Sisters

There are occasions when you come across some lovely pieces of poetry when you study folklore and customs. The following is a poem I picked up a few weeks ago and thought it was so nice that I should share it with you. As for the author, all I know is that it is by a 19th Century Poet/Poetess. Please enjoy…

The day had gone as fades a dream;

The night had come, and rain fell fast;

While o’er the black and sluggish stream

Cold blew the wailing blast.

In pensive mood I idly raised

The curtain from the rain-splashed glass,

And as into the street I gazed,

I saw two women pass.

One shivering with the bitter cold,

Her garments heavy with the rain,

Limped by with features wan and old,

Deep farrowed by sharp pain.

A child in form, a child in years;

But from her piteous pallid face,

The weariness of life with tears

Had washed all childlike grace.

And as she passed me faint and weak,

I heard her slowly say, as though

With throbbing heart about to break:

‘”Move on!” Where shall I go?’

The other, who on furs reclined,

In brougham was driven to the play;

No thought within her vacant mind

Of those in rags that day:

With unmoved heart and idle stare,

Passed by the beggar in the street,

Who lifted up her hands in prayer,

Some charity to meet.

Both vanished in the murky night:

The outcast on a step to die;

The lady to a scene of light,

Where Joy alone did sigh.

But angels saw amid her hair

What was by human eyes unseen;

The grass that grows on graves was there,

With leaves of ghastly green.

And though her diamonds flashed the light

Upon the flatterers gathered near,

The outcast’s brow had gem more bright –

An angel’s pitying tear.

An Unknown 19th Century Irish Poet

Odd Burial Traits

Deaths and burials are not the most enjoyable topics of conversation for everyone to involve themselves in. But I have often found it interesting to read about the very odd notions people have had about burials and the way that they have been carried out at various times and in various parts of this world. Here I would like to offer the reader some of the more strange and eccentric burials that I have heard about.

1. It is said that on of England’s major figures in the industrial revolution, who made his fortune in iron was determined that he would take some of his accomplishments to the grave with him. When the man died, he had himself buried in the garden of his home in an iron coffin, over which he had built an iron tomb that weighed some twenty tons. It was a task that he could not leave to be completed by anyone and, as an extra precaution, he instructed the coffin and tomb to be built while he was still alive and would conduct tours for his friends and visitors, to show them what he planned for his final resting place.

Despite his personal supervision, however, when the gentleman died the family discovered that the coffin was too small. It was decided that until a new coffin was made, he could be laid in the ground temporarily. Then, when he was eventually buried in his iron coffin it was decided that the coffin was too near to the surface and was transferred to cave that had been excavated in a rock. The story, however, does not end there for when the man’s estate was sold many years after his death the family instructed his body to be removed from its rock tomb and buried in a local churchyard. Mr. Wilkinson, the subject of this story, has the questionable honour of being a man who died once and was buried four times, and prior to his death he was very happy to make presents of iron coffins to any of his friends who expressed a wish to have one. In a somewhat similar fashion, a certain clergyman in the granite county of Cornwall is said to have had a coffin made of granite, in which he was subsequently buried.

2.Quite a number of people don’t want to face death and would prefer to be immortal, but that will not happen. Perhaps, it is this fact that encourages people to have their coffins ready long before they are ready and keep them close at hand to look at, or have others admire them as reminders of the fate that is due to us all, until the day come when it is finally put to its proper use. There was a story of a Scottish slater who is said to have made his own coffin, decorated it with seashells and displayed it with other fancy, shell-decorated items in a room which he called his grotto. In similar fashion a joiner from the North-east of England made his own coffin and, during the intervening period used it as a toolbox that included sliding shelves and a lid that was fixed to hinges. But in this series of stories, I will try to avoid the age-old theory that people from the North of England and Scotland are tight when it comes to money. It is much better to call them thrifty and practical, and that is the reason that there are so many instances of northern working men constructing their own coffins in their leisure time.

To show this neutral stance let me offer some examples of odd burial traits from elsewhere in England and further abroad. The first story that comes to mind is of an Alderman of Gloucester, who had his coffin and his monument built before his death. When the monument was finished the Alderman decided he did not like the way in which his nose was carved on his effigy and had a new one carved. Fortunately for the Alderman the task was finished just in time, for the man died immediately after the nose was finished. Then, there is the example a Nottingham man, called Wheatley, who bought himself a coffin and filled it with liquor. Unfortunately, the poor man was quickly brought into disrepute in the town, for the coffin became his own private tavern. Just as odd, however, is the story of a navy surgeon who rose to a very important position in Portsmouth and had a favourite boat converted into a coffin and stored it under his bed for many years. Finally, there is the tale of a German couple who provided themselves with coffins, which they kept in a stable and utilised them as cupboards for storing various types of food. But it was not to end well for the couple, for when the man was the first to die, his widow packed the contents of both coffins into one and put his body into the other. Of course, the coffin full of eatables was lowered into the coffin and the mistake was not discovered until the next day when the widow opened the other cupboard to find the body of her husband there. Naturally, all that food could not go to waste and the coffins were changed over and the funeral repeated.

3. I used to joke with my mother and tell her she was not to worry about where she was going to be buried, for I would dig a hole in the garden and bury her standing up, waving goodbye. She used to laugh at the very idea of it, but the burying of people in an erect position had often been carried out. The famous late sixteenth century poet and playwright, Ben Jonson, was buried upright in Westminster Abbey, which inspired the following lines the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’

“Even rare Ben Jonson, that famous wight,

I am told is interred there bolt upright,

In just such a posture, beneath his bust,

As Tray used to sit in to beg for a crust.”

4. In fact, it is not that strange for people to buried in standing, or upright positions after death. Military heroes, for example, have often been buried by their men in upright positions on the battlefield where they died, sometimes with spear, sword, or lance in their hand. Records show that one of these types of burial was discovered at the Curragh of Kildare. Archaeologists opened an earthen tumulus and, inside the ancient monument, they discovered the skeleton of an old Irish Chieftain in an upright position, with a barbed spear in, or near, one of the hands.

Despite what some may think, it is quite easy to bury a body in an upright position by setting up the coffin on one end. However, when considering this trait, we must also look at the many instances when a body was placed in a sitting position, which made a coffin unnecessary. There are many recorded instances of this happening including the occasion when the Emperor Frederick ‘Barbarossa’ opened the tomb of Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle and found the body of the great Emperor seated on a throne, as if he was still alive, dressed in his Imperial clothes, with this sceptre in one hand and a copy of ‘Bible’ on his knees.

There is also the story of a tomb in a London graveyard that could be seen from the high road and was said to have been placed there by a certain Dr. John Gardiner. It was made up of a large headstone containing an inscription that described this tomb as being his ‘last and best bedroom.’ The tomb itself was prepared some years before Gardiner’s death and, it is said, that the Doctor was buried there, although there is no strong proof.

5. Sadly there are many more cases of people being put into their graves with something that would be considered an excuse for a coffin. Among these is recorded the burial of a Mrs Fisher Dilke, during the time of Cromwell and the puritans. The lady’s husband does not appear to have had much regard for his recently deceased wife for he commissioned a coffin be made from some old boards that lined his barn and organised a grave for the lady in the graveyard a third of the normal price. The husband then invited eight of his neighbours to act as bearers and paid them with them a selection of cheap cakes and wine, while he read over the corpse from the Old Testament. The bearers then placed the body in the grave and they each threw a full spade of dirt into the grave before the husband and his neighbours trudged their way home.

Another similar instance for the provision of a poor coffin took place in an old English, which had once been a nunnery. On one occasion there had been a need to take up the kitchen floor and when this work began, twelve skeletons were found lying in a row, each between two planks. At the time of the discovery, it was decided that the bodies were those of nuns who had died there.

6. There have also been plenty of people who have been buried without the comfort of any type of coffin at all. There was once a military officer who declared in his last will and testament that his body should be attended to by medical men, wrapped in ‘Cerecloth’[1], and buried without a coffin in a particular part of his estate. He also insisted that acorns were sown on the burial spot so that sturdy oak trees would flourish having been nourished by his remains. Instructions were left with his gardener to weed and water the plant and today a fine oak grows there.

Similar to this the story is the strange burial, or absence thereof, for Jeremy Bentham, who was born on 15th February and died on 6th June1832 in London. He was a famous English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, who is regarded as the founder of ‘Modern Utilitarianism’. His will called for a head of wax to be attached to his skeleton after dissection and the entire figure to be stuffed to the proper size and dressed in Bentham’s own clothes. The body was then seated on his own armchair and the man’s walking stick placed in one hand.

7. It was not uncommon for there to be burials without coffins in the years between the mid-eighteenth, and the mid-nineteenth centuries. In fact, there are numerous Parish Registers that contain entries showing that it was up to 25% cheaper for a burial without a coffin. One particular country gentleman directed that his body be buried without a coffin and at least ten feet deep in a particular field near his house. He also declared that the field would then be thoroughly ploughed over, as if to obliterate his memory as completely as was possible.

It is a fact that the St. Clair family of Rosslyn fame were for many generations, at least the male members) buried without coffins. The latest of these family burials is said to have taken place towards the close of the seventeenth century. It is reported that when the vault was next opened, the body of Sir William St Clair could be seen lying in his armour with a red velvet cap on his head. Apparently, there was nothing decayed except for a small part of the white fur-edging to the cap.

In some parts of Ireland, at one time, it was customary to carry the body of the deceased person to the graveside in a coffin, upon which the body was taken out of the coffin and reverently buried in the earth. There was one Augustinian abbey graveyard in particular, not far from Enniscorthy, in which certain families were generally buried in this fashion, with the graves being scrupulously prepared with boards, earth, sods, and grass. It is said that the Superior of the first Cistercian abbey founded in England since the Reformation was buried in a similar fashion in the chapterhouse of the abbey. There was also a merchant, called Thomas Cooke, who had given considerable donations to a local college who willed that his body should be buried in a winding-sheet, minus coffin, in the grounds of the college.

8. Just as some people have been buried without coffins, so have there been occasions when coffins were buried without people, most of which involved fraud in some manner. There is a tale of a foreigner who died in 1871 and whose death was entered into the Parish Register, accompanied by an authentic medical death certificate. A coffin was bought for the body and a grave was commissioned to be dug in the local Roman Catholic graveyard, and a funeral took place along traditional lines. Then, a few weeks after this, the widow made a claim for a hundred thousand francs from an insurance office. The recently deceased person, however, was known to have been a fugitive fraudulent bankrupt and the police were called in to look at the case. The grave and coffin were opened, and they discovered that there was no corpse there. It appears that the fugitive had made out the certificate of his own death, ordered his own grave and coffin, and followed his own coffin to its last home as chief mourner!

8. With or without coffins, many persons have been buried in places other than churchyards or graveyards. It is not unknown, for example, for people to be buried in their own gardens, farms, parks, or plantations. There is the story of one family that had a coffin placed as a table in a summerhouse. Another story tells of Sir William Temple, former Member of the Irish Parliament, and diplomat, who, before his death in 1700, ordered his heart to be enclosed in a silver casket, and buried under a sundial in his own garden, opposite a particular window. However, where the body was buried remains unknown. Another odd burial was that of William Liberty, a brickmaker, who was buried in a tomb that he had built himself by the side of a lonely footpath, which ran across a field. Later, it was discovered that there was a room built in the same tomb for William’s widow. And so there are many stories told in like manner.

9. But strangely there are many strange stories concerning bodies being left unburied, or kept above-ground, in an effort to avoid the consequences of some law or other. One of the strangest stories tells of a farmer whose body was kept in a barn, enclosed in lead, and placed upon one of the roof beams. The locals gave two theories to explain this, the first one being that the farmer had expressed a desire that his body should be kept there ‘until the day of judgment.’ The other theory said that the farmer believed he would return to life again thirty years after his death, and he left his property subject to this contingency. After the thirty years the farmer’s representatives gave him three days’ grace, but then buried him, and finally disposed of his property.


[1] Material that had been treated with melted wax or gummy matter and formerly used especially for wrapping a dead body

An Irish Dance Master

An Old Tale of Ireland’s Past

There was a time in Ireland when the speech and manners of the Irish man were simple, rural, and kindly. They did not, in the least resemble the manners and speech that fill the lives of modern-day Irishmen. But, in those old times, dancing was cultivated as one of life’s chief amusements and the ‘dancing-master’ was a vital part of a community, if it was to enjoy this recreation activity to its full.

Storytelling, dancing and singing are popular among the Irish people. But it was dancing that was by far the most important recreation, although much less so now in these modern times. Nevertheless, Irish traditional dancing is an indication of the spirit and character of the Irish people, who may not have experienced the best things in life but are apparently filled with a joyous hope for their future. Being Irish, it is not surprising that I believe that no people dance as well as us and enjoy it as much as us. Dancing, most will agree, is a delightful amusement for the people, but Irish dancing is not a simple recreational activity. It is, instead, a very distinct form of dance that belongs to the people of our nation, providing its people with a happy and agreeable way of enjoying Irish music. In the dance the person feels the music in their heart and move their body and limbs in time with its rhythm. Not only Ireland, however, but every nation has a feeling for music and, through it, a love of dance. Music and dance, therefore, dependent on each other, and I am confident in my opinion that the Irish nation excels at both.

It is my contention that, unless you have seen it and taken part in it, you cannot truly know the fantastic exhilaration that Irish dancing gives to the people of Ireland. This exhilaration was caused by an emotion much deeper than enthusiasm and to properly understand you should put yourself in the place of a person among those who are gathered at a house-dance, or Ceilidh, and feel the change which occurs in the temperament of an Irish man. When the dance was called, he would lazily get to his feet, select  a girl for whom he may have some romantic attachment, and would then place himself and his partner on the dance floor with both facing the fiddle player as he begins his tune. The dance would begin, quietly at first, and gradually the man’s steps would become even more lively. Then, his right hand would rise a little and his fingers would crack, to be followed a short time later with the raising of both hands and the sound of two cracks. His eyes would brighten as his enjoyment of the moment increased, and he tried hard to keep pace with the tempo of the music and the others on the floor. His eyes would be lovingly fixed on his partner who, in her modesty, would not return his gaze. She would, however, give her partner a quick glance which encourages him to dance more enthusiastically, aided by a little kindness, love, pride in his own ability, and whiskey. Encouraged by this he would begin dancing at a constantly increasing pace, flinging himself about, cracking his fingers, cutting and trebling his feet, heel and toe, right and left. You would see him fling the right heel up to the buttock, up again the left, the whole face reddening as if in a blast-furnace fed with the ecstasy of delight. “Yo! Ho! Ye boy ye! Move your elbow a little quicker, Mickey!” he would call to the fiddle player. “Quicker! Quicker! man dear, or you’ll have me ahead of you! That’s it, Jenny! That’s my girl! move your feet, my darling. That’s it, sweetheart! Keep up with me! Yahoo for us!

And in this manner, he would proceed with renewed vigour, and an agility, that incredibly keeps in time with the music, especially when we consider the great burst of excitement that he would have to direct through his body. Meanwhile, his partner’s face would be lit up with enthusiasm to a modest blush. Who could resist her partner’s great joy, though she demonstrates her own with great natural grace, that is combined with a delicate liveliness? Her movements are equally gentle and animated, which is precisely the way in which ladies ought to dance i.e. with a blend of healthful exercise and innocent enjoyment.

It is not that long ago that I witnessed a dance by a very talented young man, and it was good, except for the performance of his female partner. The entire programme of the dance was, sadly, made to look amateurish by her actions, to say the least. She did not dance with the modesty that is expected of the female Irish dancers but performed some of the unseemly movements of a drunken hellcat, or one of those unfortunate women from the red-light areas of the city. Her face had a maliciously desirous expression on it that would remind you of posters you may find outside places of ill-repute. Such things cannot be allowed, and we must always endeavour to portray in our dances the most chaste and modest females.

There are a considerable variety of dances in Ireland, from the simple “reel of two”, to the team dance, and the step dance, all of which are filled with fun. But there are, however, other dances of a more serious note, which could be considered to have had their origins in the sad times that are a great part of our small country’s history. It is a sad fact that the difficulty of communications in previous times and the remoteness of many areas has led to the loss of many of these less joyful dances, some of which may only have been danced on mournful occasions. With the state-sponsored efforts of the English overlords to suppress Gaelic culture and language it was only at wakes and other funereal rites held in the remote parts of the country where these old dances were stubbornly clung to. At the present time, I believe, that the only remnant of these old dances can be seen in some of the Slip-jigs and hornpipes that are danced. These dances of ancient days may not have been performed to music but depended upon the steps of the dancer to tap out the rhythm, and were symbolic dances used in various pre-Christian rites.  But, having said this, I must make it clear that this is just a thought on my part without real evidence to support it. But, the old dancing masters of past years would probably have more knowledge about such things. Unfortunately, like the old dances, none of these old masters remain.

The old dancing-masters of past generations were itinerants, having no settled home or family, but lived from place to place within a specified area, beyond which he would seldom or never go. The farming community were his patrons, and when he visited their houses the old bachelor brought with him a holiday spirit that brightened the lives of all. When he arrived at a farm you could be sure that there would be a dance that night, after the working day came to an end. The crowd would be gathered, and the old dancing-master would good-naturedly supply the music and, in return for this, they would have a little underhand collection for him. This collection would amount to no more than a couple of shillings or half-a-crown which, under some pretence or other, would be ingeniously and delicately slipped into his pocket. The covert action was so that the dancing-master would know that his patron thought him to be on a higher level than a mere fiddle player. To show his own kindness and generosity, at the end of the dance, he would ask for a door, or other hard surface to be laid down on the floor, on which he would dance several popular hornpipes accompanied by his own fiddle. This would demonstrate to his audience just how great a dance-master he was and further build up his reputation within his chosen area.

The dancing-master was a peculiar character who stood out in the community within which he lived. His dress was peculiar to him and, because it made him stand out in the crowd, he always had an air of self-pride about him. He almost always wore a ‘fedora’-style or ‘bobble’-type hat, whether it made him look good or bad. He also appeared in public carrying an ornamental staff, made from ebony, hickory, mahogany, or some other rare type of cane, which almost always had a silver head and a silk tassel, or other adornment. This staff or cane was seen by the dancing-master, and others, as a type of baton or staff of office, without which he would never be seen in public. Yet another necessary adornment that was so much a part of the dancing-master’s dress code was a gold, or gold-plated, ornately decorated pocket watch which he was always ready to produce when asked for the time of day by anyone. But of all the items of dress that he chose to wear, and which made him stand-out from a fiddler or piper, were the dancing-master’s pumps and stockings, for the man seldom wore shoes. They would always keep themselves in a neat and tidy condition, and constantly able to demonstrate his lightness of foot that their customers would expect of them. In those far off days among the ordinary rural people of Ireland the man wearing the finest of stockings, and the lightest shoe, upon the most symmetrical legs usually denoted the most accomplished of dance teachers.

Though dancing was the main business of the dancing-master he would also have a side-line in the business of matchmaking. Indeed, it was not uncommon for a dance-master to be employed as a negotiator between families, as well as individual lovers. He had practised the use of his eyes to detect the slight mistakes in a dancer’s feet,  and this talent would serve him well at the dances. After all, during a dance, there is always opportunities for a keen observer to notice any signs of passion between the assembled dancers. Even in today’s dancing clubs and parties you can witness the blushing, admiring glances, squeezes of the hand, and stealthy whisperings between couples that would signal a strong affection between the two. It is no wonder, therefore, that a knowledgeable observer, such as the dancing-master, could offer his experience as a go-between for a price. He would soon become a necessary part of the marriage of the two people in a time when arranged marriages, dowries, and matchmakers were common. More strangely, there are earlier reports that the dancing-master would also advertise himself to be a skilled teacher in the art of fencing. In a time when duelling was common, fencing-schools of this class were almost as numerous as dancing-schools and, therefore, it was not unusual for one man to teach both.

While, for the most part, dancing-masters were bachelors there were exceptions to the rule. My grandfather recalled having been taught Irish dancing by an old, married dancing-master who had to face a heart-breaking tragedy in his life. Tuberculosis (TB) was a deadly disease and it had been rife during the during the spring of the year when this tragedy occurred and had brought death to many. Grandfather told me that this poor man’s only daughter was taken from him by this terrible disease and he was forced to close his dancing school to mourn her passing. This period lasted for a month before he felt able to call all his pupils together again one evening, and my grandfather also returned to the class. The dancing-master’s daughter, a beautiful and intelligent young girl of sixteen years, was also a pupil at her father’s school until that terrible sickness cut her down like a blooming flower. The dancing classes began again much the same way that they had ended, until a certain young man who had been the dancing partner of the young girl came to the floor to dance. The old dancing-master tried to play as he had for the others, but his music was unsteady and erratic. He paused for a moment or two so that he could gather himself, and the dancing ceased as he wiped away a few hot tears from his eyes. The man tried to resume the class, but all he could see was the partner of his beloved daughter now standing with the hand of another girl in his. “I’m sorry,” said the old man as he lay aside his fiddle and burst into tears. “She was all that I had, and I loved her deep in my heart and now you are all here but her. Please, just go home, boys and girls. Go home and say a prayer for me, for you all know what she was to me. Allow me another two weeks to mourn her, for Our Lady’s sake! I am her heart-broken father and, as I see you all here, I know I will never, ever see her again on this floor. I miss the light sound of her foot, the sweetness of her voice, and the smile of those bright eyes that spoke to me, saying how much she loved me as her father and her teacher. Just two more weeks and we shall all meet again in less sorrowful circumstances”  There was a wave of sympathy that filled the room, leaving few dry eyes among those who were present, and not a heart that did not feel deeply and sincerely for his sense of terrible loss.

In the local communities the dancing-master, despite his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, bore, in his habits and manners similar level of respect as that given to the fiddler. It was this struggle of superiority among these two characters that was the cause of there being no good feeling existing between them. One looked up at the other as someone a man who was unnecessarily and unjustly placed above him, while the other looked down upon him as being no more than a servant, who provided the music for those whom he taught practise  their skills. It was a very petty rivalry, which was very amusing to neutral observers and neither of them did anything that might put an end to competition. While the fiddler had the best of the argument being the more loved, the dancing-master had the advantage of a higher professional position and being more respected. It was particularly amusing to watch the great skill employed by the dancing-master, when travelling, to carry his fiddle in a manner that it would not be seen and, therefore, he would not be mistaken for a fiddler. To be regarded as such would have been the greatest insult that his vanity could have received and would be a source of endless anger. In our modern times, however,  things are different and neither the fiddler nor the dancing-master have the same influences in society.

My grandfather told me that one of the most amusing dancing-masters was a man who had started as a fiddler and travelled under the nickname of ‘Dodger’. This man had started life as an army musician, where he had also learned to play the fiddle. But, typical of many Irishmen, life in the British Army did not suit a free-thinking, free-drinking man, and he chose to leave without thought of informing anyone. Some, including the army authorities, would consider him to be a deserter, but he preferred to be known as a person who was ‘dodging’ the crown forces, which endeared him to many in the country and earned him his nickname.

‘Dodger’ was stylishly dressed, small, thin, man with a rich Southern brogue, whose language could be described as being ‘rich’ with words and phrases undoubtedly learned while he was in the army. His dress, though stylish, were as tight as they could be without splitting and appeared to be second-hand. His creased thin face appeared to be just as second-hand as creased, closely fitting black coat. On his feet he wore his little pumps, with little white stockings, his neatly attended breeches, his hat,  and his tight coloured gloves. It was said that he was the jauntiest wee man that ever lived. He stood ready to fight any man and was a great defender of the female sex, whom he always addressed in a flattering manner that was very agreeable to most of them. He was also a man who enjoyed the public spotlight and was involved in almost everything. He could be seen at every fair, where he would only have time to give you a wink of recognition as he passed, because he was engaged in some deep discussion with another person. At races and cockfights, he was a very busy, and very angry, gambler waging whatever he had on the result. At these competitions he was always appeared to be a knowing fellow, shaking hands with the winning owner or jockey, and then looked about the crowd to ensure that people saw him in the company of those who were in the know.

The house where ‘Dodger’ kept his school, which was only open after working hours, was an uninhabited cabin, the roof of which was supported by a post that stood upright from the floor. This cabin was built upon a small hill that gave a fine view of the whole countryside for miles about it. My grandfather recalled how pleasant it was to see the modest and pretty girls, dressed in their best frocks and ribbons, coming in little groups from all directions. Often, they would be accompanied by their partners or boyfriends as they made their way through the fragrant summer fields of a calm cloudless evening, toward this place of happy and innocent amusement. But such scenes were also a picture of the general life in the community that was filled with passions, jealousies, plots, lies, and disagreements! Among those pretty girls could be found the shrew, the slovenly, the flirt, and the excessively modest, just as sharply obvious within their community as they would appear in the wider world with all its temptations to bring out such characteristics. Among the crowd, too, was the bully, the promiscuous, the liar, the pretentious, and the coward, each as perfect and distinct in his type as if he had spent a fortune in acquiring his particular character.

‘Dodger’s’ system, in originality of design, in comic conception, and in the ease with which it could be taught was something that would have been difficult to equal, much less surpass. Had the impudent little rascal restricted himself to dancing as it was usually taught, there would have been nothing uncommon about it. But ‘Dodger’ always insisted in teaching by example, and he would not entertain any other manner of instruction. Moreover, dancing was only one of the things that ‘Dodger’ taught or professed to teach. At one time he undertook to teach everyone in his school how they should enter a room in the most correct and fashionable way. He also insisted that he was the only man who could teach a gentleman how he should greet a lady in the most agreeable and socially acceptable style. The man insisted that he had already taught this important lesson to many others and with great success, as he had the art of the curtsy or bow. He professed to be able to teach every lady and gentleman how to make the most beautiful bow or curtsey, by imitating him. So confident was he of this boast that he said if there was a great crowd present each would think it had been intended for them! In fact, according to ‘Dodger’, he could teach the entire art of courtship with all the grace and success of any Frenchman or Italian. He could teach how love-letters and valentine cards should be written, containing every compliment ever invented by that great lover ‘Casanova’. But he insisted that only he could teach a person a magical dance which would allow a gentleman to lead a lady to wherever he wished, and for a lady to feel free to go wherever she was being led.

With such instruction on offer and delivered in a most agreeable, his school quickly became the most popular in the county. The truth of his system was that he had contrived to make sure every gentleman would salute his lady as often as possible, and to ensure this he invented dances, in which every gentleman saluted every lady but, at the same time, every lady would return the compliment, by saluting every gentleman. But he did not allow his male pupils to have all the saluting to themselves, for the amorous little blackguard always started first and ended last. This, ‘Dodger’ said, was so that they might all catch the method from himself. “Ladies and gentlemen, I do this as an example for you, and because it forms an important part of system!” Then he produce a meagre attempt at a smile before twirling over the floor in a way that he thought was totally irresistible.

The one thing ‘Dodger’s’ system did not affect was the honour of our Irish women. My grandfather could not recall one single occasion when the system was shown to be incompatible with virtue to our countrywomen. This, of course, was a great advantage to the respect he had within the community, and a woman’s virtue was much prized the country. Several weddings, that might otherwise not have taken place, were unquestionably a result of ‘Dodger’s’ system, but in not one instance have we heard that such a union was brought about because a woman had suffered shame or misfortune. According to my grandfather ‘Dodger’s’ way of teaching was conducted in the following way:-

 “Now, Paddy Curran, walk you out and enter the parlour, and Jenny Horan can go out with you and come in as Mrs. Curran.” ‘Dodger’ would direct.

Ah, sure, Master, I’m afraid that I’ll make an awful mess of it, but at least I will Jenny here to help me through it,” Paddy replied.

Is that supposed to be a compliment, Paddy?” asked the Master. “For Mr. Curran, you should always speak to a lady in a smooth tone.

Paddy and Judy left as instructed and the ‘Dodger’ turned to Micky Scullion, directing him, “Micky Scullion, come up here, now that we’re breathing a little, and you, Grainne Mulholland, come up along with him. Miss Mulholland, you can master your five positions and your fifteen attitudes, I believe?

Yes, sir.”

Very well, Miss. Now, Micky Scullion—ahem!—Mister Scullion, can you perform the positions also, Mickey?

Yes, sir! But you remember I got stuck at the eleventh attitude.”

 “Don’t worry about that. But, Mister Scullion, do you know how to salute a lady, Micky?

Sure, it’s hard to say, sir, ‘til we try. But I’m very willin’ to learn it. I’ll do my best, and, sure, I can do no more.” Replied Micky

Alright! Now mark me and what I do, Mister Scullion. You approach your lady in this style, bowing politely, as I do. Miss Mulholland, will you allow me the honour of a heavenly salute? Don’t bow, ma’am, you’re to curtsy, you know. Just a little lower if you please. Now you say, ‘With the greatest pleasure in life, sir, and many thanks for the favour.’ There, now, you are to make another polite curtsy, and say, ‘Thank you, kind sir, I owe you one.’ Now, Mister Scanlan, proceed.”

I’m to imitate you, master, as well as I can, sir, I believe?

Yes, sir, you are to imitate me. But hold on a minute, sir! Did you see me lick my lips or pull up my trousers? By God, but that’s shockingly unromantic. First make a curtsy, a bow I mean, to Miss Grainne. Stop again, sir! Are you going to strangle the poor lady? Why, one would think that you were about to take leave of her for ever! Gently, Mister Scullion! Jaysus, gently, Micky! There now, that’s an improvement. Practice, Mister Scullion, practice will do all. But don’t smack so loud, though. Hello, gentlemen! where’s our parlour-room folk? Go out, one of you, for Mister an’ Mrs Paddy Curran.

Curran’s face peeped in at the door, lit up with a comic expression, from whatever had cause it. “Easy, Mister Corcoran, and where’s Mrs Curran, sir?

Are we both to come in together, master?

Certainly. Turn out both your toes—turn them out, I say.”

Sure, sir, that’s easier said than done with some of us.

I know that, Mister Curran, but practice is everything. The bowed-legs are against you, Mister Curran. Sure, if your toes were where your heels are, you’d be exactly in the first position, Paddy. Well, both of you turn out your toes, look straight forward, clasp your beret, put it under your arm, and walk into the middle of the floor, with your head up. Stop! Take up your post. Now, take your beret, in your right hand, and give it a flourish. Easy, Mrs Horan, I mean Curran, it’s not you that is to flourish. Well, flourish your hat, Paddy, and then make a graceful bow to the company. Ladies and gentlemen.

Ladies and gentlemen.”

I’m your most obedient servant.”

I’m your most obedient servant.”

Jaysus, man alive! that’s not a bow. Look at this – there’s a bow for you. Why, instead of making a bow, you appear as if you were going to sit down with lumbago in your back. Well, practice is everything, for there’s only luck in leisure. Now, Dick Doran, will you come up, and try if you can make anything of that trebling step. You’re a pretty lad, Dick! Yes, a pretty lad, Mister Doran, with a pair of left legs, and you expect to learn to dance. But, don’t despair, man. I’m not afraid and I’ll make a graceful slip of a boy out you yet. Now, Can you make a curtsy?

Not right, now. I doubt.”

Well, sir, I know that. But, Mister Doran, you ought to know how to make both a bow and a curtsy. When you marry a wife, Misther Doran, it mightn’t be a bad thing if you could teach her a curtsy. Have you the ‘gutty’ and ‘pump’ with you?

Yes, sir.”

Very well, on with them! The ‘pump’ on the right foot, or what ought to be the right foot, and the ‘gutty’ upon what ought to be the left. Are you ready?

Yes, sir.”

Come on, then, do as I bid you. Rise up on the ‘pump’ and sink on the ‘gutty’; rise up on the ‘pump’ and sink on the ‘gutty’; rise up on – Hold on, sir! You’re sinking on ‘pump’ and rising up on the ‘gutty’, the very thing you ought not to do. But God help you! sure you’re left-legged! Ah, Mister Doran.it would be a long time before you’d be able to dance a Jig or a Hornpipe. However, don’t despair, Mister Doran. If I could only get you to know your right leg, but God help you! Sure, you haven’t such a thing! From your left, I’ll make something of you yet, Dick.”

Competition between the Dancing-masters was rife and, although they seldom met each other, they still abused each other albeit from a distance. But distance did not lessen the virulence and disparagement that was spread. Now, ‘Dodger’ had just such a rival, who proved to be a constant thorn in his side. His name was Harry Fitzpatrick who, at one-time had been a jockey, but he gave up horse-racing and took the less injurious course of being a dancing-master. ‘Dodger’ once sent Harry a message, which said that, “if he could not dance ‘The Humours of Ballymanus’ (Slip Jig) on the head of a drum, then he would be better holding his tongue for ever.” To this insult Harry replied, by asking if he was a man able to dance the ‘Jockey to the Fair’ upon the saddle of a racing horse, with it travelling at a three-quarter gallop.

As the insults thickened, friends on each side prevailed upon them to settle their claims in a competition. The idea was for each master, with twelve of his pupils, to dance against his rival with twelve of his. The competition was to take place on top of ‘Kilberry Hill’, which had a commanding view of the entire parish. As previously mentioned, in ‘Dodger’s’ school there stood near the middle of the floor a post. In a new manoeuvre developed by ‘Dodger’ this post was convenient as a guide to the dancers when going through the figure in their dance. At the spot where this post stood it was necessary for the dancers to make a curve, in order to form part of the figure of eight, which they were to follow. But, as many of them couldn’t quite get it into their heads what he wanted, he forced them to turn around the post rather than make an acute angle of it, which several of them managed to achieve.

At last, the time came for the competition and it was, everyone agreed, a matter of great difficulty to decide who was best, for each was as good as the other. When ‘Dodger’s’ pupils came to perform their dance, however, they found that the absence of the post was an insurmountable problem. They had carried out all their training with the post in place and were accustomed to it. With the post they could dance, but without the post they pranced about like so many ships at sea without rudders or compasses. It fast became a scene of hilarious confusion, which caused some laughter. ‘Dodger’ stood, looking on, like he was about to explode with shame and anger. But, in fact, the man was in agony. “Gentlemen turn the post!” he shouted, stamping on the ground, and clenching his little hands in fury. “Ladies remember the post! Oh, for the honour of the school don’t let them beat you. The post! Gentlemen, ladies, the post if you love me! In the name of God, the post!

By Jaysus, master, that jockey will out distance us,” replied Bob Megarity, “it’s likely he’ll be winning!

Any money,” shouted the ‘Dodger’, “any money for long Sam Callaghan, for he’s be able to stand-in for the post. Mind it, boys dear Jaysus, mind it or we’re lost. The Devil a bit do they heed me! They’re more like a swarm of bees or a flock of sheep. Sam Callaghan, where are the hell are you? The post, you blackguards!

Oh, master, if we only we had a fishing-rod, or a crow-bar, or a poker, we might yet get it done. But, sure, we would be better giving in, for we’re only getting worse at it.”

At this stage of the proceedings Harry came over to ‘Dodger’, and making a low bow, asked him, “Ah, now, how do you feel, Mister Doherty?” which was ‘Dodger’s true name.

Sir,” ‘Dodger replied, “I’ll take the shine out of you yet. Can you salute a lady with me?—that’s the game! Come, gentlemen, show them what’s better than fifty posts, salute your partners like proper Irishmen!

My grandfather described the calamitous scene that now followed. ‘Dodger’ had his people trained to kiss in platoons, and those watching the spectacle were literally convulsed with laughter. No one could quite believe that ‘Dodger’ would introduce such ludicrous ceremony in an attempt to stem the defeat he faced. But he turned the laughter completely against his rival, and swaggered off the ground in high spirits, exclaiming loudly, “He doesn’t know how to salute a lady! Sure, that poor eejit never kissed any woman but his mother, and that only when the poor woman was dying!

Such, friend, is the manner in which my grandfather, God rest his soul, described the character of an Irish dancing-master. There few if any of these men left in Ireland and yet the competition between the current crop of Irish dancing-teachers is the same, though they try very hard not to show it. Whether your child does ‘Traditional’ or ‘Feis’ dancing just watch the next competition that they attend and you will be able to see for yourselves just how close the characters described by my grandfather still carry on the customs.

Heralds of Death

Those who have read some of my books of Irish Short Stories or have followed my stories will know that they contain several stories about “The Banshee”, which, of all Irish spirits, fairies, and ghosts, is the most widely known. Those people from other countries who visit Ireland usually read up on the customs and folklore of the nation, along with its flora, fauna, and wildlife. Indeed, some visitors arrive believing that ‘The Banshee’ is one of the sites of our country and they seem to expect it to manifest itself to them at some time during their stay.

The Banshee, however, is an Irish legend whose roots go way back to the dark days of pre-history, when there were all sorts of mystical and magical creatures that were said to roam the land. But the first recorded sighting of ‘The Banshee’ was the spirit that attached itself to the Clan of O’Brien, from among whose ranks came several High Kings of Ireland, and haunted their old Castle of ‘Kincora’, the ruins of which remain near Killaloe in County Clare. Then, at the great and bloody ‘Battle of Clontarf’, that was fought in 1014 A.D. between the Irish and the Danes, Ireland’s famous High King, Brian Boru, was killed at the very moment of his victory. It is rumoured, however, that ‘The Banshee’ appeared to the old King on the eve of battle to tell him of his future victory, while forewarning him that he would not survive the battle.

There is a story from more recent times, which is said to have occurred in the countryside of North County Armagh. Although there are no longer any surviving witnesses to what happened at that time, the story is accepted as fact by the local community. The story tells us that at a house, which still stands in this rural area, an old man lay upon his deathbed waiting for eternal sleep to overcome him. The man’s three grown-up sons had, in the meantime, sent for the local doctor and were anxiously awaiting his arrival just as the first light of dusk crossed the sky. They were having a smoke on the front steps of the cottage, and they quietly chatting among themselves when they first heard the heavy rumbling noise of coach wheels on a metalled road. They looked up and they saw a huge, black coach drive into their farmyard, which stretched out from the main door of the house. Nervously, one of the old man’s sons went down to meet the coach, believing that it was carrying the doctor, but the coach swept past him at speed and continued to move down the lane to a gate. Witnessing all this, the other two sons ran after the coach, which was became hidden from view by high hedges, but they could still hear the rumbling of the coach wheels. In their rush, the two young men almost crashed into the gate, which was closed across the lane and barring the exit. The rumbling of the coach had stopped by this time and the carriage itself had totally vanished, without leaving as much as a wheel rut in the ground. The large padlock on the gate remained completely intact and there was no sign at all that the gate had been tampered with. But, a short time later, the doctor arrived at the house and he quickly came to realise that there was nothing that he could do for the old man, who died quietly only an hour or so after the visit.

There is an older story, which relates to an event that took place one night in early spring, in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Two house servants had been instructed to await the arrival of a coach, which was bringing home the family’s eldest son. The young man had travelled to England, and further afield, seeking a cure to the illness from which he was suffering, but all his efforts had proved to be fruitless. One of the servants, who had been dozing in the hall, was suddenly awakened by the heavy rumbling noise of an approaching coach. Still half asleep, he immediately awakened his companion and they both went out of the house door and down the long flight of steps to open the carriage door. But, as the servant reached out his hand to turn the handle to the door, he was surprised and terrified to see a skull looking out of the window at him. In his terror, he screamed loudly and fell in a heap at the side of the coach and, when he finally awakened once more the servant slowly picked himself up from the ground, but he saw neither sight or sound of the coach. About ten minutes later the invalid eldest son’s coach arrived, and the servants carried him to his bed. Unfortunately, the young man’s illness had become very much worse and his suffering ended when he died in his sleep.

On a winter’s night, at the beginning of the last century, a coach was seen by a gamekeeper who was doing his rounds of a large property, which stood in a scenic wooded glen among the beautiful Glens of Antrim. It was a calm and frosty night as he made his patrol of the property, and he suddenly heard the loud rumbling of wheels on the avenue that ran up to the back of the house. But he knew that it was not possible for any vehicle to be arriving at the property so late at night, and all sorts of strange thoughts began to enter his head. Recalling ancient legends from the district, his thoughts quickly turned to the possibility that the noise could be the approach of the ‘Death Coach’. As this possibility dawned upon him, he ran to open the gates on the avenue before the ‘coach’ arrived, and he just about managed to open the last gate and throw himself on the ground beside it, when he heard the coach go past. With his head buried in the damp ground the man did not actually see the coach itself as it went past, but the next day he heard the news that the property owner’s uncle had died suddenly in London. But, in this story, there is a very important fact for the reader and uninitiated to learn, namely that at the sight or sound of a coach all gates that might bar its way should be immediately thrown open. It is only by doing this can a person ensure the ‘Death Coach’ will not stop at their house to call for a member of the immediate family, but it will only warn of the death of a relative who is somewhere else.

Despite the many stories and legends about the Banshee, we must remember that she is not always the harbinger of death in Irish families, because certain families have other strange and varied warnings that death is near to them. There was one local family that I recall, who believed a death in their family is foretold by a female ghost, dressed in a white satin dress and opening the door into the living area where she walks across the room and through the hallway. A friend once told me that his family believed that the breaking of a mirror is an omen of death, while a cousin related that he knew of a family who was convinced that the independent opening and shutting of the farm gate foretells the passing of a family member. Among Irish families, there are varied traditions concerning the fore-telling of death, including one that says the cry of a cuckoo, in any season of the year, is a herald of death. In another family, that warning of death may be the sound of a ringing bell, even when there is not a bell in the house. I can remember my uncle’s wife telling me, at one time, that a rat crossing their path is a warning of a death in her family, while a neighbour’s family are certain that seeing a large white owl is a certain sign of death among them.

This list is short, but I am certain that there are many people from various areas of Ireland who could add to my list and make it much more comprehensive.

Nines

The magic number of the Celts

The number nine was a favourite number with the Celts and was used more frequently in ‘cure ceremonials’ than any other number.

Say that last night you went to your bed and in perfect health. When you awoke this morning, you find there is a lump or tumour on your face, or on some other part of your body. You had not felt any pain until you awoke, but now there is some pain, or is at least somewhat troublesome. You know now that some spirit of evil has touched you, and would you like to know the cure? Of course, you want the cure and, here it is!

Get nine pieces of iron, any articles will do, just make certain that they are made of iron. Then, “measure” the swelling with these irons, namely you make the sign of the cross with each on the “blighted” spot and throw the ninth iron over your head. There now, you are cured! praise be to God!

You don’t believe me, but I heard this story from an old lady called Mary. She told me, “My wee Bridie went to bed one night as well as ever she was. But, in the morning she had a lump on her cheek the size of a hen’s egg. To be honest, I paid little attention to it and thought it would be alright again before night time. I was thinking to myself that it had come on her suddenly and would suddenly disappear again. But the lump got worse and old Sadie from Ballinacorr came into the house about twelve o’clock. ‘In the name of God,’ said she, ‘what’s wrong with the little girl? God bless her !

There’s none of us that knows,’ says I.

And did you do anything for it?‘ says she.

‘I did not,’ says I, ‘for I hadn’t a clue what to do with it.

Well get nine irons,‘ says she, ‘and though you should have done it long ago, measure her.’

Well, we did, and she was all right within a very short time, and now for you!

” For inflammation of the eyelid, an equally remarkable use is made of the number nine. The sore, which usually assumes the form of a small round lump, tapering towards the top, is called a sty. To ‘cure’ it, take nine gooseberry pricks, or “stabs ” as they are called, and in succession ‘point’ first towards the eye, next towards the ground, and the final one was thrown over the left shoulder. I know a friend that once ‘doctored’ herself in the way that I have told you, and she got immediate relief.

Why the gooseberry “stabs” are the only ones which are effective I don’t know. In the same way I cannot explain ‘The Soot o’ Nine Pots’ being a sure remedy for many kinds of illness that can effect cattle. The one thing that I do know is that any number other than nine will not do. At one time someone suggested that the number was selected in honour of the ‘Nine Muses’, (Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomeni, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope) but I believe this idea to be too fanciful to be seriously entertained. I believe it is sufficient for us to know that the directions for use are faithfully recorded and that we should use them in accordance with the precise directions that are contained in that great traditional and mystical list of medicines created by the Gaelic race since earliest times.

The Bad Old Days

A Tale of Old Ireland

Aye, it was in the bad old days,” said Johnny Rogan, who was one of a group of young men who were sitting around a neighbour’s fireside one cold winter’s night, in the Mournes. “It was in the days when the sheep rustlers were plundering and stealing anything that was not nailed down. My grandfather and my grandmother were staying up late one Sunday night, sitting by the fireside, on a cold night like this and about this time of the year. At their feet was ‘Spot’, a fine, big lump of a dog, which was as strong as a bull and as clever as a bag full of monkeys. Sure, there was no other dog the likes of him to be found anywhere else in the country, and there he was, as large as life, lying sleeping in a corner of the kitchen. Then, quite suddenly ‘Spot’ stirred himself, lifted up his head and gave a couple of growls.”

‘Lie down, ye dirty hound,’ said my grandmother, ‘what are you growling at, at all?‘ But it did no good. ‘Spot’ jumped up on his feet and let a couple of loud barks out of him that you could’ve heard miles away.

Here,’ said my grandfather as he reached her the length of broken stick that they used as tongs for the fire, ‘Hit that brute a thump with this and that’ll soon make him lie down and be quiet.

Would you whisht for a minute?‘ my grandmother asked in a soft whisper. ‘If I’m not losing my hearing altogether, I’ll swear that there are people tramping around outside, around the house, by God.

Well, by God, the old woman had hardly the words out of her mouth before the dog went tearing mad to the door, barking and jumping and scraping, trying its best to get out. ‘Jaysus almighty!’ swore my grandfather, ‘It’s those damned thieving blackguards that are coming here to steal and rob me of my herd of sheep. Open that bloody door and let ‘Spot’ at them, until I get to my feet and into my shoes.

Well, my grandmother went to the door and lifted the bars to let ‘Spot’ out. Now, in those days they weren’t the same kind of doors in those days as we have now. The doors were not on hinges then but were only standing up with bars of wood across on the inside to keep them locked and straight. But, somehow, my grandmother got her hand in between the door and the jamb, and was lifting back the door, when to her horror someone or something outside got a hold of her hand. She roared and screeched out in her terror for my grandfather to help her, and without taking time to lace-up his boots, he went to help his wife. He immediately took a tight hold of her and pulled her back. At the same time, the door fell in, allowing the dog to jump out, and run barking madly around the house. Out went my grandfather, and he ran away after the dog.

It would have been hard to tell which of them was the craziest, the dog or my grandfather. The night was as black as ink, and the only guide my grandfather had was the barking of the dog, and wherever he went my grandfather followed him down the boreen, into the gardens, up and down, back and forward, until he was completely tired out. But, every now and then, the dog would stand and howl, and snarl wickedly as if he was fighting with something for his life. Then, as if he was gaining a victory over his adversaries, the dog would run on a bit further. My grandfather could hardly see a thing although he was often so near the dog that he should have been able to see whatever was there, that is if they could be seen at all.

Well, after he was fully exhausted, his clothes torn in rags, his hands, face and feet, for he had lost his boots in the race, cut and bruised going through the briar bushes, and falling over walls, he had to give up and come back to the house. The dog, however, didn’t come back home for three days, and they were beginning to think that they’d never see him again, until one day at about dinner time ‘Spot’ staggered in lame and covered with blood. ‘Och, my poor Spot,’ said my grandfather, welcoming him back, ‘Sure, didn’t we think that you were killed.

The poor dog was just as glad to see the old couple as they were to see him. ‘It was a hard fight you had my good little puppy,‘ said my grandmother as she rubbed the dirt and blood off him. ‘But I’m thinking it will be a long time until those villains come troubling us again, for I’m sure you left them many a sore spot that are ready to blister. Aye, and I hope that they may never get better until they die! That’s my heartfelt prayer.

You see my grandmother and my grandfather thought that it was the sheep stealers that caused the noise, but they would soon find out different when they heard another story, and that was not long in coming. One night, just about ten days after that night that I was talking about, my grandfather was ceilidhing with old Nancy Mellon, in the village hall. They used to call her the old ‘She-Witch’, for she could tell you everything that was to come, and everything that was past. That night my grandfather noticed, by the way she was looking at him, and sneaking about so creepily, that she had something very important to say to him. There was a young fellow in the house that went in along with my grandfather, and she didn’t like to speak in front of him. The excuse to get rid of him was to send him to the shop for half-an-ounce of tobacco for her. No sooner had he pulled the door of the hall after him than she sat down beside my grandfather, and she began to speak, saying, ‘Dear God, Stephen, I thought I’d never get the chance to get speaking to you about what happened ten nights ago.

Well, my grandfather was taken completely by surprise, for not a word did he or my grandmother speak about that night to anyone. But the old witch started to tell him the ins and outs of everything that had taken place, every wall he crossed, every fall he had, every garden he went into, and all things that had happened. And then she whispered in his ear, and she said, ‘Stephen, you know I’d give you good advice, and its sorry I was that you were left so in need of advice that night. But I tell you now, that only for your dog, and one other thing, you would never have got back home as ye come out of it. There were those there that night that you put your dog after that didn’t like to harm you, and that’s the one other thing I that saved you. Indeed, only for them your dog could not have stood between you and harm. The blessing of God with the souls of those that are gone! Sure, it’s not often they troubled you, and it was too bad, entirely, that you should have hunted with your dog those that were born and reared, and that died, in your house. If I told you their names, it would break yer heart to think of what you did. Sure, I know well enough that you wouldn’t have done it if you had known what they were let alone who they were. You thought it was robbers, but Stephen, you were far from the mark, and if you look at your dog’s neck when you go home maybe you’ll see something, but I’ll say no more now. Only take me advice and never do the like of what you did that night again. There were some, too, who were there that never cared much about you, and you needn’t thank them for getting back home safe, and maybe if you don’t take warning from what I’ve told you, then you’ll be sorry, that’s all.

Well, by God, when my grandfather went home, he looked at the dog’s neck, and what he saw made him sit down and cry. He wouldn’t tell me what he saw. All he said was that he took it off, and he was crying when he was telling me the story, and he warned me never to repeat it to anyone living until he died, and I didn’t.

Sex and the Famine

Recently, I was reading through several books on the ‘Great Famine in Ireland’, or ‘Genocide for those who prefer to think of it that way.  I read about Mayo, Sligo, Galway and West Cork where the men women and children died in their thousands during the ‘Great Famine’ in towns like Skibbereen and Ballinrobe. But, among this list should be numbered a coastal town in County Clare that is located in the south-west of the county, near the mouth of the River Shannon. This is Kilrush and there were few places, except for those named above, that suffered more severely from a combination of eviction and famine in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Reading an article by Paul Gray and Liam Kennedy, both lecturers in history at Queen’s University, Belfast, which was published in a recent edition of “History Ireland”, heightened my interest in all areas of life affected by the Famine. They pointed out that Kilrush was renowned for something that I had never thought of before.  The area became noteworthy for the apparent surge in illegitimate births that occurred over the twenty years after the ‘Great Famine’. According to reports, by 1864 these illegitimate births accounted for at least ten per cent of all births that were recorded in the baptism register for the Catholic parish of Kilrush.  Both Gray and Kennedy point out that this was a remarkably high proportion for mid-Victorian Ireland, especially when one considers that prior to the ‘Famine’ the ratio was barely one percent in most years. Their conclusion was that the spectacular and sustained rise in recorded illegitimate births might suggest that there was a radical change in sexual mores in this County Clare town and its surrounding area. The surprise in these statistics lies in the fact that this occurred in the west of Ireland, which is generally considered to be the one region of Ireland were morals were high and, therefore, there were very few illegitimate births.

The article’s authors questioned the possibility that the ‘Famine’ and the associated evictions were likely causes for the surprising rise in illegitimate births. They suggested that it was possible, that in all the tragedy and suffering experienced by the people of Kilrush and its environs during those years of ‘Famine’, that sexual morals may have been forced to disappear by circumstances. With starvation rampant, surely it is not too far-fetched to imagine that some women felt it necessary to barter their bodies for food, a roof over their head, or money to help their suffering.  It is an unfortunate fact of life that food shortages in a male dominated society can also open numerable opportunities for the sexual exploitation of women by unscrupulous men. In many cases there were many who became pregnant and were comfortable to declare that their husbands had abandoned them to sail for America, or other destinations. In more normal times, the alleged father would have most certainly been dragged to the altar and obliged to honour his responsibilities. These days, however, were far from being normal times. The collapse of the Irish peasantry’s potato-led economy, the decimation of family, the breakdown of communal support, and the beginnings of mass emigration made abandonment of responsibilities a strategic alternative for the restless and rash-minded males. For these women, in such desperate times, the ability to bring social pressures to bear on such men was not easily accomplished. The vulnerable and too trusting women, especially if the family and community support network had been lost because of death or emigration, were left to bring up the child alone in conditions that were not good for continued survival.

From the records it appears that illegitimacy in Kilrush rose considerably during the ‘Famine’, as well as during its immediate aftermath. The effects of the ‘Famine’, however, were only short-term rather than long-term in nature, which suggests other possible causes for the rise in illegitimate births in this area. One possible answer could be the fact that Kilrush is a port town, which are often associated with prostitution and illegitimacy. Furthermore, with the rise of coastal holidays during the Victorian era, the town became the gateway to the growing holiday resorts of west Clare, such as Kilkee on the Atlantic coastline. The authors of the article, Gray and Kennedy, quote a visitor to Kilkee complaining that the resort was “infested by a number of unfortunate women, who disturb the inhabitants and visitors at night”. This must have been a most enjoyable attraction to some of the visitors to the town because, despite a public condemnation from the pulpit of the Catholic Church, the infestation continued unabated. It is reported that two of these unfortunate ladies from Kilrush, were assaulted by the local priest as they plied their trade. The priest, however, was arrested and was subsequently fined one shilling and costs for his pains. There are also suggestions that the sex trade in this area was being supplemented seasonally, to coincide with the tourist trade, by prostitutes from Limerick city.

The increase in the incidence of illegitimacy suggests that this can only be a small part of the story as to why it occurred. There is, of course, the speculation that Kilrush, and the area surrounding the town, had within it a “bastardy-prone sub-society”. Research suggests, however, that of the 211 mothers recorded as giving birth to children outside wedlock in the quarter-century after the ‘Famine’, only eighteen per cent were bearers of more than one illegitimate child. The article gave the example of a woman called, Mary Giffin, had illegitimate children baptised in August 1858, August 1861, September 1863 and September 1868. A certain Margaret Byrnes is also mentioned, whose illegitimate children were baptised in June 1859, March 1861, August 1863 and May 1865. These examples, however, were more the exception than the rule and most single mothers did not repeat the experience of bearing a child out of wedlock.

The explanation put forward by Mr Gray and Mr Kennedy is much simpler than any of the preceding suggestions. Taking a more detailed examination of the Catholic baptismal register for Kilrush parish revealed that approximately sixty per cent of births for the period 1850–75 were to women from the workhouse. But, the Kilrush workhouse served the entire union and not just the parish of Kilrush. When these workhouse births were excluded from the statistics, then the numbers that could be attributable to Kilrush were reduced to the more normal levels expected in a town situated in the west of Ireland. From these results, then, the inflated levels of illicit sexuality in Kilrush after the ‘Famine’ appear to be due to a quirk of registration rather than from any radical shift in the sexual behaviour of Clare men and Clare women. But, the result raises wider questions about the validity of parish register information on illegitimacy.  This is true, not just for Ireland but for all those societies where the institutionalised provision of welfare might affect the recording of illegitimate births.

What kind of life did these unmarried mothers, who increasingly used the workhouse, live? The answer is not clear to us since the indoor relief registers for Kilrush, which would give some detail of the individual lives of unmarried mothers, have not survived. The indoor relief registers for the Rathdrum and Shillelagh Poor Law unions have somehow survived, and they provide a touching image of unmarried mothers and their children. While some of these women appear to have merited only a few lines, there were others who were more regular visitors. Mary Donnelly, was a 22-year-old servant from Arklow, who was admitted to Rathdrum workhouse on 16 August 1850. She was heavily pregnant when admitted and she gave birth to Thomas on 6 September, leaving the institution with the child ten days later and does not appear to have returned to the workhouse.  A certain Ellen Power entered Rathdrum workhouse on 18 February 1851, as a homeless 24-year-old charwoman. Her daughter was born on 27 March 1851 and taken from the workhouse without her mother on 8 August 1851.  Ellen subsequently left the workhouse on the 14th of that month. Another young woman called Eliza Ashton, a 22-year-old servant, arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850, and left again a week later. Then, on 6 October, Eliza was admitted into the workhouse as a patient and less than a week later Thomas was born. Both mother and child left on 26 October, Eliza does not appear to have returned to the workhouse again.

While some unmarried mothers left little trace in the workhouse record, there were others who made many appearances in those records. A woman called Eliza Geoghan, a 25-year-old garden worker, used the Rathdrum workhouse 23 times between 27 August 1850 and 2 June 1862. During that time her son John was born on 21 December 1850, with mother and child subsequently leaving the institution on 24 February 1851. Both entered the workhouse again, however, with John being removed on 24 June, a month before his mother left. While nothing more of John is recorded, Eliza returned to the workhouse, pregnant again, on 19 February 1854, and Dennis was born just over a week later. Both mother and child left the workhouse on 23 June 1854, but they were to enter the institution three more times between June 1854 and April 1856. Unfortunately, during their last visit, beginning on 23 September 1855, Dennis was to die on 9 April the following year. Eliza appears to have left only 9 days later, on 18 April 1856 but returned many times, spending the winters of 1856 and 1857 there, though she gave birth to no more children in the workhouse. It appears that most of the time she lived within the electoral division of Dunganstown East, only changing her residence to another townland twice. On her last two visits to the workhouse, however, she was most probably homeless and suffering increased destitution. She was mostly described as a ‘servant’, but also a ‘garden worker’ and, on what was her penultimate visit, she was said to be ‘infirm’ and apparently unemployed.

Yet another example of the multiple user was that of Jane Allen, who was to use Rathdrum workhouse on 34 occasions between 17 September 1850 and 13 March 1863. She was a twenty-six years old servant, who first arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850 and gave birth to her son, John, on 19 October. John was subsequently taken away on 6 June 1851 and Jane left four days later. While nothing more is known about John, we do know Jane was to have three more children: Eliza (30 July 1852), born in the workhouse, Ellen (1856), born outside the workhouse, and James (8 September 1861), born in the house. During these years Jane is known to have stayed in Dunganstown South or Dunganstown West electoral divisions, though she did occasionally change townlands. It is also known that sometimes she and her children would stay for several months. On other occasions they would  stay only a matter of days. Although during her earlier stays in the workhouse Jane was referred to as a servant, for most of the times that stayed in the workhouse she was described as a ‘charwoman’. More interestingly, it seems that her marital status changed during the period, for example she was registered as being single for the period up to February 1861, then she is described as ‘married’ during her stay in February/March 1861, but on her next admittance, in August 1861, she is described as ‘single’ once again. Her children were admitted as ‘deserted’ in March 1861, leaving in June 1861, but the family was reunited in August 1861. They were to enter the workhouse five more times after this and, on each occasion, Jane is described as married. Her marital status can be said to be confusing during these years and one must wonder if she was not in fact a deserted wife, or perhaps intermittently so.

Stories such as these help to give us a much clearer picture of the perilous existence that faced an unmarried mother at this time. To some the workhouse was viewed as a resource in the constant battle against poverty, especially among the peasantry, including unmarried or abandoned mothers. We can, therefore, say that to some extent the unmarried mother did have some support, but in mid- and late Victorian Ireland this support system was of an extremely restricted kind. Throughout rural Ireland the life that faced unmarried mothers was one of desperation.  They faced religious, family and community hostility, as well as an unsympathetic and sometimes punitive system of welfare provision. Those who were known as ‘bastard-bearers’ were generally ground down between the actions of society and the state although, to some extent, their Unfortunatelysituation may have varied within the urban and industrialised Province of Ulster

Little is known of the fate of the illegitimate children born during this period. But, Gray and Kennedy give us the case of Eliza Pearson, who was aged four-years when she was discovered at the door of ‘Shillelagh’ workhouse and was deserted by her mother, Anne.  Eliza was taken into the workhouse on 19 June 1850 and left on 10 April 1856. Another child, Thomas Dwier, who was aged five and described as a ‘bastard’, was admitted on 29 February 1852. His mother had been transported and had left him ‘destitute without food’ and, in fact, is one of the very few instances where a male illegitimate child is mentioned in the records available. There is, however, no record of his departure from the workhouse. Finally, Bridget Nugent was nine when she was deserted by her father and as a deserted bastard, she had no friends or home. She was, therefore, admitted on 10 January 1851 and did not leave the workhouse until the 28 July 1855.  

It has surely not gone unnoticed that unmarried and pregnant women suffered stigmatisation and degradation under both the workhouse system and in the larger society, men appear to have largely escaped notice or sanction. The Thurles union replied to a circular from the ‘Poor Law Commissioners’, concerning moral classification, by condemning the unfairness in gender terms of a system that singled out female morality in the workhouse. At the same time the Thurles Union pointed out that no classification in this respect has been made at the male side. It is a fact that there are few clues as to the unmarried mothers in Kilrush, whose names are contained in the parish records. It must be said that even less is known about those shadowy but potent figures of males who had set women on a downward course to vilification, destitution and disgrace.

It is an irony of the history of the Irish workhouses that they could have become places for ‘immoral behaviour’, despite the rules and regimentation that governed these grim institutions. In the minutes of the Kilrush union for 1853 it is revealed that the master and the matron of the workhouse had been accused of immorality. The accused persons were, however, later acquitted. According to the rules and regulations of the Poor Law system, women and men were to be strictly segregated within the penal institution of the workhouse. But in 1853 the master reported, no doubt with some concern – ‘I beg to report to the board that Mr Nolan the resident apothecary informed me on Sunday last that a pauper woman named Kate Quinn who has been in this house for a long time was pregnant. On enquiry it would appear that a pauper man named John Griffin who is also in the house for a long period is the father. Kate Quinn left the workhouse on the 15th inst. Griffin also took his discharge on the 17th inst.’

As expected ‘The Poor Law’ guardians were not amused – ‘It is much to be regretted that such an evil should have occurred, and the guardians conceive that there must be much neglect on the part of the officers in charge’.

The workhouse system itself was the subject of much criticism, and it certainly bore down heavily on its inmates, both in terms of physical hardship and stigmatisation. But, we must also recognise that it also furnished a safety net for the single mother in her battle for survival in an increasingly hostile moral climate of later Victorian Ireland. There appears to be a tradition within Ireland of labour exploitation and repression, and sometimes outright cruelty, in various societies like the workhouses and the later Magdalene asylums, that were run by Irish Catholic nuns. In pre-independence, or post-independence, Ireland it is evident that society would ensure that there was no easy way out of the trap of unmarried motherhood.

N.B. If you should wish to read more of the work of P. Gray and L. Kennedy the following books are available –

‘Famine, illegitimacy and the workhouse in Western Ireland’, in A. Levene and P. Nutt (eds), Illegitimacy in Britain (London, 2005).

Also L. Kennedy’s study,

‘Bastardy and the Great Famine: Ireland, 1845–1850’, Continuity and Change 14 (3) (1999).

The Famine Potato

Almost every article and book about the Great Irish Famine reminds us how poor the Irish peasantry was in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, and yet they were fit and well enough to undertake the most arduous of labouring tasks. Historians have suggested that it was the reliance of the Irish peasantry on the potato that was the main reason behind their sturdy health, because the potato was filled with both calories and proteins. Under modern nutritional analysis the potato has maintained its place as a health supporting vegetable, although they are usually eaten with other foods and vegetables. Some accounts of famine times suggest that the potato was the sole item that the Peasantry ate. Other accounts suggest that the potato was occasionally accompanied by a bit of fish or mixed with milk. Whatever was the case, the potato was the only cheap food that was capable of sustaining life when it was the only item on the diet. Therefore, if we wish to assess the calorie intake of the average Irish peasant prior to the Famine, we must first know the acreage planted with potatoes and the average yield per acre. But, to complete the calculation we must know the quality of the variety planted.

These days there are so many more varieties of potato in existence than was the case in pre-famine Ireland. During the first decade of the nineteenth century there are accounts recorded that state Irish potatoes – “are pleasant, mealy, and nourishing when compared to the ‘watery and ill-flavoured’ varieties that were prevalent in England. Potato quality declined in Ireland thereafter, however, and on the eve of the Famine the very poor were often forced to rely almost exclusively on inferior varieties, notably the ‘Lumper’.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ is a varietal white potato, which has been identified by historians as the variety of potato whose widespread cultivation throughout Ireland, prior to the 1840s, is most closely linked to ‘An Gorta Mor’. It has earned its poor reputation from the Great Irish Famine in which an estimated 1 million died of starvation and disease. This reputation was due to the lack of ability to withstand blight and tells us nothing about the quality of the variety, which was unknown until revived in recent years.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ was well known for its ability to flourish on raised beds in the garden that are poor in nutrients, wet underfoot, or both. By 1832 the ‘Lumper’ had flourished to become the prevalent variety of potato grown in Ireland, causing an anti-tithes campaigner to complain bitterly – “our only food being lumpers and what the ministers would not eat’. A little later another commentator reported, from a visit to Waterford, that – ‘when men or women are employed, at six-pence a day and their board, to dig Minions or Apple-potatoes, they are not suffered to taste them, but are sent to another field to dig Lumpers to eat’. Although recognised by agricultural experts as a very old variety potato, some had no hesitation in recommending it as stock feed because of its enormous yield per acre. Landlords, because the ‘Lumper’ was recommended for feeding their animals thought it was suitable as food for the poverty-stricken peasants on their lands. It was this in mind that the potato variety was grown to adapt to the climactic conditions of Ireland, particularly the western region.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ was described as being – “wet, nasty, knobbly old potato.” Its texture upon boiling was said to be more “waxy” than “floury”, which indicates that they possess a starch content that is lower than that typical for white potatoes. The starch content in any crop of potatoes is quite variable and climate, pests, soil and agricultural practices all play a role. The impoverished peasantry would have much preferred to eat the more premium varieties of potatoes, but their lack of money to purchase those varieties ensured that they would have to depend on the tasteless, watery and ungainly ‘Lumper’.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ was hailed by many for its nutritional value when it was first introduced into Ireland in the early 19th century. As a result, it quickly became popular among impoverished tenants in Munster and Connacht because of the ease with which it flourished in the poorest of soil. However, we should know how the ‘Lumper’ compared with the premium varieties of the time, and even how it would compare to the modern varieties. When compared with contemporary varieties, the ‘Lumper’s’ weight-loss from cooking was reported, in 1840, to be two ounces in every sixteen, which was much greater. From this we can estimate a labourer’s daily intake of potatoes before the Famine, said to be between 10 and 14 lbs, was reduced by the time it was eaten. In tests held by ‘The Royal Dublin Society’ in the 1830s the actual weight, or specific gravity, of the prevalent potato varieties found that the ‘Lumper’ was the lowest at 1.084. It is accepted that the higher the specific gravity the ‘better’ the potato, since potatoes with a specific gravity of one would float in water. A standard conversion produces dry matter estimates of 28 and 24 per cent for the premium variety of potatoes, and only 21 per cent for the ‘Lumper’. On average, starch content makes up about 80 per cent of the dry matter content, and from these statistics the ‘Lumper’s’ lowly status is evident.

It appears that the ‘Lumper’ was first introduced into Ireland from Scotland in the end of the eighteenth century. Before that time there were dozens of potato varieties cultivated, so many in fact that it was claimed that each county had its own favourite variety. But, because of its higher yields, the ‘Lumper’ spread rapidly. Its adaptability to poor soils, and its reliability were the main attractions to growers. By the 1840s, the variety had made big inroads in the country and the common belief that the Irish peasantry relied almost exclusively on potatoes at this time suggests the ‘Lumper’ was the variety involved.    

Witness records of this time mention potatoes as the main item in the diet, and quite a few witnesses were more specific about the poor quality of potato that was consumed in their particular area. There is at least one reference to ‘that most unhealthy of vegetables, the lumper potato’, while others include in their statements ‘a bad description of potato called lumper’. Such remarks were often regionally concentrated and, moreover, references to ‘some potatoes of the worst description called Connaught lumpers’. This all seems to point to a sharp east-west distribution of the Lumper.

In an exercise conducted by the ‘Irish Folklore Commission’ in 1945-46, there is mention of several varieties of potato in common use before the Famine. Moreover, we must keep in mind that some potato varieties may well have been known by different names in the different counties. Among the many names given are Green Tops, White Rocks, and American Sailors (Kerry), White Tops (Carlow), Skerry Blues, Red Scotch Downs or Peelers, and White Scotch Downs (Westmeath), Thistlewhippers and Pink Eyes (Cavan), Prodestans (Mayo), Weavers (Down), Leathers and Mingens (i.e. Minions) (Kerry), Cups, Buns, Millers’ Thumbs, and Derry Bucks (Donegal), and Coipíní (Connemara). The Lumper was also mentioned in this exercise, but not often. This evidence would suggest, therefore, that there was a much greater variety than allowed for by the historians.

Although it was claimed that ‘Lumpers suffered more than any other variety (from blight)’ (Anon., 1845), in truth, most pre-Famine potato varieties were blight susceptible, and varieties such as Cups, which were grown by more affluent farmers, never recovered their position post-1847. Meanwhile, the ‘Lumper’ has become doubly notorious in our history as a poor food item in the decades leading up to the Great Famine, and for offering such poor resistance to phytophthora infestans (the blight). And yet, although the ‘Lumper’ was definitely dull fare, it did provide sufficient calories to sustain the peasantry before 1845. The ‘Lumper’ will always be linked to the Great Hunger because of the dominance it had gained in Ireland by the 1840s. But, we should also remember that all the other varieties that were commonly sown at the time also succumbed to the blight. Despite what many think, ‘Phytophthora infestans’ did not disappear after the Irish potato famine in 1840s. It continues to devastate potatoes and tomatoes throughout our world, causing billions of pounds annually in losses and control costs. The ‘Lumper’, meanwhile, has not been commercially cultivated for a long time, although it was still grown in some districts in the 1920s. For the curious there are specimens that survive in a few ‘museum’ collections in Ireland and Scotland. The Scottish Agriculture and Fishery Department’s scientific services in Edinburgh has a rich collection of such varieties.

Around the year 2008 a Northern Ireland potato grower and packer, Michael McKillop, became interested in cultivating the ‘Lumper’ once more. He managed to get some heirloom seeds and set about his task, growing the new ‘Lumpers’ smaller than those of the 1800s. The new ‘Lumpers’ that I have sampled did not taste too bad at all, better in fact than what I had expected. They had a decent flavour to them and a texture that felt a little waxy. With both elements again in play will we have a repeat of the Famine – “And as the report got abroad that the blight had struck again, so did the stench confirming the report. It was a sulphurous, sewer-like smell carried by the wind from the rotting plants in the first-struck places. Farmers who had gone to bed imbued with the image of their lush potato gardens were awakened by this awful smell and by dogs howling their disapproval of it.” (‘Paddy’s Lament, Ireland 1846-1847, prelude to hatred by Thomas Gallagher, 1988, Poolbeg Press Ltd., Ireland.)

How the Potato came to Ireland

It was the Spanish conquistadors who first discovered the potato and brought it to the world outside of its place of origin in South America. They did not, however, realise the value of the vegetable that they had stumbled upon when chasing the Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, and his legendary riches. Once it was introduced into Europe it soon became an important crop for the peasantry, especially in Ireland. Today, over five hundred years after Spain’s conquest of South America, the potato continues to thrive in Ireland and throughout the entire world. Yet, despite its very important role in Irish history, there is still some confusion as to how the potato eventually came to our country. A range of famous historical figures, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins, have all been given the credit for introducing the potato into Europe. But, even the stories concerning the involvement of such adventurers are contradictory, and the question remains unanswered; “Who brought the potato to Ireland and when?”

There is some research that suggests that the first potatoes brought to Europe originated in what is now called Chile. These were selected because they had been adapted to form tubers during the long summer days of southern temperate latitudes, which would be comparable to summers in Europe where the length of the day was similar. There was, meanwhile, another potato variety that originated in Peru and Colombia. This potato variety (‘Andigena’) was more used to the shorter days of the tropical latitudes and, therefore, did not mature in Europe until late September and early October when the length of the day is approximately twelve hours.

The first journey from Chile to Europe by the faster ‘Straits of Magellan’ route did not occur until 1579, when the potato was already being grown in Europe. Because of the months of travelling it would have needed to transport potatoes to Spain from Chile the tubers would have resulted in the death of any tubers before they reached their destination. So, it is assumed that the less favourable ‘Andigena’ variety of potato was brought to Europe from Colombia. But, it is not ‘Andigena’ variety that we see every day on our dinner tables in Ireland, but the Chilean variety ‘Tuberosum’. So, what happened?

The first European potatoes were, it seems, ‘Antigena’ variety, but they could only tuberise in the shorter days of the European autumn, limiting their cultivation to the milder regions of Ireland, Spain, Italy, etc.

The sweet potato, which is unrelated to the potato, grew in lowland areas all around the Caribbean, at the time of the Spanish conquests. The potato, however, was only cultivated in the most inaccessible of places. The sweet potato, therefore, was the first to be introduced into Spain, first shipments being made almost immediately after the earliest voyages of Columbus. But, the sweet potato was not only more accessible but also exclusive, because it could only the climate in Spain suited its growth. It’s exclusivity came from the fact that it was an expensive commodity and not something commonly seen on a plate in the rest of Europe.

The evidence available  to us points to there being two early introductions of the potato into Europe. The first, into Spain about 1570 and the second into England between 1585-1590. Potatoes, it appears, were being grown in Spain for a several years prior to 1573 in order to build up stocks. Sixteenth century scientists who had studied many of the new plants, which had been brought from the New World, do not mention the potato at all prior to 1564. Many botanists today agree, therefore, that the potato was introduced into Spain sometime between 1565 and 1570.

It is believed that the potato only reached England in the early 1590s. The English herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), was a popular man who was often presented not only with rare plants and seeds from all over the world but also with offers to supervise the gardens of noblemen. In 1597 he published his celebrated ‘Generall Historie of Plantes’,  which contained over 1,000 species, providing more than 800 chapters of information and a large amount of folklore. In his Catalogue of 1599 Gerard assigned the potato’s natural home to be Virginia, rather than its original habitat in the South American Andes. Although wild potatoes were found as far north as Nebraska in North America, no species was cultivated outside of South America at the time the Spanish arrived in the New World. The potato as we know it was completely unknown in North America until the seventeenth century and wasn’t cultivated there until the 1720s, when it was introduced by settlers from Ulster.

Records suggest that potatoes were first introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh after his return from Virginia. But such suggestions are contentious since it was much more likely that Raleigh got the potatoes from England, because he was never in Virginia and, as already stated, Solanum tuberosum is not native to Virginia. The confusion, however, may have arisen due to Raleigh’s association with a number of voyages to North America, but there is no mention whatsoever of potatoes on his return from any of those voyages.

Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-96), unlike Raleigh, was introduced to solanum tuberosum in the Americas. But, it is rather unlikely that Drake seized potatoes from the Spanish when there was more valuable cargo to be taken. Drake, however, did serve under the Earl of Essex in suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, although it seems improbable that the potato was introduced around this time as it had only just been introduced to Spain and was still unknown in England. Nevertheless, it is recorded that Drake obtained potatoes by barter from the Indians of the Islands of Mocha, off the coast of Chile in November 1578. Having completed his renowned second circumnavigation of the globe in November 1580, but there is no record of potatoes appearing on the menu at this time.

If potatoes came from Virginia in 1586 they must already have been on Sir Francis Drakes’ ships and he may have acquired them from the sack of Cartagena on the coast of what is now Colombia. Potatoes may well have formed part of the valuable haul taken from Cartagena itself or from the cargoes of plundered ships. Drake left Cartagena on 30 March 1585, after picking up the colonists from the failed Roanoke settlement in Virginia, he arrived in Plymouth on 26 July 1586. Perhaps, these potatoes could have been confused with the plants from Virginia. Such a theory would reconcile a number of questions, but we can only speculate if this actually happened.

Instead of looking to England as the source of introducing the potato to Ireland, perhaps we should consider the Spanish. Often referred to as ‘An Spáinneach’, or ‘An Spáinneach Geal’ (The white or kind hearted Spaniard), such names for the potato might point to the suggestion that a Spaniard was actually responsible for introducing the potato to Ireland. There was substantial trade between Ireland and Spain and the introduction of the tuber as a curiosity from Spain through Waterford, seems highly plausible. However, given the lack of historical evidence it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility of an introduction from England. Nevertheless, given that the potato thrived in Ireland from a very early date (but not in Europe), it was probably solanum tuberosum rather than andigena that was introduced.  Irrespective of who introduced the tuber to Ireland it appears that 1586 would be the earliest feasible date for introduction to Ireland, and 1600 the latest. Since we know that the potato was already being grown in London in 1596, it is almost certain that the appearance of the strange new tuber in Ireland couldn’t have been long delayed.

Ireland’s Darker Side

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