Beggars

This is a tale of Famine Ireland in a time when a Viceroy of the British crown ruled in Dublin and the peasant Irish were dying because they could not afford to eat. They called it a famine but there was plenty of food under British control and they refused to release it to feed the millions that starved throughout Ireland. There were beggars in the towns trying to get enough to feed themselves and their children, but they were not wanted and great efforts were made to remove them. As far as the authorities were concerned it was better to have those starving people out of sight and out of mind.

In the towns the authorities used the offices of the ‘Poor-House’ and the police force to considerably reduce the presence of the Irish peasant beggars. But, in the countryside and remote mountain areas ‘the beggar’ had become and still remained an institution. The peasant beggars abhorred the very idea of the ‘Workhouse’ because of its slave conditions and lack of hygiene, brutal discipline, and backbreaking work. The British put such abhorrence by the peasantry as their inherent stubbornness. It was said they preferred any amount of suffering to confinement, enforced hygiene, and the discipline involved. But, what free man does not prefer the fresh air and freedom to choose, rather than the bars of a jail and being beaten into submission. The following gives a view of the Irish Catholic Peasantry of famine times as seen by those paid allegiance to the British Crown.

It is often reported in commentaries of the time that the Irish poor are indifferent to the basic comforts of life, preferring a more barbaric way of life. It was said that they love freedom, sleeping under a hedge or under the sky eating what and where they can. They were said to be like the dog that preferred freedom and getting the odd scrap of food, to the good feeding and luxurious living conditions of his tied-up friend.

A wretched old beggar woman, decrepit and barefoot, appeared on the front-door stepsbeggars 2 of a house that she was in the habit of visiting. Those who would give her money would try to convince her to enter the poorhouse for her own good, but however delicately they approached the subject the old woman would reject any suggestion of entering such a place.

“Now, Biddy, it is all very well to go about the place in summer, but in this bitter wintry weather, would you not be better to go where you would have a good bed and shelter, be warm, fed, and comfortably clothed. It can’t be good for you to be shivering with the cold in ragged clothes, and always hungry. Sure, why not try it only for a wee while, you know, until summer comes back? Go on, Biddy, why not try the poorhouse?”

“The poor house!” she cried out angrily. “Sure I’d rather die than go there! I’d rather lie down under the snow at the side of the road and die! But sure the neighbours will help me. There isn’t one that will refuse me a seat by their fireside, or a bed for the night, or maybe a bite and sup of an odd time. And you’re going to give me something yourself, my lady, darling, you are! Don’t I see it in your face? You’re going to bring out the dust of dry tea and the grain of sugar, and the couple of coppers to the poor old granny. Ah yes! And maybe the maids will have an old cast-off petticoat to throw to her, for to keep the life in her old carcase this perishing day.”

It must be said that before the famine of 1845, which brought about a change in the food of the Irish peasant, systematic begging was an annual custom. Potatoes were then the sole food of the peasant classes, and the farmers paid their labourers by allowances of potato-ground measuring a half or quarter acre, and with seed to till it. Money, therefore, was not very often circulated among the peasantry. There was usually and interval of some six weeks between the eating of the last of the old potatoes and the coming in of the new potatoes. This was known as “The Bitter Time” and there was always some privation and distress to be suffered. In such times entire families might leave their cabin, locking the door behind them, and be seen walking the country roads, while the father would go ‘harvesting’ or getting work where he could. As the family went along the roads, stopping at every cabin on their route, a few potatoes would be handed to them, depending upon the stock the donors held. Often, by nightfall, the bag carried on the mother’s back would have enough potatoes to provide a good meal for the family. By such means they continued to survive until the new potatoes were fit to dig. At that time the cabin-door would be unlocked, and plenty of food to eat was once again the order of the day.

In those days, as well as the present, the charity of the poor to the poor in Ireland is widespread and very touching. The people of our country are famed for their good-natured ways and kindly impulses. Moreover, they attach a superstitious, almost religious value to the blessing of the poor, with an equal dread of their curse. There is a story concerning a fatal instance of the latter feeling, which occurred many years ago near the city of Limerick.

A young man fell in love with a girl, but she did not return his affection, and plainly told him that it would be useless to persevere in his pursuit, because she could never care for him. He was broken-hearted by his failure and, fleeing the country, he went to America. The young man’s mother had lost her only son, her pride and joy, and her only support. Being a widow she was maddened with rage and despair at what had happened. The bereaved mother gathered her things and went straight from the ship to the young woman’s house. There she knelt down upon the threshold and, stretching her arms skyward, she called down Heaven’s vengeance on the young girl. With frantic movements she called down terrible curses upon the girl’s head.

By the broken heart of her son; by the widow’s hearth made desolate; by the days and nights of lonely misery before her, she cursed the girl! The young girl was totally appalled by the widow’s bitter words and was superstitiously convinced that her terrible curses would grievously affect her life. She never recovered from the terror and the shock to her nerves of this vindictive assault upon her. The young woman’s health went into a rapid decline, haunted by the old woman’s dreadful curses, and her death confirmed the popular belief in such things.

We can now return to our subject of beggars. Although the use of Indian-corn meal and griddle-bread as articles of food in place of the exclusive potato helped reduce annual begging migrations. The other factors brought into play were an increased wage and the payment of labour in cash instead of kind. The annual scene of beggars moving along the roads soon disappeared, but beggars were still to be found, especially in the tourist season when they would once again be as numerous as flies in summer, and equally troublesome.

Once there was a party of English clergymen visiting Killarney’s beautiful Lake District where they were pestered by beggars, as most travellers usually were. These reverend gentlemen had, for greater convenience, decided to wear less formal clothing, except for one who preferred to wear his clerical outfit, with all its adornments. But, his choice caused him to be mistaken by the local peasants as a Roman Catholic priest wherever he went. He was very startled in the town of Tralee, when a girl threw herself down on her knees before him in the muddy street to ask for his blessing. The abject obeisance of the people to their priests in those days was not a sight to which an English clergyman was accustomed. He did, however, soon become accustomed to the position and even used it for the benefit of the entire group. They were tormented on one occasion the crush and cries of a crowd of beggars who followed them, and the English clergyman stopped quite suddenly. Drawing a line across the road with his walking stick, the clergyman told the followers, “Pass that mark, and the curse of the priest will be upon you!” In an instant the entire crowd of beggars had fled.

On another occasion this same clergyman used what he had learned in the cause of humanity. The party were travelling by jaunting car and, as they travelled up a steep hill, the driver began flogging the horse unmercifully.

“My friend,” said the clergyman, addressing the driver, “Do you know what will happen to you, if you do that, when you go to the next world?”

“O no, your Reverence. And sure how could I know that? What is it now?” pulling off his hat and looking very frightened.

“You will be turned into a horse, and devils will be employed to flog you, just as you’re now flogging that poor beast of yours.”

“Ah, don’t, yer Reverence! Don’t say that now! For the love of God, sir, don’t! And I’ll promise on my two knees to give him the best of treatment from this onward, and never to lay the whip into him that way again.”

For those of you who have witnessed the beggars in towns, you will undoubtedly agree that their remarks are often very caustic. They also indulge in personalities in a way more witty than polite, when they are unsuccessful in their demands. A late but very well-known Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, was remarkable for having a peculiarly shaped and very ugly nose. On one occasion while resisting the pleas of a woman for “a ha’penny for the honour of the blessed Virgin,” she turned upon him. “May the Lord forgive you! And may He may preserve your eyesight, for truly you have a terrible bad nose for spectacles.”

Another spiteful old hag of a woman came at a well known member of the aristocracy for alms, after following him down the entire length of what is now O’Connell Street. The baronet had tender feet, which with several other infirmities caused him to walk not to gracefully. “You won’t give it, won’t you?’ the woman cried out in an angry whine. “Well then, God help the poor! And look now, if your heart was as soft as your feet, it wouldn’t be in vain we’d be asking for your charity this day.”

“That the ‘grace of God’ may never enter into your house but on parchment!” was the terse and bitter curse in which another old woman gave vent to her wrathful disappointment. She knew that all writs were written on parchment, and had probably learned the formula with which they commence from cruel experience, “Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen, &c.”

There is, of course, the story of Captain Chevely and his meeting with beggars in Mullingar. When he was about to be quartered with his troop of men in the town, he was told by a friend that the place was infested with beggars. He was also told that his predecessor, the commanding of the previous troop, had been greatly annoyed by them. Chevely listened attentively and resolved to take measures to deal with the problem. On the night of his arrival at the hotel he summoned the waiter and said, “I am reliably informed that you have a great many beggars in this town.”

“Yes sir! We certainly have,” replied the waiter.

“I wish to see them all of them, collected together under the windows of this hotel. Do you think that could be managed?”

“Yes, if you wish, sir,” said the man, with the usual waiter-like readiness to promise everything under the sun, albeit he was a little taken aback by so unusual a request.

“Very well, let them be all here to-morrow at twelve o’clock precisely.”

It was a motley assembly of rags and wretchedness that was presented beneath the hotel windows the next day. The news had spread like wild-fire, and from every lane and alley of the town they came crowding in. There was the blind, the lame, the maimed, the aged beggars, deformed, idiots, and the idle in all their varieties. Curiosity and greed were equally on their minds, and the excitement of the eager crowd may be imagined. Then, when the captain appeared on the hotel balcony, a breathless silence came over the crowd.

“Are you all here?” he asked, “every one?”

“Every mother’s son of us, if it pleases your honour, except for Blind Bess with her crippled son, and the General.”

“Then call Blind Bess and the General,” instructed the captain. “I want you all here.”

“Sure enough, here’s Bess,” cried a voice, as a large fat beggar in the shape of a blind woman, with a sturdy cripple strapped on her shoulders, came in a hurry.

“And here’s the ‘General’ driving like a mad man up the street. But sure your honour won’t give him anything—a gentleman that keeps his carriage!” shouted a joker in the crowd. Coming along the street was a dilapidated old hand-cart, being dragged by a girl. It was covered at top with a piece of tattered oil-cloth, and from a hole cut in the middle of this protruded the head of ‘the General’, on which sat what remained of an old cocked-hat. The shrivelled face of the old cripple was half covered with a grizzly beard, and his rheumy eyes peered helplessly about in a feeble stare.

“Now,” said the captain, “ladies and gentlemen”. At this there was a murmur in the crowd, especially among the females.

“Ah then, bless his darling face, it is him that has the civil tongue in him, and knows how to speak to the poor!”

There’s not a bit of pride in him. No more than in an unborn baby!

“Sure anyone would know he was good man, you just have to look at him! Isn’t it written upon his features?”

“He’s no old misery like the one that was here before him, that old bastard never gave a poor man as much as a dog would keep in his fist.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are, I am told, all assembled here. I have requested your attendance in order to state that I have given, for your benefit, one pound to the parson, and one pound to the priest of the parish. And I further inform you that during my stay in Mullingar, not a single farthing beyond these sums will I bestow on any one of you!”

A howl of disappointment arose from the assembly, but the captain did not wait to note the effect of his words. He disappeared into his room in time to be out of reach of the chorus of abuse, which his enraged audience hurled at him after they got over their first surprise over—his speech.

Curious Coincidences

Superstition is, and will probably remain, one of the major characteristics of the Irish people. One of the greatest sources of superstition, however, and one which has been the most productive of what are styled “well-founded and authenticated stories of supernatural occurrences,” is that ever changing ‘monster’ that is known in all its forms by the title of “Remarkable or Curious Coincidences.”

When events, which are precisely similar in detail, occur, they are considered coincidental. Some may consider them to be remarkable, given that these events are usually simple and ordinary. But, if these precisely similar events were repeated then they were considered to be a wonder. Quite recently, I was given an excellent example of this when I heard mention of a particularly curious coincidence having occurred not far from my home. It was the story of three men having been found drowned at various times during one winter season. Each body was found in the same river, at virtually the same place, and each wore two shirts. From that time it became a very strong belief among the locals that wearing two shirts was very unlucky.

Some people would suggest, however, that those people who would allow themselves to be guided by such beliefs would find their lives very burdensome. To be guided in their actions by these observations would require them to be in a state of constant alertness for the rest of their lives. The following story will, for instance, demonstrate the necessity of a person getting to know the names of fellow travellers, in case anyone with the name of Paddy Murphy be among them.

There was a time when the children in a large inland town rarely if ever saw the sea, unless they went on a day excursion organised by a local church group. In many of these seaside resorts enterprising persons often organise boat trips for fishing, sight-seeing, or simply for the experience of being on the open water. This was such in a resort that was, at one time, reachable by train from our home town. On one September morning a small pleasure boat with forty-one persons on board set out to travel down the Lough to the sea. It was a windy day, but not stormy enough to give any concern. When the boat reached the middle of the Lough the boat was overturned and only one man was saved. This fortunate man was called Paddy Murphy, a passenger on an excursion from m home town. Less than ten years after this incident a similar fate befell the twenty-five passengers aboard a small excursion craft. Again, only one man survived the incident, and he was called Paddy Murphy.

There are people who put a lot of credence in such coincidences, while others have belief in such things at all. Some people who have heard this story actually fear to trust their lives on any kind of boat with any man called Paddy Murphy. A little local knowledge and calm reflection, however, would go quite a way to removing such apprehensions. There are very few, if any, events in this life that cannot be traced back to natural causes.

The name of Murphy is very common in my home town, and Patrick, shortened to Paddy, is of course a favourite Christian name throughout all Ireland. There is every possibility, therefore, that persons with the name of Murphy, and very possibly even Paddy Murphy, were lost amongst the passengers on each of those occasions. But, the fact that people from the same town were on the excursions on each of those days appears to have been overlooked, while the coincidence of the individual saved on each occasion being of the same name was recorded. The events could have been simply accounted for by the ordinary rules of calculating odds or chances. Where the name of Paddy Murphy was common, there was certainly a greater chance of a person of that name being saved than one of any other, and, as has been remarked previously, no notice was taken of just how many Paddy Murphys had perished in these events.

© Jim Woods Nov. 2017 (www.irelandloreandtales.wordpress.com)

The Hurling Stick

This is a story that was related to me by a very old grand-aunt who lived in the heart of Connemara. As we sat by a blazing turf fire she told me that these things happened to a person who was very well-known to her, and so I have absolutely no reason to doubt a word of her tale. She lived all alone in a small, thatched and white-washed cottage , which stood on a lonely, narrow mountain road. Two fields to the rear was the two-storey farmhouse that belonged to the affluent and influential Meehan family. Tom Meehan was the head of that prosperous family, widely known and very much respected in the district. He was, moreover, recognised and famed as one of the finest hurlers that the County had ever produced.

Tom was very friendly to my old grand-aunt and many evenings he would stop by her cottage to see if she was keeping well. She had been a very good friend to Tom’s mother all her life, and Tom was going to make sure that she wouldn’t be too lonely in her old age. On those evenings when he called around to her cottage, he would tell her how the farm was progressing and keep her up to date about events among the neighbours. During the darker nights of autumn and winter, Tom would always ensure that the old woman had plenty of coal by the fire and a wee glass of whisky on her night stand as she would watch television.

The old woman would often share local folk tales and myths with Tom, constantly warning him about fraternising with the ‘Good People’, Leprechauns, and the various spirits that lurked about the mountain roads and forests. Tom, of course, was not the superstitious kind and would often laugh at her warnings, causing her some annoyance. Then, one bright, moonlit, autumn evening he was walking home, as usual, after spending the entire day in the fields. Following a well-travelled track Tom found himself walking through a small copse of trees and, in the distance he could hear excited voices. He followed the sound, which appeared to him to be coming from a field that sloped gently down from the edge of the trees. As he emerged silently from the shadows of the trees, Tom was surprised to see before him two teams of small men. They were dressed in different colours and playing a game of Hurling in the field, which was now brightly illuminated by the light from a full moon.

Hurling 2Tom stood among the tall trees and silently watched the game. As he watched he could not help but admire their prowess with their ‘Hurling sticks’ (Caman – pronounced ‘Cum-mon’), and he quickly came to the conclusion that these players were not ordinary men. From what he could see in that field, Tom was certain that these men were none other than ‘Good People’, who had often been described to him by my old grand-aunt. The quick and talented manner in which these men played the game totally captured Tom’s admiration, and he stood for a very long time just to see how the game progressed. Then, as the end of the match approached, Tom saw one of the men on the field trap the ball (Sliotar – Slit tar) in the air with his ‘caman’ and, as it dropped down, he stroked it so gracefully over the bar from the half way line. This was, without doubt, one of the best Hurling strokes that Tom had ever seen in his life. In his appreciation of the player’s move, Tom roared out a great shout of delight, causing the game to be stopped and all the players quickly turned toward the area from where the shout came.

There was silence for a moment until one of the players called out to om from the centre of the field. “Would you like to join in our game?” he asked. It was a surprising question because the player must have recognised that Tom was actually a mortal being.

Tom had often been warned about mixing with ‘Good People’  but the thought of playing hurling with such beings was too exciting to ignore. “I would,” he replied shyly, “but is there a place for me among you all? And if there is would I be good enough to join one of your teams?”

“There is room for one more player, which you can fill if you have a mind to,” came the reply as some of the other players laughed loudly at the prospect of a mortal being playing alongside them.

Tom became really excited at the prospect of playing hurling with ‘The Good People’, but he had no ‘caman’ of his own to play with, and he asked, “Would you have a hurley with which I can play a game?”

To his surprise, one of the little men reached to the ground for a spare ‘caman’ and handed it over to Tom. “Here,” he said, “This caman is made from the finest Ash and is one of the finest made, but  we will allow you to use it.”

Taking the hurling stick n his hand, Tom admired the comfortable grip of it in his hand and its balance in the swing. Never had he seen a hurling stick of its kind or finish, and he could hardly wait to join in the game with the others. Rolling up his shirt sleeves Tom took up his position in midfield just as the whistle blew shrilly in the evening air. Almost immediately the new caman appeared to help Tom play in a manner that he had never before experienced, and with his assistance the team that he had joined in the field won the game by a small margin. As they walked off the field the leader of the team came to him and told him, “You are a good player for a mortal! I suppose that now would be a good time to tell you who we are.” Tom nodded in agreement and he listened attentively as the small man explained, “We are called the ‘Good People’ in these lands and our home lies in that churchyard over yonder.” Tom watched as the team leader pointed toward an old church steeple in the distance. Then in an exceptionally friendly, almost secretive, manner he quietly continued, “But, let me tell you that we that we find ourselves to be in a great fix!”

“What sort of fix would that be?” Tom asked his new found companion.

“Well, the truth is that we have to play an important match against our greatest rivals in the next clan, and it all takes place a week from tonight. That is why we have been practising so hard lately. But, we have discovered recently that they have recruited the assistance of a mortal called ‘Red Mick Shea’.”

“Red Mick?” exclaimed Tom when he heard the name.

“Aye, and he is said to be the finest hurler in three counties. Do you think that you might be able to help us?”

“’Red Mick’ is one of the best alright,” Tom replied. “But, if I can have the same hurling stick then I will help you the best that I can.”

“You can have that caman, by all means,” the leader of the ‘good people’ agreed with delight and he immediately began to announce the arrival of their newest recruit to the team. “I think, boys, that we are now ready for all comers,” he called out and there were loud cheers from all those gathered on the field.

For the next seven days Tom could hardly contain his excitement at the prospects of playing in such a match. But, he could not tell anyone about the forthcoming match and made plans to get to the field without anyone knowing. A week from that very same night, boots in hand, Tom quietly crept out of the house without disturbing anyone. He had kept the secret of his great adventure, and his entire body shook with excitement as he headed out to play the game that he had promised the leader of the ‘good people’.

When Tom reached the same field, that he had played on the week before, he discovered that the two teams of ‘good people’ were already lined up and ready for the throw in. ‘Red Mick’ was at the ready on the half-back line and Tom saw him as he came on to the field of play and was handed the hurling stick. Tom took up his position within the team and the whistle sounded for the game to begin, followed by a great cheer from the spectators.

The sliotar was thrown into the centre and a great frenzy of players came together to try and take control of the game. Up and down the field the game swayed as first one team and then the other team gained superiority over the other. Hurling sticks clashed against each other, mixing their noise with the clap of leather balls being hit by the camans. The spectators watched closely as one moment Tom’s team dominated the play and, in the next moment, it was the rival team that appeared to be supreme. Score followed score, with very little between the two teams until, finally, the whistle blew loud to end the game. It was Tom’s team who had gained victory in the well-matched contest and there was great cheering and whoops of joy among the home crowd, whose team had               because of the victory.

The small man who had led ‘The Good People’ now came up to Tom, shook his hand warmly and told him, “We would like to thank you for all your efforts this day. If you would  just tell me what you would like to have for yourself  as a memento and, if it is in my power, you shall have it. Tell me then, is there anything?”

“To tell you all the truth,” smiled Tom and his eyes twinkled with joy. “I’ have taken a great fancy to that hurling stick that you loaned to me for the match, and that is all that I wish to have. That is, without doubt, the finest hurling stick I have ever played a game with. High Balls, Low Balls, and Fast Balls all came my way this night and I never missed one the entire game with that stick in my hand.”

“Now isn’t that the truth of it, Tom,” the leader replied. “You never missed even one ball during the entire match. But now, sadly, you have asked us for the one thing that is not within our power to grant you. The hurling stick, in our tradition, is the sole property of the fairy clan and no single one of us can just give one away to someone outside the clan. Especially to a mortal.”

The great disappointment that he felt at these words was immediately visible on Tom’s face. He believed that, after all, he had played a very significant role in the clan’s victory over their greatest rivals and now, despite his contribution to their victory, they had refused him the one simple prize that he felt he deserved. Still, he insisted, “But I must have it!”

“We are sorry, friend, but the hurling stick can never be yours,” Tom was told in no uncertain terms and it seemed that the discussion was at an end, as far as the ‘good people’ were concerned.

“I must,” insisted Tom, obstinately raising his voice and a tear rising in his eye with frustration. But this obstinacy only caused offence to some and an angry murmur began to arise among the good people. There  was division and a war of words now began, which developed into an almost muddle of loud, angry voices. Finally, still feeling that it was his due to have the hurling stick given to him, Tom slowly and silently walked off the field of play and grimly took the hurling stick with him.

Although it was not very far to his own home from the field, Tom almost immediately began to feel rather ill and nauseous as he walked off with the ‘caman’ in his hand. By the time that Tom had gotten to his own front door he was in a state of near collapse, and his family sent an emergency call for a doctor to attend to him. There was, however, nothing that any doctor could do for the unfortunate man. He lay motionless in his bed, weakening further day after day, and his wife cried as she solemnly asked him, “Is there anything at all that you need me to do for you, Tom?”

“Yes, my dear,” he answered her weakly. “There is a hurling stick  that is lying in the loft. Would you ever bring it down here for me and place it at the foot of the bed, where I can see it?”

“Of course I will, my dear,” Tom’s wife told him and she immediately set about fulfilling the task he had set her. From that very moment, every hour of every day that followed, Tom’s sickly condition appeared to worsen until everyone could finally see that there was little hope of  his recovery. As things became critical Tom’s wife came to his bedside and, holding his hand tenderly, she asked him, “Is there any last wishes that you would like us to carry out for you?”

By this time, the dying man could barely open his eyes to see his family, but he managed to turn to them and, in a very weak voice, Tom told them,”I want you to promise me just one thing.”

“Anything!” they answered.

“Will you all simply promise me that you will place that hurling stick by my side as I lie in my coffin, so that it will be buried with me?” he asked them.

They sadly agreed to do what they were asked and, when the time came, the family carried out Tom Meehan’s last wishes. The much prized hurling stick was subsequently buried with him in the Parish graveyard. But, even today, there are still some who say that Tom Meehan is still playing a great game of hurling, with that stick, in heaven and is still leaving his opponents completely astounded by his artistry.

Curious Coincidences

Superstition is, and will probably remain, one of the major characteristics of the Irish people. One of the greatest sources of superstition, however, and one which has been the most productive of what are styled “well-founded and authenticated stories of supernatural occurrences,” is that ever changing ‘monster’ that is known in all its forms by the title of “Remarkable or Curious Coincidences.”

When events, which are precisely similar in detail, occur, they are considered coincidental. Some may consider them to be remarkable, given that these events are usually simple and ordinary. But, if these precisely similar events were repeated then they were considered to be a wonder. Quite recently, I was given an excellent example of this when I heard mention of a particularly curious coincidence having occurred not far from my home. It was the story of three men having been found drowned at various times during one winter season. Each body was found in the same river, at virtually the same place, and each wore two shirts. From that time it became a very strong belief among the locals that wearing two shirts was very unlucky.

Some people would suggest, however, that those people who would allow themselves to be guided by such beliefs would find their lives very burdensome. To be guided in their actions by these observations would require them to be in a state of constant alertness for the rest of their lives. The following story will, for instance, demonstrate the necessity of a person getting to know the names of fellow travellers, in case anyone with the name of Paddy Murphy be among them.

craftThere was a time when the children in a large inland town rarely if ever saw the sea, unless they went on a day excursion organised by a local church group. In many of these seaside resorts enterprising persons often organise boat trips for fishing, sight-seeing, or simply for the experience of being on the open water. This was such in a resort that was, at one time, reachable by train from our home town. On one September morning a small pleasure boat with forty-one persons on board set out to travel down the Lough to the sea. It was a windy day, but not stormy enough to give any concern. When the boat reached the middle of the Lough the boat was overturned and only one man was saved. This fortunate man was called Paddy Murphy, a passenger on an excursion from m home town. Less than ten years after this incident a similar fate befell the twenty-five passengers aboard a small excursion craft. Again, only one man survived the incident, and he was called Paddy Murphy.

There are people who put a lot of credence in such coincidences, while others have no belief whatsoever in such things at all. Some people who have heard this story actually fear to trust their lives on any kind of boat with any man called Paddy Murphy. A little local knowledge and calm reflection, however, would go quite a way to removing such apprehensions. There are very few, if any, events in this life that cannot be traced back to natural causes.

The name of Murphy is very common in my home town, and Patrick, shortened to Paddy, is of course a favourite Christian name throughout all Ireland. There is every possibility, therefore, that persons with the name of Murphy, and very possibly even Paddy Murphy, were lost amongst the passengers on each of those occasions. But, the fact that people from the same town were on the excursions on each of those days appears to have been overlooked, while the coincidence of the individual saved on each occasion being of the same name was recorded. The events could have been simply accounted for by the ordinary rules of calculating odds or chances. Where the name of Paddy Murphy was common, there was certainly a greater chance of a person of that name being saved than one of any other, and, as has been remarked previously, no notice was taken of just how many Paddy Murphys had perished in these events.

Annie’s Wedding

Wedding CoupleMany years ago at Irish country weddings, the priest who celebrated Mass and conducted the marriage ceremony was paid through voluntary contributions made by the wedding guests. The marriage, in those days, was generally celebrated in the evening, and they were followed, especially among the farming community, by a grand feast, to which the priest was always invited. After the supper, when the stomachs of the company are filled with fine meats and vegetables, roast goose, ham, and whisky-punch, the collection box goes around.

Annie Malone was the prettiest girl in the entire parish, and the bridegroom was a lucky boy on his marriage day. On the day of the wedding, it must be said, the lucky young man looked very ill at ease in his stiff, shiny, brand-new, tight-fitting wedding suit. Nevertheless, in addition to her good looks, the bride brought with her a marriage dowry of money, and three fine cows. Their married life would have an excellent start to it.

Annie looked very pretty and modest as she sat beside the priest, the blushing bride wincing often at the priest’s jokes, which were normally not to be heard in the company of women. She looked very handsome in the white frock she was wearing, which was a many-skirted garment, adorned with bows and trimmings made from white satin ribbons. It had belonged to one of the daughters from the big house, and had been sold to Annie as ‘nearly new’. The maid who had sold the dress assured her that it had been created by the grandest French dressmaker in London, and it had only been worn at a couple of country balls. The daughters of the ‘big house’ were very particular about their garments and could not abide a crease, crush or even slight soiling of the cloth. Furthermore, wearing a dress twice at any social function was not to be tolerated among the upper classes.

It is common knowledge that a priest always has his eyes on future dues from his parishioners, and there is nowhere a priest is as good-humoured as he is at a wedding. This priest, Father Murphy, was in the middle of his humorous remarks, while apparently absorbed in paying attention to the pretty bride. Annie’s health had just been drunk in a steaming tumbler of whisky punch, and the priest was keeping his business on the assembly as preparations were being made for sending around them the plate for contributions to pay him. The stir of preparations began at the end of the table where the big and wealthy farmers were thickly gathered. They were a proud set of people, stood in their large, heavy dress-coats, all of which were well tailored. All dressed in beautiful white shirts, well pressed trousers, and shoes that shone bright in the light. At their side stood their beautifully attired wives and daughters in bright coloured silken clothes.

In the middle of this group stood Jim Ryan, who was a sworn friend and follower of Father Murphy. He would have gone through fire and water to serve the priest, and kept a close watch on the parish on his behalf. Ryan was a rather small man in the parish, possessing very little as far as worldly goods were concerned. But, though he had no land or farm, Jim Ryan was a highly popular man who was thought to have a dry sense of humour, which made him very good company. When the collection plate reached Ryan his actions brought great surprise to the eye of the priest, causing him to hesitate in the middle of a pretty compliment he was making to the bride.

Jim Ryan first took hold of the collecting plate, and it appeared as if he had chosen to carry it around the crowd. Then, as if suddenly surprised by some thought or other, he stopped himself, and slammed the plate down on the table with a loud clatter, and a crash that made Mrs Malone wince, for it was a plate from one of her best china sets. The next thing that Jim did was to search all of his pockets. His fingers dived into his waistcoat, his trousers, and his fancy overcoat pockets, searching one after another, but not seeming to find what he wanted.  Finally, after much hunting and shaking, and many facial expressions of disappointment, Jim took hold of the object he had been searching for. From some unseen place he carefully pulled a large and tattered leather wallet. By this time, as was his intention, everyone in the room had fixed their attention upon him. At this point he deliberately opened the wallet, and, after taking a sneaky look to ensure that those assembled were watching him, he took out from it a well folded bank-note. This note, when unfolded, was spread out and ostentatiously smoothed on the table, so that all who looked could see that had ‘’Ten Pounds’ inscribed upon it!

There were gasps of astonishment that spread through the wedding guests, and some expressions of dismay among the more wealthy of them. Fat pocket-books filled with notes,  that a few moments previously were being pompously produced by their owners, were now very stealthily put back into pockets again. A sudden pause was followed by a great whispering and consulting among the farmers. At this point there were anxious and meaningful looks given by the wives of the wealthier men-folk, along with expressive nudges, and digs into their ribs where practicable. There was, therefore, a good deal of rivalry between the wealthy couples as they bid for their position in the local social hierarchy. Mister Hennessy, who drove his family to mass every Sunday in his own pony and trap, would not be seen to give less than Mister Welsh, although he too was a decent man and always got the best price for his butter at local market. And now, the shame of being outdone by Jim Ryan had to be faced! To offer the priest five pounds, when the likes of Ryan was giving ten pounds! Such an eventuality could not be allowed to happen! Therefore, after Jim had put his ten-pound note on the plate with a bit of a flourish, and had gone his rounds with the plate, it turned out to be the largest collection that had ever gladdened the heart, or filled the pockets. of Father Murphy.

As the priest was leaving the house, Jim came up to him and put his arm on the priest’s shoulder. “I certainly did you a good turn this day, your Reverence, didn’t I? Such a collection of notes, silver coins, and coppers I have never laid eyes on before this! I thought the plate would be broken in two halves with the weight of it all. And now you can give my ten pound note back to me?” he whispered, while looking around to ensure no one could hear him.

“Your ten pound note, Jim! What do you mean? Is it that you want me to return to you a part of my dues?”

“Ah, now, my dear Father Murphy, surely you’re  not so innocent a man as to think that note was mine! Where, would the likes of a poor man such as I am get such an amount of money as that? Ten pounds! Sure, didn’t I borrow it, your Reverence, for a scheme I had in mind. And, I tell you that my scheme has turned out to be a mighty good and profitable one. Sure, I knew that the sight of that ten pound note would cause them to bring the money out of all their wallets.  And by God, so it did!”

This was something that the priest could not deny. With a large grin on his face he refunded Jim’s “bait” and added to it a few pounds worth of thanks. Needless to say, both men left the wedding very satisfied by the day’s events.

© Jim Woods November 2017

A Wake

IrishWake

It was a sad day when Tim Scanlan died. All his life he had been a labouring man, working hard in whatever work he could find, and receiving very little in remuneration for the effort he put in. But, Tim was well known and well liked in the district. Everyone agreed that his funeral would be an unusually large gathering and, most likely the biggest to be seen in many a year. Great crowds of people flocked to Tim’s wake, and there was a major effort undertaken to provide sufficient tea, cakes, sandwiches, whisky, beer, and tobacco for all who attended. As is common in these things, Tim’s widow occupied her post of honour at the head of the coffin, and gave an excellent display of grief for her dead husband. She wept bitterly on her own and, joined in loudly when the loud group wailing, or ‘keening’, was led by the older women. The widow was, however, young enough to have been the daughter of the dead husband. She had come to Tim’s house as a very young servant-girl, whom he had conveniently married and ruled over all these years past.

As the night wore on, the amount of whisky that had been drunk was beginning to tell on those wandering outside the room where Tim’s corpse lay. The crowd noise inside the house increased to a level where some began to complain that it was loud enough to wake the dead. Quite unexpectedly, and much to the consternation and amazement of every one present, the corpse gave a deep sigh and several loud groans, opened his eyes and struggled to bring himself up into a sitting posture in the coffin. When the startled company in the house had recovered from their shock, they helped lift poor Tim out of the coffin, and whisky was liberally poured down his throat. They wrapped Tim up well in warm blankets and helped to seat him in the big chair by the fire, where he gradually revived from the trance, or stupor, that had been mistaken for death. When the last of the guests had departed from the cabin, Tim, who was still propped up beside the fire, was left to the tender care of his wife. But, instead of coming near her husband, she chose to creep away quietly to cringe timidly in a dark corner behind his chair. From her hiding place she directed frightened glances at her husband, who had appeared to have been resurrected from death.

“Mary!” Tim called out to her in a stern voice. But, he did not get an answer.

“Are you there?” he asked as he peered around at her, his weak face quivering with anger.

“Yes, Tim, I’m here,” Mary’s voice faltered, but she did not stir an inch.

“’Bring me my stick”’

“Ah! No Tim! No! Sure you’ve never lifted your hand to me yet! And you’ll not do it now, surely, when you’ve come back from the dead in one piece.”

“Bring me my stick.”

The stick was brought to him, and down on her knees beside the big chair Tim’s cowering wife went. “Well you know what you deserve. You know, you young deceiver, that if I was to start this minute and beat you as black as a hearse, it would only serve you right, after the mean, dirty, and shameful thing you’ve done to me!”

“Aye, Tim! It’s true, it would!” sobbed the girl.

“Look at this!” gasped Tim, opening his funereal jacket to show an old and tattered shirt. “Just look at these rags! Look at what you dressed my poor corpse in, shaming me before all my neighbours and friends at the wake! And you knew, as well as I did, about the elegant brand-new shirt I’d bought to be buried in. It’s a special shirt that I wouldn’t have put on my back if I was still alive. No, not if I had to walk about naked! But, you knew that I had it stored in the chest there, and you begrudged it to my unfortunate corpse when I couldn’t speak up for myself!”

“Oh Tim, darling, forgive me!” cried Mary. “Forgive me this once, and on my two knees I promise that I will never, never do the likes of that again! I don’t know what came over me. Sure, may the good Lord save us, I think it was the devil who was guiding me when I went to get out that shirt. He tempted me, by whispering that it was a pity, and a sin, to put good clothing like that into the clay. Oh, how could I do it?”

“Now, listen to me, Mary,” said Tim as he raised the stick and laid it on her shoulder. She knew that he wouldn’t beat her even if he could with his trembling hands, but she pretended to wince and cower away from him. “You mind what I say to you. If you ever do something like this again, and dress me up in those indecent rags, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll haunt you!’

“Oh don’t do that, Tim! Please don’t!” shrieked Mary, her face as pale as ashes. “Kill me now, if that’s what you want, or do anything to me you like, but for the love of the blessed Virgin and all the Saints, keep you to your grave! I’ll put the new shirt on you. My two hands will starch it and make it as white as snow, after it being laid aside so long in the old chest. You’ll be a lovely corpse, never fear about that! And I’ll give you the greatest wake that ever a man had, even if I have to sell the pig, and part with every stick in the cabin to buy the tea and the whisky. I swear to you I will, on this blessed night, my darling man.”

“Well, mind that you do, or it will be all the worse for you. And now give me a drop of water to drink, and put a taste of that whisky through it, for I’m ready to faint with thirst and with weakness.”

Mary kept her promise to her husband. Never in the history of that parish was there such a wake was that given for Tim Scanlan. It all occurred very soon after the events described above. Poor Tim really did depart this life, and manner in which his corpse was laid out, with his “elegant brand-new shirt”, was the admiration of all beholders of all who saw it.

© Jim Woods Nov 2017

AN INTERESTING TRIAL

This is the story of an extraordinary trial that took place in Ireland just before the turn of the 20th Century and was revealed to me through the records of a provincial newspaper, printed in 1899. I think for many of my readers this will be their first introduction to the story..

The case in question began in the northern province of Ireland and is being reported here for the first time since its original publication, over one hundred and eighteen years ago. It was at a time of political upheaval and much talk about ‘Home Rule’, supporters and opponents of which marched regularly through the streets. It is my intention that the story of this trial is told exactly the way it happened and the manner it was reported. The report of the trial states the evidence that was given at the time, and I am writing it down exactly according to what was deposed at the trial.

In the criminal court it was said that Joan O’Rourke, wife of Andy O’Rourke, had been murdered, but the only question left to answer was, “How did Joan come by her death?” From the evidence of the coroner’s inquest on the body, and from the depositions made by Mary O’Rourke, John Croke and his wife, Agnes, it appeared that Joan O’Rourke had committed suicide. Witnesses stated that they had found the unfortunate woman lying dead in her bed, with the knife sticking in the floor, and her throat cut from ear to ear. They also stated that the night before they found her body Joan had went to bed with her child, and her husband was not in the house. They swore that no other person came into the house at any time after Joan had gone to bed. The witnesses said that the truth of their statements lay in the fact that they had been lying in the outer room, and they would have undoubtedly seen or heard any strangers who might have tried to enter the house.

With this evidence established in the court, the jury finally submitted their verdict that in their opinion Joan O’Rourke had indeed committed suicide. This verdict, however, came under some pressure afterwards, when rumour arose within the neighbourhood that suicide was not the cause of Joan’s death. Further investigation and discovery of some diverse circumstances began to suggest that Joan did not, nor, according to those circumstances, could she possibly have murdered herself. The jury, whose verdict had not yet been made official by the coroner’s office, was summoned again and requested that the coroner’s office exhume the body. The request to remove the body from the grave, in which she had already been buried, was granted. Thus, almost thirty days after she had died, Joan’s corpse was taken up in the presence of the jury members, and a great number of other witnesses, and the sight that greeted them caused the jury to change their verdict.

Those persons who had been brought before the court to be tried were all acquitted. But, there was now so much the evidence, against the previous verdict, that the trial Judge was of the opinion that an appeal should be made, rather than allow such a gruesome murder to go unpunished by the law.  As a result the four most likely suspects were brought to trial on an appeal, which was brought by the young child, against his father, grandmother, and aunt, and her husband John Croke. The evidence that was now brought against them was so strange, that one would need to read through it very carefully to ensure a good understanding of it. The paper recorded the evidence as follows –

At the subsequent trial the prosecution called forward a person of unimpeachable character to give evidence. The Parish Priest of the town where the act was committed was deposed and began to speak. He confirmed that the body, which had been taken up out of the grave, had lain there for thirty days after the woman’s death. The priest stated that the corpse was laid out on the grass in her cheap pine coffin, and the four defendants in the dock were also present at the exhumation. Each of the defendants where then requested to place a hand upon the Joan’s long dead body. Agnes Croke, the priest said, immediately fell upon her knees, and she prayed aloud to God that he would do something to show that she was innocent of doing any harm to Joan. She mumbled out some other words in her grief, but the priest was unsure about what she said.

None of those who were standing trial refused to touch Joan’s dead body. But, after they had done this, the dead woman’s brow which, beforehand had been a dark bluish grey in colour, like that of carrion, began to have a dew or gentle sweat come out upon it. This perspiration now began to increase so much that the sweat began to run down in droplets over the face. Almost like magic the brow began to turn, and it quickly changed to a more lively and fresh colour. Unbelievably, as we watched, the dead woman opened one of her eyes and shut it again. This action of opening the eye and then closing it was carried out by the corpse three times. In addition to this, the dead woman thrust out her marriage finger three times, and swiftly pulled it in again, and, as she did so, drops of blood dripped from the finger down onto the grass,” explained the priest.

The Judge who was hearing the case, not surprisingly, had some doubts about the evidence that was being given and he asked the Parish Priest, “Who else saw these things besides yourself?”

The priest felt that his veracity was being questioned and was quite annoyed by the question that had been posed. But, he chose not to react angrily and simply answered, “Your Honour, I could not swear to what others may have seen or not. But, your Honour, I firmly believe that the entire company saw these things for themselves. In fact, if any of my testimony had been considered to be in doubt, some proof of that doubt would have been presented and many would have spoke out against this statement.

As he stood in the witness stand, the priest was able to observe that many of those listening to him were showing some admiration for him, and he was encouraged to speak further. “Your Honour,” he began, “I am Priest of the parish, and I have known all the parties involved for a very long time. I have never had any occasion to be displeased with any of them, nor have I ever had much to do with any of them, or they with me, outside of my pastoral duties as a minister of the Church. The things that happened amazed me and filled my mind with wonder. However, the only interest that I have in these matters is to do what I have been asked to do and that is to testify to the truth. This, I assure you, I have done.”

This witness was aged about seventy years and highly respected in the district. When he spoke his testimony he did so in a clear voice, slowly and elegantly, which won the admiration of all who heard him. Clearing his throat he again began to speak to the Judge in the case, saying, “May I point out, at this time, your Honour, that my brother priest, who is present in the court, is the minister of the parish adjacent to my own, and I am assured that he saw everything to which I have testified.”

This other priest, who was just a little younger than the first, was invited into the witness box, where he was sworn in and invited to give his evidence. His testimony supported every point that had been previously made. He confirmed the sweating of the brow, the changing of its colour, the mystical opening of the eye, and the three times that the corpse’s finger thrust itself out, and drew in again. The only area in which he differed from the first witness was in declaring that he had, himself, dipped his finger into the blood which had exuded from the dead body. He said that he had examined it and was certain in his own mind that it was blood.

I can understand the difficulty of believing such testimony. Modern ideas on the paranormal often leave us doubting our own eyes and senses. But, there were others who had observed these things and agreed with the testimony given by the priests. There is no reason to doubt the testimony of the clerics, for why would they be persuaded to lie about such things. At the same time, allow me to assure you that the reports from the trial have been recorded here accurately. Evidence was also given against the prisoners in the dock, namely, the grandmother of the plaintiff, and against Croke and his wife, Agnes. It was stated that all four confessed that they had lain in the next room to the dead person that entire night, and that no other person had entered the house until they found her dead the next morning. The only conclusion to be drawn, therefore, was that if this woman did not murder herself, then they must be the murderers.

To prove such a charge, however, further evidence was needed and to this end the medical examiner was called forward. Looking at his notes on the examination he had made of the crime scene and the body of the dead woman. Then, point by point he explained his findings to the court. Firstly, he described the scene that he had found when he arrived at the house, and told the jury, “I found the dead woman lying in her bed, in a quite composed way. The bed clothes and other things in the room had not been disturbed in any way, and her child lay by her side in the bed. Immediately, I could see that the deceased woman’s throat was cut from ear to ear, and her neck was broken. It is completely impossible for the deceased person to first cut her throat, and then break her own neck in the bed; or vice-versa.

The examiner continued to explain that he had found no blood in the bed, except for a small spot of blood on the pillow where she had laid her head. “But, there was no evidence of major blood loss on the bed, which there should have been if the death had occurred in the place that she was found. On further investigation, however, we found a stream of blood on the floor of the bedroom, which ran along the wooden floorboards until it found obstructions that caused it to spread in pools. There was, at the same time, another stream of blood found on the floor at the bed’s feet. This stream had caused caused small ponds of blood to form, but there was no sign of both blood streams being connected. This suggests that the woman bled severely in two places. Furthermore, when I turned up the mattress of the bed, I found clots of congealed blood in the underneath of the straw-filled mattress.

The court was informed that the blood-stained knife was found that morning after the murder, sticking in the wooden floor a good distance from the bed. “The point of the knife, as it stuck in the floor was pointing towards the bed, while the handle pointed away from the bed,” he explained. “On the knife itself I discovered the print of the thumb and four fingers of the left hand.

At this point the judge interrupted the testimony of the Examiner and asked him, “But, how can you know the print of a left hand from the print of a right hand in such a case as this?

Your Honour,” he began to reply, “it is hard to describe, but easier to demonstrate. If it would please your Honour, could you put your clerk’s left hand upon your left hand. You will see that it is impossible to place your right hand in the same posture.

The Judge did as he was asked and was satisfied by the demonstration. The defendants, however, were given an opportunity to put forward a defence against all these claims. But, they decided to maintain their silence and gave no evidence at any stage of the trial. The Jury, therefore, was directed to retire and deliberate their verdict. It took them only an hour to return to the court and announce their findings. John Croke was acquitted of all charges, but the other three defendants were found guilty as charged. The judge turned to the three guilty persons and asked if they had anything to say about why judgement should not be produced. Their reply was simply, “I have nothing to say except that I am not guilty. I did not do this.

Judgement was passed upon all three. The grandmother and the husband were executed by hanging, while the aunt was spared execution because she was pregnant. None of them confessed anything before their execution and the aunt never spoke as to any possible motivation for the murder. In fact, the aunt never spoke about the incident ever again. She moved away from the district with her husband, where she died some fifteen years after her niece had been brutally killed.

 

©Jim Woods 2017