He had arrived at the spot where the narrow country lane forked, with one lane taking the traveller over by the edge of the old granite quarry and the other lane taking you past the ‘Fairy Tree’. ‘Banjo’ decided that he should rest for a moment, for the late summer sun was shedding its burnt-gold light over the land. The coming of the evening made the shadows lengthen, and a cold breeze had begun to get stronger, causing the blanket wrapped around the load on his shoulders to flap noisily. He lifted this load down from his shoulders and placed it rather gently in the middle of the lane before he reached into the pocket of his jacket to retrieve his cigarettes and ‘Zippo’ lighter. Using his jacket to protect the lighter from the breeze, he lit one of the cigarettes and began to smoke it as he started to consider what he going to do now.
His wife, Bernie, had devised the plan and she had told ‘Banjo’ to take the lane that led to the edge of the old quarry. At the bottom of this quarry, there was a lake of water that had accumulated and was estimated to be at least forty-feet in depth. But as his cigarette burned closer to the filter-tip he had come to a decision about what he should do. ‘Banjo’ flicked the butt away and replaced the load back over his shoulder and took the lane leading past the‘Fairy Tree’. At its beginning, this old country track wound its way uphill and the rain of recent days had caused it to be slippery under-foot. With the weight on his shoulders, he struggled along this pathway, muttering all sorts of curses under his breath, until the track became level again as it passed the old chapel and churchyard of St. Joseph. At this point, he stopped and again took his load from his shoulders.
The final light of evening was beginning to die and small ‘Pipistrelle Bats’ flittered in the air above him and close to the lichen-covered stones of the chapel’s aged walls. He took a moment to himself to scan the hillside, but he could see no person approaching, or hear anything other than the breeze and the flittering of bat-wings. Opening the rusting, iron gate ‘Banjo’ walked slowly into the churchyard and up to a tomb that stood on the east side of the chapel. The stone covering the tomb was itself covered in dark green moss, and the carvings that had once been such an attractive feature had almost vanished through the erosion by wind and rain. Retrieving the blanket-wrapped load that he had been carrying, ‘Banjo’ gently set it on the covering stone and quickly left the churchyard.
When he arrived back home, he found Bernie was waiting there for him. Walking through the front door of the house, ‘Banjo’ went straight into the kitchen and sat down at the table where his wife was already seated. “Is it done?” she asked quietly. “Have you done what I asked you?”
“Not exactly,” he replied as he took off his jacket and hung it on the back of a chair. “I decided it would be better to leave him at St. Joseph’s churchyard and he will be found there in the morning when the priest comes to open the place for early Mass. Sure, that gives you plenty of time to make your escape.”
“Dear God!” she exclaimed in shock and thumped the table heavily with her fists. “Are you really this stupid, or were you born an eejit without a drop of sense in your brain.”
“Watch your mouth, Bernie. It is not me who has done the stupid thing!”
“But, what have you done to me? I hate you!” she screamed at ‘Banjo’ and ran into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her loudly. It was only a few moments later when Bernie came out of the bedroom again and she was hurriedly putting on her overcoat. Still making herself ready, Bernie rushed out of the front door of the house and began to make her way toward the nearby village.
‘Banjo’ fed the pig, which was grunting outside the rear door of the cottage, and then he went to gather some turf for the fire. As he disturbed a reek of turf a large black rat jumped out from its shelter among the blocks and scampered away. At the kitchen sink, he washed his hands and began to look around to ensure the kitchen was clean. He need not have worried, for Bernie was a house-proud woman who liked to leave everything clean and tidy. The fire in the stove, however, had almost gone out and his wife had prepared nothing for him to eat. So, stoking up the stove’s fire, ‘Banjo’ found all the food he needed in the cupboards and he began to make himself a decent supper.
After eating his meal, ‘Banjo’ continued to sit at the table and wait for whatever would happen next. One hour went by slowly, followed by another, and then he heard a car speeding up the lane and pulling up outside the front door of the cottage. ‘Banjo’ looked out the side window and saw that a police car had parked and in the back seat was his wife with her head in her hands. He opened the door and gave access to a stoutly built police sergeant and a quite youthful looking constable. They walked into the cottage and made their way to the kitchen table, where ‘Banjo’ was already seated, smoking a cigarette. “Well, sergeant, is my wife going to join us anytime soon? I have made her some food, but it’s gotten cold by now.”
On a white porcelain dinner plate lay a cold fried egg, a small pile of cold chips, and a portion of garden peas. “Bernie has told us everything ‘Banjo’,” the sergeant told him quietly and in a very matter-of-fact way. The sergeant sat down on a chair opposite the one occupied by ‘Banjo’. The young constable then moved toward the kitchen door to block any attempt that ‘Banjo’ might make to escape justice.
“Bernie says that you killed Jimmy Shevlin because you were jealous of him. She told us that you bashed him over the head with a turf spade, splitting the poor man’s skull.”
‘Banjo’ took a deep drag of his cigarette and exhaled a large bluish cloud of smoke at the sergeant. “Well, so she has told you a story and I suppose there is no point in trying to tell you what really happened?” asked ‘Banjo’. “Will my word be any good against a good-looking woman like her? I could tell you that she and Jimmy were having an affair, but he had had enough and was ready to leave her. Bernie, however, was not ready to call it a day and lost her mind. When I arrived home, poor Jimmy was lying on the floor, just over there.”‘Banjo’ pointed directly at the spot, which was close to the feet of the young constable, who, somewhat surprised by this, he chose to take a hurried step back from the crime scene.
“Ah, sure, don’t be afraid son,”‘Banjo’ smiled at the constable, “Bernie always cleans up well after her.”
“But it was you who took the corpse,” said the police sergeant.
“Yes, I did take away the corpse. She wanted me to dump it into the old quarry, where it would never be found. But that was not the right thing to do, because I thought his family would need to have closure and the body of a beloved son to bury. When Bernie realised that the body would be found, however, she ran like a scalded cat to your police station in the village. She wanted to get her story on the record first and I, her fool of a husband, is seen by everyone as the guilty person.”
“Bernie says that she was going to leave you for Jimmy, and you completely lost your head,” the sergeant told him. “In my experience, it is not in the nature of a woman to take such violent action against a man. So, I think it’s time you got your jacket on and we will all go back to the police station.”
In the clothes of a remand prisoner and handcuffed to a prison guard, Banjo’s appearance to hear the charges against him was televised on the national news. Meanwhile, Bernie sat at home and watched her husband being led into the courthouse. But, as she watched her television, she felt something trickle from her nose, and a drop of blood splashed upon the vinyl table-cloth. Taking a tissue, she went to the nearest mirror and proceeded to clean the blood from her nose. She could, however, taste the blood in her mouth by this time and she spat out a deep-red coloured saliva into the tissue.
Bernie’s body began to weaken further as the day passed until she eventually had to take to her bed. Her mother rang for the doctor to come and when he arrived, sometime later, he found Bernie pale and virtually unconscious. The doctor knew immediately that nothing could be done for the woman and arrangements were quickly made.
The next morning the sergeant was called to the cottage, but word of Bernie’s sudden death had already spread through the parish. The doctor and the sergeant sat in the kitchen and began to discuss what might have caused Bernie’s death. “I think this was poison,” the doctor revealed quietly.
“Self-administered or not?”
The doctor simply shrugged his shoulders and explained, “Well, it wasn’t taken recently, for Rat poison takes a long time to kill someone. A week, even two weeks would be required. If ‘Banjo’ did kill Jimmy Shevlin, then he might have thought to himself that he should get both at the same time.”
The sergeant shook his head, “If he had tried to shove that stuff down her throat, she would certainly have told me.”
“But he wouldn’t have needed to force her to take it,” the doctor pointed out. “That stuff is easily dissolved in tea and it is sweet to the taste. I tell you, sergeant, my money is on ‘Banjo’ doing the job, but you will have the devil of a job proving it. Bernie was a very house-proud woman and has probably cleaned this kitchen every day since ‘Banjo’ has been gone.”
“’Banjo’ was smiling that first time we interviewed him, and, by God, he could be smiling again, very soon,” sighed the sergeant.
The famous Irish author and poet, W.B. Yeats, once described the 19th Century Irish author William Carleton (1794–1869) as ‘a great Irish historian’. Yeats considered “the history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields but in what the people say to each other on fair-days and high days, and in how they farm, and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage”. In all of his books and short stories these were precisely the things that Carleton recorded and left for succeeding generations to read. A new edition of his book “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry” was published in 1843, and in its ‘Introduction’ he explained that he was trying to give his readers “a panorama of Irish life among the people . . . their loves, sorrows, superstitions, piety, amusements, crimes and virtues”. With great word skills Carleton had as he said, “painted them honestly and without reference to the existence of any particular creed or party”. Throughout his novels and his sketches of peasant life in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century William Carleton described in great detail the living conditions and living standards of the poor, alongside other social realities that existed such as the relationship between poverty and illness, the prevalence of disease among the poor, and the recurring famines and accompanying fever epidemics that had become a major feature of Irish peasant life.
Carleton’s story ‘The Black Prophet’ was subtitled ‘A Tale of Irish Famine’, and it was serialised in the Dublin University Magazine between May and December 1846. By this time the entire country was gripped in the crisis that was to become the ‘Great Irish Famine’ and Carleton’s story created such interest that it was published in book form early in the following year. The story itself was based on the author’s experience of famine between 1817 and 1819, and again in 1821 and 1822. In that same year, 1846, an influential pamphlet concerning famine and fever as cause and effect in Ireland also appeared. It was written by Dr Dominic Corrigan, whose work with many of Dublin’s poorest inhabitants had led to him specialising in diseases of the heart and lungs, and the abnormal “collapsing” pulse of aortic valve insufficiency is named ‘Corrigan’s Pulse’ Corrigan’s influential pamphlet on famine and disease was based on earlier famines and fever epidemics that had plagued the country. His central thesis was that fever was the inevitable consequence of famine. From his studies he had come to the conclusion that famine would always be accompanied by a lethal outbreak of disease.
Corrigan’s pamphlet was widely noted and widely reviewed, because his argument was extremely controversial. This was a time when medical science was still a great mystery and long before the germ theory of disease was formulated and causes of disease were still speculative. But, the manner in which Carleton portrayed fever in ‘The Black Prophet’ was closely based on Corrigan’s controversial pamphlet. In a footnote to the story, Carleton reproduced several extracts from the pamphlet, including the final paragraph in which Corrigan compared the relative impact of typhus fever and Asiatic cholera, both of which had appeared in Ireland for the first time in the early 1830s, causing unprecedented consternation and panic. In Corrigan’s opinion fever was much more lethal and destructive than cholera or any other infectious disease. Corrigan stated – “Cholera may seem more frightful but it is in reality less destructive. It terminates rapidly in death, or in as rapid recovery. Its visitation too is short, and it leaves those who recover unimpaired in health and strength. Civil war, were it not for its crimes, would be, as far as regards the welfare of a country, a visitation less to be dreaded than epidemic fever.”
As Carleton wrote in his lengthy footnote, Corrigan’s pamphlet “ought to be looked on as a great public benefit”, because it revealed “it conveyed ‘most important truths to statesmen’. Both Carleton’s story and Corrigan’s pamphlet were written with the purpose of serving as a warning to the government in England and its administration in Ireland about the inevitable consequences of the current famine situation that was evolving throughout the country. In ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton warned that during the famine and fever epidemic of 1817–19 “the number of those who were reduced to mendicancy was incredible”, which was an observation that was corroborated by numerous contemporary accounts. Carleton compared Ireland during these years of famine to a huge fever-hospital that was filled to capacity with victims of famine, disease and death. Adding to the desolation of the scenes that he had witnessed he wrote, “The very skies of heaven were hung with the black drapery of the grave”. The author also commented that hearses, coffins, and long funeral processions appeared to be everywhere one looked. Describing the deathly note of the constantly pealing church bells, Carleton wrote about the roads of the countryside being “literally black with funerals”.
The language and imagery used in ‘The Black Prophet’ resembles those used by a young Irish doctor, Dr. Robert James Graves, who had been sent to Galway during the famine of 1822 as an emergency physician. He reported that the local peasants were always scrupulous in the manner that they conducted wakes, while the cries and lamentations of the large numbers that thronged after funerals, alongside the tolling of the death-bell from the church, always gave the local area a strikingly mournful appearance. But, one of the features of Graves’s report, which occurs regularly in Carleton’s stories, is the terrible fear of infection among the Irish peasantry. It was a fear that intensified on every occasion that any one of the deadly epidemic diseases that plagued Ireland periodically, in the first half of the nineteenth century, appeared among them. Dr. Graves had accurately described the alarm that he met among the people when he arrived in Galway during late September 1822, where, he noted, that the common topics of conversation among the peasants were the sick and the dead. The ties of blood, friendship and hospitality were frequently broken by the same fear of contagion, Graves reported, and those who had been infected were either turned out of their cabins or left therein and abandoned to their own devices.
“The dreadful typhus was now abroad in all its deadly power, accompanied, on this occasion, as it always is among the Irish, by a panic, which invested it with tenfold terrors. The moment fever was ascertained, or even supposed, to visit a family, that moment the infected persons were avoided by their neighbours and friends as if they carried death, as they often did, about them, so that its presence occasioned all the usual interchanges of civility and good-neighbourhood to be discontinued.”In this extract from ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton captures the reaction of the ordinary people to communicable diseases like typhus fever. There are also contained within Carleton’s tales that make up ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’ many echoes of Dr. Graves’s reports.
In the ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton also wrote, “Such as had typhus in their own families were incapable of attending to the wants or distresses of others, and such as had not, acting under the general terror of contagion which prevailed, avoided the sick houses as they would a plague”. This is an authentic portrayal of Irish social realities in the first half of the nineteenth century. The fear, dread, mass panic and hysteria that filled the people were features that were prevalent in all outbreaks of fever and other diseases in Ireland. It was a terrible fear of the unknown, because these simple and virtually uneducated people did not understand how these diseases were caused. Not knowing the causes, they had no idea how to begin to cure them, and they feared anything that they did not know and could not control. But, they were very much aware of the terrible impact and consequences of diseases like fever upon those already weakened by hunger. If these diseases did not kill their victims, they were often left in much worse condition than prior to infection.
Unfortunately, the Irish people had an unrivalled knowledge of fever, its symptoms and its consequences. They were very much aware that the disease was contagious, and their terrible fear of infection drove them to quarantine any fever victims. There were, at the time, two main ways in which they could try to keep people in isolation, each of which was dependent upon the family circumstances of the affected persons. Those victims from the middle and upper classes of Irish society, with better housing and superior domestic arrangements than their poorer neighbours, would often try to isolate the infected person within their homes. One common method was described by a County Kilkenny doctor in 1844, stating that when fever appeared in the homes of wealthier farmers the door of ‘the sick room’ was “built up with sods, and a hole made in the back wall, through which the doctor must scramble in the best way he can upon all fours into an apartment which is almost invariably dirty, dark and damp”. However, he added that such efforts were invariably fruitless and any attempts at domestic segregation of the sick did little to check the spread of disease.
The method employed by the peasantry to isolate the fever victims was to house them in shelters that they called ‘fever huts’. These huts usually consisted of a few stakes, covered with long sods called ‘scraws’ and a small portion of straw or rushes. These flimsy structures were quickly thrown together at the side of a road, the corner of a field or at the verge of a bog. In the 1830s a County Kildare doctor informed a parliamentary commission that was inquiring into the circumstances of the Irish poor, the so-called ‘Poor Inquiry’, of a fever patient he had found lying on some straw in a ditch. He told the commission, “It could not be called a hut, because it had only two sides, the back of the ditch forming one and some straw and furze tied together formed the other. This was removable and changed to whatever side the wind blew from.” In 1839 a visitor to County Fermanagh 1839 came across five instances “where the inmates of fevered hovels had fled to the roadside and struck up a kind of wigwam, composed of an upright stick, at the back of a ditch, and a lock of straw”.
In ‘The Poor Scholar’, one of several tales forming Carleton’s “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry”, the author describes the experiences of Jemmy McEvoy, who had contracted fever. He writes, “The early symptoms of the prevailing epidemic were well known . . . The Irish are particularly apprehensive of contagious maladies. The moment it had been discovered that Jemmy was infected, his school-fellows avoided him with a feeling of terror scarcely credible.” In Carleton’s story, the infected schoolboy was avoided as if he was a leper. Even when a group of agricultural labourers discovered the dazed and barely conscious Jemmy, they too were afraid of the disease but, after some deliberation, agreed to help him because, as one of them said, “there’s a great blessin’ to thim that assists the likes of him”. “Let us help him!” exclaimed another, “for God’s sake, an’ we won’t be apt to take it thin!” The labourers then built a small hut’ for Jemmy on the side of the public road, which was built from a few loose sticks that were covered over with “scraws”, which are the sward of the earth pared into thin strips. Jemmy, the ‘Poor Scholar’, Jemmy, was placed on some straw that had been laid in this structure, and food and drink were passed to him by means of a pitchfork and a long-shafted shovel, which was the custom of the time. It was a strategy that the peasantry resorted to in their efforts to avoid coming into personal contact with the infected person.
The sentiments expressed in Carleton’s story follows the evidence that was recorded in the ‘Poor Inquiry’ relating to the provision of charity to beggars and vagrants. ‘The Poor Inquiry’, conducted in the mid-1830s, took place almost at the same time as Carleton was writing ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’. When speaking to the inquiry several contributors expressed sentiments, such as, “When I give, I do so for the good of my soul, the honour of God, and for their benefit”, “I give, recollecting that I have another place to go to, where, if I give alms, I will receive fourfold reward”. Because of his knowledge of the people Carleton was able to capture the popular voice, which we find is often absent from the historical record. But, we must recognise the fact that Carleton was more than just a social chronicler. ‘The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine’ has a special meaning with regard to the Anglo-Irish politics of the day. Carleton dedicated this work to Lord John Russell, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, acknowledging that both Russell and his predecessor, Sir Robert Peel, were “sincerely anxious to benefit” Ireland. However, in his dedicatory preface he did add, “. . . the man who, in his ministerial capacity, must be looked upon as a public exponent of those principles of government which have brought our country to her present calamitous condition, by a long course of illiberal legislation and unjustifiable neglect, ought to have his name placed before a story which details with truth the sufferings which such legislation and neglect have entailed upon our people.”
Carleton assured the Prime Minister that all of the facts and circumstances that he had depicted in his book were authentic, and he expressed the hope that Russell would prove himself to be ‘a friend’ of Ireland. Although well-meaning it had little chance of success, as the events of the ‘Great Irish Famine’ would show. ‘The Black Prophet’ is indeed an historical record of the manner in which the peasant way of life in Ireland disappeared, and how an entire society was utterly changed by that ‘Great Famine’. Anyone who has read the wonderful stories written by William Carleton will without doubt agree with W.B. Yeats that he was a historian of the people, and through his words we have a better insight into what life in early-nineteenth century Ireland was like.
 From an article by Laurence M. Geary in ‘History Ireland’ Magazine.
 W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).
 W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).
 J. Robins, ‘The Miasma. Epidemic and panic in nineteenth-century Ireland’, Dublin, 1995.
Ireland is well-known for its whiskey, its Poitin, Turf, Storytelling, the Music and the Craic. But, as well as the remote mountains, peat bogs, lakes, and country roads, there is the sight of Irish Travellers, who make up just under 30,000 people or one percent of the country’s population. Being a ‘Traveller’ is a recognised status within Ireland’s social strata, and to be considered a member of the ‘Traveller’ community an individual must have at least one ‘Traveller’ parent. What is also striking about the ‘Traveller’ community in the country is that they have their own language, formally known as ‘Shelta’, which the ‘Travellers’, themselves, call ‘Gammon’ or ‘Cant’. An analysis of ‘Shelta’ has led some scholars to conclude that it came to the fore when the use of the Irish language was prohibited by English conquerors, some 350 years ago.
Although a distinct nomadic group of people they are in a unique position in Ireland because the ‘Travellers’ are native to this land. Over the centuries they have had to face many internal and external influences working against them, which have left their present sociological status is a precarious condition. They have been considered a ‘problem’ by many generations of Irish men and women and have had to suffer repression, suppression and discrimination to varying degrees, leaving them be currently viewed by many in ‘settled’ population as second-class Irish citizens.
The true origins of Irish Travelling People is a continuous source of debate in Ireland, but four main causes behind how ‘Irish Travellers’ came into being. One theory suggests that their direct descendants became nomadic for some economic, social, or cultural reason that caused them to prefer living outside the ‘Brehon Laws’, which were an ancient body of ‘Common Law’ dating from pre-historic times in Ireland. The wandering habits of the people within Gaelic Ireland have also been advanced as a possible explanation for nomadic metalworkers or ‘plain tinkers’. Some researchers have emphasised the mobile, nomadic nature of Gaelic society, believing that the suppression of this lifestyle during the sixteenth-century Tudor reconquest laid the colonial foundations of anti-Traveller racism. Despite such actions by the English elements of the Gaelic pastoral economy continued, the best-known example being ‘booleying’. This is basically the practice of people living in temporary shelters moving herds of cattle from winter to summer pastures. ‘Booleying’ is an important factor in the context of nomadism because it was an agricultural practice demanding seasonal movement that survived within Ireland in some form until the nineteenth century. Its persistence illustrates the difficulty of describing all agriculture as being carried out on settled farmland when the pastoral economy favoured by the Irish cattle farmer could be described as partly nomadic.
The theory that ‘Travellers’ emerged from such a nomadic population has three distinct aspects i.e. craftsmen, the poor and dispossessed, and social misfits. It is believed that craftsmen in metal work and their families were the original nomadic population, and date from the pre-Christian days in this land. A second theory suggests that the ‘Travellers’ are the direct descendants of native Irish chieftains who were dispossessed of their lands and property by the English during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and ‘planted’ with English and Scottish protestant farmers. There is another theory that claims that the ‘Travellers’ were the result of intermarriage between the ‘Romany’ Gypsies and Irish peasants. However, it is more likely that the ‘Travellers’ are the descendants of peasants and labourers who were driven from their land by the political and economic upheaval caused by the Great Irish Famine (1845-1850).
In prior centuries, great poverty, Cromwellian wars, and dispossession, evictions and pressure upon the land all combined to produce ‘the crisis of the Irish peasantry’, which drove thousands to wander the roads of Ireland. Researchers have been very careful to say that it is not possible to put an accurate figure on the number of dispossessed tenants and labourers joined the ranks of itinerant craftsmen, and eventually became permanent Travellers. All that we have are theories even today we cannot accurately place their origin of ‘Travellers’ within a certain and credible historical context. Nevertheless, the scholars cannot resist making a link between contemporary ‘Traveller’ surnames and the poverty-stricken population of the west of Ireland, encouraged by the fact that we do know that forty percent of the ‘Travellers’ share ten common surnames.
Over the centuries, ‘Travellers’ became a separate group because they were permanently nomadic and were able to distance themselves from the numerous male tramps and vagabonds who were always on the roads in these times. This distancing other itinerant people is a strange contradiction, but it demonstrates that the similarity in their lifestyles was not the most important factor in bringing about the ‘Traveller’ population. This difficulty has only added to the problems that scholars have had in placing ‘Travellers’ within the historical records as a distinct cultural minority. We cannot, therefore, presume that ‘Travellers’ in the past were the same as the ‘Travellers’ we know today. In the same way, the well-understood boundaries between ‘Travellers’ and settled people are evident in the recent past, based on family structure, work patterns, religious beliefs, and gender roles, cannot be presumed to have existed in earlier societies. Some researchers claim that after the end of the ‘Great Famine’ in 1850, the antipathy which is shown in present-day attitudes towards itinerants appears to have begun to develop’, although there is little evidence to support such a claim. But we do know that life in twenty-first century Ireland is as different to the Ireland of the mid-nineteenth century as it is to the Ireland of the ninth century.
The ‘Travelling People’ are so much a part of Ireland today, but we cannot definitively state that they emerged as a result of dispossession, and colonial oppression. Historians have not directly blamed Anglo-Irish relations for the existence of homeless individuals and families who subsisted on begging and seasonal employment. However, epidemic disease, the lack of organised welfare, economic crises, poor harvests, and demobilisation do seem to feature as causes. Local studies of efforts to improve the status of the homeless poor do show that institutional confinement was the method most favoured by eighteenth-century society. But, since there was no statutory, nationwide system of poor relief in Ireland until 1838, urban and rural dwellers who could not earn or produce enough to support themselves frequently resorted to begging and vagrancy.
Although the ‘Travelling’ population in Ireland was large, contemporary observers did not see it clearly as a separate grouping of people. However, research into Irish attitudes to poverty before 1838 shows that most are attempts by society to differentiate between the men, women, and children who travelled the roads seeking work or alms. In eighteenth-century Dublin, those with money and authority attempted to ‘devise specific types of responses to the different types of pauper which they believed existed. These distinctions were made on the basis of origin, health, ability to work, age, gender, and religion. But even within these categories, there were further differences, causing more attempts to better understand the homeless population and a long list of different terms to describe them, including strange beggar, local beggar, habitual beggar, foreign beggar, stroller, mendicant, vagrant, vagabond, badged poor, impotent poor, sturdy poor, idle poor, church poor, foundling. The number of terms and the subtleties of meaning conveyed by their varying uses in different contexts suggests that there was a complex attitude to the homeless in those days. It is not possible for us to say whether the extent of differentiation between the poverty-stricken people included any notice being taken of culturally distinct nomads as separate from, or in addition to, the various categories of homeless poor. However, since the researchers of the time were primarily interested in describing people with no fixed abode who begged for alms, the cultural life of these individuals would have held no importance.
In years past the ‘Traveller’ would be well-known for story-telling, word-of-mouth histories and they travelled from place to place singing, playing music, and telling stories to entertain people. More importantly, however, for the more isolated Irish communities, these itinerants provide a useful social function in bringing the news with them. As their name suggests the ‘Travellers’ were habitual wanderers, moving from place to place and having no fixed abode that they could call home. In more recent times, however, such a definition neglects to include those partially settled travellers who have elected to live in houses, as opposed to Campsites or Halting sites. Nevertheless, their nomadic inclinations remain a key part of the culture of the ‘Travelling People.’ But, even in years past, mobility was not something that was confined to the destitute but was a relatively common feature of agricultural and urban work. Apart from the ‘Booleying’ that has been mentioned, labourers travelled to gather the harvest, and there was an annual migration between Britain and Ireland of labour, which has been well-studied. However, little is known about the internal migration patterns of seasonal labourers in Ireland, who travelled between certain counties or areas on a regular basis. Although Irish agriculture may not have required as many seasonal workers as the farms of England or Scotland, harvest time continued to generate a demand for labour that could not be met by farmers’ families or the local labour force.
Seasonality and its attendant mobility persisted even in industrial occupations. People in the cities and towns also left their fixed homes to become seasonal agricultural labourers, while men employed in the building trade tramped for miles to secure work. The scholars would divide these ‘migrating classes’ into four separate categories, based on the extent and patterns of their mobility. In the first group, there were habitual wanderers who possessed no home base. Second, there were those who spent a large part of the year on country roads, but who kept regular winter quarters in the town. Thirdly, some were ‘fair weather’ travellers, who travelled only in the summer, but stayed in one place for the remainder of the year and, finally, some travelled frequently on short trips to the country, never travelling far from their home. The same scholars point out that the Gypsy population could be similarly differentiated, with some groups having very limited seasonal travel circuits. Today, however, the customs and habits of ‘Travellers’ are, for the most part, at variance to those of the settled population within whose midst they live. Not surprisingly, these differences have often been deliberately misinterpreted by certain sections of the main population, which has resulted in ‘Travellers’ being left isolated on the margins of mainstream society. Moreover, despite advancements among the ‘Traveller’ communities, many continue to suffer from a range of social, health and economic problems. In most cases, they have no direct access to piped water or plumbed toilets. They also suffer the consequences of holding few or no educational qualifications, particularly due to the unfortunate fact that their children are the most likely to suffer social intolerance. Added to these factors, it has been noted that ‘Travellers’ have a high mortality rate. Statistics suggest that a ‘Traveller’ woman lives twelve years, nine years for a ‘traveller’ man when compared to the general population of the country.
There are many within the general population who cannot understand why the ‘Travellers’ have been granted ethnic status by the Irish Government. When one considers ethnicity, this would naturally include national, racial, religious or language differences. But when compared to the settled population of the country all such traits are very similar. There is very little, if any, difference in the way both communities physically appear. They speak English and count themselves as practicing Catholics, which is also in line with the majority settled population. Their uniqueness, therefore, is more subtle than simply skin colour, religion or language, and may lie in their history.
Although they make up only one percent of total national people, the ‘Travellers’ have very high visibility because of their practice of living in caravans by the roadside. This ‘high visibility’ factor and nomadic lifestyle appear to have made the ‘Travellers’ the least likely minority grouping in Ireland to be made welcome by the settled population in either the urban or the rural, setting. Although essentially native to Ireland and having a heritage that is intertwined with Irish history, as a social group, ‘Travellers’ continue to be regarded as second-class Irish citizens by many within the dominant or ‘settled’ population.
In years gone by the traditional way of life in Ireland allowed ‘Travellers’ and the ‘settled community’ to live under a system of mutual tolerance. Historically, Irish dependency on agrarianism and farming created an economic need for migrant labourers in particular areas, and ‘payment in kind’ became the norm. A ‘Traveller’ man would call to a farm, work there for the day and be given food and a place to sleep for the night. The Industrial Revolution, however, would wreak havoc on the traditional trade of ‘Travellers’ and resulted in little work coming into their community. Machinery and efficient methods gradually caused the economic gap between Travellers and settled people to be widened considerably since this period. Moreover, what the ‘Traveller’ defines as employment is not what is traditionally considered as employment by the dominant population. The arrival of the ‘Welfare State’ and the benefits available to the unemployed, large families, disabled, sick, or disadvantaged saw an increase in Traveller uptake of these benefits. At the same time, they would continue working on whatever manual jobs came their way.
We Irish have the reputation of being very superstitious, but it is rather an exaggerated view. The truth is that we are no more superstitious than the country people of England, France, or Germany. In fact, it has been my experience that the people of the Scottish Highlands are much more attached to their superstitious beliefs and legends. What is unique about the Irish imagination is, however, that it is so vibrant that they can give Ireland’s legends an individuality that I have not found in the tales, myths and superstitions of most other peoples. Perhaps, it is our command of language that allows us to present the creatures of Irish imagination in a way that makes them appear to be so real and so original that they can become very startling to the imagination of others. The creatures born from within the Irish imagination, are often humorous, sometimes grotesque, and are regularly awe-inspiring and wonderful. In my mind the most fascinating creature of Irish legend is the weirdly-wailing Banshee, that sings her mournful cry at night, giving the family she attends a warning that one of their members is soon summoned into the world of spirits. This most dreaded spirit is called different things by different scholars of folklore, including the ‘Female Fairy’, the ‘Woman of Peace’, the ‘Lady of Death’, the ‘Angel of Death’, the ‘White Lady of Sorrow’, the ‘Nymph of the Air’, and the ‘Spirit of the Air’.
The ‘Banshee’ is quite different from the ‘Fear-shee’ or ‘Shifra’, (the Man of Peace), which brings good news and sings in a joyful mood near the house when unexpected good fortune is about to befall any or all members of the family. The Banshee, however, is really a disembodied soul of a person who, when alive was strongly attached to the family, or who had good reason to distrust and dislike its members. The Banshee’s song, therefore, may be different under different circumstances and can be inspired by opposite motives. For example, when the Banshee loves those whom she calls, the song is a low, soft chant. She is, of course, giving notice that the angel of death is near, but she is doing so with a tenderness of tone that will help reassure the one destined to die and comfort those who are left to mourn. It is more a welcome than a warning, and because its tones a are filled with celebration, it is as if the messenger spirit is bringing good news to the dying that he has been summoned to join those ancestors who are awaiting him. But, when she was alive, if the Banshee was an enemy of the family, her cry will be the scream of a fiend, howling in diabolical delight at the forthcoming death of another of her foes.
In some parts of Ireland there still exists a belief that the spirits of the dead are not taken from this world to another, and that they do not lose all their former earthly interests. It is thought that they enjoy the happiness of the saved, or endure the punishment imposed upon them for their sins, in the places where they lived while they had bodies of flesh and blood. At those times when people encounter certain problems, these disembodied spirits will display their joy or grief in a way that attracts the attention of living men and women. At weddings, for example, they are frequently unseen guests. At funerals they are always present, and sometimes, at both weddings and funerals, their presence is recognized by aerial voices or mysterious music which is almost of unearthly origin.
We believe that the good spirits wander with the living as their guardian angels, but the evil spirits restrained in their actions, and are compelled to do penance at or near the places where they carried out their bad deeds. Some are chained at the bottoms of the lakes, others are buried under ground, while others are confined in the mountain gorges. There are some that hang on the sides of precipices, while others are transfixed on the tree-tops, and others are left to haunt the homes of their ancestors, but all are waiting until their penance has been fulfilled and the hour of their release finally arrives. In County Antrim, the Castle of Dunseverick, is believed to be still haunted by the spirit of a chief, who is confined there to atone for a terrible crime he committed. Meanwhile, while the castles of Dunluce, of Magrath, and many others are similarly haunted by the spirits of the wicked dead. In the Abbey of Clare, the ghost of a sinful abbot walks and will continue to do so until his sin has been atoned for by the prayers that he unceasingly mutters in his tireless march up and down the aisles of the ruined nave.
As we have seen, the Banshee is one of those spirits who look with interest upon earthly things. They are deeply attached to the old families, or else regard all the family members with a strong hatred, and lingers about their homes to soften, or aggravate, the sorrow of the approaching death. The Banshee attends only the old leading families of Ireland, and although the descendants of those families may be brought down from their high position to the ranks of common people, through misfortune, she never leaves nor forgets them until the last member has been gathered to his ancestors in the churchyard. The MacCarthys, Magraths, O’Neills, O’Rileys, O’Sullivans, O’Reardons, O’Flahertys, and almost all the other old leading families of Ireland, have Banshees, though many representatives of these names are now in abject poverty. The song of the Banshee is commonly heard a day or two before the death of which it gives notice, although instances have been recorded of the Banshee’s song being heard at the beginning of an illness, or a course of conduct, which would result in death fatally. There is a story of a young girl who was engaged to a young man, and the moment she accepted his offer of marriage, they both heard the low, sad wail coming from above their heads. Later, the young man would desert her, she would die of a broken heart, and the night before she died, the Banshee’s song was heard, loud and clear, outside the window of her mother’s cottage. Another story records that one of the O’Flahertys, of Galway, marched out of his castle with his men on a raid, and, as his troops filed through the gateway, the Banshee was heard high above the walls of the fortress. The next night she sang again, and was heard no more for a month, at which time his wife heard the wail under her window, and on the following day his followers brought back his dead body. It is said that one of the O’Neills of Shane Castle, in Antrim, as he started out on a journey before daybreak, heard the Banshee’s cry and was accidentally killed some time after, while he was on that same journey.
Although the Banshee’s wail comes most frequently at night, there have been cases are reported of Banshees singing during the daytime, the song being often unheard by any person but the one for whom the warning is intended. This, however, is not usually the case since the notice of a death is meant for the family rather than just for the doomed individual. The Banshee is generally alone when delivering notice to a family, but on rare occasions it has been recorded that several banshees are heard singing in chorus. A lady of the O’Flaherty family, who was greatly loved by all for her social qualities, kindness, and piety, was taken ill at the family mansion near Galway. Nobody was overly concerned about the lady making a full recovery, as her illness seemed to be no more severe than a slight cold. But, after she had been lying in her bed for a day or two, several of her friends came to visit and cheer her up. Then, as the small group of friends were chatting merrily, strange sounds were heard, causing them all to tremble with fear and to turn pale as they recognized the singing from a chorus of Banshees. The lady’s illness developed into pleurisy, from which she passed away only a few days later and sweet, plaintive chorus was heard again as the spirit departed from her body. It is a great honour to be warned by more than one Banshee, and only comes to the purest of the pure.
The “Avenging Banshee” is a spirit that is greatly dreaded by members of a family against which she seeks revenge, and one noble Irish family, that I shall not name, is attended by a one of this type of Banshee. This Banshee, it is reported, is the spirit of a young girl who was deceived and afterwards murdered by a former head of this family. But, with her dying breath, she cursed her murderer and promised him that she would stay with him and his family forever. Many years passed, and the chieftain reformed his ways and the crime of his youth was almost forgotten, even by himself. Then, one night, he and his family were sitting by a huge fire when, suddenly, the most terrifying shrieks were heard outside the castle walls. They all ran out into the courtyard but could see nothing. During the night, however, the screams continued as though the castle was being besieged by demons, and the chieftain began to recognise, in the cry of the Banshee, the voice of the young girl he had murdered. The next night, the chieftain was assassinated by one of his followers, and again the wild, unearthly screams of the spirit were heard in celebration over the man’s fate. Since that night, this “Avenging Banshee” has never failed to notify the family, with shrill and happy cries of revenge, when the end-time for one of their number has arrived.
Banshees are not often seen, but those that have made themselves visible differ as much in personal appearance as in the character of their cries. The “Friendly Banshee” is usually a young and beautiful female spirit, with pale face, regular, well-formed features, hair sometimes coal-black, sometimes golden, with blue, brown, or black eyes. Her long, white clothing falls below her feet as she floats in the air, chanting her weird warning, and lifting her hands as if in tender pity, she was praying for the soul she has summoned. The “Avenging Banshee”, however, is a horrible hag, with angry and distorted features. They say that evil can be seen in every line of her wrinkled face, and her arms to call down every possible curse on the doomed member of that hated family.
Usually the only sign of a Banshee’s presence her cry, though a notable exception to this is found when it comes the O’Reardon family. The doomed member of this family is always notified of their death by a Banshee that appears in the shape of an exceedingly beautiful woman, and she sings a song so sweet and solemn as if to reconcile him to his approaching fate.
Though the Banshee does not follow members of a family that go to a foreign land, but if they die when abroad, she will give notice of the death to those who remain at home. It is said that when the Duke of Wellington died, a Banshee was heard wailing round the house of his ancestors, and during his campaigns against Napoleon, she frequently notified Irish families of the death in battle of Irish officers and soldiers. Furthermore, on the eve of the ‘Battle of the Boyne’ several Banshees were said to have been heard, singing in the air over the Irish camp, the truth of their prophecy being shown in the names of those who died the next day. How the Banshee obtains early and accurate information from foreign parts of the death in battle of Irish soldiers is yet unknown among those who study such things. One theory is that there exist, in addition to the two kinds already mentioned above, “Silent Banshees,” who attend members of old families, one to each member. It is thought that these silent spirits follow, watch, and bring back information to the family Banshee in Ireland, who then sings her sad refrain. The basis for such a theory derives from the fact that the Banshee has given notice at the family home in Ireland of those who have died in various battles fought in every part of the world. From every place where Irish regiments followed the call of British war drums, news of the prospective deaths of Irishmen has been brought home, each of which was preceded by the Banshee’s wail outside the ancestral home.
Among folklorists in Ireland this theory of the existence of the ‘Silent Banshee’ not widely accepted or well received. Going by the evidence that we have to date there are only two kinds of Banshee, and that, through supernatural means, they have knowledge of the immediate future of those in whom they are interested. At one time it was considered blasphemy to doubt the existence of the ‘Wild Banshee’ that was once alleged to have been heard in every part of Ireland. Now, in these modern times, it is recognised that the Banshee attends only the old families of Ireland and does not change to the new. The truth of this can be seen in the fact that with the disappearance of many old noble Irish names over the centuries so their Banshees appear to have gone. It seems to be in only a few remote districts in the West and North of Ireland that this dread spirit is still to be found, while in most other parts of this island the Banshee has become only a superstition. From being held with great respect and fear, this death-warning angel, has quickly sank to the level of the Fairy, the Leprechaun and the Pooka, which have become the subject for stories to amuse and terrify both the idle and the young.
I want to take this opportunity to welcome all followers to this refurbished Blog site and hope that you all continue to enjoy the content. The Christmas Season is at hand. A time for Candles, Light , warm turf fires, and traditional ghost stories told around a kitchen hearth on cold dark nights.
As well as the usual run of stories I will try to include several Christmas ghost stories over the Christmas season.
Let me thank you all for following this blog and ask you to spread the good news. As a small Christmas gift I will send a small eBook to all who request it. The book is called, “The Widows” and is almost complete. If you would like one please send a comment to the site requesting one and it will be sent to you by eMail on or before 22nd December 2020.
I found some old Dublin newspapers in the attic of the Parochial House one night and I browsed through them to see what I could learn about the past. In one newspaper, dated July 1832. I read a report about the ‘Jaunting Car’ as a method of travel. A ‘Jaunting Car’, as all the Irish people know, is a light two-wheeled carriage for a single horse, with a seat in front for the driver. In its most common form, it had seats for two or four persons placed back to back and with the footboards projecting over the wheels and the typical conveyance for persons in Ireland at one time.
The colloquial name for the driver of this type of vehicle was ‘Jarvey’ and there were mainly two types of Jaunting Cat – ‘The outside Jaunting Car’ and ‘Inside Jaunting Car’. The former was the more common type and the passengers faced outward over the wheels. The other type was considered to be the more genteel Jaunting Car, in which the passengers sat with their backs to the sides of the car and faced each other, but some described it as being, “The most uncomfortable kind of vehicle yet invented” (Anthony Trollope). There was a third type of car known as an ‘Inside or Covered Car’ that had oiled canvas arranged on all sides to protect the passengers from the weather, but at the expense of visibility.
Being that these Jaunting Cars are few and far between these days I thought you readers might want to hear what the correspondent of that Dublin newspaper reported, and read about what Dublin was like in those far off days …
“This is properly, an Irish machine. The ‘Jaunting Car’ is almost peculiar to our island. A Scotchman or an Englishman, on first landing at Dublin or Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), is immediately struck by this peculiarity, but they soon learn to relish so agreeable and handsome a conveyance. It is true that the cars for hire do not present very great temptations, the miserable horses, and too often the squalid, dirty drivers, clamouring for a fare, and underbidding each other with fierce vociferation, while the furious driving and incessant attempts to take advantage of ignorance and inexperience, render the Dublin car-men almost intolerable, (We speak generally) except to those who are content to endure these disadvantages for the pleasure and ease of being conveyed to any part of the city or country. But none who have enjoyed the comforts of that pleasant vehicle, a private car, will quarrel with our designating it agreeable and handsome. Almost every citizen who can afford it, (and we are sorry to add, many who cannot) keeps a car …
“Who has not enjoyed the advantages of the jaunting car: who that has even traversed the beautiful road to Kingstown on the various vehicles denominated ‘DISLOCATORS’, which pass and repass in unremitting whirl; or who that has watched the beautiful daughters of the ‘green isle’ borne through the streets of our extending metropolis on this handsome and commodious vehicle, that will not feel curious to know from what humble principle it has thus risen to perfection. And in good time, have I met with Master Bush’s ‘Hibernia Curiosa’: he was a careful and observant traveller, and feel I cannot do better than amuse you readers with an extract on the above matter from his work:
“They have an odd kind of a machine here, which they call the ‘NODDY’(See above picture); it is nothing more than an old cast-off one-horse chaise or chair; with a kind of stool fixed upon the shafts just before the seat, on which the driver sits, just over the horse, and drives you from one part of the town to another, at stated rates for a ‘set-down’ and a good ‘set-down’ it is sometimes, for you are well off if you are not set-down in a channel, by the breaking of wheels, or an overset-down it is sometimes; nor can you see anything before you but your nod, nod, nodding charioteer, whose situation on the shafts obliges his victim to be conformed to that of the horse, from whence I suppose they have obtained the name ‘Noddy’. I assure you the ease of the fire is not much consulted in the construction of these nodding vehicles. But the drollest and most diverting kind of conveyance for your genteel and ungenteel parties of pleasure is what they call here the ‘Chaise-marine’, which is nothing less or more than any common car with one horse. A simple kind of carriage constructed with a pair of wheels, or thin round blocks, of about twenty inches in diameter, and axle and two shafts, which over the axle are spread out a little wider than the sides of the horse, and framed together with cross pieces in such a manner as to be nearly in a level position for three or four feet across the axle.
These simple constructions are almost the only kind of carts in common use for carrying or moving of goods, merchandise of every kind, hay, corn, etc, through the kingdom. These are, however, used for parties of pleasure, when on the level part a mat is laid for the commonality, and for the genteeler sort of people a bed is put on this, and a half-dozen get on, two behind and two on each side, and away they drive with their feet not above six inches from the ground as they sit, on little jaunts of a few miles out of town; and they are the most sociable carriages in use, for ten or a dozen will take one of the ‘Chaise-marine’ parties on the Sunday we landed coming out of town as we went up to it from Dun Laoghaire.” Such was the ‘Jaunting Car’ in 1764 and could the honest gentleman to whom we are indebted for this description “Revisit the moon,” and see the vehicle of 1832, how great would be his praises, and surprise. I shall take an early opportunity of returning to his pages, from whence I have no fear of being enabled to extract much that will be agreeable, useful, and entertaining.”
In the early morning chill of that frost-filled winter’s morning a horse approached the large gate of the monastery, and on its back sat the figure of a man wearing a long, grey coat and a soft black hat. As soon as he reached the monastery gate the man dismounted and made his way to the smaller visitor entrance where he rang a large iron bell that hung at the side of the heavy oaken door. The bell tolled loudly in the morning stillness, and the stranger stood back for a moment to await the door being opened to him. As expected, the man did not have to wait long before he heard the loud clatter of a monk’s sandals on the stone floor as he approached the ‘Strangers’ Door’ to answer the call of the bell. He pulled strongly on the heavy iron bar that secured the oak door and it slowly creaked open to reveal the person who had rang.
The monk who opened the ‘Strangers’ Door’ was a small, portly looking man dressed in a habit of rough brown cloth, with a white rope girdle tied loosely around his expansive waist. From this rope belt was hung a large, highly polished, wooden rosary that was made from large beads. With great courtesy the stranger removed the hat from his head, and he began to fidget with it nervously as he introduced himself. Having done this, the stranger began to relate the reason for his visit to the monastery and the message with which he had been entrusted. In a quiet and nervous voice, he explained that that the friar who had been assigned to attend the sick was needed immediately by a patient that lived in the hill country, who had taken to his bed with a strange and severe illness.
The stranger told the monk that, although the local womenfolk had attended to the young patient with a variety of charms, ‘magic’ potions, and natural remedies, there had been none that had relieved his sickness. The monk was also informed that the young man had already grown very weak and that there was now a great deal of concern that the poor boy might not survive the night. As a last desperate gamble to save their son, the boy’s parents had sent this man with their appeal to the medical friar that he come and place his holy and healing hands over their son, Ciaran Horan.
With his message given, the stranger followed the monk in to see the medical friar and he explained to him just how the young man’s home could best be reached. There was no need for further explanation and within thirty minutes the friar was ready to take up his journey, and he turned to me and asked me if I would go with them. In those days it was unusual for an ordinary labourer to accompany a friar on a mission of mercy, but this friar had been born and reared in England. He had been sent to our part of the world from an associate monastery in Yorkshire and couldn’t speak a word of Irish, which was, of course, the first language for most people in this particular part of Ireland. It would be my task, therefore, on this mission of mercy to act as an interpreter because I could speak English almost as fluently as my native tongue.
We mounted our horses and rode off along the narrow country track that brought us past the lake, over the surface of which a light mist was beginning to form on that still, frosty morning. I was in the rear of the group as we passed the lake and entered a lightly wooded forest where, at the far end of it, we joined the road that would lead us straight into the hill country.
As we progressed along this road, we could see the rich arable land on both sides of the road slowly change to grey, barren, grazing land that was fit only for the raising of sheep and goats. We rode on a few miles further and the land began to turn into wild moorland and bog, coloured by the furze, heather, and bracken. The chill wind that had been blowing earlier was now still again and the sheep were lying down, with the weight of their heavy fleeces about them. The branches of the trees did not stir at all and their outlines against the pale sky appeared to be so many skeleton arms reaching up towards heaven. For the first time on this journey I was beginning to feel uneasy as we made our way through a wide network of dry-stone walls that marked the boundaries of absurdly small fields, which were all the land a family had to sustain it. Then, on a distant hillside, I saw the figure of a shepherd rise up on his feet with a crook in his hand, like some ancient prophet from the books of the ‘Old Testament’. But this ‘old testament prophet’ vanished just as quickly as he had disappeared.
The morning had moved on to afternoon and was approaching evening. The light of day was fading and everywhere began to change tone as the scenery began to reflect the watery red sun that was setting in the west as we rode on in the silence that surrounded us. Here and there stood small stone cabins skirting the road along which we were travelling, and among those poor homes some of the residents could be seen moving around. When these people saw the friar riding past an occasional bare-footed woman would hurriedly curtsey, ensuring that her shawl covered her head. The children who were playing boisterously around the bleak stone cabins suddenly stopped and ran back into their houses at the sight of we three men on the road, popping their mop-haired heads above the half-door, and their smiling faces and sparkling eyes followed us as we went forward along the road.
The people we passed shouted out greetings to us in Irish as we rode past, but their salutations were worded as blessings for the journey that we had left to complete. Whenever we came to a stop, just for a moment or two, a small crowd of local people would gather around us, peering up at the tall friar from under their black, broad-brimmed hats with faces that had been tanned naturally by the wind and rain that is so common in the hill country. When the friar spoke to them, the crowd would turn to each other wondering what he had said. It was at these times that I would break into the conversation and repeat what the friar had said to the crowd, in Irish.
“So, your reverence, it’s Ciaran Horan’s wee house that you’re going to?”
“It is,” I replied on the friar’s behalf.
“Is his reverence going to be reading the words of the holy book over the poor boy?” one of the local men asked me.
“He will, of course,” I confirmed.
“Aye. The Horan’s will be expecting you, then?”
“Of course, they are,” I answered him. “sure, they were the ones that sent for us to come to the boy’s aid.”
The man shook his head sorrowfully, saying, “We heard the poor boy was feeling pretty low and that a type of strangeness had come over him. Would that be right?”
I didn’t want to say too much to the man and, instead of answering his question, I asked him, “Is the Horan home far from here?”
“No. It’s not that far away. Just you follow the road there, keeping the big, ivy covered, demesne wall to your right. Then, after a while, you will come to a wee stream that you will cross, and you will find a narrow boreen on your right as you come to the end of the wall. Go past that boreen and to the west you will see two large poplar trees, and beyond them you will come to another narrow track. You should take that track but be careful of the thorn hedges on each side of the boreen because they will cut your clothes and skin in the darkness. It would be better to ride your horses in line rather than side-by-side to prevent damage to yourselves. As you go along this boreen you will come to a shallow river that flows over a stone-covered bed, which will allow you all to ford the obstacle with your horses quite easily. Now, do you think you will remember all that I have told you?”
“Yes, and thank you very much for your help,” I replied politely.
“Well, that’s a good thing,” said the man. “Now, listen carefully, for once you are across the ford at the end of the boreen, you go up to the Horan house by way of the back meadow and you will see a light shining in the north. If you give a loud call, Old Paddy Reilly will come out to you and lead your horses by the head to the house where Ciaran Horan is lying in his sick bed, God help him. Ah, sure, Ciaran’s a fine young man and a greater player of the tin whistle you have never heard. You should be off now, may God be with you all, and don’t forget to keep a keen watch out for the poplar trees.”
“We will,” I told him and wished him farewell on behalf of the party. As we rode onward my mind was busy trying to recall the details of the journey the man had laid out for us to Horan’s house. As directed, we rode alongside the ivy-covered wall of the demesne, across the stream, the passage, the boreens, until we finally came to the two poplar trees that stood like mighty sentinels in the rapidly reducing light. The entire land was being covered by a rapidly spreading darkness, and the clear star-filled sky above us warned of an upcoming severe frost on its way.
One-by-one, in single file, we moved through the boreen with some anxiety caused by the darkness we encountered. When we reached the end of the track we came to the shallow river, just as we had been told that we would. But despite the stone-covered riverbed, my horse needed a little touch of persuasion to enter the cold water. As we began to cross, however, we discovered that the water reached well above the fetlocks of our horses, and they splashed loudly in the slow-moving flow of water. Then, when we reached the opposite bank, we saw the light in the north, as we had been told we would, shining in the night. As requested, I gave a loud call and we waited for Paddy Reilly to arrive. The friar had a hearty laugh at my efforts to gain Paddy’s attention, but within minutes a tall, well-built man approached us out of the darkness. It was Reilly himself and he took hold of the horses by their heads before leading them and us across the back meadow toward that light that shone brightly in the north.
Outside the long, low, thatched cabin stood a crowd of men smoking pipes and busily talking among themselves, creating a loud mumbling noise. The door to the house stood open and there were lights shining from all the windows. As we dismounted from our horses none of the men at the front of the house came to greet us but continued talking among themselves. They looked at us with cold stares and made us feel uncomfortable as strangers intruding on local business. But it was their evident discomfort at our presence that made us anxious until a voice asked, “Will you not be going into the house to see young Ciaran?” Reilly asked the friar and I translated for him. “Now, there’s no need to be worrying about these horses, for I will take good care of them for you. I will brush them down, feed them,” Paddy assured us and walked off with the horses.
As we walked to the open door of the house the men saluted the friar as was their custom and the friar, unsure of what they were going to say to him, made sure that I was by his side when we entered the cottage. From the doorway I led the way into the kitchen where two women were standing respectfully a good distance from the door, their faces looking a little anxious and fearful. Their eyes seemed to be glued to the friar and it seemed they were waiting for the arrival of a magician through the door to the kitchen. They made a little curtsey to the friar, which was more like a quick jerk of their bodies rather than a graceful movement of their female form. There was no other person in the kitchen but these two women, silently demonstrating the power that matriarchs hold in an Irish home at a time of crisis. They were, without doubt, in command of all things when a life had to be cared for. The menfolk, at these times, are usually relegated to being outside of the home and out of site. The older of the two women now came forward and welcomed the friar to her home in Irish.
At first, there appeared to be some slight misunderstanding between the woman and the friar, which I did not quite catch in time to parry, although I was interpreter to both parties. The friar, fair play to him, was well used to handling such little embarrassing moments with his bright, friendly smile that quickly thawed the icy formality that had arisen. The two women seemed to be relieved at that moment, for they had not expected him to say anything, and now they no longer concerned themselves about any appearance of being considered somewhat inferior. The friar had a natural warmth about him, and he possessed a talent for putting others at their ease in his presence. Perhaps, this was due to him being from peasant stock himself. Softly smiling, the elder of the two women led the priest into the room where Ciaran lay on his sickbed.
As the priest left the kitchen area, the younger woman placed a chair in front of the kitchen fire and invited me to sit on it. As I sat there, warming myself, I could hear the woman’s feet quickly and quietly shuffling about the floor, causing her clothing to swish as she began to undertake a variety of tasks. Then, she came over to where I was sitting and offered me a glass that contained a liquid which looked like slightly discoloured water. Despite my misgivings about this drink, the woman inspired a certain confidence within me, and I accepted the glass from her hands and began to drink the liquid it contained. There was a slight taste of peat left in my mouth, but the liquid passed smoothly down my throat, spreading a comforting warmth through my body, and I knew immediately that the liquid was poteen. As I drank, I noticed that standing to the side, and in the shadow, a young woman stood with her fair face illuminated by the yellow-red flames coming from the turf fire. Although she was standing quietly you could not fail to recognise the tension in her body as she kept alert to any movement from the sickroom.
The door to the room was slightly open and I could hear the low, soft murmur of the priest’s voice as he recited the litany of prayers in Latin. The young woman sighed loudly and made the sign of the cross before she took another chair from the table and sat herself down beside me.
“My brother is very low,” she said in quiet, genteel voice.
“Has he been ill for a long time?” I asked.
“Aye, sure the poor boy has been ailing for a while, God love him,” she said. “But to look at him you would have thought he was as sound as a young bull heifer. At first, he became moody and just wanted to be left alone and he would spend hours down at the bottom of the meadow sitting under the ‘Fairy Thorn’ by the river, playing his tin whistle. Then he began to lose the use of his arms and legs, and he began to cry bitterly for no apparent reason. There were people who warned the family that the boy had been brought under some kind of strange influence, then he lost the power to speak. Surely, the holy friar will know the cause and what needs to be done to make him well again.”
When the friar came out of the room, he was already removing the purple stole from around his neck. Just behind him walked the older woman with the excitement dancing across her face. “Ciaran spoke,” she announced to us all. “He looked up at his reverence and tried to bless himself. But I couldn’t hear what the poor boy was saying because his voice was so weak, but he definitely did speak.”
“Don’t be worrying yourself,” the younger woman replied, “Ciaran will live.” Her voice betrayed some of the excitement expressed by the mother, whose eyes were now fixed upon the priest and he quickly became of aware of her steady gaze. Although the woman’s gaze made him feel somewhat uneasy, the friar was more amused than frightened.
Just as I was watching all these events occur, I heard some loud shuffling of feet coming from outside the house, which reminded me of the bustle made by a herd of animals as they approached. The door creaked open and with a certain uneasiness I turned my eyes in that direction, but nothing appeared at the door, which confused me. Although nothing appeared, however, I kept a close watch on the door for some time. My alertness was rewarded by the sight of a cluster of heads and shoulders that belonged to men with weather beaten faces, all of which bore anxious expressions. They stood in the doorway, peering down at the priest who was now seated next to me at the fireside. It suddenly became clear to me that these eager faces were half-hoping that the legendary magic of a priest would conjure up some form of apparition for them. Then, this set of heads and shoulders were quickly replaced by a different grouping, all eagerly wanting to see into the house. The mother now turned to the friar and quietly asked him, “Do you think that Ciaran will live, Father?”
“We should all have courage,” the friar told her quietly.
“Sure, we will all get a bit more courage now that you have read the prayers over him, Father”
“Just you keep that faith, Mrs. Horan,” the friar smiled. “It’s all in the hands of God now and, if it’s his will, all will be well again.”
The bedroom door opened, and the daughter came out with an expression of immense joy etched on her face. “Ciaran’s going to live!” she announced loudly to all who were present. “He has just spoken to me!”
“Could you hear what he was saying?” the mother asked.
“Indeed, I could hear it all. The boy told me clearly that in the month of April, when the water runs clear again in the river, I will be playing my tin whistle once more!”
“When the river has clear water again, then he will be playing his tin whistle again?” the mother questioned. “Sure, him and that old tin whistle of his would put years on a person!”
The friar had now risen from his seat and was beginning to make his way toward the door, and I decided to follow him. But even as I followed him, I was able to catch a glimpse of the patient through the partly open bedroom door. On a crisp, white pillowcase lay the long, pallid, and anxious looking face of a young man. I noticed a light reflecting off his brow, and his eyes had an unnaturally bright shiny appearance around them. My mind began to wander as I looked at Ciaran Horan, because it seemed to me that he had the face of a teacher. I also began to think that, perhaps, his vision of playing his tin whistle by the river was just his vision of heaven on earth.
As we exited from the cottage, Paddy Reilly was already harnessing the horses in the sulphurous yellow light of the stable lantern. As we began to mount our horses the groups of men who had been standing outside the cottage began to shuffle toward us. Several of them broke the silence by speaking cordially to us and thanking us for coming. In those few minutes there was more said about young Ciaran than was said all night up to that point. We leaned enough about the young man that we began to suspect that he may have been brought under the influence of the ‘Good People.’ As we talked there was a sense of mystery and ill-omen that began to fill my very being. All the dark figures of those men standing about that lonely house mourning the loss of this tin whistle player affected me. But very soon they would hear the joyous news and would be able to depart happily as the grass beneath their feet sparkled with the heavy frost that was falling over the hill country.
Craic agus Ceoil agus Rince – The three pillars of Irish society, which make us such a happy, fun-loving race. This blog concerns Rince (Dance) – Irish Dancing through the years.
A Family That Dances Together
I am a traditionalist at heart. I love traditional music and traditional Irish Dancing, Step-Dancing and Ceilidh. I know it will horrify some people but I am not a fan of Feis Dancing with all those wigs, make-up, false-tan. In my opinion, it is more about a beauty pageant than what is traditionally Irish. But it is my opinion…
It seems that in every country in the world there are Irish Dancing classes and teams and competitions. This picture is one I found from Siberia, in Russia.
Dance Before Mass – The picture below is an interpretation of what is known as a ‘Hooley’ – This is one reason why the church suppressed House Ceilidhs, because the people would go to a dance quicker than they would go to Mass? What has changed in Ireland?