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The Alpluachtra – The Hungry One

“I don’t know what happened to me, but I have the strangest feelings inside of me. Believe me, daughter, I can tell you that I have never felt like this before …

A Tale of Rural Ireland

This story is concerned with the fate of a wealthy farmer, who lived in some comfort on land that lay in the west of Ireland. Through his own efforts he had built a large farm and a fine family, none of whom wanted for anything. Many men would have considered themselves to be particularly blessed if they had found themselves in a position that was comparable to his. But, he did not consider himself to be a lucky man and preferred to say that he was able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour, and for many years the evils of ill-health and sorrow were kept away from the doors of the family home.

The story begins, however, one day in the middle of the harvest as he was supervising a group of workers who were cutting and gathering hay in the large meadow close to the main farmhouse. It was a very hot day in the meadow and the farmer sat himself down among the hay bales and drank a cooling cup of buttermilk. After easing his thirst, the farmer took the opportunity to stretch out on several bales of fresh cut hay and fell asleep under the warm sun in a cloudless sky. The birds flew in the air and tweeted their peaceful songs, serenading the sleeping farmer for the next few hours. But, as the farmer slept, his workers gathered in all the cut hay and made their way home after another satisfying hard day’s work.

The farmer had lain in the full glare of that hot sun for several hours. When he finally awakened, and sat up, the farmer did not realise where he was, at first. When he recovered his senses fully, however, the farmer realised that he was in the field at the rear of the main house. Raising himself up from the hay bales, he stretched his legs and then began walking toward the farmhouse to get some shade, and some food. But, he had not travelled very far when he began to feel a severe pain in his side, which he immediately blamed on his extended sleep among the hay bales. By the time he had arrived at the house he was feeling a chill in his body and he immediately made his way to the ‘range’, sitting in a chair close by and trying to warm himself a little. As he sat there, his daughter came to him and asked him quietly, “Where were you, father?

I fell asleep in the sunshine for a while, sweetheart,” he told her. “I laid myself down upon the fresh cut bales of hay that were in the meadow and I simply closed my eyes.

But, what has happened to you, Father?” the young girl asked anxiously. “You don’t look at all well.

Damn it,” snarled the farmer, “I don’t know what happened to me, but I have the strangest feelings inside of me. Believe me, daughter, I can tell you that I have never felt like this before, but I hope to feel much better after a good sleep.” With these words he got up slowly from his seat and made his way upstairs to his bedroom, where he undressed for bed and went to sleep. It was a deep and sound sleep that lasted until the sun was well up in the sky the following morning.

When the farmer wakened from his sleep the next morning, he found his wife was sitting at the side of his bed. “What was wrong with you that caused you to sleep so deeply, and for such a long time?

I don’t know, my darling” he told her in a voice that sounded very tired and downcast. Getting himself dressed, the farmer went down to the kitchen, where his daughter was making a cake of soda-bread for breakfast.

Once again, he sat in the comfortable chair beside the ‘range’ and his daughter quietly asked, “How are you feeling this morning, Daddy? Are you feeling any better than you were last night?

With a loving expression on his face, he looked up at his daughter and gave her a little smile. “I had a very good sleep,” he told her in a positive tone of voice. “But, in all honesty, I don’t feel one bit better than I did last evening. You know, it is almost like there is something inside me that seems to be constantly on the move, and it is making me ill,” he said.

But, Daddy, that’s impossible,” she said to him quite sternly. “It is simply a cold that you have caught while lying outside on the new mown hay. But, if you are not better by this evening I am going to get mammy to send for the doctor.

Alpluachra 3The Farmer said nothing that would dissuade her from following her course of action. He only knew that he was in almost constant pain, although he didn’t know for certain where the terrible pain originated. One moment he felt the pain coming from one part of his body and then, in the next minute, the source of the pain appeared to have moved elsewhere. So, it continued throughout the day and when evening came the farmer did not feel even the slightest bit of relief in his condition. In response the farmer’s wife sent for the doctor to come as soon as possible and attend to her husband’s illness. However, for some unknown reason the wait for the doctor became quite prolonged, and the farmer became increasingly concerned about what might happen to him. His wife and daughter, in the meantime, were doing everything they could to keep up the man’s spirits.

Finally, the doctor arrived at the house, and asked the farmer how he felt. The farmer replied that it was hard to explain, but it felt as if a creature of some sort was leaping and jumping about inside his stomach, causing him to feel very ill. Taking off all the sick man’s clothes the doctor gave him a thorough examination but could not discover anything untoward. He put his ear to the man’s side and to his back, but he could hear nothing, despite the pleas of, “Now! now! don’t you hear it? Now, aren’t you listening to it jumping?

The doctor could hear nothing abnormal and began to wonder if his patient was now losing his mind. He was certain that there was nothing wrong with the farmer and he told the farmer’s wife that this was the case. The doctor did tell her that he was worried about the anxieties that her husband was suffering, and that he would send her some medicine the next day that would give him a good, soothing sleep and help settle any fever he may have.

True to his word, the doctor sent the medicine and the poor man took it and he did manage to get another good sleep. But, when he awoke in the morning he was feeling worse than ever, although he could no longer hear the creature jumping about inside him. Once again, the doctor was sent for and, when he came, he was unable to do anything for the patient. The poor man gained no relief from all the medicines that the doctor left with him. At the end of the week the doctor returned to check-up on his patient, but again found him in a worse condition than he was in before. Again, he was unable to do anything for the man, and he was at a complete loss as he tried to diagnose the illness that the man had contracted. “I will not be taking any more of your money from you,” he told the farmer’s wife, “because I can do nothing for your husband, and because I don’t know what is wrong with him, I will not pretend that I do. I will continue to come to see him from time to time, but I will not take any money from you.”

The Farmer’s wife flew into a rage and scarcely had the doctor left the house until she called everyone around her to hear what she had to say. “That Doctor Braddock is not worth a sixpenny bit,” she told them. “Do you know that he told me that he wouldn’t take any money from me again, and he himself told me that he knew nothing about anything. So, to hell with him, he’ll not cross over my door again, and we will get another doctor. I don’t care how far we have to travel, but we must get him.” Everybody in the house agreed with what she had said, and they sent for another doctor. But, when he came he was no better a physician than the other. The new doctor, however, had no qualms whatsoever about taking their money. He came often to see the sick man, and every time he came he would have some new and longer name to give this sickness. The doctor did not know the meaning of these names himself and nobody else knew what they meant, because he had created them just to frighten the ignorant. They remained that way for two months, without once knowing what ailed the poor farmer. When they decided, finally, that this doctor was doing him no good they got another doctor, and another doctor, until there was not a doctor in the entire county who had not been consulted.

The farm lost a lot of money over the employment of these doctors. A great number of cattle had to be sold to get the cash to pay their fees. For over six months they had kept doctors attending him and giving him various medicines. In the meantime, the farmer that was once stoutly built and well-fed grew bare and thin until, at last, there was hardly an ounce of flesh upon him, just skin and bones only. He grew so ill that he became scarcely able to walk. His appetite was gone, and he had great trouble swallowing a piece of soft bread or drinking a small cup of milk. Everyone who had witnessed his health failing said that it would be a blessing if he was to die rather than continue to suffer, for he was now only a feint shadow of his former self.

One day the poor farmer was sitting on a chair in the doorway of the house, sunning himself in the heat of the day, and everyone else in the house had gone out, leaving him alone. Up toward the door a poor old beggar man who used to travel from place to place seeking whatever charity he could obtain. He thought that he recognised the man sitting in the chair, but he had changed so much in his appearance that the beggar man was unsure. “I’m here again, asking or whatever you might find it in your heart to give me,” said the beggar man. “But, what in the name of God ever happened to you, because you are not the same man that I saw here six months ago, may God help you !

Ah, now, Seamus,” said the sick man, “I don’t know what has happened to me, but I know that I won’t be in this world much longer.”

Sure, it is terribly sorry I am to see you how you are,” said the beggar man. “Tell me how this all began, and what do the doctors say.”

Doctors?” snapped the sick man, “My curse upon them all, though I should not be cursing, and me so near the grave.

Perhaps,” said the beggar man, ”I can find a way to help you, if you were to tell me how it all began. I am a knowledgeable man when it comes to diseases and the herbs to cure them.

The sick man smiled and said wearily, “There isn’t a medicine man in the county that I haven’t had in this house looking at me, and haven’t I sold half of my cattle to pay them. Not one of them could give me a moment’s relief with all their medicines and concoctions. But I’ll tell you how this all began.” He then proceeded to give the beggar man an account of everything he felt, and about everything the doctors had prescribed.

The beggar man listened intently to the sick man and, when he had finished his story, he asked, “What sort of field was it that you fell asleep in?”

It was a meadow at the time, but it was just after being cut.”

Was it wet?” questioned the beggar man.

It was not,” said the sick farmer.

Was there a little stream or a brook of water running through it?” asked the beggar man.

There was,” says he.

Can I see the field ?”

You can, to be sure, and I’ll show it to you,” said the sickly farmer and, as bad as he was, he rose off his chair and pulled himself along until he came to the place where he had lay down to sleep that fateful summer’s evening. The beggar man spent a long time examining the place and then he stooped down over the grass, going backwards and forwards with his body bent, and his head down, groping among the herbs and weeds that were growing thickly in it.

The beggar man rose at last saying, “It is as I thought.” At this he stooped down again to search some more. When he raised his head a second-time he held in his hand a small green herb and asked, “Do you see this? Any place in Ireland where this herb grows you can be sure that there’s an Alpluachtra nearby, and you, my friend, have swallowed an Alpluachtra.

How do you know that” asked the sickly farmer. ” If that was so, sure the doctors would have told me before now!

The doctors!” laughed the beggar man scornfully. “Would you ever have a bit of sense. Sure, each of those boys is nothing more than a clown. I tell you again, and believe me, that it’s an Alpluachtra you have swallowed. Sure, didn’t you say yourself that you felt something leaping in your stomach the first day after you being sick? That was the Alpluachtra, and because he was in a strange place, he was a little uneasy. He was moving here and there for those first couple of days until he could settle himself in comfortable place. That creature is the reason why you remain so thin, for every bit of food you eat, the Alpluachtra is getting the good out of it, not you. You said yourself that one side of you was swollen, well that’s the place where the nasty thing is living.”

The sickly farmer would not believe him at first, but the beggar man kept on talking and trying to prove that it was the truth he was speaking. When the farmer’s wife and daughter came back to the house the Beggar man told them the same thing and they were ready enough to believe him. The sick man put no faith in the diagnosis, but they all prevailed on him to call in three doctors together and tell them this new story. They all came together to listen to what the beggar man was saying, but they all laughed at him, the farmer’s wife, and the farmer’s daughter, calling them fools. They said it was something else that was  causing the farmer’s illness and gave that illness names that were twice or three times as long as ever before. They left the sick man a bottle or two of medicine to drink and they left, still laughing at the idea that these people believed the patient had swallowed an Alpluachtra.

When the doctors left the beggar man spoke again, “I doesn’t surprise me that you are not getting any better, if it’s fools like them that have been left to take care of you. There is not a doctor or a man of medicine in all of Ireland that can help you now. There is only one man, O’Donnell, who is known as the Prince of Killough and who lives on the shore of Lough Ree, that is the best doctor in all the provinces of Ireland.”

Where is Lough Ree?” asked the poor man.

It’s in the West,” the beggar man told him. “It’s a big lake and he lives on its shores. Take my advice and go there immediately for he is your last hope you have, and you Ma’am should make him go, if you wish your man to live.”

” By God! ” the woman told him, “I’ll do anything that will cure him.”

If so, send him to the Prince of Killough,” he insisted.

I’d do anything that will cure me,” said  in a weak voice, “for I know I haven’t got long to be in this world if I don’t get some relief, or without something being done for me.

Then go to the Prince of Killough,” urged the beggar man. “Anything that you think would do yourself good, you ought to do it father,” the daughter advised.

There’s nothing will do him any good but to go to the Prince of Killough,” said the beggar man.

The beggar man stayed in the house that night and, the next morning, he began to argue again that the farmer should go to the ‘Prince’. With the support of the wife and the daughter the beggar man managed to prevail upon the farmer to go. The daughter said that she would go with him to take care of him, and the beggar man said that he would accompany them to show them the road. “And I will be at my wit’s end worrying about you, until you come back to me cured,” said the farmer’s wife.

After harnessing the horse, the sick man was placed on the cart along with food for the journey, and they set out their journey. They could not go far the first day, for the sick man was so weak that he could not bear the shaking he was suffering in the cart. He was better the second day, and they all passed the night in a farmer’s house at the side of the road, leaving again the next morning. On the evening of the third day, they came to the house of the ‘Prince’.

It was a nice house, sitting on the edge of the lake, among a thicket of trees, and covered with a straw roof. They left the horse and cart in a nearby village, and they all walked together, until they came to the house. They went into the kitchen and asked if they could see the ‘Prince’. The servant they asked informed them that he was eating a meal, but he might come when he was ready. At that moment, the ‘Prince’ entered and asked his visitors what it was they wanted. The sickly farmer rose up and told him that he was in dire need of the ‘Prince’s’ help, and he began to tell him his whole story. “And now I ask if you can help me?” he asked when he came to the end of his story.

“I hope I can,” said the ‘Prince’, “anyhow, I’ll do my best for you, as you came so far to see me. It wouldn’t be right for me not to do my best. Come up into the parlour with me. The thing that old man told you is the truth. You swallowed an Alpluachtra, or something else. Come up to the parlour with me.”

He brought the sickly farmer up to the parlour with him, and it happened that the meal he had that day was a big piece of salted beef. He cut a large slice off it, and put it on a plate, and gave it to the poor man to eat. “Hold on! What are you doing?” asked the farmer, “I haven’t eaten so much as a crumb of meat in the last three months, because I can’t eat anything.”

Would you be quiet for a moment?” replied the ‘Prince’, “Just you eat what I tell you!” The poor farmer ate as much as he was able, but when he set the knife and fork down the ‘Prince’ made him take them up again and begin anew. He kept the poor man there eating until he was ready to burst and, at last, he was not able to swallow another bit, even if he were to get a hundred pounds for doing so. When the ‘Prince’ saw that the farmer would not be able to swallow any more, he brought him out of the house. He told the farmer’s daughter and the old beggar man to follow them, and he took them all out to a fine green meadow, which had a little stream of water running through it.

He brought the sick man to the edge of the stream, and told him to lie down on his stomach over the stream, and to hold his face over the water, to open his mouth as wide as he could, and to keep it nearly touching the water. “Wait there quiet and easy,” said the ‘Prince’. “For the sake of your life do not move until you see what will happen to you.

The poor man promised that he would be quiet, and he stretched his body on the grass and held his mouth open, over the stream of water. Meanwhile, the ‘Prince’ went to fetch the daughter and the old man with him, and the last word to the sick farmer were, “Be certain, and don’t make a move, whatever happens to you.”

The sick man was not lying like that for more than a quarter of an hour, when something began moving inside of him, and he felt something coming up in his throat, and going back again. It came up and went back three or four times after other. At last it came to the mouth, stood on the tip of his tongue, but was frightened, and ran back again. However, after a few moments, it rose up a second time, and stood on his tongue, and at last jumped down into the water. The ‘Prince’ was watching him closely, and just as the man was going to rise, he called out to him, “Don’t move yet.”

The poor man had to open his mouth again, and he waited the same way as before. He was not there a minute until the second one came up the same way as the last and went back and came up two or three times, as if it got frightened. But at last, it also, like the first one, came up to the mouth, stood on the tongue, and when it felt the smell of the water below it, leaped down into the little stream.

The ‘Prince’ whispered, “Now the thirst’s coming on them; the salt that was in the beef is working them now and they’ll come out.” And before the words had left his mouth, the third one fell, with a plop, into the water; and a moment after that, another one jumped down, and then another, until he counted five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.

There’s a dozen of them now,” said the ‘Prince’, “that’s the clutch, but the old mother didn’t come out yet.” The sick man was getting up again, but the ‘Prince’ called to him, “Stay as you are. The mother didn’t come up.”

AlpluachraHe remained as he was, but no other one came out, though he stayed there for more than a quarter of an hour. The ‘Prince’ himself was becoming uneasy for fear the old Alpluachtra might not come out at all. The poor farmer was so tired and so weak that he wished to get up and, despite all the ‘Prince’ told him, he was trying to stand on his feet. The ‘Prince’ caught him by one leg, and the beggar man by the other, and they held him down against his will. They remained there for another quarter of an hour without speaking a word, or making a sound, and at the end of that time the poor man felt something stirring again in his side, but it felt seven times worse than before. He hardly keep himself from screaming out. The creature kept moving for a good while, and he thought the side was being torn out of his body. Then, it began coming up, and it reached the mouth, and went back again. At last, it came up so far that the poor man put two fingers into his mouth to try and catch hold of it. But if he put in his fingers quick, the old Alpluachtra went back quicker.

Oh, you buck eejit!” cried the ‘Prince’, “What made you do that? Didn’t I tell you not to make a move? Now, remain quiet if she comes up again.” They had to remain there for half an hour, because the old mother of the Alpluachtras was scared, and she was afraid to come out. But she came up at last, perhaps, because she was too thirsty to withstand the temptation of the water, or perhaps she missed the company of her children. Whatever the reason, she came up to his mouth, and stood there for almost a minute, and when she felt safe, she jumped down into the water. The ‘plop’ of her into the water was seven times heavier than those of her children.

The ‘Prince’ and the other two had been watching everything and scarcely dared to breathe, but as soon as she entered the water, they pulled the man back, and had him standing again on his own two feet. It was three hours before he could speak a word, and the first thing he said was, “I’m a new man.” The ‘Prince’ kept him in his own house for a fortnight and giving him good care and feeding. Then, he allowed the farmer to return home with his daughter and the beggar man, and he refused even to take as much as a penny from them.

I’m more pleased than anything that I was able to cure you, and I don’t want even a penny from you,” said the ‘Prince’, “You lost plenty on so-called doctors already.”

They all returned home safely, and he became healthy and fat. He was so thankful to the poor beggar man that he kept him in his own house until his death. For as long as he was alive, he never lay down on green grass again. Moreover, if he ever felt any sickness or ill-health again, he never once called a doctor to him. Is it any wonder?

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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.

The Poteen Makers

A Tale of the Royal Irish Constabulary

There have been many tales about, before and during the ‘War for Independence’ and the opinion of the force held by many of Ireland’s working-class was not exactly flattering. It was often said that the most obviously conspicuous individual in Ireland, prior to the ‘War for Independence’  was the policeman. People would say that wherever you went if the policeman was not there before you, it was because they had just been there and would be back before you decided to leave. In all of Ireland’s large cities and towns – Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Athlone, Belfast, etc., there was a police constable to be seen at every street corner, singly, in pairs, and in groups.

You could recognise the fresh-looking police who were about to start their shift, while the tired-looking police were going home to recuperate. You would have seen groups of clean, well-brushed police moving into the countryside by horse or by truck, after having heard reports of rural disturbances, while mud-covered police would be seen returning on carts or trucks, with prisoners from the nearest eviction, land dispute, or faction fight. Much like the policemen of today there were young men, with fresh, rosy complexion, and the middle-aged policemen, with wizened, stern faces, that often showed strong evidence of the many fights that they had taken part in, while the old policemen, with their deeply scarred and weather-beaten faces, paid little attention to what was going on around them becausethey were looking forward to a speedy retirement with a moderate pension. Allexamples of these were to be seen in each city, town, and village. In the ruralareas they could be found on every high road, by-way, and on the many narrow mountainpaths. Meanwhile, at every railroad station in the country they would be seenin pairs, keeping a close watch on those who arrived and departed, and taking noteson anything that may have appeared to be suspicious in the way travellers weredressed or acted.

Should a stranger adhere to the common, well-travelled tourist routes through the country he would only receive a sharp glance of inspection from the policeman. But, should a stranger leave those well-trodden paths usually followed by travellers, or make their way into parts of the country that were not often visited by strangers, you can be sure that they quite quickly became an object of intense interest and suspicion. But, should something cause even the slightest distrust of you or your business to enter the mind of the policeman, you are immediately a marked man. He will disappear for a few moments, allowing you to proceed on your journey. You might, by chance, look back and catch a glimpse of him, a mile or two away, peeping over a wall after you. In the next village, however, when you decide to stop for the night, that same policeman will reappear and, alongside the local policemen, after his coming, will be sure to watch your every move with great attention. If, for example, you would leave yourbags in the reception area of an inn and go outside for a while, the policemanwill come in to get your name, takes note of any bags you have and checks anyhotel or railway tags that may remain on your bags.

Not all these policemen were stupid because there were detectives that knew their job well and roamed both rural and urban areas of the country. This clever man can, at a glance, recognise foreign articles that a person may have and know from where they came. He will engage you in pleasant conversation, chatting about the weather, the crops, business news, and local tittle-tattle. All the while he is trying to discover just who you are, where you come from, and what is your business in that place. As you converse with him, the detective scans every inch of your body from head to feet, so he is better able to give his superiors an accurate report on your clothing and appearance. “Hat, English; coat, London-made; trousers, doubtful; shoes, American; party evidently an Irish Yankee, who might as well be looked after.

You would have learned that the majority of ‘pre-Independence’ Irish policeman, was usually the son of peasant stock. For a man who wanted something better in life than being a labourer, or a tenant, there were few options open. He could, of course, choose to emigrate to America, or enlist in the ranks of the British army, or apply for a place on the constabulary. Although emigration was, probably, the most acceptable option to such young men, many of them lacked the money to go. This left him with two courses, of which enlistment in the army was the more pleasing option since within Ireland the police are almost entirely ostracised by the people and they are left with little hope of being able to socially associate with others in the local community. Sadly, the plight of the people engendered within them a belief that any Irishman who enters the police has deserted his country’s cause and has entered the service of Ireland’sdeadliest foe. A policeman, therefore, soon found himself being avoided by his former companions, shunned by his old friends, and, just as importantly, being given the cold shoulder by the local ladies.

Undoubtedly, any Irishman who enlisted in the British army in those days would have been treated in the same way at his old home. The only saving grace for the Irish soldier was that at enlistment he usually left Ireland with no intention of returning, which makes his case materially different from that of the police recruit. So, why would a young man choose the police as a career at this time? There may have been the obligation of a son to support aged parents or to be the financial support of a family of young brothers and sisters. Such things as these often determined his choice to enter the police force, where he would become a ‘social leper’, who was hated by his countrymen with a hatred that knew no bounds. From the first day he put on his neat blue uniform and saucer-like cap, the R.I.C. constable, in the troubled Irish counties in the west carried his life in his hand. Every hedge had to be scrutinised carefully because, behind it, there might be an assassin lying in wait. Every division wall was watched for suspicious indications of an enemy’s presence, his alertness being concentrated by the knowledge that he is protecting his ownlife.

The policeman is compelled, by the instructions of his superiors, to undertake duties that he feels are obnoxious and very much against his own sense of justice. Moreover, he is forced to risk his life and limbs to carry out these repugnant orders. Consider when a bad year comes, causing a tenant to fall into arrears and cannot pay his rent. In such cases, it was common for the landlord’s agent to decide on evicting the defaulting tenant and he normally sent for the police as back-up. The constables would arrive in force, but the tenant had anticipated their arrival and had collected a crowd of his friends to assist him. The hut was closed and barred, while inside there were normally ten or more men and women, who were determined to resist the eviction for as long as it was of any use. Then, as soon as the police appeared at the scene, a loud cacophony of Irish voices would begin, hurling fearful curses and insults at those trying to carry out the eviction, immediately succeeded by showers of stones and rocks being thrown by those supporters of the cabin’s defenders. The police would draw their clubs and rush at the objectors, striking right and left at the heads of the gathered crowd. Unsurprisingly, a desperate battle would soon ensue, in which the police were usually victorious, and succeeded in driving the shouting rabble to a safe distance from the cottage. When this was achieved, the police would leave some of the force to keep them away, while the remaining policemen would return to force a way into the besieged cabin. A beam, handled by several pairs of strong arms, would be erected and would speedily demolish the miserable pretence of a door. Once this entrance was achieved the police would go into the cabin and were quickly met with fists, clubs, stones, showers of boiling water, and other effective and offensive means of defence. And yet, after a stubborn contest, the cabin was finally cleared of its defenders and the furniture, ifthere was any, was set out on the road. Thereafter, the thatched roof wouldhave been torn off and scattered on the ground, the walls levelled, and thepolice, battered with sticks and stones, scalded, burned, would return toheadquarters with their prisoners in tow. On many of these occasions apoliceman was killed, and his killers would often defend themselves by statingthat it was entirely the fault of the policeman. In a court near Limerick the defendantsof one such incident stated, “We neverintended for to kill him at all, but his skull was too thin entirely for aconstable and broke with the beating he was after getting.”

Firearms were not often used in these encounters between the police and the ordinary people of the district, for such battles always took place in daylight. But, when an eviction promised to be of more dangerous than usual, the police would carry rifles, with strict orders given that they were not to use them except in a dire emergency. There were, therefore, instances when a policeman was beaten almost to death without resorting to the use of his gun. During their ordinary day-duty, the police carried only a short club or revolver, which was hidden under his coat. But at night, the country constables were armed with rifle and bayonet, and they would patrol the roads in pairs, with one walking on each side and as close as possible to the hedge or wall.

It was said at this time that despite the extraordinary difficulties and unceasing dangers of their work the Royal Irish Constabulary continued to follow their orders scrupulously. The record of the time does suggest that any instances of treachery to the government among the constabulary were few and far between. Furthermore, there were plenty of men who sought service in the police force with applicants far outmatching vacancies. The force’s physical standard for applicants was so high, in fact, that they were often hand-picked men from the rural areas of Ireland, whose average grade of intelligence was at a higher standard than that existing among the ordinary Irish peasantry, from among whom they were chosen.

                            A Captured Still

It was noticeable that the police would take on any service cheerfully, without much concern for how hard or perilous that work maybe. But, there was one task which the police force in the western counties hated to undertake, which was any mission that would take them into the mountains to seize illicit stills and arrest distillers of poteen. These expeditions usually meant days and nights of hard climbing, watching, waiting, and spying on suspects. Quite often these efforts would gain no result, because when the spot where the still has been was surrounded, with the police thinking they have the lawbreakers in their trap, the ‘poteen men’ would discover the police plan and escape along some path unknown to the lawmen. Behind them would be left nothing but “the pot and the smell” as signs that they were there and what they were doing. Disappointing results were a good reason for policemen to dislike the duty, but a more important reason was the unusual degree of danger that attended such expeditions. In the mountains of Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Clare, and Kerry, the illicit distillers usually owned firearms and are well practised in their use. Moreover, these men felt no more compunction for shooting a policeman than for killing adog.

The extremely rugged character of the Mayo mountains offered the illicit poteen makers many opportunities to practise their craft in safety and secrecy. The entire neighbourhood would be on the lookout for the presence of police, and there were always friends able to give the alarm to the distillers. Once an alarm was received they would hide the still in the ground, or in a convenient cave, which usually took them just a few minutes. Once their equipment was safely hidden, the distillers would immediately take up their weapons and turn their attention to shooting at the police from well-camouflaged positions. The entire enterprise provided the distillers with so little risk to themselves and so much discomfort to the constables that the latter frequently gave up thechase on the very slightest of provocations.

Close to Derryclare Lough, which lies in the Connemara National Park, and almost under the shadow of the Twelve Pins, there stands by the side of an arrow road a small crudely-made monument of uncut stones, on top of which stands a rough wooden cross. Such heaps of stones are common along Ireland’s west coast, and they customarily mark a family memorial. It begins with each family member and each friend who attends the funeral placing a stone upon the crude monument. In some parts of the country every relative and friend who subsequently passes that spot places a stone on the common pile, and by doing so cause the heap to constantly grow. The monument that I mention is no different in any respect from many others in the Connemara area. But before this monument, in the summer of 1886, an old peasant woman knelt there all day long. Regularly, every morning she would come to this place from her cabin in a nearby glen and spend every daylight hour there in prayer before the wooden cross. It did not seem to matter to this old woman if the sun shone, or the rain poured from the skies. When the sun shone, the hood on her tattered cloak would be thrown back to expose her white hair, but the rain forced her to draw the hood forward as shelter. Whether it rained, or the sun shone, however, that old woman was always there, with her lips silently moving in prayer as the beads slipped through her withered fingers. So engrossed was she that no voice and no question could divert her from her devotions. She never looked up, nor did she ever take the slightest notice of any remarks that were addressed to her, and she was never heard to speak aloud. One day every week groceries were sent to her cabin from the nearest police station and were left within. The men who brought these provisions would then depart immediately, for this old woman never gave them any word of thanks or any expression of any gratitude she felt. Although this ritual had been happening for many years, the constables, who had been sent to deliver the allowance made to her by the government, never tried to compel her to speak to them.

The old woman’s story was first recorded by a Sergeant of Police and provides the reader with a painful illustration of the poteen trade in the mountains of the west. In the year 1850, while the country was still suffering from the effects of the “Great Hunger,” she lived with her husband, Michael Murray, and their four sons, on a little farm near Derryclare Lough. Year after year the crops had failed them, but the little family had held together, starving and foraging faring to keep themselves alive. In 1850, although the country was generally beginning to recover from the famine, this part of Connemara was still suffering, and it seemed likely that the crop would fail again, bringingthe evils of starvation and disease face to face with this hapless family.

The four boys were all well-grown boys, who were accustomed to the hard life of the Irish peasantry, and they were willing to work if any could be found for them. All four sons left their home, the eldest went to Galway, while the other three went to the sea-shore, where they found temporary employment in the fisheries. While they worked away from home, these three brothers learned the secrets of the illicit distiller, and after gathering enough money to buy a small still, they returned home with it. The home-place was, fortunately, sited in a secluded quarter of a district that was rarely visited and they managed to persuade the old man to join in the illicit distilling business with them. The risk of detection by law officers appeared so small in those days, especially when compared with the profits that could be gained, that against the prayers and entreaties of the woman, the small still was established in a nearby hollow and the manufacture of the poteen began in the largest quantities that their limited resources would allow them. But, over the next number of years, their product found a ready outlet in the neighbourhood, and the O’Malley family prospered beyond their dreams. The three sons were all married to local women, and their families grew up strong and healthy around them.

The eldest brother, John O’Malley, had made his way to Galway City, and by a great stroke of good fortune, he succeeded in obtaining a place in the Royal Irish Constabulary. At the home-place, John’s family knew nothing of what had happened, for he did not communicate with them in any shape or form. Directly after he had enlisted he was sent to County Wexford, which lies on the opposite side of the island, and caused him to almost forget his old home and the life he had lived there with his brothers. But, because he proved himself to be both intelligent and capable, John was rapidly promoted to the rank of sergeant and was ordered to County Galway. Almost as soon as he arrived in his new post at the barracks in a small village in Connemara, police informers brought intelligence about an illicit still that was working in a place near the TwelvePins. O’Malley was immediately ordered to set out with a strong party of police to seize the still, and, if possible, arrest the criminals running the operation. The names of the offenders were not given by the informers, but the location of the glen, where operations were being carried, out was described with such precision that O’Malley, who knew every foot of ground in the area, drafted plans for an operation that would make it practically impossible for the illicit still workers to escape the police.

As planned, before dark one evening, a party of twelve mounted policemen armed with rifles started out from Maum, which sat at the head of Lough Corrib. They travelled all night, and by morning Sergeant O’Malley had positioned his men around the glen that the arrest of the criminals looked to be a certainty. In the dim light of early dawn, before any objects could be distinctly seen, several men were seen entering the glen, and, at a given signal from O’Malley, the police rapidly closed in on the little shanty where the still was operating. A desperate fight ensued between the two groups, and SergeantO’Malley was shot dead by one of his brothers without even knowing whose hand had pointed the weapon. Two of the O’Malley brothers were killed by the police bullets, and a constable was mortally wounded. Michael and his remaining son were taken alive by the police and were subsequently tried for murder. It was only when the charges were read out against them that they learned, for the first time, that the dead Sergeant was their own son and brother.

The raid and the casualties of the fire-fight attracted wide attention in the country and both men were hanged. Mrs O’Malley was totally devastated by the entire action, which, with a single blow, had deprived her of a husband and her four sons. For several months afterwards, she was driven almost insane by the memory of that day, but the anger soon passed away. Then, as her clouded brain became calm and clear, it became occupied with one idea, to the exclusion of all others, namely prayer for the happy repose of her dead husband and sons. While the body of the Sergeant was buried near Maum, O’Malley and his three sons were buried together under the cairn in a long disused churchyard, through which the road passed. It was a churchyard like thousands more in Ireland, where the grave-stones are hidden by overgrown nettles and weeds. There, with a love stronger than death, that poor old woman went every day, and, untiring in her devotion, she spent the rest of her life reciting the prayers for the dead.

The Confessional Seal

A Priestly Predicament

There have been volumes upon volumes written about the terrible events that blighted and tore apart Northern Ireland in the thirty years, from 1965 until the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. There is hardly a family in the Province that did not suffer in some way from the terrors, pain, heartache and devastation of the ‘The Troubles’. But, despite all the words that have been written there are none that can truly describe the horrors of those days, except those that have been expressed by people who lived through those dark days. The ‘peace’ that has now existed for the past twenty years is tenuous, to say the least, and has done little, if anything, to remove the bitterness and hatred caused by those years of strife. Among the many stories of those days is a sad tale, which involved a man of faith who was forced to come face-to-face with his own devils.

There was nothing special about the Murphy family. They were simply a group of average individuals living a quiet life in a medium-sized mid-Ulster town. The parents had always been determined to have their children well educated, and all four sons had very much focused their attention on this. Two of the eldest sons had attended university and qualified as Chartered Accountants prior to moving to Australia to make their fortunes. The second youngest son, Martin, had chosen to join the priesthood and, after his ordination, he was assigned a Parish close to home, much to the joy of his pious mother and father. Frank, however, was the youngest son and, although as academically gifted as any of his brothers, but he wanted to enjoy his youth for a while after finishing college, rather than throwing himself into a career immediately.

After the death of their father, the two youngest brothers had spent more of their time with their mother, Annie. She missed her husband dearly but, like a typical Irish mother, she had her sons around her to keep herself active and busy taking care of them. She was a pious and loving woman, adored by all her sons and, in return, she spoiled them terribly. But, the youngest son had always been her favourite, for he was her last child and she would always look upon him as her baby boy. Although she had always shown a little more affection toward him, Annie had never allowed him to become a spoiled, weak and capricious boy. At the same time, however, she did not give her other sons any reason to feel left out, because she made a point of sharing her deep store of maternal love equally between all four boys. Naturally, with the two oldest boys being so far from home, it was Martin and Frank who benefitted most from their Annie’s care and attention.

Martin had been aware, all of his life, that his mother had a special place in her heart for Frank, but he never had any feelings of jealousy toward him. Frank, after all, was the only son who still lived in the home-place with Annie, and Martin was happy that his youngest brother got all that extra attention and love that he undoubtedly obtained from her.

Frank was a gentle, quiet-natured young man who had a great mind and a wonderful imagination. He was greatly admired by his brother, the priest and his mother called him her ‘Little Lamb’. They both expected that Frank would, eventually, achieve a degree of greatness in whatever he chose to do with his life. Annie was not overly concerned about the amount of time that Frank spent with his friends because they knew that he was the type of person who would always maintain the highest standard of personal behaviour when in public. Although Frank had always enjoyed a drink, he was never known to drink to excess. Furthermore, like his many friends, Frank liked to party but always made a point of coming home no later than midnight and completely sober.

The lives of the Murphy family, however, changed abruptly one night in the Spring of 1967. That night, Annie watched the hands on the large mantlepiece clock turn very slowly as the ‘tick, tock’ of the second hand sounded loudly in the quietness of the living-room. The clock struck one o’clock, and the anxiety that had been building up inside Annie that evening had brought a sense of panic to the mother. Frank, in all the time he had gone out with his friends, had never returned later than one o’clock, and he had never brought any trouble to the door.

It was now past one o’clock and, yet, there was no sign of Frank, and no word of excuse received from him. Fortunately, Martin was in the house that night, sitting with his mother. Rather than return the Parochial House after supper Martin decided that he would stay with Annie. He was now well settled on a comfortable armchair, which stood beside the glowing coal-fire to await Frank’s return home. But, as the minutes continued to tick by slowly, he watched his mother’s already well-frayed nerves begin to come apart. With tears forming in her eyes she quietly muttered, “I just wish Frank would come home.

He’ll be alright, Ma! He’ll soon be coming through that front door as if there’s nothing wrong, kiss you on the cheek, as he always does, and go on to his bed,” Martin told her in a soft, comforting tone of voice.

But, Annie was not comforted by Martin’s soft words. “I don’t know, Martin,” she told him. “He has never been this late and I am really worried that something might have happened to him.

Please stop fretting, Ma,” Martin urged her as tenderly as he could. “He has just been delayed, ma, and he might not be home for an hour or so yet.

But, Annie just could not relax, because her worries over Frank’s whereabouts filled every corner of her mind. She fidgeted nervously in her chair, then she made tea for her and Martin, and then she would go to the front door to see if there was any sign that Frank was nearing home. The hours, however, continued to pass slowly and still there was no sign of her youngest son. Then, as darkness gave way to the light of early morning, Annie’s concerns had grown to a point where she began to cry silently to herself, afraid that she might not see her son again. Martin could only sit and watch silently as those bitter tears fell from his mother’s eyes. He was becoming increasingly angry with his brother’s tardiness, and he promised himself that when his younger brother did arrive he would get a piece of his mind regarding his irresponsibility. At that present moment, he could not show any sign of his anger to his already upset mother. He believed it would be more beneficial to maintain his efforts to keep the old woman calm about his brother’s absence.

Martin managed to settle his mother in the chair beside the fire and began telling her humorous anecdotes about some of his parishioners, in the hope that they would keep her mind occupied with lighter thoughts. Quite suddenly, Annie’s body went rigid and her head turned quickly toward the living room window. “It’s him! It’s Frank!” she cried out. “I can hear his footsteps on the path.” She rose from her seat quickly and, loudly sighing “Thank God!”, she went to open the front door to him.

But, Martin heard the voice of a man, which he knew was not the voice of his brother, Frank. He then heard his mother give a loud and painful groan, and this caused Martin to rush to her assistance. Annie had fainted in the hallway and Martin noticed that it was a uniformed policeman that was giving her assistance.

What in God’s name has happened?” asked Martin anxiously.

The policeman rose up from his knees and helped to bring Annie into the living room, laying her comfortably on the sofa, with a cushion at her head. “I am sorry to be the one that brought such terrible news to you,” said the constable.

What news?

We have found your brother’s abandoned motorbike this morning, lying in a hedge.

Is he badly hurt, or …?

We have not located your brother yet, Father. But, we did find traces of blood on the seat and are concerned for his welfare,” said the policeman, interrupting Martin.

You can imagine the great shock and fear that Martin felt when he received this grave news. Calling a neighbour over to stay with Annie, he asked the policeman to take him to the scene of this apparent accident. He was driven, in a police car, to a narrow lane that turned off the main road and led through a bog, and he eventually came to the scene, which was marked by another police car and several uniformed officers. Some of the police officers were diligently searching the hedgerows on each side of the narrow, bog lane and Martin quickly joined in with their efforts. Even as Martin searched, there was a definite feeling of unease that began to fill his entire body, and he knew in his mind that this lane held some terrible secret for him. Martin had been up all night and was very tired, and yet he knew that this was not the reason behind his feelings of unease. There was a smell of death in the air about him, but Martin continued to search every possible nook and cranny on each side of the lane, thoroughly, for almost a mile.

Confession 2They could find nothing in their searches. There was not a trace of Frank anywhere. All that was left to be found was the motorbike and its bloodstained seat. As he took a final look around the area where the motorbike was found, Martin was suddenly brought to an abrupt standstill and he called out to the others to join him quickly. The grass in that place was very much trampled down, and Martin could not be sure if this was a sign that a struggle had taken place, or if the police had trampled the grass during their search.  When the police searchers came up to Martin’s position, he was able to discover from them that they had not trampled the grass in that area. They insisted that they had found the area in that condition. Martin now got down on his knees and began to take a closer look at the grass around him and, after a little time, discovered a quantity of fresh blood. Beside this patch of blood, Martin found a thin leather wallet that he knew belonged to his brother, and he picked it up to show the policemen. It all seemed to confirm his worst fears, that his brother Frank was indeed dead. Confirmation of this belief appeared to be supplied by the condition in which the motorbike had been found. From the way it lay in the hedgerow, it was apparent to Martin that this had not been caused by any road accident and indicated, instead, that Frank may have been murdered.

It is almost impossible to describe the pain and agony that tore through Martin’s body at this terrible moment of realisation that his brother was probably dead. There was a terrible rage that filled his heart, which was matched only by the deep sorrow that he felt for the loss. He didn’t want to believe that this tragedy had happened and that there was still hope that Frank would suddenly appear in front of Martin, alive and well. With renewed vigour and his head filled with contradictory thoughts, Martin continued in his frantic search for a body that would give the family closure on what had happened to Frank. Although the search lasted for many hours, stretching well into the evening, Martin had to return home without success. But, Martin found it was a much different home from the one that he had left earlier that day. In those long hours, the stress had aged greatly Annie and Martin now found her in a state of stupor, which had taken hold of her after a wild frenzy of screaming and crying, all brought about by the news she had been given concerning the fate of her youngest son. It was almost as if the light of life had gone out of her, and her heart had been smashed to pieces, rather than broken. Martin was at a complete loss as to what he should do and watched over his mother as she lingered for a few weeks, steadily going downhill and calling out for her dead child.

Sadly, Annie finally passed away one evening as she slept in her bed. As Martin stared down upon her small, pale face he noticed that there was a peaceful expression upon it. There was no longer any trace of the torture and agony she had been feeling since she had first gotten the news of Frank. Although there had not, even yet, been any definite confirmation from the police about Frank’s fate, Martin now felt certain that his youngest brother was dead. He could not, however, comprehend who would have wanted to kill Frank, or why? If it was an accident then why was there no body found? Surely, he thought to himself, no one could hold a grievance, but Martin could not understand who would have had a grievance against such a friendly, harmless man like Frank Murphy.

With so much sectarian hatred prevalent in Northern Ireland at this time, Martin’s first suspicions fell upon ‘loyalist’ paramilitaries. He believed that these dark, evil men murdered young Frank, believing it would be seen as a great victory to kill the innocent brother of a Roman Catholic priest. Yet, he had no proof. Despite the widespread horror that was felt at young Frank’s disappearance and probable murder, there was not a single clue as to who might have perpetrated such a crime. Using every possible contact that he had, both Catholic and Protestant, Martin tried to discover what had happened and who may have done the evil deed. But, all his efforts were in vain, and as the months passed public interest in the event seemed to fade.

The first anniversary of Frank’s disappearance had passed, and the anniversary of his mother’s death was quickly approaching. Since their deaths the young priest had chosen to throw himself completely into his Parish duties as a means of helping him to come to terms with the tragedies that had so changed his life. One Saturday evening, as was usual, he sat in the confessional box in the chapel and made himself available to those who wished to confess their sins and show penance for the wrongs they had done. One of the penitents was known to Martin but appeared to be completely unaware of the form of the religious ritual. He was not a regular church-goer and Martin was, to say the least, very surprised to see this young man enter his confessional. He knelt and began to confess the many misdeeds of his ill-spent life. It appeared that this young man simply wanted to unburden his entire conscience in one go, and he spoke of sins that were filled with unbounded selfishness, oppression, revenge and unlimited passions. There was no sin that this young man had not committed in his short life, everything from theft to betrayal, and from mild sexual thoughts to wild encounters actions were included. Martin had heard many of these same sins during his short tenure as a curate, but the confession of this young man thoroughly shocked him.

Martin would later admit that he was both nauseated and disgusted by this young man and the sins he had confessed. Even the young man himself began to falter as he revealed to the priest each immoral action and thought he had committed. At one point it seemed to Martin that the young man was equally sickened by his faults and had never realised just how extensive and appalling they were. Martin saw both surprise and confusion on the man’s face as he laid out his sins. Then, as Martin began the rite of absolution the young man called on him to stop. “Please Father,” he spoke nervously, “I am not yet finished my confession.

I’m sorry,” Martin replied, “please continue.”

But he could hear the penitent moving uneasily as he knelt in the confessional. Martin felt as if the penitent was fighting with his conscience about whether, or not, he should admit some particularly grievous sin. The man had already confessed to so many unsavoury sins already, and the priest could not quite understand why he was so reluctant now. “You have done so well this far. If there is more that you wish to confess you should continue. Free yourself of your sins and you will feel so much better. God already knows your sins and by you confessing them you are showing that you are aware of how hurtful they have been to him. Return to his love. He wants to forgive you all your sins and break those chains which bind your soul to evil. So, speak freely,” Martin urged the penitent in a gentle voice.

The priest listened to the man sobbing for a minute or two, stopping only to dry his tears and blow his nose. Then, very quietly and hesitantly at first, the young man began to mutter, nervously, that he had killed someone in cold-blood. Martin shuddered at the revelation and, from what he had heard the man say so far, he found it difficult to believe. Clearing his voice, he asked in the calmest tone that he could muster, “Please tell me, how and where did you commit an act of cruel murder? And whatever possessed you to take the life of another human being?

Confession 1The young man had kept his head bowed during his confession, but he raised his head until he could see the face of the priest behind the confessional screen that separated them. It was also the first time that Martin had seen the penitent. Despite the veil between them, the priest could see clearly the young man’s tear-soaked and reddened eyes. He noticed that they were glazed over and appeared to be ready to pop out from their sockets with terror. The blood seemed to almost drain from the man’s complexion and there was a tremor in his body. Martin now watched in total surprise as the young man slowly raised his clasped hands toward him. It was as if the penitent was praying to him, begging him to that would ease the pain in his entire being. Was this young man seeking mercy from him Martin wondered, as the penitent moved closer? With quivering lips and in a low sobbing voice the man declared, “I am the man who killed your brother, Father Martin!

Martin’s body suddenly went numb. Then, as if hit by a Taser gun, his entire body shook violently, and he was wracked with terrible pain. The priest’s entire mind went into a ‘brain-melt’ as his thoughts were scrambled together and began to spin around in his head, and his heart began to pound so fast that he became sure that it would burst. Maybe it was God, or maybe it was his own instinct for survival that caused Martin to breathe normally once again, and he began to slowly feel his blood run begin to run normally once more through the many tingling vessels in his body. The young priest’s hands were clasped to his breast, but just as his body returned to something like normality, he slumped back in his seat and began to laugh hysterically. It was not the reaction that the penitent had expected and fearing for the priest he went to assist him. Several minutes passed before Martin began to recover his equilibrium and his face was soaked in a cold sweat, and his eyes were filled with bitter, bitter tears.  As Martin became aware of his surroundings again he saw the penitent holding him close, his face wracked with the terrible thought that he had caused the priest to suffer some sort of emotional breakdown. Holding Martin close to him the priest he was pleading for his mercy and not to hand him over to the law. Martin could hardly believe that it was him that was telling the young man, “Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to worry about me or the police.  Your sins have been shared under the seal of confession, and because of that, I cannot reveal one item to another living soul. You are safe, but I beg you to get away from me now. Just get out of my sight and stay away from me until I feel able to see  you and speak to you again.” With he heard these words the young man released his hold on Martin, moved away from the confessional, and exited the church building.

Martin told me that, after this encounter, he knelt alone in the church and prayed to God for the strength to get him through this. He had, more by accident than by design, met the man who had murdered his youngest brother and, through this crime, had caused the subsequent death of his mother. Although an ordained priest, Martin also considered that he was nothing more than a simple man, would find forgiveness a difficult proposition to grant under such circumstances. Moreover, that he was a priest meant he needed God’s help to hold fast to that sacred calling to which he had dedicated his life. He prayed intensely for God’s blessing to give him the strength to fulfil the words of the Gospel as he professed them – “Love and Forgiveness.” But, God appeared to hold back his blessing for a time and it was only after much prayer and meditation that he felt able to meet the young man again. On this occasion Martin had decided to deal with him with him in the same manner as any other priest, and give him absolution for his sins, setting him a penance that he had to complete.

You often hear people repeat the adage that tells us, “Time can heal all hurts.” But, Martin found that this was not so true when it came to the hurt that filled his heart. Although years had passed by and the pain began to hurt less, it was never totally healed. The ‘Killer’ had confessed his crime to him unbidden, and he had appeared to have changed his previous lifestyle dramatically. He had begun to attend Church services and the holy sacraments almost daily. There were none other than Martin who knew of his crime, and many remarked about just how much he had quietened down since he had begun to attend the Church regularly.

There were some, however, who did not trust that young man, and Father Martin admitted that he was far from being a reformed man. The only difference between the old and the new, Martin said, was that he had become better at hiding his transgressions from public view. In fact, Martin was becoming increasingly suspicious about the young man’s true motives for apparently changing his lifestyle, and for spending so much time in his company. He was sure that all of this was simply to avoid suspicion of being directed at him and, by telling the priest his terrible secret under the seal of the confession, he ensured that his admission of guilt would not reach the ears of the law. By using the Confessional with the priestly brother of his victim he had ensured that Martin would not try to avenge his brother’s death murder.

After confessing his darkest secret to Martin, he had also made the priest aware of why he had committed such a terrible act. that the motive behind the terrible act had been jealousy. He said that Frank, being a handsome and easy-going young fellow had attracted the attention of a certain young lady from a good family. Unfortunately, Frank didn’t know that he had placed himself in competition with this young man, whose attention had been spurned by the same young lady. It was Frank who won through and was walking out with the young lady, and he had even been seen exchanging kisses with her. All these things helped stoke this young man’s jealousy and he sought vengeance. The ‘last straw’ that convinced him to get rid of Frank once and for all was when he personally witnessed them kissing.

He admitted to Martin that he armed himself with a long, sharp knife and hid in the hedgerow along the bog road, which he knew Frank would use to motorcycle home after meeting the young lady. He lay in wait until he heard Frank’s approach and saw the light from the motorbike as it shone on the road. Just as Frank was passing the hiding place his assassin sprang out from his lair, totally surprising Frank and forcing him to stop suddenly. Then, before Frank could recover his composure the assassin drove his knife into Frank’s back, killing him almost instantly. But, the young killer did not tell Martin what he had done with the body, and yet Martin was confident that he would say where he had disposed of the remains and give him the final closure he needed.

One evening, in the middle of Lent, Martin was walking along the very same road where his brother’s life had been so savagely taken. As he walked in the growing darkness, Martin heard the approach of a car behind him and he stopped so that he could allow the car to pass safely by. But, the car did not pass him and chose to stop on the road adjacent to where Martin was standing. The car’s window was wound down and the smiling face of the guilty man appeared, much to the priest’s loathing. Martin did not know why the man was on the same road as he, or why he had stopped to talk. “Good evening, Father,” he said with that sickening smile that Martin hated so much.

Good evening,” replied Martin in a dry and unwelcoming tone.

The young man got out of the car and pointed to a lone tree, standing not far into the nearby bog. “Do you see that tree?” he asked.

Yes,” replied Martin.

“It is close to that tree that your brother is buried,” he said with absolutely no emotion in his voice.

Totally astonished by this sudden revelation, Martin’s mind was not quite thinking straight, and he replied, “What brother?

Your brother Frank, of course,” said the villain. “It was there that I buried the poor man after I had killed him.

Sweet Jesus! Merciful God!” screamed the priest. Then raising his eyes to heaven, he angrily added, “Thy will be done!

Rushing at the villain Martin seized him by the lapels of his jacket and growled into his face, “You damned wretch of a man! You have admitted to shedding the blood of an innocent man who has been crying out to heaven for justice these last ten years or more. I am turning you into the police, now!

He turned ashy pale as he faltered out a few words to say that, as a priest, Martin had promised not to betray him. ” That was under the seal of confession and under that seal, I can never speak of that deadly secret you admitted to. But, God is good, and you now admit your crime in the open, where the seal of confession does not hold me back. At  last, I, the brother of your victim, will be able to avenge the innocent blood that you shed.”

The blood drained from the assassin’s face as Martin tightened his grip and pushed him into the car’s passenger seat. Martin climbed into the driver’s seat and re-started the engine. Totally overcome by events the captive killer did not try to resist while he was driven into the police station, where he was charged with murder and committed for trial.

Reports of Martin’s capture of his brother’s murderer spread far and wide. The Bishop of the Diocese summoned the young priest into his presence and arranged for a dispensation to be given to Martin with regard to the man’s confession. But, Martin did not need to use his dispensation.

Frank’s body was found in the place indicated by his murderer, and forensic science did the rest. The proof provided by the investigators was such that the jury was able to quickly find the killer guilty. The judge complimented Martin on his brave action and heroically observing the obligation of secrecy that bound him. Speaking to the press, the judge declared, “You have witnessed just how the Church of Rome believes that Confession is a sacred trust that cannot be broken. Even when the cause is the avenging of a brother’s murder, it is still an insufficient excuse for breaking that trust.”

Our Dead Friends

“Our dead Friends are right,” an old man told me after hearing that it was my custom to sit up late at night to read. “No, sir, that isn’t right at all,” he sighed and shook his head disapprovingly.

I was curious as to his reasoning and I asked him, “Why is that?

Well,” the old man began, “sure, don’t you know that your dead relatives, if it’s God’s will that they should be wandering about the place, always like to spend their nights in the old home. They come at ten o’clock, and if the house is not quiet they go away again. Then, they return at eleven o’clock, and if there is still any noise from inside, or any one sitting up, they do the same. But, at twelve o’clock they come for the last time, and if they are obliged to leave again, they must spend the night wandering about in the cold! But if they get into the house at any time between ten o’clock and twelve o’clock, they will sit around the hearth until the cock crows to herald the new day.”

The old man’s eyes showed the knowledge of his years and the easy way in which he explained things assured me that he was a man well versed in folklore. His explanation of the dead relatives visiting the home at night gave some light on customs that I had seen when visiting relations with my father in the days of my youth. One such custom that I had observed was that of the woman of the house carefully sweeping around the hearth and arranging the kitchen chairs in a semicircle in front of the “raked” fire before the last person awake finally makes their way to bed.

The old man listened intently as I told him about the custom I watched, many years before, and he told me that such preparations were often made in the homes of country folk. “Sure, what would the relatives think,” he said with a smile, “if the place was not tidied up before their arrival ? It is little respect we had for them, they’d say.”

I loved to walk along the country highways and byways of the county, especially in the summer. One day, I was walking along a road in the south of county and was accompanied by a good friend of my father’s, called Peter. We passed a poorly clothed and wretched-looking woman, who acted most oddly as we approached. Much to my amazement, as we came closer to her, the woman turned her back to us and stood with her head bent towards the ground until we had passed by. “What in the name of God is wrong with her, is she away in the head? ” I asked Peter.

Aye,” answered my friend, “the poor woman is a little astray in the mind, and that is what she always does when she sees a stranger.”

Peter then began to explain to me that he recalled seeing the same woman, when she was young lady and he was only a boy. At that time, she was growing up into a very attractive and sensible young girl, who was admired by all the young men in the entire neighbourhood. “Then, she saw something,” Peter told me in a mysterious tone of voice, “and the poor woman was never the same again.”

What, in the name of God, did she see? ” I asked.

Sure, I wouldn’t know,” he replied, “but, it might have been something similar to what her brother saw before he died.”

What was that? ”

Well, her brother was playing cards in a local village one night, and was returning home after twelve o’clock, when his eyes caught sight of a great number of strangely dressed, little men coming towards him. It struck him that every one of these little men were of the same size, and that they were marching to the sound of grand music. In the front of the parade there was one little man, who held a big drum and was heartily beating away at it, accompanied by two or three more little men with smaller drums, and the rest of the company had flutes. The poor woman’s brother was almost frightened to death by what he saw, and he stood rooted to the spot unable to move even an inch. The little man beating the big drum came up to him and asked him why he had dared to come along their way at that late hour of the night. The poor woman’s brother was completely mesmerised by the scene and could not utter a word in reply. Then, the little drummer ordered the rest of the parade to take hold of him and carry him along with them. ‘No!’ said one of the little men, ‘you won’t touch him this time. He is my own brother. Don’t you know me, Hughey?‘ he said as he turned toward the terror-stricken young man. In fact, he was his brother, who had died about a year earlier. ‘Go you home now, Hughey dear,’ the little man told him, in as mournful a voice as ever was heard, ‘apparition 2So, you see,” concluded Peter, “it is not advisable to be out late at night, particularly after twelve o’clock. And it is generally believed it was something similar that the poor sister had seen, which left her in her current condition.”

Naturally, I made no effort to question the supposition because I knew only too well, from past experiences, that any such efforts would prove to be fruitless. You, when you hear stories such as these, might choose to ridicule them and regard them as being complete nonsense. But, let me warn you that such ridicule and attempts to disprove such stories would only be a waste of your energy and your words. Those who have been brought up believing in the power of the Spirits, the ‘Good People’ and the Sidhe (Shee) are as convinced of their power and existence, as they are convinced of their own existence. In response to your efforts to dissuade them they will simply tell you that they know what they know.

The Fairy Bush

There are, in many parts of Ireland, certain bushes which are looked upon by the local people as being sacred to that most well-known species of inhabitants of the mystic world, the Sidhe, the Sheeogs (Fairies). There is no Irishman or Irishwoman who would do harm, or destroy, or interfere with, such bushes for any reason. There is one in Cillmartin that stands in the centre of a ploughed field, and many years ago I asked the question why it had not been removed to aid cultivation. I was quickly told that the farmer, who was English, could not get any man in the district to dig it up, out of the ground. At one time he sent for a nearby farm labourer, called Pat Cairn, whom he often employed at harvest time. Pat was instructed by the farmer to go immediately and clear out the old thorn tree that stood in the middle of ‘Big Field’.

Ah, now, man dear,” said Pat, “You know I’d rather not have anything to do with the likes of that

Oh ! Stuff of nonsense, man, nonsense! Don’t be a silly clown! Really, what harm is there in cutting down an old thorn bush ? You’ll be well paid for your work and the entire job won’t take you more than ten minutes.”

Well, now, I might as well tell you the truth, I wouldn’t cut that bush down even if you were to give me a hundred thousand pounds,” Pat told him emphatically.

Get away out of this! You stupid superstitious idiot of a man!” the farmer exclaimed angrily, stamping his foot heavily on the ground. “I’ll just the bloody tree down by myself to-morrow.

As planned, the farmer made his way to the ‘Big Field’ the very next morning, where several men who had already refused to undertake the job had gathered. “You men haven’t found the courage yet to uproot that old bush for me,” he said loudly to the gathered men.

Harry McFarland, who taught in the local village school, shook his head and told the Englishman, “Not yet, sir! Sure, only an eejit would dare to upset the ‘Good People’ and I’m no eejit!”

By God! Even an intelligent man like yourself believes in such silly tales and would have the audacity to call me an idiot! Well we will soon see the truth of it,

Well, really sir, everyone here to whom you have spoken has assured you that it would not be ‘lucky’ for you to cut it! I would urge you, at this time, do not do this thing.”

I’m surprised at you, who should know better, should allow such silly superstitions to enter into your head. Have you a hatchet about, that I can borrow ?

Indeed ? Bring the hatchet to me and I’ll make sure the tree is cut down, damn quick. Then, you will see just how little I care about your fairy-folk and their devilish spells.”FairiesHarry managed to retrieve the hatchet and gave it to the farmer, who, accompanied by several of his farm labourers, immediately entered the field and approached the hawthorn bush, that stood about four feet high. The villagers were totally amazed at the foolish and daring deed that this English farmer was about to perform, and they kept a good distance back, terrified by the evil that they expected to fall upon him. ” Now then,” said the farmer, as he balanced the hatchet in his right hand, ” let me see what’s the best way to go about this.”

He walked around the bush twice, and then he walked back a few feet to a spot from where he could critically survey it. He cleared his throat loudly first, then took a good luck around him at the faces that were watching his every action. Then he spoke, “It is pretty after all! You know, I never even considered it before. But, by God, it’s quite an attractive addition to the field.”  Turning to Harry McFarland he smiled warmly and spoke in a loud voice, “It’s really very pretty, Harry, and now that I have seen it in a new light, I think it would be a pity to cut it down. Instead, I’ll send down a gardener to-morrow, who will clip it and trim it nicely. Aye! yes, indeed, it would be a pity to dig it all up.” There was a huge sigh of relief from those that were standing around the scene, and then a hint of suppressed giggles as they turned away to hide the expression on their faces. They knew the truth of it. The farmer had “thought better of it,” and that he had suddenly realised that “caution was the better part of valour.”  You have probably already concluded that the farmer’s idea of creating and ornament of the bush was nothing more than a pretence. I can assure you that the bush has never been trimmed, and there it remains, practically the same as it was over fifty years ago in its size and appearance.

In my sixty-five years of life I have been blessed to see many similar bushes in various parts of the country. One very particularly memorable specimen exists along the south shore of Lough Neagh where, many years ago, a substantial stone wall had to be built a narrow country road near the shore. But, in the line along which the wall had to be built, there grew a “fairy bush,” which the workmen refused to remove from the spot where it stood. Every request and promise of increased payment, and threats of job loss failed to move them. The men, point blank, would not touch the fairy bush. The result of all this was that the bush was left undisturbed in the centre of the wall and arched over it. This unusual position in the stonework has proved to be something of a local attraction, which has also frequently attracted the attention of visitors who pass that way.

Just while we are considering the subject of things that are sacred to the “wee folk”, we should look at “cairns,” or heaps of stones. I can recall one very remarkable incident that goes a long way toward supporting the belief among many rural Irish people that it is not right to take away, or utilise for building purposes, any of the stones in those “cairns.”  Cathal Hughes was building himself a new house on the outskirts of the town. While making his plans, Cathal remembered that he had seen a beautifully suitable keystone in the “fairy cairn.” The same man had been told that it was not sensible or right to interfere with any of the stones in that heap. However, there was one stone that he had set his eyes upon, which was so well suited for his purposes that he tempted to take a chance. Cathal, therefore, took the stone from the cairn and inserted it in the wall of his new house. But, the first night that he slept in the house, or rather lay down to sleep, he was disturbed by a most mournful crying coming from the very corner in which he had placed the stone. All through that night, until dawn broke, that bitter and plaintive wail continued. Cathal decided he would remove the stone after breakfast, but some of his neighbours suggested that it would be a waste to take the wall away. In the faulty belief that he would not be annoyed any further, Cathal decided that he would postpone his decision to remove the stone until he was sure that the weird cries were at an end. Unfortunately, he had not long to wait, for on the second night of his stay in the new home, the crying, lower but more sorrowful, continued again until morning. This disturbance settled the matter as far as he was concerned. The stone was taken out and replaced on the cairn, while another less attractive stone was selected to fill the space that was left in the wall. With this the crying ceased, and Cathal swore loudly that he would never, ever, again meddle with the stones of the “fairy cairn”.

A Strange Tale

A Story of Lough Neagh

I will admit that the following story is a very strange tale, but I can assure you that it is not a fiction, which has been dreamed up in my own imagination just amuse you. Most of my stories are, in fact, told to me by various people throughout this land, and I give you my oath that none of these stories differ in even the slightest way from the way in which they are given to me. Although the following story, which I am about to present to you is, perhaps,  one of the most remarkable, it is also one of the best authenticated stories that I have ever heard.

The person who told this tale to me was my maternal grandfather and he never doubted, even for one moment, that it was not an accurate description of facts. However, I do recall my grandfather telling the story to me in a whispering tone, almost as if the tale was too solemn a story to be spoken about in the loudness of an ordinary conversation, and too mysterious to be told in a light or flippant way. When he told me this story, almost fifty years ago, my grandfather also told me that he did not want it spread far and wide. He thought it was better not to say too much about it, but those involved in the story are now long gone, bless their souls. But, I still feel that I cannot disclose the names of those who are involved in the story, and it is not necessary to do so to relate the story accurately since the facts of the story lose nothing by the omission of names. 

An Eel Fisher's Boat at Cranfield, Lough Neagh
An Eel Fisher’s Boat at Cranfield, Lough Neagh – a view of a boat at the Lough shore with two children on board and a dog. (Location: Northern Ireland; County Antrim; Cranfield td.). Date: circa early 1900s

One fine spring morning, not too many years ago, there were two young men who lived along the shores of Lough Neagh, and they took a boat and steered it to a fair being held on the opposite shore of the great lough. As is often the case with young men, however, they took a little bit too much whisky and Guinness at the fair, in addition to the amount that they had taken with them on the boat. These two young, intoxicated men set sail before a fair wind as they began on their return journey later that same evening. Their journey back would cause them to travel just over twelve miles across the waters of the lough. Meanwhile, in the small village that they called home the two men had left behind a close friend and associate, who had been unable to go to the fair with them. Instead, this young friend had gone to the bog for turf on that fair evening, just about half an hour after his two friends had set sail for home. With great industry the young friend soon filled his creel, and got it comfortably on his back, before he started for home.

As he followed the country track towards home he had an inexplicable impulse to look around. As he did so, the young turf collector saw, sitting on a small, heather-covered mound, his two young friends who had gone to the fair. But, unknown to the turf collector, the friends had left the fair twelve miles away only half an hour before. He could clearly see that the two young men had a bottle of whisky between them and were apparently enjoying themselves. As they had made merry and laughed loudly they had spotted their friend on his way home, and they signalled for him to come and join them.

Without any hesitation he made his way over to the mound, where he sat down to get the creel more easily off his back. But, as soon as he had removed the creel, his two friends had gone, and they were nowhere to be seen! There was no doubt in his mind that he had seen them plainly. Although he had not expected them to return so early, he was certain he had seen them and could not have been mistaken. He began to believe that they were trying to play a trick on him and he looked all round in the long heather bushes that stood behind the little clumps of turf, everywhere. But, his two friends could not be found no matter how hard he looked for them!

The entire event had astonished him at first, but he then became very frightened. Taking up his creel once again he hurried home and told everyone he met about what he had seen in the bog. Worried about his friends, the young turf collector anxiously gathered a few of his neighbours, and they all made their way to the lough shore to find out if the boat had returned, or not. It was not there. In fact, the boat was not discovered until the next morning, broken into hundreds of pieces of timber, floating in a little inlet almost ten miles further away! It was not until nine days afterwards, sadly, that the bodies of the two unfortunate young men who had travelled in the boat were finally washed ashore and retrieved.