Bessie and the Priest

An Irish Village Tale.

And what has become of Peggy?” I asked.

Sure, didn’t her mother pack her off to America as soon as she was able, after the baby was born? That has always been the case here, when a woman falls to misfortune. Sure, Didn’t Bessie have to go in the end, and her swearing she couldn’t give a damn for what the priest said about her?

Bessie, who?” I asked

Bessie Cairns, of course.”

There was something about that name that perked my interest and so I asked the driver to tell me about her. “Well,” he began, “it was Father Martyn that put her out of the parish. But the girl bit back and put a curse on the parish which lasts until this very day.”

“Sure, you don’t believe in things like curses, do you?”

Indeed, I do,” he insisted, “Isn’t it a desperate thing to put a curse on someone and the curse that Bessie put on this parish was a bad one. I’d go as far as to say that I have never heard tell of a worse one. The sun was well up at the time, and she was standing on the hilltop with both her hands raised skyward. Then, in her loudest voice, she laid out her terrible curse upon the entire parish. She said that every year a roof would collapse and the family in that house would leave for America, never to return. That was Bessie’s curse upon us and sure, hasn’t every word of it come true? Sure, you’ll soon see for yourself after we cross the stream.”

And whatever happened to Bessie’s baby?” I asked.

He looked at me with a puzzled expression and answered, “In the name of God, sure, I didn’t know that she had a wee one!

The driver turned his attention back to the road ahead, muttering under his breath while driving further toward the village. That old car shook, rattled and chugged along that graveled country road for a while. He was silent and I began that, perhaps, my apparent refusal to believe in the power of curses had offended him a little. But, despite this, I decided that I might be able to encourage him to be a little more forthcoming with any information he had about Miss Cairns. “Would you ever tell me, just who is this Bessie Cairns, and how was she able to get the power to put such a terrible curse on the village?

Och, sure, they say that she went into the mountains every night to meet and talk with the fairy folk. Aren’t they the only ones who could have given her the power to lay down such a curse?” he explained.

But, surely to God, she couldn’t have walked that far in one evening?

Wait ‘til I tell you, friend, that those who are in league with the fairies can walk that far, and as far as that again, in one evening. There was shepherd man that saw her, and you can see the ruins of the cottages for yourself as soon as we cross the stream. I will also show you the cottage where Bessie lived with the old blind woman before she went off.

How long is it since Bessie left?” I asked him.

Ah, now, it must be twenty years since that day,” he replied after a moment’s thought. “Sure, there hasn’t been a girl like her in these parts since she left. Of course, I was only a bit of a boy at that time, I recall her being tall and straight like a poplar tree and, when she walked along the street, there was always a bit of a swing in her hips that caused all the boys to stare after her. She had a pair of beautiful dark eyes and a smile that would light up a room. They say that she always enjoyed a laugh and could always be seen with a boy on her arm. But it was also at that time that Father Martyn first arrived in the parish and saw the village as a sort of mini Sodom and Gomorrah with all the courting that the boys and girls were doing. Now, there was no harm in it, at all, for they were young and enjoying life. Boys and girls have sought out each other’s company for hundreds of years and it has become a tradition that causes no harm. But Father Martyn closed the handball alley, because he said that the boys would go there before they would go to Mass. He also brought an end the dances at the cross-roads, claiming that they were sinful gatherings that led to immoral things happening between boys and girls that he would not permit in his parish. Personally, I never saw her, but they do say that there was no one in the district that could dance like Bessie Cairns, and many the boy would go just to see her moves. When I was a bit older, I heard it said that any boy who took a walk with her in the woods during the summer evenings would never have a thought for any other woman afterwards. In the village, the boys were all mad for her and many a fight broke out among them to see who would get the chance to walk out with her. It was all such activities that caused the priest to swear he would be rid o Bessie by hook or by crook.

The Cairns family were quite prosperous, and they ran the main village grocery store. Father Martyn decided, one evening, that he would go to the store and talk to Bessie’s parents about her behavior. But, when the priest entered the store, he found the richest farmer in the district, Mick Moore, already there and attempting to win Bessie’s hand in marriage.  Unfortunately, at least for Mick, he didn’t go straight up to Bessie to ask the question and mistake would destroy his quest. When you entered the shop there were two separate counters, with Bessie attending one and her father attending the other. But Mick Moore had chosen to approach Bessie’s father and ask him for his daughter’s hand. “How much of a fortune is there to go with Bessie?he asked.

Well now, Mick, there is many a man that would take Bessie without a fortune, you know,” said Mr. Cairns. But this did not prevent the conversation from continuing in manner approaching two men bartering for a cow. All the time, Bessie was listening to every word that was said, and she was not at all impressed. It was clear that Mick Moore had no idea just how high-spirited that Bessie was, and he continued to barter until the girl’s father until he was willing to pay fifty-pounds. The farmer thought that he had finally won through and as a final ploy told Bessie’s father, “I’ll not open a fly to her until you throw in the two heifers on the deal!”

“Bessie said nothing for the moment and continued to listen to the dealing as it continued, her temper rising with almost every word. But it was at this point that the priest chose to go over to Bessie’s counter, with a broad, satisfied smile on his face. “Aren’t you the proud one this day,” he began, “to hear that you’ll have such a fine fortune behind you? And sure, I’ll be the happy one to see you married, for I could not allow you to continue your sinful ways that lead the men of this parish astray. It is you that encourages the dancing and the courting in this village, and I’m going to put an end to it.””

“Bessie never said a word in reply and the priest moved back to where Mick Moore and Mr. Cairns were still bartering. “Now, men, why not just settle on fifty-five pounds?” said Father Martyn. The father immediately agreed to the amount since it had been suggested by the parish priest and all three men were satisfied that the marriage agreement had been settled. “What will you be taking, Father?” Cairns asked, “and you Mick?” Not one of them asked Bessie if she was pleased with the settlement and to be marrying Mick Moore.”

“None of the men knew what was in Bessie’s mind until they approached her counter. They were all rather pleased with themselves and were ready to tell her what had been agreed. But Bessie stared angrily at them and said, “I’ve just been listening to you three clowns talking about me and my future.” Then with a toss of her head she told them, in no uncertain terms, that she would be picking the man that she would marry, no matter who it pleased or didn’t.”

“Father Martyn was so angry with Bessie’s attitude that he lost all power of speech. It wasn’t just the detail of what she said, but the manner in which she had spoken to them. She had already decided that the man she would marry would be marrying her for herself alone, and not for any money that might be paid to him once the register was signed, or when the first child was born. As far as Father Martyn was concerned, a girl marrying a man of her own choosing was the thin end of the moral wedge and would lead to anarchy. He had often spoken from the pulpit, saying that parents should have better control of their children and especially those of marriageable age. He said young people should not be allowed to socialize unless accompanied by a responsible adult and insisted that the parents were responsible for arranging suitable marriages for their children. So, it is no wonder that the priest lost his temper when Bessie told everyone that she would do whatever she wanted. As parish priest he had a position to maintain in the community and tried to rein in his anger, even when Bessie told him that there was not a man in the village that she thought good enough to marry. When Bessie’s father heard what his daughter intended to do, he knew that she was a woman who would never be turned from the course she had chosen.”

“Mr. Cairns now turned to Mick Moore and quietly said, “Mick, son, you might as well be on your way, big man, for you’ll never get her now.” This said he went to hear what Bessie was saying to the priest and hoping she would not upset him too much more.”

“But It was Father Martyn who was talking to Bessie and asking her bluntly, “Do you think that I am just going to allow you to gallivant about the district with one or more of the boys in this Parish? Do you think that I am just going to stand idly by and watch the boys of this parish beat lumps out of each other over the likes of you? Do you think that I want to hear more stories like that of poor Paddy Cleary who, they say, lost his senses because of the cruel way you treated him? Well, let me tell you, Bessie Cairns, that I will have none of it! I’ll have you married, or I’ll have you run out of my parish!””

“Bessie chose not to answer him. She just tossed her head nonchalantly and continued to make up packets of tea, and sugar, silently demonstrating to Father Martyn that she didn’t care about what he said, at all. Meanwhile, her father trembled with fear at the prospect of what might now happen, and what the priest might do with the blackthorn stick he had in his hand. Worried that he might just strike Bessie with the blackthorn, Mr. Cairns tried to quieten the priest by promising him that Bessie would no longer be allowed out alone in the evenings. But, that very same evening, the headstrong girl left the house to meet a young man, and both were seen by the priest. Even when she was confronted by the priest about her continuing disobedience, Bessie just laughed loudly and told the priest she was just having fun checking out the local talent.”

“Father Martyn was filled with rage at the manner in which Bessie had spoken to him and her blatant disregard of the promise her father had made to him. The priest went to confront her in the shop a second and third time, but there are no witnesses to tell of what words they spoke to each other. Next Sunday, however, from the pulpit the priest spoke strongly about the sin of disobedience, which was initiated by the devil and a woman. A disobedient daughter, he told the packed Mass, would always be the sorrow of her family and she would have the worst devil in hell always by her side. Then, pointing to Bessie Cairns in the assembly, he branded her as an evil spirit that had been sent by Satan himself to drive men mad with immoral desires. Most of those who were at Mass that day are now either dead, or gone off to America, but I remember being told that the words flowed from the priest with a spitefulness that none had ever witnessed previously. They say that from that day those people who passed close to Bessie blessed themselves to ward off any evil, and the boys of the Parish who had once been besotted with her were now afraid to even look her way. Business at the Cairns’ shop dropped dramatically as people boycotted the business because of Bessie’s presence there, and she was ordered to leave the family home.”

“Her father had thrown her out of the house?” I asked the driver.

“Sure, didn’t the priest threaten the poor man with all sorts of things if he didn’t act as the priest wanted him to. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a person in the parish who would even speak to Bessie, because they were all so afraid of the priest. If it hadn’t been for the blind old woman, whom I told you about already, Bessie would have been left to roam the roads or enter the workhouse. The blind woman had a small cottage at the edge of the peat bog, and I’ll show it to you as we pass by. Bessie now stayed with that old blind woman for almost two years, during which she was publicly disowned by her parents. Her clothes wore out, but she was as beautiful in rags as she was in the best of clothes and, despite being told by the priest that the young men should no longer follow her with their eyes, the boys could not help but stare in admiration.”

“Despite his best efforts, Father Martyn did not get rid of her for a long time. The old blind woman had insisted that she wouldn’t see a girl like Bessie Cairns thrown onto the roads to fend for herself, and she was as good as her word for almost two years until Bessie finally went off to America. Well, at least that is what some people say she did, while others still insist that she had joined the fairy-folk. Pat Hughes said that on the day Bessie left the parish he had heard a person knocking at the window and asking him if he would leave her to the railway station in his cart. It was early morning, and Pat said that it was too early for him to be getting up, but he was certain that the person knocking the window was Bessie Cairns. He believes that she must have gritted her teeth and travelled the ten miles to the railway station by her own efforts.”

“You mentioned the curse she left?” I pointed out to him.

“Aye, indeed she did, and you’ll soon see the hill where she laid the curse for yourself. There was a local man taking a small flock of sheep to the fair that morning. The sun was just rising, and he saw her as she cursed the village, raising her hands up to the sky. Every year since that curse was laid, a roof has fallen in and, on occasion, two or three.”

There was no doubt in my mind that he believed every word of the story he had told me, and he had almost convinced me that it was true. A beautiful woman had become an evil spirit through the action of a clergyman, and she had cursed the village that would not defend her. “Look there!” the driver said suddenly, interrupting my train of thought. “Do you see that old woman? Well, that’s Bridie Cohan and she owns the house.” Looking out over the field I saw a small house built of loose stones that appeared to have no mortar holding them in place, but it appeared to be better built than some of the cottages I had seen so far. “Now,” the driver continued, “you’ll get a look at the loneliest village in Ireland!

All the surrounding fields that I saw appeared to be good, fertile land, but there were very few people wandering around the place. The number of untilled fields amazed me, and I was deeply shocked to see so many ruined homes. These were not the ruins typical of thirty or forty years previously, when people were evicted forcibly from their homes, but they had been recently abandoned by their tenants. “Aye, these homes were left voluntarily rather than the people being thrown out,” I said aloud.

That’s the truth! Sure, wouldn’t the landlord be a happy man to have them back here, but there’s no chance of that happening. Every person here will have to go eventually, and father Martyn will not have worry about immorality in the place, for he’ll be preaching to an empty chapel. There will only be old, blind Bridie Cohan who must be a hundred if she’s a day, and she can’t stand the sight of him. By the way, did you know that there has been a rumor that Bessie has been seen in America. I’ll be going there in the autumn, you know, and you can be sure that I will be keeping an eye out for her.

I smiled broadly at this and pointed out to him, “But, all of this happened twenty-years ago. Sure, you won’t be able to recognise her, for a woman changes a great deal in twenty years.”

He shook his head and said, “Now, don’t be talking nonsense. Bessie will not have changed a bit, for hasn’t she been with the fairies?

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