In Ireland, even today, there are so many superstitions, rituals, and traditions in the day to day life of its people. This is especially true when it comes to the passing of dear friends and relatives, their funeral arrangements, and their final interment. These superstitions and traditions might vary slightly from family to family, but each holds strongly to their own. In fact, they hold so faithfully to their own family rituals that on occasions they can lead to anger and physical violence when different families come together to mourn in different ways.
When I was a young man my favourite way of spending my leisure-time was to take long walks through the countryside and sketch many of the interesting sites that I would come across. Over the years I had filled my artist’s sketch book with pictures of beautifully sited thatched cottages, old barns, ruins, and old churches. On one particular sunny day, I was sitting alone on a grassy embankment at the edge of the desolate graveyard and church in Drumm. In that beautifully quiet place, I became almost totally lost in my efforts to capture, on paper, that special scene that lay before me. Occasionally I would lift up my eyes from my sketchbook to look directly at the detail that was present in this interesting ruin which I was attempting to paint. It was also an opportunity wipe the perspiration from my brow, that was caused by the heat of the sun radiating down upon my head.
The quiet stillness that had prevailed all that particular day was suddenly broken by a faint and wild sound that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life. Admittedly, the strange sound startled me and caused me to stop my sketching for a moment or two. Alone in that graveyard I began to listen nervously, waiting for that strange sound to repeat itself. I didn’t have to wait awfully long for this weird, unearthly sound to vibrate through the still air of the evening once again. It was now even more loud than it had been at first and, as I listened to its strange vibration and tone, I decided that it could be likened to the sound made by many glasses, ringing and tinkling as they are crowded in together.
I stood up, rising from the place where I had been seated, and I began to search around for the possible source of this strange noise. There was not another body in my vicinity when, once again, this heart-chilling sound suddenly filled the air about me with its wild and wailing intonation. At first the sound reminded me somewhat of a tune being played upon an aged harp. When another burst of the sound came forth, it became quite obvious to me that it was the sound of many human voices that were being raised in lamentation somewhere close by. It was a loud, heart-chilling, wail of sorrow about which, before this occasion, I had only ever heard only rumours. Now, for the first time in my life I heard that wild and terrifying sound and shivered with cold fear. Those who read this tale, and who have already heard the same sound, will surely understand just how anxious I was when I heard it in the silence of that day in Drumm.
As my eyes scanned the area outside of the graveyard I could clearly see, in the light of that day, a crowd of local people, both male and female. In an orderly line they wound their way along a low path that led them toward the churchyard where I was standing, and among them the strong men carried the coffin of someone who was a dear departed friend or relative. As they came closer toward me, occasion I heard a loud and pitiful wail of sorrow that arose from the mourners in that crowd. The voices rang loudly, in a wild and startling unison, as they moved up the hill, until the sound gradually descended in its volume, finally becoming little more than a subdued wail. Diligently, these local people continued to carry their loved one’s body onward, but not in the same measured and solemn step as before. Now, they were moving in a much more rapid and irregular manner, almost as if the pain of their grief was hurrying them on to the graveside, which was the much hoped for culmination of all their efforts.
The overall effect of this large local rural funeral was, I must admit, certainly more impressive than any of the other funerals I had ever seen in my short life. There was truly little of the pomp and circumstance of other funerals I had observed, such as a hearse, or large commemorative wreaths. But, the equal of the pallbearers could never have been found as they steadily bore along the body of their dear departed friend on their shoulders in the stillness of evening until they reached the cemetery. The male friends and relatives of the deceased person carried the coffin into the interior of the ruin. There the women had gathered to continue their mourning for the dead, and half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately began to prepare a grave. I can honestly say that I have seldom seen men more full of activity. But, scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, than the loud peal of the pipes was heard at some distance. The young men paused in their work, and they turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point from where the sound appeared to originate.
As I looked up, I clearly observed that another funeral procession was winding its way slowly around the foot of the hill. Immediately the young men at the graveside returned to their work with greater effort than before. As the spades dug into the black soil anxious shouts from onlookers constantly encouraged them to complete their work as quickly as possible. Some of the more polite followers shouted, “For Jaysus sake, hurry boys, hurry.“
“Shift your big arse, Paddy!” others called.
Friends of some of the men shouted out to them, “Put your back into it, Mike! “
“If you could shift the sod as quick as you shift the ‘Guinness’, it would suit you better,” others laughed aloud.
By this time, the second funeral party, that was approaching, could see ahead of them that the churchyard to which they were going was already filled with people. Almost immediately this second funeral party quickened their pace, and their sounds of mourning rose more loudly in the morning air as they came nearer to the churchyard. Quite unexpectedly, a small detachment of men, carrying a variety of picks and spades, came forward out of the main party. Then, without warning, this group of armed men rushed headlong up the hill toward the churchyard, accompanied by loud shouting. At the same time an elderly woman, her eyes streaming with tears and her hair dishevelled, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had taken their coffin. Arms raised, she ran towards the young men who were digging at the ground with all their might and, passionately, she begged them to do their work more quickly. “Ahh Boys! Sure, you wouldn’t let them beat you to the job and have my sweet boy wandering about, alone on these long, dark nights. Please dig hard boys. Lay into it with all your power and gain, for yourselves, a sorrowful mother’s blessing for ensuring my wee Paddy will have rest.“
Standing among those men in her bedraggled appearance, and the intensity of her manner as she pleaded with them, I thought the poor woman was crazy. In fact, such was her condition, that I could barely make out what she was saying to the young men, and I was obliged to inquire off one of the bystanders if they could fill in the blank spaces.
“Are you asking me because you believe she is going crazy? ” said the person that I had asked, as he looked at me in a very puzzling manner. “Sure, I thought everyone knew the answer to that. Especially someone who looks as well learned as you. The poor woman doesn’t want her dead son to be walking about in the night, as he must, unless those boys are smart.“
“What do you mean, walking about in the night?” I asked him. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Whisht! whisht!” he urged me to be quiet. “Here they come now, and, in the name of God, they have Joe Gallagher at their head,” he said to me as he anxiously looked towards the advanced guard of the second funeral, which had now gained the summit of the hill. They quickly leaped over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery and advanced towards the group that surrounded the newly excavated grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.
“Stop what you are doing there, I tell you!” shouted Joe Gallagher to those men who were working at opening the ground and were still using their implements with great energy.
“Stop it now, or it’ll be worse for you! Did you not hear me, Rooney?” said Gallagher again, as he laid his muscular hand on the arm of one of the young men who were digging, suddenly stopping him from continuing his work.
“Of course, I heard you, Gallagher,” said Rooney; “but I just chose not to listen to you.”
“Just you keep a civil tongue in your head, wee man” Gallagher warned him.
“By God, Gallagher, but you’re a brave man and very fond of giving people advice that you should listen to yourself,” Rooney retorted and, once again, plunged his spade into the earth.
“Didn’t I tell you to stop, you Gobshite?” Gallagher roared, “or, I’ll put my boot so far up your arse, Rooney, that you’ll be chewing leather for six months!”
“Get away out of this, Gallagher! What brings you here at all?” interrupted another of the men by the graveside. “Just looking for trouble is it?”
“Sure, what else would bring the likes of him here, but to cause mischief?” said a grey-haired man, who was standing just a couple of yards away from the graveside. “Sure, don’t you know by now that there’s always a quarrel whenever there’s a Gallagher about?”
“You may thank your grey hair, you old goat, that I don’t make you take those words back with some pain,” Gallagher told the old man as he glared at him.
“There was a time,” warned the old man, “when I had something more than just these grey hairs to make such as you respect me.” As he spoke the old man drew himself up with an air of great dignity. He wanted everyone to see that he was still a tall man and had retained a broad chest, which would bear the truth of the statement that he had made. There was a bright, but briefly lived flame, that was kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and his expression of pride and defiance quickly gave way to an expression of coldness and contempt toward Gallagher.
“Listen to me, old man, I’d have beaten you more stupid than you already are, even on the best day you ever had,” sneered Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.
“Don’t you believe it, Gallagher!” said a contemporary of the old man, who had known him in his younger days. “You have plenty of conceit, and a big mouth that you use to bully those weaker than you!“
“Isn’t that the truth,” said Rooney. “He’s a great man in his own mind. By God I could be a rich man if I could buy Gallagher at what I thought he was worth and sell him at what he thinks he’s worth.“
A loud, mocking laughter rose up among those gathered at the graveside, causing Gallagher’s agitation to increase tenfold. There was a deep darkness that came across the big man’s features, and Gallagher immediately took up a posture so threatening that a man standing close to me turned to his companion and told him, “By God, Eddie there’s going to be ‘wigs on the green’ before too long!“
The slow flowing waters of the River Blackwater form the border between the counties of Armagh and Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Along the banks of this river there lived a young man by the name of ‘Dinny’ Hughes, who was known for having a temper that was so terrible that they say the likes of it had never been seen before. He was a man who simply could not control his mouth or the venomous words that he spat out at all he met. People avoided crossing his path, fearing that he would bring his foul language and dark curses down upon them. But ‘Dinny’s’ greatest joy was to take his victims by surprise and devise new curses and oaths that could be added to his already large armoury of insults.
Such was the reputation that had grown up around ‘Dinny’ Hughes that there were virtually none of his neighbours who would talk to him, or converse with him at any time. In fact, most people dreaded the possibility of meeting him on a local road, for they were convinced that some dark demon had taken possession of him and that was why he enjoyed tormenting others with his cruel words. Yet, despite his villainous reputation and bad temper, ‘Dinny’ had forged a good friendship with another man of similar age, who was known to everyone as Jimmy Kelly. He had heard the stories and listened to the warnings of others that he would be better off if he was free of company such as ‘Dinny’ Hughes, but he chose to ignore them.
These two young men appeared to enjoy each other’s company and on many a day they could be seen wandering the local roads or roaming over the green fields of the parish but never straying too far from home. Then, one day, despite their remarkably close friendship, there were bitter words exchanged between the two men, which developed into bad tempered name calling and, finally, vicious blows. Beneath the warm summer sun punch followed punch, all made with great effort and in a way that could damage their opponent in the most painful way. As they fought, they perspired copiously, their breaths becoming increasingly heavier as their chests heaved wearily and they became unsteady on their feet. The fight continued with no man gaining mastery over the other and, after an hour of constant struggle, the battle ended with both men simply collapsing to the ground in exhaustion. Both men were wracked with pain and exhaustion and left enfeebled like two infant children, and although the pummelling with fists had ceased the tirade of vicious curses and words continued to pour from those breathless voices. ‘Dinny’ screamed aloud and uttered a terrible curse that was quickly followed by a dark oath, which saw him swear to have his vengeance and bring about the death of Jimmy Kelly. Even if he was himself dead, he made an oath to reach out from his grave and keep his promise like an avenging angel.
Quite unexpectedly, three days after the violent encounter that had taken place between the two men, ‘Dinny’ suddenly became extremely ill and despite the best efforts of other he died within hours. Jimmy Kelly, for one, was relieved at the news of his former friend’s passing. He had been deeply upset by ‘Dinny’s’ villainous oath against him and now that he was dead there was no longer any need to fear him. The oath, like ‘Dinny’ himself, was now buried six feet below the ground and there was no chance of him rising again from there. Death, Jimmy believed was the great equaliser, being the fate of all whether rich or poor, strong, or weak. From the grave the rich man no longer held power over the poor, and the strong man no longer had mastery over those who were weak.
Jimmy Kelly’s sense of contentment would only last a short time, however, and would be shattered like a broken mirror by a dream that brought with it a dire warning for his future. The dream shook Jimmy so much that all his new-found courage quickly left him, and his life became filled with a constant sense of menace. In this vision Jimmy had seen himself standing alone in a lush green field, where he was suddenly confronted with the terrifying image of a huge black bull charging down on him. As the beast’s great head stormed toward him, Jimmy could see the bull’s eyes glowing red like burning coals, which made the huge creature appear to be some unearthly horned demon. Jimmy was immediately frozen to the spot as fear and terror gripped his body and he now stood before the charging beast as if rooted to the ground. On three occasions that great black demon bull charged toward Jimmy, wounding him on each occasion with its long, sharp, and magnificently curved horns. Finally, panting breathlessly and sweating profusely, Jimmy awoke from his dream and called out, “What is happening?” as he arose in the bed. “Has the Devil allowed the dead to take the form of a huge black bull to attack and kill the likes of me? This is ‘Dinny’ at work, trying to bring me to that dark destruction he promised, and I have stared into those fierce, evil burning eyes of a demon summoned from Hell!”
The reality of his dream came to him only one short month later, when Jimmy did find himself alone in a lush green field and saw a great black bull come charging toward him. Just as in the dream, the great bull struck him three times and he felt the excruciating pain inflicted on his body by those sharp and massive horns. Almost as quickly as it had appeared this vision vanished without trace except for Jimmy, lying on the ground, writhing in pain but incredibly happy to be still alive. He was also grateful for the period of peace and quiet that followed this strange incident, allowing Jimmy to reflect on what had happened to him and how he had been lucky to escape the full wrath of ‘Dinny’s’ dark oath.
It wasn’t too long before Jimmy Kelly received a new warning that came to him, once again, as he slept and that cold deep fear that he had felt before now returned and filled his heart. On this occasion the warning came in the form of a great black goat that stood on its hind legs and, with satanic eyes glowing like the embers in a turf fire, it leaped forward to attack Jimmy. Once again, he awoke breathlessly panting and with his body soaked in sweat. “Maybe the Devil has given him less strength this time,” Jimmy told himself, “But I still have a dark encounter to face. This beast is big and strong, and, on this occasion, it will be attacking me with all its four feet off the ground,”
As before the vision that was presented to Jimmy quickly became a reality. In the green field the image a great black goat suddenly appeared before him and immediately threw its full weight and strength into a head-on charge. On this occasion Jimmy was to endure three separate attacks from the goat until he was finally left lying prostrate on the ground, wracked in agony with every bone in his body filled with pain. He could not move. He did not want to move because the terror that now filled his mind. But, after two or three weeks of rest and care his wounds began to heal and peace returned to him once more, just prior to a third visit of a dark dream.
This dream was different in that Jimmy saw himself standing in the lane that ran between his house and the green field when, suddenly, a large black Turkey cock flew down from above to attack him. Still sleeping, Jimmy let out a loud and hearty laugh that awoke him. Still laughing, Jimmy told himself, “Sure, that old devil mustn’t have much left to him when he thinks that I’ll be afraid of being overpowered and destroyed by a Turkey cock, especially after what I’ve been through. Does the fool imagine that a fine, stout-hearted man such as myself would ever be afraid of a bird?”
Several days later Jimmy began laughing aloud as he stood in the lane and saw the big black Turkey cock begin to sweep down toward him. His laughter ceased immediately when the big bird attacked him and, with one blow, split Jimmy’s skull with its large beak that looked more like a big, sharp knife. The second and third strikes that the Turkey made dashed Jimmy’s brains and scattered the grey matter onto the brown, dusty lane. This is how Jimmy Kelly suffered a terrible death, just as was promised by ‘Dinny’ Hughes when he uttered his dark oath. ‘Dinny’ had accomplished his evil curse and the grave had proven itself to be unable to protect Jimmy as he believed it would.
As we all travel through this world, we are very much aware of where we are and what we might expect. But about that place to which we travel after death we know absolutely nothing. The passing of our spirit from our dead body is probably the most mysterious and frightening event that we can contemplate. In an older time in Ireland the people held a belief that the spirit of a person passes from the body of the deceased through the join in their skull. Our mouths speak our evil to the world, while our eyes have seen the evil that has occurred, and our ears have heard the evil that is spoken of, and quite rightly the ancients asked what right and fitting passage would allow our spirit to leave our body without being exposed to evil. In a society ruled by men there were, of course, claims made that there were certain differences between the male and the female skull. The truth of this differences is alleged to be demonstrated by the fact that it is the female who endures the most painful departure from the flesh.
It was a sad day when Tim Scanlan died. All his life he had been a labouring man, working hard in whatever work he could find, and receiving very little in remuneration for the effort he put in. But, Tim was well known and well liked in the district. Everyone agreed that his funeral would be an unusually large gathering and, most likely the biggest to be seen in many a year. Great crowds of people flocked to Tim’s wake, and there was a major effort undertaken to provide sufficient tea, cakes, sandwiches, whisky, beer, and tobacco for all who attended. As is common in these things, Tim’s widow occupied her post of honour at the head of the coffin, and gave an excellent display of grief for her dead husband. She wept bitterly on her own and, joined in loudly when the loud group wailing, or ‘keening’, was led by the older women. The widow was, however, young enough to have been the daughter of the dead husband. She had come to Tim’s house as a very young servant-girl, whom he had conveniently married and ruled over all these years past.
As the night wore on, the amount of whisky that had been drunk was beginning to tell on those wandering outside the room where Tim’s corpse lay. The crowd noise inside the house increased to a level where some began to complain that it was loud enough to wake the dead. Quite unexpectedly, and much to the consternation and amazement of every one present, the corpse gave a deep sigh and several loud groans, opened his eyes and struggled to bring himself up into a sitting posture in the coffin. When the startled company in the house had recovered from their shock, they helped lift poor Tim out of the coffin, and whisky was liberally poured down his throat. They wrapped Tim up well in warm blankets and helped to seat him in the big chair by the fire, where he gradually revived from the trance, or stupor, that had been mistaken for death. When the last of the guests had departed from the cabin, Tim, who was still propped up beside the fire, was left to the tender care of his wife. But, instead of coming near her husband, she chose to creep away quietly to cringe timidly in a dark corner behind his chair. From her hiding place she directed frightened glances at her husband, who had appeared to have been resurrected from death.
“Mary!” Tim called out to her in a stern voice. But, he did not get an answer.
“Are you there?” he asked as he peered around at her, his weak face quivering with anger.
“Yes, Tim, I’m here,” Mary’s voice faltered, but she did not stir an inch.
“’Bring me my stick”’
“Ah! No Tim! No! Sure you’ve never lifted your hand to me yet! And you’ll not do it now, surely, when you’ve come back from the dead in one piece.”
“Bring me my stick.”
The stick was brought to him, and down on her knees beside the big chair Tim’s cowering wife went. “Well you know what you deserve. You know, you young deceiver, that if I was to start this minute and beat you as black as a hearse, it would only serve you right, after the mean, dirty, and shameful thing you’ve done to me!”
“Aye, Tim! It’s true, it would!” sobbed the girl.
“Look at this!” gasped Tim, opening his funereal jacket to show an old and tattered shirt. “Just look at these rags! Look at what you dressed my poor corpse in, shaming me before all my neighbours and friends at the wake! And you knew, as well as I did, about the elegant brand-new shirt I’d bought to be buried in. It’s a special shirt that I wouldn’t have put on my back if I was still alive. No, not if I had to walk about naked! But, you knew that I had it stored in the chest there, and you begrudged it to my unfortunate corpse when I couldn’t speak up for myself!”
“Oh Tim, darling, forgive me!” cried Mary. “Forgive me this once, and on my two knees I promise that I will never, never do the likes of that again! I don’t know what came over me. Sure, may the good Lord save us, I think it was the devil who was guiding me when I went to get out that shirt. He tempted me, by whispering that it was a pity, and a sin, to put good clothing like that into the clay. Oh, how could I do it?”
“Now, listen to me, Mary,” said Tim as he raised the stick and laid it on her shoulder. She knew that he wouldn’t beat her even if he could with his trembling hands, but she pretended to wince and cower away from him. “You mind what I say to you. If you ever do something like this again, and dress me up in those indecent rags, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll haunt you!’
“Oh don’t do that, Tim! Please don’t!” shrieked Mary, her face as pale as ashes. “Kill me now, if that’s what you want, or do anything to me you like, but for the love of the blessed Virgin and all the Saints, keep you to your grave! I’ll put the new shirt on you. My two hands will starch it and make it as white as snow, after it being laid aside so long in the old chest. You’ll be a lovely corpse, never fear about that! And I’ll give you the greatest wake that ever a man had, even if I have to sell the pig, and part with every stick in the cabin to buy the tea and the whisky. I swear to you I will, on this blessed night, my darling man.”
“Well, mind that you do, or it will be all the worse for you. And now give me a drop of water to drink, and put a taste of that whisky through it, for I’m ready to faint with thirst and with weakness.”
Mary kept her promise to her husband. Never in the history of that parish was there such a wake was that given for Tim Scanlan. It all occurred very soon after the events described above. Poor Tim really did depart this life, and manner in which his corpse was laid out, with his “elegant brand-new shirt”, was the admiration of all beholders of all who saw it.
If we were, we to believe the stories and old wives’ tales handed down to us by our grandmothers we would not be faulted for thinking that, at one time, Ireland was a land controlled by spirits and demons. Ireland is filled with tales concerning witches, warlocks, white ladies, fairies, and leprechauns. It seems that the earth, the air, and the sky, were peopled by these mysterious beings at one time. In every crumbling and desolate cottage on the uninhabited moorland or woodland lived a witch or warlock. Elsewhere, the margins of our beautiful loughs, the hearts of our silent and isolated glens, the recesses of our romantic mountain valleys, the mould covered walls of every ancient ruin, and the mystic circle of each hill-fort, were said to be the chosen to all sorts of strange, unearthly beings.
These beliefs were not just held to by the ignorant and uneducated peasantry. In fact, many who were well educated and moved in more enlightened circles within society were equally infected by such beliefs. There were very sensible and well-informed people in the land who turned a deaf ear to any voice of reason and the dictates of common sense. In fact, such people would more easily doubt the truth of the Holy Bible than the existence of supernatural beings influencing life. The stories of such beings had become so interwoven in the superstition of the entire people, and social system, that no event could happen to a person during their lifetime in which the ‘Good People’ were not implicated, either for good or evil.
If the head, or a member, of a leading family died, the wail of the banshee was sure to be heard in the twilight calling for the ‘Death Coach’ to come. Should a favourite child in a family be brought down by disease, it was believed that the beautiful, beloved child had been changed for a squalling, ravenous, and decrepit starveling. If a farmer’s cattle ailed, or his milk cows were not productive, it was likely that the cattle had been touched by the fairies or bewitched. Should your much beloved wife be suddenly taken away from you, it was alleged that the fairies were the culprits. They took her in her most kind, loving, and the most interesting persona, and left you a bland, unattractive, wooden person in her stead.
I can clearly recollect the thrill of fear, mingled with a certain amount of pleasure, with which I listened to the tales of a great aunt. It is over fifty years since that time, when my great aunt would visit and warm herself at my mother’s fireside. She would chat idly over a cup of sweet tea and speak to me about all the spiritual beings that she had knowledge of. She was an educated woman, and very pious, but she would sooner doubt herself than the existence of witches and fairies. Her mind and memory was a fountain of knowledge and a storeroom of memories of those occasions when they had played a role in the life of her family. These stories I then began to believe in most implicitly, particularly because in many instances the people involved were also members of my own family. For instance, she told me the story of how her grandfather, one autumn morning, detected a large hare, which was in the act of milking one of his cows. He fired his gun at thief, wounding it, and when he tracked the blood trail left behind, he discovered that it was flowing from the thigh of an old woman who lived in a nearby ruin of a cabin.
This knowledgeable woman could also relate how an elder brother had surprised a leprechaun as he was in the middle of making a pair of shoes for his people. Her brother could describe his clothing down to the smallest detail, and how the leprechaun had escaped captivity by pretending to strike at my uncle’s eye with his awl. This tactic caused my uncle to wink just at that moment when he was in the act of seizing the creature, and thereby prevented him from gaining his fortune. She also told the story of a child which was taken from its mother’s arms one night while she slept. Luckily, the child was missed before he could be carried out of the house, through the keyhole, and on hearing the cries of the heartbroken parent the child was dropped to the floor without suffering any injury. It had never occurred to my great aunt that the child might have rolled out of the bed accidentally.
There was another tale that she would often tell me, and it would have been worse than heresy to doubt the truth of it, because she knew the parties involved very well. There was an honest, hardworking man called John McKinney, who lived in a nearby village. One night, reluctantly, he was obliged to leave his warm bed during “the witching hour”. He had almost forgotten something of importance that was needed the next day and he went immediately to fetch it. While he was on his way back home the silence of the night was disturbed by the strokes of an axe reverberating through a neighbouring area of woodland. As he stopped to listen, John heard some voices in conversation with each other. His curiosity caused him to draw up and listen to what was being said. It was then, when he distinctly heard the question asked, “What are you doing to-night?” and to his dismay the response was, “I’m making a wife for John McKinney.”
“Devil the bit of it!” said Jack, “you’ll make no wife for me, for I have enough trouble already. I think I’ll do very well with the one I have.” With these words John turned on his heels and rushed home, hardly drawing his breath until he had his wife held tightly in his arms. He gripped her so tightly it was almost a death-grip he had on her, and we would not loosen his hold until the crisis was over, and in this way, he had foiled the plans of the fairies,
In years gone by the entire social system within Ireland was deeply pervaded by the idea of supernatural influence. As a consequence of this there was an indefinable aura of dread and fear, which hung like the ‘Sword of Damocles’ over the heads of all and embittered their very lives. It is true that the evil was only imaginary, but not on that account any the less hurtful. Superstition is a mental malady is, therefore, exceedingly difficult to counteract or eradicate, and often led to a sense of real anxiety and distress among people. Just as the case of McKinstry, whose ideas were filled with witchcraft and fairy freaks, never even thought that the noise and voices he had heard might be a practical joke played by some of his neighbours. As a consequence, therefore, he suffered all the feelings of suspense and trouble that warned that there was real danger nearby.
The spread of useful knowledge and the dissemination of sound education among all classes in our society have lately effected a great change in the intellectual powers of the people. Such encounters with the supernatural, like those described herein, are still sometimes used to “adorn a tale,” are now unheeded. In fact, there are few of my countrymen who would hold, even for a single moment, any belief in the absurd idea of evil creatures. Nevertheless, there are always some exceptions. These exceptions might include a few old women, who may be still haunted by the sprites of their younger days. In some remote districts of the country a belief in witchcraft certainly prevails among the local folk. But, most of these beliefs and fears have been ingrained by prejudices from youth, and they have been fostered and kept alive by the practices of con-men and others who say they can prevent the effects of these beings with countercharms. These low lives exist and continue to prosper because of the credulity of the public. In general, throughout Ireland, belief in witches, fairies, and the like is virtually defunct now.
There are, however, exceptions. In several districts in Ireland, especially in the west of the country there are those who still believe that evil-disposed persons can deprive their neighbours of their milk or butter. This is said to be done in various ways, the most usual of these being the use of a corpse hand, which is kept shrivelled and dried to stir the milk and to gather the butter. Another method that is adopted is to follow the cows on a May morning and gather the soil which drops from between their cloots (the two halves of a cloven hoof). Yet another strategy is said to be by collecting the froth, which forms on a stream running through their pasture, and milking your own cow on it. While some insist that these means are so simple that their absurdity is enough to refute any belief in them.
Yet, such things are still passionately believed in. Allow me to demonstrate that this is indeed the case, and also, at the same time, expose the trickery and sleight of hand by which some criminal types succeed in throwing dust into the eyes of the native population. I will relate to you an event in which I was personally concerned, and to disclose the matter fully in all of its ramifications, twists and turns. I must confess that I was, for a short time, almost inclined to believe myself to be the dupe of a fairy man.
It has been quite a number of years since I lived in the area known as the “Vale of the Blackwater”. It is still well known to be good pastureland, and I owned a good cow who provided me with a plentiful supply of milk and butter, which were of excellent quality, and helped greatly in contributing to the material comforts of my family. That cow was a beautiful and a gentle creature, which, I was certain, would be the beginning of a large herd of similar cattle that would help me build a profitable and extensive dairy.
Around the ‘Blackwater’ there was a strong belief that an evilly disposed person possessed the power to deprive a dairy farmer of his milk and butter, and I heard many complaints about such things happening. The majority of these complaints named the main culprit to be a woman who lived in the vicinity, and who was known locally as “The Hawk,” She was a handsome, middle-aged woman who lived in reasonably comfortable circumstances, but there was a fire in her eye and a terrible sharpness in her tongue that justified the name locals had given her. Her husband was a small farmer, but there were many who suspected him of being concerned in a murder some years before this. She, however, was a reputed to be a witch, and the entire family were disliked and avoided by the people who lived in the area.
One cold January morning, while working outside, I was informed that a woman had come into the kitchen of the house. She had simply sat herself down at the kitchen table and began to watch the motions of the family, without stating the purpose for which she had come. When I went down to the house, I found her sitting at the table, smartly dressed, but with a very sinister expression on her face that made me feel uncomfortable from the beginning. On asking her the purpose of her business with me, she told me that she had heard I was in the market for some geese, and that she had a few birds to dispose of.
“How many?” I asked.
“A goose and a gander,” she replied tersely.
“How much do you want for them?”
When she told me the price, she was asking I was taken aback and exclaimed, “How Much? “Her price was almost three times the usual market price and that was why I was so shocked. Then, I thought that I had, perhaps, made a mistake in the number, and I asked her again, “Why, how many have you?”
“A goose and a gander,” said she.
“And what kind of an eejit do you suppose me to be, that I would agree to give you such a price as that?” I said abruptly.
“Oh!” said she, “they are good geese, and only I wish to help you out I would not offer them to you at all.”
“Indeed! I am much obliged by your good wishes,” said I, “but as I think you want to make a fool of me, you should take your geese to another market. Rest assured I will not take them at any price, and the sooner you take yourself off with them the better.”
The woman appeared to be highly offended by what I said and, as she got up from the table to leave, I heard her mutter something about my being sorry for refusing her offer. The woman left the house angrily and it was only after she had left, that I discovered it had been “The Hawk” who had favoured me with the visit.
On that same morning, a gang of ‘travellers’, consisting of tinkers, chimneysweeps, a couple of beggars, and a piper, had pitched their tent on the roadside, a short distance from my home. The members of this group had spread themselves out, over the surrounding district in pursuit of some work they could do. All of this coincided with it also being churning-day, and my wife had set up everything in their proper order, and she was proceeding well with her work. The milk had cracked, the butter was expected, and suddenly the sound of music could be heard throughout the farm. The piper, who was a member of the party of ‘travellers’ had come to the farm to give us a sample of his musical skill. He played for us all a few planxties and hornpipes, was duly rewarded for his efforts, and he left. Shortly after he was gone, two buxom beggars, both brown and bare-legged, with cans in their hands, kerchiefs on their heads, and huge massive rings on their fingers, came and demanded alms. They were told that there was nothing then ready, and one of them immediately asked a drink.
“I have absolutely nothing to offer you but water,” said my wife, “until the churning’s done.”
“It’s Well water,” said my wife proudly and went to get some. On getting the water the beggar-woman took a sup or two, put the remainder in her can, and then went off. Strange as it may seem, my butter went off too. From that day in January until the following May eve, not a morsel did we get from our beautiful ‘Brownie’.
Because I did not put any faith in tales of witchcraft, I was willing to attribute this difficulty to some natural cause affecting the cow. But, in all this time the milk did not show any perceptible change in either its quantity or quality. At the same time, the cow did not exhibit any symptoms of being sick or out of sorts, except that she began to cast her hair. We made sure that she was well supplied with good fodder, comfortably lodged, well attended to, and every possible care was taken of the milk. But all these precautions served no purpose because the butter was not forthcoming and, because I did not believe in witchcraft, I was laughed at by my neighbours.
“Your cow is bewitched,” they cried, “and you may as well throw spit against the wind, if you think you will get your butter back without first getting the charm.”
Some said “The Hawk” had it, while others said that the gipsy took it away in her can, and some others suggested that it had followed the piper. None of these things seemed to matter, because I still had to eat my bread without butter, and brood over my loss, and not one word of sympathy did I get. There were, however, various countercharms recommended for me to employ. “Send for Andy, the Scotsman from the other side of the Lough,” said one, “he fears neither man nor beast, and he will surely get it for you.”
“Send for ‘The Hawk,’ and clip a bit off her ear,” said another neighbour.
“Let them keep their mouths full of water, and never speak while they are churning,” said a third.
The one thing that I did learn at this time was that there were as many ways of getting it back, as there were of losing it, and all of them equally simple, and probably just as efficient. In this way matters continued until the early part of April when, one morning, a man called to the house wanting to see me. He was a bright, active, and handsome fellow, who was small in stature and not richly dressed. He was a sinewy man, well-built and strong looking, with that tanned wrinkled skin of a man who is used to being outdoors. He was well clothed in tweed jacket, well-worn cord trousers, and a pair of black working boots. His cloth cap sat at an angle on his head and he had a good pair of boots on his feet. There was certainly no shyness in demeanour, and he possessed a certain look about himself, which seemed to say, “I’d have you know that I am actually a clever man.”
“So,” he said, without any introduction, “you’ve lost your butter.”
“Yes,” I replied, “it is certainly gone.”
“Well, if you want me to, I will get it back for you,” he said in a matter of fact way. “My name is O’Hara, and I live at the ‘White Glen’, where I am known to the people as ‘The Fairy Man.’ I am able to find things that have been stolen, for I carry the ‘garvally’.” (This was an implement like a Shepherd’s Crook which was carried by magicians and holy men, and was said to have mystical powers)
“Is that right?” I remarked with a disbelieving tone of voice, “Sure, you must be a very clever man, but can you get my butter?”
“Have no doubt of it,” said O’Hara, “if it is in the country at all, then I will get it back for you.”
Naturally, being a native of the area I had heard about the ‘garvally’ on previous occasions, when it was described to me as “a crooked thing like the handle of an umbrella, covered with green baize.” It was used in bygone years for swearing upon and, it was said to be, “ a terrible thing, for if you swore falsely and it was around your neck, your mouth would turn to the back of your head, or you’d get choked in such a way as you’d never fully recover.” In recent times it had, however, lost much of its virtue and fame, through so many wastrels putting it around their necks and swearing to a deliberate lie, without suffering any visible harm.
As for O’Hara, he made no strange demands. He simply requested that he be given a deep plate, some water and salt, with a little of the cow’s milk. When these were provided, he began by asking my wife and I to come forward a little. He then asked our names, if I was the owner of the cow, how long I had had her, if that woman was my wife, when we had lost our butter, and if we suspected any person who might have taken it. To all these questions I gave the necessary answers, but to the last of these I told him that I did not believe in witchcraft.
“Don’t you believe in fairies?” he asked.
“Not Much,” said I.
“No matter,” said O’Hara, “maybe before I’m done you will begin to believe in them.”
Turning back to the plate he proceeded, in a very solemn manner, to pour some water into the plate on three individual occasions, following this procedure: He would say “In the name of the Father,” and add a drop; then, “in the name of the Son,” and another drop; finally, “in the name of the Holy Ghost,” and the third drop would be poured. He then proceeded to add the milk in the same manner, and finally sprinkled in the salt, using the same formula. O’Hara now stirred the mixture three times with his finger, repeating the words as before, and asked us both to do the same. I hesitated to do this, because I did not want him to think that I had any faith in the process, by taking an active part in it. But O’Hara convinced me to act against my scruples by asking me if what he was doing is not being done for a very honourable reason. I could do nothing else but agree that, so far, I saw nothing very objectionable in what he was doing. My wife, of course, had no such scruples and eagerly joined with O’Hara to persuade me to do what I had been asked.
His next step was to make the sign of the cross over the plate with his hands, and then, waving them over his head, he made several curious figures in the air while muttering some kind of language that I could not fully understand. From the odd sound and syllable that I could catch, it sounded as if he were talking some kind of vulgar Latin. Gradually, the man became extremely excited, raving like a demon, stamping with his feet, and shadow-punched with his fists. As he spoke, it was if he was pleading rather than opposing or issuing commands. All the while his eyes appeared to be fixed upon and following the motions of some being, he was talking to, but we could not see. Suddenly he gave out an unearthly scream, as if in an agony of terror and pain. At the same time, he held up his hands as if he were warding off some kind of threat, retreating backwards around the room as if being by some kind of implacable enemy. Gradually, he returned to the place that he had left and, turning himself to the four cardinal points, he made the sign of the cross at each turn after dipping his fingers in the mixture. He blessed himself devoutly by anointing his forehead, shoulders, and breast. As he regained his self-possession, O’Hara raised his hands and eyes toward heaven in an attitude of fervent thankfulness and wiped the perspiration which streamed profusely from his brow with the cuff of his coat. As he gradually recovered his breath, he moved from a state of the greatest possible excitement and became calm and collected once again.
In my mind, all of this was an act, albeit was done extremely well. I must confess, however, even though I was convinced that it was all false, the entire show made an enormously powerful impression upon me. In truth I did not feel at all comfortable with this play acting. I did not like the idea of being in the same room with the evil one, who to all appearances was chasing my friend, the magician, around it. I began to feel a sudden and indescribable sensation of dread creeping over me, and there were more than a few drops of perspiration that formed on my brow. My hair, of which I do not have very much, mysteriously began to stiffen and to become wiry. My wife clung closely to my side seeking protection, and the great agitation in her mind could be felt through the heavy pumping of her heart, which in that moment matched the beating of my own.
Having taken a short pause, the magician asked for a ribbon, which he immediately passed over his forehead and around his head. Bringing the ends to the front, he knotted it over his nose before twining it round his fingers in the manner that children call a cat’s cradle. O’Hara knelt down and peered through the ‘cradle’ attentively into the mixture, which I imagined at the moment fermented and sent up a blue vapour.
After gazing a few seconds in this manner, he cried out “Aha! She that has your butter is not far off! Bring me a lighted candle.”
We hurried to do as he asked and, when it was brought to him, he placed the candle in the plate. “Now,” he said, “both of you kneel down here. Do as I do, and say as I say, and we’ll have her brought here directly.”
“No!” I exclaimed loudly, “we will not.” By this time, I thought we had gone far enough. I was convinced that if what we were engaged in was not an unholy act, it was at least a piece of gross deception, and I did not want to continue with the charade or give it any authority through my further participation.
“Why?” O’Hara exclaimed in surprise, “do you not want to get your butter back?”
“Yes,” I told him, “I would like to have my butter returned, but I don’t want it done through a charm or other black art.”
“What is being done here is undoubtedly a charm,” he said, “but it is done with the best of intentions, and I have done the same for others who are as every bit as good as you ever were.”
“So much the worse for them,” I replied, “that they would allow such profane things to be done, and I am sorry that any person would be so wicked, or so foolish, as to encourage you in your tricks. Allow me to tell you that I neither like you, nor your trickery, and the sooner you get about your own business the better.”
The conjuror jumped to his feet angrily, blew out the candle, grabbed hold of the plate, and attempted to throw the contents into the fireplace. My wife, however, was in no mood to have her hearth wet, and she took the plate from him, putting it in a place of safety. He was terribly angry and began to shout, accusing me of allowing him to take a great deal of trouble on my account, and he insisted on getting on with his task. But I was determined not to give in to him, and, being considerably upset and annoyed by what had transpired between us, I insisted that he get off my property, and I left him to what was asked of him.
A few moments after I left O ‘Hara I heard the noise of a violent altercation and scuffle, and I was loudly called on for help. Rushing to the scene of altercation, I found my wife holding O’Hara tightly by the neck and preventing him from leaving.
“What is going on now, for God’s sake?” I shouted.
“Your man, here” said she, “when he leaving us, decided to take a glowing coal out of the grate, and then he told me to take care of my children.”
Of course, O’Hara strongly denied all this, until he was confronted by the young girl, whom my wife employed as a servant. I immediately threatened to call the police and to have him charged as an impostor. But he began to stammer, and finally acknowledged that he had said those things to my wife. He quickly added that he had meant no harm by it. “And sure,” said O’Hara, “there’s absolutely no harm in advising you to mind them well. For, just as easily as one of your cows could get injured, so maybe your children can be just as easily injured.”
“You’re not treating me well,” he continued; “I came here at the request of a friend to try to do you a good turn, and I asked for nothing in return, yet now you’re putting me out of your house. But I’ll tell you that you will be happy to see me yet. Just take my advice and never throw out your Sunday’s ashes until Tuesday morning, and always sweep your floor in from the door to the hearth.” And, with those final words, away he went.
My heart now began beating a lot easier, because I thought that we had finally got rid of the ‘Fairy Man’. This, however, was not to be the end, for I was to be mystified even further. When I looked at the plate over which he had performed his incantations, I discovered that the contents were thick, yellow, and slimy, with a sediment that looked like globules of blood at the bottom. This was something extraordinary, because I had watched the man very closely, and I did not see him put anything into the plate but the milk, water, and salt.
The end of the month now drew near, and our bread still had no butter to spread upon it. This was the reason why almost every morsel of bread seemed to stick in my poor dear wife’s throat. She, of course, did not possess the same scruples of conscience as I had, and she was of the opinion that the cow had been bewitched. She would remind me of my faults by complaining, “Here we are day after day, losing our income when all our problems could have been solved but for your squeamishness, in not allowing the ‘Fairy Man’ to finish his task.”
She would harangue me almost every day in this way, and did not hesitate to call me a fool, an eejit, and a complete ass. I must admit that nearly every one of my neighbours were much of the same opinion as she was. One of my neighbours, a respectable farmer’s wife, was particularly tenacious about her opinion. One evening, while visiting, she said, “My Robin was down in Sligo, and he heard that if you got the coulter of a plough (a vertically mounted component of many ploughs that cuts an edge about 7 inches (18 cm) deep ahead of a ploughshare), and made it red-hot in the fire while you were churning, the butter would come back. Or, if you chose to churn on Sunday morning before the lark begins to sing, you will surely get the butter back.”
“Don’t you tempt me anymore, more with your spells, for I will not stand for it,” said I, impatiently. “I will never swop my peace of mind for a pound of butter, if I should never eat another morsel.” But, in all honesty, my peace of mind was already gone. The continual urging and yammering, that I was being subjected to, had made me heartily sick. Inwardly, I had made mind up to sell the cow at the first opportunity I had, and thereby end the matter completely.
In the afternoon of May eve, I had reason to leave home for a short time, and, when I returned, I was rather surprised to find all the windows in the house closed, as well as the door locked against me. I knocked on the door and called out for someone to let me in, but I received no answer. I could, however, hear the noise of churning going on inside, and the truth of what was happening flashed across my mind. Annoyed by my wife’s belief in such superstitious nonsense, I went to the garden to await the result of her ritual. In a short period of time she came running out of the house like a demented person, clapping her hands and screaming, “Oh! we’ve got the butter, we’ve got the butter!”
As I went into the house I found a coulter of a plough fizzing and sparkling at a white heat in the fire, an ass’s shoe under the churn, my worthy neighbour standing over it, panting and blowing from the exertions she had made on my behalf, and wiping the dew-drops from her really lovely face. Meanwhile, in the churn, floating like lumps of gold in a sea of silver, as fine a churning of butter as ever we had been blessed with. Well, I will admit that I was gobsmacked by the entire episode, and when I was asked, “Now, is there no witchcraft or magic in a red-hot coulter?” I could scarcely muster up courage to utter “No.”
I tried, in vain, to protest that the butter came back to us because “Brownie” had got back to her pasture. It was all, I argued, because of the change in her feeding, from dry fodder to the mellow and genial production of spring grass. The loss, I said, was the result of changing her feed from grass to hay. In the face of what had happened in the house, however, it was futile to argue such a case. Everyone was convinced that it was all due to O’Hare’s incantations, or the magic of the red-hot coulter, the influence of the ass’s shoe, or the tremendous pommelling the milk had been subjected to.
A few days after the event, I had the opportunity to talk to a knowledgeable man who was a herdsman in charge of a large stock farm. He patiently listened to my story and when I had finished, he burst into hearty laughter. “Dear God,” said he, “I took you for a sensible man, and never thought for one minute that you would believe in such nonsense.”
“Some time ago I would sooner have believed that black was white,” I told him. “But how can I ignore the chain of circumstantial evidence that I have witnessed? Firstly, ‘The Hawk’ coming to me with her high-priced geese, then the gypsies and the piper, and finally losing my butter just at that moment.”
“It is very easy to account for it,” he said. “In the first place, you took your cow from grass and fed her on hay.”
“Yes, we did. But we made sure that she had plenty of winter cabbages, and we gave her boiled potatoes.”
“Just the thing. Cabbage is good for helping to provide plenty of milk, but not for butter. I bet you that you gave her the potatoes warm.”
“And she got a scour?”
“Indeed, she did, and her hair fell off.”
“So, I thought. And afterwards she got in good condition?”
“Oh! aye, she put her butter on her ribs. Did you kill a pig at Christmas?”
“Where did you put your bacon?”
“Why, under the shelf in the dairy.”
“Now the truth is out! Never as long as you live put meat, either fresh or salted, near your milk-vessels. If you do, you will surely spoil your milk and lose your butter.”
“This may account for my loss, but what have you to say to its coming back?”
“Why, what’s to stop it, when your bacon is in the chimney and your cow at grass?”
“But the red blobs in the plate, and O’Hare fighting the devil for me, what do you say to that?”
It was at this point that the man burst into such a violent fit of laughter that I really thought he would actually snap the waistband of his trousers. “O’Hare! ha! ha! — O’Hare! ha! ha! ha! — sure he’s the greatest villain that ever-breathed fresh air. He came to me one time when I had a cow sick, and said she was enchanted by the fairies, and that he would cure her for me. He began with his tricks with the milk and water, just the same as he did with you. But, I watched him very closely, and when I saw the smoke rising out of the plate, I got him by the neck, shook a little bottle of vitriol out of the cuff of his coat, and took a paper of red earthy powder out of his waistcoat pocket.”
I was both shocked and confounded by what he told me. Could I have been made a complete fool of by the ‘Fairy Man’? Even the thought of this made me feel humiliated, and I began to wish that I had remained in complete ignorance. On reflection, however, I had every reason to congratulate myself that it had been only a temporary lapse in my beliefs. I had been right in my original opinion, that, except the witchery of a pair of blue languishers, or the fairy spell of a silver-tongued siren, there is now no evil of the kind to be believed in.
Along the west coast of Ireland there are many small fishing villages, and from one of these villages a narrow valley runs back from the sea into the mountains. It is a rugged valley created by two precipices that were torn apart ages ago and, when entering it along the road from the sea-shore, all that can be seen are the cliffs and craggy heights covered in patches of moss. Then, as you move further along the road, the valley narrows and the moss grows more thickly on the overhanging rocks. The trees that grow out of the clefts in the precipices, intermix their leafy branches and shelter the land below them from the strong rays of the midday sun. There a crystal clear brook runs swiftly over its bed of moss covered pebbles, flashing white as it leaps down a short decline, before taking cover once again under large ferns whose branches stretch from bank to bank. Then it reappears into the light, sparkling as it hurries on its way to the sunshine that engulfs a wider valley, and finally pours itself into the sea. Its origin lies in a spring that bursts out of a rock crevice into a a circular well, which had been partly scooped out and partly built up to receive the cool clear water. Above this well rises a sheer cliff-face to a height of fifty feet, where the rock changes shape, eroded by powers of nature into the shape of human face.
The forehead of this rock face is shelving and its eyebrows are heavy and menacing. The nose that is so prominent is shaped like the beak of a hawk, while its upper lip is short, and the chin prominent and pointed. There, in the shelter of the crag that forms the nose is a thick growth of ferns that give the impression that the face has a small mustache and goatee. Above the forehead stands a mass of tangled undergrowth and ferns that many have likened to an Eastern turban, and an eye is clearly shown by a bit of lighter-coloured stone that gives the entire face a leer that could easily inspire fear among an ignorant and superstitious people. But on a level with the chin, and to its right is the mouth of a cave that can be reached by a path up the hillside, along which rudely hewn steps have been created to ease the steep ascent. Although the visitor to the cave must stoop to enter, inside they discover a large room seven feet high and twelve feet square. It was, without doubt, this cave was once home to a religious hermit because on each side of the entrance a cross has been carved deeply into the rock, and inside, a block of stone four feet high has been left standing at the far side and opposite the entrance. Above this altar a shrine has been hollowed out of the stone wall and over it another cross has been carved, over which has been written the legend, I.H.S.
The legend of the cave was told to my great-grandfather by a local old woman, considered to be a ‘Wise Woman’ by her neighbours, whose rendition of the tale was allegedly a tedious event. Nevertheless, she was a devout believer in her own story and told it with great earnestness and use of vocal intonations that kept her audience attentive. “It’s the cave of a saint, but I’m not certain of what saint it is. There’s some say it was Saint Patrick himself, but I don’t believe it. Others have said it was Saint Kevin, the one that conned the old King out of his land in the bargain he made for curing his goose, but I don’t believe that either. I tend to agree with those that said it was Saint Tigernach, you know that one who built the big Abbey at Clones in County Monaghan. Sure, didn’t Father Murphy say the same thing and there’s not a one who would know better than he.”
“Do you see that big head on the rock?” she asked. ” Well, that’s the devil’s own face that the saint made him put there, the time that the saint proved to be too smart for him when the evil one tried to cheat the blessed man. Aye, a quare story it is too, and the wealthy ones that come down here have a great laugh about it when it is told, saying they don’t believe a word of it. It’s because they don’t understand, but if men had to understand everything they believed in then they wouldn’t have much to believe in.”
“But, as I was telling you, Saint Tigernach lived in that cave alone, a good man and more cunning than a fox. He made it to suit himself and every day he would say a thousand ‘Our Fathers’, five thousand ‘Hail Marys’, a thousand ‘Credos’, before he would go out among the poor. Thanks be to God there weren’t many poor in Ireland in those days, for times were better, and those that were there looked up to the saint. He fed them and, when he begged for the poor, there wasn’t a man or woman that wouldn’t give something to him because he would stick to them like glue until he would get the offering. All that suffered persecution, or were hungry, or without clothes would go to the saint like a child to its mother and tell him everything that was in their heart.”
The old woman muttered under her breath for a moment before resuming her story. “While that blessed saint lived here, across the hill and beyond the peat-bog lived a ‘hedger and ditcher’ by the name of O’Connor. He was only a poor working man, helped by his wife, while his daughter, Kathleen, took care of the house. Strange to tell, in that house they kept a wooden board in the corner, which acted as a bar and had a jug of poteen sitting on it. From the jug they would sell poteen to all who passed by, because this was the day before the customs men, bad luck to them all, and every man drank as much as he wished without paying a penny to the government. O’Connor, himself, made the poteen while Kathleen would sell it to the turf cutters on the bog, but they didn’t buy large amounts because they rarely had enough money. Kathleen, however, was a fine girl with eye that would melt the heart of the toughest man, young or old. She was always to be seen in a nice dress during the week, and had a special one for wearing on Sundays, and it was said one sight of her would make an old man feel young again. But there wasn’t a mischievous bone in her body, for she was as pleasant as sunshine in winter and as innocent as a new born lamb, going to Mass regularly and doing her ‘duty’. Kathleen, however, had fallen in love with a young fellow who was employed as a ‘ditcher’, and they were to be married when the house he was building was done, and his father gave him a cow. Although he was by no means a rich man, he had the love of this beautiful young woman and he thought he had a fortune.”
“Now, in those days, the castle at the foot of the hill was owned by a lord, who was bedridden because of the rheumatism and pains he had in his body. But his son, Lord Robert, was a devil of a man for running after girls and had earned himself a terrible reputation in the entire County. He was the type of man who would chase after a girl and, when he had won her heart, he would break it like he was snapping a twig. There was many a young girl destroyed by his deceptions, for once that devil of a man had his foot on her neck she would never be able to lift her head again. Then, one day, the old Lord’s pains got the better of him and he died. They gave him a great wake and funeral, but while he was standing at his father’s graveside, Lord Robert noticed Kathleen standing among the crowd and he wondered who this beauty was. Inheriting the estate he filled the stables with horses and dogs, which allowed him to continue his hobby of hunting. But Robert was a soldier and he had a great number of troopers at the castle, who were at his call. But not long after his father was buried, Lord Robert went hunting in the hills and came upon O’Connor’s cabin and said to one of his men, ‘I wonder if they would have a wee drop to spare here, for I am dry as a bone.’ So, they went into the cabin, asked, and were served their drinks. But Robert’s wicked eye was fixed on Kathleen and said, ‘Aren’t you the fine girl and fit to be in the house of a prince?'”
The old woman smiled and told her audience, “But she was fit for him and told him, ‘Don’t be trying your fine talk on me, Sir. I know who you are and have never heard a good word said about you!’ Kathleen was a good girl and as firm as stone when she thought someone was up to no good. So, Robert went away that time and came again and again when he was hunting, and he always had a smart, impudent word in his mouth for her. When she told her parents they agreed that his behaviour wasn’t nice, but they did not fear for the girl’s safety and reminded her that he would spend more in one drinking session than they would normally take in a week. Although they did not want to stop Robert in coming to the cabin, their lack of action encouraged his bad behaviour and every time he he came to the cabin he went away more determined to have the girl for himself. Then, when he realised that he would never get her by fair means, he decided that foul means were all that was left to him. Finally, when she rejected his advances again and refused to accept a present he had brought her, Lord Robert told her, ‘I’ll bring you to heel young lady, if you will not accept my presents,’ and he went away. Frightened by the threat, Kathleen told Tim McCarthy about Lord Robert and what he had said to her. An angry Tim swore that he would break every bone in Robert’s body if he so much as touched Kathleen. Then, as he got to thinking about the situation he became anxious about Kathleen’s safety and decided that he should marry her immediately and move to another county. ‘If that blackguard dares to come after her he’ll have his head crushed like an egg shell,’ he said to himself, knowing that many of the next county’s menfolk had little love for the English aristocracy. Without another thought he left his job and went immediately to Kathleen and told her, ‘I’m afraid for you, my darling, and I would rather be dead than see any harm being done to you. I believe, then, that we should get married immediately.'”
“Kathleen agreed, gathering up her best Sunday dress, and they both set out for the saint’s cave in belief that it was the nearest place where they could be married, for being married by him would be the same as being married by a priest. They hurried along the road to the large oak tree, where the footpath leaves the road and takes them along a boreen. Suddenly, from behind them, they caught the sound of a loud noise and they stood closer to the hedge, through which they peeped to see what was following. It was Lord Robert and a dozen of his men, with their weapons and armour shining in the moonlight, and they were riding swiftly toward O’Connor’s house. Tim and Kathleen realised that they had made a narrow escape and as soon as Lord Robert and his men were out of sight they sped along their way. They left the path and went to cross over the hill, which was mistake. If they had kept to the hedge and went around by the footbridge, took the footpath along the other side of the stream that runs in front of the mill they would have kept themselves hidden and safe. But as they crossed over the hill, one of Robert’s men spied them, for Robert had discovered from Kathleen’s father that she and Tim were gone and he had began to search after them. The soldier who had seen the two fugitives blew on his trumpet and the rest of the company rode swiftly after them. Kathleen and Tim now came stumbling down the slope and staggered into the cave just minutes before Lord Robert’s men pulled up there with their horses puffing, and their armour rattling loudly. “
“In a corner of the cave, on a pile of straw, the saint snored peacefully in his sleep after a tiring day’s work and was undisturbed by Tim and Kathleen’s entry into the cave. Meanwhile, Lord Robert and his men left their horses just below the cave and climbed up the short distance to look in. But, they could see nothing because it was so dark and Robert called out, ‘Come on, now, Kathleen! Come out, now that I have found you safe and well.’ Neither Kathleen or Tim answered him, but Robert heard a noise that was the saint turning himself uneasily in his sleep. ‘Come along out of there,’ Robert repeated, ‘and you, Tim McCarthy, if you come out, you can return to your ditch digging, but if we have to drag you out then the crows will be eating your corpse at sunrise. Strike a light you men!'”
“Robert’s men did as they were ordered and almost immediately they saw Tim and Kathleen standing, one on each side of the altar, holding tightly to the cross that was on it. ‘Drag him out of there!’ Robert roared loudly and his men went in to do his bidding. But before they came within distance of their target, Saint Tigernach had stopped snoring because he was disturbed by the light and the noise, and he now stood up before them. ‘Hold on,’ said the saint, ‘What’s the matter here? Why is there all this noise?’ Lord Robert’s men drew back in fear of the saint and what he might do. Lord Robert then came forward and explained that the girl was a servant of his, who had ran away with a ditch digger. The saint, however, immediately saw through Robert’s deception, “Stop it! Don’t try to trick me with your lies! Get away now, with your murdering band or I’ll put a great curse upon you all before you can count to five.’ With these warnings in their ears the men left the cave, followed by Lord Robert, who was still vainly trying to urge them to go back after the girl.”
“‘No Lord,’ they told Robert. ‘We have eaten you food and drank your drink, and we’ll do your Lord’s bidding in all that is right. We are perfectly willing to wait until morning and take the girl, and murder the ditch digger, when they come out of the cave, but the saint must not ind out. That would be too much of a risk, for we all have souls to save!'”
The armed men all mounted their horses and started back to the castle, with Lord Robert following them. But Robert’s evil heart was set upon having Kathleen and he couldn’t bear the thought of someone else getting her. Then, when he reached the turn in the road he halted and swore loudly, ‘ It’s the great eejit, I am. Sure, why didn’t I think of using the witch before?'”
“There was in those days a great witch living in a cabin built near a rath that lay in the break between the mountains beyond the mill. She was well known in the county for bringing storms, causing cows to stop producing milk, and many other black deeds. She would have been taken long before and drowned, but the people feared that the devil, himself, was at her elbow when she did these things. So, it was to her cabin that Lord Robert went, and he was allowed to enter after he had rapped on the door. She sat in the middle of a long row of black cats, holding a skillet of serpents that were stewing over the fire, and she knew who he was because she had done many deeds for him before this. Without even greeting her, Robert made the reason for his visit clear to her. The old hag made a charm to call her master to her and, within a minute, he stood by her side sporting a large smile and waiting for her to speak. But it was Robert who spoke and began to make a complicated deal with the devil, with which he hoped to cheat Satan. The devil, however, was no fool at making contracts and he tried to make this one as strong as it could be. There was much talk and dealing between the two and, finally, the Devil agreed to do all that Lord Robert asked of him for twenty years, in exchange for his body and soul. If the Devil failed in any way, however, that would be an end of the bargain. Although pleased, at first, the Devil’s face grew longer when he heard that his first task was to bring Kathleen out of the cave and take her to the castle. Scratching his head in puzzlement, Satan said to himself, ‘It’s not going to be an easy task taking that girl from the power of a saint like him. But we will try.'”
So, Robert, the Witch and Satan mounted the one horse and rode like the wind toward the cave. When they came near the top of the hill they all got off and hid in the bushes standing between the cave and the spring, and the devil explained that every night the saint would go to spring to get a drink of water to ease his thirst after saying his devotions. At the same time the saint would also bring back to the cave with him a bucket of the cool liquid. ‘We’ll stop him by the spring with the witch, ‘ said the Devil. ‘You and I will steal the girl while he’s talking.'”
“So, as the clock struck twelve o’clock, the saint came out with his water bucket and walked down to the spring. When he got there and was taking his drink, the witch approached and began to tell him about a son that she had, who was as lazy as a cart-horse and as useless as a sore thumb. She asked the saint’s advice about what she could do with her son, but she was lying to the saint in order to distract him and allow Satan and Lord Robert to get into the cave unobserved.
The Devil picked up Kathleen in his arms, but he wouldn’t have dared do that if she had been on the other side of the cave and away from the altar. Tim, however, was standing by it, and joined with Kathleen kicking and scratching her attacker. When Tim ran to grip him, Satan simply tossed him back and caused him to fall on the floor. ‘Hold on until I stab him,’ Lord Robert called and pulled out his sword.”
“‘Come on, you buck-eejit,’ Satan replied to Robert. ‘Sure the saint will be on top of us if we don’t hurry,’ and almost as soon as he had spoken those words, the door opened, and Saint Tigernach rushed in with a bucket of water on his arm, for he had an inkling that something was wrong.”
“‘God’s preserve us!’ exclaimed the blessed saint, when he saw the devil before him. Great goose-bumps began to rise on the blessed man’s back and the sweat poured down his face. He had known Satan well enough, and he began to think that ‘Old Nick’ had come for him because of a bit of meat that he had eaten that day, and it being a Friday. But he didn’t eat the meat. He had only tasted it and then spit it out again to settle a quarrel between the butcher and a woman who had bought the meat and said it was bad. Nevertheless, he feared that Satan hadn’t seen him when he spat the meat out again. ‘God preserve us!,’ said the saint, as he speedily crossed himself. In a moment, however, he saw that it wasn’t him, but Kathleen, that was in trouble, and he let go of the water, caught the blessed cross that was hanging on him with his right hand and gripped Satan by the throat with his left. While, in the same movement, he pushed the cross into the Devil’s face. In shock, the devil dropped Kathleen like she was a bag of meal, and she rolled over and over on the floor like a worm until she reached the altar and she took a hold of it as tight as the bark on a tree. And it was a fine scene with the black enemy of our souls just lying there trembling in fear, and with the saint’s foot on his neck.”
“‘Glory be to God,’ declared the saint. ‘Just you lie there while I make an example of you,’ he continued as he turned to look for Lord Robert, because he knew that the two of them would be in this together. That blackguard, however, needed no invitation to be walking away from this, but when he saw what had happened to the devil, he ran away with all the speed his feet could carry him, and the witch with him. While, behind them Tim was chasing and hurling stones from a fistful he was carrying. But Lord Peter and the witch quickly left him behind and got completely away. Tim ceased his pursuit and came back to where the devil and Kathleen were standing.”
“‘Get up,’ Saint Tigernach ordered the devil, ‘and stand in the corner, for I’m going to marry these two at once, without fee or license, and you shall be the witness to it.’ So the saint married them, while the devil looked on. It’s the truth I’m telling you, but it’s not the only wedding that the devil’s been at, and he’s not often seen at them when he’s in as low spirits as he was at Tim and Kathleen’s. Yet, this was the way that they were married, with Satan for a witness, and there are some who say that the saint transported the young couple all the way to County Kerry. Personally I don’t believe that story, for I think that they walked all the long way to Cork and got a fisherman’s boat to Kerry. Nonetheless, after they had started, the saint turned to Satan and told him, ‘No more of your tricks with them two, my fine fellow, for I mean to give you a job that’ll keep you out of mischief for a while at least.’ The saint was greatly angered with him coming into his cave that way, as if the place belonged to him. ‘Go you to work,now’ he began to say, ‘and put your face on that rock over the spring, so that as long as the mountain stands men can come and see what sort of a dirty looking beast you are.'”
“So Satan went out and looked up at the rock, smiling, as if to say that it was not a hard task, and when the blessed saint saw the grin that was on his face, he told him, ‘None of your enchantments are allowed, at all. It’s honest work you’ll be doing, and in that spirit, here’s my own hammer and chisel that you’ll take.’ That soon wiped the smug smile off the devil’s face, as he began to realise that the cliff was granite.”
“‘Surely you’re joking,’ he complained, ‘you don’t mean it. Sure there’s no harder bit of stone between here and Donegal.’ And wasn’t he the very man to know, since he was familiar with all the land.”
“‘Bad luck to you and your lies,’ said the saint. ‘Now, take your tools and get stuck into it, you old blackguard, for the sooner you begin, the quicker you’ll be finished, and you can be sure that the stone won’t soften any by your wating. Just you remember to keep a civil tongue in your head while you’re doing the job, or it’ll not be the only thing that you will suffer this day,’ says he, looking daggers at him.”
“So, it was with great displeasure that Satan took the hammer and chisel, and he climbed up the cliff face to begin work cutting his own face on the stone. But he soon discovered that it was as hard as iron and, after he had hit it a couple of cracks, he stopped and shook his head and then scratched over his ear with the chisel as he looked around at the saint as if to say something. The blessed saint looked at him again so ferociously that he made no further remark, turning back to the cliff quickly and began to hammer away in earnest until the sweat stood on his heathen face like drops on a water-jug.”
“The next day, Lord Robert thought he’d call with the old enemy, and remind him that, as he’d failed to get Kathleen, their bargain was now off. So he made-up the charm Satan had given him, but he didn’t come for any protest. ‘Bad luck to the Imp,’ said Lord Robert. ‘Sure, maybe he’s mighty busy or else he’s forgotten the entire thing.’ So lord Robert went out to see the witch, but she wasn’t in. He was not very far away from the saint’s cave and thought, while he was waiting for the witch, he would have a wee peep to see if Tim an’ Kathleen were still there. So he crawled over the top of the hill beyond the cave like the snake in the grass that he was, and when he came down a little, he saw the old Pooka on the cliff, with the hammer in one hand and the chisel in the other, pounding away at the rock and hanging on by his tail to a tree. Lord Robert thought his eyes were deceiving him, for he saw it was the devil, but he couldn’t clearly make out what he was doing. So he crawled down until he had a better view, and when he saw what was happening, he got up and went to a big stone that stood before the cliff, where he sat and slapped his legs with his hands, roaring with laughter and the tears pouring out of his eyes.”
“‘Helloo Nick,’ says he, after he had gotten his breath back again and could speak. ‘Is that you up there?’ He had the quare cheek speaking so impudently at the devil, but the man had a tongue like an adder, and he could use it too.”
“‘Keep away from me,’ said Satan to him angrily, and without turning his head to look at him. ‘Leave me alone! Gobshite, or I’ll wipe the cliff clean with your carcass if ye come any closer!’
“‘A-a-a-h, now. Be easy, you deceiving old blackguard,’ says Lord Robert boldly, for he knew that the devil dare not leave the job to come after him. ‘Will you keep your temper? Sure you haven’t got the manners of a goat, to be speaking to a gentleman like that. I’ve just come to tell you that because you failed the task, our bargain’s off,’ says he.”
“‘Get out of here,’ the devil answered, turning himself half around and holding on to the big shone nose he’d just done with one hand, while shaking the other fist with the chisel in it at Lord Robert. ‘Do you think that I want to be aggravated with the likes of you, you white-faced wee troublemaker, and losing the whole day, while I’m so busy at this time of the year, and breaking my back on this job, and my fingers sore with working the chisel, and my tail skinned with having to hold on? Damn this stone anyway, for it’s harder than a Scotchman’s head, it is, so it is,'”
He was just turning back again when he noticed the saint standing at the door of the cave. Without hesitation he began a digging away at the cliff as if his life depended upon it, swearing under his breath, so the saint couldn’t hear him, every time he gave his knuckles an unlucky crack with the hammer. ‘You’re not worth the trouble,’ says Satan to Lord Robert, being filled with a rage that he couldn’t hold in. ‘Sure, It’s a waffling wee boy I was for trifling with when I was sure of you.'”
“‘You’re a liar,’ said Lord Robert, ‘you deceiving black heathen. If you were so sure of me why did you want to make a bargain?'”
“‘You’er another,’ replied Satan. ‘Isn’t a sparrow in your hand better than a goose on a string?'”
“So they were continuing with the insults, when the blessed saint came out again, and stood at the door watching to make sure that old Nick didn’t a mess of the job. He now spoke up, ‘Hold your peace, Satan, and keep working. And, as for you, you mouthy, milk-faced villain, with a heart as black as a crow, walk away and go down on your hardhearted, unbelieving knees, or you’ll come to no good.’ And so he did.”
“Do I believe the story? Well, I don’t know. There were quare things happened in them old days, and there’s the face on the cliff as ugly as the devil could be and the hammer and chisel are in the church. Sure, what better proof could you ask for? You might ask what became of the the lovers, but I know nothing. They probably grew old together, stayed poor and forgot the spring-time of their youth in the winter of their age. But if they lived a hundred years, they would never have forgotten getting married in the saint’s cave, with the black face of the Evil One looking on from the dark corner.”
A Tale written after an old story idea by Wesley G Lyttle (1844-96)
There was a large turf fire blazing upon the broad, pleasant hearth of Matty Carr’s cottage, filling the entire house with its sweet, fragrant scents. In those days, the turf was plentiful on the “Selkie Moss” and it was likely that the supply would last for a few hundred years yet. Bella, as Matt’s wife was called, was very much a house-proud woman, who was convinced that nothing makes a home more cheerful than a bright, warm, and welcoming fire in the hearth. Although she was usually a thrifty and frugal type of woman, Bella would build up the bricks of peat into a glowing pile with unsparing hands until the kitchen felt as hot as a kiln. The floor was so clean that you could have almost eaten your meal off it, and every pot and pan was washed and cleaned to such an extent that they looked like mirrors hanging from their hooks. The wooden dresser that stood against the wall was looking fresh in its white gloss finish, and everything in the house had the definite appearance of absolute cleanliness.
In the corner of the kitchen, near to the fireplace, there was a clumsy-looking, home-made cradle, in which slept the newest and most precious addition to the Carr family. Every now and again, Bella would stop in the middle of her household chores to take a look in at the sleeping child, and she would whisper sweet blessings over her new-born infant.
“Hey, Bella!” Matt shouted. “Was there anybody touching my razor?” He was calling to his wife from the next-door room, where he was getting himself dressed for the important ceremony that was soon to begin.
“For Jaysus sake, man dear,” she called back to him in a loud whisper, “could you not speak just a bit softer, ye eejit, or you’ll waken the child!” At the same time, one her tiptoes, she hurried to the door of the adjoining room.
Matt was in a bit of a temper with himself about something, or other, which was not uncommon, and Bella could see his mood quite clearly. He was standing in the room and facing Bella when she came to the door of the room, and he held the cut-throat razor in one of his hands. His face was plentifully lathered with shaving soap, but from one side of his chin she saw that there was a cut from which blood flowed quite freely. Matt held the razor out toward her, ensuring that she had a clear view of the condition in which he had found the edge of the blade.
“Aah, wee man! Have you cut your wee self?” she asked him with a false tone of pity, although she was concerned that he would be alright.
“Cut myself?” he replied impatiently, being none too pleased with his wife’s tone. “Well, I think I have, or maybe I’m sweating blood! With all your blatherin’ maybe I will even bleed to death just for you. Now, just get me a plaster, will you?“
Returning to the kitchen, Bella fumbled in the dresser drawers and found a box of plasters, from which she took one and gave it to her angry husband. She knew that Matt was a good man, but he was also the type of man that occasionally lacked patience, and he did not suffer fools lightly. He had absolutely no doubts that some of the children had been using his razor to sharpen their pencils or other items. Matt’s mistake was simply that he had failed to check the edge of the razor before he began to shave with it. “Would you get the leather strap for me, Bella?” he asked her.
“You know, maybe the strap will not be good enough to put an edge on the blade. I might have to take the bloody thing to the anvil and use a sledgehammer to put a proper edge on it. Then, if that works, I could polish it up by rubbing it along the big sharpening stone that I use for the scythe,” he told Bella in a half-joking tone of voice.
While Matt was talking to her, Bella returned to the dresser and fetched a huge glass jar, filled with a golden coloured liquid. Matt had a bright twinkle in his eyes when he caught sight of that jar in his wife’s hands. The corners of his mouth began twitching with anticipation as he came to understand her intentions. Nevertheless, he kept complaining and moaning until, finally, gave him a large tumbler filled with whisky that had been drawn from the jar.
“And what’s that?” asked Matt, who was still not in the best of humour.
“Aah, sure take a wee drink, darlin’. It’ll calm you down and steady your hand. It might even help stop your bleeding,” said Bella with a comforting smile.
Matt, being the sort of man that he was, did not need a second invitation to have a drink of whisky. He put the razor down by the washing bowl on the dressing table and gently took the tumbler of whisky from his wife’s hand. “Here’s to you, Bella,” he laughed as he emptied the glass in one drink.
“Jaysus, Matt, you’ll have to take your time with the rest,” Bella insisted.
“By God, Bella, sure you never spoke a truer word,” Matt replied. “There was a time that I could’ve drunk a river of that stuff, dry.“
“Indeed, you could have, wee man,” smiled Bella. “These days I would rather see you bringing in a bag of “Inglis'” flour than a jar of whisky. We can have more fun making things with the flour.“
Don’t be daft, woman!” sneered Matt. “There’s more fun in that jar of whisky than there could ever be in “Inglis'” flour, even a cart load of it!“
“That may well be the case, my dear,” Bella replied to him. “But, like everything else, darlin’, whisky is very good as long as you keep it in its right place, and you do not abuse it.“
“Aye, and aren’t I just the man who knows where that right place is, and able to put it into it?” Matt laughed heartily, but Bella was not amused. He held the tumbler toward Bella again, saying, “Bella, just give me another wee measure and then I’ll quit.“
But the jar was closed, and Bella had placed it back on the dresser, totally unwilling to replenish her husband’s glass. “You have had enough for the time being,” she told him and began to walk away.
“Och, Bella, just one more wee glass,” he pleaded with his wife. “Just to keep the first one company. You know, a bird cannot fly with only one wing.“
Bella, of course, gave way to Matts pleas, as every dutiful wife would do. Matt now quickly forgot the bleeding cut on his face and, with a few strokes on the leather honing strap, the razor soon became as sharp as it had been previously. His face was soon shaven cleanly, and he dressed in his best ‘Sunday Suit’. In less than half-an-hour he was standing at the front door of his cottage, waiting to welcome his invited guests. Matt had a quick eye and was able to distinguish objects at a distance from him. With that keen eyesight he scanned the various roads that led away from the house, and as soon as he saw certain people coming into his view he would call out to his wife, “They’re coming Bella! Here they are! Are those glasses ready? And the boiling water and the whisky? Is there something a little softer for the lasses, such as lemonade or cider? By Jaysus, woman, but this will be a well-remembered day and night! Sure, this well may be the last christening we’ll ever have, so to hell with the expense!“
It was absolutely amazing the number of people that Matt Carr was able to squeeze into that small house of his. There was both young and old, but it was mostly adults who were in attendance. They were put into the kitchen and the bedroom, and in every vacant space that was available inside the house. The first of the guests had begun arriving in the afternoon, but they were mainly the older women who came to give Bella a hand in making the needful preparations and attend to the wants and needs of the children.
Matt was now in his glory. If you could have heard him talking to the guests you would have heard him talking to the guests, you would have thought him to be the ‘Lord of the Manor’, instead of the hardworking, hard-fisted mechanic of Ballyfoss. But Matts heart was bursting with happiness and he would not have changed places with the proudest man in Ireland.
In a comfortable chair close to the blazing fire sat Biddy Brown, who acted both as a nurse and a midwife for almost the entire district. On her head she wore a white hat, and she was dressed in a spotlessly clean, blue, and white checked uniform. As she sat there near the turf fire there was a look of quiet contentment and grave responsibility on her face, which is so common among the nursing profession. On her knee slept the Carr baby, dressed in a snow-white gown, which was neatly embroidered and adorned for its imminent baptismal ceremony.
Matt, of course, attended to the duty that he saw as being his main responsibility. He was distributing the whisky around his guests. Each had a glass tumbler in their hand or near at hand, which Matt filled from a small jug that he replenished from the large glass jar mentioned earlier. As he moved around, serving each guest, he talked to them in a warm and friendly fashion. “Now, Mrs. McCall,” he said to one guest, “Not one drop have you taken from your glass since I put that first drop in your glass.“
“Ah, sure, dear God, Matt,” she answered him, “this is two or three times you have filled my glass. And, honest to God, my boy, I couldn’t take any more.”
“Jaysus sake, Matty,” said another lady. “Please don’t offer me anymore, for that must be one of the jugs that never empties and my head’s spinning circles already!“
Thus, it continued. Some protested and yet, as they did so, they still held out their glasses for a fresh supply. Others, however, really meant what they had said and refused to take any more of Matt’s whisky.
“Aah, Biddy, we almost forgot you,” said Matt as he approached the nurse and replenished her glass. “What do you think of the new baby, Biddy?“
“No nicer baby has ever come into this world!” Biddy told him as she softly kissed the baby’s head. “And may it be a blessing to its mother and father, as well as a credit to the old country.“
“Amen to that,” came the response from most of those around them.
“Well, Biddy, there could be no better judge than yourself,” exclaimed Bella and Matt. “Because you have put a good number of them through your hands this last fifty years, and now I’ll tell you one and all what I’m going to make of that child you see there –” Matt ended his speech abruptly at this point as the latch on the door lifted and into the house walked the priest, who was to christen the child.
As the priest entered the house everyone rose in respectful silence as the priest came into the cottage. Father Toner was a man with a fine physique and a commanding presence. He had gained a wide reputation for his blood and thunder homilies, in which the assembled congregation could almost smell the sulphur of hell. But, outside of the pulpit, he was much admired for his genial manner and his great kindness toward others. “A good evening to you all,” he said as he stepped forward to shake Bella’s hand, and then he had a warm handshake with a kindly word for everyone else in the house.
At least a half-an-hour was filled with conversation among all those who had gathered in the house and, by the end of those preliminaries, it was time to prepare for the christening. But, by this time also, Matt was in a condition that was far from suitable for the occasion. His frequent journeys to the big glass jar were now beginning to tell on both his speech and his equilibrium. There was a definite glitter in his eye and an unsteadiness in his gait that he tried to hide from others, because it was not appropriate to the occasion and those duties that he would be called upon to discharge.
Father Toner began the ritual with a heartfelt prayer and then he asked that the child be brought forward to him. There were a lot of nudges among those in the crowd, and quite a few of them had great difficulty in restraining their laughter as they watched the tremendous efforts made by Matt to appear both sober and solemn. Matt’s condition, however, did not escape the keen, observant eyes of Father Toner, and there was the faintest sign of twitching at the corners of his mouth as he lifted the child up, placing it into Matt’s arms and asked, “Are you able to hold up the child, Matthew?“
“Am I what?” asked Matt in inebriated surprise, “Able to hand it up! Indeed, I am Father, aye, even if it was the weight of a two-year-old bullock!“
This remark was more than the assembled crowd could stand. At first there was a titter of laughter, but this quickly burst out into unrestrained hilarity. Even Father Toner could not hold back a smile as he demonstrated the difficulty, he had in maintaining the solemnity befitting the occasion. But, nevertheless, things were going very well until the priest poured some drops of cold water upon the sleeping baby’s head. The effect was quick and immediate. The child awoke instantly and gave an ear-piercing wail. In response, Matt turned angrily toward old Biddy, the nurse, and upset the gravity of the occasion once again by hissing at her, “For Christ’s sake Biddy, why didn’t you take the dead cold off the water?“
Finally, it was all over, and Father Toner handed the child back to its parents with a final solemn prayer. He apologised to them both that he could not stay for the celebrations that had been arranged and made ready to leave. As he bid them all farewell, the priest began walking toward Betty Gray’s house, nearby.
“God go with you, father!” cried Matt as soon as the priest was beyond earshot. “Aye, God go with you, for I never feel right in myself when there is a clergyman around the house. Come on, Bella, get those tray things together and let us all have something to eat!“
Bella, of course, did as she was asked, drawing a large table into the centre of the kitchen, and quickly loaded it up with home-baked bread of various kinds. There were oatcakes, potato-cakes, pancakes, soda-farls, wheaten bread, and may other products. Cheese, butter, eggs, and jams were in plentiful supply, and those who could grab themselves a chair were soon at work on this feast. As it was impossible to accommodate all their company at the table, so many of them were obliged to hold their teacups and side plates in their hands, or on their laps.
There was much discussion among the gathered crowd and many subjects were touched upon by them, from the condition in which the country found itself, to the possibility of a neighbour girl being married soon. “Did you hear about Jenny Early being three months gone?” asked Bella.
“Get away with ye!” exclaimed several of the female guests. “Tell us what you know.“
“Well, you know Jenny’s not just the full shilling,” said Bella and several of the ladies nodded their heads in agreement. “Someone has made friends with her, but she wouldn’t tell anyone who he was. But this man asked her to come and see his lambs and then took advantage of her in the hay shed. He told her that it was the sort of things that friends do and she, knowing nothing better, allowed him to have his way.”
“The dirty old ba….”
“Wheesht!” said Bella. “Hold your tongues for here comes Betty Gray and she has a mouth as big as Belfast Lough!”
There is great luxuriance about Irish mythology, filled with Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, Spirits and fantastic creatures of all sorts. This is particularly conspicuous when it comes to the history and characteristics of the ‘Fairy Folk’, more commonly known in Ireland as ‘The Good People.’ As with most mythological characters the origins of these people are confused and the subject of widespread debate. One popular belief concerning the origins of ‘The Fairy Folk’ suggests their beginnings are linked to a group of invaders known as the ‘Tuatha de Danann,’ which means “the people of the goddess Danu”, who were revered as gods by the native Irish. Over time, however, the ‘Tuatha de Danann’ succumbed to fresh invaders, who banished these so-called gods to the underground portion of Ireland. It is from this that people came to believe that fairies lived under the ground, and they came to be called ‘The Sidhe’ (pronounced: Shee).
Another popular belief, that may arise from after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, suggests that the ‘Fairy Folk’ were once angels and were so numerous that they formed a large part of the population in heaven. When Satan turned against God and gathered a host of angels around him in open rebellion, there were some who did not want to join in the war that followed. They were fearful of the consequences that might be visited upon them by the victor and, therefore, preferred to see who won the battle before taking sides. Then, when the rebellious angels were defeated and expelled from heaven, those angels who had stood aside and did nothing were also banished. The offence of these neutral angels was one of omission rather than rebellion and they were not consigned to an eternity in the pit of hell with Satan and his followers. They were, instead, sent to earth where they were to remain, but not without hope that they may receive a pardon on the last day and be re-admitted to heaven. They are, therefore, expected to be on best behaviour, but they do retain the power to do a great amount of harm. It is for this reason that they are feared and only spoken of in quiet among the rural Irish, even today.
Stories about the fairy folk have been heard from all parts of the world, and one of the most interesting and consistent things about them appears to be that they can shape shift and make themselves look like anyone or anything they wish. They are, however, believed to be smaller than humans, averaging a height of between three and four feet. Generally, within Irish folklore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are described as being slightly taller than people and very beautiful, with reports suggesting that some fairies, such as the ‘Irish Sidhe’, were typically of a height of seven feet tall. One report I read says, “Though, by nature, they’re not the length of your finger, they can make themselves the size of a tower when it pleases them, and have that ugliness that you’d faint with the looks of them, as knowing they can strike you dead on the spot, or change you into a dog, or a pig, or a unicorn, or any other dirty beast they please.“
These ‘Good People’ were often seen wearing clothes of red and green that depended upon the tribe to which they belonged and their rank within the tribe. Some were described as having green skin, while other sources describe them as looking much like humans but with a strange, ‘otherworldly’ aura about them. and the appearance of being either very young or very old to help in the perception of mortals to their wisdom. It is said that, generally, the people of the fairy hills were very pale and were usually finely dressed, but otherwise were human-like in their appearance. Stories say that the ‘Fairy Folk’ often appear wearing green, red or grey clothing, and may have blond or brown hair. They could be either male or female and could appear either alone or in groups. But, when it comes to their clothes, the records generally agree that young lady fairies wear pure white robes and usually allow their hair to flow loosely over their shoulders. Meanwhile, the more matronly fairies tie up their tresses in a coil on the top or back of the head and surrounding their temple with a golden band. The young gentlemen fairies wear green jackets, with white breeches and stockings. But, when a fairy of either sex has need of a cap or head-covering, they will use the flower of the foxglove. Within Irish folklore, however, the female fairies are known to appear with messages or warnings, while groups of male fairies would gather to play games of Hurling, for which they needed a single human player in order to have the game.
It has, in the past, been considered irreverent and bad luck to call the ‘Fairy Folk’ by that name, or simply ‘Fairies’, and the rural folk of Ireland became accustomed to creating more genteel substitutes such as ‘The Good People.’ Although this reluctance to use the term ‘Fairies’ seems to be relaxing in these modern days, there is still a widespread preference to use the substitute names instead. In this article we will try to remain with those terms that most people are familiar with, such as the ‘Wee Folk’ or the ‘Little People’. It is likely that such terms were derived as a means of minimising their power and influence, and as a description of their physical stature.
Many in the world have heard of the Irish ‘Leprechaun’ and consider them to be members of the ‘Fairy Folk’, but they are said by some to be unfit associates for the ‘Good People’. Nevertheless, the ‘Good People’ are a sociable community who always live in large societies with each member involved in a plan of work that is to the benefit of all. They own all their property, the kind and value of which is unknown, in common and are united in their desire to achieve any communal objective. But they are, however, divided into groups of evil or good, which are occasionally involved in night-time battles with each other. The male fairies are very familiar with every military role and, like most of Ireland’s population, are divided into various factions. But, unlike other the mortal factions, the objects of contention among the fairy factions is rarely known for definite. There is a report of a great battle among the fairies that occurred many years ago in County Kerry. One party of fairy warriors stood upon a Rath, while the opposing army of fairies stood on an unused and lonely graveyard. The only mortal to witness the encounter was Paddy O’Donoghue, who related what he saw as follows – “Sure, wasn’t I lying beside the road, being on my way home, weak and tired with all the walking I had done? There was a bright moon out that night, and I heard a noise like a million soldiers tramping on the road, so I rose up and looked, and the way ahead was full of little men. These creatures were just the length of my hand, with green coats on, and all stood in rows like one of those army regiments, each man with a pike on his shoulder and a shield on his arm.One was in the front, as if he was the general, walking with his chin up as proud as a peacock. By God, but I was terribly scared, and I prayed faster than ever I had done in my life, for they were far too close to me for comfort or convenience. But they all went by, not a single one of them turning his head to look at me at all, thanks be to God for that, and so, they left me. After they were completely gone, I was curious to see what they were after, so I followed them, a good bit behind them, and ready to jump and run like a hare at the least noise, for I was afraid that if they caught me, they’d make me a pig at once or change me into some kind of a beast. They marched into the field between the graveyard and the Rath, and there was another army there with red coats, from the graveyard, and the two armies had the biggest fight you’ve ever seen, the greens against the reds. After looking on for a bit, I got excited, for the greens were beating the reds badly, and I up and gave a yahoo and called out, ‘At them again! Don’t leave one of those blackguards untouched!’ And with that word, the sight left my eyes and I remember no more until morning, and there I was, lying on the road where I had seen them, as stiff as a crutch.”
They say that fairy bodies are not composed of flesh and bone like we mortals, but of a kind of ethereal substance whose true nature is unknown. They can be clearly seen by some, many reports of which have been recorded, but some observers also tell us that they can also be seen through as if looking through a mist. In Ireland there is a belief that the fairies have a white blood, which is spilled in those occasional night battles between different groups of which the only evidence appears to be the remains of an inexplicable white liquid (Fairy Blood). They have, of course, the power of being able to vanish from the sight of mortals and the fact that the air seems to be filled with their presence causes ordinary mortals to give them respect. There are reports of them being heard without being seen, especially when they travel through the air and are recognised by the humming noise like that made by swarms of bees. It must be said, however, that despite modern artistic interpretations of the ‘Fairy Folk’ there is no evidence as to them possessing wings. A certain Kerry man, called Barney Murphy, thought that they had wings for he had seen several a number of years ago that seemed to have long, semi-transparent pinions, “like them that grows on a dragon-fly,” described them. But Barney’s neighbours, however, contradicted his report by adamantly denying that the ‘Good People’ had wings, suggesting that at the time Barney saw the fairies he was too drunk to distinguish a pair of wings from a pair of legs, and so this evidence of fairy wings must remain in doubt.
Fairy lore allows us to divide the ‘Good People’ into two distinct categories, i.e. ‘Trooping Fairies’ or ‘Solitary Fairies’. The trooping fairies are a matriarchal society and they consider socialisation and status important within their community. Moreover, they can be further divided into those who are known to be good and those who are more disposed to be bad. The ‘Solitary Fairies’ obviously live alone, but they are known to attach themselves to a certain family or house. But, despite what type of fairy is present, it is often recommended that local people leave offerings outside their homes overnight as a means of appeasing them. Even if the food offered is still there the next morning the people believed that it was the fairies would have appreciated the thought at least.
The people had other means and methods to prevent bad things from happening to them, including the keeping of a few charms and talismans handy that might just work against fairy magic. Iron is the most well-known and effective element to ward off the fairy folk, though steel might prove to be a better weapon because it is a much purer form of iron. In Irish folklore it is known that the importance of Iron does not just lie in its ability to ward off the fairies. It is also known as a means of deterring ghosts, witches, and more supernatural beings. The sound of bells and whistling can also keep away fairies and, if you ever found yourself being chased by evil fairies, you could leap to safety by crossing running water. By throwing burning embers at the fairies you could drive them away from entering your house, and some people would sprinkle their clothes with oatmeal while also carrying some in their pockets to guard against the fairies approaching. Four leaf clovers have always been considered lucky and will break any fairy magic, or you could always plant a rowan tree outside your house, or as a last choice you could simply try any blessed religious item. But mortals should always remember that there are many reasons as to why you should not even think of offending the fairies. Stories have described how fairy folk, when they feel themselves offended might lift extremely heavy objects, leave your hair in terrible tangles, or even replace your child with one of their own, or a magical block of wood.
In the mythology of Ireland, we have learned that the ‘Good People’ are derived from ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ and are the original inhabitants of the ‘hollow hills’. They are the beings most strongly associated with agriculture and the produce of the land, and those ‘hollow hills’ in which they live are believed to be the entrances to their land of the ‘Fairy Folk’, sometimes called ‘Fairyland’. The ‘Good People’ were just as likely to be connected to mysterious, otherworldly islands that usually appeared in the West to fishermen but could never be reached, as they were to the hills and mounds of Ireland itself. (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In Irish lore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are everywhere. They live in the land, on the sea, and in the air. They are associated with the mounds and stone circles that litter the Irish landscape, as well as the multitude of watery places such as wells, springs, the sea and bogs, caverns, and strange swirls of wind, as well as specific trees, particularly lone Hawthorn trees.
It is also common belief in Ireland that the ‘Fairy Folk’ live in a parallel world to our own, into which mortals can accidentally enter through ‘Fairy Rings’. Although this other world may run in parallel to our own, time does not pass in the same way as it does in our mortal world. Tradition tells us that once a mortal enters this ‘Fairy Land’, there is almost no means of going back to their own world, and many Irish tales abound with stories concerning those people who were kidnapped by the ‘Fairy Folk’. Within these tales we can see that the concept of the ‘Fairy Land’ in Irish minds was just as complex as their beliefs about the ‘Fairy Folk’ that inhabited that land. On every occasion these ‘Fairy Lands’ were always described as being places of great beauty, wealth and peace. It is, therefore, not surprising to read in these stories that many mortals brought to such places did not want to leave until an overwhelming longing overtook them to see their families and homes. But, when these people did leave the ‘Fairy Land’ they would discover that hundreds of years had passed, and they would die and fade into dust as soon as they came in contact with mortality once again.
The ‘Good People’ are not confined just to their own realms, or the area around the entrances into those realms. Many stories reveal that they were able to go out into our world, occasionally appearing in local markets and fairs. Often, they would go unrecognized in such places, unless someone with the second sight saw them or they encountered someone who had previously dealt with them and still retained the ability to see them.
In the fairy lore of the Celts, the ‘Good People’ are described as being ruled by a monarchy and included a working class who were permitted to visit human markets and fairs in disguise, or were able to appear to farmers as people seeking to borrow something from them. When seen they were often riding on fine horses, coloured black, white or grey, and with hounds following. In older tales it is indicated that the deer in the forests are the cattle of the fairies. But it is on the quarter days Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasa that the ‘Good People’ are said to be particularly active, moving from one hollow hill to another along long-established fairy roads. At Samhain and Bealtaine fairy influence is at its strongest and all mortals should take great care to avoid upsetting them. Bealtaine was known to be a time when the ‘Good People’ travelled the land, appearing as a stranger at the door of various houses asking for milk, or a coal from the fire. By giving these items to the ‘Good People’ it was said the household would have secured good luck for the year ahead. At Samhain, however, they are known to move from their summer to their winter homes in the hollow hills, and it is said that mortals face great danger if they come across them at night, for they are especially active between twilight and midnight. They travel in large bands and, although their parties are never seen in the daytime, there is little difficulty in following their line of march, for it has been reported that, “sure they make the most terrible little cloud of dust ever raised, and not a bit of wind causing it at all,” so that a fairy migration is sometimes the talk of the entire county.
The most malicious fairy host, an airborne tribe, are known to be most active at night, appearing as a wind that is very much feared by the country people. When this wind comes upon them the people avert their eyes from it and pray for safety, because they sometimes take people. These mortals are often taken great distances, where they may be kept forever, helping the ‘Good People’ as they carry out their mayhem and mischief throughout the country.
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are usually invisible to the eyes of mortal people, unless they wish for themselves to be seen, or the mortal has the gift of ‘second sight’. This ability to seem invisible is due to their power to deceive human senses by making one thing appear like another, such as making a handful of leaves being made to look like gold coins. Nevertheless, their movements along fairy paths and roads can be noticed by other means. The ‘Good People’ are known to ride out in procession, or ‘Fairy Raids’, which could prove to be dangerous to any mortal beings that they came across. As they ride out, they can create sudden whirlwinds or sudden blasts of wind, and they are known to present a threat to new brides, midwives and new-born babies.
The ‘Good People’ have the family relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and although it is said by some that fairy husbands and wives have as many little disagreements as are found in mortal households, “for, sure a woman’s tongue is longer than a man’s patience,” and “a husband is bound to be nagged incessantly day in and day out, for a woman’s jaw is sharpened on the devil’s grindstone,” yet opinions unfavourable to married happiness among the fairies are not generally well received. On the contrary, it is believed that married life in fairy circles is regulated on the basis of the absolute submission of the wife to the husband. This particular point was explained by a Donegal woman in this way, “They’re one, that’s the husband and the wife, but he’s more the one than she is.” Meanwhile, the love of children is one of the most prominent traits of fairy character, but as it manifests itself by stealing beautiful babes, replacing them by young ‘Leprechauns’ as changelings, the fairies are much dreaded by mothers along the west coast of Ireland, and they take many precautions against the ‘Fairy Folk’. Thefts of this kind now rarely occur, but at one time they were common, as “in them old days, you could see ten fairies where there isn’t one now, because they are leaving the country.“
A notable case of baby stealing occurred in the family of Termon MacGrath, who had a castle, now in picturesque ruins, on the shore of Lough Erne, in the County Donegal. The person telling the story was a ‘wise woman’ who lived in what was an apology for a cabin. It was, indeed, a thatched shed that had been placed against the precipitous side of the glen almost beneath the castle. The wretched shelter was nearly concealed from view by the overhanging branches of a large tree and by thick undergrowth, and seemed unfit for a pig-sty, but, though her surroundings were poor beyond description, ‘Old Meg,’ as her neighbour said, “knew a great deal about fairies and witches and could keep them from a baby better than any woman that ever drew breath.” Giving her a bit of tobacco, to enable her to take a draw of the pipe, quickly brought out the story. “It’s many years ago, that Termon MacGrath went, with all his army, to the war in the County of Tyrone, and while he was gone the baby was born and they called her Eva. She was her mother’s first, so she felt mighty uneasy in her mind about her, knowing that the ‘Good People’ always go after the first one that comes, and even more when it’s a girl they try harder to steal than when it’s a boy, because they believe that they’re easier to rear, although it’s me that doesn’t believe that one girl makes more trouble than do ten boys and isn’t as good.So, when the baby was born they sent out for an old witch of a widow who had set herself up as a wise woman, and she knew no more about doctoring than a pig, but they thought she could keep away the fairies, and that’s a job that takes one who tries to have no end of knowledge in the fairy folk. But the poor old woman did the best that she knew how, and so, God be good to her, she wasn’t to be blamed for that. But it’s the likes of her that put shame on them that have great knowledge of such things, for they make people think all wise women as ignorant as she is, herself. So she made the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead with ashes, and she told them to bite off its nails and not to cut them until nine weeks had passed, and she held a burning candle before its eyes, so it would do the deeds of light and not of darkness, and mixed sugar and salt and oil, and gave it to her, so that her life would be sweet and long preserved and go smooth, but the old widow forgot one thing. She didn’t put a lucky shamrock, that’s got four leaves, in a gospel and tie it around the baby’s neck with a thread pulled out of her gown, and not remembering to do this, all the rest was no good at all. Nor did she tell the mother not to take her eyes off the child until the ninth day, for after that the fairies couldn’t take her. So the nurse took the baby into the next room and laid it on the bed, and went away for a minute, but thinking that she heard it cry, back she came and there was the baby, bedclothes and all just going through the floor, being dragged away by the fairies.The nurse scratched and caught the clothes and the maid helped her, so that the two of them pulled with all their might and got the bedclothes up again, but while the child was out of sight, the fairies changed it and put a fairy child in its place, but the nurse didn’t know what the fairies had done, nor had the old witch, that shows she was an ignorant woman entirely. But the fairies took Eva away under the lake where they treated her wonderfully. Every night they gave her a dance, with the loveliest music that was ever heard, with big drums and little drums, and fiddles and pipes and trumpets, for such a band the ‘Good People’ do have when they give a dance. So she grew and the queen said she should have a husband among the fairies, but she fell in love with an old Leprechaun, and the queen, to prevent such a thing, let her walk on the shore of the lake where she met Darby O’Hoolighan and loved him and married him with the queen’s consent. The queen told her to tell him if he struck her three blows without a reason, she’d leave him and come back to the fairies. The queen gave her a great number of riches, sheep and pigs without number and more oxen than you could count in a week. So, she and Darby lived together as happy as two doves, and she hadn’t as much care as a blind piper’s dog, moreover, they had two boys as good looking as their mother and as strong as their father.
“One day, after they’d been married seventeen years, she and Darby were going to a wedding, and she was slow, so Darby told her for to hurry and gave her a slap on the shoulder with the palm of his hand, and she began to cry. He asked her what was wrong with her and she told him he’d struck her the first of the three blows. So, he was very sorry and said he’d be careful in the future, but it wasn’t more than a year after, when he was teaching one of the boys to use a stick, that she got behind him and got hit with the shillelagh. That was the second blow, and made her lose her temper, and they had a real quarrel. So, he got mad, saying that neither of the blows ought to be counted, for they were both accidental. So, he flung the stick against the wall, ‘Devil take the stick,’ he said, and went out quick, and the stick fell back from the wall and hit her on the head. ‘That’s the third,’ she said, and she kissed her sons and walked out. Then she called the cows in the field and they left their grazing and followed her; she called the oxen in the stalls and they stopped eating and came out; and she spoke to the calf that was hanging in the yard, that they’d killed that morning and it got down and came along. The lamb that was killed the day before, it came; and the pigs that were salted and hanging up to dry, they came, all after her in a string.Then she called to her things in the house, and the chairs walked out, and the tables, and the chest of drawers, and the boxes, all of them put out legs like beasts and came along, with the pots and pans, and gridiron, and buckets, and noggins, leaving the house as bare as an evicted tenant’s, and all after her to the lake, where they went under and disappeared, and haven’t been seen by man to this blessed day.
“Now, there’s some that say the story isn’t true, because, they say how would a woman do such a thing and go off that a way and take everything she had, just because her husband hit her by accident those three times. But those who say it forget that she was a young woman, even if she did have those boys I was telling you about, and faith, it’s no lie I’m saying, that it’s not in the power of the angels of God to be knowing what a young woman will be doing. After they get old, and losing their teeth, and their beauty goes, then they’re sober and get over those notions; but it takes a long time to make an old one out of a young wan.
“But she didn’t forget the boys she’d left, and once in a while she’d come to the edge of the lake when they were close by the bank and spoke with them, for even, if she was half a fairy, she’d a mother’s heart that the good God put in her bosom; and one time they saw her with little man along with her, that was a Leprechaun, as they knew by the look of him, and that makes me believe that the real reason for her leaving her husband was to get back the old Leprechaun she was in love with before she was married to Darby O’Hoolighan.”
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are known to have produced children with humans and in order to procreate they have a nasty habit of stealing a bride from her wedding to marry one of their own kind instead. At some later date they might even kidnap a midwife to assist the bride to deliver the child of her fairy husband. Their penchant for kidnapping new brides is believed to be a result of their low birth rate and the need to increase their population with human babies and women. There are some who mighty dispute this cause, but what other cause could there be for stealing brides and babies, for which they are famed.
Within Irish folklore there are ample stories concerning kidnapped midwives and musicians who are released back into their own world after an agreed time period. Normally, those mortals taken into the fairy realm can never return if the eat or drink anything while there, but this rule does not hold for those who are taken for a pre-determined time period. There are also stories of those who go to the ‘Good People’ for a single night of dancing and entertainment only to emerge the next morning to find that four, forty, or four hundred years have passed in the mortal world.
The fairies commonly made their homes only in raths and Tumuli of Pagan days in Ireland, and, for this reason, the raths are much dreaded, and after sundown are avoided by the ordinary peasant folk. Attempts have been made to remove some of these raths from the landscape, but the unwillingness of the local people to engage in the work, no matter what inducements may be offered to them, has generally resulted in the work being abandoned. It has been reported that on one of the islands in the Upper Lake of Killarney there is a rath, and the proprietor, finding it occupied too much ground, resolved to have it levelled to increase the arable surface of the field. The work was begun, but one morning, in the early dawn, as the laborers were crossing the lake on their way to the island, they saw a procession of about two hundred persons, dressed like monks, leave the island and proceed to the mainland, followed, as the workmen thought, by a long line of small, shining figures. The phenomenon might have been genuine, but a mirage is by no means an uncommon appearance in some parts of Ireland, nevertheless work on the rath was at once postponed indefinitely. Besides raths, old castles, deserted graveyards, ruined churches, secluded glens in the mountains, springs, lakes, and caves are all homes and resorts to fairies, as is very well known on Ireland’s west coast.
As we know, there are many fairy hills and raths that exist throughout the island of Ireland, and between them run fairy roads and paths which are also invisible to mortal eyes. It is traditional that people refuse to build on such roads and paths, because to do so will inevitably bring the builder bad-luck, and often death. It is not such a good idea to disturb the site of the ‘Good Peoples’’ home, and to dig into a fairy mound, or cut down a fairy tree, will certainly bring the disturber misfortune and, perhaps, death. Even in this modern, technologically advanced society that Ireland has become there is still a very strong belief in such things will participate in protests against many road plans if it interferes with fairy trees, raths or mounds. It is also a fact that heavy fines can be placed upon those people who would destroy or damage fairy mounds, even if they are on private property.
The ‘Good People’ can either bless or harm mortals with whom they come into contact, and their gifts could bring great blessings to those who receive them, or they can be simple illusions that become worthless by dawn. In the same way the ‘Fairy Wind’ can bring illness or cause injury to humans including a sudden cramp, or stitch that tradition says is caused by an invisible ‘shot’ from an arrow fired by a disgruntled fairy. In some cases, this ‘Fairy Shot’ might be used against cattle and would cause them to waste away after they are struck, but it was a power that could be granted to witches that are close to the ‘Good People.’ In fact, it was widely believed in Ireland that witches learned their magic arts, for good or bad, from the ‘Good People’ with whom they were believed to closely associate themselves. Such friends of the ‘Fairy Folk’ were, of course, privy taught special knowledge and things like magic and healing. A favoured musician, a harpist or piper, might be given greater skill or particularly good instrument. The main amusements of the fairies consist of music, dancing, and ball-playing. In music their skill exceeds that of men, while their dancing is perfect, the only drawback being the fact that it blights the grass, “fairy-rings” of dead grass, apparently caused by a peculiar fungous growth, being common in Ireland. Although their musical instruments are few, the fairies can use these few with wonderful skill. It is said that near Colooney, in County Sligo, there was a “Wise Woman,” whose grandmother’s aunt once witnessed a fairy ball, the music for which was furnished by an orchestra which the management had no doubt been at great pains and expense to secure and instruct. She stated, “It was the cutest sight alive. There was a place for them to stand on, and a wonderful big fiddle of the size you could sleep in it, that was played by a monstrous frog, and two little fiddles, that two kittens fiddled on, and two big drums, beaten by cats, and two trumpets, played by fat pigs. All around the fairies were dancing like angels, the fireflies giving them light to see by, and the moonbeams shining on the lake, for it was by the shore it was, and if you don’t believe it, the glen’s still there, that they call the ‘Fairy Glen’ to this day.”
The fairies do much singing, usually in chorus, and their songs were formerly more frequently heard than they are today. Even now a belated peasant, who has been at a wake, or is coming home from a fair, in passing a rath will sometimes hear the soft strains of their voices in the distance, and will hurry away before they discover his presence and be angry at the unwelcome intrusion on their privacy. When in unusually good spirits they will sometimes admit a mortal to their celebrations, but should he speak, the scene at once vanishes, he becomes insensible, and generally finds himself by the roadside the next morning, “with that degree of pains in his arms and legs and back, that if sixteen thousand devils were after him, he couldn’t move a toe to save his own soul, that’s what the fairies do by pinching and punching him for coming on them and speaking out loud.”
As previously stated, they might appear as a stranger seeking to borrow something, needing milk or coal from the fire, or be encountered alone in a field or wood, or on a road. Those mortals brave enough to seek them out might choose to sleep on fairy mounds, or raths, or rings, in the knowledge that it would result in either a blessing or madness.
Thankfully, there are a variety of charms to protect us against the ‘Fairy Folk’, which are far too numerous to get into any depth with here. One example of these is – to keep a new mother and her baby safe from the ‘fairies’ they would be given milk from a cow who had eaten a ‘bog-violet’ (mothan). A charm to force a fairy host into releasing anyone they may have taken is to throw the dust from the road, an iron knife, or your left shoe at them and say, “This is yours; that is mine!” (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In those cases where a person is suffering from a bad fairy spell or curse, a ‘Fairy Doctor’ must be found, who is a person who has special knowledge of the fairies. These ‘Doctors’ are able to diagnose the exact cause and produce the appropriate charm, chant, or herb that will cure the unfortunate victim. Farmers, meanwhile, would tie a red ribbon on their cattle or horses as a means of keeping fairies away. Some would tie a rowan twig on to a cow’s tail, or lightly strike the animals with rowan or hazel switches to achieve the same aim. Just as rowan and red thread is known to protect things from fairies, there are other well-known protections, such as anything that is made of iron.
A means of maintaining good relations with the ‘Fairy Folk’ is to offer the gifts such as milk, butter, and bread left by the doorway, or at the roots of a ‘Fairy Tree’, as well as a small amount of whatever one is drinking poured out onto the ground. In some instances, milk might be thrown in the air for the fairies or butter buried near a bog as an offering to them. On holy days, it was customary for some people to offer a heavy porridge that was poured into a hole in the earth, or bread which could be left out, or tossed over the shoulder. Among other people it was customary, on Beltaine, to bleed live cattle and offer the blood collected to the fairies. These days people still make offerings to the ‘Good People’ in certain parts of Ireland which include milk, cream, bread or other baked goods, honey, and portions of meals, as well as alcohol.
In conclusion, it must be pointed out that there appears to be a long standing and complex association between the ‘Fairy Folk’ and the dead. In fact, the dead often appear among the ranks of the ‘Good People’, especially the newly dead. There is also evidence to suggest that better class of fairies are fond of human society and often act as guardians to those they love. In parts of Donegal and Galway they are believed to receive the souls of the dying and escort them to the gates of heaven although they are not allowed to enter with them. On this account, fairies love graves and graveyards, having often been seen walking to and fro among the grassy mounds. There are, indeed, some accounts of faction fights among the fairy bands at or shortly after a funeral, the question in dispute being whether the soul of the departed belonged to one or the other faction.
There are many stories within Irish folklore that feature someone seeing a person whom they thought to be dead. This is often explained by saying that the person in question had not died but was taken by the ‘Fairy Folk’ and a ‘Changeling’ left behind, which was buried in the person’s name. In many stories a person is believed to have died but appears, often in a dream, to a loved one and explains that they have been taken into ‘Fairy Land’ and can only be rescued in a certain way .This rescue plan usually involves the living person going to a crossroads at midnight when the ‘Fairy Raid’ will pass by and grabbing their loved one from the horse he or she is riding.
Giving honour and offerings to the ‘Fairy Folk’ is an important aspect of an Irish folklore customs and are traditions that we would all do well to continue in our modern, scientifically and technologically advanced world. The more kindly fairies often take great pleasure in assisting those who treat them with proper respect, and as the favours always take a practical form, there is sometimes a business value in the show of reverence for them. There was Barney Noonan, of the County Leitrim, for instance, who was described “And no better boy was in the county than Barney. He’d work as regular as a pump and liked a bit of a diversion as well as anybody when he had time for it. That, wasn’t often, to be sure, but he couldn’t be blamed for that, for he wasn’t rich enough by no manner of means to be celebrating regularly. He’d a great regard for the ‘Good People’, and when he went be the rath beyond his field, he’d pull off his cap and take the clay pipe out of his mouth, as polite as a dancing master, and say, ‘God save you, ladies and gentlemen,’ that the ‘Good People’ always heard though they never showed themselves to him.He had a bit of bog land, that the hay was on, and after cutting it, he left it to dry, and the sun came out beautiful and, in a day or so, the hay was as dry as powder and ready to put away. “So Barney was going to put it up, but, it being the day of the fair, he thought he’d take the calf and sell it, and so he did, and coming up with the boys, he stayed over his time, being hindered with the drinking and dancing and chatting-up the girls, so it was after dark when he got home and the night as black as a crow, the clouds gathering on the tops of the mountains likeevil spirits and creeping down into the glens like angels of destruction, and the wind howling like ten thousand Banshees, but Barney didn’t mind it all, being stupefied with the drink he’d had. So the hay never entered the head of him, but in he went and tumbled in bed and was snoring like a horse in two minutes, for he was a bachelor, God bless him, and had no wife to nag him and ask him where he’d been, and what he’d been at, and make him tell a hundred lies about not getting home before. So, it came on to thunder and lightning like all the evil demons in the universe were fighting with cannons in the sky, and by and by there was a clap loud enough to split your skull and Barney woke up.
“‘Damn it,’ says he to himself, ‘it’s going to rain and me hay on the ground. What will I do?’ says he. “So, he rolled over on the bed and looked out of a crack for to see if it was really raining. And there was the biggest crowd he had ever seen of little men and women. They’d built a row of fires from the cow-house to the bog and were coming in a string like the cows going home, each one with his two arms full of hay. Some were in the cow-house, receiving the hay; some were in the field, raking the hay together; and some were standing with their hands in their pockets as if they were the bosses, telling the rest for to make haste. And so, they did, for every one run like he was going for the doctor, and brought a load and hurried back for more.
“Barney looked through the crack at them, crossing himself every minute with admiration for the speed they had. ‘God be good to me,’ says he to himself, ‘It is not every young man in Leitrim that’s got haymakers like them,’ only he never spoke a word out loud, for he knew very well the ‘Good People’ wouldn’t like it. So, they brought in all the hay and put it in the house and then let the fires go out and made another big fire in front of the door and began to dance round it with the sweetest music Barney had ever heard.
“Now by this time he’d got up and feeling easy in his mind about the hay, began to be very merry. He looked on through the door at them dancing, and by and by they brought out a jug with little tumblers and began to drink something that they poured out of the jug. If Barney had the sense of a herring, he’d have kept still and let them drink their fill without opening the big mouth on him, being that he was as full as a goose himself and needed no more; but when he saw the jug and the tumblers and the fairies drinking away with all their might, he got mad and bellowed out like a bull, ‘A-a-h now, you little skites, is it drinking you are, and never giving a sup to a thirsty mortal that always treats you as well as he knows how,’ and immediately the fairies, and the fire, and the jug all went out of his sight, and he went to bed again in a temper. While he was lying there, he thought he heard talking and a secret revelry going on, but when he peeped out again, not a thing did he see but the black night and the rain coming down and each drop would fill a water glass. So, he went to sleep, contented that the hay was in, but not pleased that the ‘Good People’ would be pigs entirely, to be drinking under his eyes and not offer him a taste, no, not so much as a smell of the jug.
“In the morning up he gets and out to look at the hay and see if the fairies put it in right, for he says, ‘It’s a job they’re not used to.’ So, he looked in the cow-house and thought his eyes would leave him when there wasn’t a straw in the house at all. ‘Holy Moses,’ says he, ‘what have they done with it?’ and he couldn’t conceive what had happened to the hay. So he looked in the field and it was all there; bad luck to the bit of it had the fairies left in the house at all, but when he shouted at them, they got very angry and took all the hay back again to the bog, putting every straw where Barney laid it, and it was as wet as a drowned cat. But it was a lesson to him he never forgot, and I’ll guarantee you that the next time the fairies help him in with his hay he’ll keep still and let them drink themselves to death if they please without saying a word.” We should not forget or turn our backs on the ‘Fairy Realm’ that has existed side by side with our own for so many centuries. Honouring the ‘Fairy Folk’ prevents ill-luck befalling us and can bring us good luck and blessings. More importantly it helps us to create a reciprocal relationship between us and the ‘Fairy Folk’ that is based on respect and friendship. Nevertheless, it is never a bad idea to know the signs of fairy trouble and how to protect yourself against them or find a ‘Fairy Doctor’ or Wise Woman to help you.
But we must remember that the fairies are by no means so numerous these days as they used to be. It is said their demise began with the rapid spread of National Schools and Father Mathew’s Temperance movement throughout Ireland, for it is known “they hate learning and wisdom and are lovers of nature.” In a few remote districts, where the schools scarce, the ‘Good People’ are still to be found, and their doings are told to us with a childlike faith in the power of these first inhabitants of Ireland, for it seems to be agreed among many researchers that they were in the country long before the coming either of the Gael, or of the English oppressor. So it is, that we mortals humans have a long and complex relationship with the ‘Fairy Folk’ and we must always remember that they are just as present today as they have ever been.
Wedin, W., The Sí, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats’s Early Works, 1998.
The following article is the first part of a series of articles under the same title, which have had some success on Facebook Groups. I hope that you will enjoy these articles just as much.
Part One – Introduction
The following is an old Irish tale that is told of a young man who was kidnapped by the fairy folk, who left a copy of his body in his place. The discovery of this false body encouraged the family to believe that the young man had died, just as it was meant to do. The day of the boy’s funeral was sad for all those family members, neighbours and friends who were in attendance and that same night the young man’s father had a disturbing dream. In this vision he saw his ‘dead’ son appear to him and reveal that he was not dead but had been kidnapped by the Sidhe (Irish Fairies – pronounced ‘Shee’). He appealed to his father to come and rescue him by making his way to the Cross in the nearby village at midnight on Midsummer Night’s Eve, bringing with him some trusted friends, a black-handled knife, and some whiskey. In the dream the boy explained that his father was to wait until he would see his son pass by on a fairy horse and then cut off the animal’s right ear. The father was warned that only by following these instruction could he successfully release the boy from the Sidhe. So, when Midsummer Night’s Eve arrived the boy’s father and his trusted friends gathered at the Cross as he was told. The party waited but they did not see the fairy host riding past, and the son was lost to his family for all time. Unknown to the father, the spell had not worked because the scheme had been cursed by the presence in the group of a man who had murdered three other men.
A familiar Irish fairy tale which, like most Irish fairy tales, does not have a happy-ever-after ending. Unfortunately, there is another common tendency in that those who read these stories often consign them to tales of fantasy. In these modern times of the twenty-first century, however, there has been a rebirth of interest in such stories because they are considered to be tales of mystery and imagination and categorised as “Young Adult Fiction.” But for many readers of Irish Fairy Folklore this is a great error because there is evidence that not all folklore stories can be simply assigned to the category of fictional fantasy. In fact, some of the tales told may have some degree contained within them. Consider the following story that was related by Elizabeth Andrews in her book “Ulster Folklore” –
“In the time of the press-gang a crowd was seen approaching some cottages. A great alarm ensued, and the young men fled; but it was soon discovered that these people did not come from a man-of-war – they were fairies.
A terrible story, showing how the fairies can punish their captives, was told to me by an old woman at Armoy in County Antrim, who vouched for it as being ‘Candid Truth’. A man’s wife was carried away by the fairies; he married again, but one night his first wife met him, told him where she was, and besought him to release her, saying that if he would do so she would leave that part of the country and not trouble him anymore. She begged him however, not to make the attempt unless he were confident he could carry it out, as if he failed she would die a terrible death. He promised to save her. He promised to save her, and she told him to watch at midnight when she would be riding past the house with the fairies; she would put her hand in at the window, and he must grasp it and hold tight. He did as she bade him, and although the fairies pulled hard, he had nearly saved her, when his second wife saw what was going on, and tore his hand away. The poor woman was dragged off, and across the fields he heard her piercing cries, and saw next morning the drops of blood where the fairies had murdered her.”
The reader can undoubtedly see the similarities in both stories, but the former tale appears to have some historical proof of its veracity as reported in ‘The Kerry Evening Post’ of 1st July 1837. Under a heading of “Fairy Tale” the reporter states that the events in the first story actually happened. In 1837 as young Tipperary man did die and, after his funeral, his father had a dream. In that dream, it was said, the son asked his father to save him from the fairies at midnight on 24th June. The boy also gave his father instructions to bring some friends, whiskey, and a black-handled knife. The father, it is reported, duly assembled his neighbours to go with him on this mission, in total about 1,200 locals, and as darkness fell, on 24th June, they were ready as instructed. The fairy host did not show itself and the fact that a triple murderer was present was not revealed until a subsequent dream. It would be a challenge these days if twelve of my neighbours, never mind 1,200, would gather with me to rescue a fairy kidnap victim. The story, however, does demonstrate that there was a deeply held and widespread belief among the Irish people concerning the fairy folk. If the people did not think that the fairy folk were real then you can be certain 1200 people would not have assembled to assist a father in his rescue of a son from the fairy realm.
The middle of the nineteenth century was a period in Irish history during which the existence of fairies was taken most seriously by large sections of the people and also began to feature in written accounts. Most of the fairy lore that we have today has been handed down to us from these times in the tales and superstitions collected and published in the later nineteenth century. In later years, this knowledge was greatly added to by the folklore archives which were collected during the 1930s and 1940s in an unprecedented effort by the Irish Government. But it appears that those who study the tales and superstitions consider the ways in which they compare with the stories and beliefs in other parts of the country, or even among other nationalities. Personally, I study the stories and superstitions because of the simple enjoyment they give and the wonder aroused at the fact that 1,200 Irishmen and women gathered one night, prepared to do battle with a fairy host to release a young man who had been taken against his will.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the Irish peasantry held strongly to their belief in the fairy folk, which caused certain sectors to attack such beliefs in the hope of destroying what they considered to be pure nonsense. Ireland at that time was under the administrative and military control of the class-obsessed Anglo-Irish establishment who looked upon the Irish as simple-minded, useless, and lazy. Their belief in the fairy folk was seen as emphasising their simple mindedness and entitled to be mocked. Meanwhile, the Catholic Emancipation Act saw the re-establishment of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and it was a major objective of the clergy to quash the heretical belief system that acknowledged the presence of fairy folk. Also, with the widespread growth of nationalism in the country there was a campaign of modernisation to bring Ireland into the modern era, where there would be no room for fairy tales and superstitions. All of these actions have resulted in the present-day attitude that fairies, fairy tales, and superstitions are more suited to children rather than adults. Nevertheless, in many areas of Ireland the belief in fairy folk and fair lore remain an important aspect of rural life and how it is lived.
 Elizabeth Andrews, Ulster Folklore, London, Elliot Stock, P.26 – downloaded from Project Gutenberg 29/6/2020)