I hope you all have a very merry Christmas and a Happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year. Let u all pray, each to our own that 2021 will be a much better year than 2020. And at this time of year can we spare a thought for all those who have died because of this Pandemic and the families who will be without their family members this Christmas. God Bless. See you in 2021 with a new range of stories, poems, and tales,
I would like to relate here a tale of horror that occurred over one hundred years ago to a family, for whom members of my family worked. Those directly affected by the events of that Christmas season openly spoke about them to my distant relations, who recorded them, and their story is related here as a warning to us all.
“I was only nineteen years of age when an incident occurred that, unfortunately, has thrown a dark shadow across my life since that time. My days and my years have dragged by since that time, and I have been worn out by it all. In the years before the incident, I was a young and happy teenager, and much loved by my parents. I was once very much complimented on possessing a fine complexion and very attractive features. Now, when I look at myself in a mirror, my eyes are filled with the reflection of an old, haggard woman, with ashen coloured lips and a face that has the look of death about it.
“Despite what you might think, I am not complaining or lamenting the fact that I have grown old. But it was not simply the passing of years that has brought me to such a sorrowful condition, a wreck of my former self. If it had been this alone, in fact, I could have accepted the result more cheerfully, in the knowledge that we all must grow older. In my case, however, it was not the natural progress of passing years that actually robbed me of my bloom of youth, of the hopes and joys of my life, and causing the heartbreak that would leave me doomed to suffer a lonely old age. Although I try hard to be patient with my lot, the concerns and worries of life are like a heavy weight, bearing me down. My heart is completely shattered, empty of any emotion, and so weary of life that I now long for the peace of a death that comes so slowly to those who pray for it.
“Your appetite has probably been whetted now to discover what terrible event has brought me to this condition. The time has come for me, then, to try and relate that terrible event in my life, exactly as it happened. Even though the event which blighted my life occurred many years ago, I cannot forget even the smallest detail of that time. That incident in my life has been placed into my brain and my heart as if seared there by the heat of a red-hot branding iron. Every millisecond of that time I can see in the wrinkles that cover my brow, and in the whiteness of my dying hair. In my youth that same hair was a glossy brown once, and it shone brightly with the life that was in it and within me. But my hair did not gradually change from brown to grey, or from grey to white in any natural manner. It was not at all like the hair of my friends whose later years are comforted by the love of their children and grandchildren. You must wonder if I envy them and, in many ways, I do. But I admit this only as a means to point out to you the difficulty that I have in telling my story is due entirely to the fact that I remember the event too well. Even as I begin to write these things down, however, my hand begins to trembles, and my head begins to swim with faintness. There is a great sense of true horror that takes a grip of my being, pulling me back into a long-remembered terror. Despite all of these things I have been persuaded to grit my teeth and complete this record of that horror, which I have been through.
“At the time when my story begins, I was the young heiress to my family’s substantial fortune. My father was a wise and clever businessman, who had used his talents to gather a large amount of wealth about him. But, although he never showed any disappointment to us, there was very little doubt that he did not have a son to inherit what he had built. Instead, my parents had given life to three daughters, of whom I was the youngest, and we would each share equally in the wealth that our father would pass on to us.
“Being a youthful nineteen-year-old girl, I spent no time at all on my future inheritance because all my needs were so well taken care of. I was healthy at that time, young and in love, all of which made me feel quite indifferent toward other things. Of course, we three sisters knew that we were heiresses, but I do not think Lucy and Minnie were made any happier or prouder because of that fact. We all had everything that we needed, and life was good.
“Roger, who was the love of my life, did not take an interest in me only because of the money that I would inherit. This was sorely proven to me when, after the terrible event that overcame me, he abandoned me. It is, perhaps, the one thing that I can be truly thankful for, even in my lonely old age. He didn’t stay with me for the money unlike so many ‘gold-digging’ men would have. Now, in lonely old age, I can be happy in the knowledge that I was loved, and that in itself has prevented me from going mad through all the many weary days and nights.
“The house in which we lived was an old Tudor-style mansion, and my father was the type of person who would not tolerate any change in the structure. Like an old castle, the house had numerous turrets, battlements and gable walls remained. The old-fashioned windows with their quaint lozenge-shaped panes of glass set in lead were as they had been three hundred years previously.
“Attached to the house there was a large area of deep, thick coniferous woodland, bordered by a slow flowing stream. All this land stretching from the house was owned almost entirely by my father and was inhabited by good-hearted and hard-working tenant farmers. These countryfolk were steeped in ancient ideas and traditions, and it was within this superstitious atmosphere that we were reared as children. We constantly heard tales of horror, fables and legends of dark deeds done in olden times. We were fascinated by such stories, and we marvelled at the descriptions of creatures and spirits that were said to inhabit our world.
“Our mother had died when we were young, leaving our father a widower with three girls to care for. He was kind and loving to us in his own way, but he was very much absorbed in the day-to-day affairs of his business enterprises. I effect, there was no person who could control the flow and content of the traditions and superstitions that we were exposed to, and like sponges our innocent soaked them all up. But all children eventually grow up and there came a time when ghostly tales gave way to dances, dresses and potential life partners. It was at a large ball held by a neighbouring judge that I first met Roger, who was destined to be the love of my young life. As I have said, I am sure that he loved me with every beat of his heart and, even in the times of my grief and anger, I have never doubted this fact. We also blessed by the fact that his father and mine approved of our growing attachment. Today, I can look back upon those happy days as being something of a beautiful dream that I have experienced. But change was to come to me, and bright and happy days of youth came to an end as blight and sorrow took a grip of my life.
“Christmas was always a joyful and a hospitable time in our home, and among the neighbours that surrounded us. In our house we played all the traditional games and maintained all the old family customs and frolics that were so much a part of celebrating this great feast. The manor, as usual, was filled to capacity with a variety of guests, for whom there was just about enough sleeping accommodation. There were several narrow, dark rooms available in the turrets of the house. We were once told that they had provided, at one time, good shelter to many noble gentlemen in days gone by. But, to us they were nothing more than mere pigeon coops. This Christmas, however, they were to be allotted to those visitors who were bachelors, after having been empty for over a hundred years.
“Every spare room in the house and its wings of the hall were occupied that night, and those who had brought servants were lodged at the gate-house and the farm. But the unexpected arrival of an elderly relative immediately caused an awful commotion and the drawing up of new accommodation plans. Months before Christmas, this elderly relative had been invited to the celebrations, but she had never announced her intention to accept the invitation. When she arrived, therefore, may aunts, who were the chief organisers, panicked and went about the house wringing their hands and wondering what they could do.
“Lady Hurst was a woman of some note and some consequence within our family. She was a distant cousin of ours but had been very cold toward us for quite a number of years, because of some affront or slight that she alleged was shown to her on the last occasion that she visited our home. At seventy years old, Lady Hurst somewhat infirm, quite rich, and very testy. Her last visit to us was at the time of my christening and I was given the honour of having her as my godmother. Although, in the last number of years you would never have thought that she held such a position in my life and, as a result, I did not expect any kind of an inheritance from her if and when she died
“My Aunt Margaret had begun to panic when she saw Lady Hurst arrive unexpectedly. “We have no room! No room!” she said excitedly. “Isn’t this just our luck? The turret rooms are certainly not suitable, but where can we put her. She is Rose’s godmother, and she’s as rich as Croesus. After all these years of staying away from here, she comes back today and not a room available to her. What can we do?”
“My aunts could not surrender their rooms for the comfort of Lady Hurst, because they had already given them over to some of the invited married guests, who had already arrived. They could not approach my father and ask him to give up his room to the old woman. My father was, I can assure you the most hospitable of men, but he suffered greatly from rheumatoid arthritis to the extent that he was virtually incapable of walking normally. My aunts would not dared ask him to move rooms for they knew the man would rather have lain on broken glass than sleep in a bed other than his own. Finally, it was I who settled the problem by giving up my room, though I was not exactly happy at having to do so. In fact, I surprised myself by feeling so selfish and especially when a trifling sacrifice on my part would make an old and infirm lady comfortable.
“My momentary selfishness annoyed me somewhat because I was young, healthy and strong. The weather was not cold for the time of the year and, even though it was Christmas, there was no snow on the ground and the dark moist clouds overhead did not appear to be ready to unload any. But I did do the generous thing and surrendered my room to Lady Hurst. My sisters laughed and made fun of me for trying to wake his impression on my godmother.
“”Maybe she’s a fairy godmother, Rose,” said Mary, “and you know she felt slightly insulted at the time of your christening, and she had left the house swearing that one day she would have her revenge. Now, here she is! She is coming back to see you and I hope she brings some golden gifts with her.”
“In all honesty I thought little of Lady Hurst, or even her golden gifts. In fact, I cared very little for the fortune gathered by this elderly woman, which my aunts talked about all the time. But, since that time, I have wondered if I had shown some obstinacy and refused to give up my room to Lady Hurst, would my life have been much different. If I had not surrendered the room then Lucy or Mary would have had to offer and then suffered the horror that I met. My heart is still torn when I asked myself, “Would it have been better if the horror did fall on someone else rather than me?”
The room that I was now given was a dim little triangular room in the west wing of the house. It could only be reached by crossing the ‘picture-gallery’, or by climbing a little flight of stairs which led directly upward from the low-browed arch of a door that opened into the garden area. There was one more room on the same landing, but it was used mainly to house broken furniture, old toys, and bits of timber that had accumulate over the years. As for the room in which I was to sleep for the next few nights there were tapestries on the wall, with old, faded green velvet curtains, fresh clothes on the bed, which had been hurriedly made, and quite oddly a new carpet. The furniture in the room was half old and half new, and on the dressing-table stood a very old oval mirror, in a frame of black ebony. It is many years ago now, but my memory of that night is so good that I will never forget one detail of it.
“Every Christmas several local girls were hired to act as maids for the guests that had been invited to our home. That short winter’s day had drawn to a close and the maids busied themselves with the large number of guests, who were very much looking forward to a Christmas feast and party. A large variety of traditional yuletide foods was served to them and, after dinner, a large number of guests gathered together in the huge drawing-room, in which a great wood-fire blazed in the ornate marble hearth. Among the crowd were, of course, the old, hard-riding, hard-drinking men of the fox-hunting clique, mumbling to each other over their port in the dining-room, and father was obliged to remain with them. The ladies and all the younger gentlemen, in the meantime, were all together in the drawing-room. Some of these had been invited to spend the night at our house, while others would have to make their own way home in the early hours, navigating narrow, dark, and lonely country roads.
“Roger was at the gathering, of course, and he sat by my side. It was well known by everyone that we were engaged and were only waiting until the spring came so we could marry. My sisters were not very far away, and they seemed to have found handsome men whose hearts were very responsive to them. I could see the eyes of those men sparkle and soften as they met these young, attractive women. They were full of the joys of youth, innocent and very loving young ladies to whom the young gentlemen wanted to converse.
“The drawing room was large and lofty, with an arched roof that had somewhat sombre character, caused by the polished black oak features. On the walls hung ornate mirrors and many beautiful paintings, and the room was filled with tasteful furniture, a marble chimneypiece, and a large, colourful carpet. Many lights were burning, but in a forlorn hope of brightening the dark walls and roof. But the black oak just appeared to ingest the rays of light like the mouth of a huge cave. A searchlight might have had serious difficulty in giving that room a cheerful glow of a modern drawing room. The gloomy richness of the panels, however, matched well with the ruddy gleam from the enormous wood-fire in which, crackling and glowing, lay the mighty Yule log.
“There was a blood-red lustre from the fire, reflected off the walls and roof. I was with a large group of the young people gathered around the antique hearth in a wide circle. The light from the fire, candles, and bulbs fell upon each of our faces though not on all equally, for some preferred to stay in the shadow of another. I remember still how tall, manly, and handsome Roger looked that night. He was at least a head taller than any other person in the drawing room, and full of high spirits and fun. I must admit that I too was in the highest of spirits, and the rest the rest of our company joined in our joyous mood. All, that is, except for one.
“Lady Hurst was dressed in grey silk and was wearing a quaint head-dress. She was sitting in a big, comfortable armchair, facing the fire, very quiet, with her hands and her sharp chin propped on a sort of ivory-handled stick that she used because she was lame. All the while the old woman was peering at me with half-closed eyes. She was a small, old, and had very delicate features. The grey silk dress, her spotless lace, old-fashioned jewellery, and her overall neatness in appearance, were well suited to the intelligent face, with its thin lips, and eyes of a piercing black that were undimmed by age. But, in spite of my high-spirited mood, those eyes made me feel uncomfortable as they appeared to follow my every movement around the room. Still, I tried hard to be both merry and happy, even to the point where my own sisters began to wonder what come over me. my ever-ready mirth, which was almost wild in its excess. Nevertheless, Lady Hurst’s eyes did make a disagreeable impression upon me and others quickly began to notice her scrutinising, but they put it down to her eccentricity.
“That disagreeable impression lasted only a few moments I was more pleasantly distracted. My aunt now began to take part in the conversation that was happening, and we found ourselves listening to a weird legend. The old lady was a good teller of stories, and one tale would, naturally, lead to another.
“Everyone in the room was called upon to contribute to the entertainment, and each story contained some form of demonology and witchcraft. It was, after all, Christmas, and the season for such tales to be told. The old drawing room, with its dusky walls was the perfect place to relate stories like these. The huge logs were crackling in the hearth and burned with a warm glow. The blood-red glare of the ‘Yule log’ reflected on the faces of storyteller and listeners alike, on paintings and the holly wreaths wrapped about their frames. It is no wonder, in the shimmering lustre of an ominously ruddy hue upon the oaken panels that the ghost and goblin stories took on a life of their own. As the tales unfolded the blood of those more timid grew chill and curdled. They felt their flesh creep while their hearts beat irregularly. The young ladies peeped fearfully over their shoulders and huddled close together like frightened sheep, believing that some impish and malignant face was cackling at them from the dark corners of the old room.
“By degrees, my high spirits began to die out, and I started those childish tremors that I long thought I had left behind. I listened intently to each story as it was told, but I never asked myself if I believed in the authenticity of such dismal tales. A fear grew on me, like a child left alone in the nursery and menaced by variously shaped dark shadows. I am sure that most of ladies that were present in the room, both young and middle-aged, were affected in a variety of ways by the wild and fantastic characters in these tales. Those fears and tremors would die out with the first light of a new day, when the bright sun would shine again on the frost covered grass and tree branches and was reflected by the rich red berries and glossy green spiked holly leaves. This form of entertainment soon ended, however, as my father and the older men returned into our midst. No one was courageous enough to relate such tales when these hard-headed, unimaginative men, returned, because they scorned such idle legends and superstitions.
“The previous quiet that had prevailed now disappeared, to make way for quite a bit of stir and bustle. There was tea, coffee, and other refreshments being served as some played piano and others sang. Roger and I sang a duet together. He had a very fine voice and good musical skills that carried me through the song. Surprisingly, my singing was praised for its power and pathos. At the same time, I heard one lady say to another that I was by far the cleverest of my father’s daughters, as well as being the prettiest. Such compliments, however, did not make me vain since there was absolutely no competition between myself and my sisters. Roger whispered some soft, loving words in my ear as he put on his coat and got into the taxi to bring him home. It was now time for shawls, coats, and other apparel to be called for as various vehicles rolled up to the porch of the house, and the guests gradually began to make their way home. At last, there was no one left in the house but those who were staying the night there. Then I noticed my father, with a look of great annoyance evident on his face.
“”I have just been told a very strange story,” I heard him say, “One of the tenant farmers has just informed me that we have lost four of best ewes that we have been rearing on his land. It was that new flock that arrived at the end of October and the poor man says that they have been killed in a very strange way, with their carcasses having been torn to pieces and horribly mangled.”
“There was a collective sound of shock in the room when this news was revealed. Some of the younger men suggested that the culprit could very well have been a vicious dog. “It would seem so,” said father, “it would appear to be the work of a very vicious dog, and yet there is no dog fitting that description in this area. There are only sheepdogs and sporting dogs, all of which are well secured in yards. But the sheep have been gnawed and bitten because they show the marks of teeth distinctly. Some creature has done this thing and torn those bodies apart like a wolf would. The mystery is that very little, or no, flesh has been taken from any of the bodies and that the attack was apparently made just to suck the blood from the sheep.”
“Heavens above!” was one excited cry when this news was revealed. Then one of the men recalled having heard that dogs could become addicted to sheep- killing and even wipe out an entire flock. “They say that the sight that is left to us is one of complete wantonness, scarcely waiting even a moment to taste a single morsel of flesh.”
“My father shook his head. “I also have heard of such cases,” he said, “but in this case I think that this might be the work of some unknown enemy. The teeth of a dog have been busy, of that there is no doubt, but these poor sheep have been mutilated in a very unusual manner that was as strange as it was horrible. The hearts of the animals have been torn out, and left several feet away from the carcasses, half- gnawed. The men, moreover, insist that they discovered the print of a naked human foot in the soft mud of the ditch. Near to it, this was found.” And he held up what appeared to be a broken link of a rusted iron chain.
“These revelations brought more exclamations of wonder and alarm, as well as many more suggestions, none of which appeared to have a bearing on the case. Then, when my father went on to say that two lambs of the same valuable breed had been killed in the same manner three days previously, there were further loud exclamations. All the while Lady Hurst had listened very calmly but joined in none of our exclamations. Finally, she spoke to my father, “Try to remember if you have you any enemies among your neighbours?”
“My father gave her a puzzled look and frowned heavily at her. “Not one that I know of,” he replied, confident that he was a popular and kind man.
“Then, you are indeed a lucky man,” said the old woman, with one of her grim smiles.
“The hour was now very late, one-by-one we went off to our rooms to rest. Unfortunately, I was the family who was selected to escort old Lady Hurst to her room, the room I had vacated for her to use. It was not a task that I was fond of, because I did not like her much, godmother or not. My aunts, however, insisted that I should ingratiate myself with a woman who had as much money as she had, in case she might leave to a favourite such as might become. The old lady hobbled up the broad oaken stairs using both my arm her ivory crutch as props. When we reached the door to the room, I opened it and led her into the brightly furnished room, which had a warm fire, glowing in the hearth. “This is a very nice room, dear,” she said as she looked around her new surroundings, “I should thank you, since I have been told that you have given it up to me.”
“All I could do was to smile at her compliment. “But My dear, I sure you’ll be sorry for your generosity to me, when you consider the strange bedchamber that you have been given, especially after all those ghost stories that were told. Yes?” the old lady added. I simply shrugged this off, telling her that I didn’t believe in such things.
“Where have they put you, child?” she asked, “in some little mouse-hole in the turrets, or in a glory hole somewhere else to sleep among the discarded things of the house. You need not try to be so brave, for I can hear your heart pounding with fear at this moment. I don’t think should be alone tonight.”
“Calling up every ounce of my pride, I tried to laugh off her doubts about my courage. Deep inside my own mind, however, I realised there was quite a lot of truth in what she had said. “Is there anything more that I can get for you, Lady Hurst?” I asked her, while trying to trying to pretend to yawn in the hope that she would see that I was already very sleepy.
“There was to be no such luck for me, because the old woman’s eyes stared directly at me. “You know my dear, I rather like you,” she said, “I also liked your mother well enough before she treated me so shamefully about the christening dinner. Now, dear, I know you are frightened and fearful, and if some bird should even flutter at your window to-night, it just might drive you into hysterics. There is a lovely little sofa-bed over there which can be quickly made up for you, and you can sleep there snugly, under the old witch’s protection. Rest assured no creature will harm you, and no one will be any bit the wiser, or mock you for being afraid.” It was my chance to accept her kind offer, and if I had only known what would happen, I might have said “Yes”. Unfortunately, none of us can see into the future with any sense of certainty.
“Still smiling bravely, I closed her door behind me and, as I crossed the landing a bright light came from another room, whose door was left slightly open. The light fell like a golden path across my way and, as I approached the light’s source, the door opened wider and my sister Lucy came out. She had been waiting for me and came out in a white cashmere robe, over which her loosened dark hair hung heavily, like tangles of silk. “Rose,” she whispered, “Mary and I cannot bear the idea of you sleeping in that place, all alone. That isolated bedroom, and the very room the old housekeeper used to talk about! Mary has already given up her room to come to sleep in mine. We would also like for you to stay with us, for tonight at least still we should so wish you to stop with us to-night at least. We could make up a bed on the sofa for me or you–“ I stopped Lucy’s speech with a kiss of thanks.
“I declined Lucy’s offer and did not allow her to finish her plea to me. I was angry, full of self-pride, and I would have done anything but accept a proposal that was made in the belief that my nerves had been shaken by all the ghostly tales that had been told. I wondered if they really thought that I was a weak, superstitious little girl, unable to spend a night in a strange bedroom. Again, I kissed Lucy and bade her good night, before proceeding on my way with a laugh, just to show that I was not frightened. Yet, as I looked back along the dark corridor and could see Lucy’s door was still open and she was peering after me. For a moment I wanted to return to her, but a sense of shame at such cowardice forced me to go on, and I waved her good night.
“Turning the corner, I peeped back over my shoulder and saw the door close, extinguishing the light and bringing back the darkness. Just at that very moment I thought I heard a heavy sigh, and I looked sharply around to see where the noise was coming from. But there was no one there, and there no door was open. Yet, I did hear with great clarity a sigh, which was breathed not far from where I stood. It was a clear sigh, and not to be confused with the groan of tree branches as the wind outside tossed them to and. I was afraid, and my nervous system was kicking in as my imagination began to play strange tricks on me.
“Ahead of me lay the picture-gallery and I had never passed this part of the house without light before. There was a gloomy array of tall portraits whose eyes seemed to follow my every movement. The lozenge-paned or painted windows rattled as the wind blew fiercely past them. In the darkness many of the portraits looked stern and very different from their daylight expression. In other portraits a furtive, flickering smile seemed to mock me as my torch light illuminated them. Not surprisingly, I felt ill at ease under their stony gaze, though I knew that they were not real people. To ease my passage, I smiled and hummed a song to myself. I would even laugh to myself at some of those pictures as I confronted them, and slowly, nervously continued on my way in silence.
“Shaking off my earlier fears, I blushed at my weakness, and continued to look for my room, very happy that I was the only one to witness my trembling. As I entered my room, I thought I heard something move in the much neglected ‘glory-hole’, which was the only neighbouring room to mine. But I was determined not to let my nerves send me into a panic again and I closed my eyes and ears to slight noise. After all, between the rats and the wind, an old manor-house on a stormy night needs no ghosts or other spirits to disturb it. So, I entered the bedroom, and rang for a maid. But, as I did so, I looked around my room, and a terrible, inexplicable repugnance to my new surroundings overcame me, despite of my best efforts.
“This was not a simple chill that made my body shiver and could be easily shaken off. There was an intense feeling of dislike, accompanied by a deep sense of apprehension; the sort of instinct that allows us to regard certain places and people are not entirely beneficial to us. Some of you will undoubtedly consider such things as being irrational, but it is by instinct that we often can distinguish friends from enemies. It is often said, ‘Show me a man whom children and dogs shrink from, and I will show you a bad man, who speaks lies, and has murder in his heart.’ So, we should never despise the gift of instinct that causes the horse to tremble when the lion crouches in the thicket. As I looked around me in this strange bedroom, I felt the presence of danger, and yet I could not explain why I should feel this way. It was a nice room, with drawn green damask curtains, a warm fire burning bright in the hearth, and small table lamps that provided light. The pretty little white bed, also, looked peaceful and inviting, promising me a peaceful night’s sleep.
“My maid arrived in the room and immediately began to assist in my preparations for bed. She was a friendly face on a night when I just did not want to be on my own, and I shamelessly encouraged her to gossip. In fact, we gossiped so much that it took Maura, the maid, a half an hour longer than usual to get through her duties. Then, when all was done that had to be done, Maura asked me if there was anything more that I required from her. She gave a little yawn as she spoke, and I felt sorry for having kept her so long. “There’s nothing more,” I told her, and she left me, closing the door gently behind her.
“With the closing of the bedroom door I was left all alone once again, and I quickly began to feel very uneasy. Everything that was in the room that I had previously liked, I now took a terrible dislike. In fact, I was sorely tempted to put on a dressing-gown and run, half-dressed, through the corridors to my sisters’ room, and tell them that I had a change of mind and wanted to take up their kind offer to sleep in their room. But thinking that they must be asleep by this time, I decided it would not be very kind to awaken them again. Instead, I said my prayers with a little more earnestness than was usual and with a heavy heart I put out the lamp. I was just about to lay my head on my pillow, when I suddenly had the idea that I should lock bedroom door with the key. The flames from the burning fire were enough to guide me in the darkness and I quickly managed to reach the door. There was indeed a lock, but it would not allow me to turn the key in it, no matter how hard I tried. It was evident that there was, at one time, a bolt on the door, but it was now broken and completely worthless to me. Contenting myself that there was nothing more that I could do I returned to my bed, where I lay awake for a good while, watching the red glow of the burning coals in the grate.
“Everything was quiet now, and I was feeling a lot more composed within my mind. Talking to Maura had done me a lot of good and had helped divert my thoughts. I was just about to drop off to sleep when I was suddenly disturbed, twice. The first occasion was caused by an owl, which was hooting from its hiding place within the ivy outside my window. It was a sound that I had heard many times but, this time, it much harsher and melancholier. The second disturbance was a long and mournful howl created by the family’s large hound that had been chained-up in the yard. It was a long-drawn out howl and sounded almost as if it was heralding a death in the family. I knew, of course, that this was nonsense, but I could not help feeling that those mournful tones were sad and expressed the dog’s terror of something evil that it could sense nearby. But my body was tired, and I soon fell asleep in that small, comfortable bed.
“I cannot tell how long I slept, but I awoke at once with an abrupt start which took me from a state of utter unconsciousness to the full use of my senses in a matter of seconds. The coals in the fire were still burning in the grate, but the light it radiated was very low, and more than half the room was now in deep shadow. Instantly I felt that there was someone, or something, in the room with me, but, in the low light nothing unusual could be seen. Nevertheless, I could sense that there was a danger present, and it was that sense of peril that had aroused me from my sleep. I experienced that chill and shock of alarm, knowing that there was an intruder in that room who was invisible to me. My ears were attuned to hear the slightest sound that might give away the intruder’s position, but I could only hear the faint sounds of the fire, and the loud, irregular beatings of my own heart.
“Perhaps it was intuition that told me that I was not alone in that room. I waited, and my heart pounded quicker, and its pulsations grew as my fear deepened. It was this time that I heard a faint, distinct sound of a chain rattling, and I tried to lift my head from the pillow. Although the light was very dim, I saw the curtains shake, and I caught a glimpse of something darker beyond them. I tried to cry out, but I could not utter a single word. The chain rattled again, but much louder and clearer this time. In the dim darkness, I caught a glimpse of something, but no matter how hard I tried I could not penetrate the shadows at the other end of the room, where the noise appeared to be generated. My mind was now suddenly filled with all sorts of questions. Was it a robber? Could it be a supernatural visitor? Or was I the victim of some sort of an unpleasant practical joke? My anxiety levels continued to rise, restraining me, and preventing me from speaking.
“Then the chain clanked nearer to my bed as I began to notice a dusky, shapeless mass appear between the curtains on the opposite side to where I was lying. I could hear no sound but that of the curtains rustling and the clash of the iron chains. Suddenly, the dying flames of the fire leaped up, and the door to the room was firmly closed. It was then that I saw something resembling human form that now threw itself heavily upon the bed, and lay there, huge, and dark, in the red gleam that now died away after arousing so much fear and returned the room to darkness. There was now no light in the room, though the red cinders remaining in the hearth glowed like the eyes of wild beasts. The chain did not rattle again, but I still tried to scream wildly for help. My mouth was so parched, my tongue refused to co-operate, and I could not utter a cry. Even if I could have called out, I could not be sure that anyone would have heard me from my lonely room, which was so far from another living being. The storm that howled outside would have easily drowned out my pleas, even if help had been nearer to hand. To call out aloud would have been both useless and perilous, especially if the intruder was a robber and my calls had angered him to violence. Whatever it was that lay by my side could not be seen and I began to pray aloud as my mind filled with images from the weird and fascinating stories of my childhood. The spirits of wicked men that were forced to revisit the scenes of their earthly crimes, of demons that skulked about in certain accursed spots, of ghouls and vampires that wandered among the graves, which they broke into and gather for their ghostly banquets. Thoughts of such creatures caused me to shudder and I could feel it stirring beside me, moaning hoarsely. Again, I heard the clinking of chains close to me, and I pulled myself away from it in my fear and loathing. I did not know what the presence was, but I was certain that it was something malignant, and a harbinger of evil.
“Although I was very much afraid, I knew that I dared not speak. I wanted to be silent, because I was still convinced that, whatever this presence was, it had not yet discovered that I was in the room with it. And then I remembered all the events of the night, Lady Hurst’s ill-omened half-warnings, and particularly my sister’s remark that this was the room the old housekeeper used to warn us to avoid. Then I recalled the long-forgotten repute that this disused room had gained, the many grievous sins it had witnessed, the blood that had been spilled, the poison administered by unnatural hate and greed, and the stories that condemned it as haunted. It was ‘The Green Room’, and how the servants avoided it, how it was rarely mentioned, and then only in whispers, when we were children. The entire household regarded it as a mysterious place that was totally unfit for mortal habitation. I wondered if this presence was the creature which haunted the room, and what type of creature was it?
“The chain faintly rattled again and the hair on my head bristled at the sound, as my eyes strained in their sockets, and the cold sweat of terror dripped from my brow. My heart did not beat so freely, occasionally appearing to stop, and sometimes its pulses were hurried, which caused my breaths to be short and extremely difficult. Although my body shivered, as if it was cold, I was still much too fearful to move. But the mysterious presence moved, moaned, and its chains clanked dismally, while the bed creaked and shook. This presence, therefore, was not a spectre, but something very solid and real that its presence increased my terror a thousand times. At that moment I felt that I was in the grasp of something both evil and dangerous, in the presence of which I was now sick with fear. In desperation I slipped silently from the bed, grabbed a nearby dressing-gown, which I wrapped around me, and tried to inch my way to the door on my hands and knees.
“I was very excited at the possibility of escaping this unknown being, but I had scarcely moved a foot before the moaning began again. In a moment it changed into a threatening growl that sounded as if it had come from the depths of some dark a wolf’s throat, and a hand appeared as if from nowhere and clutched at my sleeve. I became frozen to the spot. That muttering growl changed again to a moan and, although there was no further clanking of the chain, the ghostly hand still held a tight grip of my sleeve. I was afraid to move even an inch because I was now certain that this being was aware of my presence. My brain was spinning as the blood pounded through my heart, and my knees lost all of their strength, while my body shook like that of a deer caught in the stare of a wolf pack. In my numbing terror it appeared to me that I was losing all of my senses at once.
“Once my senses returned, I found myself sitting on the edge of the bed, shivering with cold, and barefooted. There wasn’t a sound, but I could still feel my sleeve still being gripped by a strong, unearthly being. The silence seemed to last a long time, though it may have only been a matter of minutes, and it was eventually by a devilish laugh that almost caused the marrow in my bones to freeze. Then I heard what appeared to be the gnashing of teeth, and then a wailing moan, which was followed by silence once again. My fear was such that I could not feel time passing or hear the hours chime on the clock. All the while hideous visions passed before my eyes, which continued to gaze into that pitch blackness where the invisible being lay.
“In my feverish fear I pictured the being in every abhorrent form imaginable to me. I saw it as a skeleton with hollow eye sockets and grinning, fleshless jaws. Next, I envisaged a vampire, with its ashen coloured face and a mouth dripping with blood. I longed for daylight, and yet I knew that when the morning light came, I would have to meet the beast face-to-face. There were tales that said ghosts and devils faded away as morning broke, but I was sure that this creature was too terrible a thing that dawn’s light would have no effect upon it. It was my destiny, I was certain of it, to see this creature, and a great chill once again seized my body. My teeth began to chatter, and every part of my body shivered as a cold, damp sweat burst upon my brow. In response I grabbed at a shawl, which lay upon a nearby chair, and I wrapped it around me. My movement, of course, caused that demoniacal moan to return and the chain to clank again, causing all hopes to dissipate. Time flew by quickly, and I sat there rigid and silent. I may have even slept for a time. I remember the cold grey light of another winter’s morning on my face, and it gradually stole around the small, dark room from between the heavy curtains that hung at the window.
“Shuddering with great fear I turned to see what horror had plagued my night. In the grey light of that winter dawn, I saw that the being was not a ghost, a dream, or hallucination brought on by fear. There it lay on the bed, with its grim head on the pillow. I could not tell if it was a man, or a corpse that had arisen from its grave to await the demon that brought it to life. It was a gaunt, gigantic form, wasted to a skeleton, half-dressed, covered with dirt and clotted blood, its huge limbs flung upon the bed, and its shaggy hair streaming over the pillows like a lion’s mane.
“This creature’s wild, hideous face was turned toward me. Its features were human, covered in a horrible mask of mud and half-dried blood, while the expression it bore was a brutish and savagely fierce one, its white teeth visible between parted lips in a malignant grin. The creature’s tangled hair and beard were crumpled together, and there were scars disfiguring the brow. Around the creature’s waist was a ring of iron, to which was attached a heavy but broken chain that was undoubtedly the chain that I had heard clanking. I noticed that part of the chain was wrapped in straw to prevent it rubbing against the creature. There were marks of the chains on the creature’s wrists, and the bony arm that protruded through one tattered sleeve was scarred and bruised. His feet were bare, and cut by stones and briers, with one foot wrapped in a kind of rag bandage. The lean hands, one of which held my sleeve, were armed with talons like those of an eagle. In that moment I knew that I was at the mercy of a madman. It would, perhaps, have been better if this had been a ghost that merely scares people, rather than a beast that tears a quivering body limb from limb. I was now sure that this was a pitiless brute which had no heart that could be softened, and whose intentions no plea could change. My terror was complete as I looked upon those blood covered fingers and wolfish jaws that, along with its face, were smeared with blackening blood!
“In that moment, the mystery of the slain sheep had been solved. The manner in which they had been mangled and torn apart, the print of a naked foot, and the broken chain link found near the slaughtered animals were now fully explained. This creature had escaped from some institution, where his wild rages had been bound up. How had this grisly creature broken its chains? It must have been a mighty rage that gave him the strength to escape those prison bars, most likely he was encouraged by the scars whippings he had received from his guardians. Now this creature was loose, free to play the tortured brute his captors had made him. Was I already caught in his clutches, to be his next victim? I felt overcome by a terrible sickness and was struck dumb by the total fear in which I was encased. All I could do was to wait until the moment when he should open his eyes and be aware of my presence.
“Something told me that the creature was not yet aware of my presence. He had used the room as a lair in which he could hide and, after killing and gorging himself on the sheep, he wearily flung himself down on the bed to sleep. He had not expected to find any other person in that room and had, therefore, no reason to suspect that he was not alone. Even when he grasped my sleeve it was, most likely, an action carried out in his sleep, just his unconscious moans and laughter.
“Time was passing, and I was sure that the entire house would be awake soon. Someone would be sent to awaken me and would awaken the creature. Then I heard a light footstep outside the door, which was followed by a quiet knock. There was a pause, and the knock was repeated, only more loudly on this occasion. In that moment I saw the creature stretch his limbs, uttering a moaning cry, and he slowly opened his eyes. And as his eyes opened, they met mine. There was another knock, and I worried that the door would open, the grim creature would be seen, and bring about a catastrophe.
“There was wonder and surprise in those wild, bloodshot eyes as I saw him stare at me half vacantly. In an instant I could see a murderous demon begin to peep from those hideous eyes, while its lips to part in a sneer, and its wolf-like teeth bared themselves. My fear, however, now gave me a new and desperate composure that I had not felt before. I stared at the glare of those terrible eyes, remaining steady, undaunted, and motionless. Those dreadful eyes began to sink, as if from shame, as he moaned, and his shaggy head drooped between his gaunt, squalid hands.
“Seizing my chance, I jumped to my feet and, with one spring, reached the door, which I tore open and, with a shriek, rushed through. As I caught the girl by the arm, I screamed at her to run for her life, and rushed through the corridor, and down the stairs. Maura’s screams filled the house as she fled at my side. Then I heard a long-drawn, raging cry, the roar of a wild animal robbed of its prey, and I knew what was behind me. I never turned my head to check, preferring to run as fast as I could. It seemed to be only seconds before I was in the hall, and all around me there was a rush of many feet. There was a cacophony of many voices, brutal yells, swearing, heavy blows, and I suddenly fell to the ground crying out, “Help me!”
“I awoke from a delirious trance and there were kind faces all around my bed, and I saw the loving looks from all who were there, but I fainted once again. I did not recover for a long time afterward and was nursed tenderly through this period. When I awoke, the pitying looks of those who cared for me made my body tremble. Although I asked for a mirror on many occasions it had denied me, but I prevailed. A mirror was finally brought, and I saw that all of my youth was gone from me in one fell swoop. The glass showed a livid and haggard face, blanched and bloodless, with ashen lips, wrinkled brow, and dim eyes. There was nothing of my former self reflected back to me. My rich dark hair was now as white as snow, and in one night it was as if I had aged fifty years. My nerves, too, never recovered after that dire shock, and my life was blighted to the extent that my lover abandoned me.
“I am old now and very much alone. My sisters wanted me to live with them, but I chose not to sadden their happy homes with my ghostly face and dead eyes. Roger, meanwhile, married another and he has been dead for many years now. As for me, my sadness is almost over, and I am near the end of my life. I have not been bitter or hard, but I cannot bear to see many people, and I am probably best alone. The wealth left to me by Lady Hurst is doing whatever good that it can do. After all is said and done, what need do I have of wealth, being the shattered wreck of a woman that was left by that one night of horror!
“The very woman for Joe,” replied Mick. “Do you recall that, over in ‘Derryvore’ townland, there is a well matured lady by the name of Sara, who lives with her brother, John?”
“Aye! You mean Sara McCree?” smiled Kathy.
“That’s the girl!” said Mick. “Only last week I was having a pint with him in the ‘Pheasant Pub’ and John was telling me that he has took a notion for a woman and would like to marry her and have her move in. But Joe told me that his sister Sara had not the least notion of moving out of the house, and her just over forty. It’s his sister and he can’t just throw her out. Yet, I’ve heard it said that Sara McCree is not a woman who would turn her back on a man who could put a roof over her head and provide her with some degree of comfort.”
“Well matured is the right description, but that Sara has a bit of a history behind her some people say,” Kathy remarked. “It seems that a few years back she went off to England quite suddenly and left a little bundle with the ‘Good Shepherd Sisters’ in a convent. But the woman never married and that’s for certain.”
“Well, I bet you that Bud doesn’t know that and if they marry it won’t matter. Anyway, Bud never married, for he has never left the district except once or twice to go to Dublin for an All-Ireland final. He could hardly have gotten himself hitched in one night and, besides, have you ever seen another face as bad looking as ‘Bud’s’? He has hardly a bar in his grate and any teeth that have survived are as black as your boot,” laughed Mick.
“Aye,” laughed Kathy, “and the hair on his head, what’s left of it, standing uplike the quills of a porcupine!“
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Due to illness and forthcoming hospital procedures I have decided that I should rest my story blog until after Christmas.
To all my many readers I wish you a Merry, Holy and Peaceful Christmas and a prosperous, Healthy New Year. Thank you for your contributions in 2020 and I look forward to seeing more at the beginning of 2021.
This is the story of an extraordinary trial that took place in Ireland just before the turn of the 20th Century and was revealed to me through the records of a provincial newspaper, printed in 1899. I think for many of my readers this will be their first introduction to the story.
The case in question began in the northern province of Ireland and is being reported here for the first time since its original publication, over one hundred and eighteen years ago. It was at a time of political upheaval and much talk about ‘Home Rule’, supporters and opponents of which marched regularly through the streets. It is my intention that the story of this trial is told exactly the way it happened and the manner it was reported. The report of the trial states the evidence that was given at the time, and I am writing it down exactly according to what was deposed at the trial.
In the criminal court it was said that Joan O’Rourke, wife of Andy O’Rourke, had been murdered, but the only question left to answer was, “How did Joan come by her death?” From the evidence of the coroner’s inquest on the body, and from the depositions made by Mary O’Rourke, John Croke and his wife, Agnes, it appeared that Joan O’Rourke had committed suicide. Witnesses stated that they had found the unfortunate woman lying dead in her bed, with the knife sticking in the floor, and her throat cut from ear to ear. They also stated that the night before they found her body Joan had went to bed with her child, and her husband was not in the house. They swore that no other person came into the house at any time after Joan had gone to bed. The witnesses said that the truth of their statements lay in the fact that they had been lying in the outer room, and they would have undoubtedly seen or heard any strangers who might have tried to enter the house.
With this evidence established in the court, the jury finally submitted their verdict that in their opinion Joan O’Rourke had indeed committed suicide. This verdict, however, came under some pressure afterwards, when rumour arose within the neighbourhood that suicide was not the cause of Joan’s death. Further investigation and discovery of some diverse circumstances began to suggest that Joan did not, nor, according to those circumstances, could she possibly have murdered herself. The jury, whose verdict had not yet been made official by the coroner’s office, was summoned again and requested that the coroner’s office exhume the body. The request to remove the body from the grave, in which she had already been buried, was granted. Thus, almost thirty days after she had died, Joan’s corpse was taken up in the presence of the jury members, and a substantial number of other witnesses, and the sight that greeted them caused the jury to change their verdict.
Those persons who had been brought before the court to be tried were all acquitted. But, there was now so much the evidence, against the previous verdict, that the trial Judge was of the opinion that an appeal should be made, rather than allow such a gruesome murder to go unpunished by the law. As a result, the four most likely suspects were brought to trial on an appeal, which was brought by the young child, against his father, grandmother, and aunt, and her husband John Croke. The evidence that was now brought against them was so strange, that one would need to read through it very carefully to ensure a good understanding of it. The paper recorded the evidence as follows –
At the subsequent trial the prosecution called forward a person of unimpeachable character to give evidence. The Parish Priest of the town where the act was committed was deposed and began to speak. He confirmed that the body, which had been taken up out of the grave, had lain there for thirty days after the woman’s death. The priest stated that the corpse was laid out on the grass in her cheap pine coffin, and the four defendants in the dock were also present at the exhumation. Each of the defendants where then requested to place a hand upon the Joan’s long dead body. Agnes Croke, the priest said, immediately fell upon her knees, and she prayed aloud to God that he would do something to show that she was innocent of doing any harm to Joan. She mumbled out some other words in her grief, but the priest was unsure about what she said.
“None of those who were standing trial refused to touch Joan’s dead body. But, after they had done this, the dead woman’s brow which, beforehand had been a dark bluish grey in colour, like that of carrion, began to have a dew or gentle sweat come out upon it. This perspiration now began to increase so much that the sweat began to run down in droplets over the face. Almost like magic the brow began to turn, and it quickly changed to a more lively and fresh colour. Unbelievably, as we watched, the dead woman opened one of her eyes and shut it again. This action of opening the eye and then closing it was carried out by the corpse three times. In addition to this, the dead woman thrust out her marriage finger three times, and swiftly pulled it in again, and, as she did so, drops of blood dripped from the finger down onto the grass,” explained the priest.
The Judge who was hearing the case, not surprisingly, had some doubts about the evidence that was being given and he asked the Parish Priest, “Who else saw these things besides yourself?”
The priest felt that his veracity was being questioned and was quite annoyed by the question that had been posed. But, he chose not to react angrily and simply answered, “Your Honour, I could not swear to what others may have seen or not. But, your Honour, I firmly believe that the entire company saw these things for themselves. In fact, if any of my testimony had been considered to be in doubt, some proof of that doubt would have been presented and many would have spoke out against this statement.”
As he stood in the witness stand, the priest was able to observe that many of those listening to him were showing some admiration for him, and he was encouraged to speak further. “Your Honour,” he began, “I am Priest of the parish, and I have known all the parties involved for a very long time. I have never had any occasion to be displeased with any of them, nor have I ever had much to do with any of them, or they with me, outside of my pastoral duties as a minister of the Church. The things that happened amazed me and filled my mind with wonder. However, the only interest that I have in these matters is to do what I have been asked to do and that is to testify to the truth. This, I assure you, I have done.”
This witness was aged about seventy years and highly respected in the district. When he spoke his testimony, he did so in a clear voice, slowly and elegantly, which won the admiration of all who heard him. Clearing his throat, he again began to speak to the Judge in the case, saying, “May I point out, at this time, your Honour, that my brother priest, who is present in the court, is the minister of the parish adjacent to my own, and I am assured that he saw everything to which I have testified.”
This other priest, who was just a little younger than the first, was invited into the witness box, where he was sworn in and invited to give his evidence. His testimony supported every point that had been previously made. He confirmed the sweating of the brow, the changing of its colour, the mystical opening of the eye, and the three times that the corpse’s finger thrust itself out and drew in again. The only area in which he differed from the first witness was in declaring that he had, himself, dipped his finger into the blood which had exuded from the dead body. He said that he had examined it and was certain in his own mind that it was blood.
I can understand the difficulty of believing such testimony. Modern ideas on the paranormal often leave us doubting our own eyes and senses. But, there were others who had observed these things and agreed with the testimony given by the priests. There is no reason to doubt the testimony of the clerics, for why would they be persuaded to lie about such things. At the same time, allow me to assure you that the reports from the trial have been recorded here accurately. Evidence was also given against the prisoners in the dock, namely, the grandmother of the plaintiff, and against Croke and his wife, Agnes. It was stated that all four confessed that they had lain in the next room to the dead person that entire night, and that no other person had entered the house until they found her dead the next morning. The only conclusion to be drawn, therefore, was that if this woman did not murder herself, then they must be the murderers.
To prove such a charge, however, further evidence was needed and to this end the medical examiner was called forward. Looking at his notes on the examination he had made of the crime scene and the body of the dead woman. Then, point by point he explained his findings to the court. Firstly, he described the scene that he had found when he arrived at the house, and told the jury, “I found the dead woman lying in her bed, in a quite composed way. The bed clothes and other things in the room had not been disturbed in any way, and her child lay by her side in the bed. Immediately, I could see that the deceased woman’s throat was cut from ear to ear, and her neck was broken. It is completely impossible for the deceased person to first cut her throat, and then break her own neck in the bed; or vice-versa.”
The examiner continued to explain that he had found no blood in the bed, except for a small spot of blood on the pillow where she had laid her head. “But, there was no evidence of major blood loss on the bed, which there should have been if the death had occurred in the place that she was found. On further investigation, however, we found a stream of blood on the floor of the bedroom, which ran along the wooden floorboards until it found obstructions that caused it to spread in pools. There was, at the same time, another stream of blood found on the floor at the bed’s feet. This stream had caused small ponds of blood to form, but there was no sign of both blood streams being connected. This suggests that the woman bled severely in two places. Furthermore, when I turned up the mattress of the bed, I found clots of congealed blood in the underneath of the straw-filled mattress.”
The court was informed that the blood-stained knife was found that morning after the murder, sticking in the wooden floor a good distance from the bed. “The point of the knife, as it stuck in the floor was pointing towards the bed, while the handle pointed away from the bed,” he explained. “On the knife itself I discovered the print of the thumb and four fingers of the left hand.”
At this point the judge interrupted the testimony of the Examiner and asked him, “But, how can you know the print of a left hand from the print of a right hand in such a case as this?”
“Your Honour,” he began to reply, “it is hard to describe, but easier to demonstrate. If it would please your Honour, could you put your clerk’s left hand upon your left hand. You will see that it is impossible to place your right hand in the same posture.”
The Judge did as he was asked and was satisfied by the demonstration. The defendants, however, were given an opportunity to put forward a defence against all these claims. But, they decided to maintain their silence and gave no evidence at any stage of the trial. The Jury, therefore, was directed to retire and deliberate their verdict. It took them only an hour to return to the court and announce their findings. John Croke was acquitted of all charges, but the other three defendants were found guilty as charged. The judge turned to the three guilty persons and asked if they had anything to say about why judgement should not be produced. Their reply was simply, “I have nothing to say except that I am not guilty. I did not do this.”
Judgement was passed upon all three. The grandmother and the husband were executed by hanging, while the aunt was spared execution because she was pregnant. None of them confessed anything before their execution and the aunt never spoke as to any possible motivation for the murder. In fact, the aunt never spoke about the incident ever again. She moved away from the district with her husband, where she died some fifteen years after her niece had been brutally killed.
This is a story adapted from an original tale written by John Keegan, an Irish writer, and storyteller, who was born in the townland of Killeaney, near the village of Shanahoe in County Laois (formerly Queen’s County). John was born in 1816, in the house of his uncle, Thomas Maloney, who was a local hedge-school teacher, with whom John’s parents lived. He was educated by his uncle, who had established a school in the sacristy of Shanahoe chapel, about 1822, prior to the erection of a school in the village in 1830.This particular story was published in 1846 and is an excellent example of Irish storytelling in the eighteenth century, before, during and after the great Famine.
It happened one evening last winter. It was a Christmas holiday evening, and the western wind was sweeping wildly from the grey hills of Tipperary, across the rich and level plains of County Laois. When a blast of wind blast roared down the chimney, and the huge raindrops pattered saucily against the four tiny glass panes which constituted the little kitchen window, I was sitting in the cottage of a neighbouring peasant. I was in the middle of a small but happy group of village rustics and enjoying with them that enlivening mirth and sinless delight, which I have never found anywhere else but at the fireside of an Irish peasant.
The earthen floor was well scrubbed over, while the various bits and pieces of furniture that existed were arranged with more than the usual tidiness. Even the crockery on the well-scoured dresser reflected the ruddy glare from the red fire with redoubled brilliancy, glittering and glistening as merrily as if they felt conscious of the calm and tranquillity of that happy scene. And happy indeed was that scene, and happy was that time, and happier still the hearts of the laughing people by whom I was, on that occasion, surrounded. It has been among people such as these that I have spent the lightest and happiest hours of my existence.
It was, as I said, a wild night. But even the violence of the weather outside gave an additional relish to the enjoyments within that building. The wind’s blast whistled fiercely in the cracks of the old and weather-beaten wall, but the huge fire blazed brightly on the hearthstone. The rain fell in torrents, but, as one of the company laughingly remarked, “the wrong side of the house was out,” and I myself mentally exclaimed with Tam O’Shanter,
“The storm without may roar and rustle,
We do not mind the storm a whustle.”
Meanwhile, to help wind up the climax of our happiness, a bit of a boy who had been dispatched for a large tankard full of ‘poteen,’ now returned. Within a few minutes a huge jug of half ‘poteen’ and half boiling water steamed on the table and was circulated around the smiling and expectant ring of people. It was passed with a speed, the likes of which the peasantry of Ireland will in a very short time, from certain existing causes, have not even the remotest idea.
Well, such an evening as we had, I shall never forget! It would be virtually impossible to even attempt a description of the festivities. Those who have witnessed similar scenes require none, and to those who have not, any attempt at one would be useless. All, therefore, I shall say, is, that such a scene of fun and frolic and harmless foolishness could not be found anywhere outside that ring which encircles the Emerald Isle. Even within that bright zone, nowhere but in the cabin of an Irish “peasant”
The songs of our fathers, sung with all that melancholy softness and pathetic sweetness for which the voices of our wild Irish girls are renowned. The wild legend recited with that rich brogue and self-deprecating humour that is peculiar alone to the Irish peasant. The romantic and absurd fairy tale, that is told with all the reverential awe and caution, which the solemnity of the subject required, long amused, and excited the captivated listeners. But at length, more is the pity, the vocalist could sing no more, having “a mighty great cold on him entirely.” The storyteller was “as dry as a chip with all his talking,” and even the sides of most of the company “were ready to split with all the laughing that was done.” Meanwhile, as if to afford us another illustration of the truth of the old proverb, “one trouble never comes alone,” even the old crone who had astonished us with the richness and the extent of her fairy lore, had also finished, having exhausted her huge reservoir of earthly spirits to entertain us.
Well, what could we do? The night was still young, and, better than that, a good drop still remained in the large tankard. Not surprisingly, as we all had contributed to procure the drink, everyone declared that none should leave until the very last drop was drained. But what were we to do to occupy ourselves? The singer was silenced, the storyteller was exhausted, and the volleys of wit and foolishness had exploded until everyone was exhausted from the laughter, and yet to remain silent was considered by all as the most uncomfortable way to spend such an evening as this.
Puzzled by this dilemma the man of the house scratched his scalp, and, in an sudden impulsive act, he stood up and handed me an old book that was covered in soot. “Maybe you’ll entertain us all by reading a story or two for the education of the company here, until it would be time for us all to go home?”
Without hesitation I agreed to do as he asked, and on opening the dusty and smoke-begrimed book discovered that it was, in fact, “Sir Charles Coote’s Statistical Survey of the Queen’s County,” printed in Dublin by Graisberry and Campbell, and published by direction of the Dublin Society in the year 1801. I was, of course, well aware that the dry details of a work that was exclusively statistical, were not designed to amuse, or even interest, an audience such as this. But sadly, the library of an Irish peasant is always, unfortunately, scanty. In this particular instance, with the exception of a few mediocre works on religious subjects, there was only this ‘Statistical Survey.’ Nevertheless, I was determined to make it as interesting to my audience as was possible. For that reason, I opened it at Sir Charles’s description of the immediate district in which we were situated, namely, the barony of Maryborough West, and townland of Killeany.
I began to read, “On Sir Allen Johnson’s estate stand the ruins of Killeany Castle, the walls of which are injudiciously built of very bad stones, although an excellent quarry is nearby. … ‘Poor-man’s Bridge’ over the River Nore was lately widened, and is very safe, but I cannot learn the tradition why it was so called.”
“Read that again, sir,” said a fine grey-headed, patriarchal old man, who was present. “Read that again,” said he emphatically, and I did so.
“He cannot learn the tradition of ‘Poor-man’s Bridge,’ the eejit!” the old man said with a sneer. “Sure, I can’t believe it. Normally, with a man of his education, I’d take his word as gospel. But, if he had come to me when he was travelling the country making up his statistics, I could have opened his eyes on that subject, and many others too.”
Some of those present laughed outright at the manner in which the old man made this confident boast. “You needn’t laugh! You can all just shut your potato-traps,” said the old man indignantly. “He might have thought he was a great man, with his gold and silver, his coach and horses, and his servants with gold and scarlet livery. But I could tell him a thing or two about the ancient history and traditions of our country. In fact, a lot more history and tradition than all those landlords and landowners whom he visited, could have given him on his tour through the Queen’s County.”
Such boasting only served to increase the storm of ridicule which was beginning to gather around the old man’s head. So, in order to put a stop to any potential bad feelings, which the occasion might cause, I asked him to simply tell us the tradition surrounding “The Boccough Ruadh.”
After some coaxing and some flattery, he agreed, and he began to tell us a curious story, the substance of which follows: –
The River Nore flows through a district of the Queen’s County that is famous for its fertility and romantic beauty. From its source among the blue hills of Slievebloom to where the river’s bright ripples mix with the briny waves of the Irish Sea, at New Ross, many excellent and even some beautiful bridges span its stream. Until the beginning of the last century, however, except in the vicinity of the towns, there were only a few permanent bridges across this river. In the country districts access, for the most part, was gained over the river by means of causeways, or, as they are often called “fords.” These were usually constructed of stones and huge blocks of timber that were fixed firmly in the bed of the river and extended in irregular succession from bank to bank. Over this pathway foot passengers crossed easily enough, but cattle and wheeled carriages were obliged to struggle through the water as well as they could. But, in time of flooding, and in the winter season when the waters were swollen, all communication was cut off except to pedestrians alone.
One of those “fords,” in former times, crossed the Nore at Shanahoe, a very pretty neighbourhood, about three miles northwards of the beautiful and rising town of Abbeyleix, in the Queen’s County. Here, the river winds its course through a silent glen, and several snug cottages and farmhouses arise above its banks at either side. The country in this neighbourhood is remarkably beautiful. Several great homes are scattered along the banks of the river in this vicinity, all elegant and of modern erection. Meanwhile, swelling hills, sloping dales, gloomy groves, and the ruins of churches, towers, and grey castles, ornament and beautify the scene.
About a hundred years ago, on a gentle piece of rising ground, along the eastern bank of the river, stood the cabin of a man named Neale O’Shea. At that time there was not another dwelling within a mile or two of the ford, and on many occasions, Neale was summoned from his midnight slumbers to guide the traveller as he made his way over the lonely and dangerous river pathway.
One wild and stormy December night, when the angry foaming water of the agitated river beat against the huge limestone rocks that formed the stepping-stones of the ford, Neale O’Shea’s wife thought she heard, between the pauses of the wind, the cry of someone in distress. She immediately awakened her husband, who was stretched out and asleep on a large oak stool in the chimney corner and told him to look outside. Neale, who was always willing to assist a fellow-creature, got up from his resting place. Flinging his grey cloak over his wide shoulders and grabbing hold of a long iron-tipped pole, which he constantly took with him on his nightly excursions, hurriedly made his way down to the river’s edge. He stood for a moment at the verge of the ford and tried to see through the intense gloom of the night, to try and identify a human form, but he could see nothing. “Is there any one there?” he shouted out in a loud voice, which rose high above the whistling of the wind, and the rushing of the angry and swift-flowing river.
A voice sounded at the other end of the ford, and with steady step great determination, crossed over the wet and slippery stepping-stones. “Who the devil are you?” Neale called out to the figure of a man who was stretched out on the brink of the river, very near to the entrance of the ford. “Whoever I am,” the stranger faintly replied, “you are my guardian angel, and it was surely my good fortune which caused you to come and rescue me from a watery grave.”
“Whoever you are,” said Neale, “come along with me, and Kathleen and the children will make you welcome in my cabin until morning.” Having given the invitation, he seized the bent form of the travel weary stranger and using all his strength to fling him on his back, Neale trudged over the stepping-stones, chuckling with delight, and happily whistling a tune as he went.
The dangerous path was soon crossed, and arriving at the door, Neale pushed it open before him, and with a smile he laid his trembling burden down on the warm hearth. A fine fire blazed merrily, and its flickering flames fell brightly on the pale face of the stranger. He was a tall, portly figure of a man, stooped as if from extreme suffering rather than from age, and he had a wooden leg. His features, which had evidently been handsome in his youth, were worn, pale, and extremely thin, and looked as though he might be about fifty years of age. His clothes were faded and ragged, and he was entirely without shoes or stockings. The man’s head was covered by a broad-brimmed leather hat, under which he wore an enormous red nightcap of coarse woollen cloth.
Neale’s good wife, Kathleen, now set about preparing supper, and while she was doing this, the stranger gave them both a brief account of his life. He told them that he was a native of the north of Ireland, and that he had spent several years of his youth at sea. He admitted that he had been wounded in a fight with smugglers on the coast of France, and after losing his leg, he had been discharged from his employment, and sent out into the world, without having one friend on earth, or a penny in his pocket. In this emergency he had no alternative but to beg for assistance from his fellowmen and had thus for the last twenty years wandered up and down the land, entirely dependent on the bounty and charity of the public.
Supper was now ready, and having taken a share of a comfortable meal, the wanderer went to rest in a comfortable “shake-down” bed, which the good woman had prepared for him in the chimney corner. The storm died away during the night, and next morning the watery beams of the winter’s sun shone faintly yet cheerfully on the smooth surface of the silvery Nore. The stranger was up at sunrise, and was preparing to leave, but his kind host and hostess would not allow him to go. They told him to stop a few days to rest, and in the interim, that he could do no better than take his post at the ford and ask alms of those who passed that way. There were always a great many people that passed there and, he was told, as nothing was ever begged from them in that place, they would cheerfully extend their charity to a person worthy of help.
Acting on their suggestions, the old sailor was soon sitting on a stone at the western end of the ford. With his old beret in his hand, and his head enveloped in the gigantic red nightcap, he begged for alms, in the name of God and the Virgin, from all those who passed that way. Before the faint beams of the December sun had sunk behind the distant hills, the old sailor could show that had earned more money than ever he did before, or since his limb was swept off by the shot of the smugglers.
The next morning, and every morning after, the sailor was to be found at his post at the ford. He soon became so well known to all the villagers, and from the circumstance of his always appearing with no other headgear than the red nightcap, they nicknamed him the “Boccough Ruadh.” This was the name by which he was known for ever after until his death.
The days and weeks passed by as usual, and the one-legged old sailor still conducted his lucrative employment at the river’s ford. Neale O’Shea’s cabin still continued to supply him with shelter every night, and all his days, from cockcrow until the final evening song of the wood-thrush, were spent at the ford, seated on that large block of limestone that is called to this day the “Clough-na-Boccough.”
The old sailor’s hand was stretched out to every stranger for alms, claiming it was “for the good of their souls,” and very few passed without giving something to the Boccough Ruadh. In this way he acquired considerable sums of money, but constantly denied having even a penny to his name. Whenever he was tormented by any of the neighbouring children about the size of his purse, he would get into a great rage. Angrily he swore, by the cross made by his crutch, that between buying a wee bit of tobacco and paying for other things he wanted, he hadn’t as much as would jingle on a tombstone, or as much that would buy a farthing candle to show a light on his poor corpse at the last day. He described the food that he ate as being the very worst, and unless it was supplied by the kind-hearted Kathleen O’Shea, he would sooner go to bed without supper than lay out one penny to buy bread. He allowed his clothes to go degrade into rags, unless any person in the area gave him old clothes for charity, and he would not pay for soap to even wash his shirt. Despite their best efforts, however, no one could find out what he did with his money. The man did not spend a half-crown in a year, and most people believed that he was piling it all up to give for masses that would benefit his soul on his dying day.
The years rolled by, and Neale O’Shea having reached old age, died, and was buried with his own people in the adjacent green churchyard of Shannikill, that lay on the banks of the winding Nore. The Boccough followed the remains of his kind benefactor to his last earthly resting-place and poured his sorrows over his grave in loud and long-continued lamentations. But though Neale was gone, Kathleen remained, and she promised that while she lived, neither son nor daughter should ever turn out the Boccough Ruadh.
It was now forty years since the Boccough first crossed the waters of the Nore, and still he was constantly to be found from morning until night on his favourite stone at the river’s side. In the meantime, all the O’Shea children were married, and spread out through various parts of the country, with the exception of Terry, the youngest son. He was a fine stout fellow, now about thirty-five years of age, who still remained in a state of bachelorhood, and said he would continue to be single, “until he would lay the last sod on his poor old mother.” He had great strength, and he inherited all his father’s kindness of heart and undaunted bravery. Terry was particularly attentive to the Boccough, whom he regarded with the same affection as a child would a parent.
One morning in summer, the Boccough remained in his bed longer than was his usual custom, and thinking that he might be unwell, Terry went to his bedside, and asked him why he was not up as usual. “Ah, Terry,” said the old man sorrowfully, “I will never get up again until I get the wooden box. Sure, my days are spent, and I know it, for there is something over me that I cannot describe, and I won’t be alive this time tomorrow.” and as he said these words, he heaved a deep groan, and Terry, wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his coat began to weep bitterly.
“Will I go for the priest?” asked Terry, sobbing as if his heart would break.
“No,” replied the old man sorrowfully, “I do not want him. It is a long time since I complied with my religious duties, and now I feel it is useless.”
“There is mercy still,” replied Terry; “you know the old saying,
‘Mercy craved, and mercy found
Between the saddle
and the ground.’”
The old man did not reply, but shook his head, indicating his determination to die without the consolations that religion might provide, while Terry trembled for his hopeless situation. “Well, since you won’t have the priest, will you give me some money till I bring you the doctor?” said Terry.
The old man’s eyes literally flashed fire, his form heaved with rage, and his face showed an almost demoniac indignation.
“What’s that you say?” he demanded in a ferocious tone, and Terry repeated the question. “Send for a doctor? Give you money?” echoed the old man. “Where the devil would I get money to pay a doctor?”
“You have it, and ten times as much,” said Terry, “and you cannot deny it.”
“If I have as much money as would buy me a coffin,” said the Boccough, “may my soul never rest quiet in the grave.”
Terry crossed his brow with terror. He knew the unhappy wretch was dying with a lie on his tongue, but he resolved not to press the matter further. “You are dying as fast as you can,” remarked Terry; “have you anything that you want to say before you go?”
“Nothing,” he replied faintly. “But let me be buried with my red nightcap on me.”
“Your wish must be granted,” said Terry, and he went to awake his old mother, who still lay asleep. When he returned, he found the old man breathing his last. He uttered a convulsive groan and expired.
He was washed and stretched, and waked, with all the honours, rites, and ceremonies belonging to a genuine Irish wake. On the third day following, being the Sabbath, he was followed to the grave by crowds of the village peasantry, who remained in the churchyard until they saw his remains deposited, as they thought forever, in the rank soil of the cemetery.
There were many rumours that arose with respect to the Boccough’s money. Everyone but Terry believed that the fortune was now in the hands of Terry himself. But Terry, who knew better, believed, and affirmed that “what was got under the devil’s belly, always goes over his back.” In other words, that the “old boy” had taken the spoils, and that he had concealed them in some crevice along the bank of the river.
The night following the burial of the old sailor was passed in a very disturbed and agitated manner by Terry O’Shea. He did not sleep a wink, when he finally fell into a slumber, he jumped and moaned in his bed, appearing to be frightened and annoyed. “What’s wrong with you?” his old mother demanded affectionately. She was sleeping in the same room as Terry and was kept awake by her son’s restless and disturbed manner.
“I don’t know, mother,” replied Terry; “I am so frightened and tormented with dreaming of the Boccough Ruadh, that I am almost out of my natural senses. Even at this moment I think I see him in front of me, walking about the room.”
“Holy Mary, protect us!” screamed the old woman. “And it is no wonder that his unfortunate soul would be stargazing about, for he died without the priest, and a curse and a lie in his mouth!”
Terry groaned agitatedly at her words, and then the old woman asked him, “And how does he appear in your dreams?”
“As he always was,” replied Terry. “But I think I see him pointing to his red nightcap, and endeavouring to pull it off with his old, withered hand.”
“Umph!” said the old woman, in a knowing tone. “Ha! ha! I have it now. Are you sure that the strings of his night-cap were loosened before he was nailed up in the coffin?”
“I don’t know,” was the reply.
“I’ll go bail they weren’t,” said the old woman, “and you know, or at any rate you ought to know, that a corpse can never rest in the grave when there is a knot or a tie upon anything belonging to its grave-dress.”
Terry emitted another deep groan.
“Well, dear boy,” said the old mother, “go tomorrow, taking a neighbour with you, and open the grave to see if anything is astray. If you find the nightcap or anything else not as it should be, set it to rights, and close the grave again decently, and he will trouble you no more.”
“Please God,” replied Terry briefly but emphatically.
Early the next morning Terry was at the Boccough’s grave, accompanied by a local man. The coffin was opened, the corpse examined, and, according to the mother’s prediction, the red nightcap was found knotted tightly under the dead man’s chin. Terry immediately began to unloosen it, and in the act of doing so, a corner of the nightcap gave way, and out slipped a shining golden guinea.
“Ah ha!” mentally exclaimed Terry, “that’s no bent penny, for sure. There is a lot more where that was hid, but I had better keep a straight face about this!” So, without seeming to appear any way affected, he opened the knot, closed the coffin, shut up the grave, and left to go home, without once letting his companion aware of what he had seen.
The moment Terry entered door of his house, he told his mother about the golden guinea, and his determination to go back to the grave that very night and fetch the red nightcap home with him. Excitedly, he told her, “Body and bones and all, for that guinea has its friends about it, and I’ll bet you a bucketful of money that is where the old devil has hidden his fortune. That is why he insisted on me burying the red cap with him in the grave.”
“Wait a minute, sweetheart,” said his mother, with a note of worry in her voice. “Won’t you be afraid?”
“Afraid!” asked Terry, “Devil a bit of it! Afraid, me? And my fortune perhaps in that red nightcap.”
The mother consented to his adventure, but she made him promise not to tell anyone about the matter, in case it turned out to be a disappointment. Terry vowed that he would say nothing, and immediately set about his usual tasks in the garden.
At last, the night came, and Terry set about preparing for his strange adventure. All the folk arts and prayers and charms of old Kathleen were put in place to ensure his preservation from danger. Just as the clock struck the witching hour of twelve o’clock, with his spade on his shoulder, and his clay pipe in his mouth, the bold-hearted Terry set forward all alone to the graveyard. He walked along the winding banks of the dark river that glittered in the moonlight. He whistled as he strode on, but not to keep his mind busy, for never was man’s mind more busily occupied than was Terry’s, in deciding how he would spend the money which he expected to find in the ‘Boccough Ruadh’s’ nightcap.
After a short walk, Terry arrived at the churchyard. It was a lovely summer’s night, the full moon shining gloriously, and myriads of pretty stars blinking and twinkling in the blue expanse, but all their native lustre was drowned in the borrowed splendour of the brightly shining planet of Venus. Terry paused for a moment to investigate his surroundings, and, resting on his spade, he looked about him with an anxious gaze. There was nothing out of place. All was silent as the departed beneath his feet, except for the murmuring of the river’s waters flowing past, or the barking of some village dog in the far distance. Terry moved on to the grave of the Boccough, and in a few minutes the ghostly moonbeams shone upon the pale, grim features of the dead. He snatched the nightcap quickly from the bald head of the corpse, put it in his pocket, and, despite his fears and the great terror that he felt, Terry chuckled to himself as he quietly commented on the “dead weight” of the Boccough’s headgear. He then closed the coffin, and as he proceeded to cover it, the clay and stones fell on it with an appalling and unearthly sound. Then, with the grave covered up again, Terry again shouldered his spade, and sought the river’s edge, striding hurriedly along its banks in the direction of his home. In the quiet of the night, he could clearly hear the splash of an otter and the diving of a waterhen, both of which momentarily disturbed the thread of his lonely thoughts.
Terry was soon at his mother’s side, who since his departure had been on her knees, praying for his safe return. The nightcap was ripped up, and from it flowed three hundred golden guineas as his reward for his churchyard adventure! Stitched carefully in every part of the huge nightcap, the gold lay secure, so as not to attract the notice of anyone, or cause the least suspicion of its nearness to the old man’s scalp.
Terry and his mother were ecstatic. Farms were already purchased in minds, cattle bought, houses built, and Terry even began in his mind to make preparations for his wedding with Annie Kinsella. She was a rich farmer’s daughter of the neighbourhood, for whom he had breathed many a hopeless sigh, and who, in addition to her beauty, was possessed of fifty pounds in hard gold, a couple of good yearlings, and a featherbed as broad as the “nine acres.”
The mother and son retired to bed, as happy as the certain possession of wealth, and the almost as certain expectations of honour and distinction, could make them. After a long time spent in constructing and condemning schemes for the future, Terry fell asleep. He had not slept long, however, when he started up with a loud scream, crying out, “The Boccough! The Boccough!”
“Och, Jaysus he is seeing the Boccough again!” exclaimed the mother. “Is he coming for the nightcap and the gold?”
“Oh, no,” said Terry, calmly. “But I was dreaming of him again, and I was frightened.”
“What did you dream to-night?” asked the old woman.
“I was dreaming that I was going over the ford by moonlight, and that I saw the Boccough walking on the water towards me. Then he stopped at a certain big stone and began to examine under it with his hands. I came up to him and asked him what he was searching for, when he looked up with a frightful look on his face, and he cried out in a monstrous voice, ‘For my red nightcap!’”
“God Almighty never opened one door but he opened two,” exclaimed old Kathleen. “Examine under that stone to-morrow, and as sure as there’s an eye in a goat, you’ll find another fortune of money in it.”
“Maybe so,” replied Terry, “sure, there’s no harm in saying ‘God willing,’ and that He may make a thief of you before a liar.”
“Amen, to that,” replied Kathleen.
Next morning at daybreak, Terry got up, and proceeded to the exact same stone where he had dreamed that he had seen the spirit of the Boccough. He examined it closely, and after a thorough search, discovered in the sand beneath the rock a leather pouch full of money. He cheerfully seized it, and on counting its contents, found it amounted to almost a hundred pounds, in silver and copper coins. “What a lucky born man you are, Terry O’Shea!” cried the overjoyed treasure hunter, “and what a bright day it was for your family that the Boccough Ruadh crossed over the waters of the Nore.”
“It was not a bright day at all, but a wild, gloomy, stormy night,” said the old woman, who, unknown to Terry, had followed her son to watch the success of his treasure hunt.
“Who cares about that?” said Terry, “There never was so bright a day in your seven generations as that dark night. I am now a rich man, and I would not salute the Lord Lieutenant at this time.”
That joyful day was passed by the happy mother and son counting and examining the gold, and again proposing plans, and considering the best purposes to which it could be applied. They passed the hours until the summer sun had long sunk behind the crimson west, and Terry again went to bed. He jumped from his sleep with a wild shriek, “Mother of mercy!” He then frantically screamed aloud, “Here is the Boccough Ruadh! I hear the tramp of his wooden leg on the floor.”
“The Lord save us!” said the old woman in a trembling voice, “what can be the trouble with him now? Maybe it’s more money he has hid somewhere else.”
“Oh, do you hear how he rattles about the place! Devil a thing in the cabin but he will destroy it,” exclaimed poor Terry. “It’s a black day for us whenever we caught sight of himself, or his dirty trash of money. And, if God saves me till morning, I’ll go back and leave every bit of it where I got it.”
“Sure, wouldn’t that be a terrible crime to leave so much fine money simply moulding in the clay, while there are so many in want of it. Well, you shall do no such thing,” said the mother.
“I don’t care a jot for that,” said Terry. “I would not have that old sinner, God rest his soul, rummaging every other night about my honest decent cabin for all the gold in the Queen’s County.”
“Well, then,” says the old woman, “go to the priest in the morning, and leave him the money, and let him dispose of it as he likes for the good of the old vagabond’s unfortunate soul.”
This plan was agreed to, and the conversation dropped, although the ghost of the Boccough still rattled and clanked about the house. He never ceased stumping about, from the kitchen to the room, and from the room to the kitchen. Pots and pans, plates, and pitchers, were tossed here and there. The dog was kicked, the cat was mauled, and even the raked-up fire was lashed out of the grate. In fact, Terry declared that if the Devil himself was about the place, there couldn’t have been more noise than there was that night with the Boccough’s ghost, and this continued without a pause until the bell of Abbeyleix castle clock tolled the midnight hour.
Terry got up out of his bed the next morning at sunrise, and he packed up the money, which he believed was the cause of all his trouble, in his mother’s check apron. Then, with a heavy heart, he proceeded to the parochial house, which was about two miles from the present Poor-man’s Bridge, to see the priest. The priest, however, had not yet risen when Terry arrived, but being well known to the domestics, the young man was admitted into the priest’s bedroom.
“You have started early,” said the priest; “what troubles you now, Terry?”
In response, Terry gave a full and true account of his troubles and concluded by telling the priest that he had brought him the money to dispose of it as he thought best. “I won’t have anything to do with it,” said the Father. “It is not mine, so you may take it back again the same road.”
“Not a piece of it will ever go my road again,” said Terry. “Can’t you give it for his unfortunate old soul?”
“I’ll have no hand in it,” said the priest.
“Well, neither will I,” said Terry. “I wouldn’t have the old miser thumping about my quiet floor another night for a king’s ransom.”
“Well, take it to your landlord. Sure, he is a magistrate, and he will have it put to some public works connected with the county,” said the priest.
“Bad luck to the lord or lady that I will ever take it to,” said Terry, turning on his heels, and running down the stairs, leaving the money, apron, and all, on the floor at the priest’s bedside.
“Come back, come back!” shouted the Father urgently and with increasing anger.
“Good morning to your reverence,” said Terry, as he sprang and bound across the priests’ garden like a mountain deer. “Ay, go you back! You have the money now, and you may make a bog or a road with it, whichever pleases you more.”
An hour later, the priest’s servant man was on the road to Maryborough, mounted on the priest’s own black horse. Strapped in a large bag behind the servant was a sealed parcel containing the Boccough’s money, and a letter addressed to the treasurer of the Queen’s County grand jury. This letter detailed the curious circumstances by which the money came into the priest’s possession and recommending him to use it for whatever purpose the gentlemen of the county should consider the most urgent.
The summer assizes came on in a few days, and the matter was brought before the grand jury, who agreed to use the money to build a stone bridge over the ford where it was collected.
Within a year from that day, the ford had disappeared, and a magnificent bridge of seven arches spanned the sparkling waters of the River Nore, which pretty broad at this point and of considerable depth. From that day to this it has been called the “Poor-man’s Bridge,” and I never cross it without thinking of the strange circumstances which led to its erection.
The spirit of the Boccough Ruadh never troubled Terry O’Shea after that day, but often, as people say, amid the gloom of a winter’s night, or the grey haze of a summer’s evening, the figure of a wan and decrepit old man with his head enveloped in a red nightcap, was seen wandering about Poor-man’s Bridge, or walking quite “natural” over the glassy waters of the River Nore.
For many years before Ireland became free of the British Crown and its oppressive offices, the vast majority of the population held a particular revulsion of men in uniform. Though these groups included soldiers, sailors and policemen, the most severe treatment was reserved the members of the Royal Customs and Excise. Even in these modern times, in certain places the men of the Customs and Excise, whether Royal or not, continue to be reviled by a wide variety of social classes on this island. Although these men do not raise their hands against all men, it can be truly said that almost every man’s hand is raised against them. Most will smile cordially at the ‘Revenue Man’, but those officers are very much aware of the unmitigated hostility that those same people hold against them throughout their career. Those people look upon the smuggler as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure who supplies untaxed goods such as alcohol, tobacco, and luxury items. The ‘Revenue Men’ are seen as the evil forces of the law who try to stop them.
Known to the old-time Irish smugglers as ‘Guagers’, the ‘Revenue Man’ has often wrongly been depicted as being a ludicrous figure of a man. Those many occasions on which the ‘Revenue Man’ showed generosity, a sense of justice, and a certain abandonment of the strict rules have, for the most part, been entirely forgotten by writers. In this story we will see reasons as the why ‘Gaugers’ should not be the butt of ridicule, and that their virtues should not be ignored.
Our story begins one foggy November evening many years ago as two men made their weary way along a muddy road that wound its way through the wild mountains that stood guard over a remote area of Ireland’s far west. Now, as then, it was a wild, savage, and lonely scene that surrounded these two men. Ahead of them, in the far distance, they could just see the wild, heaving waters of the broad Atlantic Ocean, upon which the lowering clouds appeared to be settling themselves. Scattered over the surrounding moorlands arose a variety of misshapen rock formations, like large fingers of stones that have been carved by the winds and rains into a vast range of picturesque shapes. Around their bases and within their niches grew thick holly bushes and hardy mountain greenery. On the highest peaks of the nearby hills roamed herds of sheep and goats, scampering from place to place as they took full advantage of their freedom.
These two men, each of whom was leading a small pony that bore an empty sack along that difficult road, were widely different from each other in both form and appearance. One of the men was a small thickset man whose broad shoulders and muscular limbs showed that he possessed a degree of strength. But he was a man who also possessed soft, blue eyes and a kind, good, humoured face that would convince any observer that this man’s strength and muscular arms had never been involved in any act of violence. He was dressed in a heavy brown jacket and corduroy trousers, while on his head he wore a broad brimmed, tightly woven straw hat that made him look like an outcast from the American ‘Wild West’.
This man’s companion, however, made a much stranger and unseemly figure of a man, being taller than his friend. In fact, he would be considered to be taller than the great majority of local men. His arms hung loosely together and seemed to accompany his extremely thin body with some reluctance, being literally nothing more than skin and bone. His head was a conical shape, thinly covered with rusty coloured hairs than were so thin they waved about his face in the light evening breeze. The tall man’s complexion was a greasy, deathly yellow colour, and highlighted by his rheumy sunken eyes, his highly prominent nose, the thin livid lips, half showing a few of his rotten, well-spread teeth. In fact, he could have been held up as an excellent example of how disease and misery can affect the human body. He moved like a human skeleton and the pony that he led was hardly able to keep pace with the swinging unequal stride of that gaunt man, whose fleshless limbs did not fill the clothes that flapped and fluttered around him as he strode along that chilly moorland path.
As the two men and their ponies proceeded along the road, they were able to walk side-by-side and enjoy a good conversation with each other. The smaller of the two men pushed forward and renewed a conversation that had been interrupted some yards earlier as the path had narrowed to only allow passage in single file.
“You were saying, Shane,” said the small fellow, as he came up alongside of his lean, taller companion. “You were saying about that face of yours being the means by which we can keep the ‘Guagers’ from our wee bit of baccy (tobacco).”
“Aye, not one of those ‘gaugers’ will ever get a smell, never mind a squint, at even one bit of that baccy,” Shane promised, “as long as I am with you. In all the twelve months that I travelled with Tim Casey there was not one ‘gauger’ who even suspected the man. If that ‘buck eejit’ of a man had taken me with him that day, his load of best Brandy would still be his and he wouldn’t be sitting in a cold jail cell. If I had been with him, he would now be sitting at his own table, in front of a blazing fire, tucking into a good steak!“
Paddy Corr laughed heartily at his companion’s comment and then roguishly told the taller man, “The worry on my part is that it wasn’t much of Tim Casey’s profits that came your way, more like the cheap change, and that was what caused the poor man’s fate to change.“
“It’s you that could be laughing heartily on the other side of your mouth, Paddy Corr, should a ‘gauger’ got a sniff at your taste of ‘baccy’,” Shane replied. “There’s no doubt that he would take all that you have if I was not there to frighten him off, just like I have done, so often before.”
“But could we not just put our ‘baccy’ in a couple of panniers on the backs of our ponies, put a few fish and oysters on top, and pretend that we have just been out fishing?”
“I know what I am talking about, mark my words, Paddy Corr. I was taught the trade by an old man whom the devil could not out do when it came to committing a bit of roguery. So, Paddy, put your goods in the pony cart and spread an old sheet over them. Then I will lie down on that and you can tell any ‘gauger’ that we meet that I was on my way to the fair in Ballintree when I came down with a bad fever. You tell them that, as an act of mercy for my poor mother, you are taking me home. Say that it was Father Brady who had seen to me, and that he had said it was the worst case of the spotted fever that he had seen in the country for almost ten years. By Jaysus if that doesn’t frighten the nosey bastard, then you can be sure that someone has sold you out, and me alongside you“
By this time, they had reached a deep ravine, through which a narrow stream pursued its slow, murmuring course. At this point they stopped, left the horses, and, gathering up some empty sacks, they walked on until they reached the edge of a steep cliff. In the dark void below, them could be heard the great, hollow roar of the heaving ocean, as its waves smashed against this towering granite barrier. All along the dark outline at the foot of the cliffs great mounds of foam were created, as the snowy-white crests of never ending wave formations angrily vented the last vestiges of their strength in constant flashes of phosphoric light, that sparkled and danced splendidly to the wild and sullen music of the crashing sea.
“Jaysus, Paddy,” said Shane loudly, “watch where you’re putting those feet of yours. Better take it easy friend, for one little mistake might just send you, arse over tit, two hundred feet down to where you could become supper for the sharks. There are very few that would dare venture down here, wee man, except for the odd wild fox and the honest smuggler. God help them, for they are both poor persecuted creatures, but the ‘Big Man’ has given them good helpings of gumption that allow us to find a place of shelter, where we can enjoy the rewards of our good work. Glory be to his holy name!”
Shane knew this place well and was not far short with his estimate of the sheer cliff’s height. The fearful cliff overhung the deep Atlantic Ocean, and a narrow pathway wound its way, snake-like, round, and beneath so many terrifying precipices. It was likely, that if Paddy Corr had realised his predicament in the clear light of day, he may have been so frightened that he may have slipped in his fear and became a cold meal for sharks, just as Shane had intimated. Being ignorant of his frightening situation was the thing that saved Paddy’s life. Shane, meanwhile, had an inherent knowledge of this secret pathway, and a limberness of muscle unknown to most men. It was his ability to move so assuredly and smoothly that allowed him to swiftly follow every twist and turn of that treacherous path as it wound its way downward.
As the two men moved down the path the wild sea birds were disturbed from their sleep and swept past them from their nests, screeching cries of alarm that aroused others that were resting farther down the path. As they moved around the foot of the cliff, where the projecting crags formed the sides of a little cove, a harsh and threatening voice demanded “Who goes there?”
The voice echoed along the receding wall of rocks and sounded like the challenge from a huge guardian that was conducting its nightly patrol of the area. Those loud words blended with the sound of beating wings, and the frightened cries of sea birds. The horrid sounds of these cries were multiplied a thousand-fold, almost as if all the demons of Hell had chosen to gather in that lonely place at that hour and add their shrieks of terror to the wind.
“Who goes there?” demanded the guardian of this wild place and once again brought about a cacophony of terrifying noises.
“A friend, my old pal,” Shane answered. “Peadar, big man, what powerful lungs you have! But keep your voice a little bit lower, my friend, or you might awaken the Guagers and they could grab you when you least expect it.”
“Shane Fee! You, old thief!” the guardian replied. “Is it yourself?” Both men laughed and big Peadar turned his attention to Paddy, saying “You, wee man, take care of that tall, pasty-faced schemer doesn’t take advantage of you. But I will shake your hand in the knowledge that Shane will yet come to a nasty end. Not another creature, except maybe a fox, could creep down that cliff in the full dark of night. But I know what saved your arses. Fate says the man that’s born to be hanged will not be drowned!“
“By Jaysus, Peadar,” said Shane, who was rather annoyed by the manner in which the big guard had made fun of him, “do you carry that big gun over your shoulder to convince people that you are not the wee woman that you truly are? Aye, just like a woman you wave the gun about and scare every bird on the cliff with your bull-roar of a voice! Now, make way there, you big gobshite, or I’ll stick that gun’s barrel up your arse and pull the trigger!”
“Away to the boss, bucket mouth,” replied the big guard. “I swear that, as sure as there is an eye in a goat, after you have danced on the gallows, you blackguard, I will buy your corps from the hangman and use it as a scarecrow!”
After they had moved on a few paces along the narrow ledge that lay between the steep cliff and the sea, Shane and Paddy entered a large cave excavated from the rock, which seemed to have been formed some kind of volcanic activity when the world was young. The path running through the cavern was covered with fine sand that had been hardened by frequent pressure, and it caused the sounds of their feet to reverberate in the gloominess. Ahead of the two men a strong light gleamed, piercing the darkness, and partially revealing the walls of the cavern. The far space beneath the lofty cavern roof, was impervious to the powerful light and extended onward, dark, and undefined. From this darkness came the sound of human voices shouting and laughing uproariously. As Paddy and Shane moved onward a strange scene burst into view.
Before a huge, blazing fire which illuminated all the deep recesses of the high over-arching rock that rose to form the lofty roof of this Gothic cathedral, sat five strange and unkempt men. They were wild-looking men who were dressed in a variety of seamen’s clothing. Between the men was a large sea-chest, upon which was placed a large earthenware flagon, from which one of the men, probably their leader, poured sparkling amber liquid into a single glass that was quickly passed around each of them. As they drank, the men joked, laughed, and sang loudly echoing throughout the expansive cavern.
“Well men!” said Shane loudly as they approached the group of men. “Ah! Mister Cronin, it looks like you and the boys are having great fun. Let’s all have another glass of Brandy and we can all laugh and sing together. How is it with that big hound of a dog, that knows how to bark so well at those dirty, plundering thieves of Guagers?”
“Ah! sure you’re very welcome, Shane,” replied Cronin with a large smile across his face. “The customer you’ve brought us may be depended upon for his discretion, I hope. Sit down, boys.”
“We thank you,” Shane answered. “As for being dependable, there is no more decent man in this land than Paddy Corr, that stands here.”
“Come on boys and get yourselves a wee drink of our best Brandy, while I help you to some ham,” the smuggler offered. “I know you Shane Fee, you have the stomach of a shark, the digestion of an ostrich, and the good taste of the connoisseur.”
“By God, that’s a compliment when it comes from your mouth, Mister Cronin,” replied the much-flattered Shane. “Gentlemen, here’s a toast to free trade among honest men, and hang all informers from the highest trees! By all that’s good!” he said, smacking his lips, “But that’s the quare stuff! It brings a powerful warmth to the stomach!”
“You are welcome to our home, Paddy Corr,” the leader of the group spoke loudly, “there’s a roof over our head, the rent is paid, and the barrels of best Brandy have not been watered down. So, eat, drink, and be merry. When the moon reaches its highest point, we can proceed to business.”
Paddy, being the gentleman that he was, made ready to thank his host until Shane Fee again interrupted. “I have never saw a man, himself and his friends. Drinking and womanising on land and spreading the sails of that boat of yours ‘The Black Widow’ over the sea. By the Devil, if I had Donald the Piper beside me, and that barrel of Brandy, sure I’d drink and dance until morning. But here’s to God’s blessing on us all, and success to our trip, Paddy, my friend.” And with those words he drained his glass.
Then, after many successive rounds passed by the emaciated looking Shane Fee became totally intoxicated, and he called out at the top of his voice, “Silence now, boys, until I give you a song.” In a squeaking, non-melodic, and out of tune voice he began to sing:
“Ah, will you come to the bower,
O’er the deep and thunderous ocean,
Where stupendous waves roll,
In deep and thunderous motion.
Where the mermaids are seen,
and the fierce tempest gathers,
To Ireland the Green,
Dear home of our fathers.
Will you come?
Will you? Will you?
Will you come to the bower?”
It was early on a clear sunny morning, soon after this, that a man with a pony and cart was seen entering the town of Kilferns from the west. He walked slowly in front of the animal, which appeared to be very reluctant to allow himself to be dragged along at the full length of his halter. On the small cart was laid a quantity of straw, upon which lay a human form. It was a long body of a grown man being, whose feet extended over the rear of the cart, and was covered with old flannel quilt. The man’s face, as it appeared above the tattered hem of the quilt, looked to very ill and malnourished, which seemed to be causing him some pain. His distorted features showed the terrible pain he was enduring, and as the small cart jolted along that rugged path, he groaned hideously. This miserable human being was, indeed, Shane Fee, and he who was leading the pony was none other than Paddy Corr. By this manner, Paddy was trying to smuggle his “bit of baccy,” which he had concealed in well-packed bales beneath the sick bed upon which Shane lay, simulating his grievous illness.
As they continued along the road, Shane uttered a loud groan, and with such a sound of real agony that it startled Paddy. He was so sure that Shane’s cry of pain was real, that he rushed to the back of the cart to see for himself if his companion was still alive. Shane, however, was very much alive and none too pleased that Paddy had left his post. “For God’s sake, Paddy,” he growled in a deep voice, “it’s not that far now until we come across that thieving and scheming Guagers. Back to your post now and make ready to carry out our plan. Don’t forget now, that it is the spotted fever I have.”
As Shane had said, a short time later, they came upon the ‘Excise Man’ on the street. Nervous about being able to act out his role caused Paddy to avoid looking at the man. This aroused the suspicions of the Guagers, who brought the traveller and his cart to a halt. “Well, wee man,” he greeted Paddy, “where are you from, and just where would you be heading?“
“Oh, sir, may the good Lord bless you, for you must be one of the good ones, asking after the health of a poor shore fisherman like me. But, sir, it isn’t so much where I come from as where the body in the cart will die on me.”
“How far are you taking him?” asked the ‘Excise Man’.
“Sure, wouldn’t I like to know that myself. I would get down on my two bended knees and pray for your soul, sir, if you could give the answer to that question. Didn’t I forget to ask the poor creature where he should be buried when we came away, and now he can’t string two words together.”
The Guagers listened intently to what Paddy told him, but he was becoming very suspicious of the way he was delaying in answering his questions. “Come on now, where is it that you live?”
“Ah, Jaysus, sure it’s your way of talking that has me entirely confused. But if you want to know where my woman and children are, it is that way. To the west in Ballintee, Surely you have heard of Ballintee, Sir?”
“No,” came the reply.
“Well, no matter, sir, for if you had been there you might have got the sickness, God forbid. Stay away from that place, for it would be better if you talked to the man there and ask him to offer up a rosary for you. It would be cheaper than having to send for Doctor Crummy.”
“Perhaps I should just search the cart. Maybe you have some soft goods concealed under that sick man,” said the Guagers, as he came closer to the cart. “It wouldn’t be the first time that I caught a smuggler and his wares in such a situation.”
“There’s not even the smell or taste of any goods under that man, but your welcome to look if you wish to disturb him. As for catching a smuggler, I would say the only thing you’ll catch under him is the spotted fever.”
“Fever!” repeated the startled Guagers, taking a step or two backwards.
“Aye, the fever, sir! Didn’t Father Brody prepare him and tell us that he had the spotted. He said he had never seen worse, and that it could destroy a thousand men! Come on, sir, take a wee look in the poor man’s face, and then lift the dying creature out of his resting place. He that came that came all the way from the hill country to fulfil a dream of his, to sort out a Mass for the soul of his wife at Ballintee. Aye, sure just you go ahead and throw him out of the cart and on to the road, and let his blood, a stranger’s blood be on your conscience, and his fever in your body.”
Paddy Corr had played his role very well and had brought out the Guagers fear of the dreaded fever, which saved his load of ‘baccy’ from being discovered and confiscated. Nevertheless, both men decided it was too dangerous to search for a buyer in Kilferns and directed their path toward the nearby coastal town of Carnbay, that lay further east.
It was late in the evening as the small party entered the town. Fortunately, Shane could read quite well, and it was he who noticed a sign for a guesthouse with adjacent stable for the pony. He told Paddy that they would spend the night there, and then told Paddy to visit the only tobacconist in town. But Paddy felt it strange that Shane chose not to accompany him.
The shop owner, Mister Parsons, had just finished dealing with several customers, as Paddy entered. He waited until the customers had exited the store before greeting the owner, “Well, big man, how’s business?” Mister Parsons was startled by such a rude greeting from some person unknown to him, when a more formal greeting would have been appropriate. The shopkeeper looked at the new visitor with an expression that showed his distaste for those he considered to be of a lower class. At first, he ignored the small man’s presence in the shop, but, after a moment he acknowledged Paddy and asked, “What can I do for you?“
Paddy Corr said nothing but stood there with his mouth gaping widely. Mister Parsons immediately added, “I believe you have come from the west?“
Paddy now came to his senses again and replied, “Sure enough, from the westernmost part of the west. By the grace of God, I have made it this far on honest business and would like to speak to you.”
Mr. Parsons now showed a great deal of interest in what this strange, short visitor and asked him, “I have no doubt that you have brought something in my line of business with you?”
“Indeed, I have,” replied Paddy. “I have the best bit of tobacco that you have ever seen, or smoked, and that’s no idle brag. The man from whom I received it that a sweeter taste had never left the hold of his ship. Now, I will give it to you dog cheap, only because it has travelled such a long way.”
“I don’t think you have been very long in this business,” said Mister Parsons.
“That’s true. This is not something I have done before, in all my life, short though it has been,” Paddy told him.
Mister Parsons smiled inwardly to himself, because if the man before him was inexperienced in running smuggled goods, there might just be a profitable deal to be made. He told Paddy that he should bring the goods privately to the back door of his premises. Paddy, with his fear of the Guagers still very much on his mind, wasted no time in carrying out the instructions. But, when Mr Parsons examined the packages brought by Paddy, the shopkeeper had a deeply disappointed expression upon his face, and exclaimed, “This stuff is no good, young man! It is entirely damaged by sea water and will never do.”
“Sea water? I don’t think so!” replied Paddy. “Not one drop of water, salt or fresh, did ever touch my ‘baccy’. The boat, ‘The Black Widow’ that brought it could skim along the waves like a seagull, and I can assure you that there are two things she never yet let in, namely water or ‘water-guards’. Water drips off her as it does a duck’s back, and the great wolfhound on her deck keeps the at a good distance.” This was information that Paddy had simply gleaned from talking to Shane as they journeyed along the road, and in the smugglers’ cave.
“Ah, don’t you be trying to hoodwink me with your knowledge of the sea, for you cannot teach me anything about my own business. So, take it away, for no man in this trade would take it on. But I’ll tell you this, I will do you a favour rather than let a poor, ignorant man fall into the hands of the Guagers. I shall give you five pounds for the lot.”
Paddy was in shock at the man’s meagre offer. He had hoped to at least double his investment, but he now saw a huge loss being the only results of his dealings. “Oh, my darling Jenny!” Paddy began to cry, swinging his body from side to side in his grief, “My sweet Jenny! What will you say to your man, after him throwing away a half year’s rent that should have been given to the agent? O! what will you say, sweetheart, but that I made one stupid eejit of myself, for listening to Shane Fee, that lousy schemer! And what shall our wee Sheila say when I when I won’t be able to give her a dowry and when Tim Murphy won’t take her without the cows that I won’t have to give her? O, Mister Parsons will you not show me some mercy and don’t short-change or cheat me for God’s sake? Give me the ten pounds that it cost me, and I’ll pray for your soul, always. O! Jenny, Jenny, I’ll never be able to face you, or Sheila, or any of our neighbours again. At least not without the ten-pound note.“
“Well, if you don’t give me your tobacco for less than that, you can call on Mr. Burton, at the other side of the bridge. He deals in such goods too. Although I cannot do more for you, you could go farther but you might also fare worse,” warned Mister Parsons and directed Paddy to Mr. Burton, who was, in fact, the excise officer.
Feeling very deflated by his experience with Mister Parsons, Paddy cautiously proceeded across the bridge until he reached a house with a big green door and a brass knocker. Paddy hesitated when he saw that the building was not a shop or advertised any business enterprise. When assured that this was indeed the house of Mr. Burton, he went up to the door, and gave the door three loud knocks with the butt end of his Blackthorn stick. The knocks were so loud they could have awakened the dead, but it had the desired effect of rousing Mister Burton, who was angered at the loudness of the rapping and went to see just who had created it. “In the name of God, man, are you wanting to break my door down with that brass knocker, or what?”
“Ah sure, I’m sorry for being so noisy,” said Paddy as he removed his broad-brimmed hat and tried to hurriedly shine his shoes on the backs of his trouser legs. “I’ve never seen such a large knocker on a door before this night, and sure I wouldn’t have troubled you at all, only I have some fine goods that I have been told would suit you. You can have it for next to nothing because I don’t have the heart to go on any farther. My pony is almost done and I’m shite scared of being caught by the Guagers.”
“May I just ask you, who sent you here to sell smuggled tobacco?” asked the astonished Guagers.
“An honest man, but a bad buyer, who trades the other side of the bridge. He would only give me five pounds for what cost me ten pounds. I wish I had never started all of this! I put a half year’s rent into this! My thirteen female children and my poor wife, God help them, will be soon be out on the roads. I’ll never go home without the ten pounds in my pocket. Damn to you, Shane Fee, you sickly faced blackguard, that brought me into smuggling. O! Jenny, I will have to go soldiering with a gun on my shoulder.”
“Shane Fee!” exclaimed the excise man. “Do you know Shane Fee? I’d give ten pounds just to see that villain.”
“I do sir, and it is myself who could put your finger on him, if I had you in Ballintree. But just I was leaving the place, he was lying under an old quilt, and I heard him telling someone that the priest said he had spotted fever enough for a thousand men.”
“That villain will never die of the spotted fever, in my humble opinion,” said the Guagers.
“You’re a good judge, sir. Sure, didn’t I hear the rogue himself say, ‘Bad luck to that thief of a priest, and him telling me that I would die of a stoppage of breath!’ But won’t you just allow me to turn in the wee bit of tobacco?”
The excise man was now extremely angry at the underhand way that Mister Parsons would attempt to bring ruin to this wee man, just because he didn’t get his way. Mr. Burton was now determined to punish that crook’s treachery. “Listen to me, wee man,” he said to Paddy, “I am the exciseman that you dread so much, and I am sworn to do my duty, and confiscate that bit of tobacco. But it is common justice that the treacherous blackguard that sent you here should be punished. Go back to him now, quickly, and tell him that he can have the lot at his at his own terms. I will be close behind you and give him the proper reward for his treachery. Do this job right, and I promise, on my word, that I shall give you ten pounds more, and you will make the profit you need.” Paddy threw himself to his knees, and lifted his hands in prayer, but he could not speak. The terror and delight of this moment, however, made him unable to utter a sound.
“Get up, I say,” exclaimed the excise man, “up now and get going. Go now and earn your ten pounds, while getting a sweet revenge on the thief that betrayed you.”
Paddy rapidly made his way back to Mr. Parson’s shop, muttering a prayer of thanksgiving beneath his breath, “What a real gentleman, and may the Lord make his soul a comfortable bed in Heaven.” Then he turned his mind to Mr. Parsons, muttering, “Now, that cheating villain of a man. He thought he was sending the fox to mind the hens sure enough. May he be hung high, the blackguard and informer. He’ll suffer for his sins this day.”
When they met again Mister Parsons asked Paddy, “Have you seen that gentleman I sent you to?”
“Ah, sir, when I came to the bridge an looked about me, I began to suspect everyone I met was a thief or a Guagers. Then, after I stood there a while, quite distracted with fear and nerves, and I forgot the man’s name. So, I came back again to ask you, if you would please …”
“You had better take the five pounds I offered if you don’t want any more bother. There’s a Guagers in town, and your situation, therefore, is very dangerous.”
“Oh my God, a Guager’s in town!” cried Paddy. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what’ll I do now? I’m done, surely to God. Take it for what you like, and should you ever have trouble like this, you be comforted in that you had a poor man’s blessing. I give that to you on my knees and may it help you along the road of life.“
With the deal done the tobacco was brought inside the premises and placed it among Mr. Parson’s other contraband goods. Paddy placed the five pounds in his pocket, and, in that moment, Mr. Burton burst into the room. The Tobacconist’s business and reputation was destroyed. Parson’s was subjected to a heavy fine, and the community would have nothing to do with him because of his treachery, causing him die in extreme poverty. The man’s family and descendants were destined to become homeless wanderers. There was to be no forgiveness for the family of the only informer that ever disgraced the district.
If you visit Ireland or read Irish folklore and traditions you will undoubtedly come across many important warnings with regard to gaining peace, happiness, and good fortune. Now, there are very few of us that do not want good luck and the good fortune that it brings. So, for those of you who desire to have good luck I have gathered some of the more well-known warnings that fill Irish tradition.
The first of these is that you should never put a boot on your foot until you have two stockings on, i.e. one on each foot and not two on one foot. Any person who does not pay heed to this warning should abandon any hope of luck. It is said that Columbcille once put on a sock and a boot on one foot, intending to do the same with the other foot. Unfortunately, the saint’s enemies came upon him just as he was preparing to put on the second sock and was, therefore, unable to run away and avoid capture. It was at this time that the saint put his course upon any person who should do the same as he had done.
Another warning says that if you are driving any animals to market and you meet a person who does not ‘bless’ them, be sure that before the person passes on you say, “God Bless your heart, your eye, and my share.” By saying this you will protect the animals from being ‘blinked’ by that person’s evil eye.
It is equally important that the ploughman guards his horses from the same dreadful evil of ‘blinking’. When he is approaching the end of the field, if he sees any person standing there to whom he must speak, he should never allow the horses to stand until he has turned their faces towards the other end, with their tails to the person. This will ensure the horses will be safe while the ploughman talks to the person.
All of the above warnings are means of preventing the ill luck of ‘blinking’, and it is always said that “Prevention is always better than cure!” But you might wonder if there was a cure for ‘blinking’, and the answer is “Yes”.
It is often said that “Quick is the glance of an eye under any circumstance, but quicker by far is the glance of blinker’s eye.” The harm that we fear could have already been done before we can guard against it. So, counteracting such an evil spell should be our immediate aim, and there is, thankfully, an effective antidote that we should remember. Firstly, the animal should be struck with any part of your clothing. In older times it would be said with ‘the tail of your coat’, and next the ground. This procedure should be repeated three times if a complete cure is to be obtained.
You are also warned that when you travel along a lonely road at night you should keep to the centre of the road, walking between the wheel tracks and keeping in the tracks made by your horse. Doing this will ensure that nothing can harm you while you follow those horse tracks.
Now that we are approaching the Christmas season it is important that you don’t give anything away on New Year’s Day. But if you find this unavoidable ensure the person who gets it from you brings something to you first. For example, if your neighbour’s fire happens to go out in the morning, do not give the neighbour any coal until you first receive turf. In the same way never, for any reason, allow a coal to be taken from your house while there is any person within the house who is sick. Also, it is important that you remember that under no circumstance allow a coal out of your house on a Monday morning.
It is also important that you give away no milk from the first churning, and the person to whom you give milk from your dairy should ‘bless’ the milk and the cow which gave it.
In the North of Ireland, it was always said that you should not “dung the byre” after the sun had set. Tradition forbade any removal of manure, or the sweepings of the house, after that time. Such chores were to be attended to during the day, “after the sun had risen, and before he has set.” Furthermore, on New Year’s day no ashes or food waste should be put out, and all the water you need for use in the house is to be brought in before dark on New Year’s Eve.
“Wait ’til I tell you, Mickey Brennan, it’s not that I don’t have a great regard for you as a man. Indeed, it’s true that you are a decent sort of boy, and that you come from a decent family. But I have to say that, the long and short of it is, I just don’t want you to be running about after my wee girl anymore.” Such was the concluding portion of a very long and unfriendly speech that had been undertaken by old Brian Moran of Loughcroy. Old Brian’s sole purpose for giving such a speech was, simply, to persuade his daughter’s sweetheart to cease paying her any further attention. It is a difficult task that parents occasionally need to take upon themselves and it is a task that is never very easy to carry out. Indeed, the entire affair become even more difficult when the couple in question are unceremoniously separated from each other, having very much believed that they had been born for each other.
Everyone who knew Michael Brennan, knew him to be a quiet, unassuming young man who was always respectful to his elders. On this occasion, however, he was not very successful in holding either his patience, or his temper, on this occasion. “Why? Dear God, Brian Moran!” he exclaimed angrily, “I beg, in the name of all that is holy, just give me one good reason why I should be separated from her? Whether the reason be good, bad, or indifferent, and I’ll be satisfied!”
“Och, what am I to say to you, you unfortunate eejit of a boy. Now don’t be questioning me on this bloody decision anymore,” responded Brian in a way that suggested to Michael that he wasn’t entirely happy with the decision himself.
“And why shouldn’t I?” asked Michael. “Do you think that I should just give up so easily, and we playing together since she could walk. Has that girl not been the very light of my eyes and the pulse of my heart, these six long years since we reached a proper age to know how things were between us. Now, you tell me when, in all of that time, did either you or your good wife ever say, or even hint, until this damned minute that I was to cease from courting her? Will you just tell me that.”
“Would you give my head a bit of peace, Michael!” Brian groaned at the young man. He put his hands to his ears to keep himself from hearing the questions, especially when he did not have the ability to give the boy a straight answer to them.
“That’s true enough,” he finally conceded. “This whole mess is all down to Peggy, God forgive her, and I wish she she had told you herself. I knew how you would be when you were told this, and don’t blame you in any way for being angry. When she hears it all, it will kill young Mary completely.”
“Has this all come about because you feel that I am not wealthy enough to be keeping her in a proper manner?” Michael asked him with all the impatience of a teenager.
“Not at all, Michael,” Brian replied, “it’s nothing like that at all. But, if you want to be sure, can’t you wait an’ ask Peggy, herself?”
Michael chose to totally ignore any mention of Peggy’s name and asked ‘Old Brian”, “Is it because there’s something against me?”.
When Brian didn’t answer immediately, Michael asked him again, “Is it because there is something against me, I asked you? Is there a warrant, or a summons, or has somebody spoken against me?”
“Jaysus Christ! Did I not just say, no more questions?” sighed Brian, feeling overwhelmed by the young man’s questions. “Just wait a wee while and you can ask all you want to know off Peggy, Michael!”
“No, Michael!” insisted Brian, “There was never a word said against you. My God, sure you have never done anything wrong that would cause a person to speak out against you. In all honesty, my lad, it is that which is breaking my heart. Total damnation to that bloody woman of mine, but this is all Peggy’s fault.”
“What?” exclaimed Mickey in disbelief. “I bet you that Peggy has had a bad dream about Mary and I. Come on, Brian! Out with it! Tell us what Peggy the Pishogue (Prophetess) has to say for herself. Come on, out with it, man dear!. My whole life is being tossed upside down for something your Peggy has dreamed up!”
“Oh Michael, for Jaysus’, be at peace, and don’t be talking that way about Peggy,” Brian told him. Mickey had offended him by talking in such a manner about his wife, whose previous visions had always come to pass. “Whatever she says, doesn’t it always come true?” Brian reminded him. “Didn’t it rain on last Saturday, even though the day looked fine at first? Sure didn’t Tommy Higgins’s cow die on him? Wasn’t Annie Creaney married to Jimmy Knox after all? And wait ’til I tell you, that as sure as your name is Mickey Brennan, what she says about you will also come to pass. In fact, God forbid that it should happen to anyone else of your decent family!”
“In the name of God, Brian, tell me what’s going to happen to me?” Mickey asked in a trembling voice, despite his efforts to adopt an uncaring attitude, especially after he had commented quite contemptuously upon Peggy’s reputation of being the wisest of women. In fact, Peggy’s reputation stood very high among the people of the district, and Mickey should not have tried to sound too unconcerned about being seen in unfavourable circumstances in any of her visions of the future.
“Ah Jaysus, Michael, don’t ask me such things. Please don’t ask me,” was Brian’s pitiful answer, “Maybe you should just get all your things together now, as quickly as you can, and go straight toFather Corry.The priest might be able to give you some sort of blessing that will give you a chance to escape all the bad luck that’s in front of you.”
“It’s all crap! Total bullshit! And, by the way, Brian Moran, you should be ashamed of yourself for spreading such rubbish.”
“There’s not one word of a lie in it, I’m telling ye,” Brian insisted. “Peggy seen it all last night, and, in all honesty, the poor woman is as troubled about it, almost as if you were her own flesh and blood. Look, sure isn’t that a mole you have there under your ear?”
“Well, and what if it is?” Michael replied in a quite uncaring tone. But, in reality, he was very disturbed by the concern that his future was causing both Brian and Peggy. “What if I have a mole? Sure there are many men who have a mole in the same place as myself!”
“That’s very true,” Brian replied. “But, Mickey, my friend, didn’t they have the same bad luck come to them as well. Now listen to me, you poor, ignorant wee crature, you would not want me to give my blessing to have my poor wee darlin’ girl marry a man who will sooner or later end his days swinging at the end of a rope on the gallows!”
“The gallows!” screamed Mickey Brennan,slowly, “Jaysus Christ and his Holy Mother! Is that what Peggy says is going to happen to me?” He tried desperately to laugh derisively and defiantly at what he thought was preposterous idea. But, Mickey could not do it. Deep down he was truly shocked by what Brian had told him. He knew that this was not a matter to be laughed at, and he had to finally give in to those fears he had tried so hard to resist. Almost as a sign of his surrender to the inevitable, Mickey buried his face in his hands as he threw himself violently to the ground.
Meanwhile, Brian was equally, deeply moved by the revelation he had made to Michael. Though it was his wife’s, Peggy, vision that he had revealed he sat down beside young Brennan and tried to console him as best as he could. Before all this talk of visions had gotten in his way, Old Brian had nothing but a good deal of admiration for young Michael. He was among the more well-to-do people of the district, and had gathered a small amount of wealth about him. Mickey owned a good, fertile piece of land and his farm produced a good harvest of crops, pigs, cows and sheep. The fact that he owned all these things in his own name made him the most eligible bachelor among all the young men of the district. Mary Moran, however, was more interested in Mickey’s handsome good looks and muscular physique.
Mickey’s family were all very well off and highly respected in the area, but both his mother and his father were dead and his only sister had gotten herself married just before Lent had began. Naturally, having all the advantages of wealth and freedom, you would think that Mickey could have selected any girl in the parish to be his bride. But, Mickey had made his choice of a wife many years ago. His eye had fallen upon Mary Moran and they had both given each other their hearts. Both Brian and Peggy were happy with their daughter’s choice and had never thought about disputing it. Brian didn’t even have second thoughts after he came to the decision that he would could give his daughter a money gift, which, at the time, amounted to double what Michael Brennan was worth. There was not, perhaps, the same certainty about the money gift when it came to Peggy. A mother always worries about her daughter and, being such careful creatures, they always want to see that any future son-in-law is financially independent. This is always true when it comes to an Irish mother who has a daughter of marriageable age.
Peggy Moran was as good an Irish mother as any other and she was somewhat concerned about the amount of money that Brian was about to shower on Mary. She argued strongly with Brian about the agreement he had made and she tried everything possible to change his mind. But, Peggy’s efforts were all in vain, however, because as much as Brian usually submitted to her advice, he loved his pretty daughter Mary. This great love that he held for his daughter strengthened his resolve in this matter. Every time Mary cried at her mother’s insinuations,, Brian always words to comfort her. On those occasions when Brian’s words of comfort were not enough, he always got Mickey and Mary together, and left them to settle the matter in their own way.
Peggy was not the type of woman who gave up easily, and she was determined that she would have her way in this matter. Such was her reputation as a seer, after all, that one word from her could break up any match that had been made in the district, and that included her very own daughter’s match whether Brian liked it or not. To this end Peggy now applied all her tricks, and every ounce of her cunning to the task. Firstly, she could not allow Brian to shower the young couple with all that money. And so, Peggy talked about the dreams that she had been given about the match between Michael and Mary. She read the tea leaves and consulted the burning embers of the fire in which she saw all sorts of strange signs concerning her daughter’s relationship with Michael Brennan. Calling upon her entire knowledge of magic and the world of spirits, she was rewarded with a vision that revealed Michael Brennan was destined to end his days on the gallows.
There were some parishioners, who thought themselves older and wiser than most, that considered the very idea of Peggy Moran being something of a prophetess as an ugly sort of joke. There were many more in the Parish who believed she had become so devoted to the dark spirits that her knowledge and skill in supernatural matters was very strong. They called her ‘The Pishogue‘, a name that implied she had a knowledge of more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed about. It was a title that was certainly not misplaced in Peggy’s case. There was not a university professor more deeply read in science and medicine than was Peggy when it came to all the signs and omens whereby the affairs of this world are foretold.
There seemed to be nothing too great or too small for Peggy to not get involved. She was expert in every form of fortune telling, from reading tea-leaves to magic. She could read a person’s future in the mystical dregs from a tea-cup, which assumed a variety of shapes that would puzzle any learned person. By just taking a glance at some symbol, or other, she could immediately detect its true meaning, and foretell deaths, births, and marriages, with the same infallibility as a newspaper. Even those dreams that would mystify the wisest of men would be quickly unravelled by Peggy. At the same time, there was not a ghost, or other spirit, in the entire country with whose haunts and habits she was not familiar with, almost as if she one of their number. There wasn’t a single fairy that could put its nose outside without being detected by Peggy. Meanwhile, there were many property owners in the district that employed Peggy to use her skills and charms against all manner of theft and loss. When news of these ‘Spirit Blessings’ became known the properties concerned increased a great deal in their value.
We could spend an entire lifetime describing every mystical talent that Peggy possessed, and to relate every one of the successes she had. But, it would a certainty that there would still be those among you who would still not believe in all the things that Peggy had said and done. Yet, the people of the parish were very much aware of Peggy’s achievements and had great confidence in all she said and did neighbours. Not only her friends and neighbours had trust and confidence in her, but also her closest family, Brian and Mary. With such a status within the community around her, it is no wonder why so many people believed her when she foretold the coming disaster that would befall Mickey Brennan.
It should come as no surprise to you then that Peggy’s revelation created a great sensation, especially after several old gossips, to whom she had imparted her discovery, were put on oath not to say one word about it. Instead they were told that they should hush up the entire matter for the young fool’s peace of mind. Those people who had a close friendship with Michael also worried about his fate, because not even the most sceptical among them would dare to question the truth and certainty of Peggy Moran revelation. Rather than scrutinising the sources of her information they preferred to view the entire matter as being one that required their sympathy for their friend. Everyone viewed Peggy’s warnings as being certain, and some of Michael’s friends even declared, “that since the thing cannot be avoided, and Mickey, poor fellow, must be hanged, we can only hope it is for something worthwhile, decent, and not thieving, or cheating, or anything like that.”
You can appreciate that in all of this the hardest task in this story is to describe the feelings that poor Michael Brennan, himself, felt about the situation. He did everything he possibly could to make Peggy’s revelations appear to be the foolish superstions of a very weird woman. Unfortunately, Michael had grown to believe in the apparitions just as much as any other person in the district. Though he tried very hard to ignore the revelations made about him, his efforts were fruitless and a dark sense of despair quickly overcame him.
Now it’s all very well and good for you to preach long and hard about the advantages of education, and its ability to overcome old superstitions. But, take my word for it, that it will take a very long period of time to root out the centuries held superstitions from the hearts of the Irish people. Be assured that, until that bright day dawns, Ireland’s many country villages will still have their ‘Wise Women’, and what they say will be regarded as gospel truth by the vast majority of their neighbours. Of course, there will always be a number of people who will pour scorn on such things, but there will be many more who will very respectfully beg leave to doubt them. There will always be, however, those who believe wholeheartedly in the words and visions of the ‘Wise Women’. If truth be told, in the more remote inland villages that dot the hillsides and mountains of Ireland, there are events occurring almost every day that are far more strange than anything that you are being told in this story.
Michael Brennan found it increasingly difficult to keep calm in the face of the denunciation that had been made. Sadly, only comfort that he could get from those people around him was, “The gallows is a good death for an Irishman.” In those days the majority of Irishmen who were sent to the gallows were considered martyrs for the cause of Ireland’s freedom from the British Crown and they were, therefore, considered by most to be good men and women. This, of course, was the last thing on Michael’s mind. Peggy’s revelation had caused him to begin losing any hope he had of becoming a husband to his beloved Mary. No longer having this hope filling his heart with joy, Michael began to wish that death, instant and immediate, would come quickly and carry him off. As his anxiety and depression grew, death, it seemed to him, would be a great relief and it would also show that Peggy’s prophecies could not always be relied upon to come true.
It will, therefore, come as no surprise to you to learn that, in the depth of the depression brought about by his mental suffering and fear for the future, Mickey made a failed attempt upon his own life. When he was sure, in his own mind, that there was no one close enough to stop him, Mickey plunged himself into a nearby lake. He quickly discovered, however, that he was not alone at that moment. A local man, who was looking after sheep, saw Michael plunge into the lake and went to rescue him. The shepherd, however, was quite a distance away and, by the time he had reached the lake, Mickey’s body was to all appearances lifeless. His discovery was quickly spread about the parish, causing shock to all who heard the news. It was like the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ that went the rounds and finally declared Mickey’s death, but the description of that death was different each time it was described. Some said that Mickey Brennan had lain in the cold, dark water for at least ten minutes, while others said a half an hour, half the day, and even since the previous night. There was only one point that was consistent in each story told, and that was the agreement saying that Mickey Brennan was as dead as a door-nail.
Only Peggy Moran didn’t believe the news that she was given. “Would you all stop your bleetin’,for God’s sake, sure the man’s not dead,” she told the crowd that had gathered.
“If you would all be quiet for a few minutes, the man might just come to! When have you ever known a man who is born to be hanged was drowned. So, just wait a wee while and hold your tongues, for this is all nonsense, I tell you. Mickey Brennan will live long enough to spoil somebody’s day, and more’s the pity.”
Her words seemed to fall on deaf ears, however, Many began to shake their heads, some even suggesting that Peggy had mistaken rope for water in her dream about Brennan. All their doubts soon vanished, nonetheless. Slowly and quite mysteriously, Mickey began to recover from his rash effort at suicide. By recovering, unfortunately, he fulfilled much of the destiny that Peggy had for him. At the same time, Mickey raised Peggy Moran’s reputation to an even higher point beyond than it had been previously.
During the days that followed Peggy’s fame rose even higher. She discovered six cases of stolen goods, twice discovered that the fairies had interfered with the milk churns on nearby farms belonging to their neighbours, and she was invited by a large number of people to tell them their fortunes. In the meantime, poor Mickey Brennan finally realised that his destiny could not be avoided so easily, and he resigned himself to what his fate would be. But, if he was to die on the gallows, he decided that he would seek out the best possible opportunity to face the gallows without any disgrace to his people, or family name. Mary Moran, however, was deeply heartbroken with grief at her beloved’s declared fate and she just could not imagine anything that could be worse for her to bear, though she would soon discover that there was .
In a very short period of time there began a new whisper that began to creep through the parish. This new whisper promised death and disaster on some very unlucky unknown person. Rumours said, “Peggy Moran has something on her mind,” and this alone made the people impatiently wonder as to what that ‘something’ could be. When anyone gathered enough courage to question her on the mystery, Peggy remained silent and slipped into a mysterious with a shake of her head. Constantly in her mouth was a lit ‘Sweet Afton’ cigarette, which she never removed unless she lay on her bed to sleep, or sat down at the table to her meals. The more people that now asked her questions, the angrier Peggy became, which was not usual for the woman. She began to avoid all sorts of conversation, which was very definitely not her way either. These actions, naturally, served to arouse interest and curiosity of her neighbours to an agonising pitch. Peggy now had every one trembling that the result of the new prophecy would be some terrible revelation that might affect any single one of them.
For every person in the district the question of who was the subject of Peggy’s new prophecy became the first question asked each morning, and the last question at night. Every word that Peggy spoke became a matter of the greatest speculation to every person who heard her. Such was the tension among the people of the district that there was a danger that the people themselves would go absolutely mad with fright if they were kept in the dark much longer. Eventually the secret was discovered, but at some cost the the discoverer.
One night Brian and Peggy were sitting together in front of the fire for a while before they went to bed. As he sat there with his wife, Brian head that he should try and discover the source of Peggy’s sorrow. After asking her many questions, and getting no straight answers, Peggy told him, “Brian darlin’ it is very good of you to ask and to show your concern. But, my darlin’ old man, there is no use in hiding it anymore. It is all about you.”
“Jaysus, Peggy, Lord bless us and keep us.”
“Indeed, Brian,” replied Peggy gently as she exhaled a large cloud of tobacco smoke from her mouth and nostrils. “ These last couple of days I’ve noticed that you just have not been at yourself.”
“Christ, Peggy! You could be right and maybe I am not at myself,” said Brian anxiously.
“Do you not feel something different about yourself, Brian. Maybe your heart darlin‘?”
“By God,I do. You’re right enough, Peggy. I do feel something different,” Brian told her, willing to believe almost anything she said about him.
“ It’s something like a pleurisy, isn’t it?” she suggested in a mournful tone of voice.
“Ay, right enough, Peggy. It’s just like a pleurisy and may the good God keep me safe from harm!”moaned Brian.
“And I’m sure you feel the cold these night, Brian?” continued Peggy.
“Oh! Holy God, Peggy! Sure I’m foundered! My body is as cold as ice,”answered Brian, and his teeth suddenly began to chatter as if he had fallen into an icy cold pond.
“And your appetite must be completely gone, darlin’?” Peggy continued with her questions.
“Isn’t that the truth of it?” he answered. Brain now believed completely that he had been struck down by some great illness. He had totally forgotten that less than an hour previously he had finished off a pot of potatoes, cabbage and bacon, washed down with a pint of buttermilk.
“Just look at that old black cat, taking a good look at you now, after it has licked her paw,” said Peggy.
“As sure as there’s an eye in a goat, there’s a divil in that cat! I wouldn’t put it past her that she is waiting for me to breathe my last,” said Brian sadly.
Peggy moved a little closer to her husband. “Let me feel your pulse, darlin’,” she said and Brian weakly submitted his trembling wrist for her inspection. As she checked for a pulse, Brian anxiously stared at her face to see if there was any indication as to what his fate would be. At length, a long, deep sigh broke from her lips, accompanied by another huge cloud of cigarette smoke, and she let go of Brian’s arm. Then, to Brian’s surprise, Peggy began to rock herself to and fro, muttering some words or other in a low, moaning voice. Brian was certain that this was an ominous sign of what his fate would be.
“Ah, Jaysus, Peggy, surely to God I am not going to die am I?” he asked his wife anxiously.
“Dear, Oh dear, my darlin’ man!” roared Peggy in anguish, “Never did I ever think that when I married you, Brian my love, that I would ever see the sorrowful day when I would cry the widow’s wail over you. God knows, Brian, but you were the best of a man to me, young and old!”
“Oh Peggy!” Brian sighed loudly as his wife continued her lamentations.
“Ah don’t talk, my darlin’ man, don’t talk to me. Sure I’ll never be able to hold my head up again in this district, so I won’t!” Peggy continued to lament loudly and her wailing quickly brought everyone in the house around her, and finally all the neighbours gathered.
As all these people gathered together there was a great uproar, with people giving mixed ideas with noisy explanations about the cause for Peggy’s lamenting. But, despite their best efforts, there were none who could provide consolation to either Brian or Peggy. Young Mary clung to her father in total despair and grief, while Old Brian mouthed over his prayers as fast and as correctly as his dismay would allow him.
As the morning dawned of the next day, Brian could just not gather the will-power to get up and out of his bed. He refused all that was offered him to eat, and he demanded that the priest should be sent for without delay. Every hour that passed seemed to be worse than the previous hour, as Brian moved from one period of unconsciousness to another. Those at his bedside received a running commentary on the symptoms he was feeling, which seemed to encompass every complaint that ever troubled mankind. He complained bitterly that he was crippled by pain in every part of his body, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. The doctor who attended him could make neither head nor tail of the illness, which had struck down Old Brian Moran. Totally mystified, this man of science declared that the complaint was the greatest oddity complication that he had ever heard of. In fact, he was so annoyed that he believed Brian was making the entire illness up and needed a good kick in the arse to pull himself out of his self pity. At the same time, the Doctor suggested that the best treatment for Peggy was to throw her into the nearest river to help calm her down.
When he arrived on the scene the Parish Priest was equally puzzled by what was happening. “ Brian, what in the name of God, Brian is wrong with you, man dear?” he asked.
“My body is being killed all-over the place with some sort of illness or other,“ replied Brian pitifully. The priest looked at the old man and had to admit to himself that he was bothered by the fact that a man like Brian could not rise from his bed.
Despite every urging of the priest to rise, Old Brian remained where he was and moaned, “What use is there in a man getting up from his bed, and him going to die anyway? Is it not far easier and more decent for me just to die in bed like a good Christian?”
“Ah now, Brian, sure God’s good and maybe this is not yet your time to die,” said the priest.
“Now, don’t be talking your old nonsense, Father. Sure doesn’t my Peggy know best?” Brian told him and with this he closed his ears to all words of consolation that people spoke to him. Even the tearful words spoken by his heart-broken daughter, Mary. Referring to traditional remedies the doctor decided he would try and apply a herbal poultice to the man. He made up a poultice, much stronger than was normal and assured everyone that it would have Brian up from his bed and walking by the next morning.
By this time there were a good many people gathered into the small cottage, hoping to witness Old Brian being cured. The doctor, however, was so distracted by their presence that he felt they could have all been done without. But, these people were a godsend for Peggy, and she turned to them moaning and weeping, and declaring her total lack of faith in any of these modern remedies. She kept on insisting that she had no other expectation than that she would be a sad widow by Sunday. Then, quite unexpectedly, Old Brian was roused a little by the application of the poultice and, with a weak voice, asked be heard.
“Peggy, my darlin’,” said Brian, “there’s no denying that you’re a wonderful woman and, since I’m going from you, it would be a great kindness if you would tell us all how you found out that I was do sick, even before I knew it myself. I’m only curious, darlin’ woman. I just don’t want to die and not know why, or for what reason. Wouldn’t I look the quare fool if someone above was to ask me what I died of, and I couldn’t tell them.”
Peggy looked sorrowfully at her husband, while she told him that she was willing to do him this last favour. In a sobbing voice, Peggy began to explain, “It was Thursday night week,” she began, “sure it’s a night I’ll never forget, Brian, should I live to be a hundred years old. It was just after my first sleep that I began to dream, and I dreamed that I went down to Danny Kelly’s butcher shop to buy a bit of beef. Surely, you remember, it was that day that he had slaughtered a young bull for the butcher’s block. I was sure that when I would go into his house I would see a fine carcase hanging of beef hanging but, all that I saw hanging up was an ugly looking carcase that did not smell too fresh. Says Danny Kelly to me, with a mighty grim look on his face, “Well, woman, what do you want? Is it some of this meat you’re wanting?” ‘Yes, says I, but none of that old rubbish! That’s not the type of meat we’re used to.’ “Ah sure, who cares?” says he to me, “I’ll cut you out a rib.” ‘Oh, no thank you all the same,’ says I and put out my hand to stop him, and what do you think he did? He raised the hatchet and brought it down upon my hand, cutting the ring on my finger into two.”
There were murmurs heard among the gathered crowd as her story came to its end. The meaning of the dream had suddenly been revealed to Old Brian and he unmoved for a while. Everyone in the room looked to Brian to see how he had taken the explanation as to his imminent death when, suddenly, he sat bolt upright in the bed, with his mouth and eyes wide open. “In the name of God, Peggy,” Brian slowly exclaimed, when he had recovered a little from the surprise, “do you mean to tell me that’s all that’s wrong with me?”
Startled by Old Brian’s extraordinary question, Peggy and her crowd of supporters stared at him. For a moment it appeared to them that he was about to leap out of the bed, and forcibly display his indignation to his wife. Although he was known as a quiet man, his temper was just well known. His bodily strength, however, failed him as he attempted to get out of the bed and, roaring with pain, he returned to is lying down position on the bed. Nonetheless, Peggy’s infallibility among the local people was now at an end. The doctor’s poultice had done the trick and in a few short days Brian was able to stump about as usual, threatening everyone with extreme violence if they dared to laugh at him. Laughter, however, is something that is not so easily controlled, and Brian’s foul temper was worsened to such a degree by the ridicule he had encountered, that he now became determined to seek a reconciliation with young Mickey Brennan. He decided that all of Peggy’s gloomy prophesies could go to the devil, and he would give the Parish Priest a job to do for the young couple. Mary and Mickey, as a result, were married and, thanks be to God, Mickey did not end his days on the gallows as Peggy had prophesied.
Soon after my Cousin Sarah’s marriage, we were invited to stay with the newly married couple, for a few weeks during the festive Christmas season. Away we set off with merry hearts, in the clear frosty winter’s air, and with the pleasant prospect ahead of us invigorating our spirits. We took our seats inside the first-class coach on the early morning train, which passed through the town of Ballyshee, where Cousin Sarah lived. I can say without fear of contradiction that there was never a kinder or more genial soul than Cousin Sarah, and David Daniels, her ‘Good Man’, as she laughingly called him. If it is at all possible, David was even kinder and more genial still. Their home was filled with kinds of comforts, and they were always delighted to see friends in a sociable, easy way. They believed in making visitors snug and cosy, though our arrival was only the first of what was to be a succession of such arranged visits.
These evenings were both very amusing and enjoyable, for Con’s presence would always shed radiant sunshine upon a gathering, while David’s broad and honest face beamed upon her with a loving pride. At our house, during those days of their courtship, for sober middle-aged lovers, they had perhaps indulged in sweet talk and pecking each other a little too freely when they were in the company of others. This would leave them open to criticisms from the prim and proper brigade, who wondered why Miss Constance and Mr Danvers would make so ridiculous. But now, with marriage, all of this nonsense had calmed down, and nothing like that could be seen, except for the odd sly glance, or an occasional squeeze of the hand. When we talked about those bygone days, we would joke and declare that engaged couples pairs were usually a pain, and that you could always spot such a couple in a big crowd!
“’I’ll bet you anything you like,” cried Cousin Con, with a good-humoured laugh, “that among our guests coming this evening, you’ll not be able to point out the engaged couple among them. There will be only one such couple, although there are plenty of lads and lasses that would like to be so happily situated! But, the couple I allude to are real little love birds, and yet I defy you to find them!’
“That’s a bet, Cousin Con!” we exclaimed, “and what shall we bet?”
“Gloves! Those fancy French gloves!” cried David. “You Ladies always use gloves to bet. But, I warn you that my Con is on a safe bet now.” David rubbed his hands excitedly, delighted with his joke, which he thought would be at our expense. We, however, were already thinking about our existing collections of fine French gloves, and looking forward to expanding the collections with half-a-dozen pair of particularly expensive samples from Con’s large collection. As a result we watched, with extra interest, the arrival and movements of all strangers to the house that evening, in the hope of detecting the lovers who were engaged.
There were mothers and fathers that came in, both old and middle-aged ladies and gentlemen, until all the drawing rooms were filled with some thirty people. We closely watched all the young people, particularly the manner in which they interacted and we discovered several innocent flirtations. But, we saw nothing that gave us the appearance of a loving and engaged couple. After a while, however, we established ourselves in the corner of a room to closely observe a tall, beautiful girl, who never seemed to take her eyes from the door leading into the room. Each time it opened to admit someone this beautiful girl would sigh and look disappointed if the person entering was not the person she wanted to see. We spent some time enjoying ourselves by making up a romantic scenario in which this girl was the heroine. It was during this game that a little woman, dressed in grey, and aged about sixty years, took a seat beside us and began a conversation. She asked us if we were admiring the pretty Anna McKenna, as she worked out who we were looking at so intently. We had to admit that we were, and the old lady told us, “Ah, she’s a good, affectionate girl. A great favourite of mine is sweet Anna McKenna.”
“She’s waiting for her lover, no doubt?” we suggested to her in the hope of getting some information about engagement. “She is an engaged young lady, of course?”
“Engaged! engaged!” laughed the little lady in grey, “not at all, God forbid! Anna McKenna is not engaged.” The expression on the little lady’s face after we made our suggestion, demonstrated how ludicrous our supposition had been in her eyes. We immediately admitted that we had no knowledge whatsoever in this matter and suggested that our mistake was made through our own ignorance. The encounter had, however, given us both the time to examine our new acquaintance more critically. As stated, this old lady was dressed in grey, which blended in beautifully with her grey hairs, braided in a peculiarly obsolete fashion, and uncovered. She wore grey gloves, grey shoes, and, above all, gray eyes, soft, large, and peculiarly sad in their expression. And yet, they were beautiful eyes, which redeemed her grey, monotonous appearance from being absolutely plain. It is said that Mary Queen of Scots, also had gray eyes. But, even she, the poor lady, did not have the same knowledge of others, past and present, as did this little unknown gossip in gray. But our attention was soon diverted, by the entrance of another person into the room, to whom Anna McKenna darted forward with a cry of delight and welcome. This new arrival was a slender, elderly gentleman, whose white hairs, pale face, and benignant expression presented nothing remarkable in their aspect, beyond a certain air of elegance and refinement, which characterised the whole outward appearance of the man.
“That is a charming-looking old gentleman,” we said to the grey lady, “is he Anna’s father?’
“Anna’s father? O dear, no! That gentleman is a bachelor! He is Anna’s guardian, and has taken the place of a father to her, for poor Anna is an orphan.”
“Oh!” we exclaimed, and there was a great variety of meaning in our “oh!” We had, of course, read and heard of youthful wards falling in love with their guardians? Might not the fair Anna’s taste incline this way? The little gray lady had immediately understood our thoughts. She smiled knowingly, but she said nothing. Then, while we were absorbed with Anna and her supposed antiquated lover, the old lady moved into the circle, and presently we saw Anna’s guardian, with Anna leaning on his arm, exchange a few words with her in a whispering tone, as she brought them to an inner room.
“Who is that pleasing-looking old gentleman?” we asked our hostess, “and what is the name of that lady in grey, who went away just as you came up? That is Anna McKenna we know, and we know also that she isn’t engaged!”
Cousin Con laughed heartily as she replied, “That nice old gentleman is Mr Worthington, our poor curate, and a poor curate he is likely ever to continue, so far as we can see. The lady in grey we call, fondly, our ‘little gray gossip,’ and she is a darling! As to Anna, you seem to know all about her. I suppose little Bessie has been praising her up to the skies.”
“Who is little Bessie?” we asked her.
“Little Bessie is your little grey gossip. We never call her anything but Bessie to her face and she really is a harmless little old maid. But come this way, for Bessie is going to sing. They won’t let her rest till she complies, and let me tell you that Bessie singing, and Bessie talking, are widely different creatures.”
Widely different indeed! There was this little grey lady seated at the piano, and making it speak, while her thrilling tones, as she sang of ‘days gone by,’ went straight to each listener’s heart. As for the lady herself, she was looking ten years younger! When the song was over, I saw Mr Worthington, with Anna still resting on his arm, in a corner of the apartment, shaded by a projecting piece of furniture. At the same time, I also noted the tear on his furrowed cheek, which he hastily brushed away. He stooped to answer some remark of Anna’s, who, with fond affection, had evidently seen it also, and was trying to dispel the painful illusion which memories of days gone by brought about.
At the end of the evening, we found the company was separating, and our bet was still unredeemed. The last to leave was Mr Worthington, escorting Anna McKenna and little Bessie, whom he tenderly helped with her shawl, no doubt because she was a poor lonely little old maid, and she sang so sweetly.
The next morning over breakfast, Cousin Con launched herself at us with the support of Mr Danvers. They both demanded that we should give them the answer to the task we were given, or else hand over our fine French gloves! After a great amount of laughter, talking, and discussion, we had to finally confess that the question had defeated us, for there had been an engaged couple present on the previous evening, and we had failed to discover who they were. It was not Anna McKenna for she had no lover. Neither was it the Misses Halls , or the young Barton boys. We had seen them flirt and dance, and dance and flirt indiscriminately during the evening, but they were not interested in any serious engagements.
Who would have thought that romance, that was now divulged, was actually true? We wondered how we could have been so stupid as to not have seen the answer immediately. These questions are very common when a riddle has been unfolded to provide a solution that you did not expect. It is so easy to be wise when one has the answer in their hand. Yet we cheerfully lost our wager and would have lost a hundred similar ones just for the sake of hearing the following tale, which is so far removed from what is expected that it proves enduring faith and affection are not so fabulous as philosophers would have you believe they are.
Bessie Prunty was nearly related to David Danvers, and she had been the only child of a talented but improvident father, who, after a short, brilliant career as a public singer, suddenly sank into obscurity and neglect. The poor man had suffered a total loss of his vocal powers, which had been brought on by a violent rheumatic cold and extreme physical and emotional exhaustion. When this misfortune occurred, Bessie had almost reached her twentieth year, and she was still in mourning for an excellent mother, by whom she had been tenderly and carefully brought up. The descent from luxury and indulgence to poverty and privation was very swift. Although Bessie had inherited a very small income from the will of her deceased mother, which was sufficient for her own needs, and even a few comforts, it was totally inadequate to meet the numerous demands, whims, and fancies of her ailing and exacting father. For five years, however, she battled bravely with adversity, stretching out their meagre income by her great efforts, although, because of her father’s helpless condition, and the constant and unremitting attention he required, she was prevented in many ways from employing her efforts to more advantage. That poor, dying man, when he had been in excellent health, had contributed to the enjoyment of the more affluent in society, and in turn had been courted by them. But now, feeling that he had been forgotten and was despised, he bitterly reviled this heartless world, which he had once unceasingly attempted fill with cheering and applause. To his bitter and disordered mind the possession of wealth became the goal of life and he attached inordinate value to gaining wealth, while he felt very bitter about his own comparative poverty. He loved his only child better than anything else in this world, except for himself. Naturally, he wanted to guard the child from the dreaded evil of a life of poverty. In his misguided efforts, during his latter days, he gained from her a solemn promise that she would never become the wife of any man who could not settle upon her a sum of at least one thousand pounds, without any strings being attached.
Bessie, was a happy and lively girl who had no intentions of suffering all the slights and privations that poverty brings to a person. She, therefore, saw no reason as to why she should not bind herself to this solemn promise to her father. Even after her father breathed his last, she said that she had made his worries about her vanish quite easily. Little Bessie half smiled, even in the middle of her mourning and natural sorrow, to think how small and easy a promise her poor father had gained from her, especially when her own opinions and views so perfectly coincided with his. The poor orphan girl was taken in by the mother of David Danvers, and she continued to live with that worthy lady until the latter died. It was beneath Mrs. Danvers’ roof that Bessie first became acquainted with Mr Worthington, and that acquaintance quickly ripened into a mutual and sincere attachment. He was poor and had no one to sponsor him, and he had not progressed much in the years since. There was absolutely no likelihood of ever having a thousand pounds that belonged to him alone, never mind a thousand pounds that he could settle on a wife. Of course, it is possible, that with all the chances and changes that come our way during our lifetime, Paul Worthington might eventually succeed to some wealth. There were, however, many twists and turns, as well as ups and downs between him and the opportunity of becoming rich. Paul, was not the type to push himself forward, or to gain at the expense of others, and little Bessie was like-minded.
Paul Worthington was very rich in something that money could not buy, and which cold not be quantified. He had a pure and devoted heart that held great love for one woman, but he bravely endured a life of loneliness and because of the circumstances in which he and his loved one found themselves. Such was Paul’s love that he did not see Bessie grow old and grey, because in his eyes, she never changed. She was, in his eyes, still a beautiful, graceful, and enchanting girl, who was his betrothed. On occasion he would leave his books, and his arduous clerical and parochial duties, just to gaze at into her soft eyes. Then he would press her tiny hand, whisper a fond word to her, and then he would return to his lonely home, where he would bury his sorrows in long bouts of study.
Anna McKenna had been sent to him as a ministering angel. She was the orphan and penniless daughter of Mr Worthington’s dearest friend and former college friend, and she had come to find a shelter beneath the humble roof of the pious guardian, to whose earthly care she had been solemnly left. Paul’s curacy was not far from the town where Bessie had fixed her resting-place. Most of those personal friends, who knew the secret of little Bessie’s history, also knew that she regarded Anna McKenna with special favour and affection, from the fact, that Anna enjoyed the privilege of comforting and cheering Paul Worthington’s declining years. Each of them spoke of her as a dear adopted daughter, and Anna equally returned the affection of both.
Those poor lonely people! They had known long and anxious years, separated by circumstance, and yet united in their bonds of enduring love! In my mind I pictured them at festive winter seasons, it their humble solitary homes; and in the height of summer, when song-birds and bright perfumed flowers call lovers out into the sunshine. They had not dared to rejoice during their long engagement and yet Bessie was a sociable creature, who did not mope or shut herself up, but chose to lead a life of active usefulness, and was a general favourite amongst everyone. They had never even thought about the possibility of them evading Bessie’s solemn promise to her dying father. To their minds, that fatal promise was as binding and stringent.
When we first met the little grey gossip, we had humoured ourselves at her expense. Now, however, we looked upon her as an object of interest, surrounded by a halo of romance, fully shared in by her charming and venerable lover. And this was good Cousin Con’s explanation of the riddle, which she told with many digressions, and with animated smiles, to conceal tears of sympathy. Paul Worthington and little Bessie did not like their history to be discussed by the younger generation, who scorned such things. For Paul and Bessie their sacrifice was so unworldly and very sacred, but they looked forward with a humble hope that soon they would be united for ever in a better place. It simply pained them terribly and distressed them to be made a topic of conversation.
If we had been telling fiction, it would have been easy for us to bring this elderly pair together, even at the eleventh hour. Love and constancy can make up for the absence of the one sweet ingredient that fades but is so beautiful, namely youth. But as this is a romance made in reality, we are compelled by circumstances to divulge facts as they actually occurred, and as we heard them from authentic sources. Paul and Bessie divided in their lives, are now laid side by side in the old church-yard. He went first, and Bessie changed her usual grey for more sombre clothing of a darker colour. But, that loving little soul did not remain long behind him. She left her property to Anna McKenna, and warned her against long engagements.
The last time that we heard about of Anna, she was the happy wife of an excellent man, who, fully complied with the opinion of the little grey gossip by protesting strenuously against a courtship lasting more than six weeks, and he carried his point triumphantly.