Useful Notes for an Irish Wake

In my various readings and studies of Irish Traditions and Folklore I have picked up many useful notes on how best to behave. These notes refer to an ‘Irish Wake’, which is very solemn occasion, but also full of celebration that the soul of the dead person has gone to a much better place.

Consider these points:

  1. Never use a short cut to bring a body home to the house of the church.
  2. Stop the clocks in the ‘wake house’.
  3. When fires go out, do not remove any ashes from the ‘wake house’.
  4. Do not light a candle from the flame of another at a wake. If you cannot find a match or lighter, then light it at the fire.
  5. Refuse no person a smoke at a wake, let them take at least a couple of draws.
  6. Refuse no person a drink or a bite to eat but give out both liberally.
  7. Don’t silence laughter, because it may be caused by humorous stories concerning the actions of the deceased.
  8. Put a cloth over all mirrors in the house.

Besides the above there are several useful helpful tips and warnings about things that might just happen

  1. A cock crowing at an unusual hour at night is a sign of trouble or death, while a hen crowing at any time is a much surer sign.
  2. A dog crying round a house is also a sign of death in that house.
  3. You should not look not in a looking-glass at night, and if you break a looking-glass, you’ll have no luck for seven years.
  4. You should never brush a floor in the direction of the door, because if you do you sweep away all the luck that’s in the house.
  5. Finally, other than something borrowed and something blue, a girl who is getting married should wear, on her wedding day, something that belongs to a married woman.

What other notes and tips have you heard about?

Evil Omen

A Tale from the West of Ireland

Jack Flannery was a humble, hard-working shoemaker who lived quietly with his wife and their grown-up son, in a little cottage that stood by the roadside, at the edge of the village of Derryard. Trained by his father, Jack’s son had built a good reputation in the county. With such a reputation both Father and son always had plenty of work to do and were often obliged to sit up until late at night in their workshop to ensure that all the orders entrusted to them were completed.

One calm winter’s night, in early December, at about midnight, both men were, as usual, busy. They were sewing the leather at a brisk rate in one corner of the cottage’s narrow kitchen, where a turf fire was burning brightly on the hearth. Jack’s wife had grown tired earlier in the evening and had gone to bed. Everything in the house was quiet, except for the crickets, which chirped monotonously in the crevices all around chimney breast. Even the old sow and her litter of young ones, who were kept in a small corner of the cottage had stopped grunting and were asleep. The hens that were roosting on the broad beam at the further end of the cottage, near the door, had long given-up their usual cackling, and the entire house was at peace.

Jack and his son continued to sew leather in silence, which was broken only by the occasional whispered request made by one or other of the men for some article they required

I don’t know, son, but I’ll go to the door and ask,” the father replied.

Who in God’s name is there?” called the old man, on-going toward the door. When there was no reply, he asked once again, “Is there anyone there?” Again, there was no answer. “Well,” he whispered to his son as he returned to the bench and stood beside him.

There was someone there, or something, whether it was good or bad, and wherever they’ve gone to.” The two men listened in silence for a few moments in case the knocking would return, but they couldn’t hear anything that would indicate the presence of a visitor outside. But they were not disturbed again that night.

The next night, however, at the same time they were very alarmed when they heard the footsteps again. The latch was lifted as it had been on the previous night and then allowed to fall with an exactly similar click. “God preserve us!” exclaimed the old man, who immediately arose from his seat, while his son was far too frightened either to speak or move.

As he had before, Jack went to the door and demanded, “In God’s name, who’s there?” When no answer was given, he called out again, “For God’s sake,” said the poor old man in a trembling voice, “is there anyone there?

For a few moments he waited for a reply, but his wait was in vain. “Son,” said he, “we’ll get ourselves to bed now. But, don’t be afraid.” He could see that the young man was trembling in terror from head to foot, “Maybe it’s just someone playing games, and trying to scare us. But, let me tell you that, if it is and they try it again they’ll be sorry.” There was not another word spoken between them, and both men immediately went to bed and were soon fast asleep.

The third night, at the very same hour, the footsteps again came to the door. On this occasion, however, the latch was not lifted. Instead, there were three quick, sharp knocks as if the knuckles of someone’s hand were struck against the door. The old man, swearing an oath, immediately jumped to his feet, and going to the door opened it quickly, and went out into the night. He ran around the house and searched everywhere, but he could not find even a trace of anyone. Angry and frustrated, father and son went off to bed that night more frightened than they had been on either of the preceding nights. The father’s suspicion that there was someone who was trying to terrify them had given him a little more courage than the son, but now even he began to feel ill at ease. He had now begun to realize that his suspicions were incorrect, for he was firmly convinced that their tormentor could not have escaped so quickly if it was mortal. With this thought in mind, therefore, the father became very alarmed, for he felt that they had been given a warning that something bad was about to happen. But, if it was a warning, it would not be repeated, because such dire warnings are only given on three occasions.

As expected, those dread footsteps were heard no more, but this only increased his concerns, which he discussed with his wife and his son. A fortnight passed, and nothing unusual had occurred, which caused the dread that Jack Flannery, his wife, and son were feeling to considerably diminish. Then, on a Sunday night, at the of the fortnight, when old Ned McClean paid a neighbourly visit and found the Flannery family to be quite cheerful. Ned found them sitting beside a comfortable fire burning on the hearth, enjoying the pleasant glow of the blazing turf, and the pleasant experience of a quiet smoke at the end of the day.

God save all here,” said Ned as he entered the house.

And the same to you Ned,” replied Jack and his wife in unison, adding, “Sure, you’re very welcome, especially since you don’t go out much at all in the evenings.

Ned and the Flannerys were long-time friends, and although Jack and his wife had always a kindly welcome anyone who entered their little cottage, the welcome for Ned was always that little bit warmer than any given to others. Jack’s son was, as they informed their friend, “out galavanting” and that they had the pleasure of the fire all to themselves. Inviting Ned to sit, they were all soon absorbed in discussing ‘old times’, which was a great favourite with them. They became thoroughly involved in the conversation and the time passed both quickly and pleasantly. But, unfortunately, they were interrupted, which caused a cold chain of silence to drop over the company and revived a dread of approaching evil once again in the hearts of the Flannerys.

The shoemaker was in the middle of telling his favourite story about the ‘bad times,’ when the cock on the beam flapped his wings and crew once, twice, thrice. “Ned,” said the shoemaker, “you will hear some bad news before long, mind what I’m telling you.

Ned shook his head and replied, “I don’t like it at all, Jack, Lord preserve us!

Mrs. Flannery blessed herself and uttered some inaudible prayers. Nevertheless, the interruption left them all in no humour for more storytelling about the past, and that one frightening incident that had just occurred was too unnatural to think about any further. Ned, therefore, departed the cottage with a fervent “God speed” from Jack and his wife.

Ned only a short distance to go home. Then, having said the rosary, he went to bed and was just beginning to close his eyes when he heard a loud rapping at the door. He listened and soon recognized that it was Jack Flannery’s son calling. “Ned, are you asleep?

No,” the old man replied. “What’s wrong?

Oh, get up quick, my father’s dead.”

Dear God, boy, what are ye saying?” exclaimed Nicholas in amazement.

My father’s just after dying. Hurry over, for God’s sake.

It was the truth! Just about the hour of twelve midnight poor Jack Flannery’s soul had taken its leave from this earthly world. His wife had noticed that he was breathing heavily and was getting no response to her inquiries as to what was wrong with him. At that point, she called out to her son to get up at once and bring a light to the bedroom. The light finally revealed the lifeless body of a man who had been both a loving husband and a kind father.

The Priest’s Ghost

An Old Irish Tale

It is often said that a sad tale is best told in winter, and one winter’s evening as I sat by the hearth of a blazing turf fire, I heard the following ghostly tale. But there was certain credibility about this story because of the way it was told to us with an air of reverence from the creaking voice of a withered old woman. Earlier there had been some talk about the need for Masses to be said for the souls of the dead and the importance that this held within the Roman Catholic faith in Ireland. In fact, the tale was told as a means of proving how sacred a duty it was for a Mass for the soul of the faithful departed to be said as they stood before the judgment seat in Heaven.

Saint John’s Eve starts at sunset on 23rd June and is the eve of celebration before the feast day of Saint John the Baptist.  It was on a recent Saint John’s Eve that the old woman said the following supernatural event occurred –

“Wasn’t it Mary Molloy, a great friend of my mother’s, God rest her soul, that told me the entire story?  She happened to be in the chapel at the evening service for ‘Eve of Saint John’ at the time.  Now, whether she was tired and feeling drowsy after a hard day’s work gathering and tying up the new-cut grass, or whether it was something caused by the glory of the good Lord for the happy repose of a troubled soul, I don’t know. But somehow Mary fell asleep in the chapel, and she slept so soundly that she never opened an eye until every man, woman, and child had left the chapel, and the doors were locked. Well, when she awoke, poor Mary Molloy was frightened and trembled from head to foot as if she would die right there on the spot. Mind you, it’s no wonder she was so frightened when you consider that she was locked in a chapel all alone, and in the dark, and no one to help her.

“Well, being a hardy sort of woman, she recovered after a little while and concluded that there was no use in her making a whole fuss, trying to make herself heard, for she knew well enough that there was no living soul was within hearing. After a little consideration, now that she had gotten over the first fright at being left alone, some better thoughts came into her head and comforted her. Sure, she knew she was in God’s own house, and that there was no bad spirit that would ever dare come there. Comforted, Mary knelt again, and repeated her ‘Lord’s Prayer’, ‘Creed’ and ‘Hail Marys’, over and over, until she felt quite safe in Heaven’s protection. Wrapping herself up in her cloak, Mary thought that she would lie down and try to sleep until the morning. But she now called out loudly “May the good Lord keep us!” Then, the old woman, devoutly crossed herself when a sudden, very bright light shone into the chapel as bright as the sun, and with that poor Mary, looking up, saw the light shining out of the door to the Sacristy. At that very same moment, from out of the Sacristy walked a priest, dressed in black vestments, and making his way slowly up to the altar. He turned and asked, “Is there anyone here to answer this mass?”

“Well, when she heard the apparition speaking these words Mary’s heart began to race and she thought it ready to explode inside her breast, for she certain that the priest was some form of a ghostly spirit. When the priestly figure asked three times if there was no one there to answer the mass, and received no reply, he walked slowly back to the sacristy, the door closed, and all became dark again. But before he went into the sacristy, Mary was sure that he looked towards her, and she said that she would never forget the melancholy light that was in his eyes. He gave her such a pitiful look as he passed, and she said that she had never heard before or since such a wonderfully deep voice.

“Well, the minute that the spirit was gone, the poor woman dropped in a dead faint, and she could recall nothing more about the entire event until she regained consciousness in her mother’s cabin, and her senses returned. When the sacristan had opened the chapel the next morning for mass, he found Mary unconscious and calling for help brought her home to her mother’s cabin. But she had been so badly frightened by the event that it took a week before she could leave her bed. When Mary told all that she had seen and heard to her priest, his reverence then came to understand the meaning of the whole experience. On hearing about the priest appearing in black vestments he realized that it was to say a mass for the dead that he comes to the chapel. He concluded that the ‘Spirit Priest’ had, during his lifetime, forgotten to say a mass for the dead that he was bound to say, and that his poor soul wouldn’t have any rest until that mass was said. In the meantime, however, the ghostly priest must walk the earth until his duty was done.

“The Parish priest told Mary that, because all of this was made known through her, she had been chosen by the priestly spirit. He asked her if she would return once again to the chapel and keep another vigil there for the happy repose of a soul. Mary had always been a brave woman, kindly, and always ready to do what she thought was her duty in the eyes of God. She immediately replied that she would watch another night, but she hoped that she wouldn’t be asked to stay in the chapel by herself for any length of time. The Parish priest told her that it would do if she stayed there until shortly after twelve o’clock at night, knowing that spirits do not appear until after twelve, and from then until cockcrow. As requested, Mary went on her vigil, and before twelve she knelt to pray in the chapel. She began to count her beads on the rosary, and the poor woman felt that every minute was like an hour until she would be able to leave. Thankfully, Mary wasn’t kept very long before the dazzling light burst from out of the sacristy door, and the same ghostly priest came out that had appeared to her before. He walked slowly to the altar and once there he asked, in the same melancholy voice, ‘Is there anyone here to answer this mass?’

“Poor Mary tried to answer, but she felt as if her heart was up in her mouth, and she could not utter a single word. Once again, the question came from the altar, and she still couldn’t say a word in answer. But the sweat ran down her forehead as thick as drops of rain, and she suddenly felt less anxious. There was no longer any pressure on her heart, and so, when for the apparition asked for the third and last time, ‘Is there no one here to answer this mass?’ poor Mary muttered ’Yes’ as clearly as she could.

“She told me on many occasions afterward that it was a truly beautiful sight to see the lovely smile upon the spirit priest’s face as he turned around and looked kindly upon her. In a gentle voice he told her, ‘It’s twenty years that I have been ‘asking that question, and no one answered until this blessed night. A blessing be on her that answered, and now my business here on earth is finished,’ and with those words, he vanished in an instant. So, I tell you, never say that it’s no good praying for the dead, for you have heard that even the soul of a priest couldn’t have peace after forgetting to perform such a holy a thing as a mass for the soul of the faithful departed.” 

The Irish Fairy Folk

Their Origins and Existence


There is great luxuriance about Irish mythology, filled with Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, Spirits and fantastic creatures of all sorts. This is particularly conspicuous when it comes to the history and characteristics of the ‘Fairy Folk’, more commonly known in Ireland as ‘The Good People.’ As with most mythological characters the origins of these people are confused and the subject of widespread debate. One popular belief concerning the origins of ‘The Fairy Folk’ suggests their beginnings are linked to a group of invaders known as the ‘Tuatha de Danann,’ which means “the people of the goddess Danu”, who were revered as gods by the native Irish. Over time, however, the ‘Tuatha de Danann’ succumbed to fresh invaders, who banished these so-called gods to the underground portion of Ireland. It is from this that people came to believe that fairies lived under the ground, and they came to be called ‘The Sidhe’ (pronounced: Shee).

Another popular belief, that may arise from after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, suggests that the ‘Fairy Folk’ were once angels and were so numerous that they formed a large part of the population in heaven. When Satan turned against God and gathered a host of angels around him in open rebellion, there were some who did not want to join in the war that followed. They were fearful of the consequences that might be visited upon them by the victor and, therefore, preferred to see who won the battle before taking sides. Then, when the rebellious angels were defeated and expelled from heaven, those angels who had stood aside and did nothing were also banished. The offence of these neutral angels was one of omission rather than rebellion and they were not consigned to an eternity in the pit of hell with Satan and his followers. They were, instead, sent to earth where they were to remain, but not without hope that they may receive a pardon on the last day and be re-admitted to heaven. They are, therefore, expected to be on best behaviour, but they do retain the power to do a great amount of harm. It is for this reason that they are feared and only spoken of in quiet among the rural Irish, even today.

Stories about the fairy folk have been heard from all parts of the world, and one of the most interesting and consistent things about them appears to be that they can shape shift and make themselves look like anyone or anything they wish. They are, however, believed to be smaller than humans, averaging a height of between three and four feet. Generally, within Irish folklore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are described as being slightly taller than people and very beautiful, with reports suggesting that some fairies, such as the ‘Irish Sidhe’, were typically of a height of seven feet tall. One report I read says, “Though, by nature, they’re not the length of your finger, they can make themselves the size of a tower when it pleases them, and have that ugliness that you’d faint with the looks of them, as knowing they can strike you dead on the spot, or change you into a dog, or a pig, or a unicorn, or any other dirty beast they please.

These ‘Good People’ were often seen wearing clothes of red and green that depended upon the tribe to which they belonged and their rank within the tribe. Some were described as having green skin, while other sources describe them as looking much like humans but with a strange, ‘otherworldly’ aura about them. and the appearance of being either very young or very old to help in the perception of mortals to their wisdom. It is said that, generally, the people of the fairy hills were very pale and were usually finely dressed, but otherwise were human-like in their appearance. Stories say that the ‘Fairy Folk’ often appear wearing green, red or grey clothing, and may have blond or brown hair. They could be either male or female and could appear either alone or in groups. But, when it comes to their clothes, the records generally agree that young lady fairies wear pure white robes and usually allow their hair to flow loosely over their shoulders. Meanwhile, the more matronly fairies tie up their tresses in a coil on the top or back of the head and surrounding their temple with a golden band. The young gentlemen fairies wear green jackets, with white breeches and stockings. But, when a fairy of either sex has need of a cap or head-covering, they will use the flower of the foxglove. Within Irish folklore, however, the female fairies are known to appear with messages or warnings, while groups of male fairies would gather to play games of Hurling, for which they needed a single human player in order to have the game.


It has, in the past, been considered irreverent and bad luck to call the ‘Fairy Folk’ by that name, or simply ‘Fairies’, and the rural folk of Ireland became accustomed to creating more genteel substitutes such as ‘The Good People.’[1] Although this reluctance to use the term ‘Fairies’ seems to be relaxing in these modern days, there is still a widespread preference to use the substitute names instead. In this article we will try to remain with those terms that most people are familiar with, such as the ‘Wee Folk’ or the ‘Little People’. It is likely that such terms were derived as a means of minimising their power and influence, and as a description of their physical stature.

Many in the world have heard of the Irish ‘Leprechaun’ and consider them to be members of the ‘Fairy Folk’, but they are said by some to be unfit associates for the ‘Good People’. Nevertheless, the ‘Good People’ are a sociable community who always live in large societies with each member involved in a plan of work that is to the benefit of all. They own all their property, the kind and value of which is unknown, in common and are united in their desire to achieve any communal objective. But they are, however, divided into groups of evil or good, which are occasionally involved in night-time battles with each other. The male fairies are very familiar with every military role and, like most of Ireland’s population, are divided into various factions. But, unlike other the mortal factions, the objects of contention among the fairy factions is rarely known for definite. There is a report of a great battle among the fairies that occurred many years ago in County Kerry. One party of fairy warriors stood upon a Rath, while the opposing army of fairies stood on an unused and lonely graveyard. The only mortal to witness the encounter was Paddy O’Donoghue, who related what he saw as follows – “Sure, wasn’t I lying beside the road, being on my way home, weak and tired with all the walking I had done? There was a bright moon out that night, and I heard a noise like a million soldiers tramping on the road, so I rose up and looked, and the way ahead was full of little men. These creatures were just the length of my hand, with green coats on, and all stood in rows like one of those army regiments, each man with a pike on his shoulder and a shield on his arm. One was in the front, as if he was the general, walking with his chin up as proud as a peacock. By God, but I was terribly scared, and I prayed faster than ever I had done in my life, for they were far too close to me for comfort or convenience. But they all went by, not a single one of them turning his head to look at me at all, thanks be to God for that, and so, they left me. After they were completely gone, I was curious to see what they were after, so I followed them, a good bit behind them, and ready to jump and run like a hare at the least noise, for I was afraid that if they caught me, they’d make me a pig at once or change me into some kind of a beast. They marched into the field between the graveyard and the Rath, and there was another army there with red coats, from the graveyard, and the two armies had the biggest fight you’ve ever seen, the greens against the reds. After looking on for a bit, I got excited, for the greens were beating the reds badly, and I up and gave a yahoo and called out, ‘At them again! Don’t leave one of those blackguards untouched!’ And with that word, the sight left my eyes and I remember no more until morning, and there I was, lying on the road where I had seen them, as stiff as a crutch.”

They say that fairy bodies are not composed of flesh and bone like we mortals, but of a kind of ethereal substance whose true nature is unknown. They can be clearly seen by some, many reports of which have been recorded, but some observers also tell us that they can also be seen through as if looking through a mist. In Ireland there is a belief that the fairies have a white blood, which is spilled in those occasional night battles between different groups of which the only evidence appears to be the remains of an inexplicable white liquid (Fairy Blood).[2] They have, of course, the power of being able to vanish from the sight of mortals and the fact that the air seems to be filled with their presence causes ordinary mortals to give them respect. There are reports of them being heard without being seen, especially when they travel through the air and are recognised by the humming noise like that made by swarms of bees. It must be said, however, that despite modern artistic interpretations of the ‘Fairy Folk’ there is no evidence as to them possessing wings. A certain Kerry man, called Barney Murphy, thought that they had wings for he had seen several a number of years ago that seemed to have long, semi-transparent pinions, “like them that grows on a dragon-fly,” described them. But Barney’s neighbours, however, contradicted his report by adamantly denying that the ‘Good People’ had wings, suggesting that at the time Barney saw the fairies he was too drunk to distinguish a pair of wings from a pair of legs, and so this evidence of fairy wings must remain in doubt.

Fairy lore allows us to divide the ‘Good People’ into two distinct categories, i.e. ‘Trooping Fairies’ or ‘Solitary Fairies’. The trooping fairies are a matriarchal society and they consider socialisation and status important within their community. Moreover, they can be further divided into those who are known to be good and those who are more disposed to be bad. The ‘Solitary Fairies’ obviously live alone, but they are known to attach themselves to a certain family or house. But, despite what type of fairy is present, it is often recommended that local people leave offerings outside their homes overnight as a means of appeasing them. Even if the food offered is still there the next morning the people believed that it was the fairies would have appreciated the thought at least.

The people had other means and methods to prevent bad things from happening to them, including the keeping of a few charms and talismans handy that might just work against fairy magic. Iron is the most well-known and effective element to ward off the fairy folk, though steel might prove to be a better weapon because it is a much purer form of iron. In Irish folklore it is known that the importance of Iron does not just lie in its ability to ward off the fairies. It is also known as a means of deterring ghosts, witches, and more supernatural beings. The sound of bells and whistling can also keep away fairies and, if you ever found yourself being chased by evil fairies, you could leap to safety by crossing running water. By throwing burning embers at the fairies you could drive them away from entering your house, and some people would sprinkle their clothes with oatmeal while also carrying some in their pockets to guard against the fairies approaching. Four leaf clovers have always been considered lucky and will break any fairy magic, or you could always plant a rowan tree outside your house, or as a last choice you could simply try any blessed religious item. But mortals should always remember that there are many reasons as to why you should not even think of offending the fairies. Stories have described how fairy folk, when they feel themselves offended might lift extremely heavy objects, leave your hair in terrible tangles, or even replace your child with one of their own, or a magical block of wood.


In the mythology of Ireland, we have learned that the ‘Good People’ are derived from ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ and are the original inhabitants of the ‘hollow hills’. They are the beings most strongly associated with agriculture and the produce of the land, and those ‘hollow hills’ in which they live are believed to be the entrances to their land of the ‘Fairy Folk’, sometimes called ‘Fairyland’. The ‘Good People’ were just as likely to be connected to mysterious, otherworldly islands that usually appeared in the West to fishermen but could never be reached, as they were to the hills and mounds of Ireland itself. (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In Irish lore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are everywhere. They live in the land, on the sea, and in the air. They are associated with the mounds and stone circles that litter the Irish landscape, as well as the multitude of watery places such as wells, springs, the sea and bogs, caverns, and strange swirls of wind, as well as specific trees, particularly lone Hawthorn trees.

Fairy Tree

It is also common belief in Ireland that the ‘Fairy Folk’ live in a parallel world to our own, into which mortals can accidentally enter through ‘Fairy Rings’. Although this other world may run in parallel to our own, time does not pass in the same way as it does in our mortal world. Tradition tells us that once a mortal enters this ‘Fairy Land’, there is almost no means of going back to their own world, and many Irish tales abound with stories concerning those people who were kidnapped by the ‘Fairy Folk’. Within these tales we can see that the concept of the ‘Fairy Land’ in Irish minds was just as complex as their beliefs about the ‘Fairy Folk’ that inhabited that land. On every occasion these ‘Fairy Lands’ were always described as being places of great beauty, wealth and peace. It is, therefore, not surprising to read in these stories that many mortals brought to such places did not want to leave until an overwhelming longing overtook them to see their families and homes. But, when these people did leave the ‘Fairy Land’ they would discover that hundreds of years had passed, and they would die and fade into dust as soon as they came in contact with mortality once again.

The ‘Good People’ are not confined just to their own realms, or the area around the entrances into those realms. Many stories reveal that they were able to go out into our world, occasionally appearing in local markets and fairs. Often, they would go unrecognized in such places, unless someone with the second sight saw them or they encountered someone who had previously dealt with them and still retained the ability to see them.

In the fairy lore of the Celts, the ‘Good People’ are described as being ruled by a monarchy and included a working class who were permitted to visit human markets and fairs in disguise, or were able to appear to farmers as people seeking to borrow something from them. When seen they were often riding on fine horses, coloured black, white or grey, and with hounds following. In older tales it is indicated that the deer in the forests are the cattle of the fairies.[3] But it is on the quarter days Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasa that the ‘Good People’ are said to be particularly active, moving from one hollow hill to another along long-established fairy roads. At Samhain and Bealtaine fairy influence is at its strongest and all mortals should take great care to avoid upsetting them. Bealtaine was known to be a time when the ‘Good People’ travelled the land, appearing as a stranger at the door of various houses asking for milk, or a coal from the fire. By giving these items to the ‘Good People’ it was said the household would have secured good luck for the year ahead. At Samhain, however, they are known to move from their summer to their winter homes in the hollow hills, and it is said that mortals face great danger if they come across them at night, for they are especially active between twilight and midnight. They travel in large bands and, although their parties are never seen in the daytime, there is little difficulty in following their line of march, for it has been reported that, “sure they make the most terrible little cloud of dust ever raised, and not a bit of wind causing it at all,” so that a fairy migration is sometimes the talk of the entire county.

The most malicious fairy host, an airborne tribe, are known to be most active at night, appearing as a wind that is very much feared by the country people. When this wind comes upon them the people avert their eyes from it and pray for safety, because they sometimes take people. These mortals are often taken great distances, where they may be kept forever, helping the ‘Good People’ as they carry out their mayhem and mischief throughout the country.

The ‘Fairy Folk’ are usually invisible to the eyes of mortal people, unless they wish for themselves to be seen, or the mortal has the gift of ‘second sight’. This ability to seem invisible is due to their power to deceive human senses by making one thing appear like another, such as making a handful of leaves being made to look like gold coins. Nevertheless, their movements along fairy paths and roads can be noticed by other means. The ‘Good People’ are known to ride out in procession, or ‘Fairy Raids’, which could prove to be dangerous to any mortal beings that they came across. As they ride out, they can create sudden whirlwinds or sudden blasts of wind, and they are known to present a threat to new brides, midwives and new-born babies.

The ‘Good People’ have the family relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and although it is said by some that fairy husbands and wives have as many little disagreements as are found in mortal households, “for, sure a woman’s tongue is longer than a man’s patience,” and “a husband is bound to be nagged incessantly day in and day out, for a woman’s jaw is sharpened on the devil’s grindstone,” yet opinions unfavourable to married happiness among the fairies are not generally well received. On the contrary, it is believed that married life in fairy circles is regulated on the basis of the absolute submission of the wife to the husband. This particular point was explained by a Donegal woman in this way, “They’re one, that’s the husband and the wife, but he’s more the one than she is.” Meanwhile, the love of children is one of the most prominent traits of fairy character, but as it manifests itself by stealing beautiful babes, replacing them by young ‘Leprechauns’ as changelings, the fairies are much dreaded by mothers along the west coast of Ireland, and they take many precautions against the ‘Fairy Folk’. Thefts of this kind now rarely occur, but at one time they were common, as “in them old days, you could see ten fairies where there isn’t one now, because they are leaving the country.

A notable case of baby stealing occurred in the family of Termon MacGrath, who had a castle, now in picturesque ruins, on the shore of Lough Erne, in the County Donegal. The person telling the story was a ‘wise woman’ who lived in what was an apology for a cabin. It was, indeed, a thatched shed that had been placed against the precipitous side of the glen almost beneath the castle. The wretched shelter was nearly concealed from view by the overhanging branches of a large tree and by thick undergrowth, and seemed unfit for a pig-sty, but, though her surroundings were poor beyond description, ‘Old Meg,’ as her neighbour said, “knew a great deal about fairies and witches and could keep them from a baby better than any woman that ever drew breath.” Giving her a bit of tobacco, to enable her to take a draw of the pipe, quickly brought out the story. “It’s many years ago, that Termon MacGrath went, with all his army, to the war in the County of Tyrone, and while he was gone the baby was born and they called her Eva. She was her mother’s first, so she felt mighty uneasy in her mind about her, knowing that the ‘Good People’ always go after the first one that comes, and even more when it’s a girl they try harder to steal than when it’s a boy, because they believe that they’re easier to rear, although it’s me that doesn’t believe that one girl makes more trouble than do ten boys and isn’t as good. So, when the baby was born they sent out for an old witch of a widow who had set herself up as a wise woman, and she knew no more about doctoring than a pig, but they thought she could keep away the fairies, and that’s a job that takes one who tries to have no end of knowledge in the fairy folk. But the poor old woman did the best that she knew how, and so, God be good to her, she wasn’t to be blamed for that. But it’s the likes of her that put shame on them that have great knowledge of such things, for they make people think all wise women as ignorant as she is, herself. So she made the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead with ashes, and she told them to bite off its nails and not to cut them until nine weeks had passed, and she held a burning candle before its eyes, so it would do the deeds of light and not of darkness, and mixed sugar and salt and oil, and gave it to her, so that her life would be sweet and long preserved and go smooth, but the old widow forgot one thing. She didn’t put a lucky shamrock, that’s got four leaves, in a gospel and tie it around the baby’s neck with a thread pulled out of her gown, and not remembering to do this, all the rest was no good at all. Nor did she tell the mother not to take her eyes off the child until the ninth day, for after that the fairies couldn’t take her. So the nurse took the baby into the next room and laid it on the bed, and went away for a minute, but thinking that she heard it cry, back she came and there was the baby, bedclothes and all just going through the floor, being dragged away by the fairies. The nurse scratched and caught the clothes and the maid helped her, so that the two of them pulled with all their might and got the bedclothes up again, but while the child was out of sight, the fairies changed it and put a fairy child in its place, but the nurse didn’t know what the fairies had done, nor had the old witch, that shows she was an ignorant woman entirely. But the fairies took Eva away under the lake where they treated her wonderfully. Every night they gave her a dance, with the loveliest music that was ever heard, with big drums and little drums, and fiddles and pipes and trumpets, for such a band the ‘Good People’ do have when they give a dance. So she grew and the queen said she should have a husband among the fairies, but she fell in love with an old Leprechaun, and the queen, to prevent such a thing, let her walk on the shore of the lake where she met Darby O’Hoolighan and loved him and married him with the queen’s consent. The queen told her to tell him if he struck her three blows without a reason, she’d leave him and come back to the fairies. The queen gave her a great number of riches, sheep and pigs without number and more oxen than you could count in a week. So, she and Darby lived together as happy as two doves, and she hadn’t as much care as a blind piper’s dog, moreover, they had two boys as good looking as their mother and as strong as their father.

“One day, after they’d been married seventeen years, she and Darby were going to a wedding, and she was slow, so Darby told her for to hurry and gave her a slap on the shoulder with the palm of his hand, and she began to cry. He asked her what was wrong with her and she told him he’d struck her the first of the three blows. So, he was very sorry and said he’d be careful in the future, but it wasn’t more than a year after, when he was teaching one of the boys to use a stick, that she got behind him and got hit with the shillelagh. That was the second blow, and made her lose her temper, and they had a real quarrel. So, he got mad, saying that neither of the blows ought to be counted, for they were both accidental. So, he flung the stick against the wall, ‘Devil take the stick,’ he said, and went out quick, and the stick fell back from the wall and hit her on the head. ‘That’s the third,’ she said, and she kissed her sons and walked out. Then she called the cows in the field and they left their grazing and followed her; she called the oxen in the stalls and they stopped eating and came out; and she spoke to the calf that was hanging in the yard, that they’d killed that morning and it got down and came along. The lamb that was killed the day before, it came; and the pigs that were salted and hanging up to dry, they came, all after her in a string. Then she called to her things in the house, and the chairs walked out, and the tables, and the chest of drawers, and the boxes, all of them put out legs like beasts and came along, with the pots and pans, and gridiron, and buckets, and noggins, leaving the house as bare as an evicted tenant’s, and all after her to the lake, where they went under and disappeared, and haven’t been seen by man to this blessed day.

“Now, there’s some that say the story isn’t true, because, they say how would a woman do such a thing and go off that a way and take everything she had, just because her husband hit her by accident those three times. But those who say it forget that she was a young woman, even if she did have those boys I was telling you about, and faith, it’s no lie I’m saying, that it’s not in the power of the angels of God to be knowing what a young woman will be doing. After they get old, and losing their teeth, and their beauty goes, then they’re sober and get over those notions; but it takes a long time to make an old one out of a young wan.

But she didn’t forget the boys she’d left, and once in a while she’d come to the edge of the lake when they were close by the bank and spoke with them, for even, if she was half a fairy, she’d a mother’s heart that the good God put in her bosom; and one time they saw her with little man along with her, that was a Leprechaun, as they knew by the look of him, and that makes me believe that the real reason for her leaving her husband was to get back the old Leprechaun she was in love with before she was married to Darby O’Hoolighan.”

The ‘Fairy Folk’ are known to have produced children with humans and in order to procreate they have a nasty habit of stealing a bride from her wedding to marry one of their own kind instead. At some later date they might even kidnap a midwife to assist the bride to deliver the child of her fairy husband. Their penchant for kidnapping new brides is believed to be a result of their low birth rate and the need to increase their population with human babies and women. There are some who mighty dispute this cause, but what other cause could there be for stealing brides and babies, for which they are famed.

Within Irish folklore there are ample stories concerning kidnapped midwives and musicians who are released back into their own world after an agreed time period. Normally, those mortals taken into the fairy realm can never return if the eat or drink anything while there, but this rule does not hold for those who are taken for a pre-determined time period. There are also stories of those who go to the ‘Good People’ for a single night of dancing and entertainment only to emerge the next morning to find that four, forty, or four hundred years have passed in the mortal world.

The fairies commonly made their homes only in raths and Tumuli of Pagan days in Ireland, and, for this reason, the raths are much dreaded, and after sundown are avoided by the ordinary peasant folk. Attempts have been made to remove some of these raths from the landscape, but the unwillingness of the local people to engage in the work, no matter what inducements may be offered to them, has generally resulted in the work being abandoned. It has been reported that on one of the islands in the Upper Lake of Killarney there is a rath, and the proprietor, finding it occupied too much ground, resolved to have it levelled to increase the arable surface of the field. The work was begun, but one morning, in the early dawn, as the laborers were crossing the lake on their way to the island, they saw a procession of about two hundred persons, dressed like monks, leave the island and proceed to the mainland, followed, as the workmen thought, by a long line of small, shining figures. The phenomenon might have been genuine, but a mirage is by no means an uncommon appearance in some parts of Ireland, nevertheless work on the rath was at once postponed indefinitely. Besides raths, old castles, deserted graveyards, ruined churches, secluded glens in the mountains, springs, lakes, and caves are all homes and resorts to fairies, as is very well known on Ireland’s west coast.

As we know, there are many fairy hills and raths that exist throughout the island of Ireland, and between them run fairy roads and paths which are also invisible to mortal eyes. It is traditional that people refuse to build on such roads and paths, because to do so will inevitably bring the builder bad-luck, and often death. It is not such a good idea to disturb the site of the ‘Good Peoples’’ home, and to dig into a fairy mound, or cut down a fairy tree, will certainly bring the disturber misfortune and, perhaps, death. Even in this modern, technologically advanced society that Ireland has become there is still a very strong belief in such things will participate in protests against many road plans if it interferes with fairy trees, raths or mounds. It is also a fact that heavy fines can be placed upon those people who would destroy or damage fairy mounds, even if they are on private property.

The ‘Good People’ can either bless or harm mortals with whom they come into contact, and their gifts could bring great blessings to those who receive them, or they can be simple illusions that become worthless by dawn. In the same way the ‘Fairy Wind’ can bring illness or cause injury to humans including a sudden cramp, or stitch that tradition says is caused by an invisible ‘shot’ from an arrow fired by a disgruntled fairy. In some cases, this ‘Fairy Shot’ might be used against cattle and would cause them to waste away after they are struck, but it was a power that could be granted to witches that are close to the ‘Good People.’ In fact, it was widely believed in Ireland that witches learned their magic arts, for good or bad, from the ‘Good People’ with whom they were believed to closely associate themselves. Such friends of the ‘Fairy Folk’ were, of course, privy taught special knowledge and things like magic and healing. A favoured musician, a harpist or piper, might be given greater skill or particularly good instrument. The main amusements of the fairies consist of music, dancing, and ball-playing. In music their skill exceeds that of men, while their dancing is perfect, the only drawback being the fact that it blights the grass, “fairy-rings” of dead grass, apparently caused by a peculiar fungous growth, being common in Ireland. Although their musical instruments are few, the fairies can use these few with wonderful skill. It is said that near Colooney, in County Sligo, there was a “Wise Woman,” whose grandmother’s aunt once witnessed a fairy ball, the music for which was furnished by an orchestra which the management had no doubt been at great pains and expense to secure and instruct. She stated, “It was the cutest sight alive. There was a place for them to stand on, and a wonderful big fiddle of the size you could sleep in it, that was played by a monstrous frog, and two little fiddles, that two kittens fiddled on, and two big drums, beaten by cats, and two trumpets, played by fat pigs. All around the fairies were dancing like angels, the fireflies giving them light to see by, and the moonbeams shining on the lake, for it was by the shore it was, and if you don’t believe it, the glen’s still there, that they call the ‘Fairy Glen’ to this day.”

Fairy Ring

The fairies do much singing, usually in chorus, and their songs were formerly more frequently heard than they are today. Even now a belated peasant, who has been at a wake, or is coming home from a fair, in passing a rath will sometimes hear the soft strains of their voices in the distance, and will hurry away before they discover his presence and be angry at the unwelcome intrusion on their privacy. When in unusually good spirits they will sometimes admit a mortal to their celebrations, but should he speak, the scene at once vanishes, he becomes insensible, and generally finds himself by the roadside the next morning, “with that degree of pains in his arms and legs and back, that if sixteen thousand devils were after him, he couldn’t move a toe to save his own soul, that’s what the fairies do by pinching and punching him for coming on them and speaking out loud.”

As previously stated, they might appear as a stranger seeking to borrow something, needing milk or coal from the fire, or be encountered alone in a field or wood, or on a road. Those mortals brave enough to seek them out might choose to sleep on fairy mounds, or raths, or rings, in the knowledge that it would result in either a blessing or madness.

Thankfully, there are a variety of charms to protect us against the ‘Fairy Folk’, which are far too numerous to get into any depth with here. One example of these is – to keep a new mother and her baby safe from the ‘fairies’ they would be given milk from a cow who had eaten a ‘bog-violet’ (mothan). A charm to force a fairy host into releasing anyone they may have taken is to throw the dust from the road, an iron knife, or your left shoe at them and say, “This is yours; that is mine!” (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In those cases where a person is suffering from a bad fairy spell or curse, a ‘Fairy Doctor’ must be found, who is a person who has special knowledge of the fairies. These ‘Doctors’ are able to diagnose the exact cause and produce the appropriate charm, chant, or herb that will cure the unfortunate victim. Farmers, meanwhile, would tie a red ribbon on their cattle or horses as a means of keeping fairies away. Some would tie a rowan twig on to a cow’s tail, or lightly strike the animals with rowan or hazel switches to achieve the same aim. Just as rowan and red thread is known to protect things from fairies, there are other well-known protections, such as anything that is made of iron.

A means of maintaining good relations with the ‘Fairy Folk’ is to offer the gifts such as milk, butter, and bread left by the doorway, or at the roots of a ‘Fairy Tree’, as well as a small amount of whatever one is drinking poured out onto the ground. In some instances, milk might be thrown in the air for the fairies or butter buried near a bog as an offering to them. On holy days, it was customary for some people to offer a heavy porridge that was poured into a hole in the earth, or bread which could be left out, or tossed over the shoulder. Among other people it was customary, on Beltaine, to bleed live cattle and offer the blood collected to the fairies. These days people still make offerings to the ‘Good People’ in certain parts of Ireland which include milk, cream, bread or other baked goods, honey, and portions of meals, as well as alcohol.

In conclusion, it must be pointed out that there appears to be a long standing and complex association between the ‘Fairy Folk’ and the dead. In fact, the dead often appear among the ranks of the ‘Good People’, especially the newly dead. There is also evidence to suggest that better class of fairies are fond of human society and often act as guardians to those they love. In parts of Donegal and Galway they are believed to receive the souls of the dying and escort them to the gates of heaven although they are not allowed to enter with them. On this account, fairies love graves and graveyards, having often been seen walking to and fro among the grassy mounds. There are, indeed, some accounts of faction fights among the fairy bands at or shortly after a funeral, the question in dispute being whether the soul of the departed belonged to one or the other faction.

There are many stories within Irish folklore that feature someone seeing a person whom they thought to be dead. This is often explained by saying that the person in question had not died but was taken by the ‘Fairy Folk’ and a ‘Changeling’ left behind, which was buried in the person’s name. In many stories a person is believed to have died but appears, often in a dream, to a loved one and explains that they have been taken into ‘Fairy Land’ and can only be rescued in a certain way .This rescue plan usually involves the living person going to a crossroads at midnight when the ‘Fairy Raid’ will pass by and grabbing their loved one from the horse he or she is riding.

Giving honour and offerings to the ‘Fairy Folk’ is an important aspect of an Irish folklore customs and are traditions that we would all do well to continue in our modern, scientifically and technologically advanced world. The more kindly fairies often take great pleasure in assisting those who treat them with proper respect, and as the favours always take a practical form, there is sometimes a business value in the show of reverence for them. There was Barney Noonan, of the County Leitrim, for instance, who was described “And no better boy was in the county than Barney. He’d work as regular as a pump and liked a bit of a diversion as well as anybody when he had time for it. That, wasn’t often, to be sure, but he couldn’t be blamed for that, for he wasn’t rich enough by no manner of means to be celebrating regularly. He’d a great regard for the ‘Good People’, and when he went be the rath beyond his field, he’d pull off his cap and take the clay pipe out of his mouth, as polite as a dancing master, and say, ‘God save you, ladies and gentlemen,’ that the ‘Good People’ always heard though they never showed themselves to him. He had a bit of bog land, that the hay was on, and after cutting it, he left it to dry, and the sun came out beautiful and, in a day or so, the hay was as dry as powder and ready to put away. “So Barney was going to put it up, but, it being the day of the fair, he thought he’d take the calf and sell it, and so he did, and coming up with the boys, he stayed over his time, being hindered with the drinking and dancing and chatting-up the girls, so it was after dark when he got home and the night as black as a crow, the clouds gathering on the tops of the mountains like evil spirits and creeping down into the glens like angels of destruction, and the wind howling like ten thousand Banshees, but Barney didn’t mind it all, being stupefied with the drink he’d had. So the hay never entered the head of him, but in he went and tumbled in bed and was snoring like a horse in two minutes, for he was a bachelor, God bless him, and had no wife to nag him and ask him where he’d been, and what he’d been at, and make him tell a hundred lies about not getting home before. So, it came on to thunder and lightning like all the evil demons in the universe were fighting with cannons in the sky, and by and by there was a clap loud enough to split your skull and Barney woke up.

“‘Damn it,’ says he to himself, ‘it’s going to rain and me hay on the ground. What will I do?’ says he. “So, he rolled over on the bed and looked out of a crack for to see if it was really raining. And there was the biggest crowd he had ever seen of little men and women. They’d built a row of fires from the cow-house to the bog and were coming in a string like the cows going home, each one with his two arms full of hay. Some were in the cow-house, receiving the hay; some were in the field, raking the hay together; and some were standing with their hands in their pockets as if they were the bosses, telling the rest for to make haste. And so, they did, for every one run like he was going for the doctor, and brought a load and hurried back for more.

“Barney looked through the crack at them, crossing himself every minute with admiration for the speed they had. ‘God be good to me,’ says he to himself, ‘It is not every young man in Leitrim that’s got haymakers like them,’ only he never spoke a word out loud, for he knew very well the ‘Good People’ wouldn’t like it. So, they brought in all the hay and put it in the house and then let the fires go out and made another big fire in front of the door and began to dance round it with the sweetest music Barney had ever heard.

Now by this time he’d got up and feeling easy in his mind about the hay, began to be very merry. He looked on through the door at them dancing, and by and by they brought out a jug with little tumblers and began to drink something that they poured out of the jug. If Barney had the sense of a herring, he’d have kept still and let them drink their fill without opening the big mouth on him, being that he was as full as a goose himself and needed no more; but when he saw the jug and the tumblers and the fairies drinking away with all their might, he got mad and bellowed out like a bull, ‘A-a-h now, you little skites, is it drinking you are, and never giving a sup to a thirsty mortal that always treats you as well as he knows how,’ and immediately the fairies, and the fire, and the jug all went out of his sight, and he went to bed again in a temper. While he was lying there, he thought he heard talking and a secret revelry going on, but when he peeped out again, not a thing did he see but the black night and the rain coming down and each drop would fill a water glass. So, he went to sleep, contented that the hay was in, but not pleased that the ‘Good People’ would be pigs entirely, to be drinking under his eyes and not offer him a taste, no, not so much as a smell of the jug.

“In the morning up he gets and out to look at the hay and see if the fairies put it in right, for he says, ‘It’s a job they’re not used to.’ So, he looked in the cow-house and thought his eyes would leave him when there wasn’t a straw in the house at all. ‘Holy Moses,’ says he, ‘what have they done with it?’ and he couldn’t conceive what had happened to the hay. So he looked in the field and it was all there; bad luck to the bit of it had the fairies left in the house at all, but when he shouted at them, they got very angry and took all the hay back again to the bog, putting every straw where Barney laid it, and it was as wet as a drowned cat. But it was a lesson to him he never forgot, and I’ll guarantee you that the next time the fairies help him in with his hay he’ll keep still and let them drink themselves to death if they please without saying a word.” We should not forget or turn our backs on the ‘Fairy Realm’ that has existed side by side with our own for so many centuries. Honouring the ‘Fairy Folk’ prevents ill-luck befalling us and can bring us good luck and blessings. More importantly it helps us to create a reciprocal relationship between us and the ‘Fairy Folk’ that is based on respect and friendship. Nevertheless, it is never a bad idea to know the signs of fairy trouble and how to protect yourself against them or find a ‘Fairy Doctor’ or Wise Woman to help you.

But we must remember that the fairies are by no means so numerous these days as they used to be. It is said their demise began with the rapid spread of National Schools and Father Mathew’s Temperance movement throughout Ireland, for it is known “they hate learning and wisdom and are lovers of nature.” In a few remote districts, where the schools scarce, the ‘Good People’ are still to be found, and their doings are told to us with a childlike faith in the power of these first inhabitants of Ireland, for it seems to be agreed among many researchers that they were in the country long before the coming either of the Gael, or of the English oppressor. So it is, that we mortals humans have a long and complex relationship with the ‘Fairy Folk’ and we must always remember that they are just as present today as they have ever been.

[1] Wedin, W., The Sí, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats’s Early Works, 1998.

[2] O hOgain, D., The Lore of Ireland, 2006.

[3] O hOgain, D., The Lore of Ireland, 2006.

The Witches of Islandmagee

A Story of County Antrim

The story of the ‘The Witches of Islandmagee’ is a strange tale, which has become very famous in the history and folklore of Ireland. It’s a story is located on the small Islandmagee peninsula, that lies along the east coast of County Antrim, and it is famed for being the last recorded witch trial held in Ireland. Although a witchcraft statute had been passed in Ireland in 1586, the record shows that not too many actual witch trials were conducted in any areas of the land. In fact, the record shows that only three witch trials were held, in which eleven individuals were accused of the crime of witchcraft. It is, however, the Islandmagee witch trial that stands out among them all because of the intensity of feeling it caused in a small, tightly knit community that numbered some three-hundred people of Scots-Presbyterian descent.

During the time of the ‘Tudor Plantation’ in Ireland Scottish Protestants, mostly from the Scottish Lowlands were encouraged to take up land that the crown had confiscated from Irish lords that had risen in rebellion. Among these new Scots-Presbyterian settlers there was a widely held belief in the existence of witchcraft, and they brought their superstitious ideas with them to Ireland. In Scotland, the hunting and destruction of witches was far more widespread than that carried out in England. In fact, Scotland was widely recognised as being one of the most vicious anti-witch countries in Europe. There was a total of approximately 3,800 people prosecuted in the Scottish courts, and more than three-quarters of these were put to death by strangling and/or burning. In England, and so by extension in Ireland, however, there was ‘Common Law’, which meant that those convicted in those courts of witchcraft could only be hanged. In Ireland, such trials were few in number, but there is an account of a trial that was held among the English ‘Planter’ community that lived in the Youghal area of County Cork, during 1661. Fifty years later, in March 1711, eight women were taken into custody and brought before the court at Carrickfergus, Co.Antrim. The subsequent trial was a major sensation at the time, shocking everyone when all eight women were found guilty of the demonic possession of the body, mind, and spirit of a local teenage girl. The judgment levied on them was that they were put in the stocks, where the public could throw stones and rotten fruit at them, prior to them being taken to serve a year in jail.

Witches and witchcraft had always been an integral part of Irish folklore, but the image portrayed by the folklore tales was that of a witch that was non-threatening to ordinary mortals. We have all heard the stories that tell us about witches stealing the ability for churning milk into butter, or other tales saying that they had the power to turn themselves into hares and steal the butter that had already been made. It was, however, the Scottish ‘Planters’ who brought their beliefs about witches to Ireland, introducing the witch as a malicious, expert in magic that was extremely dangerous to ordinary mortals. Thankfully, the ‘Trial of the Islandmagee Witches’ was well recorded by the authorities and the media of the day, which has provided modern researchers with ample primary historical resources to aid their studies. These include statements from the trial of the main characters, copies of newspaper articles at the time, pamphlets that were produced, letters, correspondence and legal depositions from witnesses. From all these documents it has been discovered that the origins of the case can be traced back to the previous year, 1710.

We are told that it was in 1710, that a young 18-year-old girl called Mary Dunbar arrived in Islandmagee from her home in Castlereagh, which lay at the edge of Belfast. It is suggested that the young girl had come to stay and help in the home of her cousin, Mrs. James Haltridge, whose mother-in-law had recently died. At the time of the woman’s death, it was alleged that her passing had been brought about through the black arts of witchcraft. Witnesses further alleged that Mary soon began to show signs that she, herself, had been possessed by an evil demon. These signs included Mary issuing threats to people, shouting, swearing, blaspheming, and throwing Bibles everywhere. On those occasions when a clergyman approached her to help, Mary would suddenly be overcome by violent fits, accompanied by vomiting various household articles, such as pins, buttons, nails, glass, and wool. In her statement to the court, Mary Dunbar claimed to have seen eight women appearing to her in spectral form, and this evidence alone would prove to very important at the trial. ‘Spectral evidence’ was a tactic used by the prosecution lawyers in cases, where the possessed person claims to have seen and been attacked by the witches, which then caused his or her possession in spectral form.  This sort of evidence had been common in England in earlier trials but, by the time of the Islandmagee case, this type of evidence was rarely used because it had become less and less convincing in witch trials. ‘Spectral Evidence’ would, nevertheless, become one of the main proofs of guilt that were brought against the eight women in the trial of 1711. The main problem about such proof was that Mary would have been the only person to have seen this spectral possession occur. But Mary Dunbar was a relative stranger to this area, and she would never have seen any of these women before. However, this evidence was sworn to be true by her, and the trial jury in Carrickfergus chose to believe her. There were other types of ‘proof’ offered by the prosecution, of course, including their apparent inability to say, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. And the authorities went even further to prove their case against the women by setting up a form of the identity parade, in which Mary Dunbar was blindfolded while a line of women came in to touch her. It was believed that the demoniac would go into terrible fits if he or she was touched by a witch, and Dunbar apparently succeeded in picking out the eight women that she had claimed to have bewitched and attacked her in spectral form.

Alongside the witness testimony, the character of the accused women themselves was also important in them being convicted. These women were all from the margins of society in the small community and were suffering from an impoverished life. It is said that some of them claimed to possess some form of witches’ craft. But, in Irish folklore, there was the character of “The Wise Woman”, who knew about love potions, healing plants, and various natural remedies that the people of their community sought. They were not witches in the true sense of the word but would have been readily accused of witchcraft by some. This was especially true in an age when the widespread belief was that a witch looked like a wizened old crone, much like the image we have of witches today, and these eight women apparently fitted that description.

In small villages and towns, the reputation of a person, or a family, is always well known. If a person had a less than perfect reputation and some act of misfortune happened within the community, then that person and his family would be suspected and even accused of being the guilty party. In this case, the misfortune that had occurred was the bewitching of Mary Dunbar, and some of these women already had the reputation of using witchcraft. Moreover, these women appeared to fall short of the ideals of womanhood espoused by others, which helped to fuel the suspicions of them being witches. Several of the women, for instance, were accused of drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and swearing, none of which met the expected requirements for being considered a lady. On the other hand, Mary Dunbar was an intelligent, attractive young lady from a good family.

There is no record of what happened to Mary Dunbar or the eight women after the trial in Carrickfergus. Unfortunately, the public records office that held many Church of Ireland records was burned down during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923). According to the Act of 1586, the eight women would have been put in prison for a year and pilloried four times on market days for a first offense. However, we have no knowledge what happened to any of them after their sentence was served, for they simply disappeared from the historical records. As for Mary Dunbar, it is widely considered that she had made the entire thing up, for some reason or another. After all, she was not the first demoniac in England and Scotland to do such a thing and, being an intelligent young woman, such precedents would have provided her with an excellent example to follow.

Prime examples of misleading evidence were seen during the witch hunts and trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and in Scotland in 1697, where an eleven-year-old girl called Christian Shaw, who was the daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, complained that she was being tormented by a group of local witches. She said that these witches included one of her family’s servants, Catherine Campbell, whom she had reported to her mother after witnessing her steal a drink of milk. As a result of Christian’s statements Seven people (Margaret Lang, John Lindsay, James Lindsay, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Fulton, and Agnes Naismith) were found guilty of having bewitched the child and were subsequently condemned to death. One of this group went on to hang himself in his prison cell. It is also believed that Agnes Naismith may also have died while she was imprisoned. The remaining five accused were hanged, and their bodies burned on the ‘Gallow Green’ in Paisley on 10th June 1697. This proved to be the last mass execution of ‘witches’ in western Europe.

It is very likely that Mary Dunbar had learned the part of a demoniac from accounts she had heard or read about events in Salem or, more likely, Scotland, from where people were pouring into the ‘Ulster Plantation’ at this time. Maybe she sought fame or was simply doing the same thing that she is accusing others of doing. But, because it would not be considered her fault, there would be no moral responsibility attached to her actions. And, because she claims that it is someone else who is doing these things to her, she can comfortably break the type of behavioural constraints that were placed upon her as a female at the time.

As far as seeking fame is concerned, Mary Dunbar was a stranger in that community and may have felt that she was invisible and undervalued. She may have seen her accusations as being an opportunity to make herself visible in that community and her cousin’s family, as well as being able to act in ways that would normally be socially unacceptable. Whatever Dunbar’s reasons, it seems incredible to modern society that she should have succeeded. While it is easy to dismiss the people of that time as being blatantly ignorant, or disastrously superstitious, we must understand how things were in those days. Dunbar’s accusations made complete sense to the people, especially when they are supported by members of the clergy and the medical professions. In fact, doctors were called in to examine Mary Dunbar’s condition and concluded that her condition did not have physical causes but was due to supernatural influences.

Although the ‘Islandmagee Case’ was the last witch trial to be held in Ireland, there continues to be a belief in witches and witchcraft. There may have been no further prosecutions in Ireland for witchcraft since 1711, the Act of 1586 continued to be on the statute books until 1821, when it was finally repealed. There is little doubt that some cases did make it to the court, but the judges of the day would reject them because they were better educated and did not believe in such superstitions. There remains some belief in such things, with ‘Fairy Doctors’ and ‘Wise Women’ being asked to cure ‘fairy attacks’, and to perform traditional rites to remove curses and bewitchments. Such people are very small in number, compared to many years ago, but they are a sign that belief in witchcraft is not yet dead in Ireland.

The Lough Swilly Tragedy

A few years ago, I happened to be spending a long weekend in Donegal when I heard the story of ‘HMS Saldanha’. She was a 36-gun ‘Apollo-class’ frigate of the British Royal Navy, which was launched in 1809 and was commissioned in April 1810 and placed under the command of Captain John Stuart, who remained in command until his death on 19th March 1811. Captain Reuben Mangin took temporary command of the ship during the Spring of 1811. Finally, the ship was assigned to Captain William Pakenham’s and its short career came to an end when it was wrecked on the rocky west coast of Ireland in 1811.
Earlier, on 11th October 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ and ‘HMS Fortune’ combined to take the French privateer ‘Vice-Amiral Martin’. The French ship carried 18 guns and a crew of 140 men, and it was on its fourth day out of Bayonne and was yet to encounter a British merchantman. It was reported that the French privateer had superior sailing abilities to most ships of her size, which had in the past helped her to escape pursuing British cruisers. In a subsequent report it was stated that though each of the British ships was doing at least 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph), the enemy privateer would have escaped only for the fact that there were two British vessels involved.

Along the North-western coast of Ireland lies Lough Swilly, a glacial fjord that cuts into the Donegal coastline between the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula and the Fanad Peninsula. It is considered a safe harbour for ships and is famed far and wide for the beauty of its scenery. However, although once inside the lough itself, the anchorage is safe, the entrance to the Lough is considered by many to be a very difficult and dangerous passage. The coast being here is known as being “iron-bound”, with several treacherous reefs of rocks lying near the shore, or partially covered by the sea. The present-day entrance to Lough Swilly has two lighthouses to protect it, with one on Fanad Point, and the other on Dunree Head. The various reefs and shoals in the entrance are well-marked by buoys, which today make the entrance to the Lough a much safer passage than it had been during the days when ‘HMS Saldanha’ was moored there.

Lough Swilly

In the latter part of 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ under the command of Captain Packenham, was stationed in Lough Swilly as a naval guardship, alongside the sloop-of-war, ‘HMS Talbot’. Their usual anchorage was off the little village of Buncrana, and occasionally the ships would weigh anchor to undertake a short cruise around the coast of the County Donegal for a few days. Their crews had been stationed in the Lough for such a long time that several officers had brought their wives to reside in the village of Buncrana. There were, of course, one or two of the officers and several of the men who had married local ladies, and all of them had gained the friendship and regard of the local gentry and may of the inhabitants of the surrounding area.

Early on the morning of the 30th of November the ‘Saldanha’ and the ‘Talbot’ left their moorings off Buncrana for a three days’ cruise around the coast. However, although the morning was fine and bright, just afternoon the weather became dark and threatening. Before that short November day closed, a great storm had rolled in from the Atlantic Ocean spilling its anger over both sea and land. Local folklore still recalls that terrible storm as the ‘Saldanha Storm,’ and there are many sad stories recounted of hearts that raced with anxiety and strained eyes that tried to peer through blinding spray and rain for the lights of the returning ships.

It was nearer to the mouth of Lough Swilly, on the shore opposite Buncrana, close to Ballymastocker Bay that those lights were seen at last. Along that shoreline the Fanad people gathered in great numbers, knowing that the bay hid a very dangerous reef of rocks, and upon them, the ‘Saldanha’ was Shipwrecked on the night of 4th December 1811. There are no reports any effort was made to save the doomed vessel and, officially there were no survivors out of the estimated 253 crew aboard the ship, with approximately 200 bodies being subsequently washed up on the shoreline at Ballymastocker Bay.

There are stories saying that one of the crew did make it to the shore alive, but the stories also tell of the ‘wild people’ (local wreckers) placing him across a horse, after giving him a draught of whiskey. The stories are unclear as to whether this was done in ignorance or in order to ensure he would die. Many bodies came continued to come ashore from time to time and were buried with great reverence in the old churchyard of Rathmullan, where the grave and a monument can still be seen.

Initial reports on the events in Lough Swilly that stormy night suggested that ‘HMS Talbot’ had also been wrecked, but it transpired that these reports were mistaken. The winter storms that swept through the Lough caused parts of the sunken wreck of the ‘Saldanha’ to come to the surface and be forced on to the yellow sands of Ballymastocker Bay. In the August of the following year, it was said that a servant in a big house some twenty miles from the wreck site shot a bird, which turned out to be a parrot with a collar, on which was engraved “Captain Packenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha.” Then, as the years passed by, further storms would leave fragments of the ship’s planks and various personal items belonging to the crew strewn across the shoreline. On the night of the 6th-7th January 1839, there was another fierce and destructive storm, similar to that which the locals had called ‘The Saldanha Storm.’ On the morning of the 7th January, when the coastguards conducted their patrols of the bay’s shoreline, they recorded that the entire bay was strewn from end to end broken beams, timbers, and chests; All that remained of that doomed ship.

One interesting story from that time tells us that one of the coastguards searching the shore found a small worked case that ladies called a ‘thread-paper’, and he brought it to the wife of his commanding officer. The little case was beautifully made and still contained some loosely coiled and knotted lengths of silken yarn and a few rusty needles. On the back of the ‘thread-paper’ were embroidered three initials, lovingly created by the hand of the woman who had presented it to a member of the ‘Saldanha’ crew.

Over twenty years after the case had been found the lady to whom it had been given, now a widow returned to live in Scotland. While taking a few days holiday in the country-house of some friends in the south of the country, the lady began to converse with a young man who was also a guest at the same house. The lady and young man began to talk about Ireland, Donegal, and the wonderful scenery to be found there. At one stage of the conversation Lough Swilly was mentioned and this sparked the young man’s interest. He asked some questions about the area and then disclosed that his mother had lost a brother in the Lough many years before, having gone down with the wreck of the ‘Saldanha.’ The widow told all that she knew concerning the ‘Saldanha’ incident and revealed to the young man that she had a relic of the ship in her workbox. She took out the ‘thread-paper’ and, asking the name of the young man’s uncle, found that the name agreed with the three initials embroidered on the little case.

When the young gentleman told her that his uncle had been a midshipman on board the ill-fated ‘Saldanha’, and that he was his mother’s favourite brother, the widow woman put the small thread case into his hand. As she did this, the lady explained how she had come into possession of the case and told him, “Take that home to your mother, show it to her, and ask her if she had ever seen it before. If she should recognise it, she is very welcome to keep it. But if it did not belong to her brother you can return it to me.” The young man left the house the next morning and went home. A few days later, however, he wrote to the widowed lady and told her that his mother had immediately recognised the case as being her own work, which she had given to her beloved brother when he had last left home. It was a relic of a person loved and lost and he thanked the lady for restoring it to his mother after fifty long years. Although small and of no intrinsic value, this little case had been kept and returned to its original owner as though it had been some precious family jewel.

The World’s Changes

By an unknown Irish Poet.

The Solemn Shadow that bears in his hands

The conquering Scythe and the Glass of Sands,

Paused once on his flight where the sunrise shone

On a warlike city’s towers of stone;

And he asked of a panoplied soldier near,

“How long has this fortressed city been here?”

And the man looked up, Man’s pride on his brow—

“The city stands here from the ages of old

And as it was then, and as it is now,

So will it endure till the funeral knell

Of the world be knolled,

As Eternity’s annals shall tell.

And after a thousand years were o’er,

The Shadow paused over the spot once more.

And vestige was none of a city there,

But lakes lay blue, and plains lay bare,

And the marshalled corn stood high and pale,

And a Shepherd piped of love in a vale.

“How!” spake the Shadow, “can temple and tower

Thus fleet, like mist, from the morning hour?”

But the Shepherd shook the long locks from his brow—

“The world is filled with sheep and corn;

Thus was it of old, thus is it now,

Thus, too, will it be while moon and sun

Rule night and morn,

For Nature and Life are one.”

And after a thousand years were o’er,

The Shadow paused over the spot once more.

And lo! in the room of the meadow-lands

A sea foamed far over saffron sands,

And flashed in the noontide bright and dark,

And a fisher was casting his nets from a bark;

How marvelled the Shadow!

“Where then is the plain?

And where be the acres of golden grain?”

But the fisher dashed off the salt spray from his brow—

“The waters begirdle the earth always,

The sea ever rolled as it rolleth now:

What babblest thou about grain and fields?

By night and day Man looks for what Ocean yields.”

And after a thousand years were o’er,

The Shadow paused over the spot once more.

And the ruddy rays of the eventide

Were gilding the skirts of a forest wide;

The moss of the trees looked old, so old!

And valley and hill, the ancient mould

Was robed in sward, an evergreen cloak;

And a woodman sang as he felled an oak.

Him asked the Shadow—“Rememberest thou

Any trace of a Sea where wave those trees?”

But the woodman laughed: Said he, “I trow,

If oaks and pines do flourish and fall,

It is not amid seas;—The earth is one forest all.”

And after a thousand years were o’er,

The Shadow paused over the spot once more.

And what saw the Shadow? A city agen,

But peopled by pale mechanical men,

With workhouses filled, and prisons, and marts,

And faces that spake exanimate hearts.

Strange picture and sad! was the Shadow’s thought;

And, turning to one of the Ghastly, he sought

For a clue in words to the When and the How

Of the ominous Change he now beheld;

But the man uplifted his care-worn brow—“Change?

What was Life ever but Conflict and Change?

From the ages of eld

Hath affliction been widening its range.”

Enough! said the Shadow, and passed from the spot

At last it is vanished, the beautiful youth

Of the earth, to return with no To-morrow;

All changes have checquered Mortality’s lot;

But this is the darkest—for Knowledge and Truth

Are but golden gates to the Temple of Sorrow!

Ireland’s ‘Holy Wells’

The Sacred Water Tradition of Ireland.

Any observer of Irish history must be reminded by the ruins of castles and abbeys, scattered throughout this nation, of the manner in which the poor of this land were continually exploited by their rulers. In his poem, ‘The Holy Wells’ the nationalist poet John de Jean Frazer argues that one thing cannot be stolen from those poor, and that is the water from a spring. He writes –

                “And while night, noon, or morning meal no other plenty brings,

                No beverage than the water-draught from old, spontaneous springs;

                They, sure, may deem them holy wells, that yield from day to day,

                One blessing which no tyrant hand can taint, or take away.”

                                                                        (Hayes, Ballads of Ireland, P6)

He is praising the power of nature that, alone, sustains the poor and calls these springs, ‘Holy Wells’, and, thereby, links them to a popular religious practice by making them cultural objects. In the Ireland of Frazer’s day, the mid nineteenth century, religion, politics and economics are inseparable, since political authority, the historical suppression of Catholicism, and the control of the land were all by-products of Britain’s rule. In those days the ‘Holy Wells’ were not just places of spiritual sustenance, but also acted as sites of political resistance. Because the ‘Holy Wells’ are frequently found in the ruins of religious sites make them a part of Irish history and, therefore, a symbol of native Irish spirituality and their unquenchable spirit of freedom.

These ‘Holy Wells’ are often dedicated to unofficial and territorial ‘saints’ and preside over magical and wondrous landscapes that incorporate prehistoric sites, sacred trees, and stones as ‘stations’ for prayer. The structured visitations by devotees to these ‘stations’, moreover, were usually accompanied by liturgies that were unique to the physical attributes of each site. These visitations are commonly known as “Paying the Rounds” or “Rounding”, and in practice go against the views normally held concerning the process of pilgrimage.

Holy Well

A ‘Holy Well’ is a water source, most usually a spring, which is a site of religious devotion. These devotional sites may also take the form of a pond, or an entire lake, and are dedicated to an Irish saint. The devotees who visit these sacred sites believe that these waters have been blessed by this saint with a cure for a particular ailment such as, tuberculosis, whooping-cough, and sore eyes. ‘Holy Wells’, however, are not peculiar to Ireland since, in our world, the daily human’s need for water has encouraged a worldwide form of idolatry, and ‘Sacred Wells’ and springs can be found in every continent among a wide variety of cultures and faiths. Water, throughout the ages of the world, has been considered to be the source all possible existence and it is no surprise that early man venerated the sources of water. In Irish bogs, coastal wetlands, lakes and rivers there have been discoveries of stone-like material and human remains apparently deposited there as votive offerings to ancestral spirits, or the Gods. Votive offerings dating from the Iron Age in Ireland have been found at various ‘Holy Wells’ in current use, one of which is St. Anne’s Well at Randalstown, County Meath. (Raftery 1994;182f., 213).

The traditions around sacred water sources in Ireland had been in existence for many centuries prior to the arrival of Christianity, which quickly amalgamated these into Christian rituals which were peculiar to the native Irish. Early Christian missionaries encompassed the traditional beliefs of the people into their teachings and used pagan places of pilgrimage, including ‘Holy Wells’ and ‘Sacred Trees’, as centres for the new faith. In this manner the sacredness of sites and the desire of the native people to access their supernatural power through votive gifts continued unchanged. The sacred places retained their strong religious and spiritual qualities, which continued to inspire, while the presiding spirit now became and intercessor with the Christian God. Ireland continues to be unusual in Europe, in that visitation to ‘Holy Wells’ remains a regular part of Catholic parish life. Although this activity is not as common as it was forty years ago, each county in Ireland has ‘Holy Wells’ that continue to be sites of individual devotion and annual ‘Patterns’ (Patron Days), when the local communities gather for a well-side Mass to honour the saint associated with that well. It is also an opportunity for each person to identify with and renew their membership of that local community.

“The Rounds”

The visitation to ‘Holy Wells’ involves the devotee performing folk liturgies, or ‘Rounds’, which are prayers and other actions that are undertaken in a set order, and from which the pilgrim should not deviate. These practices are accepted by the pilgrims as being effective in obtaining the desired result because generations have repeated them, who would not have done if there was no successful conclusion.Although they may lack official sanction from the religious authorities, these folk liturgies often take place in the open air and are considered as being a means to grace (sacramental). For the most part the folk liturgies are highly structured and are much more focused on ‘magic and mystery’ than the official practices because, in these liturgies the ordinary people are able to express their understanding of venerating the saints and other blessed persons, pilgrimages, shrines, holy days, and religious assistance to the deceased. So, unsurprisingly, almost every organised faith has folk rituals that exist alongside, and occasionally in contravention of, what the official religious practitioners approve. These rituals, however, affirm the faith in the cultural context of a person’s community, family, or life experience. But place-specific ‘Rounding’ traditions at the ‘Holy Wells’ encourages the continued veneration of ‘Saints in the Irish Tradition’ who were never officially canonised, but whose stories and sacred landscapes add to local popular belief in the divine.

A proper visitation may require a devotee to make certain preliminary movements around the ‘Stations’, while reciting a set number of prayers in a prescribed order unique to the site. While individual prayer is usually considered to be non-liturgical, those individual devotees ‘Rounding the Stations’ are performing a folk liturgy. Praying at each ‘station’ and then at the well, or saying one set of prescribed prayers while walking around the well, constitutes one ’round’ in the pilgrimage. A single ’round’ might be sufficient for devotees engaged in meditative prayer, or a daily spiritual exercise, while those who pray for a special intention or specific petition might be required to undertake multiple ’rounds’. ‘Doing the Rounds’, therefore, can take hours to complete, or may be fulfilled in part on successive shorter visits. In these ways a ‘payment’ of prayers can be offered by a devotee to the well’s presiding saint in thanksgiving for interceding on the supplicant’s behalf, or directly to God. After these folk liturgies are completed they usually approach the well and may drink from the water, normally three sips, or dip their fingers in the water and bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, flicking the water around their bodies three times in the name of the Trinity, or anointing an ailing portion of the body. If, after performing the rounds, one sees a fish in the well it is taken as a sign that their request will be answered favourably.

“The Stations and The Pattern”

The Pattern

The ‘Rounding’ process is also known as ‘The Pattern’ and the course that a devotee follows is known in Irish as “An turas” (a journey or a pilgrimage). ‘Stations’ may take a variety of forms and trees are often used as ‘Stations’ because they are traditionally considered ‘sacred’ by the local community since time immemorial. The most common of well-side trees, the ‘Whitethorn’ (Hawthorn), Ash and Holly, are often called ‘Rag Trees’ because they receive rags and ribbons on their branches both as votive offerings and as ‘containers’ for the illness or anxiety that brought the devotee to the sacred site. These trees have come to perform the sacrificial act of bearing the devotees’ concerns, and further enabling the ‘Holy Well’ to offer them grace. To many the well-side tree is considered a ‘Station of Riddance’ in contrast to the giving waters of the well where the devotees linger for a while. Because ribbons or cloths, or other votives, tied or hung to the trees are thought to be the storage places of the angst and disease brought by devotees, and many well visitors are very careful not to touch those of others when they leave their own.

‘Stations’ may also include pre-Christian monuments such as megalithic court tombs, Ogham stones, or unusually formed stones. ‘Bullauns’, which are considered to be stone querns from the ‘Bronze Age’, also serve as ‘stations’ and are often called ‘wells’ themselves because they can hold rainwater and dew. ‘Mass Rocks’ from the ‘Penal Days’ and oddly formed boulders can serve as ‘stations’, which, in conjunction with the well, offer particular cures. Some wells lack any built structures or adornment and associated stations, if any, may be hard to locate without guidance from a local person, or the presence of the votives. Other ‘Holy Wells’, however, are located within large elaborate complexes, complete with signage that offer pilgrims optional directions for full or abbreviated ‘Rounds’.

The Irish Church prior to the Norman invasion and up to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries held historical accounts of ‘Rounding’ and ‘Pattern Days’ that emphasised a penitential dimension about them that is much less prevalent today. The ‘Pattern Days’ of old were an annual cleansing with trembling, remorse, and fasting before ‘Rounds’ that were performed on bare knees, but were followed by an evening, or several days, of celebration and flamboyant sinning. Such things are not, of course, so common these days and the demise began with the emancipation of Catholics in 1829, when the focus of the Church fell on restoring the authority of the priest and the importance of Confession. The sites for such acts of devotion moved from the open air and into the church buildings. The ‘Great Famine’ saw the devotion to the official practices of the Church superseded the folk practices. Since those times, however, popular devotion at ‘Holy Wells’ and other sacred sites have regained some popularity, especially over the last few decades since ‘Vatican II’. Pilgrimages today are associated more with thanksgiving rather than with punishment. Many describe ‘Holy Wells’ not as places filled with guilt but as scenes of calming and restoration, where they feel thankful and very much at peace.



For many of those devotees who visit the ‘Holy Wells’ the ‘Rounding of the Stations’ is their offering. Less frequent visitors, or those pilgrims with a particular burden, might offer votives in addition to prayer, or they may a serve as a means of shortening the ‘stations’ by having to recite fewer prayers. The regular visitors might make a grand gesture of leaving a religious statue as a votive offering, or undertake to complete some renovation work on the site, while the less frequent or one-time visitor might leave a less valuable and impromptu gift. In all cases the depositing of the votive offering usually takes place near the end of the visit to the ‘Holy Well’ and is usually accompanied by an additional and personal prayer. As well as rags and ribbons, Rosary beads are common offerings, but a shell, pebble, button, shoelace, or anything that has been in with the visitor’s person is appropriate. Tokens that a specific to certain prayer requests are common, such as lighters from a smoker who is trying to quit the habit. To cope with anxiety sufferers might drive nails or coins into a well-side tree, but this practice can eventually lead to the death of the sacred tree. Those who leave worry and disease-infected offerings on the trees or by the side of the Well already feel that the environment in which they are praying is a ‘giving’ one, in which the natural or divine power within the site is provided to all visitors without condition,


Some estimates suggest the number of ‘Holy Wells’ in Ireland to be at least three-thousand, while others argue that this figure is an under-estimation. But many Wells have been lost and continue to be lost to man’s progress in farming techniques, stock raising, forestry, road-building and widening, and the building boom that began in the five or ten years prior to the new millenium. Destruction of the historic record in Ireland has been generally accelerated by those affluent sections of the community keen on developing rural areas of the country, and the loss of ‘Holy Wells’ has been a subject of contention in many areas. The disappearance of the Wells unless as a result of supernatural provocation, has more usually resulted because of the gradual erosion of local pilgrimage and place-lore. When the devotees stop visiting the site quickly falls into disrepair and the stories about the sacred place and its benevolent gifts disappear, causing the ‘Holy Well’, ‘Sacred Tree’, or ‘Sacred Stone’ to vanish from our memory and the record.

Rites of passage and events within the community become wound up in the stories of the sacred gathering places, and become associated with the presiding saint’s benevolence. Much of the conversation among the people at these Well gatherings tends to revolve around memories of community figures, which ties these sacred places to past generations and the older members of a community. In the last thirty years the social norms that dominated Irish society for generations fell apart with unexpected speed, especially among those devastated by years of investigations into child abuse by individual clerics and institutions run by religious orders. Many have abandoned the Church, or at least its buildings, with greater numbers undertaking regular engagement with the open air folk liturgies. Such has the popularity grown, in fact, that many priests throughout Ireland have renewed well-side gatherings in an effort to attract parishioners back into the congregation.

Running Water

Fairy Folklore

Sure, I’ll leave you past the stream,” said an old man to a friend of mine who was leaving my house one night.

Oh, don’t annoy yourself, Eddie,” my friend replied, laughing; “the night’s a clear one, and I won’t be afraid.

Sure, he’s not afraid of ghosts, Eddie? ” said I, when my friend had left.

Och, God bless you! He isn’t afraid?” smiled Eddie, “well, I don’t think you know him very long or you wouldn’t be saying that.

Do you tell me he is afraid of ghosts!” I exclaimed.

I do,” replied Ned emphatically, “that is unless he has changed greatly this last while.”

And what good would it do him if you escorted him over the stream?” I asked.

Ah! For goodness sake, do you know nothing at all?

I can assure you, Eddie, I, for one, am not well versed in those things. But I am very willing to learn.

And did you never hear that nothing bad can follow you past running water?” asked Eddie, astonished by my admission of ignorance.

Honestly, no,” I  replied. “Is that the truth?

Indeed, it is,” answered Eddie. ” Sure, I thought everybody knew that.”

Well, no, Eddie! In that part of the country where I come from, the people believe in ghosts alright, but I don’t think any ever heard of that.

Well, now, isn’t that a quare thing,” said Eddie, looking down at the floor thoughtfully.

And what would you do,” he asked, “if you were walking about at night, and, without hearing or seeing anything anywhere around you, you were to get a blow, very suddenly, on the back of your head?

By God! I suppose I’d turn around and strike back,” I answered and laughed.

Ha ha! Well, that is where you’d be entirely wrong. Indeed, that would be a move that would do you little good. Damn the bit harm your fists would be doing, for you’d only be beating the air. And, at the same time, you’d be getting such a thrashing yourself that if you ever survived it, you’d be a lucky man, and be thankful for some good person’s prayers.”

Well, tell me, what should I be doing then?” I inquired with great interest.

What should you be doing? Is that what you’re asking me?


You should be walking on you should, until you cross a stream of running water, and whatever it is that would be trying to do you harm couldn’t follow you past it.

“Oh, I see!” I replied, rather deflated by the answer he gave me, but to keep him encouraged I said, “That’s why you spoke about the stream a few  moments ago.

Aye, that’s the very way son,

Then there must be some magic charm in running water?

To be sure there is, and why wouldn’t there be?” he exclaimed earnestly as if I doubted his word.

Krumm’s Riot 1920

The RIC and the Black &Tans

This last while I have been looking at various books concerning the ‘Irish War of Independence’ and have read many curious stories about participants and various incidents in what was a bloody and often cruel conflict. One story particularly caught my interest and concerns the mysterious shooting and murder of a member of the ‘Black and Tan’ auxiliaries to the Royal Irish Constabulary. This incident took place in Galway City during the night of 8th/9th September 1920, and the victim was a constable of the force called Edward Krumm. Perhaps the information gleaned here will help solve what mystery there was about the incident, with contradicting reports and propaganda campaigns created by each side to place the full blame on their opponents.

Edward Krumm was only one of thousands of British ex-servicemen who were sent to Ireland to reinforce the ranks of the ‘Royal Irish Constabulary’ (RIC), which had come under serious pressure in the bloody conflict known as the ‘Irish War of Independence (1920-21). Krumm, aged 26, volunteered for service with the RIC auxiliary force, ‘The Black and Tans’, on 10th August 1920 and was registered as Constable 72372. He was quite a tall man, standing five feet eleven inches tall, and although he came from Middlesex, he did have family in Surrey, and was a confirmed bachelor and active member of the Church of England. When enlisting for the auxiliary force, Edward had given his occupation as an electrical engineer.

Though Krumm, like many ‘Black and Tans’ had seen service in the armed forces he was given very little police training before being sent to Ireland on 18th August 1920 and stationed in the west of County Galway. Being former soldiers, the British Government were interested only in ability to employ their military skills and mentality as ‘Black and Tans’ to subdue the Irish terrorists with a greater terror, and so despised did this force of men become that each member became a walking target for any Irish patriot with a gun. It is not surprising then to learn that only three weeks after arriving in Galway, on the night of 8th September 1920, he was shot by persons unknown in Galway City.[1]

There were many shootings of ‘Black and Tans’ throughout Ireland, but what made this particular incident stand out was that Krumm lost his life under what can only be described as mysterious circumstances. News reports at the time and the testimony of eyewitnesses to the incident confirm that Constable Krumm was gunned down in a shooting confrontation with local volunteers belonging to the ‘Irish Republican Army (IRA). There are some accounts suggesting that the volunteers confronted Krumm with the aim of taking his revolver, and he had opened fire in self-defence. There are other reports that the constable pulled his gun from its holster and ran amok, forcing the volunteers to intervene in order to stop him killing or injuring nearby civilians. In the record there is one witness report that suggested Krumm had intentionally opened fire on civilians, which would cause an incident that would give the ‘Black and Tans’ a pretext for bloody reprisals on the Irish population of the city.[2]

After so many years it is incredibly difficult to attempt to discover the truth, but if the evidence available is believed to be factual then Constable Krumm was murdered in an IRA hold-up to relieve him of his weapon. In this case we must also accept that Krumm did fire his gun in self-defence when he was confronted by the armed IRA volunteers, who prevailed in shooting and killing the Constable. This conclusion is made all the stronger when a military court of inquiry investigated the circumstances of Krumm’s death and agreed with the evidential conclusion. It was also how IRA veterans remembered the events when they were interviewed years later. Their statements corroborated the findings of the military court of inquiry and contradict the story told by the Irish Republican movement at the time. The case of Constable Krumm, therefore, might help throw a different light on ‘police violence’ during the Irish War of Independence and the way such actions were perceived and represented by both sides of the conflict, not only in Ireland, but in Great Britain and Irish America.

In November 1920 an unofficial ‘American Commission on Conditions in Ireland’ (ACCI) was established, at which several Irish and American witnesses gave testimony. One witness, John Joseph Caddan, was a former constable in the RIC and gave testimony concerning events in Galway City and the West. He was a nineteen-year-old Irishman and a son of a sergeant in the RIC. But the shortage of work in Ireland caused him and many Irishmen to leave and seek employment in England. John’s fortunes did not improve, however, and so he joined the RIC in London during February 1920. After receiving his training, he was posted to the western reaches of County Galway in May and stationed in Galway City’s Eglinton Street station alongside almost thirty other policemen, the largest barracks in the district.[3] He testified to the ACCI that while Galway City itself was quiet until the end of August, the rugged countryside to the west of the City was in a constant state of tension. In fact, revolutionary activity had grown to a point that the RIC had abandoned ordinary patrols in the area, concentrating forces in fewer and fewer police stations.

In the first six months of 1920, the ‘Irish Republican Army’ (IRA) had attacked three of these reinforced police barracks and, although none of these were captured, they were all so badly damaged that they had to be abandoned afterward. The IRA volunteers had also set fire to several abandoned police stations at Easter, in commemoration of the 1916 Rebellion. Elsewhere in the County the republicans had established land arbitration courts and volunteers were acting a republican police, all of which brought instability to many in the countryside. The duties of these ‘Republican Police’ included guarding the polling booths during local government elections held at the beginning of June 1920. Sinn Féin romped home to win the elections and the new councils that were formed pledged their allegiance to the republican ‘Dail Eireann’ rather than the British authorities. Furthermore, in Galway City, the first meeting of the new Galway County Council passed a motion rescinding a previous motion condemning the 1916 Rebellion and struck it from the minutes.

At the end of June 1920, County Inspector Rutledge reported to the RIC Inspector General … “Sinn Fein courts have set aside Petty Sessions courts to a great extent. The Irish Volunteers are in control everywhere and the police are set aside. The Police cannot go on patrol except in considerable force and on the slightest opportunity they are held up. It is difficult for them to get provisions and fuel & light in many places. Their condition of life in barracks with light and air shut out by sandbags, shell boxes and steel shutters is very irksome and disagreeable. At night they cannot sleep during the dark hours apprehending an attack at any time. No one speaks to them in a friendly way. No one will give them any information … The old form of police control is practically beaten to the ropes, and it is as well to recognise the situation.”[4]

The tension that had been building up in the County finally exploded into violence on 19th July, when the summer assizes were held in Galway City with the assistance of heavy police and military presence. The IRA in the county had organised a boycott of these legal proceedings and the local people had little choice but to obey, whether they were supporters or not. The boycott proved to be successful since most of the cases listed to be heard were adjourned until the next session because many of the jurors failed to attend. Then, that evening, while driving back from the city to their barracks at Dunmore, the IRA ambushed a Royal Irish Constabulary sergeant and three constables on the road just outside Tuam. In this action two of the constables were killed and although the two survivors were captured by the attackers, they were subsequently released unharmed. But news of the ambush and the police casualties raised the alarm in Galway City, causing police reinforcements to be sent to the scene. They spent several hours searching the countryside without result and, in their anger and frustration, decided to take revenge on the town of Tuam by rioting in the streets, threatening to shoot innocent people as suspects, and setting several buildings on fire. The ‘American Commission’ heard eyewitness testimony that when the police returned to barracks, they bragged about burning public houses and the town hall, as well as making a complete wreck of the town.[5]

Not surprisingly the events in Tuam on 19th July intensified the deep sense of bitterness on both sides of the conflict in Galway. As had happened with the summer assizes, the coroner’s inquest on the two dead constables was adjourned after members of the jury failed to show. The local newspaper reported the response of the police to this adjournment – “Head Constable Bowles, who represented the authorities, said from their action in absenting themselves as jurors it might be accepted that the people of Tuam took it to be the right course to murder the police. We must take it that that is the general feeling in the town. It looks as if they had no more regard for a policeman’s life than a dog’s.” [6] The local newspaper, however, blamed the government for the violence that had erupted in the county, saying – “At the beginning of the present campaign the Irish police were plainly told that so long as they performed ordinary police duties no one would interfere with them, but if they took up arms against those who were fighting for Irish freedom they would have to abide by the consequences. Since then, the government has with callous and reckless indifference to the lives of its Irish police, proceeded with the task of militarising’ the force.

This policy, many believed, was leading the entire country to disaster. The same newspaper declared, “Those who can no longer govern will provoke and wreck,” and predicted, “extremists will resort to physical force and reprisals will follow, until a widespread vendetta of revenge must lay the country waste, and drive men of good will to despair.” The prediction rapidly appeared to be turning into reality in the weeks that followed, which saw more police barracks abandoned and burned. Then, on 21st August, five policemen were ambushed as they cycled from Oranmore to Galway City. One constable was killed by the attackers, while another constable and a sergeant were wounded. A police team left the city that same night to seek out a suspected attacker, Joseph Howley, in Oranmore, but they were unable to find him. In their anger, the police took revenge by setting fire to the family home, and so the violence escalated until at the end of the County Inspector sent in his monthly report and made it clear how the violence was affecting him and his men – “are shunned and hated and rejoicing takes place when they are shot. They have to take the necessaries of life by force. Their wives are miserable, and their children suffer in the schools and nobody cares.

Meanwhile, on 19th August Edward Krumm had been posted to County Galway. One RIC constable who met Constable Krumm recalled that he was one of the ‘Black and Tans’ and “was a motor driver stationed in Dunmore, about ten miles outside of Galway. He was in town about two weeks getting his motor repaired”. But even with such a short encounter the Constable had developed a very low opinion of Krumm, calling him “He was a generally reckless fellow and drank a lot.” On the night of 8th September, however, Krumm went to a nearby hotel to meet a civilian driver whom he had come to know. It was about midnight when the two men decided to go Galway railway station to meet the mail train that was bringing the evening papers from Dublin.

Soon after Krumm and his companion arrived at the station platform a fierce gun battle erupted in which Constable Krumm and an IRA volunteer called John Mulvoy were killed. Although details about the incident are sketchy, there was a report said to have come a Father Griffin that suggested that the young ‘Black and Tan’ (Krumm) was drunk. Moreover, he was described as a chauffeur who had only been in Ireland for two weeks and was surprised that there was not as much violence as he was led to believe. Krumm was on the platform when the newspapers arrived and there was a great rush of people to get them. The big news of the day was the condition of Lord Mayor McSwiney, and the sudden rush and noise appears to have overwhelmed the young constable, causing him to open fire. This version was corroborated by a Roman Catholic priest, Re. Dr. James Cotter, reporting that he was an eyewitness to the events in the station. He said he was talking to an Irish priest when he heard shots being fired and, “then very quickly a Black-and-Tan went out on the platform that leads to the back door of the ‘Railway Hotel’, and when the people were coming to get the papers off the train at midnight, he used his revolver in any way, shooting in any direction. He shot a young fellow named Mulvoy.” The priest stated that a civilian tackled Krumm and tried to disarm him, but the Black and Tan kept firing, wounding a couple of bystanders until, finally, another civilian shot him dead.

To many the report of a young ‘Black and Tan’ losing his nerve and opening fire on civilians in his panic appeared to be quite plausible. There were many instances in which the ‘Black and Tans’ had done stupid and very violent things when they were drunk. On one occasion, in December 1920, six ‘Black and Tans’ from County Longford chose to rob a bank in Strokestown, County Roscommon. The local police, however, caught three of these men drinking in a local public house after the robbery, with the stolen banknotes falling out of their pockets. In his petition to the court for clemency of these bank robbers it is reported that one of the bank robbers admitted that he had been “very drunk” that day, stating, “if I had been sober, this would not have happened.

Another incident occurred in Maryborough, County Laois in January 1921 when two soldiers and two ‘Black and Tans’ went from door to door seeking a billet after spending the evening drinking. A family refused to open the door to them and one of the ‘Black and Tans’, William Wilton, fired his revolver at the front door and killing the man on the other side. Wilton was tried and convicted of manslaughter, but in his petition for clemency he claimed that the shooting had been accidental, saying “The door was not opened, and someone shouted ‘We have no room or something to that effect. I imagining that we were going to be attacked took my revolver from my holster and the shot was accidentally discharged into the street.

Although Wilton’s version of events appear to be doubtful, Constable Krumm may well have imagined a similar attack was to be made on him. An American lady said that she was on the platform, waiting with the crowd, and saw everything that occurred. She stated, “There was a man on the platform to whom I paid little attention and could not give a description of him in a satisfactory way. He wore what I think was a loose cap. He did not appear to me to be a regular soldier, nor did he seem to me to be the customary Black-and-Tan. There was a woman on the platform at the station with three or four children. There was an English officer on the platform, and there were many civilians. I turned my head in this direction (indicating aside), and the man in this peculiar uniform whipped out a revolver. He was standing with another man in ordinary attire. And he slashed the revolver around and began shooting.” Mrs. King further testified that while the Army officer tried to protect the woman and her children, Krumm shot a young man in the leg. It was at this time that Mulvoy stepped up to help the wounded man, but Krumm shot him as well. She further stated, “Then, another boy jumped from the back and caught the soldier in this way (indicating across the body) so that he had only one hand free. And then a harsh shot rang out and this soldier fell to the ground.”[7]

Despite previous testimony from other ‘witnesses’, Mrs King said that Krumm had not opened fire after the crowd rushed forward. “There was perfect peace, and we were all waiting for the papers, and he whipped out the revolver and began to fire.” Furthermore, she poured doubt on the testimony of a priest witness by stating, “I do not think Father Cotter was on the platform, I happened to be there at the time. I think he was in the hotel.” It was obvious that Mrs. King believed that Krumm had opened fire without provocation, with the idea of provoking the people into rebellion.

Meanwhile, back at Eglinton Street Barracks, many of the men were already in bed. Then, one of the constables came rushing into the building shouting the alarm, telling the entire barracks that one of their own had been shot. There were about fifty men in the Barracks, and they all rose from their beds and got dressed, and immediately armed themselves before going on the streets of the city to take revenge. Rampaging through those streets they fired their rifles and attacked the homes of known Irish Volunteers, beating the occupants and setting the houses on fire. One Volunteer that they captured, Seamus Quirke, was taken down to the railways station and shot dead, where Krumm had fallen. The rioting was said to have lasted about ninety minutes with guns firing, women and children screaming, and the flames of burning buildings lighting up the night sky. Mrs. King and other witnesses to events took refuge in the hotel and British officers assured them they would be safe and only those townspeople who deserved to be shot were being shot.

During the riot the police attacked the offices of a republican newspaper, ‘The Galway Express’, and smashed up the printing machinery. In the morning Mrs. King saw the damage that had occurred to the newspaper building and others, with people trying to salvage what they could from the ruins. But despite the damage done to the ‘Galway Express’ by the police it managed to publish a special edition that day, giving a brief account of the deaths of Krumm and Mulvoy in line with the testimony of Mrs. King. The paper reported, “The public are aware that an English member of the R.I.C. foully murdered J. Mulvoy, a citizen of Galway, who had called to the station to secure an evening paper from the midnight mail. Not satisfied, this policeman attempted to murder another peaceful citizen when he himself was killed in self-defence.” The newspaper further reported, “an English officer, who witnessed the occurrence at the Railway Station, offered to give evidence, and said that the policeman was the aggressor and that no course was open to prevent further bloodshed but to shoot him.[8]

Black & Tan Revenge

‘The Galway Express’ and ‘the Irish Bulletin’, the official gazette of the revolutionary shadow government of the Irish Republic, were not the only papers to report these events. The shootout at the railway station, and the violent reprisals that followed, were described in both the local Irish weekly, ‘The Connacht Tribune’ and in national dailies like the Irish Independent and the Freeman’s Journal. These reports, however, included some interesting errors about the identity of the dead police constable, including the suggestion that Krumm had been serving in the Royal Irish Constabulary for a year, and was on detective duty at the railway station that night.

The report in ‘The Freeman’s Journal’ read, “When the train pulled in at the platform the waiting crowd rushed toward the newsboys who were taking out papers, as since the beginning of the hunger-strike of the Lord Mayor of Cork there are not enough papers to meet the demand. It appears that when Krumm saw the people pressing in on the platform he whipped out his automatic pistol.

“It does not appear that he actually fired at this moment, but when the crowd saw his actions they formed into a knot. He then fired two or three shots in the air, and afterwards putting his pistol under his left arm he fired back at Mulvoy, hitting him in the right forehead. The crowd then rushed toward Krumm, who was knocked down, and while on the ground he was, it is alleged, aiming his pistol at the crowd again when a revolver shot was fired, hitting him in the breast.”

The terrible violence in Galway was also reported in the British press and ‘The Times’ even mentioned reports of a civilian being taken out of his house and shot in the street. A very different version of events in Galway appeared in the ‘Manchester Guardian’, liberal newspaper that had been very critical of the Government’s Irish policy and gave extensive coverage of the Galway police reprisal. “The facts of the trouble were briefly these,” their report began. Krumm and Yorke were part of a crowd on the station platform, waiting for some race results, and for news about the Lord Mayor of Cork. Some Irish Volunteers were in the crowd that night as well. “Krumm was in plain clothes,” says the report, “but was known to carry a revolver, and it seems likely that the Volunteers wished to disarm him.” The Volunteers shouted, “hands up” and pointed their guns at Yorke and Krumm. Yorke put up his hands, but the Black and Tan drew his revolver. In the battle that followed, both Constable Krumm and Volunteer Mulvoy were shot through the head and killed.

The British authorities, naturally, favoured such a ‘hold-up’ narrative and the death of a ‘Black and Tan’ was mentioned in a press release from Dublin Castle. “Constable Krumm of the Royal Irish Constabulary, an ex-soldier, who recently joined the force, was shot dead at Galway railway station at midnight on Wednesday,” it said. “Three of the assailants were shot dead by the police, and two more are believed to have been wounded.” Brief as it was, this notice included all the information then available from official sources. The report received by Dublin Castle said only that: “At midnight on 8.9.20. Constable Krumm, R.I.C. was shot dead at Galway Railway Station. Three assailants were shot dead, and one or two believed wounded.” The next day, the Castle was told only that, “number of assailants shot dead should read TWO and not three as stated. Three assailants were wounded.”[9]

A military court of inquiry was convened to investigate the deaths of Constable Krumm and the two Volunteers. Coroner’s inquests had been suspended after the U.K. Parliament passed emergency legislation, the ‘Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, in August, but this court of inquiry was the first to be held since the suspension, and its proceedings were covered fully by the Irish press. It opened on 10th September at Renmore Barracks, Galway and several witnesses were called to give evidence. It was then adjourned after issuing a warrant for Christopher Yorke, the civilian who had accompanied Constable Krumm to the railway station on the night of 8th September 8. The court then re-opened on September 15, took additional evidence from Yorke and other witnesses, and returned its verdict. They gave scant attention to the deaths of Quirke and Mulvoy. But one witness, Eileen Baker, testified that both Krumm and Yorke had been at Bakers Hotel that night, and that Krumm had suggested to Yorke “that they should go to the station to get a paper as Mr. Krumm was interested in Spion Kop which was running in the St. Leger that day and wanted to see the results of the race.” In her opinion, both men were quite sober when they left the hotel and went down to the station at 11:45. Then, at twenty minutes past midnight, Yorke returned to the hotel, and told her that both men had been held up at the station, and that Krumm had been killed.

When Yorke appeared before the court on September 15, he corroborated Baker s account of leaving the hotel in company with Constable Krumm, and the two men went down to the railway station. He testified, “As soon as the papers were taken off the train, the crowd gathered in to get the papers, and Krumm was amongst them. Krumm got three papers and gave me one.” Yorke further testified that as they were leaving the platform, he heard a shot fired, then he was held up at gunpoint by one man and searched by another. “While I was held up,” he continued, “I heard a man shouting “Help,” and I heard Constable Krumm say, “If you do not let me go, I will fire.” It was not Constable Krumm who shouted for help. The man who had searched me then went away. After the cry for help five or six shots rang out. When I looked around, I saw two men lying on the ground.” Yorke was then told to “go on,” and returned to Bakers Hotel.[10]

In its verdict, the court of inquiry found that Krumm had died from bullet wounds, “and that these wounds were wilfully inflicted by some person or persons unknown.” Interestingly, the police pressed the court for a verdict of murder, but the court refused. Even more interestingly, the court refused to pass judgement on what had precipitated the shooting at the railway station that night. “There is no actual proof of what occurred regarding the shooting,” said the president of the court.

In this account there remains one group of witnesses from whom we have heard no testimony, namely those men who had shot Constable Krumm. As we can expect these IRA Volunteers were unwilling to give their side of the story to any newspapers, or to military courts of inquiry. In fact, it was only thirty years later that they were prepared to talk to investigators from the ‘Bureau of Military History’ established by the Irish Government. This collection, which is available to the public, includes two ‘Witness Statements’ by those IRA Volunteers who were present at Galway railway station on the night that Constable Krumm was killed, These Men were Sean Broderick and Mícheál Ó Droighneáin, their statements provide added proof to the belief that the incident was a “hold-up”.

Sean Broderick was not just any ordinary IRA Volunteer, for he was the commanding officer of the 4th Battalion of the IRA’s ‘Galway Brigade’. In his statement of events he included details of how he was arrested, taken back to the railway station, and almost shot to death during the police riot that occurred later that night. “My father’s house was raided,” he said. “I heard them coming, but, as I slept at the top of the house, I had no means of escape. They pulled me down the stairs in my shirt and trousers, without boots, and brought me towards the station, poking me with their rifles and revolvers and accompanied by choice language. I saw several patrols of military on our way and, when we got to the station, I shouted to the British Army officer that as an officer of the I.R.A. I demanded a fair trial. The reply from several of his men was: “You bloody bastard””

Broderick said that the police put him up against a wooden railway door and assembled a firing squad to execute him, and all he could do was to close his eyes and pray. The police fired and Broderick fell, but miraculously, he survived. He stated, “I realised I was not seriously wounded and commenced to moan and kick my legs and then lay still. To my complete amazement, they then cleared off hurriedly without firing any further shots at me.” Furthermore, Broderick described what he had seen and done earlier that night, stating that there were several IRA Volunteers at Galway station that night. He said, “We went up to the railway station to meet Michael Thornton of Connemara, who was coming from Dublin on the 11 p.m. train, as we expected he would have some stuff for our planned attack on Spiddal R.I.C. barracks. We were told by Volunteers that there were a few armed Tans swaggering about after leaving Baker s Hotel in Eyre St., which was a resort for the R.I.C. and Tans. I had already told Captain Sean Turk to meet us at the station with a few armed men. I met him and we decided to hold up the Tans and disarm them. I was just walking into the station when I heard shots. I found one Tan shot and his pals gone.”

This testimony, however, was not conclusive, because Broderick was reminiscing years after the event, and had not seen everything that had happened and. as a result, in his account, Constable Krumm and a civilian motor driver had become “a few armed Tans swaggering about.” In addition, both John Caddan and Mícheál Ó Droighneáin agree that it was another Volunteer who was stood up against the door at the Galway railway station, instead of Sean Broderick. The testimony of the latter is important, because he was, in fact, the ‘Michael Thornton to whom Broderick had referred. Ó Droighneáin was the one arriving at Galway station that night, on the train from Dublin with some revolvers and improvised explosives in a box under his seat, which were to be used in an attack on the constabulary station at Spiddal. According to Ó Droighneáins Witness Statement, a group of “six or eight” Galway Volunteers under the command of Captain Seán Türke met him at the station and loaded the box of munitions onto a wagon. “No sooner had the horse begun to move out of the station,” he said, “than shots rang out around us. We galloped off with our load.”

What happened was this,” Ó Droighneáin said. “A Black and Tan named Krumm [sic], was moving around the station, swinging a heavy revolver, and blowing about it, and making himself a nuisance to everybody. Just at the point that we had our box on the sidecar, Seán Türke jumped on Krumm’s back, and brought him to the ground. Krumm blazed away immediately, and one of his bullets hit Mulvoy, from the effects of which he died during the night. One of our boys had a .32 revolver, and with it he shot Krumm dead. Some say it was Frank Dowd who did it, but I remember Tommy Fahy, the youngest of the lot, saying it was he who fr one more fact. Reprisals, like the Galway police riot that followed the shooting of Constable Krumm, are usually blamed on the ‘Black and Tans’ and Auxiliaries. Edward Krumm, however, was the only ‘Black and Tan’ at Eglinton Street Barracks in the city, and he was dead before the reprisals began. The police who rioted after Krumm was shot dead were all Irishmen, the same as those Irishmen who had rioted in Tuam in the previous July. Moreover, these police were led by a Catholic Irish officer. In his testimony to the ‘American Commission’, John Caddan mentioned a “District Inspector Crewe,” who had taken part in the riot along with his men, and who was promoted “about a week after.” In fact, this police officer’s name was Richard Cruise, who had been appointed the district inspector for Galway in mid- June and became the county inspector in charge of County Galway’s West Riding in mid-October. In his monthly report, the new county inspector noted, with evident sense of satisfaction, that “The chief item of interest in Galway during the month was the reprisal scare and the dread of the gun-men lest the forces of law and order should catch any of them in the act of any of their evil doings.

In addition, the Irish government’s Police Adviser, Major General Henry Hugh Tudor, was in Galway the night that Constable Krumm was killed. As a guest at Bakers Hotel, Major General Tudor was one of the British Army officers who assured Mrs. King that the rioting police were merely “shooting some of the townspeople that deserve shooting.” In his testimony to the ‘American Commission’, John Caddan described how the Police Adviser came to Eglinton Street RIC Barracks on the morning of September 9 and spoke to the assembled police. He told the assembly, “This country is ruled by gunmen, and they must be put down.” He talked about giving home rule to Ireland, and he said home rule could not be given until all gunmen were put down, and he called upon the RIC to put them down. Tudor also asked them what they required in the barracks, and that whatever they wanted he would give them, and that they were also going to get a raise in pay. He said they needed machine guns, and he said they would get them, and also tanks and more men; men who had been in the army during the war and who knew how to shoot to kill, who would the right men in the right place.

By this time, the RIC was already being reinforced with Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. In fact, an entire Auxiliary Company – ‘D Company’ – would soon be stationed in Galway, where it would take the lead in the British counteroffensive against the Republicans in their war for independence. More importantly, there is no record of any policeman being punished for taking part in the Galway police riot and, in fact, far from being punished, District Inspector Cruise was promoted, and promoted again. In November 1920, just a month after he became county inspector for Galway’s West Riding, Cruise became the commissioner for the Connaught No. 2 Division, and as a divisional commissioner, Cruise authorized reprisals, including the burning of homes despite having no legal authority to do so. In Galway, then, it seems the police interpreted General Tudor’s encouraging words and indulgent attitude as carte blanche to crush the insurgency, by due process if possible, but by reprisals if necessary. For the rest of the ‘War of Independence’, County Galway’s West Riding would become notorious as being the most violent district in the province of Connaught.

[1] Constable 72372, RIC General Register, The National Archives of the United Kingdom (henceforward TNA), HO 184/37

[2] David Leeson, “The ‘Scum of London’s Underworld’; British Recruits for the Royal Irish Constabulary, 1920-21,” Contemporary British History 17, no. 1 (2003): 6-7.

[3] RIC Returns by County, 1920-21, TNA, HO 184/61-62. One of the very few Black and Tans to leave behind a memoir of his experiences in Ireland, Douglas Duff, was also stationed at Eglinton Street barracks in Galway. See Douglas Duff, Sword for Hire: The Saga of a Modern Free Companion (London: John Murray, 1934).

[4] RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Report, West Galway, June 1920, TNA: PRO CO 904/112.

[5] Report from “A Dawn of Terror,” Connacht Tribune July 24, 1920, 5, 8.

[6] Report from Morning Post, July 22, 1920, 7

[7] The testimony of Agnes King, in Coyle, Evidence on Conditions in Ireland to the American Commission, 130.

[8] “The Murder of Innocent Men,” Galway Express” , September 8, 1920, quoted in “Murder and Crime in Galway City,” Irish Bulletin , September 14, 1920, 2. After this edition of the Galway Express appeared, the police came back and smashed what remained of the paper’s printing machines.

[9] Summary of Police Reports received on 10: 9: 1920, TNA, CO 904/142.

[10] “Galway Tragedies,” Connacht Tribuney September 18, 1920, 5