Martin continued to be among my best friends and we spent many days and nights in each other’s company throughout our youth. On quite a number of occasions we were joined by both Andy and Des (not their real names), especially on our trips to the cinema, dance halls, and on Sunday afternoon excursions to a popular seaside resort called Omeath. These were the days before night clubs and budget airlines, and even two car families. At this time the pubs were closed in Northern Ireland all day Sunday, though if you really wanted a drink there were certain doors that would be open to a select clientele. In fact almost everything but the churches were closed on a Sunday and we young men never found ourselves on any select list, which left us with a bus ride to Omeath where the pubs were open almost all day Sunday. The only real problem one would encounter was getting through the crowds of people to get a drink at the bar.
Omeath was a typically border seaside resort village. There was a set of “Esso” petrol pumps, a Protestant Church, a Catholic Church, two or three souvenir shops, two or three small grocers’ shops, a butcher shop and over a dozen pubs and hotels. For six days of any week the population of the village was around two hundred citizens. But on a Sunday this population would expand to two or three thousand thirsty souls brought to the place by buses from every major town in the southern half of Northern Ireland. For those northerners who felt they had a reputation to maintain and didn’t want to be associated with visiting Omeath on a Sunday there was always the day trip to Warrenpoint, where no pubs were open. But, from the stone covered beach at Warrenpoint a fleet of small “Red Flag” boats ferried passengers the short distance across Carlingford Lough to enjoy the pleasure palaces of Omeath. There are none who experienced this place on a Sunday who would not agree that it was an experience not to be missed.
It was probably in Omeath in the late 1960s that we, as a group of young men, came to appreciate traditional Irish folk music listening to the various songs and music played by the patrons in the busy bars. Your a feet could not stop tapping to the jigs and reels played by violin, bodhran, guitar, banjo and spoons. You would find it almost impossible to merrily sing along with the well-oiled patrons who eagerly chanted their songs, trying to emulate the great Irish tenors of the past. But, it was also in Omeath that we first encountered a “Fleadh Ceoil” (pronounced “Flah-Key-Oal”), or traditional Irish folk festival. We enjoyed the music and the Craic so much that we decided that we, as a group, would go Clones town to participate in the “Ulster Fleadh”, a major local festival. So when the time came we all set off for Clones, six young men each with a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and a two-man tent that we intended would shelter all of us.
In the market-town of Clones bunting of all colours adorned the streets, strung from every available place to buildings and lampposts. A large field had been set aside for those wishing to camp the whole festival week-end, and the best part was that there was no cost. We pitched our two-man tent, packed away our sleeping bags and set off for the town to enjoy the excitement and music that we had been looking forward to so much. On every street corner there was some form of entertainment and every pub was filled with the sound of song and laughter. The strains of various songs filled the air and were accompanied by all sorts of musical instruments. In the town square there was a lorry trailer and upon this organised concerts and dancing exhibitions took place. All over town there were sessions; ordinary people of all ages and from all walks of life playing their instruments or singing songs on their own or in groups. It was a memory I will never forget.
The music and entertainment went on until dark and we strolled back to the campsite hungry, hoarse, full of good cheer and exhausted. Martin took charge and lit a small camp-fire after sending Andy and I to gather whatever dry wood we could find in the nearby trees, even as the night grew darker and clouds gathered in the moonless sky. Meanwhile, Des and Tommy managed to locate two tins of “Heinz Baked Beans” that could be heated for supper. Life was much simpler then. The difficulty came when we discovered that all we had was a blunt butter knife to attempt opening the tins. All six of us sat around the camp fire in an effort to keep warm in the growing chill of the night. It was Eddie who came up with the bright idea that the cans could be placed into the fire unopened and that the blunt knife would break through the tin easier when it was heated. So we waited and waited as our hunger increased. It was Tommy who first noticed the cans bulging and declared “They’re almost done.” The words had hardly left Tommy’s lips when there was an almighty explosion and into the darkness the two tins of baked beans burst open, showering their contents skyward like an orange rain storm. At the same time burning sticks of all shapes and sizes were flung skyward causing a burst of sparks like a million little red stars glowing in the darkness. Of course what goes up must eventually come down, and down it came with a vengeance. Hot beans and tomato sauce covered us all, hair, clothes, tent, everything. We had tried to move quickly out of the way to avoid the burning sticks, sparks and beans but we were too slow. One large firebrand landed on the tent, set it alight and despite our best efforts it was destroyed as was much of our bedding and clothes. It was a big loss that night for twenty minutes later it began to rain and we made our way back into town. Drenched, cold and still hungry all six of us squeezed into the narrow front door area of a local bank, covered ourselves with what was left of one sleeping bag and tried to get some sleep.
Jack Carson was a young man who was full of youthful spirit and fun, constantly frolicking with the young girls of the Parish. He enjoyed all kinds of diversions and he never once considered himself as being accountable to any person for anything he did. Jack’s concern for the world, in fact, matched what he thought was the world’s concern for him. He just enjoyed being in the company of the local females and, to be honest, they in their turn enjoyed the really good times that Jack showed them. For several months, however, Jack had been paying particular attention to a girl called, Margaret Henry, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Better known to Jack as Peggy, Margaret was a young woman who had fallen deeply in love with Jack. But Jack, for his part, had fallen in love with the potential comfort that Peggy’s fortune could provide him with in the future. Her Father was only too aware of Jack’s reputation in the area and did not want his daughter to have anything to do with this penniless rake of a man. The man had already made his feelings perfectly clear to Jack and he had warned the young man that his only daughter would never become the wife any unscrupulous fortune hunter such as he.
Jack was angry that Peggy’s father held such a very low opinion of him, even though it was accurate. He was determined that he would change the mind of Peggy’s father and he set about seeking a means by which he could enrich himself. When a boy, Jack had heard splendid tales of a red-coated Leprechaun, who lived beside the river bank in the nearby parish of Derryconn. Without much thought for his work , or the employer who paid his wages, Jack arose early the next morning and immediately set out for Derryconn. Once he reached the riverbank he quickly located the red-coated Leprechaun and set about observing every movement that little creature made. As silently as possible he crept along hedgerows and sheughs to avoid being observed himself. The little Leprechaun, however, sat on his haunches and hammered away at a pair of old brogues he was repairing. Tradition had told Jack that as long as he kept a constant watch on this little cobbler, the Leprechaun could not move from his position.
As Jack crept closer to the little man, the Leprechaun turned around to face him and said, “Good morning, Jack.”
“It’s a good evening, by right,” replied Jack.
“Ah sure, morning and evening are all the same to a man me,” laughed the Leprechaun.
“A man?” questioned Jack with a laugh, as he took a firm hold of the Leprechaun in his hand.
“Now, take it easy Jack, there is no need for you to make fun of me,” the Leprechaun retorted and then, changing his expression asked Jack, “Have you seen my hammer?”
“Tell me,” he said to the little cobbler, ” is there something about me that makes you think that I am an idiot?” Jack, of course, was very well aware of the variety of tricks that the Leprechaun’s would use to regain their freedom and disappear from view.
“Sure I can see from the light in your eyes, Jack, that you are not a man to be easily fooled,” replied the Leprechaun. “Now that I see you Jack, I can understand why the lovely Peggy has fallen so deeply in love with those handsome eyes. Isn’t it a pity that her father does not think so highly of you.”
“Now don’t you worry your wee head about that, for I have it all in hand,” laughed Jack. “he will soon change his low opinion of me whenever you hand over your crock of gold to me.”
“Aren’t you the quare man?” answered the Leprechaun. “Sure if you would only carry me carefully into the middle of that field over there I will show something that will be worth your while. But I beg you, Jack, to be very careful with me because I am much more fragile than I might appear to you. It wouldn’t do if I was to fall and everything was broken.”
Jack tightened his grip on the little cobbler before he took a quick glance toward the field that the Leprechaun requested he be carried to. To get to the field he would have to trudge across a deep, dirty section of bog land. Jack, however, was wearing his best Sunday clothes and was horrified to think of what would happen to them if he was to tramp across this bog. In his mind the potential far outweighed the soiling of his clothes, and he began to cross to the field. He had just reached the middle of the bog when a sudden gust of wind blew up and removed his brand new cap from his head. But, Jack knew immediately that this was just another trick played by the Leprechaun to distract his attention and he kept his eyes fixed upon the old red-coated prankster.
“Oh, I am so sorry for your loss,” laughed the Leprechaun, sarcastically.
“You suit your grief,” replied Jack. “All your sorrow and sympathy will not cause me to relax my grip on you. You can try all your tricks, wee man, for I know them all. I am sure, for instance, that if I had taken your advised route across the bog I would already be buried in it.”
“Ponder this, Jack Carson,” said the Leprechaun in a more conciliatory tone of voice, “if you had had given your work as much concentration as you have to me then you would have already enough money to do whatever you wanted, without chasing down Leprechauns. But, in the meantime, just you keep heading for that small mound there, in the middle of the field.”
Jack still did not avert his eyes from his captive to see where he was pointing. “Do you know Jack,” said the Leprechaun,“you’re like the girl who keeps one eye on her father and the other eye on her lover. You appear to see everything and yet you never have to look.”
Jack laughed loudly and told his captive, “I know all of this country so well, my friend, that I could walk through it blindfolded.”
“Now Jack, that would be a bit stupid, wouldn’t it?” replied Red Jacket. “You go running around this countryside and you would be like a rolling stone. You would gather no moss and no money, you buck eejit!“
Jack thought it was sound enough advice, though the Leprechaun was laughing quite loudly. “Now let me go Jack!”
Jack, however, was not about to do that and the Leprechaun decided upon another ploy. “Look Jack, you dig up that mound and you will find the pot of gold you seek!”
“I have a better idea,” said Jack. “You dig it up for me now, or I will wring your scrawny little neck!” he threatened.
“But I have no spade, Jack, or I would dig it up for you as fast as I could,” replied the Leprechaun.
“May be I should just wring your neck now and have it over and done with,” said Jack as he shook the Leprechaun severely.
“Oh, Jack! Jack! Save me, Jack! Save me!” came a voice from behind him, and it sounded as though it was his darling Peggy. He turned in panic and, with his attention diverted by the plea for help, he never thought about the captive Leprechaun in his hand. Red Jacket seized his chance and disappeared with a great shout of joy that made the bog tremble.
“Damn it all!” swore Jack and, in his despair, sat down upon the grass. Taking his belt from his trousers Jack tied it around the mound three times. Then, pulling a small branch from a nearby tree he planted it on top of the small mound. He said a solemn prayer over the site of the mound to protect it from harm. Jack sadly left the field and made his way home to get a good night’s rest for himself. Then, as dawn broke in the east, he hurriedly made his way back to the field where he had left the mound identified. But, before his eyes Jack saw at least a thousand similar mounds, each with a similar belt tied around it, and each with a small twig planted in the mound.
Jack could’t speak. His breath and his entire strength had left his body. In a state of shock, Jack fell down upon the grass and, as the warm beams of the early sun shone down upon him, he cried like a baby. In an instant he called to mind those words that Leprechaun had spoken to him. “If you had had given your work as much concentration as you have to me then you would have already enough money to do whatever you wanted, without chasing down Leprechauns..” In this moment Jack’s life underwent a complete change and he became a completely different man. Taking the Leprechaun’s advice to heart, Jack worked very hard and began to save his money. In five years he had more money than Peggy’s father, whose opposition to Jack as a potential son-in-law soon began to vanish. Peggy and Jack eventually married and they raised a half-dozen children together. Jack never again went hunting Leprechauns.
Craic agus Ceoil agus Rince – The three pillars of Irish society, which make us such a happy, fun-loving race. This blog concerns Rince (Dance) – Irish Dancing through the years.
I am a traditionalist at heart. I love traditional music and traditional Irish Dancing, Step-Dancing and Ceilidh. I know it will horrify some people but I am not a fan of Feis Dancing with all those wigs, make-up, false-tan. In my opinion, it is more about a beauty pageant than what is traditionally Irish. But it is my opinion…
Is this what they called a ‘Hooley’ – Is it why the church suppressed House Ceilidhs, because the people would go to a dance quicker than they would go to Mass? What has changed in Ireland?
Of all Ireland’s ghosts, fairies, or demons, the Banshee (sometimes called locally the ‘Boheentha’) is, probably, the best known to those living outside the country. I am often amused by the number of visitors from across the Channel who think that they are as common as the pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and expect her to make an appearance on demand just like one of the many famous sights of our country. They ignore the fact that the Banshee is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree that no man can measure because its roots extend back into the dim and mysterious past of Ireland.
Without a doubt, the most famous Banshee of ancient times was that which attached itself to the royal house of O’Brien. She was called ‘Aibhill’, and she haunted the rock of Craglea that stands above Killaloe, near the old palace of Kincora. In 1014 A.D. the battle of Clontarf was fought against the Danes, and the aged king, Brian Boru, who led the Irish forces was fully aware that he would never come away alive. The night before the battle, ‘Aibhill’ had appeared to him and told him of his impending fate. The Banshee’s method of foretelling a person’s death in those olden times differed from that which she adopts in the present day. Now she, generally, wails and wrings her hands, but in the old Irish tales she is often found washing human heads and limbs, or blood-stained clothes, until the water is all dyed with human blood, and this would take place before a battle. So, it appears that over a course of centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.
Reports from eyewitnesses give very different descriptions about what she looks like. Sometimes, she is pictured as a young and beautiful woman, and at other times appears as an old and fearsome hag. One witness described her as “a tall, thin woman with uncovered head, and long hair that floated around her shoulders, attired in something which seemed either a loose white cloak or a sheet thrown hastily around her, uttering piercing cries.” Another witness, who saw the banshee one evening sitting on a stile in the yard, appeared as a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red cloak. There are numerous other descriptions available, but one surprising fact about the Banshee is that she does not seem to exclusively follow families of Irish descent. At least one incident refers to the death of a member of a County Galway family, who were English by name and origin.
At this point, we should relate one of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories, namely the story contained in ‘Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw’. The good lady states that in 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish clan, who resided in his ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight, she says, she was awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of the bed, she saw in the moonlight a female face and part of a form hovering at the bedroom window. The height of the window from the ground and the position of the moat around the castle convinced her ladyship that this was a creature of the spirit world. She did notice, however, that the pale face she saw was that of a young and rather beautiful woman, and her reddish coloured hair was loose and dishevelled. This ghostly form, Lady Fanshaw recollected, was dressed much in the style of ancient Ireland and continued to appear to her some considerable time before vanishing with two shrieks that sounded like those that first attracted attention.
In the morning, still shaking with fear, Lady Fanshaw told her what she had witnessed. Surprisingly, she found that not only was he able to confirm the existence of such a being, but he was ready to explain to account for its presence in his castle. He told her quite candidly, “A near relation of my family expired last night in this castle. But we decided not to tell you that we were expecting such a visitation, in case it would throw a cloud over the cheerful welcome we had prepared for you. However, before any event of this kind happens in this family or castle, the female spectre that you have seen always appears. We believe this spirit to be a woman from a lower class, with whom one of my ancestors degraded himself by marrying. In an effort expiate the dishonour done to his family, he subsequently drowned the poor woman in the moat.”
If one was strictly applying traditional terms to such a vision, then this woman would not normally be called a Banshee. The motive for the haunting is like other tales that are on a par with this one, in that the spirit of the murdered person haunts the family out of revenge, and always appears before a death.
There was nothing special about this ruined Church. It was a simple oblong building, with long side-walls and high gables, and an unenclosed graveyard that lay in open fields. As the group of people walked down the long dark lane, they suddenly heard a distant sound of wailing voices and clapping hands, like you would hear at a country wake where neighbours and friends lament the passing of one of their own. The group of young people hurried along the lane, and they came in sight of the church ruins, There, on the side wall, a little grey-haired old woman, who was clad in a dark cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and throwing up her arms like a crazy person. The girls now became very frightened, but the young men in the group ran forward and surrounded the ruin. Then, two of the young men went into the church and, as they did so, the apparition vanished from the wall. Nonetheless, they searched every nook, and found no one, nor did any one of them become unconscious. All the young people were now well scared, and they made their way home as fast as they possibly could.
When they finally reached their home, their mother opened the door, and immediately she began to explain that she had become terribly concerned about their father. Their mother told them that she had been looking out of the window in the moonlight when a huge raven with fiery eyes landed on the window-sill, and it tapped three times on the glass. When the young ones told her their story it only added the anxiety that they were all now beginning to feel. As they stood talking among themselves, taps came to the nearest window, and they all saw the bird again. A few days later news reached them that their Father had died.
For the most part, the eye-witnesses to these events were people of good character, including the sister of a former Roman Catholic Bishop related a story about an incident that occurred when she was a little girl. She said that she went out one evening with some other local children for a walk, and going down the road, they passed the gate of the parkland near the town. On a large rock that stood beside the road, they suddenly saw something very strange and moved nearer to get a better look. Before them, they saw that the strange object was a little dark, old woman, who began to cry and clap her hands noisily. Some of the girls tried to speak to the old woman, but they became very afraid, and all of them chose to run home as quickly as they could. Next day there came news that the gentleman near whose gate the Banshee had cried, was dead, and had apparently died at the very hour when the children had first seen the spectre.
A Certain, well-respected lady from County Cork stated that she had two experiences of a Banshee within her family. She said, “My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. Suddenly, she saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was clearly visible from the house. The figure waved its arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. The wailing lasted several seconds before the figure finally disappeared. But, the next morning, her grandfather was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He stumbled, fell, and hit his head against the kerb. The poor man would never recover consciousness.”
In her second story, she states, “…my mother was very ill, and one evening the nurse and I were with her arranging her bed. We suddenly heard the most extraordinary wailing, which seemed to come in waves around and under her bed. We naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause of the wailing but in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another but said nothing since it appeared that my mother did not hear it. My sister, who was downstairs sitting with my father, heard it and thought something terrible had happened to her little boy, who was in bed upstairs. When she rushed up to his bedroom, however, she found him sleeping quietly. While my father did not hear it, in the house next door they had heard it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to their servant. But the servant immediately called out to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Someone must be near death.’“
There is another story, handed down to us from the last years of the nineteenth century. This records a curious incident that occurred in a public school and includes the presence of the Banshee. When one of the boys became ill, he was immediately quarantined in one of the many bedrooms by himself, where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by the doctor, he suddenly jumped up from his seat, declaring that he had heard somebody crying. But the doctor had heard nothing and concluded that his illness had slightly affected the boy’s brain. Nonetheless, the boy, who appeared to be quite sensible, still insisted that he had heard someone crying, and said, “It is the Banshee, for I have heard it before.” The following morning the headmaster of the school received a telegram saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot dead.
There is a mistaken belief that the Banshee is confined to the geographical limits of Ireland. In fact, there are several incidents that show how the Banshee can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and there foretell their death. The following story clearly shows that such an event can occur. A party of visitors was gathered together on the deck of a private yacht that was sailing one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull, in the conversation, one of them asked the owner, “Count, who’s that queer-looking woman you have on board?“
The Count replied that there was only those invited ladies and the stewardesses present. nobody ladies present except those who had been invited and the stewardess. The speaker, however, protested that there was a strange woman present, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his hands before his eyes, and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, what a face!” For quite a while the man was shaking with fear and dared not remove his hands from his eyes. When he finally did so, he cried out “Thank Heavens, it’s gone!“
“What was it?” asked the Count.
“It was nothing human,” stammered the man. “It looked like a woman, but not one from this world. She had on a green hood, like those worn by the Irish peasantry, framing an oddly shaped face that gleamed unnaturally. She also had a mass of red hair, and eyes that were somewhat attractive but for their hellish expression.“
An American lady guest suggested that the description reminded her of what she had heard about the Banshee. The Count turned to her and told her, “I am an O’Neill. At least I am descended from one of them. As you know, my family name is Neilini, which, just over a century ago, was O’Neill. My great-grandfather had served in the ‘Irish Brigade’, and on its dissolution, at the time of the French Revolution, he had the good fortune to escape the general massacre of officers. In the company of an O’Brien and a Maguire, he fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. When he died, his son, who had been born in Italy, felt himself to be much more Italian than Irish. He changed his name to Neilini, and the family has been known by this name ever since. But for all that we are Irish.“
“The Banshee was yours, then! So, what exactly does it mean?”
“It means,” the Count replied solemnly, “the death of someone very close to me and I pray earnestly that it is not my wife or daughter.” The Count’s anxieties were soon removed when he himself was seized by a severe angina attack and died before morning.
As a last note to readers, the reports of encounters with Banshees tell us that this spirit never shows itself to the person whose death it is heralding. While other people are able to see or hear the banshee, the one fated to die never does. So, when everyone that is present, but one, is aware of the Banshee, the fate of that one person can be regarded as being certain.
Ireland is famous as the “Land of Saints and Scholars,” but it is also a land that contains some of the greatest liars and black guards that God had ever put breath into. Now if you were to call these people “liar” to their face, whether it is true or not, they would be very insulted and might respond violently. They would, in all likelihood, insist that they were not liars but simple story tellers who were used to stretching the truth. One infamous stretcher of the truth in this town was a pensioner called Thomas Pepper, who lived alone in his retirement cottage and held ‘court’ in “The Bodhran” public house, where his stories were all well known. Every regular customer to that pub knew that Tom’s stories were far from being factual. Nevertheless, Tom would always reassure his listeners after each tale by telling them, “It’s the God’s honest truth, honest.” It was this habit that in fact caused him to be given the nickname of ‘Honest’ Tom Pepper.
One evening I was having a quiet drink at the bar in the ‘Bodhran’ public house and ‘Honest Tom’ was sitting in his usual seat at the top end of the counter. “I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks, Jim,” said the barman as he reached my drink to me.
“I have been in hospital this last three weeks,” I told him.
“Must have been serious?” said the barman.
“I had a few moles removed and had some tests done. They thought that it may have been a sign of skin cancer. But it is all clear now,” I told him.
“You’re a lucky man!” replied the barman.
“Och, sure isn’t it only the good that die young?” I laughed.
“Aye, it’s lucky you are,” interrupted ‘Honest’ Tom. “I can remember the time when I was admitted to the cancer hospital, myself. It was to get a spot cut off my lip.”
“What happened Tom?” I asked.
“Well, in those days, there was none of the fancy drugs and equipment that they have now. I was sick, sore, and tired at being prodded and stuck with needles at all those consultations with so-called experts that I had to attend. While I was there those doctors were operating on some poor man whose stomach they had lying out on the table. They were busy scraping and scrubbing at the poor creature’s stomach when a bell rang out loudly to signal that it was dinner time. By Jaysus, didn’t those eejits just up and leave. They didn’t even close and lock the operating theatre’s door. They just left everything lying where it was and went out.“
Every night that I was in that hospital I was kept awake by crying of an old ‘Tom Cat’ who spent its entire time chasing the female cats. Isn’t it terrible, all those things that you see and hear, and you without a gun in your hands? Well, this old ‘Tom Cat’ was fond of stealing little treats for himself when he could, and didn’t he sneak into the operating theatre that same day. As sure as there is an eye in a goat, the cat began to eat that poor man’s stomach. When the doctors returned to their work, after lunch, they soon saw that the man’s stomach was gone.“
“In the name of the good Jesus, Tom, what happened then?” I asked him.
“Now if you would just hold your tongue for a moment, I will tell you all,” he said tersely.
“Now, the doctors were terribly upset by all this, of course, and they sent to the ward for me to give them some advice on the situation. “What can we do now, Tommy?” says they to me. “What is your recommendation?” “Now, me buckos” says I to them. “I am no surgeon but, it seems to me that you should go the local slaughterhouse and get yourselves the stomach of young heifer or bullock and put that into the poor man as soon as possible. If you can do this as quickly as you can I think that old stomach you all spent so much time scraping will never be missed, boys.” Now, in a flash the head doctor ran out of the building and, following my advice, managed to obtain a nice, young, tender stomach. With the rest of the team and with great dexterity they quickly grafted the new stomach into the patient, and nobody suspected a thing.”
” Did nobody catch on, at all?” I asked.
“Well, to tell you the truth, the ruse remained hidden for a while until, finally, the patient was able to take food again. In the beginning the doctors put him on milk foods, because they felt that this would be much easier on the stomach. This only lasted a while, of course, until they started giving him soup, cooked meats, and a variety of food that he had always been used to eating before he came into hospital. But no matter how much food the man ate, the discomfort of hunger pains never seemed to leave him. When the doctors began wonder what they could do to help, didn’t they once again turn to me for advice. “Now, boys,” says I. “I might be wrong, but in my opinion the man is not getting the right sort of diet.” Then, as I looked out of the window, I could see a man cutting the grass on the lawn and the answer to the problem suddenly came to me. “It would be a good thing,” says I to the doctors, “if you would go outside now and bring that poor man a few handfuls of that fresh cut grass and see if that helps him.” Sure, when they did that, didn’t the man stick his head in the middle of the cut grass and began munching away until there was not a blade of grass left!“
“That’s a tall one, Tom,” I laughed.
“Wait ’til I tell you that on the day that I left the hospital, I saw that man lying on his bed relaxing and chewing his cud. That’s the God’s honest truth I am telling you; honest“
On the afternoon of 22nd April 1874 a lady called Biddy Early died in her small, two-roomed, mud-walled cottage that overlooked Lake Kilbarron, in Feakle, County Clare. Outside of Ireland she remains a virtual unknown, but in Ireland she was famous in her own lifetime, especially since her life story was first published in 1903. Since that time her reputation has grown, embellished with dark tales of witchcraft that continue to be associated with her. Such was the woman’s fame that in the 1970s attempts were made to secure funding for a newly renovated cottage on the site. These efforts, however, failed because no government agency would undertake its financial upkeep. Unfortunately, the old cottage fell into a state of ruin, in which it remains, while its former owner was buried in an unmarked grave.
Biddy’s fame for cures made the woman a household name throughout her long-life and, at some point in that long-life, she acquired a bottle made with dark glass, which contained an even darker, healing liquid. There are numerous tales from a wide variety of sources that attempt to tell the story of how she came into possession of that ‘magic bottle. They all agree, however, that its origin was with the ‘Good People’, for it was frequently used for the purposes of divining future events (Scrying). At the same time Biddy was famed for her mixing of herbal cures in this and other bottles that appeared to cure illness in animals as well as in people.
She would gather herbs and plants before sunrise, with the morning dew still shining upon them. It was widely believed by such curing women that the dew was a secretin of the light of dawn, which was a key element in the idea of eternal life. As she progressed through her later years it is claimed that Biddy became a cranky and absent-minded old woman. This attitude and the success of her potions led many to believe that she was practicing witchcraft from her small cottage. In fact, Biddy was a relatively generous woman who rarely accepted payment for her services, unless it was a gift of food. She did not, however, accept those who scorned her craft and did not believe in the ‘Good People.’
Biddy’s home became known as a place of great merriment and neighbours would frequently come to the house for a drink, in the knowledge that she always had a plentiful supply of donated poteen and other spirits. But these merry social gatherings also fell foul of the local quality folk, including the Catholic clergy, the medical profession, landlords, the police and the judiciary. They were already annoyed by the fact that Feakle already had a reputation for being the most superstitious places in Ireland, which was being strengthened every day by Biddy’s presence. At this time too, ‘Pishogues’ (Sorcerers) of various types were often employed to bring bad luck to a rival or enemy, and even today the practice still exists in parts of this island. In fact, ‘wise-women’ (Spéirbhean) such as Biddy, were often sought to help lift curses and bad-luck from the poor. These women would also be employed as special mediators to act in any disagreements that may arise with the fairies over the violation of their ancient land rights. It was a task for which Biddy was well qualified for it was said that she had spent some of her youth living among the fairies, or good people (Sidhe). In fact, there were some neighbours who insisted that Biddy, her brother and her only son, Paddy, were actually ‘Changelings’ or ‘Away with the Fairies.’
Biddy and her practices also came into conflict with the Catholic Church and the members of the medical profession. The powerful Catholic Church in Ireland was totally and vehemently opposed to many of the traditional arts because they believed them to be dangerous remnants of a pagan Ireland. The ability of the Church to oppose wise women like Biddy Early were severely restricted during the Penal times. But, after the introduction of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the church slowly began to re-emerge as a political power in the land. In many of the folktales that surround the person of Biddy Early there are many examples of confrontations with various clergymen. One story tells of a fiery young curate from County Tipperary who made his way to Biddy’s cottage to chastise her, only to find himself frozen in his saddle near Annasala Bridge. Only after he had taken back all the oaths that he had sworn to her and apologised the curate was released by using three blades of dry grass to strike the right shoulder of the curate’s horse with the trinitarian blessing – “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” In fact, it was said that Biddy always invoked the ‘Holy Trinity’ before handing over her remedies to the sick people. Furthermore, despite her difficulties with the clergy, she always advised those who visited her to listen to the advice of the priests and clergy.
One famous visitor to Biddy’s cottage was the ‘Great Emancipator’, Daniel O’Connell, who was the Member of Parliament for Clare. But, despite her popularity among the people, she found herself in conflict with medical people, which formed the basis for several stories associated with Biddy Early. It was said, for example, that she rented a cottage from a certain Doctor Murphy from Limerick, who wanted to evict her for non-payment of rent though it seems more likely that professional jealousy was the real reason. The policemen and Sheriff that were sent to evict her from the small cottage near Kilbarron Lake, were ordered by her to ‘Stay where you are.’ Rumour had it that the words were given to her in an apparition by her dead husband Pat. The men were rooted to the spot and it was two hours before she released them. But another version of the same story says that Biddy warned the men sent to evict her with the words, “Whoever is the first to put a bar to this house, he will remember it.” When one of the men put a crowbar between two stones in the wall he fell awkwardly and broke his thigh. Taking hold of their wounded colleague the men ran off in terror.
Doctor Murphy, however, would not be denied and he ensured that Biddy was forced into the Ennis Workhouse. Soon after this, Murphy’s own house in Limerick mysteriously caught fire and only a charred foot was recovered from the ruins in which the Doctor himself was trapped. It is said that Biddy warned him beforehand what his fate would be, and he refused to listen. But this was not Biddy’s last encounter with the medical profession. There was a Doctor Folan from Ennis who came to argue with Biddy but found that he could not find his way home although he knew that road well. Yet, in fairness to Biddy Early, she did not seek conflict and neither did she guarantee anyone a cure. In fact, it was not unknown for Biddy to refuse to see some patients if she felt that they were destined to die. In some cases, Biddy would give a potion to calm an anxious relative that, it is said, would break if death was inevitable. The whole idea of looking into the future was an integral part of the legend surrounding Biddy, and it wasn’t unknown for her to advise the local farmers about those stealing their or sheep and resolving family disputes.
From the historical record we know that the nineteenth century was a period of bitter agrarian violence in the County Clare. It was a time when gangs of desperate men roamed the land under the names of ‘White Boys’, ‘Ribbonmen’ and ‘Moonlighters’, seeking brutal revenge against the landlords for the large number of evictions that were happening. In 1816, Biddy was in service on the Carheen Estate, which belonged to a landlord called Sheehy. It appears that she was a participant in the raising of a petition against the raising of rents and she was given a court order to prepare for eviction from her home. In response, Biddy warned Sheehy that his bones would never lie in hallowed ground. Later, three of Sheehy’s tenants led by a man called Touhy killed the landlord and burned his house to the ground. Biddy, however, was able to advise the men that a potential witness for the Crown, a woman called Nell Canny, should not be harmed, as she might prove herself useful to them. Subsequently, Nell, who was a maid on the estate, spoke in court and told them it was her and not the accused men who had dropped hot coals on the grass the cottage. Later, in a case that involved the shooting to death of Alderman William Sheehy, brother of the same man killed by the Touhy gang, Biddy was able to advise the assassin to take a suitable escape route to America through Liscannor and Kilrush, which would avoid the ‘Peelers’ (Police). Biddy’s current husband at the time, Tom Flannery, was before the courts in 1860 for conspiracy in the same murder and lodged in Ennis gaol. The local press of the day named him and described him as being the husband of ‘The Witch’, Biddy Early. Because the chief culprits in the case had vanished the case against Tom Flannery was dropped.
There are rumours that in 1865 Biddy was tried for witchcraft, under an old law enacted in 1586. But this story has never been proved and Betty was certainly not convicted of any offence. Another surprise that she would play upon her neighbours was that before she died, in April 1874, she asked a neighbour man, Patrick Loughnane, to fetch a priest to her bedside who would give her the last rites. It is said that she asked the priest who attended her, Father Andrew Connellan, to throw her ‘magic bottle’ into a body of water that would later become known as ‘Biddy’s lake’.
Rumour has it that when this larger-than-life character died, twenty-seven priests attended her funeral. Furthermore, the next Sunday, the parish priest asked that all his parishioners should pray for the happy repose of the soul of Biddy Early and described her as a saintly woman. We wonder just what Biddy would have said if she had heard such a tribute.
For Further information you could consult the following:
E. Lenihan, “In search of Biddy Early”; Cork, 1987.
M. Ryan, “Biddy Early—wise woman of Clare”; Cork, 1978.
D. Stewart, “Biddy Early—famous ‘witch’ of Clare”, Parts I & II; Limerick Chronicle, 3rd and 10th October 1953.
Sadly, for several years I have been hearing disheartening comments from a variety of people that, in all honesty, did not sit at all easy with me. Their comments were really a string of complaints suggesting that the ‘Arts’, within Ireland, do not have the same influence or support that they enjoy in England, Scotland, and Wales. The complaints centred around a belief that Ireland’s greatest artists do not possess the same influence and admiration in the world, because they have never had any official public support to encourage their efforts. In my opinion I cannot pick out any area within the arts that shows a degree of inferiority to other artists in the world.
In the long, colourful history of this small island there have been many reasons why Irish artists of the highest ability have not flourished as well as artists in other parts of the British Isles. In days long gone by, for example those families of quality who had the means to patronise local artistic talent were, more often than not, absent from their estates in Ireland, preferring to spend their Irish rental income on various foreign entertainment diversions in other lands. When these men of property did permit themselves to spend some of their time in Ireland their sole concern was always their land, religious differences, and their political and social advantages. The did not appear to have much time, interest, or money to spend on advancing an appreciation of Irish art or artists.
If we consider the undoubted beauty of Ireland in its mountains, valleys, and forests, we should ask ourselves why is it that there have been, by and large, ignored by landscape collectors, even in Ireland itself. Our high roads, low roads, country boreens, and coastal paths are overflowing with ancient and picturesque beauty that attracts so many foreign visitors to our shores. It is unfortunate that some of this nation’s better-known artists find such themes to be inconvenient to their progress within the global art market. Those lesser-known artists who put their heart and talent into recording the beauty spots often found that they had failed to gain the recognition due to them by proper financial reward for their work.
It could be said that there is not one of Ireland’s thirty-two counties that possess picturesque hills, rivers, and glens that are of the most exquisite beauty, that some artist or painter has not yet recorded. We who live in this beautiful country and travel widely through it are only too aware that there are many unique features that visitors can discover. Even in those more remote areas that stand far from roads and towns, lying in mountains and wild moorland are a great number of dells, little valleys, cascades, and expanses of verdant grass that have lain virtually untouched by humans or time. There are also many hidden places lying within hearing distance of the wild ocean seas that surround the island, where ancient pagan Celts and early Christian Irishmen have built altars and a range of other edifices on which were celebrated the mystical rites of past beliefs. Places, the names of which, originate from our earliest ancestral tales and myths which can still be read in the various poetical and prosaic writings that have been handed down to us over many centuries. In the soft breezes that whisper around tall grey towers and ivy clad abbey and castle walls, if you listen very carefully, you might hear the clash of arms and the cries of pain that still haunt our nation’s long and troubled history. They are often lonely, but picturesque, places where once the rich green grass was coloured red by the blood of those slaughtered men, women and children, and old withered oaks on whose branches the hanging bodies of the Irish people once swung in the breeze. Lying alongside such places exist sections of land that have been made holy with the corpses of many thousands of our forefathers, who have been interred there in mass graves after starving to death in a food rich land or froze to death at the roadside in the bitter snow and rain they were forced to face after being evicted from their homes by greedy and absentee foreign landlords.
Sketching, drawing, and painting are among my favourite hobbies, but I am far from being the accomplished artist I would like to be. Nonetheless, the natural beauty of my homeland continues to fill my heart and soul with joy and constantly encourages me to make an effort to record this beauty on paper or canvas. It was because of my hobby that, some years ago, I visited a particularly picturesque area that lies along the border between the Counties of Cork and Kerry. Looking back on this time I can still see the journey we made through the lovely ‘Vale of Glengariff’ on the road that winds its way through the mountains to the town of Kenmare, providing us with wonderful views of Bantry Bay, which gives one a feeling of being gently lifted up toward Heaven. In the evening, I can recall, the sun readying itself to sink behind the huge, purple, and blue coloured Kerry mountains standing rugged and beautiful in the west. Then we stopped at the side of the road, in a place that gave a unique view of clouds swirling gently over the mountain tops. We simply stood there, admiring the view in the stillness which was occasionally broken by the cry of an eagle soaring high above us. This wonderful bird of prey appeared suddenly from behind a tower-like creation of barren grey rocks in which such creatures built their eyries.
WE sat in the oasis of peace for a while, listening to the many sweet songs of the birds that filled the air as we took in the loveliness of the rugged scenery which surrounded us. The high-pitched call of the Eagles were heard several more times, as if drawing our attention to the stiffening breeze that was sweeping away the grey mists and allowing us to see the beautiful colours of the sky as the sun began to set. Another advantage was the revelation of the valley below the pass in which we were parked. The light that beamed down on the valley from the brightly setting sun providing an effect which I can never remember being seen before or after that evening. The shadows caused by the mountains to the west were such that they were as cool and dark as late evening, while the sun acted like a spotlight in other places, maintaining the heat of the day. The colours, smells, and sounds that we encountered could never be adequately described by ordinary men, but our hearts were lifted by the experience. It would take a very accomplished artist to capture the delicate tints in that scene and present as an accurate representation, for I have found it almost impossible to present the extravagant beauty of nature without making it look quite unnatural.
The scene that stretched below us from the lofty place where we were standing that we couldn’t take our eyes from it. Neither my companion, or myself, noticed the sudden appearance of a young boy sitting on a heather-covered bank, a little further up the slope, and on our left. It was only when the boy began to laugh loudly that I turned in his direction and caught sight of him. Admittedly there was nothing special about him at first sight, for in his appearance he looked just like other boys we had come across shepherding sheep among the mountain slopes. His clothes were made of rough material and did not fit him well, and his long hair protruded from under a tattered floppy hat which he used to shelter his head from the sun. Although I called out to him several times, it was not until the setting sun was covered by a small cloud and shaded his eyes from the glare that he finally noticed us. In fact, he may never have noticed our presence at all if it had not been for the sudden appearance of a second child.
This second child was a tangled-haired girl with big, bright joyful eyes. She gently took hold of the boy’s hand and silently pointed down to the place where we were sitting. Together, holding hands, the two children came closer to us and I asked, “Do you live nearby?”
The girl quickly pointed to her brother and then to her own ears and mouth to inform us that the boy was both deaf and dumb. “Aye, he’s deaf and dumb,” she confirmed to us in a sweet, quiet voice, as she brought him closer to us. The boy smiled at the girl with brotherly affection, patted her head gently, and bent down to give her a kiss on her little pale cheek.
In my hands I was holding a small, black, hard-covered sketch book that I always take with me on such trips. When the boy saw the open sketch book his eyes opened wide with wonder and he began to clap his hands together. When he began pointing furiously at my sketchbook it was obvious that he wanted to have a look through its pages, while the young girl trying very hard to calm him down. The boy, however, gently pushed her to one side as he began making his way closer toward me until he could, at last, reach out and touch my sketch book. There was an expression of joy on his face so that I gave into his wishes by handing my sketchbook so he could browse through it.
The young boy’s eyes were wide with delight as he began to turn over the pages, one after another, examining all the sketches and drawing that I had completed. From his facial expressions you could see immediately how much he appreciated the work that I had put into those drawings, and he appeared to understand what effect I was trying to achieve with each. When he came to my more recent drawings, he would quickly look up from the sketchbook to the mountains surrounding us. From his smiles and facial expressions, it was a little difficult to know whether he appreciated my artwork or not. He did, however, show a lot of interest in my sketch of ‘Glengariff’, pointing toward the location and making us aware by his signals that he knew the area well. As he skipped through the various sketches several times it became quite clear that his preference was the sketches completed in pencil of the ‘Ruins of Aghdoe’, Muckross Abbey, and the pass at the ‘Gap of Dunloe’, in which he took particular interest and spent a considerable time examining it. My coloured drawing were quickly passed over with the merest of glances before he quickly returned his attention back to the drawings that he seemed to regard as being more worthy.
While the boy was engaged in this activity, the little girl took her opportunity to bound like a sure-footed goat up the steep mountainside until she disappeared from our view. She soon returned to our sight, however, jumping from rock to rock, and holding on tightly to an already tattered apron in case she would fall and tear it some more. With great speed and agility, the girl came back to where we were sitting and retrieved a small book from inside her blouse. , from which she began to remove some pages. On these pages were sketches that had been created by her brother in a pale coloured ink, or with an even paler pencil. We did notice, however, that a couple of these sketches had been tinged with colour that appeared to have been derived from the multitude of flowering plants that grew upon the mountainside. While all six sketches had been crudely drawn there was evidence that this young boy had a rare, creative talent.
It was apparent that the boy had received no instruction in the artistic field, and the pages we had seen were, we would learn, torn from a school book that had belonged to his older brother. But on these pages the young boy had recorded his silent observation of nature’s magnificence. He may have been deaf and dumb, but nature had elevated and instructed this young man, nurturing within him a potentially great artistic ability.
All of this may have remained totally unknown to us except for the passing of an older boy sitting upon a pony. He told us that he was the older brother to the two young children who had been amusing us. “We all live a little higher up the mountain with our parents. I know that Matthew might not look to be too clever, I can tell you there’s no one better for looking after the sheep and goats that we send up here to graze.” From the manner in which he spoke about Matthew, and the way that he looked at the boy, you could see that he had a deep love for his little brother, despite his disabilities.
“Sure, he’s the great one for putting down on paper whatever he sees. We were advised to put such ideas out of him, years ago, but he was ‘Mammy’s Boy’ and that wasn’t allowed. She’s dead now these seven years, God rest her soul, and she looks down on us from her heavenly seat. Sure, there’s no sense in upsetting the wee man now, for God’s hand has been heavy enough on him already, and sure, he’s doing no harm at all. The older children sometimes spoil his drawings and cause him to become very angry, and he runs off in a huff to be on his own. Nevertheless, the Good Lord has his protecting hands over him, for he always returns home safely and at peace with himself.”
The young artist finally closed the sketch book with a heavy sigh and had not realised that his young sister had spread out his sketches on the heather that grew abundantly on the sides of these mountains. He now began to point to these pictures, which is a reaction common to us all when we think our work is being appreciated by others. The young boy bent over his drawings like a parent protecting a child. His joy, however, seemed to be only momentary as he became discontented with his efforts, after he had seen better works. There were tears forming in his eyes as he quickly gathered up his drawings.
Neither my companion nor I were convinced that the boy’s tears were caused by envy since he returned to our sketch books with the same delight as he had previously shown. But it appeared to me, that the joy on the boy’s face was more intense because of his inability to adequately express his feelings. The boy had to undoubtedly experienced the bitterness of feeling inferior throughout his young life, and it is only hope that can bring an end to his suffering. It is the hope that he can show the determination to ensure that he is as good, if not better, than that which had caused him such feeling of inferiority.
My companion and I decided that we should give the boy some quality art paper and pencils, along with a few sketches that we have already completed and considered surplus to our needs. As we clambered into our motor vehicle and prepared to leave, we bade the boy a fond farewell. The last sight that I had of the boy remains clear in my memory. He was standing at his little sister’s side and both of them were waving frantically as we quickly descended that mountain road into the valley below. The boy and his sister had made such a great impression upon me during our encounter that I still often wonder whatever happened to them, and I promise myself that someday I will find out.
It was always the tradition in many Irish homes that the cake of bread intended for the morning breakfast table should be ‘nipped’ before being put it away in the cupboard. In Irish, it is called “a bhara“, and the housewife or housekeeper was always particular about how she carried out the task. She would either break a piece off the cake herself as soon as she took it from the griddle, or else encouraged another family member to do it instead. It is said that when the cake of bread was broken in this manner then nothing ‘bad’ would happen to it through the night, and no hungry spectre or fairy folk would lay a hand or tooth upon it.
“Oh, Mary dear,” an old woman called out to her daughter one night when everyone had just gone to their beds, “sure, didn’t I forget to ‘nip’ the cake. Get up, darling girl, and do it, or else it might all be gone in the morning and your Da will have nothing to eat with his tea before he heads off to Belfast!“
“Ah, now, mother,” replied Mary, from the small back room in which she and her younger sister slept, “would you give my head peace with all your nonsense. Sure, nothing will touch it.“
“There’s no nonsense in it, I tell you,” replied the mother, “and if you don’t get up now then I’ll have to get out of bed myself, and me hardly able to move with the ‘roomytis’ (rheumatism). Oh, Sweet Jaysus, what come ever caused me to forget to do it!“
The mournful tone in which the old mother spoke about her suffering from rheumatism settled the matter, and Mary jumped out of her bed exclaiming, “For goodness sake mother you’re a nuisance with all your superstitions!” and, turning to her sister she added, “Come with me to the kitchen, Bridget, for I won’t go there by myself.”
“Would you ever get into bed and not be paying any attention to her,’ whispered Bridget quietly, hoping that her mother would not hear.
“But she will get up herself if I don’t go, and she would never let us hear the end of it.”
“Sure, she will never think about it again, Mary. So, just come into bed.”
Mary, of course, was willing enough to comply with her sister’s request, but just then her mother called out once again, “Mary, did you get up yet?”
“Aye, aye,” Mary cried out in an angry tone while, speaking quietly to her sister she said, “Do you see, now. She’s not going to forget it, so we might as well get up and do it, or we’ll get no sleep tonight.“
Neither Mary nor Bridget had much confidence in the seemingly ridiculous ritual of “nipping the cake”, to keep it safe from the hungry fairy folk that roamed the land. Nevertheless, they would do just the same themselves when they got married and took charge of household duties. They would, undoubtedly, recall that their own mother They will remember that their own dear mother did it, and what was right for her, could hardly be very wrong for them. It was in such ways that the traditions were handed down through the generations, even to the present day.