At sunset on June 23rd, another of the ancient fire festivals begins and is known as St. John’s Eve. Not that long ago, it was a wide-spread tradition throughout Ireland that on St. John’s Eve a curious practice prevailed, in some districts, which related to the time-honoured tradition of lighting a bonfire.
Before sunset on St. John’s Eve a small fire was built and lit in a place that was near to the byre because in such a position the milk-cows would pass close to the fire as they returned from the fields. In fact, great care was taken to drive the cows as close as possible to the fire itself. This was done, it was said, to allow the cows to “smell” the fire, which it was believed would have a very beneficial effect on the quantity and the quality of the milk and butter produced. It was also believed to be a safeguard against any evil spirits or witchcraft which might befall the cow herself. Then, coals were taken from the little fire, and one of them is thrown into each field of potatoes that belong to the owner of the cow. Through this ritual, it was thought, a great increase in the cow’s production would be achieved..
It was the custom in some places that when a cow begins to calve the owner would place a “grape” (the ordinary steel fork used in farming operations) near her head until she “cleans” (Rids herself of the afterbirth). The steel or iron from which they form the grape was considered “lucky,” and effective defence against any evil influences spread by the fairy-folk. There may, of course, be other customs resorted to on such occasions as this, but what kind of results they achieve I couldn’t say. There is another custom where a silver coin is placed in the first drink that is given to the cow after it has calved, and the reason behind this curious custom was simply that it was considered “lucky to let the cowlick the silver.”
There are many other peculiar practices, such as tying a red rag to the tail of the milch-cow (Milk Cow), with a few horse-shoe nails, a partially burned coal, and some salt are rolled in the rag. It was quite common at one time to see red rags hanging from the tails of milch -cows at fairs in the west of Ireland, allowing the intending purchasers of milch-cows to easily recognise the milking cow, from the ones due to calve (‘springer’).
Tradition also advises farmers to take a very necessary precaution when the cow calves. Strangely this is to give the first of the milk, a small glassful is enough, to that very useful domestic animal, the cat. The reason behind this peculiar tradition, I have been told, is that they give the first of the milk to the cat so that the cat can take the bad luck away with her on her paws.
The following story concerns a well known character, who resided in this town over one hundred years ago, which was just before the Great War began in 1914. He was employed as a church sacristan and caretaker who worked in and about the town’s impressive Church of Ireland Church. Known to all as Bob Harte, he was a familiar figure about town, who was much respected by some, and disliked by most of the young boys in the place. He spoiled every effort they made to play truant from school in the expansive grounds that were a part of the Church. There and in the adjoining grave-yard these children would play their war-games among the many trees and tombstones. In the warmth of long summer evenings Bob would chase and chastise the local boys whom he found climbing the many bushes to seek out the nests of bats, sparrows and other birds.
There were occasions, while patrolling the grounds, that Bob would discover groups of boys peeping through a small, mysterious window that gave them a view into a dark, dusty room within the Church basement. They would gasp at the lidless coffins that gaped horribly back at them from among large, tattered wine-coloured, dust filled, velvet drapes. In the dim light that was provided by several small windows the observers could see what appeared to be various bones that lay strewn over the floor and covered with the dust of time. But, the enterprising young observers almost always were caught by the constantly alert Mr. Harte, who could often deal out his own form of punishment. These local boys considered Bob Harte to be a scourge on their enjoyment, constantly terrorising them. Even Bob’s personal appearance did not help to improve their perception of this man, because he was always dressed in black from head to toe.
Bob Harte was an imposing figure of a man; tall, thin and lanky, who seemed always to wear the same clothes, which never appeared to fit him correctly. He had a small, pointed and emotionless face covered with a sallow coloured skin that was matched by his cold, grey eyes. To add to the man’s strange appearance, his head was crowned by a mop of rust-brown hair that he usually left ungroomed. To many of the older generation Bob’s appearance was not at all startling, and they considered him to be a very devout man adhered strongly to his very strict conservative moral standards. In reality, however, just because he loudly upheld such convictions didn’t mean that he had no vices. Just as working in the Church and its grounds did not make him a saint. There were many occasions when Bob’s apparent severe sense of morality took time out and he suddenly became a genial sort of a man, who very much enjoyed some of life’s vices, particularly smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.
The caretaker had many hidden talents that very few knew about, one of these was the great memory he had for recalling tales of all kinds, and a real talent for being able to relate those stories to others in a very entertaining manner. Being a man of almost sixty years, he was a deep well of knowledge about the history of the town and the people who lived in it, both past and present. One thing always seemed to surprise those who would listen to his tales and that was the seemingly never ending supply of local stories, which were often true and very amusing. But, at the same time, Bob was also very well known for telling dark tales of terror, which he particularly relished relating to an attentive audience.
In most people’s eyes, Bob’s job as a caretaker and a, sometime, grave digger gave some semblance of truth to the stories that he told. He appeared to know what he was talking about when he began to speak of graves, goblins, ghosts and banshees. At the same time, his involvement in church weddings, baptisms and other Church celebrations helped him in maintaining when relating stories about the fuss, the tears and the secret meetings between men and women on such occasions. Furthermore, being aged sixty-years old, Bob had the great ability to tell interesting stories concerning the history of the town, because he had personally gathered an almost inexhaustible amount of accurate and entertaining local anecdotes during his lifetime.
Common sense would tell you that working for the Church as a sacristan and caretaker was not among the most financially reading of jobs in any society. In fact, the income that Bob earned from his work in the Church could hardly provide him with what would be normally regarded as a living wage. As a result, therefore, he was often called upon to supplement his meagre wage with income from several other jobs, for which he had the necessary talents. Indeed, quite a few of these extra employment opportunities would be considered by some as being far from dignified work for a man of his standing within the community. As in many of these cases, however, it was always a case off “when needs must” that encouraged Bob to take them upon himself.
One particular, and sometimes unpopular, way that Bob had was his regular gate-crashing of parties. There was also his annoying habit of imposing himself on small drinking groups that might just contain one or two people that he knew only as a passing acquaintance. But, wherever he was and whatever group he would impose himself into, Bob would entertain the people with his amusing stories. When the occasion demanded, he would select tales of terror, or local anecdotes, from his huge reservoir of stories. His one saving grace on these occasions was his choice not belittle himself by accepting drinks of any type as payment for telling his stories. He preferred payment in coin that was given to him, or he underhandedly salted away from those careless enough to leave their change on a table, or counter-top.
There was one particular person, called Paddy Slane, who had a genuine liking for the company of Bob and, indeed, always welcomed him to enjoy his ‘craic’. Paddy Slane was owner of a popular local public bar that stood in the centre of the town, and quickly became Bob’s local public bar. But, Paddy was far from any person’s idea of a jolly, fun-loving barkeeper, because he was, probably, the most gloomy and depressing person you could have ever had the misfortune to come across. Normally, when left to his own devices, Paddy never drank excessively. It must be said, however, that being a sombre man with a melancholic personality, Paddy always found himself in need of something, or someone to raise his spirits from the depths of the despair into which he fell. Bob Harte was just the man to fill this need, and Paddy began to develop a close with him. Over the years that followed Bob became the only real bright, entertaining source of light in Paddy’s dark personal life.
When he was in Bob Harte’s company, Paddy appeared to be a different man. He seemed to be freed from all of his melancholia, smiling as he listened to the fascinating stories and marvellous tales that Bob told him. It is, sadly, a fact that their friendship did not contribute positively to the credit, or the honour, of either man with regard to their reputation, or prosperity. In this case it wasn’t a matter of Bob taking a coin as payment for telling his stories. He would much rather accept a drink. Bob’s apparent conservative moral values did not quite stretch to his enjoyment of strong alcohol, and it was not unknown for him to drink far more than was good for his health.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Bob’s drinking habits did very little to enhance his character as a functionary of the church. At the same time, Paddy Slane found himself being drawn into a very similar lifestyle because he too began to find it was increasingly difficult to resist the urgings of his gifted and genial companion to enjoy himself. Paddy, being the owner of the public house in which Bob always drank, continually felt that he, under the circumstances, was the person to pay for all the drinks they had consumed. All the other regulars of the public house could only sit and watch what was happening to Paddy. As the weeks passed into months, these customers became increasingly aware that both Paddy’s wallet and bank balance was suffering just as much as his head and liver because of this friendship with Bob Harte. The men could see exactly what was happening and began to hold Bob Harte responsible, as the man who had turned the once respectable businessman into a virtual alcoholic. As the rumours about him spread Bob’s reputation in the town slid rapidly downward with his character, in the estimation of many.
There were some in the town, however, who saw Paddy Slane as the man who had encourages Bob Harte to be an even bigger blackguard than he had been before they met. Because of his generous habit of buying all the drinks for his binges with Bob, it came as no surprise to many that, under such circumstances, the accounts of Paddy’s public house became somewhat disorganised. Very quickly his once lucrative town centre hostelry began to become overcome with financial difficulties, increasing Paddy’s depression. Finally, one bright summer’s day, when the weather was warm, heavy and humid, Paddy decided to leave the bar in the capable hands of one of his barmen. This was not unusual for him to do this and quietly retire into the quieter back room, which was his office.
The accounts books for the business were laid out untidily across a large desk, behind which was a tall dirty, dusty window that overlooked a boring, red brick wall that hid the outside world from view. Paddy turned the key in the lock and then went immediately to sit down on the office chair at the desk. The small desk drawer to Paddy’s left was nervously pulled out to reveal everything that he had expected to be in it. Reaching quite gingerly into the desk drawer, Paddy took hold of a loaded pistol that he had kept hidden there. Hesitatingly, Paddy gripped the muzzle of the gun, wrapping his fingers around it and guiding the pistol into his open mouth. Then, closing his eyes, Paddy muttered a short prayer to himself, and gently squeezed the trigger. There was a mighty explosion that echoed throughout the back area of the public house. At the same time the upper portion of his head was blown off by the force of the shot. Blood, splattered out of the large exit wound in his head, which spread widely across the ceiling above, and the dusty window behind him.
The barman and the customers in the bar heard the explosion of the bullet, and immediately rushed to the office door in the rear of the building. Finding the office door locked against them, broke the door open and saw Paddy’s body lying on the floor at the rear of his desk. As they stood over the body the witnesses saw deep red blood flowing rapidly across the linoleum floor covering to form a large pool. The news of Paddy Slane’s tragic death spread throughout the town like an uncontrollable bush fire, and there was a deep sense of loss felt by many of the residents, who had once held the man in high esteem.
Bob Harte was, himself, very shocked by the news of the horrible incident, and the manner in which Paddy took his own life. Paddy had, after all, had been both his benefactor and his friend. There were some in the town whose opinions had turned against Bob and, quite uncharitably, suggested that the grief he was feeling was due, entirely, to selfish reasons. His sorrow, they alleged, was due, for the most part, to the fact that he would now find it very difficult to find himself a new source of free hospitality on the scale that he had enjoyed from Paddy Slane. But, for a period of time after the tragedy, Bob stopped drinking alcohol in any form, and he also ceased his once frequent calls on the town’s many public houses.
During this short period of time, Bob presented himself almost as a paragon of virtue; a perfect example of temperance and sobriety for others. There were some, of course, who preferred not to believe that Bob’s new sober lifestyle was simply a pretence. They spread rumours that Bob, on several recent occasions, had been found to be rather the worse for wear a far as his alcohol intake was concerned. Some suggested that people had found Bob late at night, on several occasions, in a drunken stupor. Others said that he was, sometimes, found wandering the streets of the town in a highly intoxicated condition. Many of the rumour mongers tried very hard to convince people that Bob had been forced to change his wicked ways simply because of the threat made to him by church authorities. It was said that he was made aware of the possibility of dismissal from all his church offices if he did not curb his over indulgence in alcohol. The truth, however, was that Bob Harte was determined to observe his resolution to remain sober, much to the pleasure of his wife, and to the total surprise of his neighbours. Never again was Bob Harte found drunk in public or, for that matter, even the slightest bit tipsy. In fact, so incredible was the overall change in the man that people who, at one time, would never have given him the time-of-day on the streets of this town, now greeted him warmly as he passed them by.
It was over a year since the tragic death of Paddy Slane when the Curate of the Church was given a letter that was delivered to him by hand. The letter that he received was a polite request for a funeral to be conducted within the Church, and it contained a series of instructions as to how the family wished the grave to be prepared. Because it was not the responsibility of the Curate to act upon such instructions personally, and he, therefore, sent a message to Bob Harte, asking him if he would call at the Curate’s house to be briefed on the family’s requests.
It was a heavy, early autumn night and there were large numbers of threatening thunder-clouds slowly rising from the earth, loading the sky with a dark and foreboding storm canopy. The deep, low growl of a distant thunder and could be heard echoing over many miles on the dull, still air of the night. It appeared almost as if all of nature had chosen to cower under the threatening influence of the approaching storm. The old clock in the hall had just struck nine o’clock when Bob put on his coal-black coat, and he readied himself to attend to the Curate’s message.
“Listen to me now, Bobby darlin’,” said Bob’s wife quietly as she handed him his hat, after she had taken it from the hat-rack. “Will you just go straight there and come straight home again, won’t you Bobby darlin’? You’ll not go near, the you know where?”
“What are you talking about, woman?” he replied rather tersely and snatched his hat from her hand.
“Ah, Bobby, sure you’ll not go near the pub at all?” she asked, in a pleading tone of voice, as she moved her hand away to avoid her husband’s grasp.
“Now, why would I want to be doing such a thing, woman? Just give me my hat, for God’s sake, so I can be on my way! It’s already late.”
“But, Bobby, will you not just promise me you won’t? Now promise me, darling!” she pleaded with him as tears filled her eyes.
“Ay, ay, of course I’ll promise you. Sure, why would I not?” he replied in a way that showed his frustration with his wife’s constant pleas.
“Ah now, Bobby, I hear you talking, but you’re not giving me your solemn promise,” she pressed him.
“Listen, woman!” said Bob, “May the devil take me if I should take a single drop of drink until I come back home again!Now, will you give my head a bit of peace now?”
“It will my darlin’,” she smiled, “and may God keep you safe.”
With this parting blessing from the lips of his wife, Bob Harte went out of the door, breathing a lot easier as his wife closed the door behind him. The night was, by this time, quite dark as Bob stepped out on to the street, while his wife, contented by her husband’s promise, returned to her armchair in the living room, where she resumed her knitting and would wait until he returned. These last few weeks she had been very worried that, perhaps, Bob had taken to drinking much more often. This would, of course, be inconsistent with his apparent reformation from previous indiscretions. Her deepest fear, however, was the temptations provided by at least a half-dozen public houses that he would have to pass on his way to the curate’s house, which stood at the other end of the town. Despite the lateness of the hour, these ‘pubs’ would still be open for business, and they gave off a sweet aroma of whiskey and porter, which smelled so enticing to a drinking man. But, true to his word, Bob continued on his way, passing each of them without once turning his head in their direction. Bob deliberately put his hands into his coat pockets and looked straight ahead as he walked, whistling a merry tune to himself, and thinking only of his forthcoming meeting with the curate and the fee that he would get for the work he would be asked to do. In this manner Bob made his way, safely avoiding all temptation, to the curate’s house feeling very pleased with himself.
At length, Bob reached the curate’s house and knocked on the front door, which was answered by the housekeeper. She informed Bob that the curate had been called out unexpectedly to attend to a very ill parishioner, but she told him that he could sit in the hall and await the curate’s return. There Bob sat in a large blood-leather armchair amusing himself by reading some magazines, that lay on the hall table, and biting his nails until the clergyman returned home. The minutes passes slowly into hours as he waited and waited. But, it was not until almost half-past eleven that the cleric returned home, and it was just gone midnight when Bob finally set out on his journey home. By this time, however, the storm clouds had gathered to a deep, pitch darkness and the roars of thunder could be heard above the barren rocks and hollows of the distant mountains. Pale, blue lightning flashes broke the darkness, reflecting upon the rain soaked facades of the houses. Bob was fully aware that, by this time of the night, every door in the street would be closed and securely locked. But, as he trudged his way home, Bob’s eyes strained through the gloom as he sought out the public-house which had once belonged to late friend, Paddy Slane.
When he came to the building, Bob noticed a faint light making its way through the slats in the window shutter, as well as the frosted-glass panes over the door-way, which created a sort of dull, foggy, and mystical halo about the front of the public houses. Now that Bob’s eyes had become very much accustomed to the darkness of the night, that faint halo of light was just enough illumination to allow him to see a strange figure of a man before him. The closer that Bob came to the strange man he began to notice that the man was wearing a type of loose overcoat, which was tightly pulled around him as he sat upon a wooden seat that was firmly fixed into the pavement below the pub’s huge main window. The seated figure was also wearing a large, broad-brimmed hat that hung very much over his eyes, and he was smoking a long, strangely shaped pipe.
On the seat, at the side of the stranger, Bob could just discern the outline of a glass and, also, a half -bottle was dimly noticeable on the pavement, just to the side of his foot. The longer that he watched this strange figure, the more certain he was that there was something extremely odd about him. This stranger had the appearance of travelling man, who had simply stopped to refresh himself on that wooden bench in a rain-soaked street. At first, Bob thought it was likely this stranger had been drinking in the pub when it closed for the night. He thought that, perhaps, this stranger had taken what remained of his drink out to the seat, where he could enjoy it as he watched the lightning flashes light up the sky. At any other time, it is likely that Bob would have given the stranger a friendly greeting as he passed him by. On this particular night, however, Bob Harte was feeling quite low in his spirits, and was certainly not in any kind of mood to be genial to any stranger. Just as he was about to pass the seated man without greeting him, the stranger lifted his half-bottle of whiskey and, without removing the pipe from his mouth, he beckoned Bob over to him. At the same time, with a slight nod of his head, and a shrug of his shoulders, the stranger indicated he wanted Bob to share his seat and his bottle.
Bob watched as the man shifted along the seat to the end, making room for Bob to sit down. There was a wonderful aroma of malt whiskey coming from the area where the man sat, and Bob was sorely tempted by it. But he recalled the promise he had made to his wife, which reinforced his will-power just as it began to weaken, and he politely told the stranger, “No. But, I thank you for your kind offer, sir, but I cannot stop for a drink this night.”
The stranger, however, was not to be so easily placated, and he beckoned to Bob even more vehemently. He pointed to the empty space on the seat beside him, as if commanding Bob to sit. This time he gave the strange man a smile as he, once again, began to excuse himself, “Thanks again for your very polite offer, but I’m very late as it is, and I don’t have any time to spare. So, I wish you a very good night.”
Jingling his glass against the neck of the whiskey bottle, the stranger was suggesting that Bob could at least swallow one mouthful of the whiskey without losing much time. He was sorely tempted, and he wondered what harm a mouthful of whiskey would him. Although his mouth watered at the prospect, he remembered the promise that he had made. Bob shook his head strongly to demonstrate that his decision was now final and, there was nothing that would move him from his resolve. But, as Bob walked on, the stranger arose from his seat with his pipe still in mouth. He had the whiskey bottle in one hand, the glass in the other, and he now began to follow close behind the sacristan. This now caused Bob some major concern, and he quickly became very suspicious of the stranger’s intentions.
Bob now began to quicken his step and listened intently as the stranger followed close behind him. The sacristan now began to feel very anxious about this pursuit and he nervously turned around to face the stranger. He was still very close behind Bob, and he was continuing to invite him to share in his liquor, with increasingly impatient gestures.
“I have already told you,’ said Bob, who was both angry and frightened, ‘I don’t want a drink and that’s final! Now just go away! Take yourself and your whiskey bottle and go!” The stranger, however, continued to approach him very slowly, causing him to become irritated and angrily he shouted at him, “In God’s name, get back from me and stop tormenting me in this way!”
But, even as he spoke these words Bob recognised that his words and attitude had only increased the anger building within the stranger. In response to Bob the stranger began to shake the whiskey bottle toward him with violent, menacing gestures. Bob continued hastily on his way and the distance between him and the stranger increased considerably. As they both continued along the street Bob could see the stranger following behind, because his pipe gave off such a warm, wonderful red glow, which duskily illuminated the stranger’s entire figure despite the darkness of the badly lit street. Bob stopped again and called out to the stranger in a rage, “I just wish you would go to the devil, whoever you are!”
“Just get away from me!” he shouted as he hurried away. But, as he walked and looked back, over his shoulder, to discover that much to his dismay, the infuriating stranger was as close as ever to him.
“Damn you to hell,” cried out Bob in desperation as he began to feel himself almost overcome with fear and rage. “Just what is it you want of me?”
The strange man just ignored Bob’s anger in Bob’s voice and approached him even more confidently than before. He continued nodding his head and extending both glass and bottle toward Bob as he moved ever closer. Then, out of the darkness behind the stranger , Bob noticed a large black horse following them in virtual silence.
“You can keep your temptations to yourself, you devil, for there is nothing but a dark evil that surrounds you,” cried Bob Harte as he felt a real sense of terror spread rapidly through his entire body. “Will you just leave me alone?” he called out aloud as he fumbled through his confused mind for a suitable prayer to rescue him from what was, he thought, a servant of Satan. Realising that he was now very close to his own front door, Bob quickened his pace to a jog rather than a walk.
As he came to the front door of his house, Bob hammered his fist upon it and called out, “Let me in, let me in, for God’s sake! Molly, please open the door!” He was breathing heavily by this time and, weak with exhaustion, he leant his back against the heavy wooden door. From the street the strange man now confronted him and, although there was no longer a pipe in his mouth, a dusky red glow still lingered around him. From the depths of his body the stranger uttered some indescribable, cavernous sounds, which imitated closely the growls of a great wolf, or some other indescribable beast. Meanwhile, just as he uttered his strange howl, he poured some of the liquid from the bottle into the glass.
Hysterical with fear, Bob kicked at the front door with all the force he could muster and, despairingly, he tearfully screamed, ‘In the name of God Almighty, once and for all, leave me alone!’
After Bob had recovered he was told that it was likely the strange figure of a man, who had sat upon the wooden seat outside Paddy Slane’s ‘pub’ was actually the spectre of Paddy’s suicide. It was suggested to Bob that this spectre had been summoned by the ‘Evil One’ to lure the church sacristan into abandoning the promise that he had solemnly sworn to his wife. The person who interpreted Bob’s encounter with this evil spectre suggested that if the apparition had succeeded in his task, it is more than likely that the ghostly, black horse that had appeared would have carried a double burden back to the underworld.
As a matter of proof that these events happened as described, the old thorn tree which overhung the front door of the house was found, in the morning, to have been blasted with the infernal stream of fire flung by the evil spectre from the glass. It looked just like a lightning-bolt had scorched the front of the house, and it was to remain in that condition for several years, because people of the town were too afraid to repair the damage they believed had been caused by the ‘fires of hell.”.
At the end of the nineteenth century the only good and reliable washerwomen that existed in England were women from our own ‘Emerald Isle’. It was often said that laundresses were “two a penny”, while real washerwomen were thin on the ground and all of them were Irish. What made them so valuable was that when an Irish Washerwoman promised to wash the muslin curtains as white as “a hound’s tooth”, and as sweet as “new mown hay;” she told the truth. But when she promised to “get them up like new” she usually fell short of her promise. In the vast majority of cases, the Irish Washerwoman often marred her own admirable washing abilities by a carelessness in the final process. She often made her starch in a hurry, though it required great patience in its blending. It had to be stirred incessantly, almost constant boiling, and in the cleanest of all large metal pots. Unfortunately, tradition and lack of education appeared to prevent her from accepting the superiority of powder over ‘laundry blue’, which was a household product that was used to improve the appearance of textiles, especially white fabrics. She would simply snatch the blue-bag, usually made from the “toe” of a stocking, from its storage place beside a shapeless lump of yellow soap, left over since the last wash. She would squeeze the bag into the starch, which she may have stirred with a dirty spoon. From that moment there could be no possibility of clear curtains, or clear anything.
“Biddy, these curtains were as white as snow before you starched them.” “That’s true, ma’am dear.” “They have now turned blue, Biddy.” “Not all over, ma’am.” “No, Biddy, not all over. But, here and there.” “Ah, get away with ye, ma’am, will ye? Sure, it’s not that I mean. There’s a hole that’s worked in the blue-bag, bad luck to it, and more blue than I wanted got out. Sure, didn’t the starch get lumpy and became all bollocksed up?” “It would not have got ‘lumpy’, Biddy, if it had been well blended.” “Sure, didn’t I blend it like butter; but I just left off stirring for a minute to look at the parade.” “Ah now, Biddy, an English laundress would not have stopped to look at a parade!” This remark by her mistress offended Biddy’s scruples and she went off in a “huff,” muttering to herself that if they didn’t “look after a parade, they’d follow behind it. English laundresses indeed! Sure, they haven’t the power in their elbow to wash white.” Biddy said all this, and more, for she was proud of being an Irishwoman, and wondered why anyone would prefer anything English to everything Irish. But, she knew that the fact remained that the actual labour necessary at the wash-tub is far better performed by the Irish than the English. But the order, neatness, and exactness required in “finishing off,” is better accomplished by the English than the Irish. This state of affairs, she accepted, was perfectly consistent with the national character of both nations. Biddy Mahony was said by many to be the most useful person that they knew, and she was fully aware of that fact. But, she knew it, and yet she never allowed herself to be presumptuous. It was not only as a washerwoman that her talent shone out, and she got through as much hard work as any other two women. Nevertheless, as she says herself often said, “the mistress always finds fault with my finishing touches.” But, although she was not young, she was still a fine-looking woman with a large mouth that was always ready with a smile. She had the features of a person filled shrewd good humour, her keen grey eyes were alive to everything around her, not resting for a moment, and filled with female cunning. The borders of her cap were always twice as deep as they needed to be and flapped untidily about her face. She wore a coloured handkerchief inside a dark blue spotted cotton gown, which wrapped loosely in front, where it was held in place the string of her apron. Biddy’s hands and wrists had the appearance of being half-boiled, which looked more painful than it really was. She did not use as much soda as an English laundress would, but she did not spare her personal exertions, and rubbed most unmercifully. Then, one bitter frosty winter’s day, Biddy was seen standing near the laundry window, stitching away with busily. “What are you doing, Biddy?” “Oh, never heed me, ma’am.” “Why, Biddy, what a state your left wrist is in! It is positively bleeding. In fact, it looks as if you have rubbed all the skin off.” “And aren’t I going to put a skin on it?” she said, smiling through the tears which had been drawn from her eyes by the pain she was suffering, in spite of her efforts to conceal them. In her hands she was holding a double piece of wash leather which she was sewing together so as to cover her torn flesh. Now, that was heroism, and Biddy was a heroine, without even knowing it. Like many others of her sex and country, her heroism is that of being a patient, self-denying character and does not show her true thoughts to others. She was an extraordinary patient person, who could bear a great quantity of abuse and unkindness and knew quite well that to a certain degree she was living in an enemy’s country. Half the bad opinion of the “low Irish,” as the English often insultingly termed them, arose from old national prejudices, while the other half was created by themselves, by often presenting themselves as being provokingly uproarious, and altogether heedless of the manners and opinions of those people among whom they live. This, however, was not the case with Biddy. She had a great deal of cunning and tact. While you thought she was only pulling out the strings of her apron, she was always alert, listening, and understanding, like a stalking cat. If she decided to make some kind of quiet joke about the peculiarities of her employers, there was nothing particularly vicious in it. After all Biddy’s betters often did the same and called it “teasing”. Unfortunately, however, the poor are not always judged on the same level as the rich. Among all the young servants in the house the Irish Washerwoman was always a favourite. She was cheerful, turned a cup to read someone’s fortune and usually, I am sorry to say, had half of a dirty and torn pack of cards in her pocket for the very same purpose. She would sing at her work, and through the wreath of curling steam that wound from the upraised skylight of the laundry, could be heard some old time-honoured melody, that in an instant brings the scenes and sounds of Ireland to the listener. She will soften the hearts of her listeners with “Danny Boy,” or “Noreen Bawn,” and then strike into “Galway Bay” or “St Patrick’s Day,” with the feeling and heart that only an Irish person can bring to the songs of the old country. The Old English servants regarded the Irish Washerwoman with deep suspicion. They thought she did too much work for the money she received, which reflected on attitude the “Missus” had toward their wages, and yet they were always ready enough to put their own “clothes” into the month’s wash, and expect Biddy to “pass them through the tub;” a favour she was always too wise to refuse. The upper classes were happy that the management of their households did not bring any temptation to thievery, which they believed existed in the homes of the Dublin gentry. They believed that servants in Ireland were allowed what was termed “breakfast money,” which meant that they were not to eat their employers’ food but were to ‘look out’ for themselves. Not surprisingly, such a restriction was considered to be the greatest possible inducement to picking and stealing. English gentry were happy to believe that their English servants had no need to steal the necessaries of life, because they were fed, and they were treated as human beings. As a consequence, they thought that there was not a fraction of the extravagance, the waste, and the pilfering that took place in Irish kitchens. They were too blind to see that it was the system rather than the servant that was the true problem. Meanwhile, washerwomen like Biddy continue to adjust to every modification of system in every house she goes to. The only thing she cannot bear to hear is her country and its people being abused, even when such abuse takes the form of a joke. In such circumstances the blood would rise and her cheeks flush with anger, and some years ago there was an occasion when Biddy answered in an appropriate way. One thing about the Irish that lifts them above others is their earnest love for their country when they are absent from it. Your polite, diplomatic Irishman might look a little disconcerted when you question his country, and with an oily, easy, musical swing of his voice asks innocently just how you knew he was Irish. They might even suggest, “that people cannot help their misfortunes.” The working-class Irish, however, will not be so pleasant, just as Biddy did when she was challenged as to her nationality. “Aren’t you the clever one, madam? I am Irish, sure, and my people before me, God be praised for it! I’d be a long and sorry to disgrace my country if I denied it, my lady. Fine men and women live in it as well as those who come out of it. Sure, it’s an awful pity that so many need to leave. It’s well enough for the likes of me to leave it, for I could do it no good. But, as to the gentry, the sod keeps them, and sure they might keep on the sod! Ye needn’t be afraid of me, my lady; I would do nothing to disgrace my country. I am not afraid of my character, or the work I do, for it’s all I have to be proud of in this wide world.” How much more respect does this attitude deserve in every right-thinking mind, than any mean attempt to conceal a fact of which we all, as well as poor Biddy, have a right to be proud! Biddy’s reply to someone of her own social stature might have received a much different reply such as – “Am I Irish? I am to be sure! Do ye think I’m going to deny my country, God bless it?! Truly I am proud to be born Irish and to be called Irish! I cannot think of anything else that I would want to be!” You should have a great deal of sympathy for poor Biddy, because her life has been one long-drawn scene of incessant, almost heart-rending labour. From the time she became eight years old, Biddy earned her own bread and it is a wonder that having endured such a hard life that Biddy retained her habitual cheerfulness. Every evening her hearty laughter could be heard echoing through the house, while she would treat the servants at every kitchen Christmas party with a lively Irish jig. But, one Christmas, Biddy was not as happy as she usually was. One of the pretty housemaids had, for the past two or three years, made it a regular request that Biddy should put her own wedding ring in the kitchen pudding. No one knew why Jenny continually made such a request because she never had the luck to find it in her slice of the pudding. But, she did. Christmas eve was always a merry night in the homes of ‘the Quality’. The cook, in her
kitchen, was puffed-up with her own importance and weighed her ingredients according to her recipe for “a one-pound or two-pound pudding.” She would inspect her larded turkey and pronounce her opinions upon the relative merits of the sirloin which was to be the “roast for the parlour,” and “the ribs” that were destined for the kitchen. Although she had a great deal of work to do, like all English cooks, she maintained a most sweet mood, because there was a great deal to eat. She looked proudly over the dozens of mince pies, the soup, the savoury fish, the huge bundles of celery, and the rotund barrel of oysters, in a manner that had to be seen to be believed. At the same time, the housemaid is equally busy in her department, while the groom smuggled in the mistletoe and the old butler slyly suspended from one of the bacon hooks in the ceiling before he kissed the cook beneath. The green-grocer’s boy would have been scolded for not bringing “red berries on all the holly.” Then the evening would be wound up with drinks, a half-gallon, of ale and hot elderberry wine, and a loud cheer would echo through the house when the clock struck twelve. In those times a family would be considered to be very poor if they had no meat, a few loaves of bread, and a few shillings, to distribute amongst some old pensioners on a Christmas Eve. In that particular household, Biddy had been a positive necessity for many Christmas days, and just as many Christmas eves. She was never told to come, because it was an understood thing. Biddy would ring the gate bell every twenty-fourth of December, at six o’clock, and even the English cook would return her national salutation of “God save all here,” with cordiality. Jenny, as I have said, was her great ally and had been found at least sixty husbands, in the tea cups, in as many months. One Christmas Eve morning, however, Biddy didn’t come to the house. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, and still the maids were not up and at their work. They didn’t know what time it was because Biddy had not rung the bell and the entire house was collapsing into a state of commotion. The cook, in her panic, declared, “How will it all end? Isn’t it always the way with those Irish. The dirty and ungrateful woman. Who is going to heat the water, boil the ham, look after the celery, butter the tins or hold the pudding cloth? “Or drop the ring in the kitchen pudding!” whimpered Jenny Instead of the usual clattering domestic bustle of old Christmas, everyone looked sulky, and, as usual when a household is not fully awake in the early morning, everything went wrong. The lady of the house was not at all pleased with what was happening, but she had promised herself that she would never speak to a servant when she was angry. Instead, she put on her fur coat, and set out to see what had become of the poor industrious Irish woman. She went to the place where Biddy lived on Gore Lane and made her way into the small cottage that the washerwoman rented. Although it was not a tidy house it was, nevertheless, clean. She found Biddy sitting over the embers of a dying fire and, instead of being greeted with the usual beaming smile, the washerwoman turned away from her and burst into tears. This was not what she had expected and the anger she had felt back at the house now disappeared entirely. Biddy had happily rid herself from the burden of a drunken husband several years ago, and she worked hard to support three little children without ever having thought once about sending them to a workhouse. She had people for whom she washed at their own houses, and even took in work at her small cottage. To help her in this task she employed a young girl called Lisa, whom she had taken in from the streets and saved her from ‘a fate worse than death’. Biddy had found Lisa starving on the streets and she brought fever amongst her children. At the same time Biddy lost much work through her charitable act but she nursed the young girl through her sickness, and never regretted having befriended a motherless child. People who demonstrate such charity to others deserve any praise they might receive, and Biddy acted like a mother to the girl. Turning to her employer Biddy began to explain her absence, and the cause of her tears, “I came home last night, as usual, more dead than alive, until I got sitting down with the children. As usual I put two or three potatoes on to heat on the stove and then, tired as I was, I thought I would iron out the few small items that Lisa had put in to wash. These included a clean cap and handkerchief, and the aprons for to-day, because you like to see me nice and presentable. My boy got a prize at school, where I took care to send him that he would get the education that makes the poor rich. Well, I noticed that Lisa’s hair was hanging in ringlets down her face, and I says to her, ‘My honey, if Annie was you, and she’s my own, I’d make her put up her hair plain. It’s the way the quality wears and I think it would be good enough for you Lisa.’ Then says she to me, ‘It might do for Annie, but for me it’s different because my mother was a tradeswoman.’ I tell you, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from hurting her feelings by telling her exactly what her mother was and bringing the blush of shame to the girl’s cheeks. “But I waited until our work was finished over, and, picking her out the two potatoes, and sharing, as I always did, my half pint of beer with her, I tried to reason with her. Then I looked across to where my three sleeping children were lying, little Jimmy’s cheek was blooming like a rose, on his prize book, which he had taken into bed with him, and I promised God that although my heart was drawn more to my own flesh and blood, I would look after her as I would them. “She didn’t answer me, but put the potatoes aside, and said, ‘Mother, go to bed.’ I let her call me mother,” continued Biddy, “it’s such a sweet sound, and doesn’t do any harm. Saying might have helped her not feel so alone in the world. The word can be a comfort to many a breaking heart, and can calm down many a wild one. As old as I am, I still miss my mother still! ‘Lisa,’ says I, ‘I’ve heard my own children’s prayers, why not kneel down dear and say your own?’ “‘My throat’s so sore,’ said she, ‘I can’t say them out aloud. Don’t you see I could not eat the potatoes?’ This was about half past twelve, and I had spoken to the police to give me a call at five. But when I awoke, the grey of the morning filled the room. I knew where I should be, and I quickly got dressed in my clothes. Then, hearing a policeman below the window, I said to him, ‘Please, could you tell me what time it is and why you didn’t call me?’ ‘It’s half past seven,’ says he, ‘and sure the girl, when she went out at half past five, said you were already up.’ ‘My God! What girl?’ I asked him, turning all over like a corpse, and then I missed my bonnet and shawl, and saw my box empty. Lisa had even taken the book from under the child’s cheek. But that wasn’t all. I’d have forgiven her for the loss of the clothes, and the bitter tears she caused my innocent child to cry. I’d even forgive her for making my heart grow older in half an hour, than it had grown in its whole life before, but my wedding ring, ma’am? That girl’s head often had this shoulder for its pillow, and I would throw this arm over her, so. Oh, ma’am, could you believe it? The girl stole my wedding ring off my hand, the very hand that had saved and slaved for her! The ring! Oh, there is many a tear I have shed on it, and many a time, when I’ve been next to starving, and it has glittered in my eyes, that I’ve been tempted to part with it, but I couldn’t. It had grown thin, like myself, with the hardship of the world, and yet when I’d look at it twisting on my poor wrinkled finger, I’d think of the times gone by, of him who had put it on, and would have kept his promise but for the temptation of drink, and what it leads to. In those times, when trouble would be crushing me into the earth, I’d think of what I once heard that a ring was a thing like eternity, having no beginning nor end. I would turn it, and turn it, and turn it and find comfort in believing that the little penance here was nothing in comparison to that without a beginning or an end that we were to go to hereafter. It might be in heaven, or it might, God forbid, be in the other place; and,” said poor Biddy, “I drew a great deal of consolation from that, and she knew it, the serpent. She that I shared my children’s food with, knew it, and, while I slept the heavy sleep of hard-work, she had the poison in her to rob me! She robbed me of the only treasure, barring the children, that I had in this world! I’m a great sinner; for I can’t say, God forgive her, nor I can I bring myself to work. The entire thing has driven me away from my duty and Jessie, the craythur, always laid ever so much store by that ring, on account of the little innocent charms. Altogether, this has been the worst Christmas day that ever came to me. Oh, sure, I wouldn’t have that girl’s heart in my breast for a golden crown, her ingratitude of beats the world!” Lisa’s actions were truly the most callous case of ingratitude that I have ever known. What a wretch she was to rob the only friend she ever had, while she slept in the very bed where she had been attended to, and cared for, so unceasingly. “She could have taken all that I had in the world, if only she had left me that ring” Biddy repeated continually, while she rocked herself backwards and forwards over the fire. “The little bit of money, the rags, and the child’s book. She could have had them all and I would not have cared a bit. I could have forgiven her from my heart, but I can’t forgive her for taking my ring. Not for taking my wedding ring!” This was not the end of it. The girl was soon traced and taken into custody by the police and, that same day Biddy was told she must go to the police station to identify the prisoner. “Me,” she exclaimed, “Sure, I never was in a police station before and don’t know what to say other than she took it.” In an English police court of the period an Irish case always created a bit of jollity. The magistrates would smile at each other, while the court reporter cut his pencil and arranged his note-book, and the clerk of the court would cover the lower part of his face with his hand, to conceal the smile that grew around his mouth. They watched, amused, as Biddy attempted an awkward curtsey before she began to speak. She began by wishing their honours a merry Christmas and plenty of them, before expressing her hope that they might continue to use the power of their office to do good until the end of their days. Then, when Biddy saw the creature whom she had cared for so long, in the custody of the police, she was completely overcome and mixed her evidence with so many pleas that the girl be shown mercy, that the magistrates were sensibly affected. Though there had only been a short time between Lisa’s running away and her capture, she had pawned the ring and spent all the money. There were, however, at least twenty people who extended their helping hand to the Irish Washerwoman with money to redeem the pledge. Poor Biddy had never been so rich before in all her life, but that did not help console her for the sadness she felt at the sentence that was passed upon Lisa and it was a long time before she was able to regain her usual spirits. She weakened, and she grieved, and when the spring began to advance a little, and the sun began to shine, her misery became quite troublesome. Biddy’s continual cry was, “for the poor sinful creature who was shut up among stone walls and would be sure to come out worse than she went in!” The old English cook lived to become thoroughly ashamed of the things she had both thought and said about Biddy, and Jenny held her up on every possible occasion as a being the ideal image of an Irish Washerwoman.
She was just a little girl, slender and insignificant. It was only her love that made her heroic. Meanwhile, the man was big, broad, a man to be noticed in a crowd, but his love made him as helpless as a little child. They were standing opposite each other in the poor, shabbily furnished little room. His eyes scanned her face wildly, incredulously, but her eyes were, all the time, fixed upon a great hole in the faded carpet on the floor. Her mind seemed to be in a state of chaos, for with his eagerly spoken words of love came others that totally bewildered her. Alongside the man’s passionate words of love for her, his yearning to have her for himself and the promise to live and work only for her happiness, the man added other words. He spoke of his ambition and great hopes, of his intention to travel the world far and wide, of his hardships and discomforts that he would have to bear for the sake of a book that was yet to be written. It would be a book, he was certain, that would bring fame and great satisfaction to its author. As he spoke, his words held a deep note of earnestness and strength, which overpowered those eager, pleasant tones that had been pleading to her so wildly.
“I called you ‘Kathleen My Darling’ last night. Do you remember? You smiled and blushed as I spoke!” he protested to her. “Why did you do it, Kathleen? I know you love me, you do! Why don’t you speak to me? I tell you, I have seen it in your eyes. So, why do you deny it now?”
The girl shook her head, and in an agonising tone of voice she pleaded with him to tell her, “How long? How long?”
The man held out his arms to her despairingly and in a humble, quiet voice that was unnatural to him he asked, “Won’t you try, then? For Kitty, little Kitty, I cannot live without you!”
Calmly and quietly she told him, “I have a singing lesson to give at one o’clock,” and in response the man’s arms fell limply to his sides.
The sun was streaming through the window and on to the pretty, pale, face of the girl, as well as on to the white, haggard face of the man who stood opposite her. There were no shadows in that little room, for it was all glare and shabbiness. “I will leave,” the man said curtly, and then his eyes began to fill with an angry fire. “But, you are a flirt! Do you hear me, a pitiable and heartless flirt! You have led me on and played with my feelings for you. You have softened your eyes, made your lips sweet and tempting, and amuse yourself at my expense! How can you do such a thing?” He gave a little cynical laugh and then continued, “You have been very clever in your own way – you know——” and he moved towards the door. As he reached the door, he stopped and turned toward the girl, saying icily, “I beg your pardon, I should not have spoken so to a woman. Good-bye.”
“You will begin travelling now?” she asked.
He laughed and said, “Why keep up the pretence? It’s rather late now to pretend you have any interest in my life.” For her part, she was silent and watched as he paused at the door. This was a proud man, and he had an iron will. But his love for this woman had made him helpless and weak as a little child. “Kathleen,” he breathed, “you are sure?” As he awaited her reply for a moment, she stood still and rigid as a statue. “Oh, little one, I love you so much,” He sighed, his voice soft and caressing. Her love, however, made her heroic and strong. She raised her head and steadily told him, “I am certain,” she said steadily.
The young girl sat in a corner of the warm, well-furnished drawing-room, and she wished that people would not nod and stare at her so energetically as they passed by. She was used to it by now, but she had grown very tired of it. In fact, she had never liked it, but accepted that fame brings notoriety with it, and notoriety, unfortunately, brings nods, whispers and stares. She was dressed beautifully. It was not a major surprise, for she had always liked pretty things, and now she could have as many as she wanted. But, a man standing in a doorway across the road was watching her with contempt in his eyes. He had not seen her for five years, and as he stood there another man approached him and spoke. “Looking at our wee star, are you?” the passer-by asked. “That wee girl is the best thing that ever happened to this place, you know. Have you ever heard her sing? No? Well, maybe you’re just back from your travels and sure you can go to the Town Hall tomorrow evening. She’s going to sing there, and her voice is something wonderful to hear. Now, I never go to hear the girl myself for it makes me so sad, like a miserable sinner somehow. But, I’ve heard her twice, and then I stopped, because I didn’t like feeling so bad.”
The man slowly walked away again, and the watcher with contempt in his eyes continued to stare at her. The girl’s head was turned away from him, allowing him only a view of her soft, fair cheek and little ear nestling in a soft mass of hair, a white throat, and a lot of pale chiffon and silk. And suddenly the cheek and even the neck were flooded with a red blush, and then they looked whiter than before. He wondered at the cause for a moment, and he smiled bitterly as he did so. The girl’s eyes, however, remained firmly fixed, eager, and fascinated on the long looking-glass before her. But, she was not looking at herself. Afterwards he sought her out. “You were wise,” he spoke mockingly, and her normally soft, sweet eyes grew dark with pain. Meanwhile, he took the vacant seat beside her and played with the costly fan he had picked up from a dressing table. “I must congratulate you,” he said indifferently and with a wave towards her dress and the diamonds around her throat he added, “This is much better than the old days.”
“Yes,” she replied softly “But, perhaps you have forgotten since it has been, how long? Is it ten, no, five years ago?”
“No.” For a moment she furled and unfurled the fan in silence, admiring her beauty and wondering who had given her the Parma violets blooms for her hair. “Your book?” she asked timidly. But, as he stared back at her blankly she could feel herself begin to slowly redden. “You were going to travel and write about your adventures in strange places …” she continued falteringly.
“Oh, yes, I believe I was, some five years ago,” he replied and her face returned to its normal colour.
“Have you travelled far?” she asked.
“Oh, yes! I’ve done nothing else for five years. I’ve shot tigers in India and bears in the Himalayas. I’ve lived with Chinamen and African tribesmen, even making friends with cannibals on one occasion. Oh! I’ve had a fine time!” he declared with a laugh. Her eyes were filled with yearning as her hostess brought up a man to be introduced. Then, when she turned again to the other man she saw that the chair was empty again and she did not see him again for two weeks.
In those days there was an added sadness in her beautiful voice as she sang. But, although she brought tears to many thousands of eyes, her own were dry and restless. It was now beginning to dawn on her that she had made a mistake five years ago.
“Have you seen Hugh Hagan?” she heard one man say to another. “Never have I been so disappointed in a man in all of my life. Several years past he had the promise of being able to achieve some fame. Those articles that he wrote about ‘Foreign Ways and Customs’ made quite a sensation, you know. There was also some talk of wild travels and a book that was going to be a ‘Best Seller”. Well, he has had the travels alright, but where’s the book?”
“It’s down to the usual thing. A woman,” the other man replied. “Didn’t you know? Some pretty young thing. The usual scenario, but the cost to him was heavier than he could handle. It knocked the life out of him, you know. I don’t think I have ever saw a fellow so hard hit. That all happened five years ago, and he’s never written a line since. Poor fellow!”
The knowledge that she had made a mistake five years ago was becoming much clearer in her mind now and, at the end of the fortnight, she met with him and asked him to come and see her. Although he smiled pleasantly he chose not to visit and this upset her very much, causing her eyes to swell in her small, sad face. Then, she met him again, and when she asked him why he had not come, he looked down into her soft, sweet eyes and immediately began to feel love for her weakening his will once again. Once more he promised that he would come to visit her. But, when he came, he only stayed with her for five minutes. As she opened the door to him, he looked at her sternly and greeted her tersely. “Why do you want me?” he asked her, and watched the colour come and go in her cheeks with his pitiless eyes.
“We used to be friends,” she replied in a quiet and halting voice. He stood before her and laughed.
“Never! I never felt friendship for you,” he said mockingly, “nor you for me. You forget. Five years is a long time, but I have a retentive memory. I forget nothing.”
“Nor I,” she murmured.
“No? Then why did you ask me to come and see you?” When she gave him no answer, he looked round the pretty shaded room for a moment and he laughed again. “There is a difference in you too,” he told her.
She looked up at him quickly and confidently said, “I am the same.”
“Are you?” he asked and there was anger in his eyes.
“Listen,” he said, in a low, tense voice, “I am five years wiser than I was, then and I will never be anyone’s plaything again. You have ruined my life; doesn’t that make you happy? I would have staked my life on your goodness and your purity in those days. But, I can’t allow myself to believe in the goodness of any woman since you, with your angel’s eyes, proved to be so false. I used to be full of ambition and hope, but you killed both in me. I even tried to write my book after we had split, and I found that I couldn’t. Now, I shall never do anything and never be anything. I despise myself, and it’s not a nice feeling for any man to live with. It makes men desperate. But, still I love you. Do you understand? I have loved you all the time, and I hate myself for it.” His voice changed. “You may triumph,” he said, “but now that you understand, I will not come again.”
She stretched out her arms after him, but he was gone. And in that one moment she knew quite clearly that she had made a terrible mistake five years ago. She did not see him again for three and a half weeks. Then she saw him, one day when he thought he was alone. From a distance she studied his face and her eyes ached at what they saw, bringing her almost to tears. Then she decided to go to where he was sitting, and she touched him gently on his arm. “Well?” he asked, feeling the softness of her touch.
“Will you come,” she said in a soft voice, “to see me——”
“Thanks, but no thank you,” he told her as his eyes rested bitterly on her rich gown. Nevertheless, it came across his mind again just how wise she had been. Being tied to him, he was convinced, she could not have been as she was now.
“I have something I must say to you,” she said nervously, “will you please come, just this once?” He looked down into those soft, warm eyes with the beautiful light in them.
“I would rather not,” he said gently, but firmly.
The weariness that was in his eyes brought a sob to her throat and she pleaded with him, “Ah, do! I won’t ask you again.”
He looked at her, not really believing she meant what she said, and then he turned away. She had looked the same way that she had looked five years ago. Then she laid a small, despairing hand on his, and the iciness of her touch went to his heart. “I will come,” he said gently, and went away. On this occasion, when he came, he wondered at the apparent agitation in her small white face. Her eyes were red with the tears she had cried, and he waited silently and watched her twist her hands restlessly together. He noticed that she was trembling, and he drew a chair forward. “Please, will you sit down?” he said.
She sat down in a nest of softest cushions. “I, I,” she began to speak hesitatingly, and put up her hand up to her throat, “I want to, to, to explain.” His face darkened as she rose from her seat restlessly and faced him. His thoughts turned to that time when they had faced each other before, in the shabby, glaring little room, and his face hardened toward her. “When you,” she began, “I thought it was for you. I had heard you say.”
“Are you going back five years?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then please don’t,” he said. “There can be no good come from it, and to me at least it is not a pleasant subject.”
“I must!” she burst into tears. “Oh! Can’t you help me? It is so hard!”
As she held out her hands pathetically toward him, a darkness came over his tanned face, and he stood still, looking at her with a strange expression. “I think I will go,” he said; “there is no use in prolonging this.”
“Do you love me still?” she cried suddenly.
He turned on her in a white passion of anger. “You’re not content yet?” he breathed. “What are you made of? Do you want me to show you all my degradation? Why? Oh, Kitty, Kitty, be merciful! Be true to those eyes of yours.” He abruptly stopped speaking and moved over to the door.
“Hugh, I love you!” She said in the quietest of whispers, but it forced him to stop, and it brought a great light of happiness leaping into his eyes. Just as quickly that light died down again.
“It is too late!” he said wearily and turned away from her again.
“Hugh, please listen! I have always loved you, even five years ago. It was for your sake …”
“Kitty?” he said uncertainly, as he turned back to her.
She went on bravely, encouraged by the deep love she felt for him. “I was a poor and insignificant person, while you were ambitious and clever. I had heard all your dreams for fame and greatness. Hugh, how could you travel into those wild countries with me? I knew you would give up your dreams, and how could I bear that? To be a drag, a hindrance to you! And in the coming years I thought you would resent me. Hugh, you were poor, too, though not so poor as me. I did it for you and it nearly killed me, Hugh. I was ill after we parted, but it was for you!”
As her voice died away into silence, Hugh stood very still, and his face turned was white, as if it all the blood had drained from it. But within his eyes there was a new reverence for the woman before him. “Forgive me!” he said urgently.
She smiled softly at him and said, “Oh, yes.” The cynicism had gone from his face, as well as the hardness and bitterness he had felt.
“Oh, can’t you help me? It is so hard!” He pleaded and, as she looked at him wistfully, he turned his head away from her eyes and hid his face in his hands. “It was a mistake,” he said, slowly, and dully.
“Yes,” she replied softly, and she waited to see his face. When he finally looked up she tried to read his face but failed. It was sad, and set, and yet there was also a new light there.
Hugh now gently took her hands in his, and told her, “Kathleen, God knows what I think of you, and I can work now. So, Good-bye to you my dear.” She was mystified by his response and she raised her eyes anxiously to his. He answered the silent question in those eyes, very gently, but with a firmness that would ensure there was no mistake. “You are famous,” he said, “when I have made a name for myself in the world I will come to you. Will you wait for me, Kitty?”
“For ever, Hugh,” she answered, knowing that this answer was enough for him.
He now bent forward and tenderly kissed her hands.
Kitty knelt at the side of Hugh’s bed. She paid no attention to the nurse at the other side of the room, and her warm, soft tears flowed from her eyes, wetting his hand. His right hand and arm were swathed in bandages, and he smiled sadly as he looked up at her. “I am a failure,” he said.
“Ah, no, no! All of Ireland is filled with praise for your name, Hugh,” she said, her face all alight with pride and joy. “You are famous now!”
A little flush rose to his white face as she spoke. “Nonsense,” he replied, “rescuing a woman and a few children from being burnt to death. Sure, anyone would have done the same.”
“Ah, no, Hugh! Not just anyone! Brave men shrank back from that storm-tossed sea and burning ship!”
He lifted his bandaged hand and after looking at it for a few moments he said, “I must learn to write with my left hand.”
Kitty bent closer to him and whispered, “Let me write for you. Let me finish your book, Hugh, while you dictate it to me. I do not sing now in public, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” he said and drew her closer to him, resting cheek against her soft hair. “I said I would not come to you again until I had made a name for myself in the world. I am a wreck now! I shall be a wreck for a long while …”
“But you are famous, my darling!” she interrupted him lovingly.
“I cannot do without you any longer, Kitty,” he sighed, “I am a beaten man at last. Will you take a wreck?”
The small town in which I have lived most of my long life is not much different from any other small rural town in Ireland. There are some towns that may be larger than others, and some that are smaller, but in each of these towns lives at least one character whose reputation is known both far wide. Sadly, almost every town contains some people who are known for their anti-social activities, which attract the anger of their fellow residents. Their actions within the community gain for them disparaging names, such as ‘Wastrels’, ‘Spongers’ and ‘Jam Trampers’, among their neighbours. While the offenders might be worthy of such names, in many cases, the community is inclined to rush to judge others, based on the antics of one person. Far too often people are too quick to “tar” a troublemaker’s entire family with the same “brush”. They fail to accept that each person is an unique individual in their own right and they fail to measure each on their own individual merits. In my own town, most of the anti-social behavior that we experience can be traced to the age-old human weakness for alcohol, which seems to be an ever-present problem for some within Irish society.
As a proud Irishman I confess that I am not teetotal. I enjoy the occasional drink or two, and I can see no reason why any hard-working man or woman should not be allowed to enjoy one or two glasses of their favourite alcoholic beverage. The choice, after all, is theirs and so long as they can afford to buy the drink, who has the right to stop them. My tolerance, however, does start to wear a bit thin when a man or a woman drinks excessively, spending all that they have without giving a thought to the welfare of their spouse or children at home.
In my hometown the majority of those who take a drink are, thanks be to God, very mature people who enjoy moderation in all things. They are not the type of people, from my experience, who would ever consider leaving their families short of money and food just for the sake of alcohol. But, as is the case in most things, there are exceptions to any rule. There are always those who have no sense of responsibility or feel accountable for any of the actions they take. We have all seen men and women, both young and old, who seem to always spend their government welfare benefits on beer, lager or spirits without much thought being given to the family at home. Even worse are those who work all week and, after getting their wages, they spend it all on alcohol even before they reach home. When they eventually stagger home all they bring with them are empty pockets and a foul mouth for those left hungry and bedraggled. Sadly, in my opinion, the spouses would be much better off as single parents to enjoy life without fearing the mental and physical abuse that an alcohol dependent man or woman can bring to a family.
Now, I am only too aware that such things are not confined to Ireland or the Irish people in general. Yet, I can tell you that in our small town one of the most sober, considerate and compassionate men is the Parish Curate, Fr. Lennon. He stands over six feet tall in his socks, and he has been graced with a physique like a main battle tank. The man’s hands are just massive lumps of flesh and bone, resembling great sledge hammers that are ready to deal out punishment to any potential opponent.
Within our small town and the county Father Lennon had built a big reputation for himself as a tough centre full-back for the County Football Team. Although he wears the garments of a man of God there are very few members of the opposing teams who could get past him with the ball in their hands without first suffering some sort of injury, minor or otherwise. Then, at the lectern, every Sunday morning the same man preaches proudly about sin, violence, fair play, sex and the evils of alcohol.
Every Sunday, since he retired from playing football, there was no activity that Fr. Lennon liked to do more than to take a leisurely walk through the town. His usual route took him past “River View”, which was one area of the town that was one of the most socially challenged areas of the town, because it mostly low-income families that resided there. Consequently, it was an area that Father Lennon frequently visited in his Parish pastoral visits and, in its two hundred feet length, there were six very small, old, two-bedroom cottages without central heating or indoor plumbing. The families that lived in this small street were obliged to draw fresh water from a pump at the foot of the lane. They were also obliged to share the discomfort of a communal toilet area, with a chemical toilet, at the back of the cottages. It was, for the want of a better description, a slum area that was long-past its time for redevelopment. For a long time, Fr. Lennon had been urging the local authorities to demolish the cottages and rehouse the residents in more modern accomodation. His appeals, however, had been falling on deaf ears.
One Sunday morning, as he turned into “River View” he was almost knocked over by a small, scruffy boy who looked to be about eight years old. The boy had been running so fast, and with his head down, that he had not noticed the priest walking on the footpath. Father Lennon managed to stop the boy from crashing into him by grabbing his shoulders and, steadying him. He asked the boy, “Where in the name of God are you going to?”
Breathlessly the boy replied, “Oh Jesus, Father! My Da is murdering my Ma!” Through the grubbiness of the boy’s face, and the long, tatty hair that flowed almost to his shoulders, the priest could see a great fear in the boy’s eyes. “I need to get away from him before he starts into me!” he stammered.
Fr. Lennon immediately recognised the boy as being Sean Mackey, and one of fourteen children that belonged to Mary and “Bisto” Mackey. Sean bore such a resemblance to his father that anyone who knew “Bisto” could easily identify the son, and “Bisto” was, by no means, unknown in the small town. He was, without doubt, a troubled man and was known to regularly beat his wife, which Fr. Lennon thought was a disgusting act to be perpetrated by any man. It was time, he thought to himself, to take some action and try to get “Bisto” to desist from acts of violence against his wife and family. Bracing himself to face down an angry “Bisto” Mackey, Father Lennon moved down the row of houses until he came to the Mackey’s bright blue, front door. It was already slightly opened, probably caused by young Sean’s hasty escape, and he could hear raised voices coming from within, swearing and damning each other. Without knocking on the front door, or even announcing himself, the priest walked on into the house, to the living room. Here he saw Mary sitting on an old, battered armchair in a very bedraggled condition, tears in her eyes and her mouth was bleeding slightly. As he came closer to the woman, Fr. Lennon noticed that one of her eyes was very badly swollen and several bruises were beginning to rise on her face. “Bisto”, was standing over his wife, shaking his clenched fist at her, and he was shouting all sorts of obscenities at the poor woman.
“Ah, just shut your big gob, Bisto!” and angry Father Lennon demanded. “If you put that fist of yours near her again I will personally lay you out flat on your back!” the priest warned.
“Bisto” immediately stopped his threatening manner and stared sullenly at the priest. “This is none of your business,” Bisto told Father Lennon angrily. “Do you think that dog-collar you wear will save you from a thumping?”
“I don’t need a dog-collar to protect me,” replied the priest confidently and drew himself up to his full height, showing his muscularity to its best. Bisto took a second glance at the clergyman and began to regret his antagonism toward him.
“Now, just you sit yourself down there, Bisto,” Father Lennon said calmly, pointing toward an empty armchair. “Let us try and get this nonsense sorted out.” As “Bisto” moved toward the chair Father Lennon scanned the room and noticed several young girls huddled in a corner and seeking protection beneath a heavy table.
“You,” he called out to one of the girls who appeared to be the eldest. “Will you please get me a clean cloth and some clean water, so we can get your mother cleaned up.” The young girl said nothing in reply, but she crawled from under the table and nervously moved into the kitchen.
“This is all that bitch’s fault, Father,” Bisto said. “No matter what I say or do she just continually nags me. She drives me mad, the ungrateful trollop!”
“Bitch, Trollop, these are not words a man uses to describe his wife, the mother of his children, and a woman as good as Mary,” Fr. Lennon told him. With this said he spoke no more but lifted the bowl of clean water from the young girl. Using the clean cloth that had been brought he began to gently dab at the cuts and bruises with the cool, clear water. “Tell me, Bisto,” he said after a few minutes, “what kind of a thrill does it give you to beat a defenceless woman? The mother of your children.”
“It is not enjoyment, Father,” Bisto told him angrily. “She drives me to it. Mary’s always nagging me about having a few drinks, and about spending time with my friends”.
“Because you are never out of the pub,” snapped Mary with a fire in her eyes and wincing under the attention Fr. Lennon was giving her eye and nose. “You spend every penny you have on your friends and drink. We have no food on our table and our children run around in rags. I don’t see too many of your so-called friends giving us anything. Yet you still buy them drinks.”
Bisto jumped to his feet once again and moved toward Mary. “Do you see what I mean Father?” he asked.
Mary visibly trembled with fear as Bisto came closer. “I don’t have to open my mouth for him to give me a dig in it. He comes home drunk and lashes out at me for no reason. If there’s no food on the table he beats me,” Mary declared.
Bisto shook his fist threateningly at Mary and told her, “Just keep your mouth shut and do what I tell you!”
“Will the two of you be quiet?” demanded an exasperated Fr. Lennon as he continued to clean up the cuts on Mary’s face. “The two of you are concerned about little victories over each other and don’t seem to care about what your fighting is doing to those poor children,” he pointed out to them. “I think it is time that I talked some sense into you both.”
The Priest finished cleaning up Mary’s cuts and bruises. Handing the bowl back to the oldest girl in the family he turned to face Bisto, who appeared to be still quite inebriated. He looked up at the husband, who was now standing above him and asked, “Where did you get the drink so early on a Sunday morning?”
“’Wee Minnie’s’ Pub, Father,” Bisto replied. “All you do is rap the back door and you can get whatever you want, Father.” He was smiling very slyly at the priest and winking his eye conspiratorially. “It’s all done on the quiet, Father. You know what I mean?”
Angrily Father Lennon snapped at him, him “No! I don’t know what you mean, because it is illegal!”
“Ah, but sure everyone does it,” Bisto laughed.
“That doesn’t make it right,” replied the priest. “But I would know how you paid for it.”
Bisto shied away a little and muttered, “I had a few pounds.”
“I understand that, but where did those few pounds come from?”
“Tell him,” interrupted Mary. “Tell him what you did!”
“Be quiet, woman,” snarled Bisto.
Father Lennon looked sternly at the man and urged him, “Come on Bisto, man up and tell the truth.”
“With the last of the Family Allowance,” he confessed.
“The last bit of money we had,” cried Mary.
“Do you want another slap woman?” Bisto asked angrily and lifted his hand to Mary threateningly.
The priest now stood up, towering above Bisto, and asked, “Would you like me to give you one?” He then moved closer to the drunken man and told him, “I will lay you out flat if you ever touch her in my presence, you gobshite!” He sat down on a chair for he was not about to take any chances with this bulk of a man, man of God or not.
“Father,” Mary interjected. “There is no food for the children and he has left me with no money to buy any. What am I to do? I can’t let them starve.” She was crying, and her tears ran down her cheeks. Mary’s eyes, red and swollen from the battering she had received at Bisto’s hands were beginning to darken as bruises formed. The right eye, particularly, was almost a purple-black colour already.
She nodded her head in agreement saying, “Yes, Father.”
“You’re far too kind Father,” said Mary, lifting the corner of her cardigan to wipe the tears in her eyes. Fr. Lennon replaced the wallet into his pocket before turning to both Mary and Bisto, telling them, “Listen, both of you. Someone has to look after this precious family for you two are not doing it.” He had succeeded in calming down both parties to the dispute and now began the task of negotiating a settlement and some sort of reconciliation. He looked kindly at the children and said to them, “Why don’t you go outside and play in the Lane for a while? Don’t come back in until I call you. Ok?”
“Yes Father,” they replied, almost in unison.
Over the following two hours the priest tried everything he knew to get the warring parties to agree to a cessation of their hostilities and set up a peace plan of sorts. By the end of the first hour Bisto had regained at least some sobriety and he began to weep as he answered the priest’s questions. He was encouraged, thereafter, to talk about his feelings and particularly his feelings for his wife. Bisto talked about the difficulty in finding work, his depressed condition at the lack of money the concern he had for his children living in a totally unsuitable house. He also professed his deep sorrow at having hit his wife and he vowed that he would never raise his hand to her again. At the same time Fr. Lennon succeeded in persuading Mary to accept her faults in the relationship. She was still weeping, and she got down on her knees, swearing she would never say another nagging word to Bisto. He now got down on his knees in front of his wife and they embraced each other comfortingly.
“I swear no more squandering money on drink, Mary!” Bisto told his wife tearfully.
“We will work our way through all these difficulties,” Mary told him, still sobbing. “There is absolutely no problem that we cannot overcome if we work together.”
Putting his hand on top of his wife’s head, Bisto stroked her hair softly. It is something he used to do when they were a courting couple and Mary enjoyed these special moments. “We will overcome these difficulties, Mary. You take the next family allowance payment and get yourself a new pair of shoes, or a skirt, or something.”
It was a special moment and Mary was happy to hear Bisto being so concerned for her welfare. But, Mary believed there were more important things that they needed to do. “We should see to the Kids first,” she urged
They were now hugging each other and kissing as Fr. Lennon turned and moved toward the front door. His job was done, and he decided he could now leave them to their own devices. It was time for him to now hurry home to the presbytery, hoping that he would not be too late for lunch. Father Lennon had been obliged by circumstance to forego his usual Sunday walk and yet, in his opinion, the time had been well spent and he was satisfied.
Lizzie Kelly was a lady in her early sixties, a widow, and the housekeeper for the priests in the parochial house. Father Lennon always enjoyed his Sunday morning stroll and he always looked forward to the Sunday Dinner that Lizzie prepared. There was always a Steak Roast, done to perfection in the oven and accompanied with peas, carrots, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes and a thick, brown, onion gravy that sat in a porcelain gravy-boat in the centre of the table. Father Lennon could smell the beautiful aromas of the Sunday meal wafting from Lizzie’s kitchen. She, however, met him at the door of her kitchen and told him rather sternly, “There is someone here who has been waiting almost an hour for you, Father.”
“Who would that be?” he asked.
Lizzie was back at her usual station, fussing around all the pots and pans that were smoking and hissing on top of the stove. But she stopped for a moment and told him, “It’s that woman from the Primary School, Father. She is sitting in the parlour.”
“Ms. Ryan the headmistress?” he asked.
“That’s right,” replied Lizzie without even looking at him. “It’s Philomena Ryan, with all her airs and graces,” she sneered, putting her nose in the air at the very mention of Philomena Ryan’s name.
Father Lennon was puzzled as to why Philomena Ryan would ask for him. “I wonder what she would want me for?” he said aloud.
Lizzie’s didn’t know and could care less about what Philomena Ryan wanted: the food was almost ready to be served and she had no time to spend answering such questions. More importantly she did not like Philomena and just wanted her to leave. “Now, that woman would not tell the likes of me what she wanted, Father,” Lizzie told the priest. He immediately realised the error of his ways, for he knew that there was not one person in the entire district who would confide in Lizzie Kelly. She knew it as well as he did.” Better you go and see to it Father, you have only ten minutes until I put the lunch on the table.”
“Better get to it,” he said as he left the kitchen and Lizzie could get on with the meal. He walked across the hallway to the parlour, where the headmistress was waiting for him.
“Hello Ms. Ryan,” Father Lennon greeted the lady, politely. She was sitting on a high back chair that sat at a huge, highly polished, rosewood table near to the window. “I am so sorry for keeping you, but the duties of a priest you know,” Fr. Lennon explained to her with a polite smile. But Philomena Ryan maintained her stern pose as if she was set in granite. She was a typical middle-aged spinster and was totally self-obsessed with her status as an important personage in the town. Usually Ms. Ryan was usually the first to be consulted by certain groups, concerning “run of the mill” problems encountered within this Parish. Only, on this occasion, it was the mighty one who was the person needing guidance on handling some difficulty or other.
“It is of no concern Father. I fully understand” she politely assured Fr. Lennon. “But, the matter I need to speak to you about is an extremely serious problem,” Philomena told him in a quiet voice that was deliberately hard to hear since she did not want to be overheard discussing such things with a priest. “This problem, Father, is so serious that it requires your immediate attention before things get out of hand.”
The priest could hear a definitive tone of concern in her voice and he was eager to discover what had caused her so much consternation, “My dear Ms. Ryan, whatever has caused you so much trouble? Please tell me what has happened?”
“It’s that old pervert, O’Dee, Father,” she told him quietly and took a quick glance around the room to make sure no one else could hear.
“Slinky O’Dee?” Father Lennon asked in a similarly quiet voice. He should have known that it would be about that lecherous old man. Almost every other day the priests or the police received a complaint about this troublemaker and, yet, the priest was slightly amused by this mention of one of the district’s oldest perverts.
Ms. Ryan’s face blushed red as she answered, “Yes Father. I believe that is the name he uses to describe it.” She lowered her eyes to the ground in embarrassment at the fact that she had to discuss such things with a member of the clergy.
“Calls what, Ms. Ryan?” asked Father Lennon, already knowing the answer but wanting to make things a little bit more difficult for this interfering busybody.
Again, her eyes scanned the room in search of prying ears before she answered him, very quietly, “His thing, Father.”
“His what?” asked the priest, pretending lack of understanding.
“His penis,” Philomena hissed out at him, as if spitting the words out of her mouth. She was annoyed at having been obliged to use the word, which she believed no lady should have to utter.
“Ohhh! I see” said Fr. Lennon,” His thing?”
“Yes, Father,” the embarrassed woman told him. “He has been exposing his “Slinky” to the girls on their way home from school after classes.”
“Disgusting beast,” the priest said. “And where does he expose his Slinky?”
“He lies in wait in the trees and bushes around the corner from the bus stop. When the girls least expect it, he jumps out from the trees into the middle of the girls, wiggling it about in front of these children. He is a disgusting little man and should be put away,” she demanded. Then, believing she had misspoke in the presence of the priest, she stopped and apologized, “I beg your pardon for my coarse language and anger.”
“Please Ms. Ryan,” he assured her. “There is no need for embarrassment. Your feelings are quite understandable under the circumstances.” He contemplated for a moment then, speaking directly to her, he said, “Something must be done.”
She smiled slightly at Father Lennon’s assurances and continued, “He has done the same thing with older girls and even women, but he soon found that they were fit for him and his ways.” Ms. Ryan pointed out. “Mrs. Brady grabbed him by the collar one evening and gave him a good hefty kick in his Slinky. He couldn’t walk properly for a week after it.”
Fr. Lennon laughed to himself quietly at the idea of wee Mrs. Brady assaulting Slinky O’Dee. But Father Lennon quickly realised that incident was a serious escalation in “Slinky” O’Dee’s actions and that he had to do something to stop him.
“This might mean we will have to involve the police,” Fr. Lennon suggested and noticed that Ms. Ryan flinched, almost in horror, at the prospect of involving the police.
“Dear God, Father,” she said. “I don’t know about involving the police. It would mean I would be called to give evidence against the man. We must think about the school and about the children. Whatever would people say?”
Father Lennon fully appreciated the woman’s concerns and tried to ease her anxieties. “Just you leave it to me Ms. Ryan. I will sort it out quietly,” Fr. Lennon assured her.
“Thank you, Oh, thank you, Father,” she said with great relief. Now that she had told the Priest she felt much better. Furthermore, she knew that whatever the priest eventually decided to do, it would be the right thing. Much more content, Ms. Ryan shook Fr. Lennon’s hand firmly and left the presbytery.
As he closed the front door on the departing Ms. Ryan he sighed with relief, “Now for my dinner.” It was yet another duty done but not yet fully completed Fr. Lennon said aloud to himself with a sense of relief.
The next day, Monday, at quarter-past two Father Lennon went into the hallway of the parochial house and put on his overcoat. He had decided to go to the bus stop where, it was alleged, Slinky O’Dee was causing some trouble. The children would soon be getting out of school and he wanted to get himself into position before anyone else arrived. When he reached the bus stop he chose to conceal himself in some bushes, which gave him an excellent view of the road. He heard the school bell ring loudly in the afternoon quietness, informing the children that it was time to burst out of the gates and go home. But, as the sound of the school bell ringing came to an end, Father Lennon heard a suspicious rustle among the bushes a few yards from where he was hiding. It was Slinky and he waited until several young girls had gathered at the bus stop before bursting out of the bushes. Out he jumped with his trousers around his ankles and exposed the entire lower half of his body, making lewd gestures and laughing lecherously. Swiftly the priest moved against him, grabbing Slinky by the scruff of his neck and pulling him backwards into the bushes as the girls looked on in amazement. Once he had gotten Slinky into cover of the bushes, Father Lennon lifted his big, heavy boot and planted it firmly into the old pervert’s backside. Slinky howled with the pain as the priest’s boot connected with his cocyx and, just for good measure, Father Lennon gave him two more hefty kicks in his rear end. Slinky screamed loudly with the pain and began to beg Father Lennon for mercy. The priest showed mercy by letting him go and pushing him away but, the force of Fr. Lennon’s push threw Slinky to the ground, where his bare buttocks settled into a patch of stinging nettles and thistles. Father Lennon bent over the crying man and warned him, “Now you listen to me, Slinky O’Dee! You ever do anything like this again I will give you the biggest kicking you have ever gotten in your life. Then, when I am done I will ensure you get jail as a sex pervert. Now get out of here and sin no more.” Still screeching, Slinky squirmed and shuffled to remove his red, bruised and stinging backside out of the nettles. Very little was seen of him again in the town and there were no more incidents reported. The duties of a priest in Ireland are not just to lead people in prayer.
His family had christened him Edward, but we preferred to call him ‘Mitch’ because he was always playing truant from school, which where we live is known as “Mitching.” He was the life in our small group of boys as we played in the fields and streams around our homes. But as ‘Mitch’ grew older he gradually became a pale, thin version of the athletic young man that he had once been. By the time he had reached his mid-thirties ‘Mitch’ had become a sickly-looking man, ashen-faced, and with a feeble constitution. His hair was light auburn in colour and he preferred to keep long, as he had done in his youth. He also had a beard that he chose neither to shave or trim in any style, leaving it to grow wildly across his lower face. Strangely, his hands were a pale colour and looked to be delicate. Indeed, they were soft and not at all hard, or coarse, as you would expect the hands of a labouring man to be. But, as a young boy he had learned the trade of a tailor from his grandfather, in which trade he excelled. ‘Mitch’ now earned a very good living from his trade and had built up a good reputation for himself throughout the area for the quality of his workmanship. We remained close to him as we grew up and were full of admiration for his tailoring talent. There were, however, some who thought him to be something of a miser, hoarding his money rather than spending it freely like other men who spent their time in the ‘Bookie Shops’ and public bars of the town. But, ‘Mitch’ was a sensible, sober and rational man, who had more to interest him than the greyhounds, the horses, or the ‘Gargle‘ (drink). Nevertheless, much to the amusement of many, he insisted that he could see and hear the fairies that lived around his workshop, the town and the district. Whenever he met and confronted anyone who voiced any doubt about his spiritual talent his eyes would fill with a frightening wild, hollow look. At the same time, his normally friendly facial expression would become suddenly dark and his brow furrowed deeply.
Whenever his name was mentioned some would simply say, “Poor Mitch Curran, sure his head’s away with the fairies.” But, in my opinion, there was no man in the town who looked less like he had mental problems than ‘Mitch’ Curran. If ever a man enjoyed the ‘craic’, loved to hear a joke or could tell a humorous story it was ‘Mitch’. He could never have been described as an unhappy man in any manner or form, and it just appeared to be a natural talent that allowed him to hear and speak to the fairy folk, and sure he was not doing anybody any harm. Strangely, ‘Mitch’ was a man who did not seem to feel pain like the rest of us, or even experience the slightest tinge of fear, and I often wondered was this because of the close relationship he had developed with the ‘Good People.’ In fact, I was certain that this was a result of the fact that ‘Mitch’s’ relationship with the fairy folk appeared to be both intimate and friendly, and he would converse with them for hours. Any person who saw these conversations take place would tell you that they were terribly one-sided affairs. But, they would also admit that the discussions did appear to give ‘Mitch’ a great amount of pleasure, causing him to laugh loudly and joke the entire time that he talked with the ‘Good People.’
There were many occasions, when I was at a loose end, that I would call into ‘Mitch’s’ workshop just to see how he was keeping. “Well, Mitch, have you seen your fairy friends today?” I would ask him.
“Aaah, Jimmy, would you whisht (be quiet). Can’t you see them yourself? There must be two dozen or more running around this place and keeping me back from my work,” he often replied.
No matter how hard I looked I could not see them. They were totally invisible to me despite ‘Mitch’ constantly insisting, “There’s the oul’ fella, sitting on top of the machine for he loves to feel the vibrations through his body when I am sewing. But, they are all having a bit of a tough time at the minute. There’s nothing to worry about, however, for they are all great wee schemers, the lot of them. They’ll soon find a way to be right again. Look, there’s one them now and he’s unravelling my silk threads!” he told me as he waved his hand at a bunch of thread bobbins, just as he would to wave away a fly.
“Get away out of that you wee devil, or I will leave a mark upon you that will never go away. Get out of that, you wee thief!“
Now, throughout my life I had heard many different tales about the ‘Good People’ that would encourage a man to be extra-careful in any dealings he might have with them. On one occasion I asked him, “Mitch, are you not afraid of the fairies at all?“
“What? Am I afraid, you’re asking me?” he answered with a loud laugh. “Sure, why would I need to fear them, for they have no power over me! None at all!“
“Of course,” he replied in a matter-of-fact manner that made me feel that I should have known this all along. “Didn’t my da tell the priest who christened me to include the special prayer against the fairies. You know, a priest cannot refuse the prayer to anyone when it is asked of him. So, I got the special prayer and, thanks be to God, that priest did what was right.“
I was puzzled for a moment and watched him as he was then apparently distracted by fairy activity elsewhere in the shop, and shouted at the them, “Will you leave all that stuff alone, you imp. You are the thief of all thieves!“
Having said this, ‘Mitch’ then returned his attention to me saying, “It was a good thing indeed, for those fairies wanted to make me their king!“
To be honest with you. I almost fell off the stool with the shock of what he had just revealed to me but, somehow, I managed to maintain my composure and asked him calmly, “Is that really possible?“
“Isn’t it me who is tellingyou it is? Now, if you don’t believe me then you can ask them yourself and they will tell you the truth of it!“
I decided that best thing that I could do at that time was to look all around me, even though I knew I would see nothing. But, I had seen ‘Mitch’s’ temper flare with the others who had doubted him and who had tried to take ‘a hand of him’ (make fun). Not surprisingly I decided to accept what he had told me and continued to ask him questions about his little, invisible friends, I chose to continue my enquiries with him. “What size are they, Mitch?“
“Och, sure they’re only wee boys, wearing green coats and the prettiest of little brogue shoes that a man ever set eyes on. There’s two old friends of mine, there,” he pointed toward a shelf of cloth lying in rolls. “They’re running on top of that cloth there. The one with the grey beard is the oldest of them and goes by the name, ‘Munchy’. The other one, with the small green bowler hat is called ‘Cheeks’ and he can play the Uileann pipes (Irish Bagpipes) like an angel.” ‘Mitch’ looked over to the rolls of cloth again and he called, “Cheeks, give us a wee tune on those pipes of yours, you blackguard. Play the ‘Stalk of Barley’.” Then he turned to me and hissed,” Now, Jim, whisht and listen!” While he continued his sewing, ‘Mitch’ beat time to the music with his feet on the wooden floor and seemed to be enjoying every note as if it was real, but I heard nothing.
This was not the only time that I visited Mitch in his workshop and I was not the only person to spend some time with him there. But, every time I had gone to his workshop I tried to hear the faintest sound of fairy voice, but I heard and saw nothing. Even as I sat there listening, ‘Mitch’s’ tongue never once ceased moving in his head. His wife once told me that there were many nights, after ‘Mitch’ went to bed, when he would awaken from his sleep and appear to brush the bedclothes as he made efforts to clear away the fairies from his bed. “Get out of here!” he would shout at them. “You shouldn’t be in here and, ‘Christ’ what time is this for you to begin playing those damned pipes? Get out and let me sleep, for I am completely knackered.” But, if they did not go away immediately he would shout at them again. The only noise that ‘Mitch’s’ wife could hear, however, came from her husband.
“Now, if you go away and leave me in peace to sleep, then I will give you a wee surprise tomorrow,” he would try to sweeten them. “I will get the wife to make a big rice pudding and we will share it between us. You know you love rice pudding and, if you do what I ask, you will be licking the bottom of your bowl.“
Turning to his wife, who was now wide awake, he would sleepily tell her, “They are not bad wee men, darling. Look at them all leaving quietly except for ‘Old Red’ over there. You know, it’s the aches of his old age that makes him want to sleep in the same bed as myself.” His wife, of course, could see nothing and would angrily pout as her husband put his head down on the pillow again, pulled the bedclothes closer around him, and returned to a peaceful sleep. Mrs. Curran could not, unfortunately, do the same. When she was awakened it could take her an hour or more to get back to sleep again and, even then, there would only be an hour or two until she had to rise and prepare breakfast.
Just adjacent to the town’s boundary stood the house of Frankie McCann, where I had spent many happy nights with very close friends, playing cards. It was a comfortable, warm cottage in which the fire was never allowed to die in the hearth and the kettle was always on the boil. The far gable-end of the house from the entrance gate was partly built into a grass covered mound that was said by some to be a home to the fairy folk. For many of the townspeople, however, McCann’s house was not only a place for fairies, but it was said by them to be haunted by the spirits of unbaptised children that were buried on the southern side of the mound. The gossips said that none but the brave, the McCann family and unbelievers like me, dared to enter the property. It must be said, however, that in every way possible such rumours were nearly as good as a burglar alarm for keeping undesirables away.
Frankie’s child had been sickly baby since birth and even the doctor was not sure about exactly what was making her so sick. It was almost mid-summer, when fairies are at their most lively, that the child once again took a fever and began to cough harshly. One evening, around dark, we had gathered for a hand of cards in the house and we heard the strange sound of wood being sawed coming from the grassy mound. Puzzled by the noise we put our cards down on the table and decided that we would search for the source of the noise. On the mound, however, there were only white-thorn trees growing on the mound, and no local man in his right mind would even consider risking his life by sawing down one of those fairy trees. More puzzling to us was the fact that it was very late in the evening for any person to be sawing anything, which was also cause for concern.
There were seven or eight of us and we worked together to scour the entire property to find the source of the noise, but we found nothing. Other than ourselves we could find no other person, spirit or creature thereabouts. So, with nothing to be seen around the mound we returned to the house and sat down to resume our card game. But, we had no sooner sat down upon the chairs when the noise was heard once more, and this time it was much nearer to the house. We rushed from our seats into the darkness outside in the hope of catching the rascal off guard. Once again, however, we saw nothing untoward.
Several of us were standing together upon the grassy mound when we heard the sawing noise coming from a small hollow about one hundred yards from where we stood. Although the hollow was completely open to our view and we could hear the noise clearly, we could see no sign of a perpetrator. We moved closer to the hollow in the hope that we would finally discover who, or what, was making this strange noise. But, when we arrived at the hollow we could still hear the sawing noise, only now, added to this, there was the noise of nails being hammered into timber. It was now time, we decided, to send for ‘Mitch’ Curran’s assistance and we sent Tommy Bell to fetch him. Tommy’s task didn’t take him very long to complete and ‘Mitch’ was soon at our sides. As we expected, almost without hesitation, ‘Mitch’ announced the solution to our puzzle. He informed us, “It’s the fairies making the noise. I see them all and they are very busy.”
“But, what are they doing?” I asked him.
“They are building a coffin for a child,” he said almost in a whisper. “The body of the coffin is built and now they are finishing the lid.”
The breath rushed out of my body with the shock of what I had heard. My mind began to struggle to decide if what Mitch had said was true or not. Later, that very same evening the sickly child passed away and was grieved by the child’s loving parents. The next evening Frankie’s brother arrived at the house and, bringing a worktable outside, he began to construct a coffin for his niece. Those who heard the uncle working on this task at the back of the house agreed that the sawing and hammering sounds were exactly the same as those noises that were heard the previous night.
The ‘Mass Rock’ is a structure that is peculiar to Ireland. It is classified as “a rock or earth-fast boulder used as an altar or a stone-built altar used when Mass was being celebrated during Penal times (the 1690s to 1750s AD), though there are some examples which appear to have been used during the Cromwellian period (1650s AD). Some of these rocks/boulders may bear an inscribed cross” (The Archaeological Survey Database of the National Monuments Service for Ireland). They are, for the most part, located in isolated places, because such locations were especially sought so religious ceremonies, such as the Catholic Mass, could be celebrated by the faithful. Such rites had been prohibited as a result of Oliver Cromwell’s decimation of Ireland and the ‘Penal Laws’ enforced after William III’s victories at the Boyne and Limerick. Bishops were banished from Ireland and priests had to register with the authorities to preach, which made the practice of Roman catholicism both difficult and dangerous during these years with ‘Priest Hunters’ being employed to seek out and arrest unregistered priests.
In Irish, the name given to a ‘Mass Rock’ was Carraig an Aifrinn. Other names associated with sites where Mass was celebrated in Penal times include Clais an Aifrinn meaning ‘Mass Ravine’, Páirc an tSéipéil or ‘Chapel field’, Faill an Aifrinn or ‘Mass cliff’, Leaca na hAltora indicating a flat stone or rock altar, Cábán an Aifrinn or ‘Mass Cabin’, Cnocan na hAltorach meaning ‘small hill of the altar’ and Gleann an Aifrinn indicating a ‘Mass Glen’. In many instances, the ‘Mass Rock’ was a stone taken from a ruined church and relocated to an isolated rural area, and a simple cross was carved on top. Because the practice of the Roman Catholic Mass and other rites were illegal, the services were held at random times and places with the parishioners having to spread the word from neighbour to neighbour. By the late 17th century these rites of worship had been generally moved to thatched Mass houses, and the ‘Mass Rock’locations became used as places where the local faithful could make their devotions on the feast day of the patron saint of the parish.
In those dark days of the ‘Penal Laws’ and persecution, the ‘Mass Rocks’ were landmarks for the local Catholic community, but were hidden away from the prying eyes of the authorities and are, therefore, by their very nature, difficult to find. Nevertheless, In Ireland, the locations of these ‘Mass Rocks’ of the Catholic faith remain important religious and historical monuments that provide a tangible and experiential link to the Nation’s heritage and tradition. During his visit to Ireland in 1979, the Pope recognised the continuing importance of the ‘Mass Rock’ as a reminder of the past persecutions that the Irish people faced and, even today, the Mass continues to be celebrated at some of the ‘Mass Rocks’ that are spread throughout the country.
The ‘Penal Laws’ were imposed on the Roman Catholic population of Ireland by the ruling British during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The reformed Christian faith (Protestantism) was the established faith of those areas controlled by the British Crown and an effort was made to force the Irish Catholic majority to abandon their faith and replace it with the new reformed faith. as a result, the ‘Laws’ enacted against Catholicism were very restrictive and had a long and lasting effect on the daily life of Irish Catholics, which continues to this day. These restrictive laws included –
Restrictions on how children of Catholics were educated
Banning Catholics from holding public office or serving in the army
Expelling Catholic clergy from the country, or executing them
Taking the land and distributing it among British Lords
Dividing inherited land equally between children, to reduce land size held by individual Catholics
Excluding Catholics from voting
Catholics banned from inheriting Protestant land
A ban imposed on the celebration of the Catholic Mass.
In Ireland, the Catholic faith was banned by the English invaders under Cromwell’s leadership in 1649. With puritanical hatred, the churches were desecrated and closed, and a bounty of ten pounds was placed on the head of every priest. ‘Priest Hunters’ were employed to seek out and arrest Catholic priests, who were subsequently hung, drawn and quartered by the authorities. Moreover, any person caught hiding or giving sustenance to a priest would be hanged immediately. But the faith was strong among the Irish people, and Sunday was still the day when you were obliged to obey the word of God rather than the laws of the English government against what was seen as the ‘True Church’. Often rising from their beds in the middle of the night the family prepared themselves for a long, cold, silent walk in the darkness they would follow narrow, almost hidden trails towards mountains, forests, or bogland, where they would disappear from sight among thickets, trees, and bushes. In this hidden place Irish men, women, and children would kneel on the ground before a massive rock, while others would stand guard, watching for the approach of English troops. A curtain of sorts would be pulled around this makeshift altar, from behind which could be heard the voices of a man and a boy preparing to celebrate the Mass. On the altar would be placed a book, a tablecloth, wine, water, and bread, but none could see those making the preparations and, therefore, could not be forced to identify the person offering them the Eucharist.
Silence prevailed in the darkness with the cries of young children being muffled by the hands of their mothers, while the Mass continued. After the consecration, a line forms quietly behind a protruding rock near the sanctuary curtain. Each takes a turn kneeling on the cold stone, as a voice says, “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.” A hand reaches out from behind the veil and places a Communion Host on every tongue. The, After the reading of the Last Gospel, most scatter in different directions to escape detection. A few stay behind to have their confessions heard. Afterward, only a boy and a man remain, hiding any evidence of what occurred. With the man’s blessing, the youngster heads off into the woods. Finally, the man, his priest’s kit stowed safely under his arm, slips into the forest, disappearing like a thief in the night. Such places are scattered throughout Ireland and are often found hidden deep within lush, green forests in remote mountain areas. Ramblers and adventurers occasionally stumble across what appear to be ancient open-air amphitheaters that have been carved into the mountainside and are the remains of Penal Mass sites and represent the vicious persecution of Irish Catholics by English Protestants from 1536 to 1829, during which the Faith was outlawed and priests hunted down like criminals. It was in these places that the Mass was celebrated in secret for the faithful during several periods in Irish history. But it was at these Mass Rocks that the light of the Faith was kept lit, even in the darkest of times, and for many Irish people these sites still represent ‘Holy Ground’.
England’s long and torturous persecution of the Irish began when Pope Adrian IV bestowed Ireland on King Henry II in 1155 after the King promised to reform the Church there. Almost four-hundred years later King Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome and launched a terrible attack upon the Catholic Church under English control. In 1536 the Irish Parliament followed the Parliament in England by enacting the ‘Act of Supremacy’, which made Henry head of the Church and brought the Protestant Reformation to Ireland. Many of the Irish chieftains accepted this new situation, but the Catholic clergy and the majority of the ordinary people of Ireland rejected the ‘Act’. After Henry’s death and the succession of his son, Edward VI, the English Church began to attack the Catholic Faith in two main areas. Belief in ‘transubstantiation’ was declared a heresy and was punishable by death, and this attack upon the Holy Eucharist gave parliament courage to pass laws that would exterminate the Mass from England, and from Ireland. This assault, however, was interrupted with the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary, Henry’s daughter. It was a sign of hope when she came to the throne and repealed the ‘Act of Supremacy’ in 1554 and began punishing those who had spread the ‘heretical teachings’ of Protestantism throughout her kingdom.
Unfortunately, Mary’s reign was a short one and in 1558 she was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth. The ‘Act of Supremacy’ was reinstated and Queen Elizabeth was made Supreme Head of the Church in England. The great effort to make England a Protestant country continued, but all efforts to remove the religion and culture from Ireland was greatly resisted. Undeterred, the Queen commanded that the Irish be brought under control and submit to her authority, allowing the Protestant religion to replace the Catholic faith of the people. She was, furthermore, prepared to use the strongest measures to enforce her will, including the gibbet, the rack, the axe, and the sword. In 1560 the Parliament in Dublin was persuaded to pass the ‘act of Supremacy’, making Elizabeth head of the Irish Church, and the ‘Act of Uniformity’, abolishing the Mass. Any person that continued to accept the Pope’s claim to spiritual jurisdiction in Ireland was considered to be a traitor, and any priest that was caught saying Mass would equally receive severe punishment for their treachery. In addition, any Catholic who refused to attend the new Protestant services would be subject to severe financial penalties for their disobedience.
Elizabeth and her advisers were convinced that the surest way to eliminate the Mass from the religious life of the Irish was to eliminate the priests who served them. But, despite imprisoning, starving, torturing and executing these men, the English authorities could not stop the tide of new priests rushing to replace them from various seminaries established in Europe. Young Irish men wanting to train for the priesthood attended seminaries in France, Italy, and Spain that were specifically set up to provide priests for the persecuted Catholics of Ireland. In the knowledge that their lives would constantly be in grave danger, these men returned to Ireland. It was the zeal and determination of such men that brought them to the fore as leaders of the great ‘Counter-Reformation’ that would recover Ireland and other nations for the Catholic faith.
Those priests returning to Ireland now found an ‘underground’ network of supporters ready to assist and sustain them in their work. They hid the priests in their homes and provided them with all their materials needs. By using secret places and subterfuges these priests were able to offer the sacraments to the faithful in various private houses. However, there arose a need for places where the sacraments could be delivered to larger groups of people, and thus arose the use of Mass Rocks. Because of the continuing persecution of all Catholics, the banned sacraments would have to be celebrated outdoors on some remote mountainside or field. In secret, these places were prepared and the faithful were clandestinely notified of their location, where they would have their Confessions heard, celebrate Mass, and receive the Blessed Sacrament. The practice spread quickly throughout Ireland and almost every parish in Ireland can lay claim to a Mass Rock from these times, especially in Northern Ireland where the ‘Plantation’ of farmers took hold. As you can imagine, these secret locations varied. They were far from the main roads, hidden on rugged mountainsides, or in rough wooded glens, or even in noted landmarks like the ruins of forts, abbeys, and churches. Many locations were sited near streams so that no tracks would be left for the enemy to follow. At the same time, however, some locations were close to one another so that the priest and people could move during bad weather to give respite from the elements. There were some locations, also, that were hidden away in naturally formed grottoes, while nearby others were ‘holy wells’ that might be used for baptisms.
By the end of the sixteenth century, Protestantism had become the established religion of England. While, in Ireland, it was clear to the authorities that all their attempts to impose the new religion were a failure, because of the strength of local resistance. Queen Elizabeth was succeeded after her death by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England in 1603. Under the rule of James, and his son, Charles I, despite the latter’s efforts to seek toleration for Catholics, there was little improvement in the lives of Irish Catholics. But, after the defeat of English forces at the ‘Battle of Benburb’, the Irish people once again gained a taste of religious freedom and their ‘Mass Houses’ were tolerated and the priests were permitted to go about their business without hindrance. This, however, was only a brief respite and quickly ended when the rabidly anti-Catholic Puritans took control of the English government, and the subsequent arrival of Oliver Cromwell to Ireland in 1846 heralded the greatest onslaught yet on Irish Catholics. They were to be shown no mercy under Cromwell’s rule, with entire towns razed to the ground and populations massacred. There were entire areas of fertile Irish land confiscated and given to Cromwell’s soldiers, Protestant adventurers and farmers, and Cromwell’s stated aim was to ensure that there would be no Catholic Irish east of the Shannon River. He gave them the option of going “to Hell or to Connacht.” All Catholic clergy were ordered to leave Ireland and put to death if they refused alongside any who would give them shelter. As a result, it is said – “To such an extent was the persecution carried that Catholic churches were soon in ruins, a thousand priests driven into exile, and not a single bishop remained in Ireland but the old and helpless Bishop of Kilmore.” Again, the use of ‘Mass Rocks’ became common and the faithful kept watch for the approach of ‘Priest Hunters’ and English soldiers. there were occasions, however, when the soldiers came, catching the worshippers unawares as they prayed and slaughtered them, splattering the blood of men, women, and children across the makeshift altars.
When the ‘Williamite War’ in Ireland came to an end after the Battle of the Boyne in 1691, the subsequent ‘Treaty of Limerick’ promised Catholics the freedom to exercise their religion, but very soon afterward the Protestant Lords and lawmakers tore up these guarantees. They persuaded the King, William of Orange, that implementing a substantial number of anti-Catholic laws, known as the ‘Penal Laws’ were the only way to subdue the native Irish. Some of these laws have been outlined above and under their authority, the Catholic faith was banned and the priests exiled under pain of death. Life was not much better for the ordinary Catholic Irish who could not teach or attend Catholic schools and were excluded from serving in Parliament, the legal profession or the armed forces. They could not vote, carry arms, own a horse worth more than five pounds, and could not act as a guardian or marry a Protestant. More importantly, they could not acquire land or hold a mortgage, but if the wife or son of a Catholic should become Protestant all things changed in their favour.
There have been many thoughts about what purpose the ‘Penal Laws’ actually served. Some have argued that they were not intended to exterminate Catholicism but to neutralise them as a political threat to the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. Others have argued that their purpose was, in fact, to eliminate Catholicism from Ireland. Nevertheless, both parties agree that the ‘Laws’ failed in part because of the remarkable tenacity of the Catholic clergy and laity, and to the difficulties encountered in enforcing them over a period of time when sectarian passions grew and then fell away. It is my opinion, however, that the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland had intended for the ‘Laws’ to completely eradicate Catholicism but, because of the resistance encountered, were forced to settle for them being a support for their own power and privilege. Meanwhile, renewed oppression caused to adapt once again. ‘Mass Rocks’ became the centre of worship and, because they were denied official education, young Irish Catholics were taught literature and religion in secret hedge schools that were often taught by fugitive priests. At the same time, the Irish Catholic peasantry formed themselves into secret agrarian societies to protect themselves against the Protestant landlords and their punitive rents.
The people again attended the ‘Mass Rocks’ to receive the sacraments and have their faith sustained. Ordinations were also held in such places, despite the prohibitions, when Bishops with several other attendees laid hands on the priests to avoid the discovery of member of the Catholic episcopacy. These leaders of the Church would wander on foot, dressed in rough clothing that made them almost indiscernible from the peasantry among whom they lived, ate and slept in broken down turf cabins, or holes in the ground covered with turf roofs. Masses were now often confined to the secret ‘Mass Rocks’ in lonely valleys or the hidden places on the hillsides, and once again these places proved to be essential in sustaining the ‘old faith’ in Ireland. By 1730, the active persecution of Roman Catholics in Ireland had greatly decreased and it became clear, even to the most hardened Protestants in the land, that the ‘Penal Laws’ had been a total failure. In 1829 ‘Catholic Emancipation’ came to Ireland and the faithful were finally permitted to use their ‘Mass Houses’ without fear. But, even after emancipation, the ‘Mass Rocks’ continued as the main places to celebrate the sacraments because many of the major Protestant landlords refused to allow Catholic churches to be built on their property. Interestingly, ‘Mass Rocks’ are undergoing a bit of a revival as people visit them as a place of pilgrimage and pray there for those men, women, and children who kept the faith alive in our beloved Ireland.
For any who would like to read more about this particular subject I would recommend ;
S.J. Connolly, Religion, law, and power: the making of Protestant Ireland, 1660–1760 (Oxford, 1992).
P. Corish, The Catholic community in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Dublin, 1981).
H.A. Jefferies, ‘The early penal days: Clogher under the administration of Hugh MacMahon (1701–1715)’, in H.A. Jefferies (ed.), History of the Diocese of Clogher (Dublin, 2005).
All over the island of Ireland there are ruins from past ages spread everywhere, which give us all a wonderful insight into the mysterious lives of our ancestors who built these monumental structures. There are few of these structures, however, that are more remarkable than the round towers that are found in almost every historically renowned locality. At one time there were a great number of these towers, but some were destroyed by the ravages of time, some of them were used as convenient sources of ready shaped stone, and some suffered from the intentional destruction carried out by intolerant or thoughtless people. Whatever the reason for their demise, these structures have gradually disappeared from the landscape until only about eighty remain, and out of these less than twenty-per-cent are in almost perfect condition. The remaining towers exist only in various stages of dilapidation.
The round towers stand at varying heights to each other. Those towers that remain in perfect, or near perfect, condition reach up to somewhere between seventy to two hundred feet in height, and their bases vary from eighty to thirty feet in diameter. The entrance into the towers themselves are usually twelve to eighteen feet from the ground, while inside the tower there are several stories, each averaging a height of about ten feet. Each of these stories illuminated by a single narrow window, with the highest level invariably having four slender pointed arched windows (Lancet Windows) which are open to the cardinal points of the compass. The roof of the tower is conical, made of overlapping stone slabs, and beneath the projecting cornice it is encircled by grotesquely carved heads and type of zig-zag ornamentation. The masonry is of granite stone, cut and chiselled into shape but, without the least regularity the size of the blocks. In one single round tower, some stones are very large, others small, and even more shaped into every geometrical shape known.
All the round towers that remain standing, as previously stated, occupy sites of special historical note. This could be considered as sufficient evidence to suggest that almost every historic spot in Ireland, at one time or another, could boast of being the site of one or more of these interesting structures. As further evidence of this can be added the fact that the existing towers are generally to be found close by the ruins of churches, abbeys, or other ecclesiastical buildings. The effect on the landscape of these massed ruins being surmounted by a single tall shaft is often picturesque, and almost a symbol of Ireland in tourist brochures. In fact, the proximity of the tower to the ecclesiastical ruin is so common, that many writers on Irish historical sites put forward the theory that the tower was built by the monks who had built the church. Many of those who advocate just such an origin of the round tower also put forward the theory that they were built, either as a place of safekeeping for valuable property, as a belfry for the church, or for the purpose of providing accommodation for the monks. But closer examination of these theories show that none are truly acceptable. In all the troubled ages of Ireland, and, unfortunately, they have not been few in number, the monasteries and ecclesiastical buildings of every description were generally spared. If this had not been the case, those monasteries, abbeys, and Cathedrals that possessed valuable property, which they wanted to hide from the most ruthless marauders, would not have advertised their wealth by erecting a tower. They would have been far more likely to seek out an inconspicuous hiding place for their treasures rather than erect a tower that was the most conspicuous feature of the landscape. These towers were not built to provide belfries, either. This is evident from the fact that, in almost every case, the nearby churches had been built with belltowers, which formed a part of the sacred building. This would not have been the case if the round towers had been conceived and built as a place in which to locate bells.
Moreover, that these towers were not built for providing hermit-cells is apparent from the fact that hermit-caves and cells are abundant throughout Ireland, and, almost without exception, they are to be found in secluded spots. There is nothing to suggest that, on occasion, some of the round towers were not adapted to each of these uses. But, in every case, the monks and church builders’ only reason to change the use of an existing structure was to meet an urgent need. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that these round towers were not built by the monks at all. It is a well-known fact that Irish monks were fond of writing and they recorded, in detail, every action of their daily life and, to date, there is no passage in which they record the building of a round tower. Whenever church historians make a reference to these structures, even those who mention the raising of churches at the foot of a round tower, they demonstrate that quite clearly that the tower pre-dates the introduction of Christianity into Ireland. Most historians in Ireland agree that the round towers were pagan constructions, and that they are so old that they even precede written history in this land. There is no doubt that the early people of Ireland worshipped fire and the sun, and this fact alone gives us many reasons to believe that the round towers were built by the Druids for purposes of religion. Every tower has an extensive view to the East, which gives the observer and excellent early sight of the rising sun, with the dawn being the favourite hour for celebrating sun-worship. Furthermore, every tower has, at its base, the remnants of an extraordinary quantity of ashes and embers that suggest that, in each of these towers, a sacred or perpetual fire was kept burning. Adding to this evidence is, that in every locality where a round tower stands, there still exists among local folklore and traditions suggestions that these structures were for sacred use, but not Christian. Among these traditions are indications of their former use as places sacred to sun and fire-worship, namely the names by which they commonly known among the local people. The generic Irish name for the round tower is Colcagh, ‘Fire-God’, but the proper names designating individual towers are still more characteristic. E.g. Turaghan, the ‘Tower of Fire’; Aidhne, the ‘Circle of Fire’; Aghadoe, the ‘Field of Fire’; Teghadoe, the ‘Fire House’; Arddoe, the ‘Height of Fire’; Kennegh, the ‘Chief Fire’; Lusk, the ‘Flame’; Fertagh, the ‘Burial Fire Tower’; Fertagh na Guara, the ‘Burial Fire Tower of the Fire Worshippers’; Gall-Ti-mor, the ‘Flame of the Great Circle’; Gall-Baal, the ‘Flame of the Community’; Baal-Tinne, the ‘Fire of the Community’, and many similar names, retain the memory and worship of the Druids when no written records have been left to us. In addition to such important information the names of the hills, mountains, or islands on which the towers are situated have designations that refer either to the circle, a favourite and sacred figure in Druidical holy places, or to the sun or fire worship. Yet another curious circumstance strengthening the round tower’s relationship to the rites of sun worship, can be found in the fact that wherever this form of religion held sway, it has been accompanied by well or spring worship, and, generally, by the veneration of the ox as a sacred animal. Close to most of the Irish round towers there are springs or wells, which are still regarded as being holy. Of these places many tales are told of miraculous cures, while in many places there remains, in the same neighbourhoods, legends concerning sacred cows that were usually the property of some famous local saint or hero.
The round towers of Ireland are, in fact, only a part of a vast system of towers of identical construction. If you follow the geographical locations of these structures, you will find the advance of fire worship from the East may be accurately tracked. If you travel from Ireland to Brittany, in France, you will see, in the mountainous or hilly districts, several towers that exactly like those of Ireland. In the north of Spain several remain, while in Portugal, there is one, and in the south of Spain there are numerous similar towers. Cross from Spain to north of Africa and you will discover that there are numerous towers, which are to be found in such places as Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli. Meanwhile, in Sardinia, several hundred are still standing; and written testimony as to their original purpose abundant among the Sardinian records and are readily available. In Minorca, among the Balearic Isles, is the famous Tower of Allaior, and the mountain districts of southern Italy, as well as Sicily’s hills, contain numbers of them. Malta has the Giant’s Tower, which in its appearance and construction is identical with the ‘Tower of Cashel’ in Ireland. Cyprus has several, and they remain on the coast of Asia Minor. In Palestine none have yet been found, which might indicate just how the Hebrews of old destroyed every vestige of Canaanite idolatry. But it is probable that the “high places” broken down may have been towers of the sun, for the Canaanites were fire worshippers, and the name Baal is found in Palestine and in Ireland. In Armenia, and in the Caucasus, they are so numerous that they seem to crown almost every hilltop. But, returning to the Mediterranean shores, we mentioned their existence on the northern coast of Africa, while in Arabia and on the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea, they stand in considerable numbers. They are to be found in Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, and Sumatra, where, in some places they are apparently still used for fire worship. Throughout this vast extent of territory there is no material difference in the shape, appearance, or construction of the round tower. In Sumatra and Java, as in Ireland, the door is elevated, and the building divided into stories. The walls are constructed of many-sided hewn stones, the upper story is lighted by four windows looking to the cardinal points, the cornice has the same kind of zigzag ornamentation, and the roof is constructed in the same manner, with overlapping stones. Even the names of these structures are nearly the same, for in India and Ireland these buildings are Fire-Towers, Fire-Circles, or Sun-Houses. Yet, another bit of circumstantial evidence that goes to prove that the round towers of Ireland were erected by a people who had the same religion, and similar religious observances, as the natives of India is apparent in the legends around Indian towers. In India, the local traditions tell how each of these towers was built in one night by some notable character who was afterwards buried in it. In Ireland, the same legend is also found, while the local folklore tells us the tower was built overnight. The ‘Tower Tulloherin’, for instance, was allegedly built in one night by a monk who came to the neighbourhood as a missionary. But, finding the local people inhospitable, and unwilling to give him lodging for the night, he decided he would remain since there was no place in Ireland that was in more need of his missionary work. So, on the evening he arrived, he began to build the tower, and by morning it was finished. In that place he the monk now set up his residence and began to preach to the crowds of people attracted by the wide-spread fame of the miracle. The story of the Tower of Aghagower is similar, except that the saint in this case was aided by angels. Kilmackduagh, on the other hand, was built in one night by angels without human assistance, the work being undertaken after the pleas of a saint, who watched and prayed while the angels toiled. Ballygaddy’s history is somewhat different in that the local folklore attributes its origin to a local “giant” who, having received a challenge from another “giant,” decided to take his stand on Ballygaddy hill to watch for the coming of his enemy, declaring that he was ready, “to beat the head off the bragging blackguard if he was to say as much as Boo.” It is said that he stood upon that hill for seven days and nights, at the end of which time, “his legs were that tired he thought they’d drop off him.” To rest those legs, the giant raised the tower as a means of support. The challenger finally came to the site and the story says that the tower-building giant “didn’t leave a whole bone in the blackguard’s ugly body.” When the battle was over, the winner began to dismantle the tower, but stopped and decided that he would put a roof on it and “leave it as a memorial to himself that those mortals who followed him would wonder at. The Tower of Ardpatrick was, according to tradition, built under the auspices of Ireland’s great saint, while the high tower on the Rock of Cashel is attributed, by the same authority to Cormac Macarthy. He was the king and archbishop of Cashel, who, being at war with a neighbouring potentate, needed a watchtower. The entire tribe was summoned and, working together, they managed to build the tower in a single, and, at sunrise, Cormac was able by its help to ascertain the whereabouts of the opposing army, allowing him to inflict an overwhelming defeat of the enemy. Meanwhile, the Glendalough Tower is reputed to have been built by a demon, at the command of Saint Kevin. In a previous encounter with the saint, Satan had been soundly defeated and from that moment he and all his well-informed subjects kept at a safe distance from Glendalough. Although all of Satan’s regular followers did not want to risk another encounter with Kevin, there was one cunning snake of a devil, who had come from foreign parts and had not heard anything about the saint. One evening he was caught by the blessed saint, who immediately set him to work in building that tower. So, under the watchful gaze of the saint, the rogue went to work as hard as he knew how and was as busy as an ant. He was certain that before sunrise he would have the tower built so high that it would collapse by itself. But Kevin had beaten Satan himself, and was not about to be fooled by one of his underlings. He kept his two eyes on the devil every minute of the day, so when he felt that the devil had the tower built high enough, he threw his bishop’s cap at it, and it became stone to make a roof, so making a fool of the devil. The round tower, however, is not without a touch of romance. One of the most notable of these structures, Monasterboice, is said to have been built by a woman under peculiar circumstances. According to the legend, this woman was young, beautiful, and good of heart. Although she should have been happy also, she was not, because she was persecuted by the attentions of a suitor chieftain. This suitor’s reputation must have been far from irreproachable, since he was said by the storytellers to be an outrageously disgraceful villain, or a smooth-talking deceiving, murdering villain. The young woman loved another chieftain who was of good character, and she was determined to escape from the attentions of the villainous one, having learned that he was determined to carry her off. She employed two men to help her escape, the night before the proposed abduction, and, before morning they had built the tower allowing her to take refuge in the uppermost chamber. As expected, the villainous chieftain came with his gang of thieves, but was disappointed in his efforts to seize the woman and steal away her virtue, and he was left to besiege the tower. But, having taken the precaution to provide herself with a good supply of heavy stones, the lady pelted her besiegers vigorously, cracking their thick skulls as if they were just eggshells. Her bravery was quickly rewarded by her lover who, when he heard of her desperate situation, came to her relief and attacked the besiegers of the tower. With the lady throwing stones at the front of them, and her lover’s group attacking them from behind, the wicked chieftain became scared that they would be trapped, and so they scattered so quickly that you would have thought there was a thousand devils after them. So, the lady was saved and was able to descend the tower into the arms of her lover, and the young couple were married the next Sunday. This is the way that the tower came to be built and demonstrates that those who try to win a lady against her will always come off worse. For you can be sure if she cannot beat such people with her tongue, she will always find some other way to beat them. Be sure of one thing, a woman can always get what she’s after, and there’s many a man who has discovered the truth of that.
Throughout the world, there are tales of Shamans; Medicine Men; Witch Doctors; Faith Healers; Quacks; Bone-Setters who are known to the people of their district for having cures for a wide variety of ailments, hurts, and diseases. t was no different in the Ireland of bygone years, when the majority of the population were poor, peasantry who could not afford proper medical assistance and depended on such people as these to aid them in their need. There were certain women, often called ‘Wise Women’ who had no education but were able to work their charms to help those who were ill. By some means, natural or mysterious, they had discovered the healing power contained within certain plants. In an island of green fields, woodlands, mountains, and lakes they knew the plants and herbs that gave some relief to every part of the body, both internally and externally.
There were tales that these healers had lived among the fairy folk or other strange unearthly people from whom they had learned their magic charms. Some even specialised in their area of expertise and became known as Fairy Doctors, Cow Doctors, and Horse Doctors, each one being educated by the unseen spirits in their own Irish language. Their success in the different districts in which they worked made some famous all over the whole island as their reputations grew and people sought them out in their desperation. Not all of these healers could cure all the ailments that people had, but there were a few who could almost do the impossible and became famous for their cures, especially those who succeeded in healing a patient whom the medical doctors had failed. Some healers were acclaimed by a superstitious people to be able to bring back the dead with the ‘Slanlus’ and the ‘Garblus’ which were the same herbs that revived the Lord after his death on the Cross.
‘Slanlus’, a ‘Ribwort Plantain’, which is a perennial weed with almost worldwide distribution and grow aggressively. The leaves would be plucked fresh, cut, chewed up and applied to the sore. Apparently, it was known to prevent blood poisoning and encourage healing. ‘Garblus’, better known to us as the ‘Dandelion’ was considered as being able to cure the world … “and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that were with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not one could be got to pierce His heart till a dark man came and said, “Give me the spear, and I’ll do it,” and the blood that sprang out, touched his eyes and they got their sight.
And it was after that, His Mother and Mary and Joseph gathered their herbs and cured His wounds. These are the best of the herbs, but they are all good, and there isn’t one among them but would cure seven diseases. I’m all the days of my life gathering them, and I know them all, but it isn’t easy to make them out. Sunday evening is the best time to get them, and I was never interfered with. Seven “Hail Marys,” I say when I’m gathering them, and I pray to our Lord and to St. Joseph and St. Colman. And there may be some watching me, but they never meddled with me at all.”Lady Augusta Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920).
There were also healers who were known to have cures for cattle and other animals, as well as cures for human being diseases and injuries. There were those, like many today, who claimed that they have the cure for a bald-head and can make hair grow on any skin irrespective of age. Below is a shortlist of ailments and some of the cures suggested for them, quite a few of which are still in use today.
Jaundice – “Jaundice” itself is not a disease, but a medical term that describes yellowing of the skin and eyes. Although it isn’t a disease, Jaundice is a symptom of several possible underlying illnesses, many of which are serious and can lead to death if untreated. It is formed there is too much bilirubin in a person’s system, Bilirubin being a yellow pigment created by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. In normal circumstances the liver would rid the body bilirubin along with old red blood cells, exhibiting Jaundice may indicate a serious problem with the function of your red blood cells, liver, gallbladder, or pancreas, caused by such things as Hepatitis; Cancer; Anaemia; Liver Failure; etc.
Modern medical advances have helped make Jaundice less severe than it used to be in times when it was not known what it indicated. There were several holistic cures practiced by the Healers in Ireland, one of which was made from a weed (Chickweed), the seedless plant and not the female variety. The weed was pounded into a pulp to extract the juice, which was then boiled in stout and sweetened with sugar. The resulting mixture was then squeezed, strained and given to the patient, and was said to be a sure remedy. It doesn’t sound to be a particularly pleasant concoction for a person to drink but, maybe, not as much as some other remedies that were used. One other remedy required ten snails to be boiled in a cup of water until they disappeared, and the cup was then strained and given to the affected person to drink. Some patients were even encouraged to drink their own urine, which was made sweet with sugar and lemon juice and was said to cure the sufferer when other remedies failed them.
Whooping Cough – We all know the dangers to children who suffer from whooping cough, or ‘Chin-cough’ as it was once know in Ireland. Before vaccination and modern medicines helped reduce the instance of this terrible child disease, it was a major cause of infant mortality and was not unknown to visit the older people of a community. The Healers in Ireland used a small white flower shaped like a chalice, which was known as ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Chalice’, or ‘Lady of the Valley’, which was boiled in milk. Another cure employed to relieve the suffering of the infected was heated asses milk, given to the patient to drink in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In some cases, the milk that a ferret leaves behind after it has eaten is heated and given to the patient to drink. A more strange cure for ‘Chin-cough’ was a hair from the tail of a white horse being boiled in milk, which is then given to the patient to drink. One tale spoke of a person in the house. where the sick person is, would see a man driving or riding a white horse and going to him would say, “Man with the white horse give me a cure, for the chin-cough” The man on the horse would then give the hair from the horse’s tail to be boiled in milk, or Poitin.
Warts – Warts are one of those things that can plague both humans and animals. I have heard of one remedy for warts in animals that was said never to fail, and the truth of that statement is in the story that the ‘Wise-Woman’ was visited by ailing animals being brought to her from all parts. The remedy that she is said to have used for curing warts in animals was said to contain the following ingredients i.e. 1 oz Tincture of Spanish Fly; 3.5 ozs Compounded Camphor Liniment; 3.5 ozs Soap Liniment; and a bit of soot which was said to thicken the mixture. The accuracy of this prescription cannot be vouched for and this may have been only some of the ingredients required.
Warts on human beings is a widespread ailment which, I would say 90% of us have suffered, and used modern treatments to have them removed or medically burned off. In the days of the healers, when these modern medicines were unknown, people were told to acquire a black snail and stick it on a thorn from the Whitethorn Bush (‘Fairy Tree’) and the wart subsequently rubbed against the same snail each morning, for nine mornings, before breaking their fast. It was said that as a result, the wart would fade away as the snail withered on the thorns. A less gruesome remedy, however, called for warts to have ‘fasting spit’ rubbed upon them each morning for nine mornings and this would cure them.
Some patients were told to carry a bag of stones, one for each wart, which was then thrown one by one over the shoulder in the hope that the warts would be passed on to the finder of the stones and removed from the sufferer. Another stone, known as ‘Bluestone’ is considered to be a cure. “Bluestone” is a cultural name often given to a number of building stone varieties, including limestone, which is quarried in Counties Carlow, Galway, and Kilkenny. This was also considered a cure for ‘wildfire’ on the lips.
Some of the other old prescriptions for warts included the patient carrying dampened Washing Soda in a pocket and then, rubbed on the wart several times a daily. There was also the scrapings from the inside of an Oyster Shell mixed into a paste and applied to warts. In the same way, the juice from the stems of a ‘Dandelion’ should be smeared on the wart daily. It was also said that if you were journeying someplace and, by chance, came across a small hollow in a limestone block that is filled with water then the wart should be bathed in that water at least three times, and it will fall away. There was also the tradition of rubbing a piece of bacon on the wart, which is then taken from the house and placed under a stone. In a few days, the patient would do the same thing, followed a few days after that by a similar action, then the wart was said to vanish when the bacon had gone.
‘The Spool of the Breast’ – The spool is a bone which is found under the middle – rib of a person’s chest, and it can be displaced by overexerting yourself or straining yourself by lifting heavy weights at the front of the body, causing the spool to fall down on the stomach. It was said that the raising of the spool of the breast was a cure peculiar to the local bonesetter. People become very weak and unable to work when their spool falls, and the bone-setter is immediately called. It was a complaint that affected people both young and old, and the ‘Bonesetter’ raises the spool of the breast by using his fingers in a specific manner, which took at least five minutes to complete. During the ‘operation’ the patient would sit in a chair and would often faint during the procedure. On occasion, the ‘Bone-setter’ would raise the spool of the breast using a lighted candle or cup, although I am personally unsure of how this procedure was carried out. Although these operations were continuing in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical fraternity gave no credit to the cure much as they do today with holistic medicine. There have been, incidents when sufferers were sent to the hospital and x-rayed, and doctors could not cure it. But, the local ‘Bone-setter’ was successful where the doctor failed.
Chilblains and Corns – Chilblains are small, but itchy swellings on the skin which arise as a reaction to cold temperatures, and they most commonly affect the extremities of the body e.g. toes. One common cure prescribed by the local healers was to rub in the affected areas a mixture made from salt and lemon juice, or rubbing in Paraffin Oil. Other remedies used included measures of whiskey or Poiteen briskly rubbed into the areas affected. Also, at this time, it was widely held that unsalted butter was good for both chilblains and rashes of the body. Local tradition, in fact. said that unsalted butter was a great cure for anything, even on the outside of the body, while a drop of good, hot poiteen was a cure for the flu or any ailment of the body’s interior.
Corns, much as they are today, were a regular and common ailment among people, on all areas of their feet. For Corns that appeared on the soles of the feet, people were told that they should wear insoles with holes cut in them where the corns are. But a common remedy for Corns that was employed in these days was the use of ‘Comfry’, which is a weed-like ‘Docken.’ This plant was cut fresh and the root was washed in clean water. The plant would then be pulped into a paste and, when cold, applied to the area in a cloth bandage and prevents them from becoming inflamed. As a first resort, however, some would be told that they should walk in their bare feet through the bog, assured that this would cause the corns to fall out.
Sore Back, Sore Head, and Sore Throat – It was common for the healers to make an embrocation that could be used on a sore-back. I have heard that the following is a recipe for just such an embrocation, but I cannot guarantee that this is complete – Mix one noggin of Whiskey/Poitin; One noggin of Turpentine; One noggin of Vinegar; The white of two eggs; one pound of ‘Castile’ Soap; 60 grains of Sulphur Zinc; 120 grains of ‘Sugar Lead’. I have also read that some people would go to a local (monastic) graveyard and entered through a hole in the wall and went out again through another hole in the wall to cure the pain in their back. In fact, it is told that certain men came to rob the monastery at one time and they were immediately struck dead and turned to stones. it is said that these stones are still to be seen, standing up in the field, just outside the graveyard wall at ‘Tempaill Mologga’ near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
For those who suffered a sore head or headache, the remedy was to use a ribbon around the head. This was no ordinary ribbon, but one that was put out on a window sill, or in the open air, on Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast day. The faithful believed that the ribbon grew in length during the night and was empowered by the Irish Saint. However, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the best cure for a headache was known to be the melting of ‘Aspirin’ tablets in a cup of water, which would be subsequently used as a and gargle it in your throat.
Of course, there were occasions when people developed a sore throat, and the recommended cure was the wrapping of your stocking around the throat at night time. In extreme cases, however, it was recommended by healers that a piece of fat bacon be roasted on a fork and then placed in a flannel that would be held against the throat as hot as it possibly could be. Another cure that was widely recommended for curing a sore throat was to put some bread soda into a cup of water, stir it and drink. Now, Mumps in those days was much more serious than it is today and healers often recommended putting warmed salt into a stocking, which would be tied around the patient’s neck. It was also used as a means of relieving the pain of Neuralgia.
One particularly odd cure was used occasionally to cure a child’s sore mouth, which was to permit an old man, who was fasting, to blow into the affected mouth.
St. Anthony’s Fire and Ringworm – ‘Erysipelas’ is a bacterial infection of the skin that typically involves the lymphatic system. It is, however, also known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, which accurately describes the very real fiery intensity felt by sufferers of the rash. To cure the affliction healers were told that blood should be drawn from an old man’s finger and rubbed it into the sore. Another clue was said to be to write the afflicted person’s name around the spot on the face. This was also known to be a cure for ‘Ringworm’, a disease which grows in the form of a ring and usually appears on the head of an infected person, causing that patient’s hair to fall off and the skin rots away. It was traditionally known that the ‘Seventh Son’ had a cure for this nasty ailment, and there is a story in Mayo about a man from Newport who had the cure for ringworm. It is reported that he cured a boy in the district after the young man had spent a while in Castlebar hospital, and was sent home because the doctors could not cure him. Those who have seen the cure in practice tell that the seventh son simply rubs his hand on the earth before placing his hands over the ring-worm. there is testimony that states the ring-worm gradually disappears, but the hair will rarely ever grow on that spot afterward. The mysterious thing about this all is that tradition tells us that when the seventh son is born a worm must be put into his hand, and if he possesses the cure then the worm dies.
Stomach Complaints and the Fear a Gorta – Everyone of us has suffered from a stomach complaint of one kind or another and have taken antacids, Epsom Salts, laxatives, and even warm milk with sugar to help us get some relief. Prior to the outbreak of World War One, however, ‘Flummery’ was an article of food that was in common use in Ireland. When a farmer used to take his crop of oats to be ground in the mill, he also brought home with him the bran and pollen of the oat grains. It was from these that he would make a drink, which was called ‘Shearings’. This was said to be a cool thirst-quenching drink, which when boiled became ‘Flummery’, a thick, jelly-like food that was brownish in colour. It was said to be a little sour to taste and some people would add sugar to sweeten it. However, this was considered a good cure for indigestion and provided a great pick-me-up for those who took it. Others swore by the curative properties of Buttermilk with regard to the stomach, and hot buttermilk was often taken by those suffering from a cold. Wild garlic was picked by healers and boiled in milk, or eaten raw to cure colic.
But when it came to stomach complaints the superstitious peasants also feared the approach of the ‘Fear a Gorta’, the sudden and terrible feeling of hunger that was said to overcome a person who passed over a place where some poor person who had died during the famine was buried. The traditional remedy for this was a handful of oaten meal, and a farl of the oaten-meal cake was carried by many people in those days when they went on a journey, to cure the ‘fear a gorta’ if they were unfortunate enough to get it.
Minor Hurts – People are always vulnerable to picking up a variety of minor injuries and complaints. For skin complaints like pimples, people were often prescribed oatmeal powder to be put in the water the person washed with, while for a scratch on the skin-bone the cure was said to be the person’s own ‘fasting spit’ spread upon it. If someone was suffering from a sore ear they would be advised to take a piece of cotton with some home-made ointment put on it and placed into the ear for a cure. Other more odd-sounding cures were those like a ‘Dog’s Lick’ is a cure for a running sore or the sting of a nettle being used to cure rheumatism, and the pumping of a cow’s udder to help cure a fever. When it came to cows, should they take ‘the staggers’ the farmer would cut the cow’s ear and bleed it as a cure to make the ‘staggers’ leave.
Stranger still was the cure for toothache recommended to some sufferers that called on them to visit a graveyard at night to acquire a skull in which to collect water that the sufferer would then drink. A more common cure for a toothache, however, was to put a bottle of hot water under the jaw and go to bed. Similarly, warm water and salt were supposed to be good for styes in a person’s eyes, or they might be recommended to look through a widow’s golden wedding ring three times.
Many people, including myself, have suffered from in-growing nails and found it to be very painful. in my case, I was told that I should finely pare the middle of the nail and then cut straight across the top. It worked for me, but I didn’t realise that this was a cure that was also given to sufferers by the wise women and healers in bygone days. In the same way, I have been told that whiskey can be applied to an open wound since it acts just like iodine or another disinfectant, but did you know that scraped raw potato could be used on a burn to ease the pain, and a paste of bread-soda could be put to a scald? From my childhood, I always knew that a nose bleed could be stopped by using the age-old remedy of putting a cold object, such as a key or ice pack to the nape of the neck. As for a wound that is bleeding, in bygone days a clean cobweb would be applied to the wound to stop the bleeding, or the heart of a dock leaf was also used for the same purpose.
For Muscular Cramp, called ‘Taulagh’, the cure given was to tie a piece of dried eel skin tightly around the affected wrist. On occasion, an ordinary leather strap could be used on the wrist as a preventative measure, while another recommended cure was to tie a silk thread around the wrist that was affected. As for a sprained wrist or ankle, it was recommended the patient hold the injured part in a rushing stream of cold water and, afterward, tie it up in a spraining web got from a weaver.
An age-old remedy for boils, which I still recommend to people, is a poultice made from bread and salt, wrapped in a cloth or bandage and applied to the boil as hot as possible to draw out the contents. In a similar way, as in the treatment of Corns and Chilblains above, a plaster made from ‘comfrey’ roots was another method used for drawing and healing boils.
Those who suffer from weak, tired or sore eyes the recommended cure was to wash them in cold, clear water before going to bed while bathing with cold tea was said to be particularly good for relieving weak eyes, and honey was a popular remedy for sore eyes. On occasion, however, our eyes become scratchy or gravelly and the old cure for this condition was said to be the juice, or sap, from the Dandelion, which was commonly known as the ‘Pissy-Bed’. The use of water from a ‘Holy Well’ was also said to cure many things, including any eye trouble a person might have. there is a story told of a man whose trouble was threatening him with total blindness and was cured by washing his eyes in the water of the well. It is also said that a person who sees a trout in the well is guaranteed a cure, whatever the affliction they suffer may be.
Unfortunately, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘Rickets’ was the curse of the poorer and undernourished people, and in particular the children of the peasantry or urban poor. To cure them, the children would often have been sent to the local blacksmith for a cure, which involved holding the child over the anvil and, while drawing some blood, speaking some mysterious words.
Some of you might recognise old cures that are still used in the family, and others might write them all off as nonsense. let me say, however, the ones that I have used have invariably worked. There is one cure that I have not tried because I have only heard about it recently. The old cure for those people who had a weak heart was said to be Water-Cress, which is said to put a new heart in people. Suffering from congenital ischemic heart disease I have decided to start eating the posh Water-Cress sandwiches that always seem to make an appearance in the afternoon teas taken by the ‘quality’. I will certainly let you know how I progress with the recommended cure…..