Irish Superstitions

The Dark Spirits

In Irish folklore, there are many mysterious and frightening creatures from a dark world that roam this world unseen. They can be said to be the spirits of the dead, who are not yet ready to accept their final destiny, ‘eternal rest’. These spirits are the heralds of death, destruction, and evil. They are also the embodiment of Satan him/herself. The following are descriptions of some of these dark spirits. 

Devil

The Devil is the personification of evil as it is conceived in many and various cultures and religious traditions, the ultimate hostile and destructive demon. Any attempt to give a general definition that will cover all traditions and cultures is virtually and describing it as “the manifestation of evil” is somewhat inadequate. We can only look at the devil through the images that the various cultures have developed as part of their mythology. As a result of independent development within each tradition, the devil is given many names and powers. Generally, however, it portrayed in colours of black, blue, or red, and portrayed as having horns on his head. But, not in every case. In Celtic tradition, there are two candidates for this post, i.e Cernunnos and Balor (Celtic Irish).

Cernunnos –

Cerunnos

is the conventional name given in to depictions of the ‘Horned God’ of Celtic mythology. He was the Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth, and ruler of the underworld, whose name appears in many forms throughout the Celtic World. Cernunnos is usually depicted with the antlers of a stag, sometimes carrying a purse filled with coin, often seated cross-legged and often associated with animals and holding or wearing torcs. Unfortunately, not much is known about the god from literary sources, and details about his name, his followers or his significance in Celtic religion are unknown.

Balor –

is a more likely candidate for being the Devil of Irish mythology. The name itself may come from the Common Celtic ‘Baleros’, which means “the deadly one”. In the ancient tales of Ireland, Balor was the tyrant king of the Fomorians, who were a group of supernatural beings.

Balor

Balor was said to be the son of ‘Buarainech’ and husband of ‘Cethlenn’, and deadly tyrant who oppresses the island of Ireland from his fortress on Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal, where there are features called Dún Bhalair (“Balor’s fortress”) and Túr Bhalair (“Balor’s tower”).

He is often described as a giant with a large eye that wreaks terrible destruction when it is opened. The story of ‘The Cath Maighe Tuireadh’ (“The Battle of Magh Tuireadh”) calls it a “destructive” and “poisonous” eye that no army can withstand and says that it takes four men to lift the eyelid. This great battle was said to be fought between the ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ against the ‘Fomorians’ by Lough Arrow in County Sligo.

In later folklore, he gained a reputation for being the bringer of drought, blight, and the scorching sun. This may have derived from the later traditions saying that – “He had a single eye in his forehead, a venomous fiery eye. There were always seven coverings over this eye. One by one Balar removed the coverings. With the first covering the bracken began to wither, with the second the grass became copper-coloured, with the third the woods and timber began to heat, with the fourth smoke came from the trees, with the fifth everything grew red, with the sixth it sparked. With the seventh, they were all set on fire, and the whole countryside was ablaze!

Balor’s story tells us that he heard a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson and, to avoid such a fate, he locked his only daughter, Ethniu, in a tower on Tory Island to prevent her from becoming pregnant. Then, one day, Balor stole a magical cow of abundance, from Goibniu the smith, and took it to his fortress on Tory Island. Cian, who was guarding the cow for Goibniu, set out to retrieve the cow and, with the help of the druidess Biróg, he entered the tower, finding Ethniu and had intercourse with her.  Angered by Cian, Balor seized him and put him to death. Then, when Ethniu gives birth to a son, Balor attempts to drown the child in the sea or has the child set adrift on the sea to die. The child, however, was saved by the sea god Manannán, who raises the child as his foster-son, whom he named Lugh. This child, Lugh, eventually becomes king of the  ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ and leads them in the Battle of Mag Tuireadh (Moytura) against the Fomorians, who are led into battle by Balor. Legend tells us that Lugh killed Balor by casting a spear made by crafted by Goibniu, or a sling stone, through his eye and that Balor’s eye destroyed the Fomorian army before Lugh finally beheaded Balor.

Another legend says that, when Balor was slain by Lugh, he fell face first into the ground and his deadly eye beam burned a hole into the earth. This great hole filled with water and became a lake which is now known as Loch na Súl (“Lake of the eye”) in County Sligo. There is yet another tradition, which claims that Balor was the grandson of Nét and that he met his death at Carn Uí Néit (“Cairn of Nét’s grandson”), which is known in English as Mizen Head.

Fear Gorta

The ‘Fear Gorta’ is only one part of a huge collection of Irish folklore, but it speaks directly to the suffering experienced during the ‘Great Potato Famine 91848-49)’. The striking image of wasted legs that is usually described in stories containing the ‘Fear Gorta’ may have been derived from the starvation conditions of the Irish peasantry during the ‘Potato Famine’. Even in these modern days the images and memories of the famine play a major part in psyche of the Irish people. Folk-stories help the people to come to an understanding of these terrible circumstances that affected the famine-stricken.

There are many stories within the archives of the ‘Irish Folklore Dep.’ In UCD which refer to the ‘Fear Gorta/ach’ as “The Hungry Grass” as well as the thin-legged spirit (Hungry Men). These stories were collected all over Ireland, but many came from the ‘Gaeltacht’ area (Irish Speaking) through the offices of the Irish Folklore Commission, after it began operations in 1935. It was a massive undertaking to salvage and preserve the nation’s folklore in written transcripts of sound recordings, and from questionnaires, etc. It was, however, among the more generalized collection of folklore that the stories of ‘Fear Gorta’ emerged.

Fear Gorta

In the various manuscripts, references to the ‘Fear Gorta’ come in the form of belief statements, extensive memories, or third-party accounts e.g.

This account was given in 1941. The narrator feels that, however, horrible the current war is (WWII), Ireland’s most dreadful story is the ‘Great Famine’. But, the people themselves believe that the ‘Fear Gorta’ constituted their great suffering, and it was not just bad food, or the shortage of food. Treading on a certain spot, or area would result in sudden weakness; no strength in the hands or legs; and the knees bent and trembled, the victim fell, crippled and senseless, and would remain so until the food could be given – a bit of bread or a few grains. Many narratives are told about people who have had the experience.” (Iml. 81:90 (Clare))

All the stories agree on both components that make up the experience (sudden weakness and extreme hunger when crossing a particular spot) and its remedy (consumption of some form of food, no matter how small.) Some folklorists have referenced the ‘Fear Gorta’ as a talisman, which is mistaken. A Talisman is something that wards off ill-fortune. In this case food is not warding off ill-fortune but rather a remedy for the ill-fortune brought by the ‘Fear Gorta’.

Fear Gorta

There are two reasons frequently given in the archives as to how certain places might acquire the ‘Fear Gorta.’ The first reason usually involves not leaving crumbs of food on the ground after an outdoor meal or offering thanks to God after such a meal. The second reason is usually a certain patch of ground that has come into contact with a corpse. This may happen if someone rests a dead body on the ground on the way to a wake-house. This latter reason brings an association with death at specific places. The resting of a corpse on the way to a wake-house does not involve the act of dying and, therefore, has little to do with the tragedy and its consequences. At he same time, this particular belief does involve unnatural death, which introduces crises within the victim’s community.

Thanks is to be given to – Davis Deborah R. 1994. “Images and Meanings of Purgatory in Folk Expression: A Cultural Thanatology.” and Logan, Patrick. 1972. “Making the Cure: A Look at Irish Folk Medicine.” Talbot Press. Dublin.

Fairy Hound (Cu-sidhe)

According to Irish and Scottish folklore, the ‘Cù-sìdhe’ is described as being the size of a young bull, but with the appearance of a dog. It has a shaggy coat of fur, which is usually a dark-green colour, though it is occasionally white. The hound’s tail has been described as being long and either coiled up or braided. With paws as wide as a man’s hand, its form is very graceful, and always instantly distinguished from mortal, non-magical dogs by its bright red eyes and the red inner lining of its ears.

Cu-Sidhe

The ‘Fairy Hound’ is one of the most formidable enchanted beasts that can be occasionally met in lonely rural locations, where it makes its home among clefts of rocks and roams moors and woodlands where Ireland’s Fairy folk dwell.  The ‘Cù-sìdhe’ was feared as a bringer of death and would appear to bear away the soul of a person to the afterlife. In this role, it holds a function similar to that of the ‘Bean Sidhe’ (Banshee) in Irish folklore. It was said that even the mere sight of one of these creatures would bring the observer bad luck while speaking or touching one usually meant certain death. If it is treated with sufficient courtesy and compassion, however,  a fairy hound can occasionally bring the observer good fortune.

According to the tales of legend, the ‘Fairy Hound’ was capable of hunting silently, but would occasionally let out three terrifying barks, and only three. These barks could be heard for miles by those listening for it, even far out at sea, and those who heard the barking had to reach safety by the third bark, or they would be overcome with terror to the point of death. Some said that the baying was also a dire warning that nursing women should be locked up safely for fear the hound would abduct them and take them to a fairy fort to supply milk for the ‘Daoine-sidhe’.

Irish Werewolf

At one time the wolf was an integral part of Ireland’s countryside and culture, but they are now extinct. Indeed, the last wild wolf in Ireland was said to have been killed in 1786, three hundred years after they were believed to have been wiped out in England, and a century after their disappearance in nearby Scotland. It is not surprising, therefore, that Wolves feature prominently in the mythology of Ireland. A mysterious creature called Airitech had three daughters, who appeared as werewolf-like creatures and were eventually killed by Cas Corach.

‘Mac Tire’ is the Irish word for wolf, literally meaning ‘The Son of the Country(side)’, keeping an association with its ability to transformation from a human being.  Some consider this tradition not to be of native Irish and yet there are many references in Irish mythology to ‘lycanthropes’ and the changing from human form to other animal forms.

‘Faoladh’ and ‘Conroicht’ are both Irish words for “Werewolf” and, as you will learn, the Irish werewolf is a complex creature that is just as often helpful as it is deadly. Unlike other folk traditions, Irish werewolves were considered guardian spirits, who protected children, wounded men, and the lost.

Medieval Illustration of Irish Werewolf

The famous Norman historian of the 12th century, Gerald Cambrensis, wrote a topography of Ireland and described the Irish people as being barely civilised. He had, undoubtedly, a vivid imagination, believing Ireland was an exotic place where natural marvels were widespread. As a result, he told the most fantastic stories and presented them as fact. One such tale was “The Werewolves of Ossory”, which begins with a priest who travelled from Ulster to Meath. On this journey the priest and his companion were taking a rest by a fire, which they had lit in a clearing, when a wolf-like creature came upon them and began to talk. The wolf told them, “There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of ‘Natalis’, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their place, they return to their country and their former shape.

The manner in which the wolf spoke to them gave them bot a sense of reassurance and they listened as the wolf explained that his female companion was dying, and that he wished to have the last rites from the priest. Unhesitatingly, the priest followed the wolf to the lair, where he saw the female wolf near to death. But he had serious doubts about administering the sacrament to an animal until the male wolf reached out, pulling off her wolfskin and revealing an old woman. He was content, now, to give her the last rites and she died peacefully. Happy with this outcome the wolf stayed with the priest and his companion all that night, talking. The priest, it is said, subsequently passed on this story to his bishop, who sent it all the way to Pope Urban III.

There is a variant of this story, which describes the pagan Irish mocking St. Patrick’s preaching by howling like wolves. Totally enraged by such behaviour the Irish Saint curses them all by changing them into wolves, or that he changed King Vereticus into a wolf.

Cambrensis also states, “The descendants of the wolf are in Ossory. They have a wonderful property. They transform themselves into wolves, and go forth in the form of wolves, and if they happen to be killed with flesh in their mouths, it is in the same condition that the bodies out of which they have come will be found; and they command their families not to remove their bodies, because if they were moved, they could never come into them again.”

In another text, ‘The Coir Anmann’, we hear of Shamans and other magicians who are able to send out their spirits, while they continue to lie as if they are dead, or asleep. “It says “ Laignech Fáelad, that is, he was the man that used to shift into fáelad, i.e. wolf-shapes. He and his offspring after him used to go, whenever they pleased, into the shapes of the wolves, and, after the custom of wolves, kill the herds. Wherefore he was called Laignech Fáelad, for he was the first of them to go into a wolf-shape.”

They were said to be fearsome warriors who, howling like wolves, fought for the ancient kings of Ireland, and were every bit as fierce and ferocious as the beasts whose shape they took. They, it is told, lived in remote areas, and unlike the werewolves of Ossory, they could turn into wolves whenever they wanted. There are tales that point out that these warriors would fight for any king who could pay their price, which was not measured in gold, but in the flesh of new-born babies.

They supposedly flourished during the reign of ‘Tigernmas’, who also followed Crom Cruach, according to the ‘Book of Leinster’ version of The Roll of Kings. ‘Tigernmas’ was a real king, who is famed for mining the first gold and introducing the art of working gold. The tales say, “… he died in Mag Slecht, in the great Assembly thereof, with three-fourths of the men of Ireland in his company, in worship of Crom Cruaich, the king-idol of Ireland; so that there escaped thence, in that fashion, not more than one-fourth of the men of Ireland; under Mag Slecht.”

In Irish folklore the ‘Fiann’ are well known as a group of landless young men and women, often sons of lords who had not yet inherited property. There are many stories about these brave bands, mainly in the ‘Fenian Cycle’ or Fianna ‘Fiannaíocht’, which relate the tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors, and mentions bands of werewolves, and their relationship to witches, fighting off sorcerers who steal the grain and animals from the local farmers.

Thanks is given to https://earthandstarryheaven.com for the research they have done on this subject and to www.thedemoniacal.blogspot.com

Morrigan

‘The Morrigan’ is the name given to the Goddess Morrigan, who is one of the triple Goddesses in Celtic mythology, and her name means ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom Queen’. Representing ‘the circle of life’, she is associated with both birth and death, and being a shape-shifter she watches over the rivers, fresh water and lakes. In Irish mythology she is also described as being the Goddess of revenge, magic, priestesses, night, prophecy and witches.

‘The Morrigan’ is often depicted as a triple goddess, but this varies according to the source of research. But, in Celtic mythology, the number three has incredible significance and, occasionally, she is featured as one of three sisters, while on other occasions she is singular. In almost every artistic representation of the Goddess she is represented as being young, with long, flowing dark hair. Her clothing is black and sometimes very revealing, while she is sometimes cloaked so as not to show her face. Because ‘The Morrigan’ is a shape-shifter, she is often shown with one of the more common animal forms that she would assume, i.e. a crow or a raven. There are occasions when she is associated with horse symbolism and has been linked to ‘Epona’, the equine Goddess. There is one thing that is not disputed and that is, in every representation she is shown to be strikingly beautiful, and yet very intimidating.

Morrigan

It is difficult to find the exact origin of Morrigan in existing texts since much of Celtic mythology has either been destroyed or lost over the generations. But many say that she was part of the Tuatha de Danaan, a mythical race living in Ireland, who were descendants of the Goddess Danu, whose son, Dagda, was a powerful leader. While the story of ‘The Morrigan’s’ family is difficult to unravel, legend says that she was the daughter of Ernmas. She is supposed to have had several siblings, including Badb, Macha, Banba, Fohla and Eriu, while she and Dagda married and had a child. Other sources state that the pair only encountered each other on one occasion, and that, at a river. But the fruit of this encounter, or relationship, is said to have been a child, who was given the name Adair.

‘The Morrigan’ is known for her strengths, which include her ability to instil fear in those who opposed her, and she often helped to protect the people from invading armies by blowing a layer of fog over the land, thereby decreasing visibility. Although she did have some weaknesses, she is better known for her vindictiveness and her willingness to kill if she felt she was disrespected. She is forever linked to the festival of Samhain and is usually symbolically represented by a crow or raven.

The Knocker Up

A Belfast Alarm Call

As a Doctor I have reason to visit the sick in their homes and several years ago, while paying a professional visit at the house of a small tradesman in the town of Belfast, I made the acquaintance of an interesting old woman, who had been employed by the tradesman to nurse his ailing wife. There are always people, especially among the female gender, who will never refuse to carry out a duty of care, especially if the person to be cared for is already known to them. This old lady, Mrs Waters, was one of those caring ladies that people can depend upon. Within a very few minutes we became good friends and she persuaded me to extend my visit for several hours, and when I eventually left the house I was as familiar with her life story just as if I had known her for many years.

Knocker Up

I have told you that she was an interesting woman, and so she was. This was not immediately apparent from her appearance, and there was nothing that could be said to be attractive about her. Neither had she any refinement in her manner or the way in which she spoke but, she could be said to have been rather brusque and hasty in both word and action. Nevertheless, she possessed an irresistible power in the rapid glance of her large bright eyes. At first sight you might think that, from the haste which was evident in all her movements when attending to the needs of the house and family, she must be a harsh and unfeeling type of person. That would be a grave error, however, for she was really one of the kindest and most tender-hearted of women I have ever met. It didn’t take long for me to discover that she was actually a neighbour, and that she was a woman of independent means, which she had gathered together through her own hard-work. She had worked from an early age, and she had also taken great care of an invalid husband for many years and had managed to educate and provide a profession to her only son and child.
The old woman peaked my interest greatly and I decided that I would like to become better acquainted with her and the life she had led. Not being a man who was reluctant to ask questions I was soon able to discover quite a lot about her and her life. She was known in the community as a ‘knocker-up’, the duties of whom I will explain as we proceed. But, she was proud of what she had done and when asked about it she told me, “Not at all, my boy! I am not ashamed to tell you just how I came to be financially independent. Why should I be? An honest woman need not be afraid of anything!” she insisted. “I made it all, every penny of it, by knocking-up. Ay, and well you may look surprised, for I have an idea that you don’t know what ‘knocking-up is’, or if you do, you are wondering how I could save so much money from such a line of work. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I had no other means of making money, for I started a shop after I began to knock up. However, every penny that I made by shop-keeping was spent in keeping my family in food and clothing, and when my son was put into business, some of my otherwise-made money went along with him. But, I can assure you that every penny that I put by, and the income on which I now live, was got by knocking-up.

Knocker up


“Sure, I know you are wondering how I, a woman, should ever gotten the idea making a living in this way, never mind actually setting out to do it. Well, if I’m going to be honest with you, I never thought of it at all. I mean that I did not invent such a job, for it was actually suggested to me and I was in too great a need to be fussy about what I did. Do you know, I believe that I was near the first, if not the very first who earned money by regularly knocking up. Either way, at the time that I began the job, I knew of no one else who was doing the same thing.
“The idea came to me in this way. My husband had been a delicate sort of man from the day we first met. And he was, God love him, as different from me in spirit and ways as summer is from winter. He had hardly a day’s work in him and I have often wondered what we should have done, or what would have become of us, had it been that I was struck down instead of him. But you see, God was watching over us. It was a good thing in many ways, indeed in all ways, that it was he who was afflicted, for if it had been me, what an ill-tempered and impatient creature I would have been.
“Now it was no illness that struck my man down, but something entirely different. It all happened like this, we had been married about six years, and our son was about four years old, when my man suffered a serious accident. He was working hard in the foundry and lifting a heavy weight when something seemed to snap or give way in his back. He was brought home to me between two men, and from that day until his death, more than fifteen years afterwards, he never did a stroke of work, the poor man!
“Aye, it was after this that the knocking-up scheme was suggested to me and I was glad of it. I had gone down to the foundry one Friday evening for the wee bit of pay which the owners had kindly allowed him to lift for a while, and I got to speaking with one of the men who was working there and had worked with my husband. He asked me about our welfare and I said to him that I believed I should be able to keep the roof over our heads, and that I was willing to do anything that would help me to achieve that. The, quite suddenly he said, “If you will knock me up at three o’clock every morning but Sunday, I will give you half-a-crown a week.” I laughed at first because I thought he was joking. But, when I saw that he was not joking, I quickly took up his offer because something told me that this might just be the beginning of something special.
“The reason why ‘knocking-up’ is so widespread nowadays is simply that people get so used to the alarm-clock that it fails to awake them. Even if it does awaken them, they are sometimes so sleepy that they drop off again before the alarm runs out. This was what had happened to the person who asked me to awaken him. He had lost many mornings work because he had over-slept. He worked in the designing office and told me that he could get more work done, and of a better quality of work, during the quiet hours of the morning than at any other time. This is what he said anyway, though afterwards another reason was given to excuse his habit of over sleeping. But, the man was anxious to be up at three o’clock. Well, I agreed to do the job and it was a good thing that I did because before a year had gone past I had thirty customers employing me to do the same job for them. of the like kind. Not for the same hour in the morning, or for the same amount of pay. For the most part these other requests were for a time between five and six o’clock.
“I have no problem whatever in telling you what I earned at that time. Why should I? But let me first explain to you how I went on to grow my business, if I may call it a business. At the end of the first year, as I have said, I had thirty customers. Year by year this number of clients began to increase until, by the end of five years, I had upwards of eighty houses to go to. What is more, for the thirty years that I followed knocking-up after that, thirty-five years to be precise, I never fell below that number. Sometimes I had as many as ninety-five houses. Now, you are wondering what did they pay me for my services? All prices! When I managed to get a few more, early customers, in addition to my first one, I knocked him a shilling a week off because I didn’t think it was right to be still taking a half-a-crown. So, all those clients who were knocked up before four o’clock in the morning paid me eighteenpence a week, and those who had to be awakened soon after four were charged a shilling a week. Those clients who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid me from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance that I had to go. Of course, the greater number of customers were in the threepenny class.
“You might have a little trouble in seeing how I managed to get through so large a number of houses in so short a time, but I can assure you that I did. I also found out that a workable system was very much a needed thing to have, you may be sure of that. Then I discovered short-cuts to different neighbourhoods and streets, and I took care not to let the grass grow under my feet in keeping my business going. Another helpful talent that I had, of course, was an innate ability of rousing my employers quite quickly. Perhaps it was that my knock or ring or way of tapping windows was more effective than that of other ‘knockers-up’. Irrespective of all that, I managed to get through my engagements morning by morning. Now, of course, you are eager to find out what my weekly earnings were. Well, I’ll not keep you in suspense any longer, young man. For thirty years I never earned less than thirty shillings a week, though it was mostly thirty-five shillings and, when I had a good lot of far-away or very early customers, I could pick up as much as forty shillings in a week. You look unconvinced, but I assure you that what I am telling you is the truth. Two pounds a week for calling folks to their work, in the morning.
“Now, I’ll admit that I am not very strong or healthy as I once was, but how can a woman of seventy years be expected not to have some aches or pain after the life I have lived? But, in all those thirty-five years that I worked at the ‘knocking-up’, I never had what may be called a sick day. Dear God, sure I hadn’t got time to be laid up in a sick bed! I totally believe my early rising, and the exercise in the open air, kept me healthy. At those times when bits of cold did get hold of me, my spirit and attitude did much towards helping ward them off. Let me tell you, Spirit is everything! Did I go to bed during the day? Never! I could not afford the time for such luxury because I had my shop to take care of. You look a little surprised, but I have already told you that I kept a shop. At the time I didn’t know how long my husband might linger, and then I became so wrapped up in my poor lad’s future, for I was determined that he should be a doctor or a lawyer, or something smarter than a tradesman. Because I had such a good long day before me after my ‘knocking-up’, I decided that I would open a shop of some kind.
‘It took me quite a long time to decide upon what I should deal in. I had a natural dislike of giving credit, and as there are some things which women are not in the habit of buying on tick. In fact, when they need these items they never seem to think of asking for them on credit, and it was in such items that I decided to deal in. That is how I hit upon the idea of selling black-lead, blacking, brushes of various kinds, and even pots and pans. Surprisingly, I noticed that when a woman sent for such items she automatically sent the money to buy them. Furthermore, I realised that it would only take about ten pounds or so to get me started in this type of shop, and I saw that there would be little perishable stock or articles that would go out of fashion. An added advantage was the fact that the business did not need much learning or knowledge to manage it, and these were things which I did not have. So, it was in this way that I became a shopkeeper.
“In the beginning I was able to make my cottage do for my shop, using the bedroom and cellar as the warehouse. But, as the trade increased, I had to take the house next to the one I had, and made I made it into a shop and warehouse. Rent and taxes, you know, were not too heavy then. You know, I began this business after I had spent five years ‘knocking-up’ and only stopped about six years ago.
“I didn’t give up because I was tired of work. But, I saw that I had enough to live upon, and I now had no one belonging me to live for. My husband had been a long-time dead, and my poor son had also been taken from me. Did I sell my business? No, I did not sell either business. There was a poor man, a neighbour of mine, who was laid off his work and, as he had a large family, and his own shop was running from bad to worse every week, I just handed over the knocking-up to him. It has been a good thing for him, thank God. As for the other business, I just allowed my customers to spread themselves among other shops as they thought fit.
“You might wonder if I had made any bad debts the knocking-up business? Well, I will tell you there were not too many and, perhaps, less than you might expect. For one thing, I took pretty good care of my money, though it did take gathering in. I usually got paid on a Saturday afternoon and night. Some called and paid me as they passed my house and others left it with those appointed by me to receive it. One way or another, I got most the greater part of my money week by week. To those who began to be a bit forgetful in paying me, I just gave them the slightest hint that if they did not pay up that week-end I might forget to knock them up and let them overlie themselves now and again. This soon put the forgetfulness out of them, for they knew they would lose a deal more by being fined at the mill than they had to pay me for a whole week’s knocking-up. So, in all honesty, I had very few customers who did not pay up old scores. Of course, I am ignoring those whom I did not care to press for payment. These were often men with large families, or men who had had a fit of sickness or the like, or a poor delicate woman. But, let us pay no attention to that for they might have done the same by me.
“Aye, now there is a good chance that a knocker-up will find out what sort of tempers their customers have. God knows that I soon came to know who the surly ones were, and who were pleasant folks, or who were short-tempered and who had good patience. You know, when knocking-up began to be a regular trade we used to rap or ring at the doors of our customers. But there soon arose two objections to this way of rousing them. One objection came from the public, and the other came from the knockers-up. The public complained of being disturbed, especially if sickness was in a house, by our loud rapping or ringing; and the knocker-up soon found out that while he knocked up one who paid him, he knocked up several on each side who did not pay. It did not take us long to invent the fishing-rod-like wands which are now in use. Aye indeed, the knocker-up has a wand of office, and I was among the first who adopted these rods. With these wands we would give a few taps on the bedroom window, which no one hears but those who should.
“I will tell you that a surly, or hot-tempered customer, would growl or knock things about as he came to the window to reply, and his responding rap would sound as peevish as possible. But a good-tempered man was always quite pleasant and cheering to get out of bed, for you could almost hear from his very footstep that he was grateful, and his reply-tap sounded quite musical. Moreover, when he spoke to you and bade you a good-morning, it was truly encouraging. I have even had occasions when I knocked some men up for nothing, just because it was pleasant to hear them, especially after you had had two or three of the other kind to deal with. There were others that I had given up knocking, for no other reason than that they were sulky or angry at being disturbed and generally unpleasant. I can recall one particular man on my rounds. He was a little, slender, ill-featured man, who always reminded me of a weasel, and he had to be up at five o’clock. But, the same man was fond of the drink, so he was not only difficult to awaken, but he never came to the window without indulging in angry mutterings, which were not always the sort of things you needed to hear at that time in the morning. He was one of my shilling-a-week customers and paid regularly. But I was so pissed-off by his lousy temper and insulting ways, that at I finally gave him the elbow as a bad job.
“Surely, you would agree that a ‘knocker-up’ really deserves the gratitude of his customers and should not think that we are well compensated when we get his money. They should not forget that we have to be out of our warm beds in all sorts of weather and cannot allow a bit of a sniff or a tooth-ache to keep us at home. But, the customer can sleep on the whole night through, in peace and contentment, because they know that they will hear the wakening taps on their window at the right time. Surely, there is no person that can think that a ‘knocker-up’ is a selfish man, or even a selfish woman. No money is so well spent as that which is paid to the ‘knocker-up’ and I believe most who pay the money think the same.
“For several years I ‘knocked-up’ two young women who were sisters. They had been left orphans when they were very young, but the poor things stuck together, went to the mill, saved their wages, and finally were able to take and furnish a room. They got me to knock them up, for they kept their own little spot clean and tidy, mended their own things at night, and they went to bed tired and often late, which caused them to sleep heavily. Well, as I’ve said, I knocked them up for years and they would not let me do it for nothing. No, not even now and again. One or the other of them always had a “Good-morning,” or “How are you this morning, Mrs McNamee?” in a low kind tone for me. And about once a quarter they would invite me to spend a Sunday evening with them and take a cup of tea. Let me tell you, if any people were grateful for what I did for them, it was these girls.
“Now, I suppose you want to know how and when did I get my sleep? Well, I’ll tell you. I always went to bed at nine o’clock every night, except Saturdays. Of course, because I had an exhausted body and a contented mind, it didn’t take me very long in dropping off to sleep. And I was up again at half-past two exactly, for my first customer lived a good twenty minutes’ walk from my house, and you know he had to be awakened at three o’clock. Well, for some time I had no one else to arouse until four o’clock, so I used to come home again. Before I went out in winter I would build the fire up with ‘slack’ and get myself a cup of tea. But, in summer I would let the fire go out, and would not light it again until I came back from the early customer. Then I always made my poor husband a cup of tea, after which he slept better than he had in the earlier part of the night. You see it was he who had to awaken me, because being young and very active during the day, I slept soundly. What between him and the alarm, I never over-slept. No, not even once. But after I had been about six or seven years at the job, I got to awaken quite naturally. Indeed, it was well that I did, for when my husband died, I no longer had him to depend on.
“I can tell you also that the worst weather for any knocker-up is wet weather. Oh, it was try one’s patience, to say nothing of one’s health, to be pelted with rain and wind. Then when the streets were filled with snow and slush it was anything but pleasant. But, I always tried to think of the good I was doing for others and thinking that way proved to be a wonderful help. In fact, even a chimney-sweep or a street-sweeper could be happy in his calling if he only took such a similar view of his work. Why, we are all helping one another as well as earning our livings when we follow our vocation in life. But, I have to admit that it was an extra nice job to be doing on a fine spring or summer morning. I used to be happy all over on such mornings.
“Maybe you would like me to tell you something about my son. To tell the truth, I seldom feel like I want to talk about him because when I do talk about my dear boy, it has taken me many a day to get his image out of my mind.”
At this point I respectfully asked Mrs McNamee not to go on with the story, but she did. It was interesting and touching in some of its details, but since it is not relevant to this particular story I have decided not to include here.

Lady Betty

The Irish Hangwoman

The Noose

The following is an old tale, whose source I do not know. The problem is that we do not know if it is true or simply another superstition.

The old jail of Roscommon stood, and, although now converted to other purposes, still stands in the marketplace, in the centre of the town. It is a very high, dark, and gloomy-looking building, with a castellated top, like one of those ancient fortresses that we have often seen tower above the houses in many of the cities on the Continent. It can be seen from a great distance outside the town and, when added to the very extensive ruins of ‘O’Connor’s Castle’, in the suburbs, as well as the beautiful abbey that sits on the other side of the town, it appears to be another example of architecture that had been constructed during the middle-ages.

The fall from the gallows at Roscommon jail was considered by many to be the highest ‘fatal drop’ in Ireland. It consisted of a small doorway at the front of the building’s third storey, with a simple iron beam and pulley above. The gallows stage upon which the condemned stood awaiting execution was merely a horizontal door that was hinged to the wall beneath. When the appointed execution time arrived, this door was let fall by means of a sliding-bolt, which was pulled from the main wall, and the condemned person was consequently hanged. This elevated platform of execution was a fearful sight to behold for the folk of the town, and it was a unique in its construction. However, the gallows were no more unique than the person who acted as executioner and carried out their duty on that platform. This was no decrepit wretch of a human being, or a crime-hardened ruffian. Neither was it one of those secret and mysterious personages, who were occasionally produced by the authorities, disguised by mask or hood, to undertake this dreadful trade in public. Removing the most likely candidates for the role, you might wonder who was left that would not recoil from the unpleasant and terrible actions that were carried out on these high gallows. In fact, it was a female! She was a middle-aged, stoutly built, dark-eyed, swarthy-complexioned, but by no means forbidding-looking woman. She was widely known as ‘Lady Betty’, who carried out the final judgement and was regarded as the unflinching priestess of the executive for the Connaught circuit court for many years, with Roscommon being her main place of business.

Children born or reared in County Roscommon, two centuries ago, would often be frightened, when mischievous, into ‘being good,’ and going to sleep, and not crying when left alone in the dark, by the promise of a visit by a ‘Pooka’, or, by being told Lady Betty would get them. There is little firm evidence of ‘Lady Betty’s’ life and what we have learned about her is mostly hearsay. We are told that she was a person who had a very violent temper, although her manners were said to be rather above those of the common folk, and she was supposed to have possessed some formal education. It was rumoured that she was born and raised in the County Kerry, and that by her harsh treatment of her only son she drove him away from her at an early age. Apparently, he enlisted in the army and, after many years, he returned with a small fortune in his pocket, which he had gained through his many campaigns. On his return home he knocked at his father’s door and asked if he could get a night’s lodging. It appears that he was determined to see for himself whether the brutal mother he had left behind had in any way repented for what she had done. He wanted to know if she had softened her ways over the years before he would consider revealing his identity. He was brought into the house but was not recognised by anyone. The mother, however, discovered that the ‘stranger’ had quite a bit of money on him and during the night, as the man slept, she coldly murdered him. The crime was quickly discovered, and the wretched woman was sentenced to be hanged. She had to share the ‘dock’ along with the usual sheep-stealers, ‘Whiteboys’, thieves, and ruffians who had ham-strung cattle. Such criminals were usually brought into the dock seven or eight at a time and were invariably executed within twenty-four-hours after being sentenced by the court. But, on this occasion, no executioner could be found despite the best of efforts. The local sheriff and his deputy, considering themselves to be men of refinement, education, humanity, and sensibility, would not carry out such an odious duty. They maintained this attitude although it was a part of the office they had sworn to undertake, and for which they received payment. The wretched, murderous woman was the only person in the jail who could be found to perform the executions, and under the name of ‘Lady Betty’ she carried them out without mask or disguise. For many years after this she officiated as hangwoman and she used to publicly flog criminals in the streets, as a part of her office. There are numerous stories told about this woman’s exploits and we have not enough room here to relate them all. But we can mention one extraordinary feature of her character, which was the habit she had of drawing portraits of all those whom she had executed on the walls of her room with a burnt stick.

Roscommon Jail