“Saved by a Pipe! Yes, by God,” said Charlie Hannon one night as we sat at a wake. “Let me tell you, there’s a powerful lot of strange things to be seen and felt, and don’t let anyone tell me that there’s not!”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, Charlie,” said I.
Without even recognising that I had answered him, Charlie continued, “The night my father died I went to Dungannon for to get pipes and tobacco for the wake, and to tell my sister that lived there about the death of our da. Well, I left the house about eight o’clock, or thereabouts, for as you know I had a long road to travel – aye, fifteen miles if it’s an inch. I went by the Rock, for I had a fine lump of a mare with me that I had bought at the time. Her name was Sally, and sure there wasn’t another horse the likes of her to be had in all the parish. Now, it was pretty late when I left Dungannon, between midnight and one o’clock at least, but I didn’t hear or see a thing until I came as far as the wood on this side of Rock. We must have been just in the middle of it when the mare suddenly stopped, and she gave three snorts out of her nostrils. Well, as you know, I never was one to be afraid of anything, but I thought to myself that if maybe there’s something unnatural roaming around here now? You see, I never have known Sally to be afraid of anything dead or alive before that night.”
“’ Go on Sally,’ says I and patted her gently on the neck with my hand. But, the devil a bit would the poor mare stir. She just kept snorting, and snorting, and going back and back. ‘ Be you devil or sent by him!’ cries I, ‘man or beast, or whatever you are, get out of the mare’s way and let me get home to me father’s wake with the pipes and tobacco for the neighbours who are waiting for them.’ But, devil the answer did I get. Things were not looking good, I thought to myself, and what am I going to do now? It was then that I remembered that it was the right thing to do, to put a pipe in the lining of your hat whenever you come across anything unnatural. Sure, I had a couple of the pipes in the pocket of my coat that I couldn’t fit in the box and I put down my hand and took one up and put it inside the lining of my hat. Well, by all that’s holy! I had no sooner done that than up came a man on horseback.
“It was a clear night, and I swear that he must have come up out of the road itself, for there neither one thing or another that moved there before that. Sally kept on snorting and the man rode on past on my left. But just as he was passing, he stretched out one hand to me and pulled up his horse with the other, without speaking a word. ‘Here,’ says I, reaching him a pipe, ‘take it, if that’s what you want, and for God’s sake leave me alone.’ Well, he took the pipe, but as soon as he heard God’s name, he and his horse rose up into one big lump of fire, and the noise that was made as the fire struck against the wall along the roadside, was the fiercest thing I ever heard. And I hope that I never will hear the like of it again. The rattle of the stones falling, and the whizzing of the fire through the trees, is still in my ears yet.
“Sally went on, then, happy enough, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m all right now.’
“But I was mistaken. I hadn’t moved but a foot or two until I felt something jumping up behind me on the mare, and I felt two hands around my back, and a cold breath on my neck behind. As I told you I never used to be afraid, but the fear of God was put in to my heart that night. The poor mare’s back was bending with the dreadful weight of the thing behind me. I tried to shake off the hold it had of me, but not a budge I was able to do at all, one way or another. I didn’t know, what in heaven, I was going to do. I wasn’t able to speak, and the mare wasn’t able to move. But praise be to God ! I wasn’t long that way until who should I see standing beside me on the road but the man on horseback that I had given the pipe to. He had no horse with him this time, but he had a whip in his hand. ‘Get off, immediately ‘ says he to the thing behind me.
“The Devil an answer did he get. ‘I tell you again,’ says he, getting very cross, and raising the whip above his head, ‘get off.’
“No answer. ‘For the third, and last, time,’ says he, in a terrible rage now, entirely, ‘I tell ye to get off.’
“Not a word did the thing behind me speak, nor a budge did it put out of itself. When the man seen that it wouldn’t come off, he began slashing, and slashing at it, and every slash he gave, I saw the fire rising above my head until at last I felt the weight go off the mare, and I knew I was rid of it. ‘Go home now,’ said the man, crying, ‘you won’t be troubled any more, but take my advice and don’t be out so late at night again by yourself.’”
On a certain day, a fair and a gathering were held at Benn Eader (Hill of Howth), by the seven ordinary and seven extraordinary battalions of the Fianna of Erin. In the course of the day, on casting a look over the broad expanse of the sea, they beheld a large, smooth-sided, and proud-looking ship ploughing the waves from the east and approaching them under full sail. When the capacious vessel touched the shore and lowered her sails, the Fianna of Erin counted upon seeing a host of men disembark from her; and great was their surprise when one warrior, and no more, came out of the ship and landed on the beach. He was a hero of the largest make of body, the strongest of champions, and the finest of the human race; and in this wise was the kingly warrior equipped:— an impenetrable helmet of polished steel encased his ample and beautiful head; a deep-furrowed, thick-backed, sharp-edged sword hung at his left side; and a purple bossed shield was slung over his shoulder. Such were his chief accouterments, and armed in this fashion and manner did the stranger come into the presence of Finn Mac Cool and the Fianna of Erin.
It was then that Finn, the King of the Fianna, addressed the heroic champion, and questioned him, saying, “From what part of the world hast thou come unto us, O goodly youth? or from which of the noble or ignoble races of the universe art thou sprung? Who art thou?”
“I am,” answered the stranger, “’Ironbones’, the son of the King of Thessaly; and so far as I have travelled on this globe, since the day that I left my own land, I have laid every country, peninsula, and island, under contribution to my sword and my arm: this I have done even to the present hour; and my desire is to obtain the crown and tribute of this country in like manner: for if I obtain them not, I purpose to bring slaughter of men and deficiency of heroes and youthful warriors on the seven ordinary and seven extraordinary battalions of the Fianna host. Such, O king, is the object of my visit to this country, and such is my design in landing here.”
Thereupon rose up Conán the Bald, and said, “Of a truth, my friend, it seems to me that you have come upon a foolish enterprise, and that to the end of your life, and the close of your days, you will not be able to accomplish your purpose; because from the beginning of ages until now, no man ever heard of a hero or ever saw a champion coming with any such mighty design to Ireland, who did not find his match in that same country.”
But ‘Ironbones’ replied: “I make but very little account of your speech, Conán,” said he: “for if all the Fianna heroes who have died within the last seven years were now in the world, and were joined by those who are now living, I would visit all of them with the sorrow of death and show all of them the shortness of life in one day; nevertheless I will make your warriors a more peaceable proposal. I challenge you then, O warriors, to find me a man among you who can vanquish me in running, infighting, or in wrestling; if you can do this, I shall give you no further trouble, but return to my own country without loitering here any longer.”
“And pray,” inquired Finn, “which of those three manly exercises that you have named will it please you to select for the first trial of prowess?”
To this ‘Ironbones’ answered, “If you can find for me any one champion of your number who can run faster than I can, I will give you no further annoyance, but depart at once to my own country.”
“It so happens,” said Finn, “that our Man of Swiftness, Keelte Mac Ronan, is not here at present to try his powers of running with you; and as he is not, it was better, O hero, that you should sojourn here a season with the Fianna, that you and they may mutually make and appreciate each other’s acquaintance by means of conversation and amusements, as is our wont. In the meanwhile, I will repair to Tara of the Kings in quest of Keelte Mac Ronan; and if I have not the good fortune to find him there, I shall certainly meet with him at Ceis-Corann of the Fenii (Kesh Corann, Sligo.) from whence I shall without delay bring him hither to meet you.”
To this ‘Ironbones’ agreed, saying that he was well satisfied with what Finn proposed; and thereupon Finn proceeded on his way towards Tara of the Kings, in search of Keelte. Now, it fell out that, as he journeyed along, he missed his way, so that he came to a dense, wide, and gloomy wood, divided in the midst by a broad and miry road or pathway. Before he had advanced more than a very little distance on this road, he perceived coming directly towards him an ugly, detestable looking giant, who wore a grey frieze coat, the skirts of which reached down to the calves of his legs, and were bespattered with yellow mud to the depth of a hero’s hand; so that every step he made, the lower part of that coat struck with such violence against his legs as to produce a sound that could be distinctly heard a full mile of ground off. Each of the two legs that sustained the unwieldy carcass of this horrible hideous monster was like the mast of a great ship, and each of the two shoes that were under his shapeless, horny, long-nailed hoofs, resembled a roomy long-sided boat; and every time that he lifted his foot, and at every step that he walked, he splashed up from each shoe a good barrelful of mire and water on the lower part of his body. Finn gazed in amazement at the colossal man, for he had never seen anyone so big and bulky; yet he would have passed onward and continued his route, but the giant stopped and accosted him, and Finn was under the necessity of stopping also, and exchanging a few words with the giant.
The giant began in this manner:—“What, ho! Finn Mac Coole,” said he, “what desire for travelling is this that has seized on you, and how far do you mean to go upon this journey?”
“Oh,” said Finn, “as to that, my trouble and anxiety are so great that I cannot describe them to you now, and indeed small is the use,” added he, “it would be of to me to attempt doing so; and I think it would be better for you to let me go on my way without asking any more questions of me.”
But the giant was not so easily put off. “O Finn,” said he, “you may keep your secret if you like, but all the loss and the misfortune attending your silence will be your own; and when you think well upon that, maybe you would not boggle any longer about disclosing to me the nature of your errand.”
So, Finn, seeing the huge size of the giant, and thinking it advisable not to provoke him, began to tell him all that had taken place among the Fianna of Erin so short a time before. “You must know,” said he, “that at the meridian hour of this very day the great ‘Ironbones’, the son of the King of Thessaly, landed at the harbor of Benn Eader, with the view of taking the crown and sovereignty of Ireland into his own hands; and if he does not obtain them with the free and good will of the Irish, he threatens to distribute death and destruction impartially among the young and old of our heroes; howbeit he has challenged us to find a man able to surpass him in running, fighting, or wrestling, and if we can find such a man, then he agrees to forego his pretensions and to return to his own country without giving us further trouble; and that,” said Finn, “is the history that I have for you.”
“And how do you intend to oppose the royal warrior?” asked the giant; “I know him well, and I know he has the vigour in his hand and the strength in his arm to carry every threat he makes into effect.”
“Why, then,” said Finn, in answer to this, “I intend to go to Tara of the Kings for Keelte Mac Ronan, and if I do not find him there, I will go to look for him at Ceis-Corann of the Fenii; and it is he,” said he, “whom I mean to bring with me for the purpose of vanquishing this hero in running.”
“Alas!” said the giant, “weak is your dependence and feeble your champion for propping and preserving the monarchy of Ireland; and if Keelte Mac Ronan be your ‘Tree of Defiance’, you are already a man without a country.”
“It is I, then,” said Finn, “who am sorry you should say so, and what to do in this extremity I cannot tell.”
“I will show you,” replied the gigantic man: “just do you say nothing at all but accept of me as the opponent of this champion, and it may happen that I shall be able to get you out of your difficulty.”
“O,” said Finn, “for the matter of that, it is my own notion that you have enough to do if you can carry your big coat and drag your shoes with you one half mile of ground in a day, without trying to rival such a hero as ‘Ironbones’ in valour or agility.”
“You may have what notions you like,” returned the giant, “but I tell you that if I am not able to give battle to this fighting hero, there never has been and there is not now a man in Ireland able to cope with him. But never mind, Finn Mac Cool, let not your spirits be cast down, for I will take it on myself to deliver you from the danger that presses on you.”
“What is your name?” demanded Finn.
“Bodach-an-Chota-Lachtna (the Churl with the Grey Coat) is my name,” the giant answered.
“Well, then,” said Finn, “you will do well to come along with me.” So, Finn turned back, and the Bodach went with him; but we have no account of their travels till they reached Benn Eader. There, when the Fianna beheld the Bodach attired in such a fashion and trim, they were all very much surprised, for they had never seen the like of him; and they were greatly overjoyed that he should make his appearance among them at such a critical moment.
As for ‘Ironbones’, he came before Finn, and asked him if he had got the man who was to contend with him in running. Finn made answer that he had, and that he was present among them; and thereupon he pointed out the Bodach to him. But as soon as ‘Ironbones’ saw the Bodach, he was seized with astonishment, and his courage was damped at the sight of the gigantic proportions of the mighty man, but he pretended to be only very indignant, and exclaimed, “What! do you expect me to demean myself by engaging in a contest with such an ugly, greasy, hateful-looking Bodach as that? I tell you that will do no such thing!” said he; and he stepped back and would not go near the Bodach.
When the Bodach saw and heard this, he burst into a loud, hoarse, thunderous laugh, and said, “Come, ‘Ironbones’, this will not do; I am not the sort of person you affect to think me; and it is you that shall have proof of my assertion before to-morrow evening; so now, let me know,” said he, “what is to be the length of the course you propose to run over, for over the same course it is my own intention to run along with you; and if I do not succeed in running that distance with you, it is a fair conclusion that you win the race, and in like manner if I do succeed in outstripping you, then it stands to reason that you lose the race.”
“There is sense and rationality in your language,” replied ‘Ironbones’, for he saw that he must submit, “and I agree to what you say, but it is my wish not to have the course shorter or longer than three score miles.”
“Well,” said the Bodach, “that will answer me too, for it is just three score miles from Mount Loocra in Munster to Benn Eeader; and it will be a pleasant run for the pair of us; but if you find that I am not able to finish it before you, of course, the victory is yours.”
‘Ironbones’ replied that he would not contradict so evident a proposition, whereupon the Bodach resumed: “What it is proper for you to do now,” said he, “is to come along with me southward to Mount Loocra this evening, in order that we may make ourselves acquainted with the ground we are to go over to-morrow on our return; and we can stop for the night on the Mount, so that we may be able to start with the break of day.” To this also ‘Ironbones’ acceded, saying it was a judicious speech, and that he had nothing to object to it.
Upon this, the two competitors commenced their journey, and little was the delay they made until they arrived at Mount Loocra in Munster. As soon as they had got thither, the Bodach again addressed ‘Ironbones’, and told him that he thought their best plan would be to build a hut in the adjoining wood, that so they might be protected from the inclemency of the night: “for it seems to me, O son of the King of Thessaly,” said he, “that if we do not, we are likely to have a hard couch and cold quarters on this exposed hill.”
To this ‘Ironbones’ made reply as thus: “You may do so, if you please, O Bodach of the Big Coat, but as for me, I am ‘Ironbones’ and care not for dainty lodging; and I am mightily disinclined to give myself the trouble of building a house hereabouts only to sleep in it one night and never see it again; howbeit, if you are desirous of employing your hands there is nobody to cross you; you may build, and I shall stay here until you have finished.”
“Very good,” said the Bodach, “and build I will; but I shall take good care that a certain person who refuses to assist me shall have no share in my sleeping-room, should I succeed in making it as comfortable as I hope to do;” and with this he betook himself into the wood, and began cutting down and shaping pieces of timber with the greatest expedition, never ceasing until he had got together six pair of stakes and as many of rafters, which with a sufficient quantity of brushwood and green rushes for thatch, he carried, bound in one load, to a convenient spot, and there set them up at once in regular order; and this part of his work being finished, he again entered the wood, and carried from thence a good load of dry green sticks, which he kindled into a fire that reached from the back of the hut to the door.
While the fire was blazing merrily, he left the hut, and again addressing his companion, said to him, “O son of the King of Thessaly, called by men ‘Ironbones’, are you provided with provisions for the night, and have you eatables and drinkables to keep you from hunger and thirst?”
“No, I have not,” said ‘Ironbones’ proudly; “it is myself that used never to be without people to provide victuals for me when I wanted them,” said he.
“Well, but,” said the Bodach, “you have not your people near you now, and so the best thing you can do is to come and hunt with me in the wood, and my hand to you, we shall soon have enough of victuals for both of us.”
“I never practiced pedestrian hunting,” said ‘Ironbones’; “and with the like of you I never hunted at all; and I don’t think I shall begin now,” said he, in a very dignified sort of way.
“Then I must try my luck by myself,” said the Bodach; and off again he bounded into the wood, and after he had gone a little way he roused a herd of wild swine and pursued them into the recesses of the wood, and there he succeeded in separating from the rest the biggest and fattest hog of the herd, which he soon ran down and carried to his hut, where he slaughtered it, and cut it into two halves, one of which he placed at each side of the fire on a self-moving holly-spit. He then darted out once more and stopped not until he reached the mansion of the Baron of Inchiquin, which was thirty miles distant, from whence he carried off a table and a chair, two barrels of wine, and all the bread fit for eating he could lay his hands on, all of which he brought to Mount Loocra in one load. When he again entered his hut, he found his hog entirely roasted and in nice order for mastication; so he laid half the meat and bread on the table, and sitting down, disposed of them with wonderful celerity, drinking at the same time precisely one barrel of the wine, and no more, for he reserved the other, as well as the rest of the solids, for his breakfast in the morning. Having thus finished his supper, he shook a large bundle of green rushes over the floor and laying himself down, soon fell into a comfortable sleep, which lasted until the rising of the sun next morning.
As soon as the morning came, ‘Ironbones’, who had got neither food nor sleep the whole night, came down from the mountain’s side and awoke the Bodach, telling him that it was time to commence their contest. The Bodach raised his head, rubbed his eyes, and replied, “I have another hour to sleep yet, and when I get up I have to eat half a hog and drink a barrel of wine; but as you seem to be in a hurry, you have my consent to proceed on your way before me: and you may be sure I will follow you.” So, saying, he laid his head down and fell again a-snoring; and upon seeing this, ‘Ironbones’ began the race by himself, but he moved along heavily and dispiritedly, for he began to have great dread and many misgivings, by reason of the indifference with which the Bodach appeared to regard the issue of the contest.
When the Bodach had slept his fill he got up, washed his hands and face, and having placed his bread and meat on the table, he proceeded to devour them with great expedition, and then washed them down with his barrel of wine; after which he collected together all the bones of the hog and put them into a pocket in the skirt of his coat. Then setting out on his race in company with a pure and cool breeze of wind, he trotted on and on, nor did he ever halt on his rapid course until he had overtaken ‘Ironbones’, who with a dejected air and drooping head was wending his way before him. The Bodach threw down the bare bones of the hog in his path, and told him he was quite welcome to them, and that if he could find any pickings on them, he might eat them, “for,” said he, “you must surely be hungry by this time, and I can wait until you finish your breakfast.”
But ‘Ironbones’ got into a great passion on hearing this, and he cried, “You ugly Bodach with the Big Coat, you greasy, lubberly, uncouth tub of a man, I would see you hanged, so I would, before you should catch me picking such dirty common bones as these—hogs’ bones, that have no meat on them at all, and have moreover been gnawed by your own long, ugly, boarish tusks.”
“O, very well,” replied the Bodach, “then we will not have any more words about them for bones; but let me recommend to you to adopt some more rapid mode of locomotion, if you desire to gain the crown, sovereignty, and tributes of the kingdom of Ireland this turn, for if you go on at your present rate, it is second best that you will be after coming off, I’m thinking.” And having so spoken, off he darted as swift as a swallow, or a roebuck, or a blast of wind rushing down a mountain declivity on a March day, ‘Ironbones’ in the meantime is about as much able to keep pace with him as he was to scale the firmament; nor did he check his own speed until he had proceeded thirty miles on the course. He then stopped for a while to eat of the blackberries which grew in great abundance on the way, and while he was thus employed, ‘Ironbones’ came up with him and spoke to him. “Bodach,” said he, “ten miles behind us I saw one skirt of your grey coat, and ten miles farther back again I saw another skirt; and it is my persuasion, and I am clearly of the opinion, that you ought to return for these two skirts without more to do and pick them up.”
“Is it the skirts of this big coat that I have on me you mean?” asked the Bodach, looking down at his legs.
“Why, to be sure it is them that I mean,” answered ‘Ironbones’.
“Well,” said the Bodach, “I certainly must get my coat skirts again; and so, I will run back for them if you consent to stop here eating blackberries until I return.”
“What nonsense you talk!” cried ‘Ironbones’. “I tell you I am decidedly resolved not to loiter on the race, and my fixed determination is not to eat any blackberries.”
“Then move on before me,” said the Bodach, upon which ‘Ironbones’ pushed onward, while the Bodach retraced his steps to the different spots where the skirts of his coat were lying, and having found them and tacked them to the body of the coat, he resumed his route and again overtook ‘Ironbones’, whom he thus addressed: “It is needful and necessary that I should acquaint you of one thing, O ‘Ironbones’, and that is, that you must run at a faster rate than you have hitherto used, and keep pace with me on the rest of the course, or else there is much likelihood and considerable probability that the victory will go against you, because I will not again have to go back either for my coat-skirts or anything else;” and having given his companion this warning, he set off once more in his usual manner, nor did he stop until he reached the side of a hill, within ten miles of Benn Eader, where he again fell a-plucking blackberries and ate an extraordinary number of them. When he could eat no more, his jaws being tired and his stomach stuffed, he took off his great coat, and handling his needle and thread, he sewed it into the form of a capacious sack, which he filled with blackberries; this he slung over his shoulders, and then off he scampered for Benn Eader, greatly refreshed, and with the speed of a young buck.
In the meantime Finn and his troops were waiting in great doubt and dread the result of the race, though, without knowing who the Bodach was, they had a certain degree of confidence in him; and there was a champion of the Fianna on the top of the Hill of Howth, who had been sent thither by Finn, and had been there from an early hour of the morning to see which of the competitors would make his appearance first in view. When this man saw the Bodach coming over the nearest eminence, with his heavy burden on his back, he thought that to a certainty it was ‘Ironbones’ whom he beheld and fled back quite terrified to Finn and the troops, telling them ‘Ironbones’ was coming up, carrying the Bodach dead over his shoulders. This news at first depressed Finn and the troops; but Finn by and bye exclaimed, “I will give a suit of armor and arms to the man who brings me better news than that!” whereupon one of the heroes went forth, and he had not proceeded far when he espied the Bodach advancing towards the outposts of the troops, and knowing him at a glance, he flew back to Finn and announced to him the glad tidings.
Finn thereupon went joyfully out to meet the Bodach, who speedily came up and threw down his burden, crying out aloud, “I have good and famous news for all of you; but,” added he, “my hunger is great, and my desire for food pressing; and I cannot tell you what has occurred until I have eaten a very large quantity of oatmeal and blackberries. Now, as for the latter, that is, the blackberries, I have got them myself in this big sack, but the oatmeal I expect to be provided for me by you; and I hope that you will lose no time in getting it, and laying it before me, for I am weak for the want of nutriment, and my corporeal powers are beginning to be exhausted.” Upon hearing this Finn replied that his request should be at once attended to, and in a little space of time, accordingly, there was spread under the Bodach a cloth of great length and breadth, with a vast heap of oatmeal in the middle of it, into which the Bodach emptied out all the blackberries in his bag; and having stirred the entire mess about for some time with a long pole, he commenced eating and swallowing with much vigour and determination.
He had not been long occupied in this way before he sighted ‘Ironbones’ coming towards the troops with his hand on the hilt of his sword, his eyes flaming like red coals in his head, and ready to commence slaughtering all before him because he had been vanquished in the contest. But he was not fated to put his designs into execution, for when the Bodach saw what wickedness he had in his mind, he took up a handful of the oatmeal and blackberries, and dashing it towards ‘Ironbones’ with an unerring aim, it struck him so violently on the face that it sent his head spinning through the air half a mile from his body, which fell to the ground and there remained writhing in all the agonies of its recent separation, until the Bodach had concluded his meal. The Bodach then rose up and went in quest of the head, which after a little searching about he found, and casting it from his hands with an unerring aim, he sent it bowling along the ground all the half mile back again, until coming to the body it stopped and fastened itself on as well as ever, the only difference being that the face was now turned completely round to the back of the neck, while the back of the head was in front.
The Bodach having accomplished this feat much to his satisfaction, now grasped ‘Ironbones’ firmly by the middle, threw him to the ground, tied him hand and foot so that he could not stir, and addressed him in these words: “O Ironbones, justice has overtaken you: the sentence your own vain mind had passed on others is about to be pronounced against yourself, and all the liberty that I feel disposed to leave you is the liberty of choosing what kind of death you think it most agreeable to die of. What a silly notion you did get into your noddle, surely, when you fancied that you, single-handed, could make yourself master of the crown, sovereignty, and tributes of Ireland, even though there had been nobody to thwart your arrogant designs but myself! But take comfort and be consoled, for it shall never be said of the Fianna of Ireland that they took mortal vengeance on a single foe without any warriors to back him; and if you be a person to whom life is a desirable possession, I am willing to allow you to live, on condition that you will solemnly swear by the sun and moon that you will send the chief tributes of Thessaly every year to Finn Mac Cool here in Ireland.”
With many wry faces did ‘Ironbones’ at length agree to take this oath; upon which the Bodach loosed his shackles and gave him liberty to stand up; then having conducted him towards the sea-shore, he made him go into the ship, to which, after turning its prow from the shore, he administered a kick in the stern, which sent it seven miles over the waters at once. And such was the manner in which ‘Ironbones’ executed his vain-glorious project, and in this way it was that he was sent off from the shores of Ireland, without victory, honour, or glory, and deprived of the power of ever again boasting himself to be the first man on the earth in battle or combat.
But on the return of the Bodach to the troops, the sun and the wind lighted up one side of his face and his head in such a way that Finn and the Fianna at once recognised him as Manannan Mac Lir, the Tutelary Fairy of Cruachan, who had come to afford them his assistance in their exigency. They welcomed him accordingly with all the honour that was due to him and feasted him sumptuously for a year and a day. And these are the adventures of the Bodach an Chota-Lachtna (The Clown with the Grey Coat).
( Adapted from the “Irish Penny Journal of 24th October 1840” … sourced through JSTOR)
There have been volumes upon volumes written about the terrible events that blighted and tore apart Northern Ireland in the thirty years, from 1965 until the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. There is hardly a family in the Province that did not suffer in some way from the terrors, pain, heartache and devastation of the ‘The Troubles’. But, despite all the words that have been written there are none that can truly describe the horrors of those days, except those that have been expressed by people who lived through those dark days. The ‘peace’ that has now existed for the past twenty years is tenuous, to say the least, and has done little, if anything, to remove the bitterness and hatred caused by those years of strife. Among the many stories of those days is a sad tale, which involved a man of faith who was forced to come face-to-face with his own devils.
There was nothing special about the Murphy family. They were simply a group of average individuals living a quiet life in a medium-sized mid-Ulster town. The parents had always been determined to have their children well educated, and all four sons had very much focused their attention on this. Two of the eldest sons had attended university and qualified as Chartered Accountants prior to moving to Australia to make their fortunes. The second youngest son, Martin, had chosen to join the priesthood and, after his ordination, he was assigned a Parish close to home, much to the joy of his pious mother and father. Frank, however, was the youngest son and, although as academically gifted as any of his brothers, but he wanted to enjoy his youth for a while after finishing college, rather than throwing himself into a career immediately.
After the death of their father, the two youngest brothers had spent more of their time with their mother, Annie. She missed her husband dearly but, like a typical Irish mother, she had her sons around her to keep herself active and busy taking care of them. She was a pious and loving woman, adored by all her sons and, in return, she spoiled them terribly. But, the youngest son had always been her favourite, for he was her last child and she would always look upon him as her baby boy. Although she had always shown a little more affection toward him, Annie had never allowed him to become a spoiled, weak and capricious boy. At the same time, however, she did not give her other sons any reason to feel left out, because she made a point of sharing her deep store of maternal love equally between all four boys. Naturally, with the two oldest boys being so far from home, it was Martin and Frank who benefitted most from their Annie’s care and attention.
Martin had been aware, all of his life, that his mother had a special place in her heart for Frank, but he never had any feelings of jealousy toward him. Frank, after all, was the only son who still lived in the home-place with Annie, and Martin was happy that his youngest brother got all that extra attention and love that he undoubtedly obtained from her.
Frank was a gentle, quiet-natured young man who had a great mind and a wonderful imagination. He was greatly admired by his brother, the priest and his mother called him her ‘Little Lamb’. They both expected that Frank would, eventually, achieve a degree of greatness in whatever he chose to do with his life. Annie was not overly concerned about the amount of time that Frank spent with his friends because they knew that he was the type of person who would always maintain the highest standard of personal behaviour when in public. Although Frank had always enjoyed a drink, he was never known to drink to excess. Furthermore, like his many friends, Frank liked to party but always made a point of coming home no later than midnight and completely sober.
The lives of the Murphy family, however, changed abruptly one night in the Spring of 1967. That night, Annie watched the hands on the large mantlepiece clock turn very slowly as the ‘tick, tock’ of the second hand sounded loudly in the quietness of the living-room. The clock struck one o’clock, and the anxiety that had been building up inside Annie that evening had brought a sense of panic to the mother. Frank, in all the time he had gone out with his friends, had never returned later than one o’clock, and he had never brought any trouble to the door.
It was now past one o’clock and, yet, there was no sign of Frank, and no word of excuse received from him. Fortunately, Martin was in the house that night, sitting with his mother. Rather than return the Parochial House after supper Martin decided that he would stay with Annie. He was now well settled on a comfortable armchair, which stood beside the glowing coal-fire to await Frank’s return home. But, as the minutes continued to tick by slowly, he watched his mother’s already well-frayed nerves begin to come apart. With tears forming in her eyes she quietly muttered, “I just wish Frank would come home.”
“He’ll be alright, Ma! He’ll soon be coming through that front door as if there’s nothing wrong, kiss you on the cheek, as he always does, and go on to his bed,” Martin told her in a soft, comforting tone of voice.
But, Annie was not comforted by Martin’s soft words. “I don’t know, Martin,” she told him. “He has never been this late and I am really worried that something might have happened to him.”
“Please stop fretting, Ma,” Martin urged her as tenderly as he could. “He has just been delayed, ma, and he might not be home for an hour or so yet.”
But, Annie just could not relax, because her worries over Frank’s whereabouts filled every corner of her mind. She fidgeted nervously in her chair, then she made tea for her and Martin, and then she would go to the front door to see if there was any sign that Frank was nearing home. The hours, however, continued to pass slowly and still there was no sign of her youngest son. Then, as darkness gave way to the light of early morning, Annie’s concerns had grown to a point where she began to cry silently to herself, afraid that she might not see her son again. Martin could only sit and watch silently as those bitter tears fell from his mother’s eyes. He was becoming increasingly angry with his brother’s tardiness, and he promised himself that when his younger brother did arrive he would get a piece of his mind regarding his irresponsibility. At that present moment, he could not show any sign of his anger to his already upset mother. He believed it would be more beneficial to maintain his efforts to keep the old woman calm about his brother’s absence.
Martin managed to settle his mother in the chair beside the fire and began telling her humorous anecdotes about some of his parishioners, in the hope that they would keep her mind occupied with lighter thoughts. Quite suddenly, Annie’s body went rigid and her head turned quickly toward the living room window. “It’s him! It’s Frank!” she cried out. “I can hear his footsteps on the path.” She rose from her seat quickly and, loudly sighing “Thank God!”, she went to open the front door to him.
But, Martin heard the voice of a man, which he knew was not the voice of his brother, Frank. He then heard his mother give a loud and painful groan, and this caused Martin to rush to her assistance. Annie had fainted in the hallway and Martin noticed that it was a uniformed policeman that was giving her assistance.
“What in God’s name has happened?” asked Martin anxiously.
The policeman rose up from his knees and helped to bring Annie into the living room, laying her comfortably on the sofa, with a cushion at her head. “I am sorry to be the one that brought such terrible news to you,” said the constable.
“We have found your brother’s abandoned motorbike this morning, lying in a hedge.”
“Is he badly hurt, or …?”
“We have not located your brother yet, Father. But, we did find traces of blood on the seat and are concerned for his welfare,” said the policeman, interrupting Martin.
You can imagine the great shock and fear that Martin felt when he received this grave news. Calling a neighbour over to stay with Annie, he asked the policeman to take him to the scene of this apparent accident. He was driven, in a police car, to a narrow lane that turned off the main road and led through a bog, and he eventually came to the scene, which was marked by another police car and several uniformed officers. Some of the police officers were diligently searching the hedgerows on each side of the narrow, bog lane and Martin quickly joined in with their efforts. Even as Martin searched, there was a definite feeling of unease that began to fill his entire body, and he knew in his mind that this lane held some terrible secret for him. Martin had been up all night and was very tired, and yet he knew that this was not the reason behind his feelings of unease. There was a smell of death in the air about him, but Martin continued to search every possible nook and cranny on each side of the lane, thoroughly, for almost a mile.
They could find nothing in their searches. There was not a trace of Frank anywhere. All that was left to be found was the motorbike and its bloodstained seat. As he took a final look around the area where the motorbike was found, Martin was suddenly brought to an abrupt standstill and he called out to the others to join him quickly. The grass in that place was very much trampled down, and Martin could not be sure if this was a sign that a struggle had taken place, or if the police had trampled the grass during their search. When the police searchers came up to Martin’s position, he was able to discover from them that they had not trampled the grass in that area. They insisted that they had found the area in that condition. Martin now got down on his knees and began to take a closer look at the grass around him and, after a little time, discovered a quantity of fresh blood. Beside this patch of blood, Martin found a thin leather wallet that he knew belonged to his brother, and he picked it up to show the policemen. It all seemed to confirm his worst fears, that his brother Frank was indeed dead. Confirmation of this belief appeared to be supplied by the condition in which the motorbike had been found. From the way it lay in the hedgerow, it was apparent to Martin that this had not been caused by any road accident and indicated, instead, that Frank may have been murdered.
It is almost impossible to describe the pain and agony that tore through Martin’s body at this terrible moment of realisation that his brother was probably dead. There was a terrible rage that filled his heart, which was matched only by the deep sorrow that he felt for the loss. He didn’t want to believe that this tragedy had happened and that there was still hope that Frank would suddenly appear in front of Martin, alive and well. With renewed vigour and his head filled with contradictory thoughts, Martin continued in his frantic search for a body that would give the family closure on what had happened to Frank. Although the search lasted for many hours, stretching well into the evening, Martin had to return home without success. But, Martin found it was a much different home from the one that he had left earlier that day. In those long hours, the stress had aged greatly Annie and Martin now found her in a state of stupor, which had taken hold of her after a wild frenzy of screaming and crying, all brought about by the news she had been given concerning the fate of her youngest son. It was almost as if the light of life had gone out of her, and her heart had been smashed to pieces, rather than broken. Martin was at a complete loss as to what he should do and watched over his mother as she lingered for a few weeks, steadily going downhill and calling out for her dead child.
Sadly, Annie finally passed away one evening as she slept in her bed. As Martin stared down upon her small, pale face he noticed that there was a peaceful expression upon it. There was no longer any trace of the torture and agony she had been feeling since she had first gotten the news of Frank. Although there had not, even yet, been any definite confirmation from the police about Frank’s fate, Martin now felt certain that his youngest brother was dead. He could not, however, comprehend who would have wanted to kill Frank, or why? If it was an accident then why was there no body found? Surely, he thought to himself, no one could hold a grievance, but Martin could not understand who would have had a grievance against such a friendly, harmless man like Frank Murphy.
With so much sectarian hatred prevalent in Northern Ireland at this time, Martin’s first suspicions fell upon ‘loyalist’ paramilitaries. He believed that these dark, evil men murdered young Frank, believing it would be seen as a great victory to kill the innocent brother of a Roman Catholic priest. Yet, he had no proof. Despite the widespread horror that was felt at young Frank’s disappearance and probable murder, there was not a single clue as to who might have perpetrated such a crime. Using every possible contact that he had, both Catholic and Protestant, Martin tried to discover what had happened and who may have done the evil deed. But, all his efforts were in vain, and as the months passed public interest in the event seemed to fade.
The first anniversary of Frank’s disappearance had passed, and the anniversary of his mother’s death was quickly approaching. Since their deaths the young priest had chosen to throw himself completely into his Parish duties as a means of helping him to come to terms with the tragedies that had so changed his life. One Saturday evening, as was usual, he sat in the confessional box in the chapel and made himself available to those who wished to confess their sins and show penance for the wrongs they had done. One of the penitents was known to Martin but appeared to be completely unaware of the form of the religious ritual. He was not a regular church-goer and Martin was, to say the least, very surprised to see this young man enter his confessional. He knelt and began to confess the many misdeeds of his ill-spent life. It appeared that this young man simply wanted to unburden his entire conscience in one go, and he spoke of sins that were filled with unbounded selfishness, oppression, revenge and unlimited passions. There was no sin that this young man had not committed in his short life, everything from theft to betrayal, and from mild sexual thoughts to wild encounters actions were included. Martin had heard many of these same sins during his short tenure as a curate, but the confession of this young man thoroughly shocked him.
Martin would later admit that he was both nauseated and disgusted by this young man and the sins he had confessed. Even the young man himself began to falter as he revealed to the priest each immoral action and thought he had committed. At one point it seemed to Martin that the young man was equally sickened by his faults and had never realised just how extensive and appalling they were. Martin saw both surprise and confusion on the man’s face as he laid out his sins. Then, as Martin began the rite of absolution the young man called on him to stop. “Please Father,” he spoke nervously, “I am not yet finished my confession.”
“I’m sorry,” Martin replied, “please continue.”
But he could hear the penitent moving uneasily as he knelt in the confessional. Martin felt as if the penitent was fighting with his conscience about whether, or not, he should admit some particularly grievous sin. The man had already confessed to so many unsavoury sins already, and the priest could not quite understand why he was so reluctant now. “You have done so well this far. If there is more that you wish to confess you should continue. Free yourself of your sins and you will feel so much better. God already knows your sins and by you confessing them you are showing that you are aware of how hurtful they have been to him. Return to his love. He wants to forgive you all your sins and break those chains which bind your soul to evil. So, speak freely,” Martin urged the penitent in a gentle voice.
The priest listened to the man sobbing for a minute or two, stopping only to dry his tears and blow his nose. Then, very quietly and hesitantly at first, the young man began to mutter, nervously, that he had killed someone in cold-blood. Martin shuddered at the revelation and, from what he had heard the man say so far, he found it difficult to believe. Clearing his voice, he asked in the calmest tone that he could muster, “Please tell me, how and where did you commit an act of cruel murder? And whatever possessed you to take the life of another human being?”
The young man had kept his head bowed during his confession, but he raised his head until he could see the face of the priest behind the confessional screen that separated them. It was also the first time that Martin had seen the penitent. Despite the veil between them, the priest could see clearly the young man’s tear-soaked and reddened eyes. He noticed that they were glazed over and appeared to be ready to pop out from their sockets with terror. The blood seemed to almost drain from the man’s complexion and there was a tremor in his body. Martin now watched in total surprise as the young man slowly raised his clasped hands toward him. It was as if the penitent was praying to him, begging him to that would ease the pain in his entire being. Was this young man seeking mercy from him Martin wondered, as the penitent moved closer? With quivering lips and in a low sobbing voice the man declared, “I am the man who killed your brother, Father Martin!”
Martin’s body suddenly went numb. Then, as if hit by a Taser gun, his entire body shook violently, and he was wracked with terrible pain. The priest’s entire mind went into a ‘brain-melt’ as his thoughts were scrambled together and began to spin around in his head, and his heart began to pound so fast that he became sure that it would burst. Maybe it was God, or maybe it was his own instinct for survival that caused Martin to breathe normally once again, and he began to slowly feel his blood run begin to run normally once more through the many tingling vessels in his body. The young priest’s hands were clasped to his breast, but just as his body returned to something like normality, he slumped back in his seat and began to laugh hysterically. It was not the reaction that the penitent had expected and fearing for the priest he went to assist him. Several minutes passed before Martin began to recover his equilibrium and his face was soaked in a cold sweat, and his eyes were filled with bitter, bitter tears. As Martin became aware of his surroundings again he saw the penitent holding him close, his face wracked with the terrible thought that he had caused the priest to suffer some sort of emotional breakdown. Holding Martin close to him the priest he was pleading for his mercy and not to hand him over to the law. Martin could hardly believe that it was him that was telling the young man, “Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to worry about me or the police. Your sins have been shared under the seal of confession, and because of that, I cannot reveal one item to another living soul. You are safe, but I beg you to get away from me now. Just get out of my sight and stayaway from me until I feel able to see you and speak to you again.” With he heard these words the young man released his hold on Martin, moved away from the confessional, and exited the church building.
Martin told me that, after this encounter, he knelt alone in the church and prayed to God for the strength to get him through this. He had, more by accident than by design, met the man who had murdered his youngest brother and, through this crime, had caused the subsequent death of his mother. Although an ordained priest, Martin also considered that he was nothing more than a simple man, would find forgiveness a difficult proposition to grant under such circumstances. Moreover, that he was a priest meant he needed God’s help to hold fast to that sacred calling to which he had dedicated his life. He prayed intensely for God’s blessing to give him the strength to fulfil the words of the Gospel as he professed them – “Love and Forgiveness.” But, God appeared to hold back his blessing for a time and it was only after much prayer and meditation that he felt able to meet the young man again. On this occasion Martin had decided to deal with him with him in the same manner as any other priest, and give him absolution for his sins, setting him a penance that he had to complete.
You often hear people repeat the adage that tells us, “Time can heal all hurts.” But, Martin found that this was not so true when it came to the hurt that filled his heart. Although years had passed by and the pain began to hurt less, it was never totally healed. The ‘Killer’ had confessed his crime to him unbidden, and he had appeared to have changed his previous lifestyle dramatically. He had begun to attend Church services and the holy sacraments almost daily. There were none other than Martin who knew of his crime, and many remarked about just how much he had quietened down since he had begun to attend the Church regularly.
There were some, however, who did not trust that young man, and Father Martin admitted that he was far from being a reformed man. The only difference between the old and the new, Martin said, was that he had become better at hiding his transgressions from public view. In fact, Martin was becoming increasingly suspicious about the young man’s true motives for apparently changing his lifestyle, and for spending so much time in his company. He was sure that all of this was simply to avoid suspicion of being directed at him and, by telling the priest his terrible secret under the seal of the confession, he ensured that his admission of guilt would not reach the ears of the law. By using the Confessional with the priestly brother of his victim he had ensured that Martin would not try to avenge his brother’s death murder.
After confessing his darkest secret to Martin, he had also made the priest aware of why he had committed such a terrible act. that the motive behind the terrible act had been jealousy. He said that Frank, being a handsome and easy-going young fellow had attracted the attention of a certain young lady from a good family. Unfortunately, Frank didn’t know that he had placed himself in competition with this young man, whose attention had been spurned by the same young lady. It was Frank who won through and was walking out with the young lady, and he had even been seen exchanging kisses with her. All these things helped stoke this young man’s jealousy and he sought vengeance. The ‘last straw’ that convinced him to get rid of Frank once and for all was when he personally witnessed them kissing.
He admitted to Martin that he armed himself with a long, sharp knife and hid in the hedgerow along the bog road, which he knew Frank would use to motorcycle home after meeting the young lady. He lay in wait until he heard Frank’s approach and saw the light from the motorbike as it shone on the road. Just as Frank was passing the hiding place his assassin sprang out from his lair, totally surprising Frank and forcing him to stop suddenly. Then, before Frank could recover his composure the assassin drove his knife into Frank’s back, killing him almost instantly. But, the young killer did not tell Martin what he had done with the body, and yet Martin was confident that he would say where he had disposed of the remains and give him the final closure he needed.
One evening, in the middle of Lent, Martin was walking along the very same road where his brother’s life had been so savagely taken. As he walked in the growing darkness, Martin heard the approach of a car behind him and he stopped so that he could allow the car to pass safely by. But, the car did not pass him and chose to stop on the road adjacent to where Martin was standing. The car’s window was wound down and the smiling face of the guilty man appeared, much to the priest’s loathing. Martin did not know why the man was on the same road as he, or why he had stopped to talk. “Good evening, Father,” he said with that sickening smile that Martin hated so much.
“Good evening,” replied Martin in a dry and unwelcoming tone.
The young man got out of the car and pointed to a lone tree, standing not far into the nearby bog. “Do you see that tree?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied Martin.
“It is close to that tree that your brother is buried,” he said with absolutely no emotion in his voice.
Totally astonished by this sudden revelation, Martin’s mind was not quite thinking straight, and he replied, “What brother?”
“Your brother Frank, of course,” said the villain. “It was there that I buried the poor man after I had killed him.”
“Sweet Jesus! Merciful God!” screamed the priest. Then raising his eyes to heaven, he angrily added, “Thy will be done!”
Rushing at the villain Martin seized him by the lapels of his jacket and growled into his face, “You damned wretch of a man!You have admitted to shedding the blood of an innocent man who has been crying out to heaven for justice these last ten years or more. I am turning you into the police, now!”
He turned ashy pale as he faltered out a few words to say that, as a priest, Martin had promised not to betray him. ” That was under the seal of confession and under that seal, I can never speak of that deadly secret you admitted to. But, God is good, and you now admit your crime in the open, where the seal of confession does not hold me back. At last, I, the brother of your victim, will be able to avenge the innocent blood that you shed.”
The blood drained from the assassin’s face as Martin tightened his grip and pushed him into the car’s passenger seat. Martin climbed into the driver’s seat and re-started the engine. Totally overcome by events the captive killer did not try to resist while he was driven into the police station, where he was charged with murder and committed for trial.
Reports of Martin’s capture of his brother’s murderer spread far and wide. The Bishop of the Diocese summoned the young priest into his presence and arranged for a dispensation to be given to Martin with regard to the man’s confession. But, Martin did not need to use his dispensation.
Frank’s body was found in the place indicated by his murderer, and forensic science did the rest. The proof provided by the investigators was such that the jury was able to quickly find the killer guilty. The judge complimented Martin on his brave action and heroically observing the obligation of secrecy that bound him. Speaking to the press, the judge declared, “You have witnessed just how the Church of Rome believes that Confession is a sacred trust that cannot be broken. Even when the cause is the avenging of a brother’s murder, it is still an insufficient excuse for breaking that trust.”
Adoption of a child is not a new creation in Ireland, for the Irish peasant was known for the care that they would take of others in difficulty, even if not in their community. Considering all that happened to the Irish peasantry, this comment may come as a great surprise to you. Nevertheless, there is no feature of human nature that was surrounded in so much mystery, or less understood, than the very strong bond of affection that existed between the humble Irish peasant and his adopted brother, especially if that adopted brother is from a family that had social-rank or respect for the community. This peculiar relationship, though it may to a certain extent have been mutually felt, it was not normally regarded as being equal in its strength between the two parties. While there may have been instances of equality of feeling experience teaches us that such equality is to be found in the humbler of the two parties. We should stop there since we are getting into areas of psychology and philosophy in which I have absolutely no experience. Perhaps we can just simply agree that what I have stated is fact. In the history and tradition of our country we have enough material from which we can obtain clear and distinct proofs that the attachment of habit and closeness in these instances far transcends that of natural affection itself. Even today there are very few instances of one brother laying down his life for the other, and yet examples of such high and heroic sacrifices have occurred in the case of the foster-brothers. It is certainly impossible to attribute this wild but indomitable attachment to the force of domestic feeling. While we Irish insist that family affections among our people are stronger than those held in any other country, there are occasions when this almost inexplicable devotion have occurred in those persons we know that have very feeble domestic ties.
It is fact that the human heart has many moral peculiarities associated with it and we are not yet totally acquainted or comfortable with any of them. They constantly come at us in a great variety of wayward and irregular combinations, none of which operates in a manner that employs any of the known principles of action. It is more likely than unlikely that we shall ever completely understand them. There is another peculiarity in Irish feeling, which, as it is similar to this, we cannot neglect to mention it. It is said that when the ‘Dublin Foundling Hospital’ was in existence, the poor infants who were consigned to that gloomy and soul destroying place were often sent to different parts of the country, where they would be taken care of by the wives of those peasants who were employed as day-labourers, cottiers, and small farmers, who also cultivated from three to six or eight acres of land. These children were either abandoned or were orphaned and were usually supported by a tax upon the parish in which they were born. To the local peasants they were known as ‘Parisheens’ and were accompanied by an upkeep grant paid to the foster parents.
You might think that such deserted and orphaned children might have been sent to people who may have seen them as servants and slaves, to be neglected, ill-treated and given little comfort. There were, undoubtedly, some of the foster parents who did such things, but there were as many more who showed themselves to be more honourable, generous and affectionate toward those placed in their care. In many cases they received the same care, affection, and tenderness that these foster parents showed to their own children. Even when they reached an age at which they were free to leave their foster home many of these stayed with the foster families, preferring the love and affection they had been shown in their lives this far to anything else that life might offer them. This, of course, is a natural reaction by anyone to someone that feeds, clothes and shows affection towards him. Over the years of being treated as a member of the family it would not be unusual for foster-brothers to form a very strong emotional attachment. As by way of an example of these attachments I will relate to you a story that I have recently heard and believe to be true, which took place over two hundred years ago during the 1798 rebellion.
Andrew Moore was a gentleman of some note in the district and he had a young daughter, who was renowned for her beauty and her accomplishments. In fact, such was the fame of this young lady that men often drank to her health as if she was the pride of her native county. A woman so beautiful had many suitors, of course, but among these there were two men who were particularly noteworthy for the thorough attentions they showed her, and their intense efforts to secure her affections. Henry Corbin was a man of means and held strong loyalist views, as did the young lady’s own father. To him the father had given his consent to win over the affections of his daughter with a view to marriage. The other suitor, unfortunately for Henry, had already gained the young lady’s affections but was considered totally unsuitable by the father. This young man was leader and, therefore, deeply involved on the side of the insurgents, known as ‘United Irishmen.’ These facts had become known to Andrew Moore some time before the breaking out of the rebellion and, because of his republican views, the man was forbidden to come to Moore’s house, and he was told not to communicate with any member of the Moore family. But, before this banishment, the young man had succeeded getting Miss Moore’s assistance to ensure that his foster-brother, Frank Finnegan, was employed as butler to the Moore family. The young lady was fully aware of the young man’s republican principles and knew that such an arrangement would never have been permitted if her father had known of the peculiar bond of affection that existed between the young men. Mr. Moore, fortunately for Frank, had no idea of the bond between him and his foster-brother. He was totally unaware that by allowing Finnegan into his family home he gave the forbidden suitor an advantage to forward his affections for the girl.
Andrew’s interference in the affair had, in fact, come too late to prevent the growth of a relationship between the young lovers. Before he issued his prohibition to Thomas Houston, the young man and his daughter had exchanged vows of mutual affection with each other. The rebellion that broke out forced Hewson to assume his place as a local leader of the rebellion. Naturally, by assuming such a role, it appeared that he had placed an insurmountable barrier between himself and the object of his affections. In the meantime, Andrew Moore, who was the local magistrate and a captain of yeomanry, took a very active part in putting down this rebellion, and in hunting down and securing all those who had chosen to rise-up against the government. Henry Corbin showed his zealousness in following the footsteps of Mr. Moore in hunting down the rebels, because he wanted to prove himself as the best choice for a future son-in-law. The two men acted in unison against the rebellion and, on occasion, the measures employed by eager Mr. Corbin were such that Andrew felt it necessary to rein-in the young loyalist’s exuberance. Such efforts to control the worst of Corbin’s impulses were, however, kept hidden from the younger man. But, since Corbin always seemed to be acting under the orders of his friend Moore it was, naturally, believed that every harsh and malicious act that was committed, was either sanctioned or suggested by Andrew Moore. It was as a consequence of these beliefs that Moore was considered to be even more vile and odious than Corbin. While the younger man became considered only as a rash and hot-headed loyalist zealot, the older man was thought to be a cool and wily old fox, who had ten times the cunning and cruelty of the senseless puppet whose strings he was pulling. In holding such views, however, they were terribly mistaken.
In the meantime, the rebellion went ahead and there were many acts of cruelty and atrocity were committed by both sides of the conflict. Moore’s house and family would have been attacked and most probably the house ransacked and its occupants murdered if it were it not for the influence that Thomas Houston held with the rebels. On at least two occasions Houston succeeded, and with great difficulty, in preventing Andrew Moore and his entire household from falling victim to the vengeance of the insurgents. Although Moore was a man of great personal courage, he would often underrate the character and bravery of those who opposed him. His caution, it must be said was not equal with his bravery or zeal, for he had been known to rush out at the head of a party of men to seek out the enemy, and by doing so left his own home, and the lives of those who were in it, exposed and defenceless.
On one of these expeditions he happened to capture a small group of rebels who were under the leadership of a close friend and distant relative of Thomas Houston. As the law in those terrible days was quick to punish the wrongdoers, the rebels who had been taken openly armed against the King and the Government were summarily tried and executed by a court-martial. As a result of this action, the rebel forces swore to reap a deep and bloody vengeance against Andrew Moore and his family. For a considerable period of time thereafter the rebels, lay in ambush for their target, to ensure that Moore got his just reward for his atrocious actions.
Houston’s attachment to Moore’s daughter, however, had been known for many months, and his previous interference on behalf of the old man had been successful because of that fact. Now, however, the group’s plan of attack was agreed without his knowledge, and they all swore solemnly that none of them would repeat the plan to any man who was not already familiar with it, which included Houston. They were convinced that if he should learn of their plan he would once more make earnest efforts to prevent them taking their bloody revenge. But, with this plan made and agreed, the group reduced their activities in the county to try and put Moore off his guard, because since his execution of the captured rebels he had felt it necessary to ensure his house was strongly and resolutely defended against rebel attack. The attack against Moore was postponed for quite a while until the concerns created by his recent activities would finally disappear, and his enemies could proceed with their plans to inflict bloodshed and destruction.
Eventually the night for taking action was decided upon and preparations were made. Each person’s role in the assault was explained to them in detail and the necessary weapons were made ready. A secret, however, when communicated to a great number of people, even under the most solemn promise not to reveal it, is more likely to be revealed. This is especially true during a civil war, where so many interests of friendship, blood, and marriage, bind the opposing parties together despite those principles which they publicly profess and under which they were to act. In this case it was Miss Moore’s personal maid whose brother, together with several of his friends and relatives, had been selected to assist in the planned attack. Naturally, he felt anxious that she should not be present on the night of the assault in case her relationship with the assailants might prove to be dangerous to them. He, therefore, sought an opportunity to see his sister and earnestly plead with her to stay away from the Moore house on the night that had been chosen for the attack. The girl was not at all surprised by any of his hints to her because she was completely aware of the current state the countryside was in, and the enmity that most of the people felt for Moore and Corbin, and all those who were acting on behalf of the government. She replied to him that she would follow his advice and she spoke in such a manner that he decided there no longer any need maintain the secrets to which he was privy. The plot was, therefore disclosed, and the girl warned to get out of the house, both for her own sake and for that of those people who were about to wreak their vengeance on Andrew Moore and his family.
The poor girl, wanted Andrew and his family to escape the danger that was coming and she revealed the plan to Miss Moore, who immediately informed her father. Andrew Moore, however, did not make plans to escape, but took measures to gather around his home a large and well-armed force from the closest military garrison. The maid, who was known as Peggy Baxter, had developed a close relationship with Hewson’s foster-brother Finnegan, and the two had become lovers in every sense of the word. Peggy knew that the love she felt for Finnegan would be worth nothing if he was to be overcome by the danger that was approaching. Immediately after her revelation to Miss Moore, Peggy went to her sweetheart to confide the secret to him, giving him several hours to escape. Finnegan was totally surprised by this revelation, especially when Peggy told him that her brother had said that Houston had been kept oblivious to the plan because of his feelings toward the young Miss Moore. There was now obvious means of stopping the plan from going ahead, unless contact could be made with Houston. Finnegan knew that such a task would be dangerous but, being a ‘United Irishman’ himself, he knew that he could get to Houston without any real danger. As quickly as he could, Finnegan left the house to seek out his foster-brother and soon crossed his path. When Houston heard what his foster-brother had to say he was stunned and angry that this action was about to go ahead without him being told by his comrades. His task completed, Finnegan left to return to his post, but before he reached the house the darkness had already set in. On his arrival Finnegan sought out the kitchen and the many comforts it contained. All this time he was ignorant, as were most of the servants, that the upper rooms and out-houses were already crammed with fierce and well-armed soldiers.
Matters were now reaching the crisis point. Houston was aware now that there was little time to be lost and collected a small party of his own immediate and personal friends. Not one of these men, because they were his friends, had been privilege to the plan for the attack upon Moore’s home. Determined to be ahead of the attackers, he and his friends met at an appointed place and from there they went quickly to Moore’s house with as much secrecy as possible. It was his plan to let Moore know about what was about to happen to him and his family and then to escort them all to a place of safety. Not expecting to find the house defended by armed men, Houston’s party were unprepared for an attack or sally from that direction. In a few minutes two of Houston’s group were shot, and most of the rest, including Houston himself, were taken prisoners on the spot. Those who managed to escape the scene told the other insurgents about the strength of troops which were defending Moore’s house and the planned attack was postponed rather quickly.
Thomas Houston maintained a dignified silence, but when he saw his friends being escorted under guard from the hall to a large barn he asked that he should be put with them. “No!” Moore shouted at him, “Even if you are a rebel ten times over, you are still a gentleman and should not be herded in a barn with them. Furthermore, Mr Houston, with the greatest of respect to you, we shall put you in a much safer place. The highest room in the highest part of the house is where we will put you, and if you escape from there then we shall say that you are an innocent man. Frank Finnegan, show Mr. Houston and those two soldiers up to the observatory. Get them some refreshments and leave him in the soldiers’ charge. You men will guard his door well because you will be held responsible for his appearance in the morning.”
In obedience to Moore’s orders the two soldiers escorted Thomas to the door, outside of which was their guard station for the night. When Frank and Thomas entered the observatory, the former gently shut the door, and, turning to his foster-brother he spoke hurriedly but in a low voice saying, “There is not a moment to lose, you must escape.”
“That is impossible,” replied Houston, “unless I had wings and could use them.”
“We must try,” urged Frank; “we can only fail in our efforts. The most they do is to take your life and, mark my words, they’ll do that.”
“I know that,” said Houston, “and I am prepared for the worst.”
“Listen to me, for God’s sake,” said the other; “I will come up a little later with refreshments, say in about half an hour. You ensure that you are stripped when I come, because we are both the same size. Those guards at the door don’t know either of us very well and it would be possible for you to go out in my clothes. Say nothing,” he added, seeing Houston about to speak; “I have been here too long already, and these fellows might begin to suspect something. So, be prepared when I come. Good bye, Mr Houston,” he said aloud, as he opened the door; “It’s sorry I am to see you here, but that’s the consequence of deciding to rebel against King George, and all glory to him — soon and sudden,” he added in an undertone. “In about half an hour I’ll bring you up some supper, sir. Keep a sharp eye on him,” he whispered to the two soldiers, giving them at the same time a knowing and confidential wink. “These same rebels are as slippery as eels, and they will slide easily through your fingers given a chance. And the devil knows you have a good in there;” and as he spoke, he pointed over his shoulder with his inverted thumb to the door of the observatory.
Just about the time he had promised to return, a crash was heard upon the stairs, and Finnegan’s voice in a high key exclaimed, “Damn you for a set of stairs, and to hell with every rebel in Europe, I pray to God this night! My bloody nose is broken because of you having me running about like an eejit!” He then stooped down, and in a torrent of bitter swear words he collected all the materials for Houston’s supper and placed them again upon the tray. He then continued up the stairs, and on presenting himself at the prisoner’s door, the blood was streaming from his nose. The soldiers on seeing him, could not avoid laughing at his sorrowful appearance and this angered him quite a bit. “You may laugh!” he said to them, “but I’d bet that I’ve shed more blood for his majesty this night than either of you ever did in your lives!” This only increased their laughter as he entered Houston’s room. Once inside the two men exchanged clothes very quickly, before the laughter of the soldiers died down.
“Now,” said Frank, “go. Behind the garden Miss Moore is waiting for you, for she knows all. Take the bridle-road through the broad bog and get into Captain Corry’s estate. Take my advice too, and both of you get yourselves of to America, if you can. But, easy. God forgive me for pulling you by the nose instead of shaking you by the hand, and I may never see you again.” The poor fellow’s voice became unsteady with emotion, although there was a smile on his face at his own humour. “As I came in here with a bloody nose,” he proceeded, giving Houston’s nose a fresh pull, “you know you must go out with one. And now God’s blessing be with you! Think of one who loved you as none else did.”
The next morning there was uproar, tumult, and confusion in the house of the old loyalist magistrate, when it was discovered that his daughter and the butler were missing. But when they examined the observatory, they soon discovered that Finnegan was safe and Houston was gone. There are no words to adequately describe the rage and the fury of Moore, Irwin, and the military. You might already have some idea as to what happened next. Frank was brought in front of a hastily formed court-martial and sentenced to be shot where he stood. But, before the sentence was executed, Moore spoke to him. “Now, Finnegan,” said he, “I will get you out of this, if you tell us where Houston and my daughter are. I swear on my honour and in public that I will save your life, and get you a free pardon, if you help us to trace and recover them.”
“I don’t know where they are,” Finnegan replied, “but even if I did, I would not betray them to you.”
“Think of what has been said to you,” added Irwin. “I give you my word also to the same effect.”
“Mr Irwin,” he replied, “I have but one word to say. When I did what I did, I knew very well that my life would pay for his, and I know that if he had thought so, he would be standing now in my place. Carry out your sentence. I’m ready”
“Take five minutes,” said Moore. “Give him up and live.”
“Mr Moore,” said he, with a decision and energy which startled them, “I am his Foster-Brother!” He felt now that he had said enough and he silently stood at the place appointed for him. He was calm and showed no fear, and at the first volley of shots he fell dead instantaneously. In this way he passed from this life.
Houston, finally realised that the insurgent cause was becoming increasingly hopeless. Being urged by his young wife he escaped, after two or three other unsuccessful engagements, to America. Old Moore died a few years later, having survived all the resentment he had earned. He also succeeded in reconciling the then government to his son-in-law, who returned to Ireland, and it was found by his will, much to the anger and disappointment of many of his relatives, that he had left the bulk of his property to Mrs Houston, who had always been his favourite child, and whose attachment to Houston he had originally encouraged.
In an old, lonely churchyard there is to be found a handsome monument, which has the following passage inscribed upon it, i.e. “Sacred to the memory of Francis Finnegan, whose death presented an instance of the noblest virtue of which human nature is capable, that of laying down his life for his friend. This monument is erected to his memory by Thomas Houston, his friend and foster-brother, for whom he died.”
“Ah, would you be quiet!” cried an old man with whom I was discussing such topics, “Would you believe this?“
“Would I believe what?” I asked him.
“It’s as true as I’m living,” he insisted. “I heard it from the man’s own lips, may God be merciful to him! And Lord forbid that I should tell a lie on him!“
“What was it?” I asked again impatiently.
“Did you ever know Brian Douglas that lived over there in Ballymacnab?” the old man replied, and, like the proverbial Irishman, I shook my head.
“Oh no, you wouldn’t have known him” he went on, “he died before you came here. Well, he was coming home one night from town. It was after twelve o’clock or maybe coming near to one. He had his horse and cart with him, and he was walking along at the horse’s head, smoking away at his pipe as content as you like, and it was a fine moonlit night, Glory be to God! Then, what should he see before him in the middle of the road but three men carrying a coffin. Well, it wasn’t long, sir, until they put down the coffin. Sure, the hair was standing on Brian’s head with fear, but he made the sign o’ the cross on himself, and he walked on until he came up to where the three men had been standing beside the coffin. ‘The blessing of God on you,’ said Bryan in Irish, ‘and what’s wrong with you all, at all?’
“’The same to yourself,’ spoke up one of the three men, ‘ but come and take a fourth man’s place under this and ask us no more questions.’ Well, sir, he was going to ask, ‘What will I do with my horse and cart?’ but he thought better of it, and he didn’t, for you see he was told to ask no more questions, and it wouldn’t have been right for him to go against them. But sure he didn’t need to ask, for they knew well enough what was going through his mind, and another of the men said to him, ‘ your horse and cart will be here when you come back.’
“Well, he went with them and helped them to carry the coffin, and never was there a heavier corpse, the Lord be good to us, ever buried he told us. They went on until they left the coffin in the graveyard, and then they told him he might go back to his horse and cart. ‘Oh,’ says Brian, ‘I’ll help you to dig the grave now that I’m here.’
“’Do what you’re told,’ said the third of the men, who hadn’t spoken before this, ‘or maybe it would be al the worse for you.’
“Well, sir, Brian was reluctant to say anything more, so he went back to his horse and cart, and sure enough they were waiting for him at the very spot where he had left them.“
“Did Brian know the men?” I asked the old man when he had finished.
“Did he know them? Indeed, he did, for they were his own three first cousins who died long before this event.”
“And who was in the coffin?“
“It was Brian’s own brother, who had died in California that same night. But he only heard this afterwards, when he received a letter that came from his uncle in America.”
The old man assured me that Brian had never told a lie in his life and that he was dead now, may God be merciful to him!
You, who are reading this now, I ask that you should not scoff the story. You may never be called upon to assist the dead to carry the dead at a mysterious midnight funeral, but do not ridicule the story of Brian Dougan’s experience that has been brought to you by an honourable man.
Eileen Lennon was a small, lively, four-year old child with an Angel’s face and a smile that could melt the hardest of hearts. Her long, red curly hair flowed down over her shoulders and highlighted her bright, hazel coloured eyes. She was the unspoiled only child who had been gifted to her mother and father by a loving God and they treasured every moment that they could spend with her. Joey, Eileen’s father, was a hard working labouring man who also looked after a few sheep, which were allowed to roam on a small plot of land that he owned in the hills on the outskirts of town. Meanwhile, Sarah, Eileen’s mother, was an industrious housewife who took pride in the way she cared for her daughter, her home and the small flock of sheep, which allowed her husband to work hard, earning cash as a labourer with a local builder.
As with most farmer’s wives, the Spring was always Sarah’s busiest season of the year. Over those weeks she and joey would work all hours together to ensure that the ewes were safely delivered of their lambs. Spring was also Eileen’s favourite time of the year because she could see the little lambs frolic about the farm and, sometimes, hold them. She particularly loved to prance about the small field behind the house, where her parents would keep the lambs and ewes until they were less dependent on their mother’s milk. Every morning, even before breakfast, Eileen would traipse around after her mother begging to be allowed out into the small field with the lambs. Sarah, being the good mother she was, would not permit the child to leave the house until she had breakfasted and dressed appropriately. There were times, nonetheless, when Sarah’s attention was elsewhere that Eileen would quietly open the kitchen door to the outside and make her way toward the lambs. But, such escapes often did not last long and Eileen more often than not would find herself back at the breakfast table with her mother’s scolding words echoing in her ears.
One bright, sunshine filled Spring morning young Eileen sat at the family breakfast table, silently eating a bowl of ‘Weetabix’ and milk, her favourite cereal. She had been particularly well behaved that morning, but she was very eager to be outdoors and in the lambing field. A new, black lamb had been born a couple of days previously and she so wanted to go to it and snuggle into its soft fleece. That morning, her mother had dressed Eileen in a beautiful powder blue tee-shirt and blue jeans, and on her feet were her oldest pair of sandals. These were, Eileen knew, her ‘rough clothes’ and they would be staying home that day. She was very excited at the prospect of spending the entire morning with her beloved lambs, and especially the new black addition to the flock. “Mammy, I’m all done,” the little girl called out to her mother. “I have put my dishes in the sink, so can I go out now into the fields for a while?”
“Well, if you are finished your breakfast, I can’t see why not? But keep close to the house, Eileen! I am going to do the washing and I will be checking on you,”
“Okay, Mammy,” the child answered with a large beaming smile that lit up her entire face. She jumped down from her seat at the table and wasted no time in hurrying out of the kitchen door. “Don’t be running, for you will hurt yourself!” warned Sarah as Eileen ran out of the door and closed it loudly behind her. “That will keep her occupied for an hour or so and out from under my feet,” Sarah sighed gratefully. “I hate washing day!”
Sarah began sorting out the clothes from the washing baskets into “Whites” and “Coloureds” before she placed them, in their separate groups, into the washing machine. Once the first load of washing was switched on Sarah began to tidy away all the breakfast dishes into the sink, where they would be washed. There was one thing that anyone could be sure of when it came to Sarah Lennon, and that was her dedication to cleanliness within her home. There were many occasions when Joey had voiced his frustration at being obliged by his wife to remember that there was a place for everything and everything had to be put in its place. Despite the frustration, Joey was aware of the fact that his wife was not the sort of woman to tolerate untidiness in the home.
Earlier that morning Joey had left the house to cycle into town to undertake another day’s work on the building site. Over the previous few years the town of Derryard appeared to be expanding at a great rate, with new homes being built everywhere. The new creamery and cheese factory had encouraged people to move into the area and now the building of a sugar processing unit promised an influx of people seeking work. Quite a number of people had asked Joey, why did he not seek work in one of the factories? But, he would simply tell them that he had worked outdoors all his life and could not even contemplate in a factory environment. “Sure I wouldn’t see the sky, or breathe the sweet fresh air. I would not hear the birds sing, or the bleating of the sheep. It would be like sentencing me to jail to put myself in one of those places,” he would tell people. There was little doubt that Joey did indeed enjoy the outdoor life, and those who knew him said you would have to go a long way to find a man who worked as hard as he did.
As the town expanded and he was fully employed building new houses for the anticipated workforce, it often puzzled Joey as to how people could actually afford to buy these new houses. He saw the billboards advertising some houses for £125,000, others for £140,00, and even some at £175,000. The cottage in which he lived with his family, and the bit of land that came with it, had been inherited through the passing of a spinster aunt who had left it to him in her will. He knew nothing about mortgages or other means of financing property. Joey had been brought up in a family that believed in the idiom, “Never a borrower be.” He had no loans, either owed or owing to him, and his dealings with others were mostly in cash. Sarah, being the recognised sensible person, was the family’s banker and ensured that whatever surplus of money they had was put into the town’s branch of the “Credit Union.”
In the cottage, while Joey was at work, Sarah bused herself in the home. She began to make the beds and finished hoovering the hall before she went back to the kitchen to check if the first load of washing was complete. The washing machine’s cycle had finished and Sarah opened the machine’s door to begin lifting the still damp clothes out on to the kitchen table. When the washing machine was emptied she filled it with a second load of clothes and put it on another cycle. The second cycle would continue while she folded the clothes from the first was in preparation for the drying line in the garden. This was always the routine that she followed, but she had been too busy to notice that the weather was about to change for the worse. The rain had begun to fall outside while she folded her clothes. Sarah had hoped that a full week’s washing of dresses, shirts, blouses and undergarments would be completed and hung out to dry before lunch, but she now heard the sound of rain drops beating heavily against the glass pane of the kitchen window.
“Ah, good Jesus, no!” she exclaimed loudly as she watched the rain bounce off the glass. “Eileen? Eileen? Where are you?” she called out from the opened Kitchen door. Eileen might only have been four years old, but she knew that when the rain began, playtime outside was over and it was time to come back into the house. There was, however, no reply and the rain began to get heavier.
“Eileen? Come here now!” she shouted at the top of her voice, but again there was no reply. Opening the door wider and putting a coat over head and shoulders, Sarah stepped outside and could see no sign of her daughter. The sheep had moved nearer to the hedgerows to find some shelter and Sarah thought that maybe Eileen had followed their lead. Again she called out loudly and again there was no reply forthcoming. “If she is acting the ‘cod’ with me now, I’ll give her a red bottom with the strap,” Sarah promised herself. But she was more frustrated and worried than angry with her daughter. Pulling her raincoat closer around herself Sarah made for the small gate that led into the field where the sheep and lambs were. As soon as she opened the gate, and despite the rain blowing in her eyes, Sarah caught sight of her daughter lying prostrate on the ground a few yards into the field.
“Eileen?” she screamed, her lungs nearly bursting with the effort and her heart pounding in fear.
Without a moment’s hesitation Sarah ran to the body of her child, which lay motionless in the wet grass as the rain continued to pours down on her. Immediately she noticed a large, bloody gash at the side of the child’s temple, where she had evidently hit her head against a large rock that lay half-buried in the soft ground. Picking Eileen up into her arms, Sarah called for the child to awaken, begging her to open her eyes, as she moved quickly to the shelter of the cottage. There was, however, no movement from the child.
Eileen was laid carefully on the couch and a ‘fleece throw’ was put over her damp, cold body. With her daughter comfortable, Sarah lifted the phone and dialled for an emergency ambulance. “It’s my daughter!” Sarah told the operator excitedly. “She has had an accident and is not moving!”
“Please speak slowly and clearly,” the operator asked. “What has happened?”
“She has fallen and hit her head off a rock, and she is cut at the side of her head,” replied Sarah, hurriedly.
“Is she responsive?”
“No! She’s not moving, please send an ambulance!”
“I am sending it now, Madam,” replied the operator. “Is the child breathing?”
“Yes; No; I don’t know!” Sarah panicked.
“I know it is hard, but please try to keep calm. An ambulance is on its way and I need you to check if she is breathing,” the operator told Sarah calmly.
“I don’t know for sure; I don’t think so; My God help me!”
The operator continued to talk calmly to Sarah over the phone, giving her instructions on how to administer CPR. But Sarah was in no state of mind to carry out the exercise precisely. She tried to listen to what the operator was saying and tried her best to follow the instructions, but all her efforts appeared to be in vain. The seconds were lost in minutes as Sarah tearfully tried to encourage Eileen to awaken, and the minutes ticked by relentlessly as the child remained unresponsive. She didn’t know how long she had been on the phone, or even when she had contacted the operator, but her heart filled with new hope as the ambulance pulled up outside the cottage with all lights flashing. In moments a para-medic entered the house, closely followed by the ambulance driver, who was carrying oxygen cylinders and a plethora of other equipment.
Sarah, now relieved of her nursing duties, sat back and allowed her emotions to take control. She wept and wept until large tears flowed from her eyes, down her pale cheeks and dripped on to the cushion that lay on her knees. She didn’t want to wipe away the tears, preferring to stretch her hands out to hold the small, pale, cold hands of her daughter. “Will she be okay?” she asked the para-medic as he worked frantically with the unconscious little girl.
“Paddles!” he called out to the driver. “Keep your hands away,” he told Sarah.
The paddles were put on her bare chest and the shock caused her body to jump, and then the CPR continued. Nothing.
He tried again and as the driver tried CPR the para-medic interrupted him and shook his head. He turned to Sarah and asked, “Is there someone we can contact for you?”
“She is going to be alright?” Sarah asked but she noticed the desolation in the man’s eyes and received her answer. All the hope she had for Eileen’s recovery was gone in a moment. “I’m sorry Mrs Lennon, but she has gone,” confirmed the para-medic in a very quiet tone.
Sarah screamed in her grief, kissing her daughters face and crying bitter tears of heartbreak. Quietly the ambulance driver noted the time of death and began to tidy away the equipment, for the police would soon be at the scene.
This story is concerned with the fate of a wealthy farmer, who lived in some comfort on land that lay in the west of Ireland. Through his own efforts he had built a large farm and a fine family, none of whom wanted for anything. Many men would have considered themselves to be particularly blessed if they had found themselves in a position that was comparable to his. But, he did not consider himself to be a lucky man and preferred to say that he was able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour, and for many years the evils of ill-health and sorrow were kept away from the doors of the family home.
The story begins, however, one day in the middle of the harvest as he was supervising a group of workers who were cutting and gathering hay in the large meadow close to the main farmhouse. It was a very hot day in the meadow and the farmer sat himself down among the hay bales and drank a cooling cup of buttermilk. After easing his thirst, the farmer took the opportunity to stretch out on several bales of fresh cut hay and fell asleep under the warm sun in a cloudless sky. The birds flew in the air and tweeted their peaceful songs, serenading the sleeping farmer for the next few hours. But, as the farmer slept, his workers gathered in all the cut hay and made their way home after another satisfying hard day’s work.
The farmer had lain in the full glare of that hot sun for several hours. When he finally awakened, and sat up, the farmer did not realise where he was, at first. When he recovered his senses fully, however, the farmer realised that he was in the field at the rear of the main house. Raising himself up from the hay bales, he stretched his legs and then began walking toward the farmhouse to get some shade, and some food. But, he had not travelled very far when he began to feel a severe pain in his side, which he immediately blamed on his extended sleep among the hay bales. By the time he had arrived at the house he was feeling a chill in his body and he immediately made his way to the ‘range’, sitting in a chair close by and trying to warm himself a little. As he sat there, his daughter came to him and asked him quietly, “Where were you, father?”
“I fell asleep in the sunshine for a while, sweetheart,” he told her. “I laid myself down upon the fresh cut bales of hay that were in the meadow and I simply closed my eyes.”
“But, what has happened to you, Father?” the young girl asked anxiously. “You don’t look at all well.”
“Damn it,” snarled the farmer, “I don’t know what happened to me, but I have the strangest feelings inside of me. Believe me, daughter, I can tell you that I have never felt like this before, but I hope to feel much better after a good sleep.” With these words he got up slowly from his seat and made his way upstairs to his bedroom, where he undressed for bed and went to sleep. It was a deep and sound sleep that lasted until the sun was well up in the sky the following morning.
When the farmer wakened from his sleep the next morning, he found his wife was sitting at the side of his bed. “What was wrong with you that caused you to sleep so deeply, and for such a long time?”
“I don’t know, my darling” he told her in a voice that sounded very tired and downcast. Getting himself dressed, the farmer went down to the kitchen, where his daughter was making a cake of soda-bread for breakfast.
Once again, he sat in the comfortable chair beside the ‘range’ and his daughter quietly asked, “How are you feeling this morning, Daddy? Are you feeling any better than you were last night?”
With a loving expression on his face, he looked up at his daughter and gave her a little smile. “I had a very good sleep,” he told her in a positive tone of voice. “But, in all honesty, I don’t feel one bit better than I did last evening. You know, it is almost like there is something inside me that seems to be constantly on the move, and it is making me ill,” he said.
“But, Daddy, that’s impossible,” she said to him quite sternly. “It is simply a cold that you have caught while lying outside on the new mown hay. But, if you are not better by this evening I am going to get mammy to send for the doctor.”
The Farmer said nothing that would dissuade her from following her course of action. He only knew that he was in almost constant pain, although he didn’t know for certain where the terrible pain originated. One moment he felt the pain coming from one part of his body and then, in the next minute, the source of the pain appeared to have moved elsewhere. So, it continued throughout the day and when evening came the farmer did not feel even the slightest bit of relief in his condition. In response the farmer’s wife sent for the doctor to come as soon as possible and attend to her husband’s illness. However, for some unknown reason the wait for the doctor became quite prolonged, and the farmer became increasingly concerned about what might happen to him. His wife and daughter, in the meantime, were doing everything they could to keep up the man’s spirits.
Finally, the doctor arrived at the house, and asked the farmer how he felt. The farmer replied that it was hard to explain, but it felt as if a creature of some sort was leaping and jumping about inside his stomach, causing him to feel very ill. Taking off all the sick man’s clothes the doctor gave him a thorough examination but could not discover anything untoward. He put his ear to the man’s side and to his back, but he could hear nothing, despite the pleas of, “Now! now! don’t you hear it? Now, aren’t you listening to it jumping?“
The doctor could hear nothing abnormal and began to wonder if his patient was now losing his mind. He was certain that there was nothing wrong with the farmer and he told the farmer’s wife that this was the case. The doctor did tell her that he was worried about the anxieties that her husband was suffering, and that he would send her some medicine the next day that would give him a good, soothing sleep and help settle any fever he may have.
True to his word, the doctor sent the medicine and the poor man took it and he did manage to get another good sleep. But, when he awoke in the morning he was feeling worse than ever, although he could no longer hear the creature jumping about inside him. Once again, the doctor was sent for and, when he came, he was unable to do anything for the patient. The poor man gained no relief from all the medicines that the doctor left with him. At the end of the week the doctor returned to check-up on his patient, but again found him in a worse condition than he was in before. Again, he was unable to do anything for the man, and he was at a complete loss as he tried to diagnose the illness that the man had contracted. “I will not be taking any more of your money from you,” he told the farmer’s wife, “because I can do nothing for your husband, and because I don’t know what is wrong with him, I will not pretend that I do. I will continue to come to see him from time to time, but I will not take any money from you.”
The Farmer’s wife flew into a rage and scarcely had the doctor left the house until she called everyone around her to hear what she had to say. “That Doctor Braddock is not worth a sixpenny bit,” she told them. “Do you know that he told me that he wouldn’t take any money from me again, and he himself told me that he knew nothing about anything. So, to hell with him, he’ll not cross over my door again, and we will get another doctor. I don’t care how far we have to travel, but we must get him.” Everybody in the house agreed with what she had said, and they sent for another doctor. But, when he came he was no better a physician than the other. The new doctor, however, had no qualms whatsoever about taking their money. He came often to see the sick man, and every time he came he would have some new and longer name to give this sickness. The doctor did not know the meaning of these names himself and nobody else knew what they meant, because he had created them just to frighten the ignorant. They remained that way for two months, without once knowing what ailed the poor farmer. When they decided, finally, that this doctor was doing him no good they got another doctor, and another doctor, until there was not a doctor in the entire county who had not been consulted.
The farm lost a lot of money over the employment of these doctors. A great number of cattle had to be sold to get the cash to pay their fees. For over six months they had kept doctors attending him and giving him various medicines. In the meantime, the farmer that was once stoutly built and well-fed grew bare and thin until, at last, there was hardly an ounce of flesh upon him, just skin and bones only. He grew so ill that he became scarcely able to walk. His appetite was gone, and he had great trouble swallowing a piece of soft bread or drinking a small cup of milk. Everyone who had witnessed his health failing said that it would be a blessing if he was to die rather than continue to suffer, for he was now only a feint shadow of his former self.
One day the poor farmer was sitting on a chair in the doorway of the house, sunning himself in the heat of the day, and everyone else in the house had gone out, leaving him alone. Up toward the door a poor old beggar man who used to travel from place to place seeking whatever charity he could obtain. He thought that he recognised the man sitting in the chair, but he had changed so much in his appearance that the beggar man was unsure. “I’m here again, asking or whatever you might find it in your heart to give me,” said the beggar man. “But, what in the name of God ever happened to you, because you are not the same man that I saw here six months ago, may God help you !“
” Ah, now, Seamus,” said the sick man, “I don’t know what has happened to me, but I know that I won’t be in this world much longer.”
“Sure, it is terribly sorry I am to see you how you are,” said the beggar man. “Tell me how this all began, and what do the doctors say.”
“Doctors?” snapped the sick man, “My curse upon them all, though I should not be cursing, and me so near the grave.”
“Perhaps,” said the beggar man, ”I can find a way to help you, if you were to tell me how it all began. I am a knowledgeable man when it comes to diseases and the herbs to cure them.“
The sick man smiled and said wearily, “There isn’t a medicine man in the county that I haven’t had in this house looking at me, and haven’t I sold half of my cattle to pay them. Not one of them could give me a moment’s relief with all their medicines and concoctions. But I’ll tell you how this all began.” He then proceeded to give the beggar man an account of everything he felt, and about everything the doctors had prescribed.
The beggar man listened intently to the sick man and, when he had finished his story, he asked, “What sort of field was it that you fell asleep in?”
“It was a meadow at the time, but it was just after being cut.”
“Was it wet?” questioned the beggar man.
“It was not,” said the sick farmer.
“Was there a little stream or a brook of water running through it?” asked the beggar man.
“There was,” says he.
“Can I see the field ?”
” You can, to be sure, and I’ll show it to you,” said the sickly farmer and, as bad as he was, he rose off his chair and pulled himself along until he came to the place where he had lay down to sleep that fateful summer’s evening. The beggar man spent a long time examining the place and then he stooped down over the grass, going backwards and forwards with his body bent, and his head down, groping among the herbs and weeds that were growing thickly in it.
The beggar man rose at last saying, “It is as I thought.” At this he stooped down again to search some more. When he raised his head a second-time he held in his hand a small green herb and asked, “Do you see this? Any place in Ireland where this herb grows you can be sure that there’s an Alpluachtra nearby, and you, my friend, have swallowed an Alpluachtra.“
“How do you know that” asked the sickly farmer. ” If that was so, sure the doctors would have told me before now!“
“The doctors!” laughed the beggar man scornfully. “Would you ever have a bit of sense. Sure, each of those boys is nothing more than a clown. I tell you again, and believe me, that it’s an Alpluachtra you have swallowed. Sure, didn’t you say yourself that you felt something leaping in your stomach the first day after you being sick? That was the Alpluachtra, and because he was in a strange place, he was a little uneasy. He was moving here and there for those first couple of days until he could settle himself in comfortable place. That creature is the reason why you remain so thin, for every bit of food you eat, the Alpluachtra is getting the good out of it, not you. You said yourself that one side of you was swollen, well that’s the place where the nasty thing is living.”
The sickly farmer would not believe him at first, but the beggar man kept on talking and trying to prove that it was the truth he was speaking. When the farmer’s wife and daughter came back to the house the Beggar man told them the same thing and they were ready enough to believe him. The sick man put no faith in the diagnosis, but they all prevailed on him to call in three doctors together and tell them this new story. They all came together to listen to what the beggar man was saying, but they all laughed at him, the farmer’s wife, and the farmer’s daughter, calling them fools. They said it was something else that was causing the farmer’s illness and gave that illness names that were twice or three times as long as ever before. They left the sick man a bottle or two of medicine to drink and they left, still laughing at the idea that these people believed the patient had swallowed an Alpluachtra.
When the doctors left the beggar man spoke again, “I doesn’t surprise me that you are not getting any better, if it’s fools like them that have been left to take care of you. There is not a doctor or a man of medicine in all of Ireland that can help you now. There is only one man, O’Donnell, who is known as the Prince of Killough and who lives on the shore of Lough Ree, that is the best doctor in all the provinces of Ireland.”
“Where is Lough Ree?” asked the poor man.
“It’s in the West,” the beggar man told him. “It’s a big lake and he lives on its shores. Take my advice and go there immediately for he is your last hope you have, and you Ma’am should make him go, if you wish your man to live.”
” By God! ” the woman told him, “I’ll do anything that will cure him.”
“If so, send him to the Prince of Killough,” he insisted.
“I’d do anything that will cure me,” said in a weak voice, “for I know I haven’t got long to be in this world if I don’t get some relief, or without something being done for me.“
“Then go to the Prince of Killough,” urged the beggar man. “Anything that you think would do yourself good, you ought to do it father,” the daughter advised.
“There’s nothing will do him any good but to go to the Prince of Killough,” said the beggar man.
The beggar man stayed in the house that night and, the next morning, he began to argue again that the farmer should go to the ‘Prince’. With the support of the wife and the daughter the beggar man managed to prevail upon the farmer to go. The daughter said that she would go with him to take care of him, and the beggar man said that he would accompany them to show them the road. “And I will be at my wit’s end worrying about you, until you come back to me cured,” said the farmer’s wife.
After harnessing the horse, the sick man was placed on the cart along with food for the journey, and they set out their journey. They could not go far the first day, for the sick man was so weak that he could not bear the shaking he was suffering in the cart. He was better the second day, and they all passed the night in a farmer’s house at the side of the road, leaving again the next morning. On the evening of the third day, they came to the house of the ‘Prince’.
It was a nice house, sitting on the edge of the lake, among a thicket of trees, and covered with a straw roof. They left the horse and cart in a nearby village, and they all walked together, until they came to the house. They went into the kitchen and asked if they could see the ‘Prince’. The servant they asked informed them that he was eating a meal, but he might come when he was ready. At that moment, the ‘Prince’ entered and asked his visitors what it was they wanted. The sickly farmer rose up and told him that he was in dire need of the ‘Prince’s’ help, and he began to tell him his whole story. “And now I ask if you can help me?” he asked when he came to the end of his story.
“I hope I can,” said the ‘Prince’, “anyhow, I’ll do my best for you, as you came so far to see me. It wouldn’t be right for me not to do my best. Come up into the parlour with me. The thing that old man told you is the truth. You swallowed an Alpluachtra, or something else. Come up to the parlour with me.”
He brought the sickly farmer up to the parlour with him, and it happened that the meal he had that day was a big piece of salted beef. He cut a large slice off it, and put it on a plate, and gave it to the poor man to eat. “Hold on! What are you doing?” asked the farmer, “I haven’t eaten so much as a crumb of meat in the last three months, because I can’t eat anything.”
“Would you be quiet for a moment?” replied the ‘Prince’, “Just you eat what I tell you!” The poor farmer ate as much as he was able, but when he set the knife and fork down the ‘Prince’ made him take them up again and begin anew. He kept the poor man there eating until he was ready to burst and, at last, he was not able to swallow another bit, even if he were to get a hundred pounds for doing so. When the ‘Prince’ saw that the farmer would not be able to swallow any more, he brought him out of the house. He told the farmer’s daughter and the old beggar man to follow them, and he took them all out to a fine green meadow, which had a little stream of water running through it.
He brought the sick man to the edge of the stream, and told him to lie down on his stomach over the stream, and to hold his face over the water, to open his mouth as wide as he could, and to keep it nearly touching the water. “Wait there quiet and easy,” said the ‘Prince’. “For the sake of your life do not move until you see what will happen to you.“
The poor man promised that he would be quiet, and he stretched his body on the grass and held his mouth open, over the stream of water. Meanwhile, the ‘Prince’ went to fetch the daughter and the old man with him, and the last word to the sick farmer were, “Be certain, and don’t make a move, whatever happens to you.”
The sick man was not lying like that for more than a quarter of an hour, when something began moving inside of him, and he felt something coming up in his throat, and going back again. It came up and went back three or four times after other. At last it came to the mouth, stood on the tip of his tongue, but was frightened, and ran back again. However, after a few moments, it rose up a second time, and stood on his tongue, and at last jumped down into the water. The ‘Prince’ was watching him closely, and just as the man was going to rise, he called out to him, “Don’t move yet.”
The poor man had to open his mouth again, and he waited the same way as before. He was not there a minute until the second one came up the same way as the last and went back and came up two or three times, as if it got frightened. But at last, it also, like the first one, came up to the mouth, stood on the tongue, and when it felt the smell of the water below it, leaped down into the little stream.
The ‘Prince’ whispered, “Now the thirst’s coming on them; the salt that was in the beef is working them now and they’ll come out.” And before the words had left his mouth, the third one fell, with a plop, into the water; and a moment after that, another one jumped down, and then another, until he counted five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
“There’s a dozen of them now,” said the ‘Prince’, “that’s the clutch, but the old mother didn’t come out yet.” The sick man was getting up again, but the ‘Prince’ called to him, “Stay as you are. The mother didn’t come up.”
He remained as he was, but no other one came out, though he stayed there for more than a quarter of an hour. The ‘Prince’ himself was becoming uneasy for fear the old Alpluachtra might not come out at all. The poor farmer was so tired and so weak that he wished to get up and, despite all the ‘Prince’ told him, he was trying to stand on his feet. The ‘Prince’ caught him by one leg, and the beggar man by the other, and they held him down against his will. They remained there for another quarter of an hour without speaking a word, or making a sound, and at the end of that time the poor man felt something stirring again in his side, but it felt seven times worse than before. He hardly keep himself from screaming out. The creature kept moving for a good while, and he thought the side was being torn out of his body. Then, it began coming up, and it reached the mouth, and went back again. At last, it came up so far that the poor man put two fingers into his mouth to try and catch hold of it. But if he put in his fingers quick, the old Alpluachtra went back quicker.
“Oh, you buck eejit!” cried the ‘Prince’, “What made you do that? Didn’t I tell you not to make a move? Now, remain quiet if she comes up again.” They had to remain there for half an hour, because the old mother of the Alpluachtras was scared, and she was afraid to come out. But she came up at last, perhaps, because she was too thirsty to withstand the temptation of the water, or perhaps she missed the company of her children. Whatever the reason, she came up to his mouth, and stood there for almost a minute, and when she felt safe, she jumped down into the water. The ‘plop’ of her into the water was seven times heavier than those of her children.
The ‘Prince’ and the other two had been watching everything and scarcely dared to breathe, but as soon as she entered the water, they pulled the man back, and had him standing again on his own two feet. It was three hours before he could speak a word, and the first thing he said was, “I’m a new man.” The ‘Prince’ kept him in his own house for a fortnight and giving him good care and feeding. Then, he allowed the farmer to return home with his daughter and the beggar man, and he refused even to take as much as a penny from them.
“I’m more pleased than anything that I was able to cure you, and I don’t want even a penny from you,” said the ‘Prince’, “You lost plenty on so-called doctors already.”
They all returned home safely, and he became healthy and fat. He was so thankful to the poor beggar man that he kept him in his own house until his death. For as long as he was alive, he never lay down on green grass again. Moreover, if he ever felt any sickness or ill-health again, he never once called a doctor to him. Is it any wonder?
There are many strange geological formations in Ireland, the most well-known being the Giant’s Causeway in the County Antrim. The ocean battered cliffs on the west coast of Ireland present a striking spectacle of huge rocks carved by nature into great sculptures. Then, inland, the mountains rise like fabled giants that are marching to the protection of the people. But, here and there, stand geological anomalies that are not as tall as the mountains of the west, but not as small as the Drumlins of Armagh. The ‘Black Hill’ is one of these anomalies and consists of black layers of stone that appear to be harder and denser on the upper surfaces than they are beneath. In the rains and winds that sweep across the land the lower portion of each layer, disintegrates first, forming a clear step is the ground. The main road Derry City stretches through this area and passes by the ‘Black Hill’. Overall, the Hill is shaped like a cone and, on the slopes, the grass-covered terraces composing it are very regular in shape and size from the base to the peak. It gives the observer the impression that there is a road carved out of the sides of the mountain, that winds its way in an easy ascent to the summit of the ‘Black Hill.’.
“That is known as the ‘Pooka’s Path’ by all around here.”
“What, in the name of God is a Pooka?”
“What’s the Pooka, did you ask?” asked the old man. “Well, sure, that’s not easy to tell. For one thing, it’s an evil sort of spirit that does be always creating mischief. But, sure it never does any serious harm to any excepting to those that deserve it, or them that speaks of it disrespectfully. I’ve never seen it, myself, thanks be to God, but there are those who have, and they say that it looks like the finest black horse that ever wore smithy shoed. But it isn’t a horse at all, for no horse did have eyes of fire, or be breathing flames of blue with a smell of sulphur, or a snort like thunder, and no mortal horse would take the leaps and bounds that it does or go as far without getting tired. Sure, it was said that when it gave Tom O’Byrne the ride it gave him, it went from Belfast to Athlone with one jump, and the next took him Galway, and the next was in Dublin, and back again be way of Limerick and Kilkenny, and he never turned a hair. How far is that? Sure, I wouldn’t know, but it’s a brave long distance, and took him right across Ireland and back again.Byrne knew it was the Pooka because it spoke to him like a mortal Christian, only its language isn’t at all agreeable and will never give you a decent word after you’re on its back, and sometimes not even before.”
“It must be a monster of a thing?” I replied, eager to move on, but the old man had not finished yet.
“Sure, Danny Burke was coming home one night. Now, I was only a boy at the time, but I mind him telling the story. He said that he had been at a fair in Galbally, where he had been having a few drinks, though some say he had a bellyful. But when he come to a rath, and just beyond it, where the fairies dance, you know, the front of the wall where that policeman was hit on the head by a poacher last winter, he fell in the ditch, completely jiggered and exhausted. Sure, it wasn’t the length as much as the wideness of the road, for he was going from one side to the other and it all proved too much for him. So, he laid still in the ditch for a bit and then tried to get up, but his legs were too weak, and his head was too heavy, and when he attempted to get his feet on the road it was his head that was on it, because his legs couldn’t balance him. Well, Burke lay on and he was entirely done, and while he was studying just how he would get up, he heard the trotting of a horse approaching on the road.
“‘Ah, sure, I’ll get a lift now,’ says he to himself as he lay waiting, and up came the Pooka. When Danny saw him, by Jaysus, he covered his face with his hands and turned away from him, roaring with fright like a mad bull.
“’Ah now, you wee sneaking blackguard,’ said the Pooka, with a mighty snort, ‘Would ever stop your bawling or I’ll kick you to the end of next week.’
“But Danny was scared, and he bellowed louder than he had before, so the Pooka, with his hoof, give him a crack on the back that knocked the wind out of him. ‘Will you be quiet,’ said the Pooka, ‘or will I give you another crack, you buck eejit?’
“Danny stopped the weeping and the Pooka began to calm himself, though his language was no less temperate. ‘Stand up, you pure-bred guzzler,‘ said the Pooka, ‘I’ll give you a ride on my back.’
“’I wish I could, but I can’t’ says Danny, ‘Sure, I’ve not been drinking at all, but smoking too much and eating, and it’s sick I am, and not drunk.’
“’You’re a drunken reprobate,’ says the Pooka, ‘Don’t you be trying to deceive me,’ lifting up his hoof again, and giving his tail a swish that sounded like the crack of a whip. ‘Didn’t I follow you for two miles by your breath,’ says the Pooka, ‘And you smelling like a poteen factory. And the nose on your face as red as a turkey-cock’s. Get up out of that, or I’ll lift you,’ says the Pooka, jumping up and cracking his hind foot like he was dancing a jig.
“Danny did his best to get up, and the Pooka helped him with a grip of his teeth on Danny’s collar. “‘Pick up your cap,’ says the Pooka, ‘and climb up. I’ll give you such a ride as you have never even dreamed of.’
“‘Ah, please,’ says Danny, ‘I’d rather walk, for riding makes me dizzy.’
“’Don’t be stupid,’ says the Pooka, ‘will you just get up out of that or will I kick the stuffing out of your cowardly body.’
“The Pooka turned around and he flourished his heels in Danny’s face. Poor Danny tried, but he couldn’t, so the Pooka took him to the wall and give him a lift onto it, and when Dennis was mounted, and had a tight hold on the Pooka’s mane, the first leap he gave was down the rock there, a thousand feet into the field you can see, then up again, and over the mountain, and into the sea, and out again, from the top of the waves to the top of the mountain, and after the poor sot from the ditch was almost dead, the Pooka come back here with him and dropped him in the ditch where he had found him, and he blew in his face to put him to sleep before leaving him. It was morning before they found Danny and carried him home. The man could not walk for a fortnight after, because of the weakness of his bones after the ride he’d been given.
“But sure, the Pooka’s a different beast entirely to what he was before King Bryan-Boru tamed him,” said the old man. “Never heard of him? Well, he was the king of Munster and High King of all Ireland, and he tamed the Pooka once and for all on that hill in front of you. You see, in the old days, the entire country was full of evil spirits, and fairies and witches, and devils, and the harm they did was almost unceasing, for they were always coming and going, like the shuttle on a loom, and without so much as a by your leave. The fairies would be dancing on the grass every night by the light of the moon, and stealing away the children, and many were those they took that never come back. The old rath on the hill beyond was full of the dead, and after nightfall they’d come from their graves and walk in a long line one after another to the old church in the valley where they’d go in and stay until cock-crow, then they’d come out again and back to the rath. There was hardly a parish without a witch, and some nights they’d have a great entertainment on the Hill, and you’d see them, with snakes on their arms and necks and ears, by way of jewels, and the eyes of dead men in their hair, coming for miles and miles, some riding through the air on sticks and bats and owls, and some walking, and more on Pookas and horses with wings that would come up in line to the top of the hill, like the cabs at the door of the theatre, and leave them there and hurry off to bring more.
“Sometimes the Old Enemy, Satan himself, would be there at the entertainment, coming on a monstrous dragon, with green scales and eyes like the lightning in the heavens, and a roaring fiery mouth like a lime-kiln. It was the great day then, for they do say all the witches brought their reports at them times for to show him what they had done. Some would tell how they stopped the water in a spring, and upset the neighbours, more would show how they dried-up the cow’s milk, and made her kick the pail, and they’d all laugh like they were ready to split in two. Some had blighted the corn, while more had brought the rains on the harvest. Some told how their enchantments made the children fall ill, some said how they set the thatch on fire, more told how they stole the eggs, or spoiled the cream in the churn, or bewitched the butter so it wouldn’t come, or led the sheep into the bog. But that wasn’t all.
“One would have the head of a man murdered by her charms, and with it the hand of him that was hung for the murder. One would bring the knife she’d scuttled a boat with and point to the sea to where the corpses laid of the fishermen she’d drowned. One would carry on her breast the child she’d stolen and meant to bring up in evil, and another one would show the little white body of a baby she’d smothered in its sleep. And the corpse-candles would tell how they deceived the traveller, bringing him to the river, and the evil spirits would tell how they drew him in and down to the bottom in his sins and then to the pit with him. And old Beelzebub would listen to all of them, with a reporter, like them that’s taking down the speeches at a meeting, by his side, writing what they said, so as when they come to be paid, it wouldn’t be forgotten.
“Those were the times for the Pookas too. They had power over those that went out after night, except it was on an errand of mercy they were going. But. Not one sinner that hadn’t been to his duty regular would ever see the light of day again after meeting a Pooka, for the beast would either kick him to smithereens where he stood, or lift him on to his back with his teeth and jump into the sea with him, then dive, leaving him to drowned, or spring over a cliff with him and tumble him to the bottom a bleeding corpse.But there were great howls of joy when a Pooka would catch a sinner off-guard and brought him on the ‘Path’ on a night that Satan was there. May God protect us, what a sight it was. They made a ring with the corpse-candles, while the witches tore him limb from limb, and the fiends drunk his blood in red-hot iron cups with shrieks of laughter to smother his screams. The Pookas jumped on his body and trampled it into the ground, and the storm would whistle a tune, and the surrounding mountains would keep time, and the Pookas, and witches, and spirits of evil, and corpse-candles, and bodies of the dead, and devils, would all jig together round the rock where old Beelzebub would sit smiling, as if saying that he could ask no better diversion.God save us, but it makes my skin creep to think of it.
“Well, as I was telling you, in the time of King Bryan, the Pookas did a great deal of harm, but as those that they murdered were drunken beasts that were in the shebeens during the day and in the ditch by night, and wasn’t missed when the Pookas took them, the King paid no attention, and sure he can’t be blamed for that.
“But one night, the queen’s baby took ill, and the king told one of his men, ‘Here, Riley, get you up and on the white mare and go for the doctor.’
“’Right then,’ says Riley. But, the king’s country house was in the break of the hills, so Riley would pass by the Rath and the ‘Black Hill’ on the way to get the doctor. ‘Well,’ says he quietly to himself, ‘I don’t want to be doing this job.’
“So, he says to the king, ‘Will it not do until the morning?’
“‘It will not,‘ says the king to him. ‘Get up, you lazy beggar, sitting and eating my bread, while the life is leaving my child.’
“So, Riley went with a great slowness in his feet, took the white mare, and off, and that was the last that was seen of him or the mare, for the Pooka took them. For those who said that they had seen him in Cork two days later, trading off the white mare, there were no lies told. They were, in fact, deceived by a trick of the spirits that made them believe it was Riley.
“Nevertheless, the baby got well again. But, because the doctor didn’t get there, the king now began to wonder what had happened to Riley and the white mare, and although he searched wide and low for them he didn’t find them. And then he realised that they were gone, because the Pooka had not left as much as a hair of the mare’s tail.
“’What’s this?‘ exclaimed the King, ‘Is it horses that the Pooka will be stealing? Well, bad luck to him and his impudence! This will never do. Sure, he’ll have us ruined entirely.’
“Mind you now, it’s my opinion from what he said, that the king wasn’t concerned too much about Riley, for he knew that he could get more Irishmen when he wanted them, but what he meant to say was that if the Pooka took to horse-stealing, he’d be ruined entirely, for where would he get another white mare? So, it was a very serious question and he retired into a room with a big book that he had, which contained some secrets. The king was very intelligent, well educated, and a mind that was craftier than that of a fox.
“So, the king read and read as fast as he could, and after reading without stopping, except for the occasional food break, for seven days and nights, he came out, and when they asked him if he could beat the Pooka now, he never said a word. He just gave a wink of his eye, as for to say he had him.
“So, that same day he went into the fields and along the hedges and ditches, from sunrise to sunset, collecting the materials for a charm against the Pooka. But, what he got I don’t know, no more does anyone for he never said, but kept the secret to himself and didn’t say it even to the queen. The king was only too aware that secrets run through a woman like water in a ditch. But there was one thing about it that he couldn’t help telling, because he wanted a certain item and couldn’t get it without help, and that was three hairs from the Pooka’s tail, without which the charm wouldn’t work. So he told a manservant he had that he’d give him a great deal of gold if he’d get them for him, but the servant pulled off his cap and scratched his head and said, ‘Dear God, your majesty, I don’t know what good the gold will do me if the Pooka gets a crack at me body with his hind heels.’ Neither would he undertake the task without a reward and the king began to fear that his plan was over before it had begun.
“But it happened on the Friday, this being on a Tuesday, that the Pooka caught a sailor that had only been on land long enough to get blind drunk, and got him on his back, and jumped over the cliff with him leaving him dead. When they came to search the sailor to see what he had in his pockets, they found three long hairs round the third button of his top-coat. So, they took them to the king and told him where they got them. The king was greatly pleased, because now he believed he had the Pooka in his grasp and could end his enchantment.
“But, as the evening came, he a doubt came into his mind and he began to wonder. If the three hairs were out of the Pooka’s tail, the charm would be good enough, but if they were not, and were from his mane instead, or from a horse instead of a Pooka, the charm wouldn’t work and the Pooka would get on top of him with all the feet he had at once and it would be the death of him immediately. So, this doubt struck the king with a great force and for a while he felt uneasy. But, with a little soul searching, he got around it. He went to confession and received absolution so that he’d be ready. He then told one of the servants to come in and tell him, after supper, that there was a poor widow in the laneway beyond the Black Hill that wanted help that night, that it would be an errand of mercy he would be on and, therefore, safe against the Pooka if the charm didn’t work.
“‘Sure, what’ll be the good of that?’ asked the man, ‘It will be a lie, and won’t work.’
“‘Don’t be worrying yourself,’ says the king, ‘just do as you are told and don’t argue, for that’s a point of metaphysics.’ It was indeed a great deal of deep learning that he had, ‘that’s a point of metaphysics and the more you argue on them subjects, the less you know,’ says he, and he’s speaking the truth. ‘Besides, even if it is a lie, it’ll deceive the Pooka, and it’s my belief that the means will justify the end,’ says he, as his thoughts turned to the white mare.
“So, after supper, as the king was sitting in front of the fire, and had the charm in his pocket, the servant came in and told him about the widow. ‘By God,‘ said the king, like he was surprised, in his attempt to completely deceive the Pooka. ‘If that’s true, I must go relieve her at once.’ So he got up from his chair and put on his soldier’s boots, with spurs on them a foot across, and he took a long whip in his hand, for fear, he said, that the widow would have dogs, then he went to his chest and took his old stocking and got asovereign out of it, and went out with his right foot first, and the spurs rattling as he walked.
“He came across the yard, and up the hill beyond and around the corner, but saw nothing. Then up the foot path round the Black Hill and never met a soul but a dog that he threw a stone at. But, he didn’t go out on the road to the widow’s, for he was afraid that if he met the Pooka and he caught him in a lie, not being on the road to where he said he was going, it would be all over with him. So, he walked up and down between the old church below there and the Rath on the hill, and just as the clock was striking twelve, he heard a horse in front of him, as he was walking down, so he turned and went the other way, getting his charm ready, and the Pooka came up after him.
“‘The top of the morning to you, your Honour,’ said the Pooka, politely, for he had noticed by his clothes that the king was not just a commoner but was one of real quality.
“‘And good day to you,‘ says the king to him, boldly, and when the Pooka heard him speak, he became even more polite in his manner, and made a low bow and scrape with his foot. With polite greetings exchanged they walked on together and began to converse.
“”Sure, it’s a black night for traveling,’ said the Pooka.
“‘Indeed it is,’ replied the king, ‘and sure, I would not be out in it, if it wasn’t a case of necessity. I’m on an errand of charity.’
“‘That’s very good of you,’ said the Pooka tohim, ‘and if I may ask, what’s the necessity?’
“”It is to relieve a widow-woman,’ said the king.
“‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, throwing back his head laughing with great pleasure and nudging the king with his leg on the arm, by the way that it was a joke because the king said it was to relieve a widow that he was going. ‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, ”It is myself that’s glad to be in the company of an elegant gentleman that’s on so pleasing an errand of mercy.’ ‘And how old is the widow-woman?’ says he, bursting with the horrid laugh he had.
“‘Ah, now,’ says the king, getting red in the face and not liking the joke in the least, for just between us, they do say that before he married the queen, he was the quare-buck with the women, and the queen’s maid told the cook, that told the footman, that said to the gardener, that told the neighbours that many were the nights that the poor king was as wide awake as a hare from sun to sun with the queen bleating at him about that topic. Even more amusing, there was a widow in it, that was as sharp as a rat-trap and surrounded him when he was young and hadn’t as much sense as a goose, and was ready to marry him at once in spite of all his relations, just as widows understand how to do. So it’s my considered opinion that it wasn’t decent for the Pooka to be laughing that way, and shows that evil spirits are dirty blackguards that can’t talk with gentlemen. ‘Ah, now,’ says the king, because the Pooka’s laughing wasn’t an agreeable noise to listen to, ‘I don’t know her, for I never seen her, but I believe that she’s a hundred, and as ugly as Beelzebub, and when her old man was alive, they tell me she had a temper like a gander, and was as easy to manage as an armful of cats. But she’s in want, and I’m after bringing her a sovereign.’
“Well, the Pooka ceased his laughing, for he had seen the king was not very amused, and says to him, ‘And if you don’t mind, where does she live?’
“‘At the end of the lane beyond the Black Hill,’ says the king, very short.
“‘By God, that’s a good bit,’ says the Pooka.
“‘Aye, that’s true,’ says the king, ‘what’s more, it’s uphill every foot of the way, and my back is broke entirely with the steepness of it,’ says he, giving a hint that he would like a ride.
“‘Will yer honour get upon my back,‘ says the Pooka. ‘Sure, I’m going that way, and you don’t mind getting a lift?’ says he, falling like the stupid beast he was, into the trap the king had made for him.
“‘Thanks,’ says the king, ‘I believe not. I’ve no bridle nor saddle. Besides, it’s the spring of the year, and I’m afraid you’re shedding, and your hair will come off and spoil my new britches,’ says he, pretending to make excuse.
“‘Have no fear,’ said the Pooka. ‘Sure, I never drop me hair. It’s no ordinary breed of a horse I am, but a most uncommon beast that’s used to the quality,’ says he.
“‘Yer speech shows that,‘ says the king, the clever man that he was, to be polite in such a way to a Pooka, that’s known to be an out-and-out devil. ‘But ye must excuse me this evening, because the road’s full of stones and is terrible steep, and you look so young that I’m afraid you’ll stumble and cause me to fall,’ says he.
“‘Fair play to you,’ says the Pooka, ‘it’s true, I do look young.’ And he began to prance about on the road giving himself airs like an old widow-man who is wanting a young woman, ‘but me age is older than you suppose. How old would you say I was,’ says he, smiling.
“‘Sure, I wouldn’t know,’ says the king, ‘but if it’s agreeable to you, I’ll look in your mouth and give you an answer.’
“So the Pooka come up to him softly and stretched his mouth as if the king was wanting to climb in, and the king put his hand on the jaw as if he was going to see the teeth he had. Then, that moment he slipped the three hairs around the Pooka’s jaw, and when he did that, he drew them tight, and said the charm crossing himself, and the hairs immediately became cords of steel, and held the Pooka tight, as if it was a bridle.
“‘Ah, now, you bloody beast of a murdering devil,’ says the king, pulling out his big whip that he had hidden in his top-coat, and giving the Pooka a crack with it under his stomach, ‘I’ll give you a ride that you won’t forget in a hurry, you black bollix of a four-legged devil and you stealing my white mare,’ and he hit him again.
“‘Oh my,‘ says the Pooka, as he felt the grip of the iron on his jaw and he knew that he was under an enchantment, ‘Oh my, what’s this all about?’ rubbing his breast with his hind heel, where the whip had hit him, and then jumping with his fore feet out to catch the air and trying to break away. ‘Sure I’m ruined, I am, so I am,’ says he.
“‘That’s true,’ says the king, ‘By God it’s the one true thing you ever said,’ says he, jumping on his back, and giving him the whip and the two spurs with all his might.
“Now, I forgot to tell you that when the king made his enchantment, it was good for seven miles round, and the Pooka knew that as well as the king and so he started like a policeman was after him, but the king was afraid to let him go far, thinking he’d do the seven miles in no time, and the enchantment would be broken like a rotten string, so he turned him up the Black Hill.
“‘I’ll give you all the exercise you want,’ says he, ‘in travelling around this hill.’ And round and round they went, the king sticking the big spurs in him every jump and cracking him with the whip until his sides ran blood in streams like a mill race, and his screams of pain were heard all over the world so that the king of France opened his window and asked the policeman why he didn’t stop the fighting in the street. Around and around and about the Black Hill went the king, lashing the Pooka, until his feet made the path that you see on the hill, because he went so often.
“And when morning came, the Pooka asked the king what he’d take to let him go, and the king was getting tired and told him that he must never steal another horse, and never kill another man, except for foreign blackguards that weren’t Irish, and when he gave a man a ride, he must bring him back to the spot where he got him and leave him there. So the Pooka consented, Glory be to God, and got off, and that’s the way he was tamed, and explains how it was that Danny Burke was left by the Pooka in the ditch just where he found him.“
“Moreover, the Pooka’s an altered beast in every way, for now he drops his hair like a common horse, and it’s often found sticking to the hedges where he jumped over, and they do say he doesn’t smell half as strong of sulphur as he used, nor the fire out of his nose isn’t so bright. But all the king did for him would not teach him to be civil in his speech, and when he meets you in the way, he speaks just as much like a blackguard as ever. And it’s out of devilment that he does it, because he can be polite as you know by what I have told you about him saying to the king, and that proves what I said to you that evil spirits can’t learn real good manners, no matter how hard they try.
“But the fright he got never left him, and so he keeps out of the highways and travels by the footpaths, and so isn’t often seen. And it’s my belief that he can do no harm at all to them that fears God, and there’s those that say he never shows himself nor meddles with man nor mortal except they’re drunk, and maybe there’s something in that too, for it doesn’t take much drink to make a man see a good deal.”
Many years ago, there lived a hard-working farmer named Liam Mooney, who lived on the borderlands between County Armagh and County Louth. Times had been harsh for many seasons and there was little money to be made from poor harvests. Then, one day, the landlord came to Liam and told him, “You owe me three years’ rent now, and unless you can pay it all to me within the week, I’ll throw you, and all of your family out on the road.“
“Ah, sir,” replied Liam, “I will be going to Newry tomorrow with a load of wheat to sell, and when I get it all sold, I will be able pay you all that I owe.”
Next morning, Liam put a load of wheat on the cart, and headed off to market with it. But, after he had travelled only a couple of miles from his house, he met a prosperous looking gentleman, who asked him, “Is that a load of wheat that you’ve got on your cart?“
“It is, indeed,” replied Liam, “and I’m going to sell it at the market so that I can pay my rent.”
”How much is there in that load?” the gentleman asked politely.
“There’s a ton in it,” said Liam with a certain pride.
“I’ll buy it from you,” said the gentleman, “and I’ll give you the best price that’s going in the market. Now, when you reach the cart track that’s on your left, turn down it and continue along the track until you come to a big house in the valley. I’ll be there before you arrive, and I can give you your money.“
Pleased with the deal he had struck, Liam came to the cart track he turned in, continuing on his way, as instructed, until he came as far as the big house described by the gentleman. Liam then began to wonder, when he came as far as the big house, for having been born and raised in this part of the country he had never seen this building before, and he thought he was familiar with every house within five miles of where he lived. When Liam came near to the barn that was close to the big house, a small boy came running out and said, “Good man Liam Mooney, you’re very welcome.” The boy then lifted a sack onto his back and went into the barn with it. Almost immediately another little lad came out and welcomed Liam, put a sack on his back, and went into the barn with it. Very soon various lads were coming out, welcoming Liam, and putting the sacks on their backs to carry them into the barn, until the entire ton of wheat was all gone.
It was then that all the boys came around Liam, who told them plainly, “You boys all know me, and I don’t know one of you!“
One of the boys stepped forward and replied to Liam, saying, ”Go in and eat your dinner, for the master’s waiting for you.”
Liam went into the main house and sat down at the table to eat. But he had not taken a second mouthful when he began to feel a heavy sleep overcame him, and he fell down under the table. Then this mysterious gentleman used his magic powers to fabricate a man in Liam’s image, and then sent him home to William’s wife with the horse and cart. When the false Liam eventually arrived at Liam’s house, he went into the bedroom, where he laid himself down on the bed and died.
Within a few hours the news had spread far and wide that Liam Mooney had died. The wife put some water on the fire to heat and, when it was hot, she washed the body of her ‘husband’ and laid it out to be waked. His friends and neighbours from all over the district came to the house, and they grieved for him deeply. There was also great comfort for Liam’s poor wife, who did not show much grief herself on the passing of her husband, for Liam was an older man and she was quite young.
The next morning saw the poor man’s body buried, and afterwards there was very little thought given to the man. The wife had a young house-boy, and she called him to her and said, “You should marry me, you know, and take Liam’s place.”
“Surely, it’s too early, after himself just dying and his body hardly cold in the ground?” the boy replied. “Wait, at least until Liam has been buried a week.”
Meanwhile, after the real Liam had slept for seven days and seven nights, a little boy came to him and awoke him, saying, “You’ve been asleep for a week, Liam! But we sent your horse and cart home. Now, here’s your money, and you should go.”
Liam, still confused by all that had happened to him, made his way home, and because it was late at night no person saw him. However, on the morning of that same day, Liam’s wife and the young servant lad went to the local priest and asked if he would marry them. “Have you the marriage money?” asked the priest.
“No,” said the wife, “but I have a great beast of a pig at home, and you can have her in place of money.“
The priest accepted, married the couple, and said, “I’ll send for the pig tomorrow.”
When the wife and the servant boy were going to bed that evening, Liam came to the door of his house and struck it a hefty blow. Surprised by the intrusion the newly wedded couple asked, “Who’s there?”
“It’s I,” replied Liam, “Now, open the door for me.”
When they heard the voice, they immediately recognised that it was Liam’s voice. Terrified by this knowledge the wife called out, “I can’t let you in! Sure, it’s a shameful thing for you to be coming back here again, after you have been lying seven days in your grave.”
“Have you gone mad? ” asked Liam.
“No! I’m not a mad woman!” declared the wife. “Sure, doesn’t every person in the entire parish know that you are dead, and that I buried you decently. Now, old man, go back to your grave, and I’ll have a mass read for your poor soul in the morning.“
“Wait until morning comes,” said Liam, “and I’ll give you the weight of a dead man’s boot as the price for all this foolishness!” Angrily he turned from the door and went into the stable, where his horse and the pig were, to stretch himself out on the straw and get some sleep.
Early the next morning, the priest called one of the local lads to him and told him, “Go you to Liam Mooney’s house, and the woman that I married yesterday will give you a pig to bring back to me.“
When the boy came to the door of the house, he began knocking at it with a heavy-stick but the woman of the house was afraid to open it. Instead she called out, “Who’s there ? “
“It’s me,” said the boy, “the priest has sent me to get a pig-from you.”
“She’s out in the stable,” said the wife, “you can go gather her for yourself, and drive her back with you.“
The lad went into the stable, and he began to drive out the pig, when Liam suddenly rose up and said, “Where are you going with my pig ? “
When the boy saw Liam he never stopped to look again, but he ran out of there just as hard as he could, and he never stopped running until he came back to the priest. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest with terror that he thought it would burst out of his chest. “What’s the matter with you? ” asked the priest. The lad told him that Liam Rooney was in the stable and wouldn’t let him drive out the pig.
“Hold your tongue, you liar!” scolded the priest. “Liam Rooney’s dead and cold in his grave this week.”
“I don’t care if you say he was in his grave this past seven years, Father, I saw him in the stable two moments ago, and if you don’t believe me, then come yourself, and you’ll see him.”
The priest and the boy then went together to the door of the stable, and the priest told the lad, “Go in and turn me out that pig.“
“What? I wouldn’t go in there for all the money you could get!” said the boy.
The priest went in instead of the boy, and began driving out the pig, when Liam rose up out of the straw and asked, “Where are you going with my pig, Father?“
When the priest saw Liam standing before him, he turned on his heels and ran as if all the devils in hell were after him, crying out, “In the name of God, I order you back to your grave, Liam Rooney.“
Liam began running after the priest, and saying, ”Father, Father, have are you gone mad? Wait and speak to me.“
But the priest would not wait for him and continued to make for home just as fast as his feet could carry him, and when he got into the house, he shut the door behind him. Liam was knocking at the door until he was tired, but the priest would not let him in. Finally, the priest put his head out of an upstairs window of the house, and called to him, “Liam Rooney, go back to your grave.“
” You’re mad. Father! Sure, I’m not dead, and I never was in a grave since I was born,” said Liam.
“I saw you dead,” said the priest; “you died suddenly, and I was present when you were put into the grave. Sure, didn’t I make a fine sermon over you?“
“God preserve us, but, as sure as I’m alive, you’re raging mad !” said Liam.
“Get out of my sight now,” said the priest, “and I’ll read a mass for you, tomorrow.”
Liam went home then, and knocked at his own door, only to fine that his wife would not let him in. Then he said to himself: “I may as well go and pay my rent now.”
On his way to the landlord’s house everyone who saw Liam was running before him, for they thought he was dead. When the landlord heard that Liam Rooney was coming his way, he immediately locked the doors and would not let him in. Liam began knocking frantically at the front-door until the landlord thought he’d break it in, and he went to a window at the top of the house, put out his head, and asked, “What is it that you want? “
“I’ve come to pay my rent like any honest man,” replied Liam.
“Go back to your grave, and I’ll forgive you your rent,” said the landlord.
“I won’t leave this,” said Liam, “until I get it in writing from you that I’m paid up until next May.”
The lord gave him the written statement he wanted, and he came home again and knocked at his own door. But, once again the wife refused to let him in. She said that Liam Rooney was dead and buried, and that the man at the door was only a deceiver. “I’m no deceiver,” said Liam, “I’m after paying my master three years’ rent, and I’ll have possession of my own house, or else I’ll know the reason why.”
He went to the barn and got a big bar of iron, and it wasn’t long until he broke the door down. The wife and her newly married husband were terrified, for they began to believe that the ‘Last Days’ had come and that the end of the world had arrived. “Why did you think I was dead?” asked Liam.
“Doesn’t everybody in the parish know you’re dead?” said the wife.
“To the devil with you woman,” said Liam, “you’ve been humbugging me long enough now, go and get me something to eat.“
The poor woman was greatly afraid, and she sliced him some meat. Then, when she saw him eating and drinking, she said, “It’s a miracle!“
Then Liam told her his story from first to last, and she told him each thing that happened. Then, and then he said, “I’ll go to the grave to-morrow, to see the body that is buried in my place.“
The next morning Liam brought a lot of men with him to the churchyard, and they dug open the grave. They were raising the coffin, when a huge black dog jumped out of it, and ran off, with Liam and the men chasing after it. They were following it until they saw it going into the house in which Liam had been asleep. Then, suddenly, the ground opened and swallowed the house, and from that moment on nobody ever saw it again, although the big hole that it left is still to be seen unto this day. When Liam and the men went home, they told everything that had happened to the priest of the parish, and he dissolved the marriage between Liam’s wife and the servant boy. Liam lived for years after this, leaving great wealth behind him, and his story is still remembered in that border area.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of types and breeds of Cat which share this world with us. Among all these many natural types and breeds of feline, however, there are those from the world of the supernatural, which have particularly wicked and evil ways. The Cat Sidhe, (Cat Sìth-Scottish Gaelic) is one such has become a part of Celtic mythology, which is said to look like a large black cat with a white spot on its chest, that and mainly haunts rocky high ground. Although the greater number of legends associated with these creatures are to be found within the tales of Scottish folklore, there are a few stories that occur within the folklore archives of Ireland. It is customary within Irish folklore that such creatures as these are considered as demons, or witches’ “familiars”, that adopt the disguise of a cat to gain easy entry into human residences. And, once inside the homes of mortals, they can spy on all that happens and, thereby, bring about a range of terrible events. The idea of the Cat Sidhe (‘Fairy Cat’) may have been originally inspired by the presence of the European Wildcat in the lands of the Celts. In those days the Wildcat was a much more numerous and widespread animal than it is now. Much like the wolf, it is extinct in Ireland but the memory of the large, all black cat with the white spot prominent on its chest, still lingers. Known as the ‘Demon Feline’ by some it was a creature never to be trusted. It was even thought capable of stealing a person’s soul before it could be claimed by God, and in several areas would hold special wakes to keep the creature away from the corpse before it was buried. At these, the people would play music, and all sorts of games to distract the Cat Sidhe away from the room in which the corpse lay. At the same time, no fires were lit in the room where the body lay for, it was said, the ‘Demon Feline’ was attracted by warmth. Although never to be trusted when encountered, legend tells that on the feast of ‘Samhain’ the Cat Sidhe would bless any house that left a saucer of milk out or it to drink. But for those houses that did not leave out a saucer of milk, there was only a curse as a reward, such as having the cow’s milk dry-up. Such things, of course, led many to believe that the Cat Sidhe was a witch that could transform at will into a cat and back again nine times. It was said that should a witch choose to go back into their cat form for a ninth time, they would remain a cat for the rest of their days, and hence the tradition of the cat having nine lives.
The ‘Demon Feline’, however, came into its own when ancient rituals for calling up the dead were practiced. From tribe to tribe these rituals varied, but generally involved torture or cruelty to animals and humans and, occasionally, included animal sacrifice. It was not unknown in some of these rituals for the bodies of cats to be roasted alive over the course of several days and nights. All these rituals were carried out to summon legions of spirits or demons in the form of black cats, with the devil at their head, to answer questions concerning the future. The following tale from Ireland, called ‘The Fisherman’s Wife’, recalls an encounter with one of these ‘Demon Felines’ and the difficulties that she faced before overcoming the demon. In the West of Ireland, there once lived a woman, whose fisherman husband was an industrious worker who also had good knowledge of the sea and knew where to find the best catches. He worked hard to ensure that his wife was always well supplied with a great variety of fish that she could clean, cure, store, and make ready for sale in the market. But, despite her husband’s good fortune, this woman’s life was not at all a happy one because, when the husband was out fishing, she was being constantly tormented by a huge black cat that would make its way into the house, where it would greedily devour all the best and finest fish that she had prepared for market. Finally, she decided that if she was to successfully fight off this creature, then she needed to arm herself with a large, thick stick, and with it, in her hands, she would patiently await the cat’s next entrance. Then, one day, unexpectedly, as she was sat in the house gossiping with another woman from the village, the entire house suddenly fell into great darkness and the front door of the house burst open as if blasted by a great wind. Through the open doorway and into the house the huge black monster of a cat strolled, triumphantly marching all the way up to the glowing fire. When he reached the hearth, this demon cat turned toward the two women with a grimace on its face and roared like a lion. “Oh, dear God! Sure, it’s the devil himself!” screamed a young girl who was sorting fish on a bench not far away. “I’ll teach you to call me names, woman!” snarled the huge, black cat and it leaped at the girl, scratching her arm deeply with its huge claws and caused blood to flow from the wound. A diabolical laugh echoed through the house as the cat sneered, “There, now, woman! You’ll hold a much more civil tongue in your head the next time a gentleman, the likes of myself, calls on you!” Saying those words, which rang loudly in the young girl’s ears, the demon cat jumped at the open door, slamming it closed again to prevent any of his captives from escaping. The cat deemed it vital now that the wounded young girl was crying hysterically from the fright and the pain she had been caused. Now, with this one terrifying leap, the huge black cat had cut-off every possible route of escape for the women.
Just as the monster slammed the front door shut, a man, who was passing by the house, was stopped in his tracks by the series of loud cries and screams that were coming from the building. Being very much concerned by the terrible cries that he heard the man rushed up to the door of the house and, using every ounce of his strength that he could muster, he tried to force it open. But the demon cat dug in its heels and, doggedly standing its ground, it refused to allow the man to enter the house and help the women. The man, however, was carrying a large, thick blackthorn stick in his hands and he began to beat down on the monster with every muscle in his body and gave the demon several great blows that told. But, the monster feline was more than a match for the man and launched itself at him with force, tearing at his face and hands so badly that the man had no choice but to take to his heels and run away as fast as he could. Now that the potential rescuer of the women had been forced to flee the scene a huge expression of joy came across the face of the demon as he hissed at his captives, “Now, it’s time for me to eat my dinner.” Then with quick and eager steps, the cat moved toward the long bench-table upon which the fish had been spread out as if they had been made ready for him to examine. “I hope these fish are as good as they look,” the cat sneered as it displayed its sharp, ivory-colored, teeth to the frightened women. “Now, listen to me, don’t even think of making any kind of a fuss, or disturbance while I am helping myself to this feast.” Then, using the great strength it had in its rear legs, the demon cat pounced up on to the bench-table and began to rapidly and hungrily devour all the best fish. With each fish that it gobbled down, the demon continued to stare and growl at the terrified women, who now began to fear that they too might be on his menu. Suddenly, filled with renewed courage, the fisherman’s wife jumped up from her where she was seated and squealed at the monster, “Get away out of this place you, black devil cat!” As she squealed the woman also gave the demon several mighty blows with a set of large, brass coal-tongs that would have certainly broken the back of any normal cat. In her anger and rage, the woman screamed again at the monster cat, “Get away from here, damn you! You will have no feast of our fish this day!” Unfazed by the woman’s screams, the huge cat turned slowly to face her and grinned triumphantly as he began to tear at and devour the fish, feeling none the worse for the heavy blows that the fisherman’s wife had struck him. Undaunted by the failure of their efforts to chase the predator away, the two women continued attacking the demon cat with whatever instruments that they could put their hands on, striking huge blows that appeared to be hard enough to kill. Still, the huge cat continued to stare at the women contemptuously, apparently unaffected by their efforts to hurt him, and it then began to spit out fire as he made a deadly leap toward them. The demon’s great claws and sharp teeth tore into the hands and arms of the women until their blood began to run freely from the wounds caused, and the women made their last-ditch effort, screaming in their terror, to rush out of the building to freedom. Within a very few minutes of leaving the building, the fisherman’s wife sought out a bottle of Holy Water and with this, in her hands, she moved back into the building to confront the great demon. Tentatively, the woman peeked into the house through the open door and saw that the huge cat was still totally engaged in devouring the fish that had been laid out upon the bench-table. So, with great stealth, the fisherman’s wife quietly crept over to the place where her enemy stood and, without making a sound, she opened the bottle of Holy Water and threw the contents all over the unsuspecting demon cat. In an instant a dense black cloud of smoke filled the entire room, covering everything until the only object that could be seen in the darkness was the demon’s glowing red eyes, which burned bright like the coals in a fire. Then, as the thick smoke gradually began to clear away, the fisherman’s wife saw the huge cat as it was burning slowly until it finally became like a shriveled, black cinder and disappeared. It was a gratifying sight but, from that moment onward, the fish catch would remain untouched by the demon and safe from further destruction. The power of the ‘evil one’ was finally broken and the fearsome ‘demon feline’ was never to be seen again. Now that we have reached the end of this tale, it is time to consider the long-held tradition which warns us about the very vengeful tendencies shown by all cats, and that we should make every effort to ensure that we never do anything to offend these animals. What can happen if we fail to abide by these warnings is demonstrated in the following story, which is alleged to be true –
The story tells us that there was once a fine lady of quality, who had a habit of lifting her cat into her arms and to feed it from the food on her own table during dinner. She would select tasty morsels from the plate and give them to the cat with her own hands. One evening, however, the lady decided that she would give a special dinner party for her friends. On such an occasion the lady did not feel it was appropriate for her pet to be fed from the table around which her friends would be seated. The food was served, and the needs and expectations of the cat were completely ignored, while she was rebuffed on several occasions when she approached her mistress. The cat was greatly angered by the treatment it had received and she moved into a dark corner of the room, where it lay silently sulking and planning how it might get revenge for being treated so abysmally. It awaited its opportunity, which arrived after the lady had gone to her bed for the night. The vengeful cat crept silently out from its hiding place and, making its way to the mistress’ bedroom, sprang at the sleeping woman’s bared throat. The cat bit deep into the flesh and created a wound that was so severe that within a week the poor woman became gravely sick and eventually died from virulent blood poisoning. There is a long-standing tradition, which says that there is a power that resides within the blood of a black cat which is to be held in the highest esteem by those persons who are proficient in the making the cures of ancient times. It is such as these that know the true power of the black cat’s blood can only be unleashed when it is mixed with magical charms, thereby providing relief to suffering people through ancient potions that cure even the worst of diseases. Those ‘wise people’ who prepare these magical charms and potions will tell you that three drops of blood from a black cat are more than enough to gain the desired effect. The custom among the ‘Fairy Doctors’ and ‘Wise Women’ is that they gather this blood by nipping off a small piece of a cat’s tail. But it is my opinion that untrained persons would be better leaving such tasks to the experts because cats can become evil demons and will seek to take a terrible vengeance upon anyone who offends them.