those trees over there, and a prize hare we were chasing escaped us by running into your house.  We are sorry, but we didn’t think that anyone was living here, and we were about to follow the hare into the house until your large dog barred our way.” But, even as the young man was speaking to the old woman, the dog that towered above them both continued to snarl threateningly at all the hunters.

Now, lie down my little puppy dog, that’s a good boy!” the old woman spoke sweetly to the monster dog. Her sweet tones appeared to calm the dog, and then she turned to the four young men and gave them an invitation. “You are welcome to enter our home, gentlemen, if it is your wish.

Not surprisingly, none of the four young hunters were too willing to enter the old woman’s cottage and, nervously, the leader of the hunting party asked the old lady, “Are there any other persons in the house with you?

Without hesitation the old woman answered, “There are six of us here, and we are all sisters to one another.

I really don’t mean to be rude, but would it be possible to see all of you?” he asked. To his surprise, no sooner had these words crossed his lips than all of the six old women stepped out of the shadows of the white-washed cottage. As the men, finally, got to see all the women together they quickly realised that all the women were, indeed, related. Each of the old women resembled the first old lady in some way, but all possessed the long, sharp teeth that protruded from bloodless lips. It was something that none of these young men had never experienced before this moment, and they were very reluctant to go into the building any further. Slowly and quietly the men backed away from the cottage into the trees and, when they reached the cover of the woodland, they turned away as quickly and as quietly as they could. Several minutes later, as the four hunters made their way between the trees and the bushes, they came upon another mysterious sight. Ahead of them lay a large, fallen tree upon which were sat seven large, black-feathered birds that screeched threateningly at the approaching men.

Now that they were a good distance from the cottage, and feeling more secure, none of those four men were about to stop and investigate. One of their number, who had a pistol beneath his jacket, pulled out the gun and began shooting at the large birds. He fired bullet after bullet at these creatures but, again, not one of the bullets found a target, and the gun’s magazine soon ran out of ammunition. Then, as he began to reload the pistol’s magazine, he was surprised to see that a very old man, with a long grey beard, suddenly appear by his side.

Fool! Put away that gun!” the old man angrily told the young man with the pistol, and the attention of the other young men was suddenly directed towards him.

Those creatures are not of human flesh. They are the “Witches of the Bog” and they live in that white-washed cottage that you have just left. They are held there by a spell. It is an enchantment that has held them as prisoners in this cottage for over a hundred years. As a further protection, these servants of the underworld have a massive black hound that never permits any person to enter their little cottage. They also have a great fortress that has been built under the nearby lake, and there are many people who tell stories of these witches turning into seven swans before entering that place.

This was enough for one day and, thoroughly exhausted by their experiences, the young men returned to their campsite and prepared a meal for themselves. As they sat around their campfire, eating, they discussed all that they had been told by the strange old man in the woods. Although the men had been witnesses to several strange, and frightening apparitions they remained very dubious about the accuracy of the old man’s tale. Instead, they resolved that after breakfast the next morning they would make their way to the nearest chapel and call upon the priest, who may have a more realistic explanation for their experiences.

When they arrived at the priest’s house the next morning they found themselves being made very welcome by the elderly cleric. They began to their experiences from the previous day, and, he listened attentively to every word that they told him. The old priest, however, was as sceptical of their story as they had been of the old man’s tale. But, impressed by the fervour in which the young men spoke of their encounter, the old priest decided that he would accompany the hunters if they would return to the woodland cottage later that same day. Nervously, the four men agreed and the small party set off toward the woodland.

The old priest followed at the rear of the small group of men as they left to seek out the strange cottage once again. When they came to the cottage, at last, the first thing that the encountered was a huge, snarling, black mastiff dog, which was glaring at them with its fiery red eyes. At the rear of the group the priest gathered up his rosary beads, his gilt cross, and his small bottle of holy water, and put them out of sight in his cassock. At the same time, from one of his pockets he took out a thick book with gilt-edged pages, all of which were bound in a thick, black leather cover. Nervously, the priest opened the book and began to read some of the prayers it contained. But, just as the priest began to get into his stride, reading the prayers aloud, the gigantic hound began barking even more savagely causing the small group of men to be gripped in terror.

The wizened, bent over, old women who lived in the cottage came out from its shadows and stood defiantly at their front door. As they stood there they glared at the group of men before them and muttered curses toward them. The priest made his way through the group from his place at their rear, speaking prayers to God in a clear and a loud voice. When they heard the priest’s prayers the witches uttered a high pitched, piercing scream of pain, as though they had been struck through the heart by a spear. The scream was so loud and piercing that the men were forced to cover their ears to protect them from any damage. Despite the screams, the old priest continued to pray aloud and the old women began to transform themselves. Instead of wizened old women they became huge, terrifying, black birds like those the hunters had seen on the previous day, perched upon a fallen tree. They immediately opened their great black, shiny wings and flew up into an enormous tree nearby, the branches of which spread like a great parasol over the small cottage. Without showing even the slightest sign of fear the elderly cleric continued to approach the huge, snarling hound until he finally came within two or three feet of it. In a surprisingly swift movement this snarling monster leapt up from the ground, striking the priest with each of its four paws, and knocking him head over heels, in a backward motion. Immediately, the four hunters ran quickly to assist the priest but, as they lifted him up from the ground, they quickly began to realise that the old man was now both deaf and dumb. The dog, meanwhile, had not moved even one inch from its station at the cottage door. The hunting companions, however, were much more concerned for the health of the old priest and they gathered him up to bring him home to his own house, which stood just a few miles away. Seeing that the old priest’s strength was spent and that he was not going to defeat ‘The Witches of the Bog’, they sent a messenger post-haste to the to the local Bishop, pleading for his help in the matter.

In his large home the Bishop received the messenger but was reluctant to believe what he was being told. He was, however, very concerned that one of his own priests had been injured in the confrontation with the alleged witches. In the meantime, the news of what had happened to their Parish Priest had spread quickly through the district and the people gathered together to meet the Bishop when he arrived. Several of the leading men of the community came forward and began to plead with the Bishop to use every power that his faith could muster to rid them of these old witches. The Bishop listened to them, but lost for words to reply with, he began to doubt if he could do anything in this time, and decided to say nothing at this stage. As a Bishop, of course, he had knowledge concerning the sacramental actions that could be taken to oust the servants of the devil. In his case, however, the Bishop also had serious doubts about his possession of the necessary faith needed to succeed in such work. At the end of the meeting the Bishop stood in front of the people gathered there, and told them, “I have not the means of removing these terrible things from among you, but I ask you all if you will allow me to leave now and go gather all the knowledge that I shall need to succeed in my mission. Let me assure you all that I will return to this place at the end of the month, and I will banish this evil presence from among you.” The crowd now made way for the Bishop, who hurried off to learn what he could.

The old priest, stricken both deaf and dumb, lay in his bed nursing the injuries he had received in his encounter with evil. Unfortunately, the priest could not explain to the men around him that he now knew exactly who the old witches and their big black dog were. During his confrontation with these creatures he had been given a sudden revelation that unmasked their entire story. But, to help him explain what had been revealed to him, the old priest was handed a pen and a notepad, on which he began to write. The priest told the men that the ferocious, large, black hound was, in reality, a man who had once lived in the Parish among them, and he was known to all by the name, Dermot O’Malley. They, of course, had heard that name before, when men and women told of the man who had died in disgrace many years ago. The story of Dermot O’Malley told of how he was brutally murdered by his son because he had been found sleeping with the young man’s wife the day after their wedding. Dermot’s son was totally overcome by a great rage that gripped his entire body and made him blind to the consequences of his actions. He was determined that there would be no witnesses left to report his bloody actions and, in the bloodbath that ensued, he killed his sisters in fear that they would inform on him to the authorities.

In the meantime, the Bishop had begun to feel that he would be much safer in his own home, rather than facing down any creature that might have been sent by the Devil. Then, one night, after going to the elderly priest, the Bishop had a very disturbed night as he lay in his bed. His mind was troubled greatly by both thoughts and visions that caused him to toss and turn in his efforts to get some sleep before the daylight returned. In the dark of the bedroom the Bishop was certain that he saw one of the old witches open the bedroom door and enter the room. To suddenly see such a creature as this standing at the side of his bed startled the Bishop to such an extent that his body was overcome by a great chill as a cold sweat of fear soaked him. He couldn’t even speak to the creature, because his body felt as though it had lost control of hid faculties. The creature, however, spoke to the Bishop in a clear, though low hissing voice, “Do not have any fear of me, because I did not come into your presence in order to do you any harm. I have come so that I could pass on some very good advice to you. We have heard that you have promised the people that you shall return and remove us from our long-time home in “O’Neill’s Planting”. Our advice to you, Bishop, is that you should stay away because if you do come to do battle with us you will never leave alive.”

As the witch spoke to him, the Bishop continued to lie on his bed, very still and quietly listening to every word of the warning she gave him. He had been suddenly startled by her sudden appearance and yet he summoned every ounce of courage he could muster to answer her nervously, “I am a man of my word and I am not going to break my solemn word because of your threats.”

It was a brave response but the creature was not yet finished with him. “Listen to me, priest. We have only one year and one day left to enjoy the peacefulness of that lonely woodland bog,” she told him. “Surely a man of your stature has enough influence to ensure that they leave us in peace until that time comes.

I might just consider it,” said the Bishop, “but, tell me first, just how and why did you all come to be living in those woods, in the form that you have taken?

I will tell you that we six sisters and our father were all murdered at the hands of our brother,” she began to explain. “When we arrived at the gates of heaven, and stood before the guardian, we were told the judgement that had been passed upon us. The guardian told us that we could not pass through until we lived in this form for two hundred years. We were also told that the judgement upon us was so severe because of the great crime that our father committed when took our new sister-in-law to bed the day after her marriage to our brother. When our brother discovered the outrage that had been done against him he completely lost his mind, killing our father and all of us in his madness. The only refuge from the hardships of this world that was left to us now lies beneath the lake and we must be inside it every night.

I will admit that this was indeed a harsh punishment to be given to you and your sisters,” the Bishop sympathised. “But, we must all obey the will and the judgement of the guardian to the gates of Heaven. Be assured, however, I will not give you or your family any further trouble.

I thank you, Bishop, and we shall talk again, when we are gone from the wood,” said the witch, and she immediately vanished from his presence.

When the morning light appeared the Bishop arose quickly from his bed and dressed hurriedly, before he drove to the village. As soon as he arrived there he sent out a notice to all the inhabitants, informing them that they should gather in the parochial hall. Once the people had assembled, the Bishop began to speak to them, “It is the judgement of heaven that the magical spell that lies upon the cottage in the woodland bog will not be removed for another year and a day. I call upon all of you to keep away from that woodland bog until this period of time has ended. It surprises me that these witches had not been discovered prior to these hunters from the city arriving here. I shall only say that it is indeed a great pity that they did not stay at home in the city.

About a week after this meeting the elderly priest was in his room, alone and resting. It was a very warm, sun-filled day and he had the window in the room open wide to allow some cool, fresh air to circulate. Unexpectedly, a small red-breasted Robin flew in through the open window, carrying a small sprig of an herb in its beak. In response, the old priest stretched out his wrinkled hand and the small bird laid the sprig of herb upon his palm. He smiled at the little Robin softly and, thinking that he had been sent a gift from Heaven, the priest ate the herb. But, almost as soon as he placed the herb into his mouth he began to feel a lot better than he had been previously, and his eyes looked upward to Heaven. “A thousand thanks to Him who is Lord of all and against whom evil cannot stand,” he prayed.

At this moment, much to his surprise, the bird began to speak. “Do you recall the Robin with the broken foot that you kindly helped two winters’ ago?” it asked.

Yes, I remember that poor little bird well,” replied the priest. “I was so very sad when he went away as the summer came.

Well, be sad no more, for I am that same Robin,” declared the bird. “It is because of the love and attention that you gave to me that I am alive and well today. In return I have been able to ensure that you will not remain deaf and dumb for the rest of your life. Now, take my advice, and make sure steer clear of witches of the bog, and never tell a living soul that it was I who gave you the herb.” The old priest nodded his agreement and the little bird spread its wings and flew away from him.

An hour or two later the elderly priest’s house-keeper entered his room to discover, much to her astonishment, that he had regained both his speech and his hearing. The old priest wasted no time in ringing the Bishop to announce to him that he had been cured. When the Bishop questioned the elderly cleric about how he had been cured so quickly, the priest simply explained, “I have been sworn to secrecy, my Lord Bishop. But, I will tell you that a certain close friend of mine gave me a little herbal medicine, and I was cured almost immediately.

Everything in the village remained quiet as the weeks passed into months, and eventually the ear expired. It was at this time, when the Bishop was alone in his study, that the door creaked opened, and in walked the witch that he had met previously. In her strange voice she told the Bishop, “I have come here to let you know that we will all be leaving the wood bog a week from this very day. But, I would like to ask you to do one more thing for us, if you are able.

If it is possible to do something for you that does not go against my faith, then rest assured that I will do it,” replied the Bishop.

In a week from today there will be seven large vultures lying dead at the door of our cottage. My simple request is that you give instructions that they should be buried in the quarry that is sited on the other side of the bog.

Well, rest assured then, I will do that for you,” he told her and she left the room, never to return. The Bishop was not sorry to see the back of the witch but, exactly one week after this encounter, he went to the village and summoned the men together. On the morning of the next day, the Bishop led a group of these men to the witches’ cottage in the bog, where they found the huge black hound sitting by the door.  The moment that the hound saw the Bishop approach with a group of men it jumped to its feet and ran off screaming as if it had been scalded. The hound drove itself into the wood and did not stop until it finally jumped into the lake. The Bishop continued to the cottage, noticing the seven dead vultures at the door, and he turned to the men behind him, telling them, “Lift those dead creatures and follow me.” It didn’t take the men very long to clear the vulture bodies and carry them to the brink of the quarry. These men were now told by the Bishop to throw the bodies into the quarry just as he had been asked to, by the old witch. But, almost as soon as the bodies of the vultures reached the bottom of the quarry, there arose from the same place seven swans that were as white as snow.

Their penance has now been served, “sighed the Bishop, “and they have been called to their place in heaven.” From that mystical moment no person ever again saw the ‘Witches of the Bog’, or their huge, black hound.

Beggars

This is a tale of Famine Ireland in a time when a Viceroy of the British crown ruled in Dublin and the peasant Irish were dying because they could not afford to eat. They called it a famine but there was plenty of food under British control and they refused to release it to feed the millions that starved throughout Ireland. There were beggars in the towns trying to get enough to feed themselves and their children, but they were not wanted and great efforts were made to remove them. As far as the authorities were concerned it was better to have those starving people out of sight and out of mind.

In the towns the authorities used the offices of the ‘Poor-House’ and the police force to considerably reduce the presence of the Irish peasant beggars. But, in the countryside and remote mountain areas ‘the beggar’ had become and still remained an institution. The peasant beggars abhorred the very idea of the ‘Workhouse’ because of its slave conditions and lack of hygiene, brutal discipline, and backbreaking work. The British put such abhorrence by the peasantry as their inherent stubbornness. It was said they preferred any amount of suffering to confinement, enforced hygiene, and the discipline involved. But, what free man does not prefer the fresh air and freedom to choose, rather than the bars of a jail and being beaten into submission. The following gives a view of the Irish Catholic Peasantry of famine times as seen by those paid allegiance to the British Crown.

It is often reported in commentaries of the time that the Irish poor are indifferent to the basic comforts of life, preferring a more barbaric way of life. It was said that they love freedom, sleeping under a hedge or under the sky eating what and where they can. They were said to be like the dog that preferred freedom and getting the odd scrap of food, to the good feeding and luxurious living conditions of his tied-up friend.

A wretched old beggar woman, decrepit and barefoot, appeared on the front-door stepsbeggars 2 of a house that she was in the habit of visiting. Those who would give her money would try to convince her to enter the poorhouse for her own good, but however delicately they approached the subject the old woman would reject any suggestion of entering such a place.

“Now, Biddy, it is all very well to go about the place in summer, but in this bitter wintry weather, would you not be better to go where you would have a good bed and shelter, be warm, fed, and comfortably clothed. It can’t be good for you to be shivering with the cold in ragged clothes, and always hungry. Sure, why not try it only for a wee while, you know, until summer comes back? Go on, Biddy, why not try the poorhouse?”

“The poor house!” she cried out angrily. “Sure I’d rather die than go there! I’d rather lie down under the snow at the side of the road and die! But sure the neighbours will help me. There isn’t one that will refuse me a seat by their fireside, or a bed for the night, or maybe a bite and sup of an odd time. And you’re going to give me something yourself, my lady, darling, you are! Don’t I see it in your face? You’re going to bring out the dust of dry tea and the grain of sugar, and the couple of coppers to the poor old granny. Ah yes! And maybe the maids will have an old cast-off petticoat to throw to her, for to keep the life in her old carcase this perishing day.”

It must be said that before the famine of 1845, which brought about a change in the food of the Irish peasant, systematic begging was an annual custom. Potatoes were then the sole food of the peasant classes, and the farmers paid their labourers by allowances of potato-ground measuring a half or quarter acre, and with seed to till it. Money, therefore, was not very often circulated among the peasantry. There was usually and interval of some six weeks between the eating of the last of the old potatoes and the coming in of the new potatoes. This was known as “The Bitter Time” and there was always some privation and distress to be suffered. In such times entire families might leave their cabin, locking the door behind them, and be seen walking the country roads, while the father would go ‘harvesting’ or getting work where he could. As the family went along the roads, stopping at every cabin on their route, a few potatoes would be handed to them, depending upon the stock the donors held. Often, by nightfall, the bag carried on the mother’s back would have enough potatoes to provide a good meal for the family. By such means they continued to survive until the new potatoes were fit to dig. At that time the cabin-door would be unlocked, and plenty of food to eat was once again the order of the day.

In those days, as well as the present, the charity of the poor to the poor in Ireland is widespread and very touching. The people of our country are famed for their good-natured ways and kindly impulses. Moreover, they attach a superstitious, almost religious value to the blessing of the poor, with an equal dread of their curse. There is a story concerning a fatal instance of the latter feeling, which occurred many years ago near the city of Limerick.

A young man fell in love with a girl, but she did not return his affection, and plainly told him that it would be useless to persevere in his pursuit, because she could never care for him. He was broken-hearted by his failure and, fleeing the country, he went to America. The young man’s mother had lost her only son, her pride and joy, and her only support. Being a widow she was maddened with rage and despair at what had happened. The bereaved mother gathered her things and went straight from the ship to the young woman’s house. There she knelt down upon the threshold and, stretching her arms skyward, she called down Heaven’s vengeance on the young girl. With frantic movements she called down terrible curses upon the girl’s head.

By the broken heart of her son; by the widow’s hearth made desolate; by the days and nights of lonely misery before her, she cursed the girl! The young girl was totally appalled by the widow’s bitter words and was superstitiously convinced that her terrible curses would grievously affect her life. She never recovered from the terror and the shock to her nerves of this vindictive assault upon her. The young woman’s health went into a rapid decline, haunted by the old woman’s dreadful curses, and her death confirmed the popular belief in such things.

We can now return to our subject of beggars. Although the use of Indian-corn meal and griddle-bread as articles of food in place of the exclusive potato helped reduce annual begging migrations. The other factors brought into play were an increased wage and the payment of labour in cash instead of kind. The annual scene of beggars moving along the roads soon disappeared, but beggars were still to be found, especially in the tourist season when they would once again be as numerous as flies in summer, and equally troublesome.

Once there was a party of English clergymen visiting Killarney’s beautiful Lake District where they were pestered by beggars, as most travellers usually were. These reverend gentlemen had, for greater convenience, decided to wear less formal clothing, except for one who preferred to wear his clerical outfit, with all its adornments. But, his choice caused him to be mistaken by the local peasants as a Roman Catholic priest wherever he went. He was very startled in the town of Tralee, when a girl threw herself down on her knees before him in the muddy street to ask for his blessing. The abject obeisance of the people to their priests in those days was not a sight to which an English clergyman was accustomed. He did, however, soon become accustomed to the position and even used it for the benefit of the entire group. They were tormented on one occasion the crush and cries of a crowd of beggars who followed them, and the English clergyman stopped quite suddenly. Drawing a line across the road with his walking stick, the clergyman told the followers, “Pass that mark, and the curse of the priest will be upon you!” In an instant the entire crowd of beggars had fled.

On another occasion this same clergyman used what he had learned in the cause of humanity. The party were travelling by jaunting car and, as they travelled up a steep hill, the driver began flogging the horse unmercifully.

“My friend,” said the clergyman, addressing the driver, “Do you know what will happen to you, if you do that, when you go to the next world?”

“O no, your Reverence. And sure how could I know that? What is it now?” pulling off his hat and looking very frightened.

“You will be turned into a horse, and devils will be employed to flog you, just as you’re now flogging that poor beast of yours.”

“Ah, don’t, yer Reverence! Don’t say that now! For the love of God, sir, don’t! And I’ll promise on my two knees to give him the best of treatment from this onward, and never to lay the whip into him that way again.”

For those of you who have witnessed the beggars in towns, you will undoubtedly agree that their remarks are often very caustic. They also indulge in personalities in a way more witty than polite, when they are unsuccessful in their demands. A late but very well-known Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, was remarkable for having a peculiarly shaped and very ugly nose. On one occasion while resisting the pleas of a woman for “a ha’penny for the honour of the blessed Virgin,” she turned upon him. “May the Lord forgive you! And may He may preserve your eyesight, for truly you have a terrible bad nose for spectacles.”

Another spiteful old hag of a woman came at a well known member of the aristocracy for alms, after following him down the entire length of what is now O’Connell Street. The baronet had tender feet, which with several other infirmities caused him to walk not to gracefully. “You won’t give it, won’t you?’ the woman cried out in an angry whine. “Well then, God help the poor! And look now, if your heart was as soft as your feet, it wouldn’t be in vain we’d be asking for your charity this day.”

“That the ‘grace of God’ may never enter into your house but on parchment!” was the terse and bitter curse in which another old woman gave vent to her wrathful disappointment. She knew that all writs were written on parchment, and had probably learned the formula with which they commence from cruel experience, “Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen, &c.”

There is, of course, the story of Captain Chevely and his meeting with beggars in Mullingar. When he was about to be quartered with his troop of men in the town, he was told by a friend that the place was infested with beggars. He was also told that his predecessor, the commanding of the previous troop, had been greatly annoyed by them. Chevely listened attentively and resolved to take measures to deal with the problem. On the night of his arrival at the hotel he summoned the waiter and said, “I am reliably informed that you have a great many beggars in this town.”

“Yes sir! We certainly have,” replied the waiter.

“I wish to see them all of them, collected together under the windows of this hotel. Do you think that could be managed?”

“Yes, if you wish, sir,” said the man, with the usual waiter-like readiness to promise everything under the sun, albeit he was a little taken aback by so unusual a request.

“Very well, let them be all here to-morrow at twelve o’clock precisely.”

It was a motley assembly of rags and wretchedness that was presented beneath the hotel windows the next day. The news had spread like wild-fire, and from every lane and alley of the town they came crowding in. There was the blind, the lame, the maimed, the aged beggars, deformed, idiots, and the idle in all their varieties. Curiosity and greed were equally on their minds, and the excitement of the eager crowd may be imagined. Then, when the captain appeared on the hotel balcony, a breathless silence came over the crowd.

“Are you all here?” he asked, “every one?”

“Every mother’s son of us, if it pleases your honour, except for Blind Bess with her crippled son, and the General.”

“Then call Blind Bess and the General,” instructed the captain. “I want you all here.”

“Sure enough, here’s Bess,” cried a voice, as a large fat beggar in the shape of a blind woman, with a sturdy cripple strapped on her shoulders, came in a hurry.

“And here’s the ‘General’ driving like a mad man up the street. But sure your honour won’t give him anything—a gentleman that keeps his carriage!” shouted a joker in the crowd. Coming along the street was a dilapidated old hand-cart, being dragged by a girl. It was covered at top with a piece of tattered oil-cloth, and from a hole cut in the middle of this protruded the head of ‘the General’, on which sat what remained of an old cocked-hat. The shrivelled face of the old cripple was half covered with a grizzly beard, and his rheumy eyes peered helplessly about in a feeble stare.

“Now,” said the captain, “ladies and gentlemen”. At this there was a murmur in the crowd, especially among the females.

“Ah then, bless his darling face, it is him that has the civil tongue in him, and knows how to speak to the poor!”

There’s not a bit of pride in him. No more than in an unborn baby!

“Sure anyone would know he was good man, you just have to look at him! Isn’t it written upon his features?”

“He’s no old misery like the one that was here before him, that old bastard never gave a poor man as much as a dog would keep in his fist.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are, I am told, all assembled here. I have requested your attendance in order to state that I have given, for your benefit, one pound to the parson, and one pound to the priest of the parish. And I further inform you that during my stay in Mullingar, not a single farthing beyond these sums will I bestow on any one of you!”

A howl of disappointment arose from the assembly, but the captain did not wait to note the effect of his words. He disappeared into his room in time to be out of reach of the chorus of abuse, which his enraged audience hurled at him after they got over their first surprise over—his speech.

Anne Maria Carew

The following inscription was found in on a tombstone in the churchyard of Youghal that marks the grave of Anne Maria Carew, who died at the young age of 24 years.

’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, when                                  Anne Maria Carew

hope hath built a bow’r

Like that of Eden, wreathed about

with many a thornless

flow’r,

To dwell therein securely, the self-

deceivers trust—

A whirlwind from the desert

comes, and all is in the dust.

 

’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, that

when the poor heart clings

With all its finest tendrils, with all

its flexile rings,

That goodly thing it cleaveth to so

fondly and so fast,

Is struck to earth by lightning, or

shattered by the blast.

 

’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, with

beams of mortal bliss,

With looks too bright and

beautiful for such a world as

this,

One moment round about us their

angel light wings play;

Then down the veil of darkness

drops, and all is passed

away.

 

’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, with

creatures heavenly fair,

Too finely formed to bear

the brunt more earthly natures

bear—

A little while they dwell with us,

blest ministers of love,

Then spread the wings we had not

seen, and seek their homes

above.

 

(Unknown Author)

Illustrations by Alicia Gale

I found this wonderful lady through my blog and her work is so good I had to recommend it to you… Have a look at this stuff and see for yourself. Thanks to Alicia for her permission to reproduce these on my site

Jim Woods

It was brought to my attention that I never shared my finished series of fairy tale illustrations based on the months of the year. This was a huge project, much bigger than I ever thought it would be, but I’m so pleased and proud to be able to say I did it. January: A Fresh […]

via Finished Fairy Tale Calendar — Alicia Gaile