There have been many tales about, before and during the ‘War for Independence’ and the opinion of the force held by many of Ireland’s working-class was not exactly flattering. It was often said that the most obviously conspicuous individual in Ireland, prior to the ‘War for Independence’ was the policeman. People would say that wherever you went if the policeman was not there before you, it was because they had just been there and would be back before you decided to leave. In all of Ireland’s large cities and towns – Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Athlone, Belfast, etc., there was a police constable to be seen at every street corner, singly, in pairs, and in groups.
You could recognise the fresh-looking police who were about to start their shift, while the tired-looking police were going home to recuperate. You would have seen groups of clean, well-brushed police moving into the countryside by horse or by truck, after having heard reports of rural disturbances, while mud-covered police would be seen returning on carts or trucks, with prisoners from the nearest eviction, land dispute, or faction fight. Much like the policemen of today there were young men, with fresh, rosy complexion, and the middle-aged policemen, with wizened, stern faces, that often showed strong evidence of the many fights that they had taken part in, while the old policemen, with their deeply scarred and weather-beaten faces, paid little attention to what was going on around them becausethey were looking forward to a speedy retirement with a moderate pension. Allexamples of these were to be seen in each city, town, and village. In the ruralareas they could be found on every high road, by-way, and on the many narrow mountainpaths. Meanwhile, at every railroad station in the country they would be seenin pairs, keeping a close watch on those who arrived and departed, and taking noteson anything that may have appeared to be suspicious in the way travellers weredressed or acted.
Should a stranger adhere to the common, well-travelled tourist routes through the country he would only receive a sharp glance of inspection from the policeman. But, should a stranger leave those well-trodden paths usually followed by travellers, or make their way into parts of the country that were not often visited by strangers, you can be sure that they quite quickly became an object of intense interest and suspicion. But, should something cause even the slightest distrust of you or your business to enter the mind of the policeman, you are immediately a marked man. He will disappear for a few moments, allowing you to proceed on your journey. You might, by chance, look back and catch a glimpse of him, a mile or two away, peeping over a wall after you. In the next village, however, when you decide to stop for the night, that same policeman will reappear and, alongside the local policemen, after his coming, will be sure to watch your every move with great attention. If, for example, you would leave yourbags in the reception area of an inn and go outside for a while, the policemanwill come in to get your name, takes note of any bags you have and checks anyhotel or railway tags that may remain on your bags.
Not all these policemen were stupid because there were detectives that knew their job well and roamed both rural and urban areas of the country. This clever man can, at a glance, recognise foreign articles that a person may have and know from where they came. He will engage you in pleasant conversation, chatting about the weather, the crops, business news, and local tittle-tattle. All the while he is trying to discover just who you are, where you come from, and what is your business in that place. As you converse with him, the detective scans every inch of your body from head to feet, so he is better able to give his superiors an accurate report on your clothing and appearance. “Hat, English; coat, London-made; trousers, doubtful; shoes, American; party evidently an Irish Yankee, who might as well be looked after.”
You would have learned that the majority of ‘pre-Independence’ Irish policeman, was usually the son of peasant stock. For a man who wanted something better in life than being a labourer, or a tenant, there were few options open. He could, of course, choose to emigrate to America, or enlist in the ranks of the British army, or apply for a place on the constabulary. Although emigration was, probably, the most acceptable option to such young men, many of them lacked the money to go. This left him with two courses, of which enlistment in the army was the more pleasing option since within Ireland the police are almost entirely ostracised by the people and they are left with little hope of being able to socially associate with others in the local community. Sadly, the plight of the people engendered within them a belief that any Irishman who enters the police has deserted his country’s cause and has entered the service of Ireland’sdeadliest foe. A policeman, therefore, soon found himself being avoided by his former companions, shunned by his old friends, and, just as importantly, being given the cold shoulder by the local ladies.
Undoubtedly, any Irishman who enlisted in the British army in those days would have been treated in the same way at his old home. The only saving grace for the Irish soldier was that at enlistment he usually left Ireland with no intention of returning, which makes his case materially different from that of the police recruit. So, why would a young man choose the police as a career at this time? There may have been the obligation of a son to support aged parents or to be the financial support of a family of young brothers and sisters. Such things as these often determined his choice to enter the police force, where he would become a ‘social leper’, who was hated by his countrymen with a hatred that knew no bounds. From the first day he put on his neat blue uniform and saucer-like cap, the R.I.C. constable, in the troubled Irish counties in the west carried his life in his hand. Every hedge had to be scrutinised carefully because, behind it, there might be an assassin lying in wait. Every division wall was watched for suspicious indications of an enemy’s presence, his alertness being concentrated by the knowledge that he is protecting his ownlife.
The policeman is compelled, by the instructions of his superiors, to undertake duties that he feels are obnoxious and very much against his own sense of justice. Moreover, he is forced to risk his life and limbs to carry out these repugnant orders. Consider when a bad year comes, causing a tenant to fall into arrears and cannot pay his rent. In such cases, it was common for the landlord’s agent to decide on evicting the defaulting tenant and he normally sent for the police as back-up. The constables would arrive in force, but the tenant had anticipated their arrival and had collected a crowd of his friends to assist him. The hut was closed and barred, while inside there were normally ten or more men and women, who were determined to resist the eviction for as long as it was of any use. Then, as soon as the police appeared at the scene, a loud cacophony of Irish voices would begin, hurling fearful curses and insults at those trying to carry out the eviction, immediately succeeded by showers of stones and rocks being thrown by those supporters of the cabin’s defenders. The police would draw their clubs and rush at the objectors, striking right and left at the heads of the gathered crowd. Unsurprisingly, a desperate battle would soon ensue, in which the police were usually victorious, and succeeded in driving the shouting rabble to a safe distance from the cottage. When this was achieved, the police would leave some of the force to keep them away, while the remaining policemen would return to force a way into the besieged cabin. A beam, handled by several pairs of strong arms, would be erected and would speedily demolish the miserable pretence of a door. Once this entrance was achieved the police would go into the cabin and were quickly met with fists, clubs, stones, showers of boiling water, and other effective and offensive means of defence. And yet, after a stubborn contest, the cabin was finally cleared of its defenders and the furniture, ifthere was any, was set out on the road. Thereafter, the thatched roof wouldhave been torn off and scattered on the ground, the walls levelled, and thepolice, battered with sticks and stones, scalded, burned, would return toheadquarters with their prisoners in tow. On many of these occasions apoliceman was killed, and his killers would often defend themselves by statingthat it was entirely the fault of the policeman. In a court near Limerick the defendantsof one such incident stated, “We neverintended for to kill him at all, but his skull was too thin entirely for aconstable and broke with the beating he was after getting.”
Firearms were not often used in these encounters between the police and the ordinary people of the district, for such battles always took place in daylight. But, when an eviction promised to be of more dangerous than usual, the police would carry rifles, with strict orders given that they were not to use them except in a dire emergency. There were, therefore, instances when a policeman was beaten almost to death without resorting to the use of his gun. During their ordinary day-duty, the police carried only a short club or revolver, which was hidden under his coat. But at night, the country constables were armed with rifle and bayonet, and they would patrol the roads in pairs, with one walking on each side and as close as possible to the hedge or wall.
It was said at this time that despite the extraordinary difficulties and unceasing dangers of their work the Royal Irish Constabulary continued to follow their orders scrupulously. The record of the time does suggest that any instances of treachery to the government among the constabulary were few and far between. Furthermore, there were plenty of men who sought service in the police force with applicants far outmatching vacancies. The force’s physical standard for applicants was so high, in fact, that they were often hand-picked men from the rural areas of Ireland, whose average grade of intelligence was at a higher standard than that existing among the ordinary Irish peasantry, from among whom they were chosen.
It was noticeable that the police would take on any service cheerfully, without much concern for how hard or perilous that work maybe. But, there was one task which the police force in the western counties hated to undertake, which was any mission that would take them into the mountains to seize illicit stills and arrest distillers of poteen. These expeditions usually meant days and nights of hard climbing, watching, waiting, and spying on suspects. Quite often these efforts would gain no result, because when the spot where the still has been was surrounded, with the police thinking they have the lawbreakers in their trap, the ‘poteen men’ would discover the police plan and escape along some path unknown to the lawmen. Behind them would be left nothing but “the pot and the smell” as signs that they were there and what they were doing. Disappointing results were a good reason for policemen to dislike the duty, but a more important reason was the unusual degree of danger that attended such expeditions. In the mountains of Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Clare, and Kerry, the illicit distillers usually owned firearms and are well practised in their use. Moreover, these men felt no more compunction for shooting a policeman than for killing adog.
The extremely rugged character of the Mayo mountains offered the illicit poteen makers many opportunities to practise their craft in safety and secrecy. The entire neighbourhood would be on the lookout for the presence of police, and there were always friends able to give the alarm to the distillers. Once an alarm was received they would hide the still in the ground, or in a convenient cave, which usually took them just a few minutes. Once their equipment was safely hidden, the distillers would immediately take up their weapons and turn their attention to shooting at the police from well-camouflaged positions. The entire enterprise provided the distillers with so little risk to themselves and so much discomfort to the constables that the latter frequently gave up thechase on the very slightest of provocations.
Close to Derryclare Lough, which lies in the Connemara National Park, and almost under the shadow of the Twelve Pins, there stands by the side of an arrow road a small crudely-made monument of uncut stones, on top of which stands a rough wooden cross. Such heaps of stones are common along Ireland’s west coast, and they customarily mark a family memorial. It begins with each family member and each friend who attends the funeral placing a stone upon the crude monument. In some parts of the country every relative and friend who subsequently passes that spot places a stone on the common pile, and by doing so cause the heap to constantly grow. The monument that I mention is no different in any respect from many others in the Connemara area. But before this monument, in the summer of 1886, an old peasant woman knelt there all day long. Regularly, every morning she would come to this place from her cabin in a nearby glen and spend every daylight hour there in prayer before the wooden cross. It did not seem to matter to this old woman if the sun shone, or the rain poured from the skies. When the sun shone, the hood on her tattered cloak would be thrown back to expose her white hair, but the rain forced her to draw the hood forward as shelter. Whether it rained, or the sun shone, however, that old woman was always there, with her lips silently moving in prayer as the beads slipped through her withered fingers. So engrossed was she that no voice and no question could divert her from her devotions. She never looked up, nor did she ever take the slightest notice of any remarks that were addressed to her, and she was never heard to speak aloud. One day every week groceries were sent to her cabin from the nearest police station and were left within. The men who brought these provisions would then depart immediately, for this old woman never gave them any word of thanks or any expression of any gratitude she felt. Although this ritual had been happening for many years, the constables, who had been sent to deliver the allowance made to her by the government, never tried to compel her to speak to them.
The old woman’s story was first recorded by a Sergeant of Police and provides the reader with a painful illustration of the poteen trade in the mountains of the west. In the year 1850, while the country was still suffering from the effects of the “Great Hunger,” she lived with her husband, Michael Murray, and their four sons, on a little farm near Derryclare Lough. Year after year the crops had failed them, but the little family had held together, starving and foraging faring to keep themselves alive. In 1850, although the country was generally beginning to recover from the famine, this part of Connemara was still suffering, and it seemed likely that the crop would fail again, bringingthe evils of starvation and disease face to face with this hapless family.
The four boys were all well-grown boys, who were accustomed to the hard life of the Irish peasantry, and they were willing to work if any could be found for them. All four sons left their home, the eldest went to Galway, while the other three went to the sea-shore, where they found temporary employment in the fisheries. While they worked away from home, these three brothers learned the secrets of the illicit distiller, and after gathering enough money to buy a small still, they returned home with it. The home-place was, fortunately, sited in a secluded quarter of a district that was rarely visited and they managed to persuade the old man to join in the illicit distilling business with them. The risk of detection by law officers appeared so small in those days, especially when compared with the profits that could be gained, that against the prayers and entreaties of the woman, the small still was established in a nearby hollow and the manufacture of the poteen began in the largest quantities that their limited resources would allow them. But, over the next number of years, their product found a ready outlet in the neighbourhood, and the O’Malley family prospered beyond their dreams. The three sons were all married to local women, and their families grew up strong and healthy around them.
The eldest brother, John O’Malley, had made his way to Galway City, and by a great stroke of good fortune, he succeeded in obtaining a place in the Royal Irish Constabulary. At the home-place, John’s family knew nothing of what had happened, for he did not communicate with them in any shape or form. Directly after he had enlisted he was sent to County Wexford, which lies on the opposite side of the island, and caused him to almost forget his old home and the life he had lived there with his brothers. But, because he proved himself to be both intelligent and capable, John was rapidly promoted to the rank of sergeant and was ordered to County Galway. Almost as soon as he arrived in his new post at the barracks in a small village in Connemara, police informers brought intelligence about an illicit still that was working in a place near the TwelvePins. O’Malley was immediately ordered to set out with a strong party of police to seize the still, and, if possible, arrest the criminals running the operation. The names of the offenders were not given by the informers, but the location of the glen, where operations were being carried, out was described with such precision that O’Malley, who knew every foot of ground in the area, drafted plans for an operation that would make it practically impossible for the illicit still workers to escape the police.
As planned, before dark one evening, a party of twelve mounted policemen armed with rifles started out from Maum, which sat at the head of Lough Corrib. They travelled all night, and by morning Sergeant O’Malley had positioned his men around the glen that the arrest of the criminals looked to be a certainty. In the dim light of early dawn, before any objects could be distinctly seen, several men were seen entering the glen, and, at a given signal from O’Malley, the police rapidly closed in on the little shanty where the still was operating. A desperate fight ensued between the two groups, and SergeantO’Malley was shot dead by one of his brothers without even knowing whose hand had pointed the weapon. Two of the O’Malley brothers were killed by the police bullets, and a constable was mortally wounded. Michael and his remaining son were taken alive by the police and were subsequently tried for murder. It was only when the charges were read out against them that they learned, for the first time, that the dead Sergeant was their own son and brother.
The raid and the casualties of the fire-fight attracted wide attention in the country and both men were hanged. Mrs O’Malley was totally devastated by the entire action, which, with a single blow, had deprived her of a husband and her four sons. For several months afterwards, she was driven almost insane by the memory of that day, but the anger soon passed away. Then, as her clouded brain became calm and clear, it became occupied with one idea, to the exclusion of all others, namely prayer for the happy repose of her dead husband and sons. While the body of the Sergeant was buried near Maum, O’Malley and his three sons were buried together under the cairn in a long disused churchyard, through which the road passed. It was a churchyard like thousands more in Ireland, where the grave-stones are hidden by overgrown nettles and weeds. There, with a love stronger than death, that poor old woman went every day, and, untiring in her devotion, she spent the rest of her life reciting the prayers for the dead.
In Ireland it is customary for the people to treat the fairy folk to many little acts of kindness. One example of this occurs when a cow is milked, and care is taken to let the first couple of draws from the udder are permitted to drop upon the ground for the “wee folk” to enjoy. Meanwhile, the poteen-makers at their illicit distillation sites also pay attention to the same “wee folk”. The very first, and best part, of the liquor which comes from the worm is always thrown to them in salutation. The Poteen-makers use a small tin measuring cup (a tionaiceen) to treat friends who may visit the still-house where
illicit distillation is carried on, including the fairy folk.
My uncles all went shooting game birds in the hills of Tyrone, developing good relations with several small farmers in the area. It was well-known that many of these small farmers used the illicit distillation of Poteen to increase their income. Among these men was ‘Pure Paddy’, so named because of the quality of the liquor that he distilled and sold. At one time I had the distinct pleasure of being with Paddy as he worked at the still, which was well hidden in the nearby turf-bog. It was during this visit that I noticed Paddy throwing a cupful of poteen behind the still to the right, and another to the left. “Why do you do that ? ” I asked the old Poteen-maker.
He had just thrown the first cupful and he shook his head disappointedly as he threw the next into some bramble bushes that were growing adjacent to the still. “For heaven’s sake, Paddy!” I exclaimed, “Why waste the stuff like that?”
“But, sure, I’m not wasting it!” said the old man, looking at me in a very odd manner, “if you only knew it.”
“But, you are throwing it away,” I insisted. “Is it not a waste for you to throw it all around yourself in that fashion?”
“To tell you the truth, boy,” he replied, “they’re welcome to it and as much more as they want. But, they’re not greedy in any way, you can be guaranteed of that.”
“They, they? ” I demanded. ” Who in the name of God are they? ”
“They’re the wee folk boy, who else? And those poor creatures need it too, for I’m sure that they must be feeling the cold.”
“Oh, you mean the fairies, I suppose?” said I.
“That’s right, young man.”
“And do you really believe in fairies?” I asked him.
“Believe in them,” he laughed. “Of course, I do, and why wouldn’t I? ”
“Oh, surely, you can’t be so foolish,” I scoffed.
” Foolish! By all that’s holy! Sure, it’s those people that don’t believe in them that are the true fools, I’m thinking.”
“And you imagine that they drink the poteen you throw around you in that way? ”
“Ay, they drink my poteen, and they are glad to get it,” said the old ‘moonshiner’ emphatically.
“Then,” said I, “suppose what you say is true, what would happen if you did not treat your invisible wee friends?”
“By Jaysus, son, there would be open blue murder about it, without any doubt at all. Sure, they’d be so angry that they would curse the still with bad luck and, maybe, the whole lot of the poteen would be spilled, or worse, the police would get it.”
“Has anything like that ever happened before?” I asked him.
“Aye, of course there has! Sure, how else would we know what would happen?”
I must admit that I was convinced in the truthfulness of the old man, but I wanted to hear more about such encounters with the fairy folk. I wanted to know if he had personally met with any “bad luck” himself because he had failed to give a hospitable offering to his exacting and easily angered, though easily appeased, friends, the “little folk.” To get him talking, therefore, I began by remarking that he must have had some personal experience of such things since he spoke so knowledgeably about such things. “Aye, indeed, young man, I’m sorry to say, and I’ll be sorry while there is still breath in me body. I have experience of just how unlucky it is for a man to be miserly with the ‘good people’,” said he.
“Tell me all about it,” I asked him anxiously and earnestly.
“Now, there’s not much to tell, young man, but I’ll tell you about it anyway.”
“One night,” he began, ” I was making my first brewing in this very same place where we are now. But, in those days I was young and foolish, and I would not take the advice of old Micky Whelan when he told me to treat ‘good people’ well. The answer I gave him was that they would go to the devil before I’ll give a drop to them, or anyone living or dead, until I have the money in my hand for it first. When I said that, of course, Old Micky spoke out, and he told me that I would rue those words. Then, blessing himself he got up and left me, a little frightened. There were a couple of the neighbours here, too, and they went away with him. Well, there was not one left here but myself, and I thought to myself that I would take a wee drink to keep up my spirits, for you can see, yourself, it’s a lonely place here for one to be with oneself, without a living soul to speak to. But, by all that’s holy, wasn’t left long without plenty of company, although it was the kind that I would have rather not had. Because, as quick as you could clap your two hands together, I heard the rasp of the bow across the strings of a fiddle, up there in the bushes, and with that the prettiest and the liveliest tune that I ever heard filled the air. The first thought that came into my head was that the lads had fallen in with ‘Blind Dominic’ the fiddler, when they were leaving the still-house, and that they sneaked back with the fiddle into the bushes to try and frighten me. So, I shouted out angrily that it would be better for them to come here and give me a hand, rather than going on with their nonsense, for if they were trying to frighten me they wouldn’t manage to do it. Well, suddenly I heard three or four shouts and the sound of dancing keeping time to the tune, and fine dancing it was. I began to mock it and told them they were very merry and that maybe it was the police they wanted to bring down on me with their nonsense. Well, I can tell you, the words were not right out of my mouth, when up struck another fiddle right beside me, and it wasn’t long until another began, and another, and another, until there were fiddles playing all around me everywhere, and the shouting, and the cheering, and the laughing began in earnest. By Jaysus, I thought to myself, it is the strange creatures about, but I’ll not let on that I’m one bit afraid of them and maybe they would not harm me. So, I jumped up and declared loudly that it was great music and I began to dance on the flagstone beside the fire in a very lively fashion. With one voice the entire company shouted out at me, calling me by name and telling me that I would rue it. Sure, they were now making a great hullabaloo, and right in the middle of it I got two smart blows, first on one cheek then on the other. It was then I began to think that it was time for me to get out, but I decided that I would take the keg with me, no matter what happened. So, putting the keg on my back, I took to my heels as quicklyas I could. But, I hadn’t gone more than three steps when I tripped, and fell, and the keg was broken into smithereens with every blessed drop spilled. Let me tell you, that’s when the commotion began in real earnest and ten times greater than before! You could hear the glasses, and the tin cups, and the mugs rattling against one another, and the shouts and the bustle of the wee-folk as they jostled one another trying to see who could get most of the drink that was spilled. Not even a half-penny’s worth did I get, but I heard as much as did me, and away I ran towards home as fast as my legs could carry me and not once did I look around until I reached the house. I can tell you that I never again forgot to give the good people a drink after that. And you can be sure when one does show them some hospitality they don’t forget it neither. It’s many a good turn they did me, but there was one turn in particular, and if you’re not afraid that the police will come on us I’ll tell you something about it.““I will risk the police, Jimmy,” said I as I sat down on a vacant three-legged stool, which stood beside the blazing turf fire under the still.
“Well, then,” began the old moonshiner, “One night, about the middle of December, I was making a brew for Christmas. It was about seven or eight o’clock in the evening, or thereabouts. My partner, Mickey, that I told you about a while ago, was just after leaving me to get something to eat, for he hadn’t had a bite of food since the morning. There wasn’t one person with me in the still-house but myself. Well, boy, I was sitting here just where I am now this minute, and smoking quite contentedly, while I was watching the Poteen running from the worm into the keg in case there would be any chance of it becoming white. Well, if it did turn white I would throw some water on fire to cool it down a little, and some more on the worm until it cooled, just as you saw me doing a while ago. Well, I wasn’t long sitting that way, when three shots from a gun went just over my head, one after another. Believe me when I tell you that I jumped up quick and sudden onto my feet. At first, I thought it was the police, for that’s what they generally do when they are intent on making a seizure. Well, I took to my feet mighty fast, you can be sure that I never once looked around me until I got to the top of that hill over there. It was only then that I felt brave enough to look around, but the devil a one could I see at all. I had a full view of the still-house, and all around it, but not a person I could I clap my eyes on, only everything just as it was. Well, back I came to the still-house again, but you can be sure that I kept my eyes sharp about me until Mickey came. When I told him the story, he looked at me, and he said that the faster we are out of this the better we’ll be. I asked Mickey what it could have been, and he simply told me that it is well known to me. He also said that I would see the lads before the morning. So, I told myself, that we should waste no time lifting the keg out of this place even though it was not yet three quarters full. Well, boy, to make a long story short, we cleared away everything and hid them in the bog over there. Then we went home, and we were only just sitting down at the fire when we heard the troop, the tramping of the revenue horses, as we thought it was the revenue police. Well, young man, as I said, we heard the tramp, tramp of the horses’ feet on the road, and the clattering of bayonets and swords, and the creaking of the saddles, and the orders of command, as if there was a whole regiment of horsemen and horses on parade. Mickey was totally surprised that what I had said had now come to pass, and he went with me to the door to have a look. It was a fine clear moonlight night, just like it is tonight, but as we looked out there wasn’t the devil of a horse or rider to be seen, although we could still hear the thud of the horses’ hoofs, and the clashing of the swords plainly. Were we frightened? By God, you may be sure that we were in a way, and, in another way, we were not, for you see we knew well enough that this a sign from the ‘good people’ telling us that the revenue men were coming. Sure, they did come a very short time later. But, although they searched every hole and corner in the place, they never discovered the place where we hid the keg and things. So, you see, you will never lose much by being kind to the good people.”
This is the first guest item I have included in my blog and I present to my readers for its interest value, and in the hope it will encourage others to send in their stories.
Browsing through Donegal Town’s official website recently, I came across some snippets of information from long ago regarding the anecdotes of a local character by the name of Belle Fey. A Faye, being a fairy, or Siog [sheog] a name given to her by her Dromore neighbours as a result of her strange ways. Belle Melly being her real name according to the 1940/41Donegal town electors list, for Dromore.
Poor Belle, I’m sure she’d turn in her grave if she were able to read the comments. Who’s to say she was just an old eccentric, had the author taken leave of his imagination, really! Doesn’t anyone believe in fairies or the little people anymore.? In my opinion Belle’s name ought to be up there in lights amongst Donegal’s countless legendary characters. Perhaps a song or a poem ought to have been composed in her honour. As far as I’m concerned, she was the real thing, a real living Siog. Belle, could, tell fortunes too, and see into the future just like her wee fairy friends who would come and sit at the foot of her bed during the night: she often said, the male Sioga would also visit her bedroom, a fact which greatly annoyed her – herself being a modest female and all.
I ought to know better than most folk about Belle’s, mystic talents because as an Eight-year old I had the doubtful privilege of meeting this wrinkled, steely-grey-haired, plaid-shawled old creature, and, being on the receiving end of a ‘Belle spell’, so to speak.
When we were youngsters my father and mother often brought our family on the gruelling twenty-four-hour journey to Donegal during our summer holidays. My dad emigrated to Yorkshire in the UK and was a coalminer in Yorkshire’s forbidding and dangerous 3,000 ft deep coalmines.
We usually stayed for the two weeks holiday with my dad’s brother and sister–the postman John, and Mae Carney; their house was situated in Dromore, up the lane at the top of the hill off the Donegal road. Their slate roofed cottage stood on the brow of the winding hill with its magnificent panoramic views over Donegal Bay, and the Blue Stack mountains–when it wasn’t raining that is! And was just a stone’s throw across the lane from Belle Fey’s faded whitewashed, thatched cottage. Belle must have had her eye on me, this wee buachailin ban, [ fair haired boy] as I was often up and down the lane with my sister Patricia, with Mae’s old enamel bucket to fetch water from the well, which bubbled up from a wee crystal–clear spring at the side of the lush green overgrown lane. Aunt Mae swore the water was “the best ever for making tae.”
As I recall, it was the day my father Hugh, was visiting his youngest sister Maggie Quinn at her pub, ‘Quinns Bar’, (Lazy Bush) at the top of Mountcharles, where he often went to catch up on the local gossip and discuss the price of cattle and imbibe in a few pints with his old school cronies. That particular occasion was a signal for Belle, to make her move on me, as she invited herself into John and Mae’s, house. Shortly a whispered discussion took place with my mother and aunt Mae, who herself was fond of reading the tea-leaves and such-like, as well as blowing her cigarette smoke up the turf blackened chimney of their huge open fire-place, which puzzled this eight-year old at the time. Many years later it transpired that John hated Mae smoking!
To continue the story; I was ushered into aunt Mae’s, dimly lit front parlour, which contained a dusty dark wood dining table and chairs, with the odd religious picture randomly placed on the whitewashed walls.
Situated on the inside gable of the house was an old fashioned black Victorian cast-iron fireplace, into which Belle, proceeded to set light to a crumpled newspaper in the empty grate. As the paper blazed away brightly, shooting orange blue flames up the chimney, Belle began mumbling as she stooped over the grate, while I stood mystified at the side of her, I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was saying, but I swear it wasn’t English. After a while Belle rose from the hearth in her usual bent posture, declaring authoritatively to my mother and Mae, in her rich Donegal accent. “This wee caddy will remain fair haired for the rest of his life”.
Sixty-five years on, and a bit more, and guess what? Short of having a bit of the thatch missing at the back, I still have a modest head of fair hair, despite a lifetime of trying to alter its colour by dousing it with strong tea, before I hit the town with the lads on a Friday night.
My mother and father, brothers and sisters, were all blessed with fine heads of typically Irish, dense, wavy auburn hair. Ultimately with the passing of time and sadly for them their hair turned grey and then white. Uncle John’s, hair may have been a bit sandy looking which he got from Ding, and Grandma Sweeney’s, side of the family, but with no stretch of the imagination was he blonde. So where in the blazes, excuse the pun, did mine come from? Belle Fey, “just an eccentric old woman? My foot!
Submitted by Fergus452@btinternet.com September 2018
There was a time, and not too long ago, that the people were immersed in fairy-lore and superstitions. In our twenty-first century such things are laughed at, being considered simple superstition and old fashioned. Today, it is not considered ‘cool’ to talk about fairies and, in some circles, the word has a quite different and denigrating meaning. But, there are Irish people who believe in the ‘Fairy-World’ and the great things they are alleged to be able to do, and its on our knowledge of this world and its folk that others depend.
Evening time, as every Irish man and woman knows, is usually the period of the day when the fairy-folk choose to move from their raths and dells to new places of habitation. Furthermore, evening is the time usually selected by the fairies to indulge in their past-times and celebrations. There are many first-hand records from people who have seen the fairy-folk and witnessed the various frolics in which they indulge. From such records and witnesses has come the poetic and popular imagery that unites all to give us the depictions we have today.
The earliest records suggest that the most ancient and earliest settlers in Ireland were known as the ‘Tuatha de Danaan’. It is these ancient people who are thought to have been the first practitioners of druidism that brought natural and spiritual magic together. Tales tell us that these ‘Tuatha de Danaan’ were transformed into the fairy-folk at some remote time in the history of this island. It was at that time, too, that they were forced to live in underground places, within green hill-sides, raths and cairns. They were spread out in such numbers that even our most remote romantic dells and woodlands have become their most favoured haunts and are called by we mortals as ‘Gentle Places’. Moreover, it is known that these ‘Gentle Folk’ are also fond of living on the banks and little green hillsides that often lie beside gently flowing streams.
There must have been an enormous number of raths covering Ireland in those far-off times. This is evident from the large number of raths that remain, but the case is made stronger by the fact that the compound word Rath, Raw, Rah, Ray, or Ra is constantly connected to the names of over a thousand various localities within Ireland. It is known that the fairy-folk enjoy getting together in these places, but it has proved difficult to gather accurate information concerning the social life of such folk, including what amuses them most and what their leisure pursuits are.
Music, it appears, is one of their most favourite amusements and their music can be heard beside the raths on most fine evenings. But, the beauty of this music has a type of ‘syren’ effect upon mortals, which causes them to linger and listen to these delightful melodies. While danger may be very close at hand, the mysterious, magical music makes them oblivious to anything other than its entrancing strains. Occasionally, the mortals may find themselves benefitting from their encounter with the fairy-folk, who may heap gifts upon mortal beings. Such gifts may cure both men and women of their infirmities and diseases, while removing any deformities they may have, and ensuring that they do not encounter any disagreeable accidents or misfortunes. The fairies are also known to pass on their supernatural power to both men and women, and invisibly assist them in many aspects of their lives.
At the same time, it has not been unknown for fairies to have a malevolent and mischievous disposition. They have been known to abduct mortals on a frequent basis, so that they can serve some selfish and degrading service for their captors. It has been known for fairies to bring a sudden stillness to the energies of mortals and ruin any of their prospects for worldly happiness. Occasionally, it is believed, they chose to leave people with their life-long illnesses, inflicting sorrow and pain on individuals and families alike. ‘Fairy Doctors’ would often prescribe an offering of ‘Cow’s Beestheens’ (some of the thick new milk given by a cow after calving) to be poured on a rath, which is supposed to appease the anger of the offended sprites. There were, indeed, many similar practices that were considered by the ‘Fairy Doctors’ to be no less potent when they are correctly used.
Sig, or Síghe (Pron: Shee) is an Irish word that is used as the generic title that is applied to the fairy, or fairy-folk. They are spread throughout the entire island, and the nearby nations of Scotland, Wales and England, where they more commonly known as fairies, elves, or pixies. The male fairy is known as the ‘Fear Shee’, while almost every person recognises the ‘Banshee’ as being the woman fairy. There have been occasions when the term ‘Mna Shee’, or women fairies, has been used in certain circumstances to describe certain of the ‘Little People’.
It must be made clear, however, that the ‘Fear Sighes’ are chiefly alluded to in the lore of ancient and legendary times. The ‘Ban-Shighes’ are commonly recognised to be supernatural beings that can often be heard wailing for deaths that are about to occur.
Traditionally it is the males only that appear in the ranks of fairy soldier troops. Fine dressed fairy lords and ladies mingle indiscriminately with other fairy-folk who sing and dance at fairy places in the moonlight. They are, it appears, social beings whose halls are often filled with song and the strains of beautiful, rhythmic music. It is these songs and music that can entrap and transport the souls of mortals, filled with a delicious enthusiasm for the journey. The sounds cause the ear to tingle with excitement as the human listeners to those magical and melodious cadences, which haunt the memory and imagination for a long time afterwards.
In the silver beams of night, we mortals are often granted sight of shadowy troop of fairies as they flit between our eyes and the wildly shining orb that is the moon. He will see, as others have done, that these ‘gentle folk’ are especially fond of singing and dancing at the midnight hour. The wild almost mesmeric strains of their unearthly music can be heard coming from every recess in the ground, within every green hill-side, or tangled wood.
Because of the lengthened daylight hours in summer and autumn the fairy-folk choose not to undertake their usual revels. They seem to feel it is inappropriate on those bright nights to gather and conduct their dancing parties in the secluded vales, or on the lush green banks of streams where the gurgling water trickles along the sheltered courses. On occasion they choose to gather near the ivied walls of old castles, beside a lake or river, or quite often in the gloomy environment of a graveyard, under the walls of its ruined church, or over the cold, lonely tombs of the dead.
Generally, it is harvest time that appear to be the best time of the year to give us frequent glimpses of our Irish fairy-folk. But, at these times, it is also important that we remember our Irish fairy-folk are very jealous of their privacy and they take great exception to any mortal intrusion into their lives. It I not unknown for them in fact, to wreak vengeance on all those people who dare intrude into their gatherings without permission.
Tradition informs us that the wild harmonies that we hear carried on soft, gentle breezes are truly the murmuring musical voices of the fairy-folk as they travel from place to place. Their contests and celebrations may continue through the dark hours of the night, but the first glow of the morning sun provides them with a signal for all their festivities to cease. It is then that the fairy-folk return to their shady raths, deep caverns, rocky crevices, or old grass covered barrows, where their fabled dwellings are concealed from prying human eyes. When they arrive at, or depart from, any particular spot their quick movements through the air create a noise that resembles the loud humming of bees as they swarm to and from a hive. Sometimes we can see a whirlwind that lifts soil and loose leaves into the air, but these are also known to be raised by the passing of a fairy clan.
Some fairy-folk are heard and seen while they are out hunting, blowing their horns, cracking their whips, shouting their “Tally-Ho!”, while their horses’ hooves thunder in the air, and their dogs cry out as they chase their quarry over the land. These fairy-folk are better known as ‘Cluricaunes’ and they turn the rushes and the ‘boliauns’ (Ragwort) into fine horses. When the fairies sit astride these mounts they gallop in the hunt, or transport them in a body, or troop, from one place to another. Over hedges and ditches, walls and fences, brakes and briars, hills and valleys, lakes and rivers, they sweep with incredible speed and an airy lightness.
The strange sounds that are caused by crackling furze blossoms are often attributed to a fairy presence. They like to shelter beneath clumps of gorse thickets, because they love the scent that comes from their flowers, and they create trackways that will make passage much easier through the wiry grass that grows around the roots of these bushes. From out of the yellow cup-leaved blossoms they sip the sweet dew collected there. At the same time, the fairy-folk refresh themselves by sucking the dew drops from other leaves and flowers. They are so light-footed when they are dancing, in fact, that these de drops are scarcely shaken off, even during their wildest exertions.
Filled with a great passion and eagerness for music and dancing, the fair-folk will spend the entire night, without even stopping to take a breath, at their favourite jigs and reels. They will glide around the space in lines and in circles, dancing with each other using a great variety of steps and postures. Usually they are dressed in green clothes of various shades and hues, or sometimes they are dressed in white and silver-spangled clothing and wearing high-peaked or wide-brimmed scarlet caps on their heads. In the light of the moon they can be seen under the shade of thick, ancient oak trees, dancing on or around large globular toadstools, or umbrella-shaped mushrooms.
Interestingly, we rarely find our Irish fairy-folk regularly employed in any industrial pursuits, except for those that can be chiefly conducted indoors and do not take much exertion on their part. Their efforts are used in creating items pleasing to young Irish girls, or thrifty housewives, but their scarcity is evidence of the amount of effort put into creating them. For the fairy-folk, however, it is pleasure and social enjoyment that are the delights that chiefly occupy their time, much as it does with various elements in our society. Yet, there is no need to be envious of these folks for it is only at a distance that the fairies appear to be graceful or handsome, although there clothing is always made from rich material of a fine texture.
It appears to be the habit of the Irish fairy-folk to frequently change shape, which allows them to suddenly appear and, just as suddenly vanish. Surprisingly, these elven-folk when you look closely at them, are generally found to be aged looking, withered, bent, and to having very ugly features. This is especially true of the men, while the female of the species are endowed with characteristics that give them a rare beauty in many areas and to these the little men always pay the greatest attention. But, because of their appearance, ordinary Irish people believe that they are a mix of human and spiritual natures. It is said also that their bodies are not solid but are made from some substance that we mortals are unable to feel when we touch.
It is generally agreed that these gentle-folk are filled with benevolent feelings or great resentment, depending on the circumstances of the moment. Although, during the day, these folk are invisible to humans they continue to see and hear all that takes place among men, especially when it concerns those matters in which they have a special interest. Cautious people are always anxious to ensure that they have a good reputation among the fairies and do all in their power to maintain a friendly relationship with them. It is a deeply held belief that the only means of averting the anger of the fairy-folk is always to be mannerly and open minded. This means taking care in all the actions you undertake, for example you should not strain potatoes, or spill hot water on, or over the threshold of a door because thousands of spirits are said to congregate invisibly at such a place, and to suffer from such careless actions. It was once common for a drinking person to spill a small portion of draught on the ground as an offering to the ‘good-people’.
The ordinary Irish folk have formed an ill-defined belief that the fairy-folk are like the fallen angels, in that they were driven from a place of bliss and condemned to wander this earth until the final day of judgement. The fairies themselves are believed to have doubts about their own future condition, although they do have high hopes of one day being restored to happiness. A mixture of good and evil balances their actions and motives, making them as vindictive in their passions as they are frequently humane and good in what they do. It is not unknown, for example, that desperate battles do take place between opposing bands that are hostile to each other. They meet, like the knights of old, armed from head to foot for combat. The air, witnesses have said, bristles with their spears and their flashing swords, while their shining helmets and bright red coats gleam in the bright sunshine.
The following is an old tale, whose source I do not know. The problem is that we do not know if it is true or simply another superstition.
The old jail of Roscommon stood, and, although now converted to other purposes, still stands in the market-place, in the centre of the town. It is a very high, dark, and gloomy-looking building, with a castellated top, like one of those ancient fortresses that we have often seen tower above the houses in many of the cities on the Continent. It can be seen from a great distance outside the town and, when added to the very extensive ruins of ‘O’Connor’s Castle’, in the suburbs, as well as the beautiful abbey that sits on the other side of the town, it appears to be another example of architecture that had been constructed during the middle-ages.
The fall from the gallows at Roscommon jail was considered by many to be the highest ‘fatal drop’ in Ireland. It consisted of a small doorway at the front of the building’s third storey, with a simple iron beam and pulley above. The gallows stage upon which the condemned stood awaiting execution was merely a horizontal door that was hinged to the wall beneath. When the appointed execution time arrived, this door was let fall by means of a sliding-bolt, which was pulled from the main wall, and the condemned person was consequently hanged.This elevated platform of execution was a fearful sight to behold for the folk of the town, and it was a unique in its construction.However, the gallows were no more unique than the person who acted as executioner and carried out their duty on that platform. This was no decrepit wretch of a human being, or a crime-hardened ruffian. Neither was it one of those secret and mysterious personages, who were occasionally produced by the authorities, disguised by mask or hood, to undertake this dreadful trade in public. Removing the most likely candidates for the role, you might wonder who was left that would not recoil from the unpleasant and terrible actions that were carried out on these high gallows. In fact, it was a female! She was a middle-aged, stoutly built, dark-eyed, swarthy-complexioned, but by no means forbidding-looking woman. She was widely known as ‘Lady Betty’, who carried out the final judgement and was regarded as the unflinching priestess of the executive for the Connaught circuit court for many years, with Roscommon being her main place of business.
Children born or reared in County Roscommon, two centuries ago, would often be frightened, when mischievous, into ‘being good,’ and going to sleep, and not crying when left alone in the dark, by the promise of a visit by a ‘Pooka’, or, by being told Lady Betty would get them.There is little firm evidence of ‘Lady Betty’s’ life and what we have learned about her is mostly hearsay. We are told that she was a person who had a very violent temper, although her manners were said to be rather above those of the common folk, and she was supposed to have possessed some formal education. It was rumoured that she was born and raised in the County Kerry, and that by her harsh treatment of her only son she drove him away from her at an early age. Apparently, he enlisted in the army and, after many years, he returned with a small fortune in his pocket, which he had gained through his many campaigns. On his return home he knocked at his father’s door and asked if he could get a night’s lodging. It appears that he was determined to see for himself whether the brutal mother he had left behind had in any way repented for what she had done. He wanted to know if she had softened her ways over the years before he would consider revealing his identity. He was brought into the house but was not recognised by anyone. The mother, however, discovered that the ‘stranger’ had quite a bit of money on him and during the night, as the man slept, she coldly murdered him. The crime was quickly discovered, and the wretched woman was sentenced to be hanged. She had to share the ‘dock’ along with the usual sheep-stealers, ‘Whiteboys’, thieves, and ruffians who had ham-strung cattle. Such criminals were usually brought into the dock seven or eight at a time and were invariably executed within twenty-four-hours after being sentenced by the court. But, on this occasion, no executioner could be found despite the best of efforts. The local sheriff and his deputy, considering themselves to be men of refinement, education, humanity, and sensibility, would not carry out such an odious duty. They maintained this attitude although it was a part of the office they had sworn to undertake, and for which they received payment. The wretched, murderous woman was the only person in the jail who could be found to perform the executions, and under the name of ‘Lady Betty’ she carried them out without mask or disguise. For many years after this she officiated as hangwoman and she used to publicly flog criminals in the streets, as a part of her office.There are numerous stories told about this woman’s exploits and we have not enough room here to relate them all. But we can mention one extraordinary feature of her character, which was the habit she had of drawing portraits of all those whom she had executed on the walls of her room with a burnt stick.
The following inscription was found in on a tombstone in the churchyard of Youghal that marks the grave of Anne Maria Carew, who died at the young age of 24 years.
’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, when
hope hath built a bow’r
Like that of Eden, wreathed about
with many a thornless
To dwell therein securely, the self-
A whirlwind from the desert
comes, and all is in the dust.
’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, that
when the poor heart clings
With all its finest tendrils, with all
its flexile rings,
That goodly thing it cleaveth to so
fondly and so fast,
Is struck to earth by lightning, or
shattered by the blast.
’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, with
beams of mortal bliss,
With looks too bright and
beautiful for such a world as
One moment round about us their
angel light wings play;
Then down the veil of darkness
drops, and all is passed
’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, with
creatures heavenly fair,
Too finely formed to bear
the brunt more earthly natures
A little while they dwell with us,
blest ministers of love,
Then spread the wings we had not
seen, and seek their homes