You might not believe what I am about to tell you. In fact, I didn’t quite believe the story myself when I heard it first. My grandfather was already an old man when he told this story to me and he informed me that it was first told to him by his father. As was common to all my grandfather’s stories, this tale began with the introduction of a beautiful young woman. Yet, although Eileen Geary was a very beautiful young woman and every bachelor’s eye was attracted to her, it was not her undoubted good looks or the wealth that she had inherited from her father, that made her one of the most unusual people in the country. She was well known for her enjoyment of life, her great intelligence, and for her wit. But these talents were not what made Eileen unusual and set her aside from others. No, friends, what set Eileen apart was an ability that was strange and extremely rare among mortals, and she had inherited this from those who had gone before her. It was rumoured that it was from a maternal great-aunt, who had lived for over ninety years, Eileen had inherited the rare and amazing ability to see ghosts and to converse with them.
It will not surprise you to learn, I am certain, that because of this hidden talent, Miss Geary, had been visited by many spirits in her young life. Some of those that had appeared to her were among the most unpleasant spirits that you could ever imagine, and through these encounters, Eileen had developed a great ability to deal firmly with any of them. On the occasion about which my grandfather spoke, however, she was approached by a ghost spirit while paying a visit to ‘King John’s Castle’ in the north of the country. It was said, and Eileen was most likely aware, that the ruins of this old Norman castle were haunted by one of the most terrifying spectres in the entire country. It was renowned for appearing to people, covered in blood and carrying its own mangled head in his hands. There were also stories of the terrifying scream that accompanied the ghost and, it was said, those who had seen the ghost had also felt his tight grip around their neck.
It was early evening when Eileen began to wander in the ruins, by herself. Here and there were tall granite stone columns, walls and arches that led into rooms that were open to the elements. In one of these rooms, Eileen noticed a large, stone fireplace that she decided to have a closer look at. Then, as she approached this old hearth, a gut-wrenching scream filled the entire room and Eileen saw a horrifying, blood-soaked figure in ragged clothing approach her. But the young woman did not flinch and, standing her ground, she spoke to the spirit in a cold unemotional tone, “Would you take yourself away from me immediately. Neither your appearance nor your shenanigans frighten me in the least. For you to come into my presence and show yourself in such an unpleasant condition, covered in gore, is the height of bad manners.”
Silence immediately returned to the castle as the spirit stared at this young woman, not quite believing that he would be spoken to in such a way. A spirit with its reputation that could not reduce a mortal to a quivering mess of flesh in its presence had lost its reason for existence. In a state of deep humiliation, the once-terrifying ghost now dragged itself away, along the ruins of the castle hallway. Completely deflated by this encounter with Eileen Geary, as he slinked away, the ghost left a stain of blood in its track. This stain was still visible to observers when I was a teenager, and I understand it can still be seen to this day. Any of you who still doubt the truth of my grandfather’s tale is invited to visit this old castle yourself to see the bloody track with your own eyes.
Mothers and grandmothers tell us that it is a good thing not to be scared of the fairy folk, or ‘Goodpeople’. If you show no fear toward them then the fairy folk will have less power over you an your actions. It is equally important, however, that you should not show too much familiarity with them, or to totally disregard and disbelieve in their existence. There is nothing more foolish that a man or woman can do than profess their disbelief in the existence of the fairy folk.
Yet another good, traditional piece of advice handed down from the older generation is that: “Good manners is not a burden, and civility toward others costs nothing.” Nevertheless, every day of our lives we encounter people who carelessly disregard doing the civil sort of thing. They do so thinking that they can never harm or hurt themselves, or anyone else. In fact, these same people will actually go out of their way to cause some sort of mischief that cannot ever do them any good. There is an old Irish adage: “Long runs the fox,” which is another way of saying that such people will, sooner or later, learn their lesson and come to know better. Let us consider the story of Tommy Hall, for example, who was a fine, well built boy from Derryard and had a reputation for making mischief.
Tommy Hall was a carefree young man, who would wander from place to place, doing whatever pleased him because he feared nothing and no person. Unlike many of his peers he preferred to travel by night because darkness hid his mischievous ways much better. Stories of ghouls, ghosts, or fairies could not deter him from entering cemeteries, fairy glens, or other places where spirits might lie in wait. Tommy simply did not believe in such things and laughed in the faces of those who did. So deep was his dislike of such superstitions that he never made the sign of the Cross, or wished a person good luck in any new endeavour that they might undertake.
One night Tommy found himself walking home along ‘Kiln Lane’, on the outskirts of Derryard. As he passed the ‘Holy Well’ at the foot of ‘Fern Hill’ he met another man who was walking in the same direction as he was. The stranger was a well dressed man in his forties and walked at a good pace. The night was very dark and the two men walked side by side without much conversation passing between them. In fact, both men barely greeted each other when they first met upon this road. Then Tommy asked the stranger just how far he was going.
“I am not going very far, your way,” said the man who, from his appearance, looked like a farmer. “I am just going to walk to the top of this hill,” he added.
“Why would you want to go there?” asked Tommy, “especially at this time of night.”
“Simple,” replied the man. “I am going to see the good people.”
“The fairies?” Laughed Tommy.
“Be quiet! Keep your voice down as you might just be a sorry man,” said the farmer as he turned off the main road on to a narrow pathway that led up the side of the mountain. “Good Night, young man, and a safe journey home,” he said.
As he watched the stranger start along the narrow path his suspicious mind began to work overtime. “That man is up to good,” Tommy told himself. “Fairies! Absolute nonsense! I am certain that whatever he is up to, it has nothing to do with fairies, Good People. There is something more than superstitious nonsense taking him up that mountain at this time of night.”
Tommy looked again at the stranger as he got further along the path. “Fairies, damn it!” He swore to himself. “What would make a respectable looking man like him be wanting with fairies? I know there are some who believe in such nonsense, but there are many who do not. But, whether they are real or not, they hold no fear over me, no matter how many there might be.”
As all these thoughts rushed through his mind he kept his eyes steadfastly upon the hillside, behind which a full moon was rising brightly. In that bright silver light Tommy could see the figure of a man walking briskly up the path. It was, undoubtedly, the figure of the farmer with whom he had not long parted company. Tommy now resolved to follow the stranger up the hillside. His curiosity and his sense of determination had now reached a peak and he decided to move. Muttering loudly to himself he declared, “I am going to follow you and see exactly what you are up to!”
Although the full moon gave a bright light, it was a difficult task to follow the path that the stranger had taken. Nonetheless, Tommy persevered in his task and was assisted when he occasionally looked up the hillside and saw the man still ahead of him. The time passed quickly as he toiled along that rugged and swampy path, finally coming to a grass covered area at the top of a the hill. But, Tommy was greatly puzzled that there was no sign of the stranger and, despite his best efforts, no trace of him could be found. But, as Tommy searched, he discovered an opening in the hill, which resembled the mouth of a pit. It crossed Tommy’s mind that when he was a young boy he had been told about “The Black Hole of Fern Hill.” In those days the story was told that this hole was actually the entrance to a fairy castle, which was supposed to be hidden within the mountain. The older people within the town recalled the story of a surveyor called O’Hara who had spent weeks mapping the area. It was said that he had come across the pit and tried to measure its depth with a line. They could only surmise that he had been dragged into the depths by the fairies, because he was never heard of again.
This was only one of a series of mysterious tales concerning “The Black Hole” but Tommy disregarded them. “They are just old wives’ tales,” said Tommy to himself and decided since he had taken the trouble to climb the hill he would first knock the castle door and see if the fairies were at home. Tommy took up a large stone from the ground and, using all his strength, he threw the stone down the ‘Black Hole’. He leaned his head over the hole to hear the progress of the stone down the ‘Black Hole’ as it fell down the pit. It bounded and tumbled from one rock to another with a great noise that echoed through the pit. Tommy leaned over the pit a little more to hear it reach the bottom. But, he heard nothing, for the stone was returning up the pit with as much force as Tommy had thrown it down there. Without any signal or warning this large stone hit Tommy a full blow in the face that caused him to be knocked head over heels. Down that hillside Tommy tumbled from one crag to another, much faster than he had climbed the hillside.
It was not until the following morning that Tommy Hall regained consciousness and gingerly made his way home from the foot of ‘Fern Hill’. When he arrived home and looked in the mirror he saw the damage sustained because of his fall. He had broken the bridge of his nose, his head was covered with bruises and cuts, both eyes were swollen shut and as black as a Panda’s eyes. But, Tommy Hall had learned his lesson and never again wandered near possible haunts of fairies after dark. On those rare occasions, after this incident, when he found himself alone in a dark place he would hurriedly and directly make his way home. He never asked questions of strangers and never again sought out the ‘Good People’.
On one of the many rocky islands that lie off the West coast of Ireland lived a fisherman called Kelly. He was a muscular man who was fond of his drink and his tobacco, and he would take his ill-temper out on his wife by beating and by throwing things around the house. All other men on the island were afraid of Kelly and would not stand up to his bullying ways and the called him ‘The Bull’. But Kelly would go out to sea every day that there was fair weather and catch as many fish as he could, which he would subsequently bring to Kilclough and the fish factory there. These trips were, of course, ideal opportunities for ‘The Bull’ to stock up on his supplies, especially his tobacco and whiskey, and the odd grocery item that his wife might need for the house.
For several days the weather had caused the sea to toss and boil, while wind-driven rain and grey skies made it difficult to see very far ahead. ‘The Bull’ had run out of tobacco and alcohol several days previously and further inflamed his already famed fiery temper, making him even more violent and it was his poor wife that suffered the consequences. Then, one day, a loud knock came to the Kelly’s cabin door and his bruised, long-suffering wife was ordered to answer it. When she opened the door to the visitor, she came face to face with a red-haired man whom she did not recognise. “Is he in?” asked the man in a deep gruff voice.
“Paddy!” she called out, “there’s someone to see you.”
“Who?” asked ‘The Bull’ but before he could get an answer the red-haired stranger was by his side.
“It’s only me,” he spoke softly to Kelly, taking him totally by surprise.
The sudden appearance of the red-haired man was believed to be an unlucky omen, but Kelly was in such an ill-temper that he never thought about omens. “What is it you want?” he snapped at the stranger.
“What will you give me to go over to Kilclough and bring back what you are in most need of?”
Kelly laughed loudly. “Nothing!” he said. “I will give you nothing for whatever means you use to go there I am more than able to use that means also.”
“Alright,” said the visitor with a knowing smile on his face. “Get on your coat and come with me down to the shore. I will show you how to get across the sea, but as only one of us can go, you must go alone.”
Without hesitation Kelly pulled on his heavy sea coat and followed the red-haired man out of the cabin door. Together they followed the path down to the stone-covered shore where the waves were rolling in. Then, out of the mist, there came a large herd of horses with men and women on their backs, galloping along singing loudly and laughing. The ginger-haired man now turned to Kelly and told him, “Get up there now on a horse and it will take you across the water.”
Although he was suspicious of the stranger, Kelly got up on a horse as requested and in an instant the animal jumped out over the sea and landed in the centre of Kilclough. Overjoyed with his good fortune ‘The Bull’ ran to the store and bought both his tobacco and whiskey supply and within minutes he was back to his horse. To his surprise the other riders were assembled by the seashore and eager to be off. So, ‘The Bull’ got up on his horse again and they all immediately jumped into the seas. On this occasion, however, they came to a halt midway between Kilclough and home, where there was a large island of rock beyond which the horses could not be made to pass. There was great disquiet among them all and they decided to call a meeting to decide the best way forward. “There is a mortal among us,” one of the riders called out to the rest. “Let us drown him now, so we can pass!”
They gathered around ‘The Bull’ and lifted him from his horse and carried him to the top of the rock and threw him down into the sea. Then, when he returned to the surface, he was grabbed by all the hands and the crowd called out, “Drown him! Drown him! We have the power over life and death here and he must be drowned!” But just as they were making ready to throw him from the top of the rock for a second time the ginger-haired man pleaded for his life and with a strong hand led him to the shore.
As ‘The Bull’ walked up from the shoreline towards the cabin again the red-haired man spoke softly to him. “You are safe now,” he said, “but just remember that the spirits are watching you at all times, and should you ever again beat your wife, or throw furniture and things about the home in a foul temper you will discover that you shall die upon that rock.” With these words the stranger disappeared. But from that time onward ‘The Bull’ was as meek as a mouse, for there was now a great fear on him. Each time that he passed the rock in his boat he would stop and say a wee prayer for his wife. By adhering to this, Kelly kept the evil away and they both lived together happily until they reached a good old age.
To you, the reader, this may sound like a simple tale, but it is a story with a good moral behind it. The red-haired man might be thought to be an unlucky omen, but it is the one who saves, helps and rescues any mortal who is unhappy, or finds themselves helpless in the hands of the fairy folk. The story, however, demonstrates how the threat of justified retribution from the anger of fairies can reduce the tyranny of one person over another who is weaker.
The First of February is the feast of St. Bridget and on Eve of the feast the usual Irish dinner consisted of ‘bruitins’(mashed potatoes)in a wooden dish placed on a table, or in earlier days the “bare floor”. A hole for the butter was made in the centre of the ‘bruitins’, and, the butter placed there, with the hole being covered over with the hot ‘bruitins’ scooped out in making the hole.
All the family members were seated around the dish on the floor, or on stools if seated at the table. In more modern days some luxury came into the homes of the peasant Irish, which included “creepies” and chairs. In those days the majority would simply seat themselves on the broad chair from which they had risen. Indeed, in many an Irish home there was ‘Mammy’s’ seat and ‘Daddy’s seat’ upon which none but mammy and daddy would sit.
“While the butter was melting in the potatoes, the oldest woman in the house would go outside to “fetch in the brat Bhrighde”,(St. Bridget’s mantle), which is a rag of some kind of cloth that was placed on a bush outside the home several days previously. The old woman, having taken possession of the ‘brat’, comes to the door and, in Irish, says three times, “Get on your knees, and close your eyes, and let Blessed Bridget come in.” Those within the house would do what they were asked, and on the third repetition they would cry out simultaneously, “Come in, come in, and welcome.“
The old woman then carries the ‘brat’ into the house triumphantly and a piece of it is given to each family member. This piece of cloth is believed to be a protection from all kinds of misfortune or “ill-luck” for the next twelve months, and they reverently keep it close to them. This done, ‘Grace’ is said and followed by the opening of the hole in the potatoes.
This ritual is not just hearsay, for my Great-Uncle John had the good luck to attend one of these dinners many years ago when in the West of Ireland. Although I have never been personally present at such a ritual, John’s story told to me when just a small boy made a great impression because it was still fresh and vivid in John’ memory.
This is a genuine portrait of an Irish piper, for the face of the man, and the instrument on which he is playing, are both characteristic of our Nation, genuine Irish. In the well-proportioned oval face you can recognise his years of wisdom, good sense, and gentleness, which is a common trait found among the ordinary people of Ireland, in town or countryside. As for the bagpipes, they are of the most approved Irish kind, beautifully finished, and from which we hear the delicious, relaxing strains traditional Irish music in these modern times of electric guitars and computerised tunes. Pipes such as these have been handed down from generation to generation unto the present time. As a family heirloom they are treated well, taken good care of, and used in a manner that does justice to their powers.
The cause of this apparent deficiency of feeling or talent, many believe, is due to the fact that Paddy, a genuine musical genius, never had the opportunity of hearing any of the great performers of the past and, therefore, had not the chance of improving his considerable talents further. Those whom he did hear he can imitate and outplay very successfully, but in every Irish County there is always one musician of one instrument or another more eminent than the rest, who is recognised as the best in his locality.
In this work we only wish to present a few traits in the character of an individual Irish Piper, which after all relate more to the man than the musician. At the same time, we want let our foreign readers and lovers of Ireland to realise that the true Irish Pipers are not at all like the story of the piper who made his living with only three tunes that he played for the farmers in the land for Paddy could play not three tunes, but three thousand. When he played, they say that your feet could not keep still and your spirit would rise in great joy as the strains of the Irish jig, the reel, and the country dance. This was the way it was in days past, and is slowly becoming so once again, and thank God for it.
But Paddy was more than just an exceptional piper, for he was also a very exceptional man, made even more exceptional when we are told that he had been deprived of his eyesight. He was still a kind and caring person whose path through life was marked by the regard that others felt for him, for he was respected. We had heard enough of the qualities that he had and which had gained him this respect, independently of his musical renown, before we had met with him, to make us want to get to know him better. It was while we were on a visit to Galway with some friends last summer that we tried for two or three days to get him to our hotel for an evening, but in vain. He was away from his playing his music in various locations and could not be found until, on making our way towards Connemara, we met a blind man coming along the road, whom we immediately thought was the ‘Galway Piper’, and discovered we were correct. It was Paddy Connolly himself, who had returned home for a change of clothes, and was on his way back to Galway to spend the evening with a party of gentlemen by whom he had been employed to play during the Regatta. It was not convenient for us to return to the city with him, and so we very wisely decided to carry him off with us. After we seized his pipes from him the rest was easy to do by first taking his pipes, after which we soon had him, a quiet though for a while an upset captive. “Oh! in the name of God, what will Mr Kennedy and the gentlemen think of me at all at all?” exclaimed Paddy.
“Never mind, Paddy,” we told him, “they can hear you often, but we may never have another opportunity of doing so again. So, come along with us, and rest assured that you will be as happy with us as you would have been with those gentlemen at the Regatta.” Only a few minutes later, we had Paddy crooning old Irish songs for us, and pointing out all the objects of any interest or beauty on either side of the road, and this with a correctness and accuracy which perfectly astounded us.
We kept Paddy with us for two weeks before we brought him back safely to Galway. But, during that time, as well as since, we had many opportunities to. But of all his talents, Paddy’s greatest asset was his constant benevolence toward others. There are many examples of this characteristic, which his friends and neighbours will eagerly tell you about his efforts to assist those who are poorer than himself. In his home village, about two miles from Galway, we asked him about the poverty in which his neighbours lived. “Poor? Indeed they are, Sir, very,” he replied, “they have been very badly off this year because of the wet weather, the want of heat, and the high price of potatoes.”
“And how,” I asked, “have they managed to keep body and soul together?”
“Ah, sure, just with the help of those who are a little better off than themselves.”
Paddy never said that he was the person who helped them willingly, but when he was asked was he able to give them any help he confessed that he had, saying he had lent thirty shillings to one family so they could buy seed for their bit of ground, ten shillings to another to buy meal, and so on. “And will they ever pay you back, Paddy?” he was asked.
“Och! they will, to be sure, Sir,” Paddy replied in an unconvincing manner, adding, “if they can, and if they can’t, Sir, why, please God, I’ll get over it. Sure, one couldn’t see the creatures starve!”
Then, we heard that Paddy’s turf had been stolen from him, perhaps by some of the very people whom he had helped and we were curious to ascertain how he took his loss. So, he was asked, “How were you off for turf last winter, Paddy?”
“And how did it happen that you had no turf of your own?”
“Because, Sir, it was all stolen from me, after I had paid two pounds for cutting and drying it.”
“Did you ever,” he was asked, “discover who were the robbers?”
“Oh, yes,” he replied.
“And could you prove the theft against them?”
“I could, to be sure.”
“Did you prosecute them?”
“Sure, what good would that do me?” and Paddy added, in a tone of pity, “the creatures! Sure, they were poor rogues, or they would not have taken every bit away.”
“Well, then, Paddy, did you ever speak to them about it?”
“I did, indeed.”
“And what was their answer?”
“They said, that they wouldn’t have touched it if they had known it was mine.”
“Did they ever return any of it?”
Paddy replied with a laugh, “Oh, no!”
Another story tells that one day, while Paddy was stopping at Mr O’Flaherty’s, who was blind in one eye, was walking two horses, one of which was also similarly disabled, and the other completely blind. A man who was present remarked that here were four animals, two men and two horses, that had but two eyes among them, and he proposed a race, to which Paddy and O’Flaherty agreed. Paddy was placed upon the horse which could see a little, and O’Flaherty got up on the blind one. Off they started with whip and spur, and to his great delight, Paddy won, and he was delighted at having achieved this feat.
Another day, we were standing in the kitchen, listening to Paddy telling his stories to a happy group of young people, when he was spoken to by a middle-aged woman, who, from her lack of English, misunderstood what he was saying, and imagined that he was making a pass at a lovely young girl, representing himself as an unmarried man. Paddy, therefore, was very surprised to hear himself attacked viciously in Irish and broken English, about his terrible conduct. Before the woman had stopped her tirade, Paddy’s face showed that the man would now carry on this joke. So, when he was allowed to reply, he in turn scolded her for being stupid in supposing that she knew him, denied having ever seen her before, and declared that he was not Paddy Connolly at all, and never had heard of or seen such a person. He further added, that “it was a shame for a woman with her two eyes to be so foolish.” The woman could only look at him in mute bewilderment, and actually seemed to doubt her own senses. But she gradually became satisfied as to his identity, and, excited into a virtuous rage, she rushed out of the house, declaring that she would never stop until she told his wife of his misconduct, and she kept her word.
Yes, Paddy was like many others in the county, an ardent lover of field sports. Sitting at breakfast in the local hotel our peace and quiet was suddenly disturbed by a loud din of barking dogs and shouting men. From the main window we could see the road beyond the bridge fore a mile or more and you can imagine our astonishment at seeing Paddy Connolly and Paddy McKee hand in hand and running at top speed, both shouting joyfully and accompanied by a host of greyhounds and terriers barking in chorus, and quickly racing out of sight. Looking at the hotel manager we asked, ” What in the world is the meaning of that?“
“It’s Paddy and McKee going off to course, after borrowing my dogs.”
When all is said and done we must state Paddy was both a temperate and prudent man. He was asked once, “You don’t drink hard, Paddy?”
In conclusion we will admit that Paddy appears to be in comfortable circumstances, farming a bit of ground. His cottage is neat and tidy, and he has a high opinion and decent pride in his own undoubted musical talents. He only plays for the gentry or for the more comfortable farmers. He will not lower his professional standards to play in the pubs for the ordinary folks, except on rare occasions, when he does it for free and for the sole pleasure of making them happy.
Jimmy Joe was not exactly a young man though he would be much aggrieved if you honestly considered him to be old. The youngest of three sons he had lived at home all of his fifty years and now, with the passing of his father, the home place belonged to him. Although many who knew him never considered him to be “the sharpest knife in the box”, Jimmy Joe had done well for himself and was now a Clerk of Works for the Housing Executive of Northern Ireland. But, Jimmy Joe had been a Clerk of Works for the past eight years and it certainly appeared that he had risen through the ranks to the highest level he was ever going to achieve.
Now that his father was dead, Jimmy Joe was preparing to marry the love of his life, Nellie Maguire. She too was mature in age but still held some of the beauty that had first attracted Jimmy Joe almost thirty years ago. He could clearly recall the night that he plucked up the courage to ask Nellie for a dance at the weekly Ceilidh that was held in the local parish hall. It was something of a shock to the system when the popular Nellie Maguire agreed, not only to a dance but to allowing Jimmy Joe to escort her home when the Ceilidh ended.
Nellie was a natural blond with her long, yellow hair flowing over her shapely shoulders like corn-silk. Her skin was as smooth and unblemished as the finest of porcelain. Her hazel coloured eyes warm and inviting, like those of a movie actress. There was not a man in the Parish that had not lost his heart to Nellie at some stage. She, however, was a woman who knew what she wanted and, so far, only Jimmy Joe had been chosen from among the many. There were those who knew them both at this time and said that the relationship would not last. “Sure she will never go mad, that one. She’s never in the same mind long enough”, seemed to be the popular comment at the time. So far the relationship had lasted almost thirty years, and now they were getting married.
Jimmy Joe was the shy and quiet type of boy that didn’t quite know what to say in the company of women. But, after they had been dating eighteen months he took his courage in his hands and asked her to marry him. She was thrilled to be asked, of course, but there were several things that Nellie needed to clear up before she agreed to his proposal. Her main concern at the time was what the living arrangements would be. When Jimmy Joe told her that they would be living with his father in the home place, Nellie emphatically said, “No!”
It was not, however, a total rejection. Nellie told him that she would marry him but only when his father, Old “Joe Boy” Marley, had passed away. “Joe Boy” was a well known local character and not very much liked by anybody because of the way he treated others. There were those who said that he had worked his poor wife to death, and that he had made her life such a total misery that death was a blessing for her. She had died only a couple of years before Nellie and Jimmy Joe had got together, and her passing appeared only to encourage “Joe Boy’s” bad habits, bad language and rude behaviour. “If you think that I would live in the same house as that ill-mannered old man, lifting and laying for him every day, and listening to his foul mouth, then you have another thought coming!” Nellie told Jimmy Joe bluntly. “He is an ignorant, crude, drunkard of a man and I would not be caught dead in the same house as him.”
Jimmy Joe was neither shocked or annoyed when Nellie told him that they would marry only when “Joe Boy” was dead. After all, thought Jimmy Joe, the amount of alcohol his father drank was bound to kill him sooner rather than later. He did not expect that it would take twenty-eight years for the old man to die. Nevertheless, only a month after “Joe Boy’s” funeral the church was booked and the invitations sent out for the wedding. It was, of course, the talk of the entire parish.
“I wouldn’t think its a ‘shotgun wedding’!” laughed Mary Jane as she served the customer from behind the shop’s counter. “Still, it is all a bit quick,” Sarah Gill remarked.
“Quick?” exclaimed Mary Jane, almost choking on the word. “It has been almost thirty years in the making! Not exactly the speed of light, is it?”
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.