At Dromahaire Abbey, in County Leitrim, many years ago there was a man saying his prayers in a part of the sacred enclosure. It is said that, when he rose from his knees, he took an iron spoon that lay under a slab covering a grave and put his hand into a hole up to the shoulder and drew up a spoonful of the clay. This he wrapped up in paper and told people it was for a sick person who subsequently mixed it in water, and he drank it for a remedy. he declared that this was the grave of Father Peter and that he had been a very holy man.
There are many legends and superstitions that surround these beautiful ruins of Ardmore Abbey and its round tower. It was said to be Saint Declan who founded the original abbey and its tower, building the base course in one night, while on the second night he built it up to its second level, carrying it to the third level on the third night. But an angry old woman scolded the saint and asked, “Will you never be done?” Saint Declan immediately completed the final part of the structure finishing it off with a conical cap.
It was also said that Declan went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and on his return, as his ship approached Ardmore some gigantic pagans tried to prevent his landing and ran out to sea threatening him. But Declan transformed them into rocks, and they stand there to this day, forming a reef. At this time also, it is reported, that a large glacial boulder floated behind Declan’s ship all the way from Rome. It followed in the ship’s wake and lodged itself safely on a ridge near the ship and cried out, “The clerk forgot the bell,” whereupon they found the bell and his vestments on the rock although they had been left behind in Rome. The stone lies there until this day, resting upon an outcrop of local rocks on the shore, and it is said to work miraculous cures to those who rub their backs against it, or creep under it in the hollow between two supporting rocks. There is a warning, also, that anyone attempting to gain a cure with a stolen garment or having unabsolved sins on their soul will have the stone press down upon them and prevents their passage through.
At Ardmore, County Waterford, in the churchyard of the ancient and most interesting ruined abbey, they show the spot where it was said Saint Declan, the founder, was buried. It is walled around, but inside the soil has been excavated to a considerable depth in past times and the custodian of the place was selling the earth as a cure for sick people.
Also, in the graveyard the practice of creeping beneath stones is seen when a childless woman creeps under a tombstone in their quest to become mothers. (from ‘Notes on Irish Folklore’, Folklore vol.27, No.4, 1916, pp419-426: JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/ 1255596)
Adoption of a child is not a new creation in Ireland, for the Irish peasant was known for the care that they would take of others in difficulty, even if not in their community. Considering all that happened to the Irish peasantry, this comment may come as a great surprise to you. Nevertheless, there is no feature of human nature that was surrounded in so much mystery, or less understood, than the very strong bond of affection that existed between the humble Irish peasant and his adopted brother, especially if that adopted brother is from a family that had social-rank or respect for the community. This peculiar relationship, though it may to a certain extent have been mutually felt, it was not normally regarded as being equal in its strength between the two parties. While there may have been instances of equality of feeling experience teaches us that such equality is to be found in the humbler of the two parties. We should stop there since we are getting into areas of psychology and philosophy in which I have absolutely no experience. Perhaps we can just simply agree that what I have stated is fact. In the history and tradition of our country we have enough material from which we can obtain clear and distinct proofs that the attachment of habit and closeness in these instances far transcends that of natural affection itself. Even today there are very few instances of one brother laying down his life for the other, and yet examples of such high and heroic sacrifices have occurred in the case of the foster-brothers. It is certainly impossible to attribute this wild but indomitable attachment to the force of domestic feeling. While we Irish insist that family affections among our people are stronger than those held in any other country, there are occasions when this almost inexplicable devotion have occurred in those persons we know that have very feeble domestic ties.
It is fact that the human heart has many moral peculiarities associated with it and we are not yet totally acquainted or comfortable with any of them. They constantly come at us in a great variety of wayward and irregular combinations, none of which operates in a manner that employs any of the known principles of action. It is more likely than unlikely that we shall ever completely understand them. There is another peculiarity in Irish feeling, which, as it is similar to this, we cannot neglect to mention it. It is said that when the ‘Dublin Foundling Hospital’ was in existence, the poor infants who were consigned to that gloomy and soul destroying place were often sent to different parts of the country, where they would be taken care of by the wives of those peasants who were employed as day-labourers, cottiers, and small farmers, who also cultivated from three to six or eight acres of land. These children were either abandoned or were orphaned and were usually supported by a tax upon the parish in which they were born. To the local peasants they were known as ‘Parisheens’ and were accompanied by an upkeep grant paid to the foster parents.
You might think that such deserted and orphaned children might have been sent to people who may have seen them as servants and slaves, to be neglected, ill-treated and given little comfort. There were, undoubtedly, some of the foster parents who did such things, but there were as many more who showed themselves to be more honourable, generous and affectionate toward those placed in their care. In many cases they received the same care, affection, and tenderness that these foster parents showed to their own children. Even when they reached an age at which they were free to leave their foster home many of these stayed with the foster families, preferring the love and affection they had been shown in their lives this far to anything else that life might offer them. This, of course, is a natural reaction by anyone to someone that feeds, clothes and shows affection towards him. Over the years of being treated as a member of the family it would not be unusual for foster-brothers to form a very strong emotional attachment. As by way of an example of these attachments I will relate to you a story that I have recently heard and believe to be true, which took place over two hundred years ago during the 1798 rebellion.
Andrew Moore was a gentleman of some note in the district and he had a young daughter, who was renowned for her beauty and her accomplishments. In fact, such was the fame of this young lady that men often drank to her health as if she was the pride of her native county. A woman so beautiful had many suitors, of course, but among these there were two men who were particularly noteworthy for the thorough attentions they showed her, and their intense efforts to secure her affections. Henry Corbin was a man of means and held strong loyalist views, as did the young lady’s own father. To him the father had given his consent to win over the affections of his daughter with a view to marriage. The other suitor, unfortunately for Henry, had already gained the young lady’s affections but was considered totally unsuitable by the father. This young man was leader and, therefore, deeply involved on the side of the insurgents, known as ‘United Irishmen.’ These facts had become known to Andrew Moore some time before the breaking out of the rebellion and, because of his republican views, the man was forbidden to come to Moore’s house, and he was told not to communicate with any member of the Moore family. But, before this banishment, the young man had succeeded getting Miss Moore’s assistance to ensure that his foster-brother, Frank Finnegan, was employed as butler to the Moore family. The young lady was fully aware of the young man’s republican principles and knew that such an arrangement would never have been permitted if her father had known of the peculiar bond of affection that existed between the young men. Mr. Moore, fortunately for Frank, had no idea of the bond between him and his foster-brother. He was totally unaware that by allowing Finnegan into his family home he gave the forbidden suitor an advantage to forward his affections for the girl.
Andrew’s interference in the affair had, in fact, come too late to prevent the growth of a relationship between the young lovers. Before he issued his prohibition to Thomas Houston, the young man and his daughter had exchanged vows of mutual affection with each other. The rebellion that broke out forced Hewson to assume his place as a local leader of the rebellion. Naturally, by assuming such a role, it appeared that he had placed an insurmountable barrier between himself and the object of his affections. In the meantime, Andrew Moore, who was the local magistrate and a captain of yeomanry, took a very active part in putting down this rebellion, and in hunting down and securing all those who had chosen to rise-up against the government. Henry Corbin showed his zealousness in following the footsteps of Mr. Moore in hunting down the rebels, because he wanted to prove himself as the best choice for a future son-in-law. The two men acted in unison against the rebellion and, on occasion, the measures employed by eager Mr. Corbin were such that Andrew felt it necessary to rein-in the young loyalist’s exuberance. Such efforts to control the worst of Corbin’s impulses were, however, kept hidden from the younger man. But, since Corbin always seemed to be acting under the orders of his friend Moore it was, naturally, believed that every harsh and malicious act that was committed, was either sanctioned or suggested by Andrew Moore. It was as a consequence of these beliefs that Moore was considered to be even more vile and odious than Corbin. While the younger man became considered only as a rash and hot-headed loyalist zealot, the older man was thought to be a cool and wily old fox, who had ten times the cunning and cruelty of the senseless puppet whose strings he was pulling. In holding such views, however, they were terribly mistaken.
In the meantime, the rebellion went ahead and there were many acts of cruelty and atrocity were committed by both sides of the conflict. Moore’s house and family would have been attacked and most probably the house ransacked and its occupants murdered if it were it not for the influence that Thomas Houston held with the rebels. On at least two occasions Houston succeeded, and with great difficulty, in preventing Andrew Moore and his entire household from falling victim to the vengeance of the insurgents. Although Moore was a man of great personal courage, he would often underrate the character and bravery of those who opposed him. His caution, it must be said was not equal with his bravery or zeal, for he had been known to rush out at the head of a party of men to seek out the enemy, and by doing so left his own home, and the lives of those who were in it, exposed and defenceless.
On one of these expeditions he happened to capture a small group of rebels who were under the leadership of a close friend and distant relative of Thomas Houston. As the law in those terrible days was quick to punish the wrongdoers, the rebels who had been taken openly armed against the King and the Government were summarily tried and executed by a court-martial. As a result of this action, the rebel forces swore to reap a deep and bloody vengeance against Andrew Moore and his family. For a considerable period of time thereafter the rebels, lay in ambush for their target, to ensure that Moore got his just reward for his atrocious actions.
Houston’s attachment to Moore’s daughter, however, had been known for many months, and his previous interference on behalf of the old man had been successful because of that fact. Now, however, the group’s plan of attack was agreed without his knowledge, and they all swore solemnly that none of them would repeat the plan to any man who was not already familiar with it, which included Houston. They were convinced that if he should learn of their plan he would once more make earnest efforts to prevent them taking their bloody revenge. But, with this plan made and agreed, the group reduced their activities in the county to try and put Moore off his guard, because since his execution of the captured rebels he had felt it necessary to ensure his house was strongly and resolutely defended against rebel attack. The attack against Moore was postponed for quite a while until the concerns created by his recent activities would finally disappear, and his enemies could proceed with their plans to inflict bloodshed and destruction.
Eventually the night for taking action was decided upon and preparations were made. Each person’s role in the assault was explained to them in detail and the necessary weapons were made ready. A secret, however, when communicated to a great number of people, even under the most solemn promise not to reveal it, is more likely to be revealed. This is especially true during a civil war, where so many interests of friendship, blood, and marriage, bind the opposing parties together despite those principles which they publicly profess and under which they were to act. In this case it was Miss Moore’s personal maid whose brother, together with several of his friends and relatives, had been selected to assist in the planned attack. Naturally, he felt anxious that she should not be present on the night of the assault in case her relationship with the assailants might prove to be dangerous to them. He, therefore, sought an opportunity to see his sister and earnestly plead with her to stay away from the Moore house on the night that had been chosen for the attack. The girl was not at all surprised by any of his hints to her because she was completely aware of the current state the countryside was in, and the enmity that most of the people felt for Moore and Corbin, and all those who were acting on behalf of the government. She replied to him that she would follow his advice and she spoke in such a manner that he decided there no longer any need maintain the secrets to which he was privy. The plot was, therefore disclosed, and the girl warned to get out of the house, both for her own sake and for that of those people who were about to wreak their vengeance on Andrew Moore and his family.
The poor girl, wanted Andrew and his family to escape the danger that was coming and she revealed the plan to Miss Moore, who immediately informed her father. Andrew Moore, however, did not make plans to escape, but took measures to gather around his home a large and well-armed force from the closest military garrison. The maid, who was known as Peggy Baxter, had developed a close relationship with Hewson’s foster-brother Finnegan, and the two had become lovers in every sense of the word. Peggy knew that the love she felt for Finnegan would be worth nothing if he was to be overcome by the danger that was approaching. Immediately after her revelation to Miss Moore, Peggy went to her sweetheart to confide the secret to him, giving him several hours to escape. Finnegan was totally surprised by this revelation, especially when Peggy told him that her brother had said that Houston had been kept oblivious to the plan because of his feelings toward the young Miss Moore. There was now obvious means of stopping the plan from going ahead, unless contact could be made with Houston. Finnegan knew that such a task would be dangerous but, being a ‘United Irishman’ himself, he knew that he could get to Houston without any real danger. As quickly as he could, Finnegan left the house to seek out his foster-brother and soon crossed his path. When Houston heard what his foster-brother had to say he was stunned and angry that this action was about to go ahead without him being told by his comrades. His task completed, Finnegan left to return to his post, but before he reached the house the darkness had already set in. On his arrival Finnegan sought out the kitchen and the many comforts it contained. All this time he was ignorant, as were most of the servants, that the upper rooms and out-houses were already crammed with fierce and well-armed soldiers.
Matters were now reaching the crisis point. Houston was aware now that there was little time to be lost and collected a small party of his own immediate and personal friends. Not one of these men, because they were his friends, had been privilege to the plan for the attack upon Moore’s home. Determined to be ahead of the attackers, he and his friends met at an appointed place and from there they went quickly to Moore’s house with as much secrecy as possible. It was his plan to let Moore know about what was about to happen to him and his family and then to escort them all to a place of safety. Not expecting to find the house defended by armed men, Houston’s party were unprepared for an attack or sally from that direction. In a few minutes two of Houston’s group were shot, and most of the rest, including Houston himself, were taken prisoners on the spot. Those who managed to escape the scene told the other insurgents about the strength of troops which were defending Moore’s house and the planned attack was postponed rather quickly.
Thomas Houston maintained a dignified silence, but when he saw his friends being escorted under guard from the hall to a large barn he asked that he should be put with them. “No!” Moore shouted at him, “Even if you are a rebel ten times over, you are still a gentleman and should not be herded in a barn with them. Furthermore, Mr Houston, with the greatest of respect to you, we shall put you in a much safer place. The highest room in the highest part of the house is where we will put you, and if you escape from there then we shall say that you are an innocent man. Frank Finnegan, show Mr. Houston and those two soldiers up to the observatory. Get them some refreshments and leave him in the soldiers’ charge. You men will guard his door well because you will be held responsible for his appearance in the morning.”
In obedience to Moore’s orders the two soldiers escorted Thomas to the door, outside of which was their guard station for the night. When Frank and Thomas entered the observatory, the former gently shut the door, and, turning to his foster-brother he spoke hurriedly but in a low voice saying, “There is not a moment to lose, you must escape.”
“That is impossible,” replied Houston, “unless I had wings and could use them.”
“We must try,” urged Frank; “we can only fail in our efforts. The most they do is to take your life and, mark my words, they’ll do that.”
“I know that,” said Houston, “and I am prepared for the worst.”
“Listen to me, for God’s sake,” said the other; “I will come up a little later with refreshments, say in about half an hour. You ensure that you are stripped when I come, because we are both the same size. Those guards at the door don’t know either of us very well and it would be possible for you to go out in my clothes. Say nothing,” he added, seeing Houston about to speak; “I have been here too long already, and these fellows might begin to suspect something. So, be prepared when I come. Good bye, Mr Houston,” he said aloud, as he opened the door; “It’s sorry I am to see you here, but that’s the consequence of deciding to rebel against King George, and all glory to him — soon and sudden,” he added in an undertone. “In about half an hour I’ll bring you up some supper, sir. Keep a sharp eye on him,” he whispered to the two soldiers, giving them at the same time a knowing and confidential wink. “These same rebels are as slippery as eels, and they will slide easily through your fingers given a chance. And the devil knows you have a good in there;” and as he spoke, he pointed over his shoulder with his inverted thumb to the door of the observatory.
Just about the time he had promised to return, a crash was heard upon the stairs, and Finnegan’s voice in a high key exclaimed, “Damn you for a set of stairs, and to hell with every rebel in Europe, I pray to God this night! My bloody nose is broken because of you having me running about like an eejit!” He then stooped down, and in a torrent of bitter swear words he collected all the materials for Houston’s supper and placed them again upon the tray. He then continued up the stairs, and on presenting himself at the prisoner’s door, the blood was streaming from his nose. The soldiers on seeing him, could not avoid laughing at his sorrowful appearance and this angered him quite a bit. “You may laugh!” he said to them, “but I’d bet that I’ve shed more blood for his majesty this night than either of you ever did in your lives!” This only increased their laughter as he entered Houston’s room. Once inside the two men exchanged clothes very quickly, before the laughter of the soldiers died down.
“Now,” said Frank, “go. Behind the garden Miss Moore is waiting for you, for she knows all. Take the bridle-road through the broad bog and get into Captain Corry’s estate. Take my advice too, and both of you get yourselves of to America, if you can. But, easy. God forgive me for pulling you by the nose instead of shaking you by the hand, and I may never see you again.” The poor fellow’s voice became unsteady with emotion, although there was a smile on his face at his own humour. “As I came in here with a bloody nose,” he proceeded, giving Houston’s nose a fresh pull, “you know you must go out with one. And now God’s blessing be with you! Think of one who loved you as none else did.”
The next morning there was uproar, tumult, and confusion in the house of the old loyalist magistrate, when it was discovered that his daughter and the butler were missing. But when they examined the observatory, they soon discovered that Finnegan was safe and Houston was gone. There are no words to adequately describe the rage and the fury of Moore, Irwin, and the military. You might already have some idea as to what happened next. Frank was brought in front of a hastily formed court-martial and sentenced to be shot where he stood. But, before the sentence was executed, Moore spoke to him. “Now, Finnegan,” said he, “I will get you out of this, if you tell us where Houston and my daughter are. I swear on my honour and in public that I will save your life, and get you a free pardon, if you help us to trace and recover them.”
“I don’t know where they are,” Finnegan replied, “but even if I did, I would not betray them to you.”
“Think of what has been said to you,” added Irwin. “I give you my word also to the same effect.”
“Mr Irwin,” he replied, “I have but one word to say. When I did what I did, I knew very well that my life would pay for his, and I know that if he had thought so, he would be standing now in my place. Carry out your sentence. I’m ready”
“Take five minutes,” said Moore. “Give him up and live.”
“Mr Moore,” said he, with a decision and energy which startled them, “I am his Foster-Brother!” He felt now that he had said enough and he silently stood at the place appointed for him. He was calm and showed no fear, and at the first volley of shots he fell dead instantaneously. In this way he passed from this life.
Houston, finally realised that the insurgent cause was becoming increasingly hopeless. Being urged by his young wife he escaped, after two or three other unsuccessful engagements, to America. Old Moore died a few years later, having survived all the resentment he had earned. He also succeeded in reconciling the then government to his son-in-law, who returned to Ireland, and it was found by his will, much to the anger and disappointment of many of his relatives, that he had left the bulk of his property to Mrs Houston, who had always been his favourite child, and whose attachment to Houston he had originally encouraged.
In an old, lonely churchyard there is to be found a handsome monument, which has the following passage inscribed upon it, i.e. “Sacred to the memory of Francis Finnegan, whose death presented an instance of the noblest virtue of which human nature is capable, that of laying down his life for his friend. This monument is erected to his memory by Thomas Houston, his friend and foster-brother, for whom he died.”
“Our dead Friends are right,” an old man told me after hearing that it was my custom to sit up late at night to read. “No, sir, that isn’t right at all,” he sighed and shook his head disapprovingly.
I was curious as to his reasoning and I asked him, “Why is that? “
“Well,” the old man began, “sure, don’t you know that your dead relatives, if it’s God’s will that they should be wandering about the place, always like to spend their nights in the old home. They come at ten o’clock, and if the house is not quiet, they go away again. Then, they return at eleven o’clock, and if there is still any noise from inside, or anyone sitting up, they do the same. But, at twelve o’clock they come for the last time, and if they are obliged to leave again, they must spend the night wandering about in the cold! But if they get into the house at any time between ten o’clock and twelve o’clock, they will sit around the hearth until the cock crows to herald the new day.”
The old man’s eyes showed the knowledge of his years and the easy way in which he explained things assured me that he was a man well versed in folklore. His explanation of the dead relatives visiting the home at night gave some light on customs that I had seen when visiting relations with my father in the days of my youth. One such custom that I had observed was that of the woman of the house carefully sweeping around the hearth and arranging the kitchen chairs in a semicircle in front of the “raked” fire before the last person awake finally makes their way to bed.
The old man listened intently as I told him about the custom I watched, many years before, and he told me that such preparations were often made in the homes of country folk. “Sure, what would the relatives think,” he said with a smile, “if the place was not tidied up before their arrival? It is little respect we had for them they’d say.”
I loved to walk along the country highways and byways of the county, especially in the summer. One day, I was walking along a road in the south of county and was accompanied by a good friend of my father’s, called Peter. We passed a poorly clothed and wretched-looking woman, who acted most oddly as we approached. Much to my amazement, as we came closer to her, the woman turned her back to us and stood with her head bent towards the ground until we had passed by. “What in the name of God is wrong with her, is she away in the head? ” I asked Peter.
“Aye,” answered my friend, “the poor woman is a little astray in the mind, and that is what she always does when she sees a stranger.”
Peter then began to explain to me that he recalled seeing the same woman, when she was young lady and he was only a boy. At that time, she was growing up into a very attractive and sensible young girl, who was admired by all the young men in the entire neighbourhood. “Then, she saw something,” Peter told me in a mysterious tone of voice, “and the poor woman was never the same again.”
“What, in the name of God, did she see? ” I asked.
“Sure, I wouldn’t know,” he replied, “but, it might have been something similar to what her brother saw before he died.”
“What was that? “
“Well, her brother was playing cards in a local village one night, and was returning home after twelve o’clock, when his eyes caught sight of a great number of strangely dressed, little men coming towards him. It struck him that every one of these little men were of the same size, and that they were marching to the sound of grand music. In the front of the parade there was one little man, who held a big drum and was heartily beating away at it, accompanied by two or three more little men with smaller drums, and the rest of the company had flutes. The poor woman’s brother was almost frightened to death by what he saw, and he stood rooted to the spot unable to move even an inch.The little man beating the big drum came up to him and asked him why he had dared to come along their way at that late hour of the night. The poor woman’s brother was completely mesmerised by the scene and could not utter a word in reply. Then, the little drummer ordered the rest of the parade to take hold of him and carry him along with them. ‘No!’ said one of the little men, ‘you won’t touch him this time. He is my own brother. Don’t you know me, Hughey?‘ he said as he turned toward the terror-stricken young man. In fact, he was his brother, who had died about a year earlier. ‘Go you home now, Hughey dear,’ the little man told him, in as mournful a voice as ever was heard,
‘’So, you see,” concluded Peter, “it is not advisable to be out late at night, particularly after twelve o’clock. And it is generally believed it was something similar that the poor sister had seen, which left her in her current condition.”
Naturally, I made no effort to question the supposition because I knew only too well, from past experiences, that any such efforts would prove to be fruitless. You, when you hear stories such as these, might choose to ridicule them and regard them as being complete nonsense. But, let me warn you that such ridicule and attempts to disprove such stories would only be a waste of your energy and your words. Those who have been brought up believing in the power of the Spirits, the ‘Good People’ and the Sidhe (Shee) are as convinced of their power and existence, as they are convinced of their own existence. In response to your efforts to dissuade them they will simply tell you that they know what they know.
At sunset on June 23rd, another of the ancient fire festivals begins and is known as St. John’s Eve. Not that long ago, it was a wide-spread tradition throughout Ireland that on St. John’s Eve a curious practice prevailed, in some districts, which related to the time-honoured tradition of lighting a bonfire.
Before sunset on St. John’s Eve a small fire was built and lit in a place that was near to the byre because in such a position the milk-cows would pass close to the fire as they returned from the fields. In fact, great care was taken to drive the cows as close as possible to the fire itself. This was done, it was said, to allow the cows to “smell” the fire, which it was believed would have a very beneficial effect on the quantity and the quality of the milk and butter produced. It was also believed to be a safeguard against any evil spirits or witchcraft which might befall the cow herself. Then, coals were taken from the little fire, and one of them is thrown into each field of potatoes that belong to the owner of the cow. Through this ritual, it was thought, a great increase in the cow’s production would be achieved..
It was the custom in some places that when a cow begins to calve the owner would place a “grape” (the ordinary steel fork used in farming operations) near her head until she “cleans” (Rids herself of the afterbirth). The steel or iron from which they form the grape was considered “lucky,” and effective defence against any evil influences spread by the fairy-folk. There may, of course, be other customs resorted to on such occasions as this, but what kind of results they achieve I couldn’t say. There is another custom where a silver coin is placed in the first drink that is given to the cow after it has calved, and the reason behind this curious custom was simply that it was considered “lucky to let the cowlick the silver.”
There are many other peculiar practices, such as tying a red rag to the tail of the milch-cow (Milk Cow), with a few horse-shoe nails, a partially burned coal, and some salt are rolled in the rag. It was quite common at one time to see red rags hanging from the tails of milch -cows at fairs in the west of Ireland, allowing the intending purchasers of milch-cows to easily recognise the milking cow, from the ones due to calve (‘springer’).
Tradition also advises farmers to take a very necessary precaution when the cow calves. Strangely this is to give the first of the milk, a small glassful is enough, to that very useful domestic animal, the cat. The reason behind this peculiar tradition, I have been told, is that they give the first of the milk to the cat so that the cat can take the bad luck away with her on her paws.
In the past the Irish peasantry never thought, even for one moment, that a child abducted from its home would have been killed and buried in the cold earth somewhere. In their minds they imagined that the missing child was living among the fairies, although this belief did not lessen the heartbreak felt by the parents. They were convinced that their child was now condemned to endure, if not enjoy, all the changes in circumstances they would experience in a life that was constrained by their exile from heaven and earth. When the child was not restored again to its parents, it was assumed by the entire community that the child’s life was being prolonged to an indefinite period while it lived among the fairy-folk.
The idea that the fairy-folk practiced human abduction was held as being true among the Irish peasantry of days long passed. Today, when a child goes missing, or is abducted, all sorts of alarm bells begin to ring in our society. Some are returned unharmed, but most are found alive or dead, but all suffered at the hands of evil people. But, there are still some of whom no trace has been found. In many cases within Irish peasant homes those children who suddenly became sickly, or acted strangely, were often called changelings. It was said that the original child had been abducted from their home by the fairy-folk and replaced with an old, decrepit, sickly, emaciated ugly fairy child. The human parents almost expected such a thing to happen, especially when they knew that the fairy-folk prized young and lovely mortal children.
To guard against such things happening to children the midwives were accustomed to giving newly-born children a small spoonful of whisky, mixed with earth, as its first food. This was a charm intended to preserve the child from any extraordinary spell that may be cast upon them by the fairies. Special care was taken to watch over all new-born babies and to guard them until after they had been christened. Only then would they be considered free from the threat of abduction, or changed for a deformed, evil fairy child.
Although the peasant woman feared for her newborn child, especially if it was a handsome, fit, and pleasing child. But, it was not only children that were subjected to abduction and forced exile from their homes. Records speak of mortal women, who had recently been confined in childbirth, were also subject to abduction by the fairy-folk, who took them to the fairy realm where they would be forced to suckle and nurse fairy-born infants.
In Irish folklore, Changelings are said to have an inclination for carrying out certain grotesque pranks. They were known to mysteriously obtain a set of pipes, which they would carry under their arm, and they would often sit up in their cradle to perform a variety of airs with great flourish, as well as some strange grimaces. When the Changeling plays lively jigs, reels and hornpipes on that instrument, the people living in the cottage immediately began to dance wildly despite their reservations. Though they might be ready to drop with exhaustion the dancers are unable to stop their dancing until the Changeling stops playing.
Despite all the hilarious whims and oddities that a changeling might possess, it was still regarded as a very unwelcome family intruder. It was not unknown for the fairy child to be thrown across the fire’s hearth to attempt to eject him from the household. He would then suddenly vanish up through the open chimney, all the while calling on vengeance and shouting curses, as well as all kinds of terrible names, against the family that had sheltered him for so long.
The other method of removing the changeling froma cabin was to use a clean shovel to pick it up and place it on the centre of a dung-hill. In the meantime, the parents still believed that their own children would be returned to them no matter how long they had been absent. Men and women with special knowledge of the fairy-folk, called ‘fairy-doctors’ were called upon to direct certain prayers that would ensure the true child would return. The verses of these prayers were usually chanted in Irish. The following are the lines of a prayer that was once used for this reason and is translated into English and recorded Rev. John O’Hanlon (1870) :-
“Fairy-men and women all,
List! – it is your baby’s call;
For on the dung-hill’s top he lies,
Beneath the wide, inclement skies,
Then come with coach and sumptuous train,
And take him to your mote again.
For if ye stay till cocks shall crow,
You’ll find him like a thing of snow, –
A pallid limp, a child of scorn,
A monstrous brat of fairies born.
But ere you bear the boy away,
Restore the child you took instead;
When, like a thief, the other day,
You robbed my infant’s cradle bed,
But, give me back my only son,
And I’ll forgive the harm you done;
And nightly, for your gamboling crew,
I’ll sweep the hearth and kitchen too;
And leave you free your tricks to play,
Whene’er you choose to pass this way.
Then, like good people, do incline
To take your child and give back mine.”
When these words, or words like them, had been recited the Fairy-Doctors would retire to an adjoining cottage, closing the door carefully behind them and await whatever might happen, while they repeated some additional prayers and incantations. Any noise, whether caused by the elements or a passing vehicle, was quickly put down as due to the approach or departure of a fairy troop. When the door was opened sometime afterwards these so-called ‘Doctors’ would confidently declare that the true child had been returned. The poor emaciated being atop of the dung-hill was then brought into the cabin, and its deluded parents were told that their child would not long survive. The subsequent death of the child through mistreatment and malnourishment appeared to confirm the prediction made by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’. Each occasion added to the reputation already established by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’ among the Irish peasantry.
Children, however, were not the only occupants of the Raths who had been abducted. The fairy-folk would take a fancy to the pipes used by accomplished pipers, as well as the instruments used by other famous musicians. These people would often be abducted and brought to the underground and underwater habitations of the fair-folk. Unfortunately for these musicians, they had to play their music for the finely dressed, frisky little gentlemen and ladies. While the fairies danced the musicians played, until they were almost dead with fatigue. One saving grace, however, was that the fairy-folk were very conscientious about giving out good servings of refreshments and, usually before morning, those whom they had abducted would be freed. Sometimes, however, the musician was invited to stay with the fairy-folk but, if he preferred to return home to the land of mortals, he was allowed to go freely. But, the fairies will take away the musician’s instrument and replace it with one that is much more perfect and sweeter toned. Moreover, the fame of having been abducted to the land of the fairy-folk and having been given such a gift will establish the musician’s place in society, and his future financial prospects.
Likewise, midwives were said to be abducted to the fairy raths as pillion passengers on fairy horses that conducted them into the invisible abodes of the fairy-folk. Should these women take any food or drink while they are with the fairy-folk they cannot return home. But, these women are constantly pressed to eat and drink by the fairies, who constantly presented luxurious meals and drinks to them, upon which are placed the spell of detention.
We constantly hear stories about the gifts that the fairies can and have bestowed upon mortals like us. The fairies, however, were known to be less free in bestowing the riches of gold and silver to humans as a reward. Even when such riches were offered, those people so rewarded still found it very difficult to get their hands on it. There are many stories told about ‘crocks of gold’ and other treasures given by the fairy-folk that usually turn into stones, dry leaves, old bones, or something equally as worthless.
The Irish ‘fairy-man’, or ‘Fairy-women’, sometimes called ‘Fairy-Doctors’, were supposed to hold some mysterious sort of communication and influence with the fairies that lived in the motes and raths of the country. There were, of course, many rumours that these ‘fairy-doctors’ were impostors, who were originally changelings themselves. Such was the wariness of such people by the peasantry that they were generally relegated to living an almost hermit existence and a deep veil of mystery shrouded everything that they did.
They said that they were very well acquainted with all the secret things of the past, present and future. It was, allegedly, within their power to cure all illnesses and diseases that affect both man and beast. They said they could assist in the discovery and restoration of lost property, as well as give descriptions that would assist in the detection of the thief and their prosecution. People would go to them to have their fortunes told, because it was believed that they had knowledge of all matters that were of concern to the person. It was said that the fairies could cause cream to produce great amounts of cheese and the ‘fairy-doctors’ would take great care to impress on the minds of the ignorant that it would be desirable to make friends with the fairy-folk. This would prevent any evil effects caused by fairy resentment which could sometimes be regarded as fatal to the individual against whom it is directed.
The ‘fairy-doctors’ would often collect herbs and plants over which they would mumble certain spells and then use them as charms and cures for various troubles. These plants and herbs were considered to have been specially impregnated by some mysterious fairy influence that is efficacious for the healing arts. Sometimes, ‘Knowledgeable Old Women’, also called ‘Fairy-women’, were often known to exercise charms that did not encourage people to have confidence in their success. For example, an herb, or a bit of burnt sod taken from a the bonfire on St. John’s night in midsummer was often sewn into the clothes of women. It was a charm that was supposed to protect the wearer from any fairy plots, or abductions.
It was also said that there was an ointment that midwives used to smear on the fairy-children that, if rubbed on the eye of a mortal, would enable the mortal to see the spiritless skeleton of fairy illusions in the underground halls and palaces. Old friends and neighbours would often be discovered among the fairy followers in this manner. The fairies themselves, during their dancing and singing, also became visible to the eye that was rubbed with this ointment. Should a mortal make any sign to show that they could see the, the fairies would ask, “Do you see me?”
If answered in the positive they would be asked, “Which eye?”
Once informed the fairy will thrust his finger, or even puff his breath into that eye, and blind the incautious person, causing the charm to be removed.
As a final point of interest, the ‘Fairy-man’ was also called a ‘Charmer’ or ‘Cow-Doctor’ because he undertook to remove any fairy charms from sick cattle by preparing herbs and potions by spring well. So secretive was this process that he would not allow anyone to approach the site while he was creating his various concoctions. In some cases, particularly in the West of Ireland, cows were often driven into certain natural springs or loughs that were designated as being holy. This was done, usually, to restore the normal supply of dairy milk and butter, if the owner believed it had been reduced by some supernatural means. Considered to be a necessary part of the charm a bit of fresh butter was thrown into the water while certain incantations were sung.
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 normal things that amuse people are considered by the ‘Seer’ as being little else than vanity, if not something even worse. He despises those people who live and think only for the present, without ever once doing something for posterity, by attempting to discover the great events that lie in our future.
Domestic joys or the distresses that ordinary people encounter do not affect him in the least because the ‘Seer’ is not at all interested in feelings or emotions, but with a person’s principles. The speculations in which he indulges, and by which his whole life and conduct are regulated, place him far above the usual impulses of humanity. He does not care much who has been married or who has died, for his mind is more interested in communing with unborn generations upon affairs of high and solemn importance.
In the Seer’s mind, the past is something, but the future is everything, while the present unless it is marked by the prophetic symbols, means little or nothing. The topics of the ‘Seer’s’ conversation are vast and mighty, being nothing less than the fate of kingdoms, the revolution of empires, the ruin or establishment of creeds, the fall of monarchs, or the rise and prostration of principalities and powers. It is not surprising then, that a mind engaged in such things does not want to consider the lesser subjects of ordinary life, which are the priority of ordinary men. It is understandable that a man who is hard at work in evolving out of prophecy the subjugation of some hostile state, couldn’t care less if ‘Joe Bloggs’’ daughter was married to ‘Desperate Dan’s’ son, or not.
The ‘Seer’ could be called ‘The Prophecy Man’ because he devotes himself solely to the close observation of those political occurrences which mark the signs of the times, as they bear upon the future. It is his business to link such events with his own prophetic theories, which he spreads around. Many of the itinerant characters of old had when compared with him, a very limited area of operations. Instead of being confined to a parish or a barony, the bounds of the ‘Prophecy Man’s’ travels were those of the entire kingdom.
My Great-grandfather once told me about such a man, whom he said was the only one worthy of the title of ‘Prophecy Man’. He was known Barney Hagan, but my great-grandfather said that he didn’t know where in Ireland he was born. It remained a mystery, which is almost an advantage for a man who was constantly spoken of as ‘The Prophecy Man’. Quite oddly, although Barney could not read, he always carried about with him several old books and manuscripts that were concerned with his favourite subject.
Barney was a tall man and was always neatly dressed. He could not be considered a beggar, by any means, but was viewed as a person who must be received with respect wherever he went. People knew perfectly well that it was not with every farmer in the neighbourhood that he would feel happy to stay with. There was nothing of the austere and half-starved man in his appearance, which might be considered as a common trait of a Prophet. But Barney’s appearance was far from that, for he was quite portly. However, like a certain class of fat men, his natural disposition was to be calm and meditative. His movement was slow and regular, and his travel from one resting-place to another never exceeded the length of ten miles. Yet, even at this rate of travel, he covered the entire kingdom several times. Furthermore, there was hardly a local prophecy of any importance within the country with which he was not acquainted.
He took great delight in the words of the greater and lesser prophets in the Old Testament, but his favourite was the Revelations of St John the Divine. Usually, when the family came home from work in the evening, he would stretch himself on two chairs, with his head resting upon the hob, and his eyes closed to show that his mind was deeply engaged with the matter in hand. As he rested like this, he would ask someone to read the particular prophecy on which he wished to talk at length. It was generally curious and amusing entertainment to hear the text, accompanied by his own singular and original commentaries. There were, of course, many occasions when he was hoaxed by various jokers, and this was evident from the startling errors in the text which had been put into his mouth, and which, having been once put there, his tenacious memory never forgot.
Barney’s arrival in the neighbourhood was soon known far and wide throughout the district. As a result, the house in which he had thought it proper to stay became crowded every night. When their work had finished the people would eagerly gather to hear him speak. “Barney, old friend,” his host would say, “here’s a lot of the neighbours that have come to hear a lesson from you on the Prophecies. Sure, if you can’t give it to them, then who is there to be found that can?”
“By God, Paddy Trainor, although I say so myself, there’s a lot of truth in that. That same knowledge has cost me many a weary blister and sore heel in hunting it up and down, through mountain and glen, in Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connaught. And, sure, we should not be forgetting the Highlands of Scotland, where there is what they call the ‘short prophecy,’ or second sight. But, in that place, there is very little of the Irish or long prophecy, that tells what is to happen the ‘winged woman’ that had flown into the wilderness. No, indeed, their second sight isn’t true prophecy at all. If a man goes out to fish or steal a cow, and he happens to be drowned or shot, then another man who has the second sight will see this in his mind’s eye about or shortly after the time it occurs. But that’s no great thing. Many a time our own Irish dreams are equal to it, and indeed I have it from a knowledgeable man, that the gift they boast of has four parents, namely an empty stomach, thin air, a weak head, and strong whiskey. It is said that a man must have all these, especially the last before he can truly possess the second sight, and that is my own opinion as well. Now, I have a little book that contains a prophecy about the milk-white hind and the bloody panther, and a warning about the slaughter that there’s to be in the ‘Valley of the Black Pig’, as was foretold by ‘Beal Derg’, or the prophet with the red mouth, who never was known to speak except when he prophesied, or to prophesy only when he spoke.”
“The Lord bless and keep us! Why was he called the ‘Man with the Red Mouth’, Barney?”
“I’ll tell you that. First, because he always prophesied about the slaughter and fighting that was to take place in the future; and, secondly, because, while he spoke, the red blood always trickled out of his mouth, as proof that what he fore-told was true.”
“Glory be to God! but that’s wonderful altogether. Well, well!”
“Aye, and ‘Beal Derg’, or the ‘Red Mouth’, is still living.”
“Living? why, is he a man of our own time?”
“Our own time? The Lord help you! It’s more than a thousand years since he made the prophecy. The case you see is this. He and the ten thousand witnesses are lying in an enchanted sleep in one of the dark mountains.”
“An’ how is that known, Barney?”
“It’s known. Every night at a certain hour one of the witnesses and they’re all soldiers, by the way, must come out to look for the sign that’s to come.”
“And what is that, Barney?”
“It’s the fiery cross, and when he sees one on each of the four mountains of the north, he knows that the same sign is established in all the other parts of the kingdom. ‘Beal Derg’ and his men are then to waken up, and with their help, the ‘Valley of the Black Pig’ is to be set free forever.”
“And what is the Black Pig, Barney?”
“The Presbyterian Church, that stretch from Enniskillen to Derry, and back again from Derry to Enniskillen.”
“Well, well, Barney, but prophecy is a strange thing to be sure! Only think of men living a thousand years!”
“Every night one of ‘Beal Derg’s’ men must go to the mouth of the cave, which opens of itself, and then look out for the sign that’s expected. He walks up to the top of the mountain, and turns to the four corners of the heavens, to try if he can see it. And when he finds that he cannot, he goes back to ‘Beal Derg’, who, after the other touches him, starts up, and asks him, ‘Has the time come?’ He replies, ‘No. The man is, but the hour is not!’ and in that instant, they’re both asleep again. Now, you see, while the soldier is on the mountain top, the mouth of the cave is open, and anyone may go in that might happen to see it. One man it appears did, and wishing to know from curiosity whether the soldiers were dead or living, he touched one of them with his hand, who started up and asked him the same question, ‘Is the time come?’ Very, fortunately, he said ‘No’ and at that minute the soldier was as sound in his trance as before.”
“And, Barney, what did the soldier mean when he said, ‘The man is, but the hour is not?’”
“What did he mean? I’ll tell you that. The man is Bonaparte, which means, when put into the proper explanation, the right side, namely the true cause. Learned men have found that out.”
“Barney, wasn’t Columcille a great prophet?”
“Aye, he was a great man entirely at the prophecy, and so was St Bridget. He prophesied ‘that the cock with the purple comb is to have both his wings clipped by one of his own breed before the struggle comes.’ Before that time, too, we’re to have the Black Militia, and after that, it is time for every man to be prepared.”
“And, Barney, who is the cock with the purple comb?”
“Why, the Orangemen to be sure. Isn’t purple their colour, the dirty thieves?”
“And the Black Militia, Barney, who are they?”
“I have gone far and near, through north and through south, up and down, by hill and hollow, till my toes were corned and my heels cut in pieces but could find no one able to resolve that or bring it clear out of the prophecy. They’re to be soldiers in black, and all their arms and accouterments are to be the same colour, and more than that is not known as yet.”
“It’s a wonder that you don’t know it, Barney, for there’s very little about prophecy that you haven’t got at the tips of your fingers.”
“Three birds is to meet”, Barney proceeded, “upon the seas, two ravens and a dove, the two ravens are to attack the dove until she’s at the point of death. But before they take her life, an eagle comes and tears the two ravens to pieces, and the dove recovers. There are to be two cries in the kingdom. One of them is to reach from the Giants’ Causeway to the centre house of the town of Sligo. The other is to reach from the Falls of Beleek to the Mill of Louth, which is to be turned three times with human blood. But this is not to happen until a man with two thumbs and six fingers upon his right hand happens to be the miller.”
“Who’s to give the sign of freedom to Ireland?”
“The little boy with the red coat that’s born a dwarf, lives a giant and dies a dwarf again! He’s lightest of foot but leaves the heaviest foot-mark behind him. And it’s he that is to give the sign of freedom to Ireland!”
After Oliver Cromwell’s ruthless attack on the Irish Catholic Population, every effort was made to ensure that the Catholic Mass and sacraments could not be celebrated by the faithful. The ‘Penal Laws’ introduced and enforced after William III’s victories, gave the persecution of Irish Catholics the protection of ‘Law’. As well as outlawing Roman Catholic religious rites, Catholic Bishops were banished from Ireland and Catholic priests had to register with the authorities to preach. All these actions by the English government made the practice of Roman Catholicism in Ireland both difficult and dangerous, and saw the creation of ‘Priest Hunters’. These were ruthless men who were paid to seek out and arrest unregistered priests and present them to the authorities, who would execute them in the most barbarous of ways. The following story is a tale about the fate that met one particular ‘Priest Catcher’ in the northern portion of the country. Charlie McCann had been hunting down a large dog fox that had been preying on the chickens that he kept around his cottage, but he had lost its track and was angry that it had gotten away. On his way home he had been met Mrs. O’Brien and described to her the loss of his prey. While she too had suffered from the predations of the fox, Mrs. O’Brien was a woman who was always full of advice. “Charlie,” she began to say, “I think that bog, where your fox escaped, was the same place where a ‘Priest Catcher’ met his fate in the days of the Penal Laws.” “By God, Mrs. O’Brien,” Charlie replied, “do you know that I have heard two different stories, and I have forgotten both. Perhaps, you could relate the story that you know?” “I will to be sure,” replied Mrs. O’Brien. “There was once a poor priest, who was making his escape from danger as well as he could in those terrible times. He was terrified, tired, hungry, and filled with despair sore. As he was passing through Moneyreagh, he came across a small cabin that stood just off the side of the road and went inside, where he found a woman standing near the hearth cooking some food in a pot. Breathlessly he apologised for entering without invitation into her home and asked the woman if she could spare him something to eat, and somewhere where he could lie down for a while and get some rest. Poor though she was, the woman gave him the best of what she had, which was only a square of barley-bread, some milk, and some soup. In his hunger, the priest devoured what food he had and lay down in the cabin’s only bed, where he fell asleep in a very few minutes.
But, about an hour later, the woman’s husband came home and was quite taken aback to see a stranger in the bed. His wife immediately explained the entire story to him. the man’s head was filled with the silver coin given as a reward for handing in the priest, and in his greed, he decided at that moment to go and inform the local authority. Without any bye or leave the man rushed as fast he could to see the local magistrate, who lived at Derrymartin, while his wife watched in disgust. She knew, well enough, what was in his mind, but she never said a word in protest. Instead, the poor woman thought and prayed about what she should do until, finally, she decided that she could run over to the house of Mr. Whitten and tell him the entire story. She was sure that although he was Protestant, like herself, he was a kind-hearted man who would not hurt the hair on the head of a priest or a bishop. After telling Mr. Whitten her story he told her to awaken the priest and send him over to his house immediately, where he would be waiting for him at the hall-door, and try to get him into the house without anyone seeing him. He also gave her a large coat for the priest to put over his own clothes as a disguise. “Well, everything turned out alright, and no one in the house knew of the priest being there, except Mr. Whitten and his wife, and one servant that they both knew they could trust with the secret. Mr. Whitten had every intention, as soon as nightfall came, to take the fugitive to a safer place. Well, the priest-catcher set out on the very same path as your fox to bring the information he had to the local magistrate. On his return home, just as he was passing near the bog that you mentioned, he saw a bull running at full-speed toward him from across the field. The attack was so sudden that the poor man had no means of avoiding the charge and, so, turning around he made for the bog, and within seconds he found himself up to his chin in the sludge. Down he went, there being nothing to which he could hold on to. Throwing up his arms, his hands slapping at the water for a moment, and crying out to God for forgiveness, he was sucked down, and no trace of him was ever seen again. Meanwhile, Mr. Whitten kept the fugitive priest in his house for several days and then helped him on his way. But he didn’t let him go empty-handed.”
“I am sorry, Mrs. O’Brien, that the pathway across those lovely meadows has such a terribly dismal story associated with it. On the day of my first communion, some of my school friends and I myself went along that pathway to Derrymartin chapel. I remember seeing the fine and beautiful oil-paintings, one of which represented the ‘Nativity’, and another the ‘Healing the blind man’. There was also the style and beauty of the altar, which was so much better than any other altar I had seen. Father Prentice’s pleas to us about maintaining both piety and perseverance, gave us all a deep sense of prayerfulness and increased our faith that, indeed, the Lord was really present in the sacrament we were going to receive. It seemed in that moment to us, as children, that some presence converted the paintings, the altar and the sanctuary area into a paradise. It appeared to welcome us warmly and made us feel that we would have been glad to leave this world. But, unfortunately, all too quickly did life and the hardships of school return and cause that wonderful spiritual pleasure to vanish, causing reality to return. Nevertheless, Mrs. O’Brien, I suppose that the neighbours around him did not forget the great kindness shown by Mr. Whitten?” “Indeed they did not,” Mrs. O’Brien told him, ” and they gave the same respect to all his descendants. In fact, it was because of this kindness that Tom Whitten’s life was later saved during the rebellion. Did you know that the old chapel where it all took place stood above the bridge yonder, between the river and the Killeagh road? Indeed, it’s not that long ago since I heard the old people talking about some of the ‘corner-boy ne’er-do-wells’ who would gather in an old dry sheugh outside the chapel to play cards during the Mass. They never moved until someone called to them that they better get up out of it because the priest was coming out. Now, wouldn’t their souls be in a nice state when the Lord would call upon them, and them not hearing the Mass with any devotion, and forgetting the struggle there was to keep the faith alive.”
Many, many years ago the weddings of the Irish country peasants were conducted by the priest, who was paid by the voluntary contributions of those guests attending the wedding. The ceremony itself was usually celebrated in the evening and was followed, especially among the wealthier farming classes, by a great feast, to which the priest was always invited. After the supper, when the company are still merry with the food and drink, they have consumed, the hat was passed around for contributions.
Kitty Malone was the prettiest girl in the entire parish, the bridegroom was the luckiest of men on his wedding day. was the bridegroom. You wouldn’t have thought that if you had seen the expression on the man’s face as he stood, looking very ill at ease in a stiff, shiny, brand-new, tight-fitting suit of wedding clothes. Yet, he was the fortunate man to have won Kitty’s heart and was about to claim a beautiful bride, who had fifty pounds to her fortune and three fine cows.
Most of the guests, however, were looking at Kitty. She was sitting beside the priest, very pretty and modest, blushing at the clergyman’s broad jokes. But the female guests were admiring the beautiful ‘white frock’ that she was wearing, many of them envious of its ‘bow-knots’ and trimmings of white satin that adorned the many-skirted garment. “It’s as good as new,” the lady’s maid at the big house assured her when she had bought it. “It was made by one of the finest dressmakers in London, and it has only been worn at a couple of balls. Her ladyship is very particular about her clothes and wouldn’t stand for the slightest sign of a crush or soiling on her gown.”
There is no place where a priest is so good-humoured as when at a wedding. There, in the middle of his jokes and his jollity, he keeps his attention focused on the future dues he would get. All the while, to all the guests, he appears to be absorbed in giving his attention to the pretty bride, whose health he had just drunk to in a steaming tumbler of whisky-punch. But, Father Murphy kept his business eye on the preparations that were being made for sending the plate around the room for his benefit.
The stirring began at the end of the table where the farmers were gathered in a large group, and all of them dressed in their finery. Wearing their large heavy greatcoats of fine cloth, their finest trousers, and shiny shoes that reflected the candlelight as they walked. Their lady wives and daughters all dressed in capacious blue, green or scarlet cloth cloaks with a silk-lined hood, which, like the greatcoats of the men, are an indispensable article of clothing in social functions among their class, even on the bad days. And there, as usual, in the middle of that group was Paddy Ryan, who was a sworn friend and supporter of Father Murphy. Paddy was rather small in build and one of the least well-off men in the parish when it came to the possession of worldly goods. But although he had neither a large holding or dairy cattle Paddy was very popular and was considered by most of the men as being good company. Nevertheless, such was his loyalty to the priest, that he would have gone through fire and water to serve his Reverence. As the priest caught sight of his devoted follower, his mind concentrated on Paddy’s actions to the extent that a very nice compliment he was making to the bride was interrupted.
At first, Paddy Ryan took a hold of the collecting plate and appeared to be about to carry it around the guests. Then, as if suddenly remembering something important that he had forgotten, he stopped and threw the plate down on the table with a clatter and a bang, which cause the bride’s mother to wince, for it was one of the plates from her best china set. Paddy, however, now began to try all the pockets in his clothes. He searched his waistcoat, trousers, and the pockets of his greatcoat, one after another, but did not seem to find what he had been looking for. At last, after much hunting and shaking, and many grimaces of disappointment, Paddy seized the object of his search, and from some unknown depths, a large tattered leather pocket-book was withdrawn with great care. By this time, however, because he made that much fuss during his search, now everyone’s attention was fixed upon him. With great deliberation, he opened the pocket-book and peered inside, after which, having first ensured by a covert glance around that the guests were watching him, he took out a folded bank-note. He took great care unfolding the bank-note and, after spreading out on the table, he ostentatiously flattened it out smoothly to ensure that all who saw it might read the ‘Ten Pounds’ that was inscribed upon it!
Not surprisingly there was a sudden rumble of astonishment among the guests, with certain signs of dismay being seen among the richer portion. The thick, money-filled wallets, that only a few moments before were being brandished by their owners, were now quickly and stealthily pushed back into pockets again. For several moments there was a pause among the crowd that was followed by a great amount of whispering as the farmers began to consult one another. While this continued there were many anxious and meaningful looks directed to these farmers by their wives, along with various nudges, and severe digs into their ribs. In such circumstances as these, there was always great rivalry in the giving of offerings. Mister Hanratty, who drove his family to Mass every Sunday in his own jaunting car, would certainly not want to be seen giving less than Mister Wilson, who was also a charitable sort of man and earned plenty of money from his butter in the city market. Now, there was the threat of being outdone by the likes of Paddy Ryan! To contribute five pounds to the priest’s collection, when the likes of Ryan was seen by all to give ten pounds, could not even be considered! So, the result, after Paddy had put his note on the plate with a complacent flourish and had started to go around everyone with the collection plate, was the largest collection that Father Murphy had ever seen, and he was overjoyed as he began to stuff his pockets with notes. But, as the priest was leaving the Malone home, Paddy came up to him and took hold of the bridle of the priest’s horse. “That was a quare good turn that I have done your Reverence this night, didn’t I? Such a collection of notes and piles of silver and coppers I have never laid eyes on before! Sure, I thought the plate would break in two halves with the weight of it. And now” — he took a quick look around to ensure there was no one listening to them and began to whisper, “you can slip my ten-pound note back to me.’ “Your ten-pound note, Paddy? What do you mean by asking for it back? Is it that you want me to give you back part of my dues?” ‘Ah now! Father Murphy, surely you are not so innocent as to think that note was mine? Sure, where would a poor man like me come upon such an amount of money like that? Ten pounds, Father! Didn’t I borrow it, from yourself Father, for the scam? And what a mighty good and profitable scam it was. Didn’t I tell you that the sight of me putting it on the plate would draw every coin out of all their pockets? By the good Lord, it did!’ This was, of course, a fact that the priest could not deny and, along with some interest, he refunded Paddy’s clever decoy.