In years gone by the towns and districts of Ireland were under British administration and relied upon appointed Magistrates to dispense justice to those lawbreakers brought before the court system by local police. In the decades that Britain governed from Dublin most of the resident magistrates were retired officers from the British forces, who often had their own means of income and were part of the gentry class in society. It appeared to be obvious to the administration that there could be no better candidate for dispensing British justice to the Irish than an officer of the crown’s forces. Because he had been a former Captain of Infantry, Robert St. John Stevens was appointed to the vacant magistracy at Ballyskeagh, which he thought was a quiet, rural backwater.
The local tenants, labourers, and ‘scallywags’ had never liked their Resident Magistrate and were excited to here that he had been replaced by a younger man. They were keen, of course, to discover just how harshly this new Magistrate would deal with those lawbreakers brought before him. The local native Irish Catholic population was on the lower step of society’s class system, and many of them were involved in various criminal offences, both minor and major. So, on that first day of Robert’s court there was a large and inquisitive crowd of local people, who were waiting at the courthouse to see how this new Magistrate dealt with those brought before him.
With Robert comfortably seated in his judicial chair the court was called to order and the Clerk of the Court, a young Dwyer Patton, immediately stood up from his seat and declared, “We have only the once case before the court this morning, which alleges the defendant is guilty of house-breaking, public drunkenness, possession of illicit spirits, and of resisting lawful arrest by local police officers. The defendant is Richard Fearon, resident of this Parish, and better known to his neighbours and friends as ‘Dick Fearon’, and cross-summonses have been issued to both Mr. Fearon and his wife.”
The charges had been read out to the court and the packed public area anxiously waited for proceedings to begin, looking toward Philip Duffy who had the honour of beginning the case. It was Philip who rose slowly from his chair and announced that he had been appointed to defend Mrs. Fearon, and looking toward the new magistrate’s bench said, “I wish to impress upon this court that the offences that have been laid against Dick Fearon are very grave. This man drank a great amount of illegal spirits with friends before making his way home. These spirits, popularly known as ‘Poteen’, which are known to inflame male emotions and cause upset between man and wife. So, put out of his mind by the Poteen, Mr. Fearon came to his home, broke down the front door, and began to wreck all around him while terrorizing his poor, frightened wife.And, to make matters worse, when Sergeant Heaney arrived at the house to pacify Mr. Fearon, he refused to obey police instructions and physically resisted arrest. This man, therefore, has shown by his actions that he is undoubtedly a destructive menace that can threaten the peace of our community at any minute. Surely, not since the days when Viking warriors stormed our shores and ravaged our peaceful land has so much havoc been caused by a single individual? Not since those dark days has there been a time when gentle women like Mrs. Fearon are forced to suffer such a terror!”
During this opening statement by Philip Duffy, Dick Fearon had been fidgeting nervously as he sat in the prisoner’s dock, but these last words of Duffy’s statement caused his patience to snap. He suddenly sprang to his feet, his face red with anger, and immediately interrupted Duffy’s opening words to the court. “Holy God!” he shouted aloud in his anger. “Can a man not take a notion to tidy his own furniture? Can he not bring a cantankerous wife back into order when he feels the time calls for it? Jesus, man, are you telling me that the men of Ireland have been castrated by the law?”
Magistrate Robert St. John Stevens was not appreciative of Dick Fearon’s angry outburst and hammered heavily with his gavel to regain order. “Order!” he called out several times. Then, addressing the defendant, he told him, “You cannot disrupt the proceedings of this court in such a manner, Mr. Fearon. You will get your chance to speak, but if there is any repetition of this type of behaviour, we might just consider it to be contempt of court, and it will not end well for you!” Dick looked fiercely at the magistrate and sat down on his seat again, muttering some derogatory remark under his breath.
Duffy now continued with his opening speech and told the court, “You can just imagine how terrified Mrs. Fearon was, thinking that her end had come. She had been forced to watch all her lovely delph pieces smashed into a thousand small fragments, while her well-loved furniture was smashed and broken in front of her. On her hearth the alarm clock had been smashed and broken, and no longer able to awaken the house and allow Mr. Fearon to take his wife’s breakfast into her,” he added with a tone of sarcasm. “Can any of you even imagine how this poor, mistreated woman felt as she looked at her home, now wrecked beyond recognition.”
Again, Dick Fearon jumped up from his chair, red faced and very angry. “Holy Christ!” he exclaimed loudly. “Do you not know that there are more feelings in a bloody tombstone than there is in that woman?”
Undeterred by this outburst Philip Duffy turned away from Dick Fearon and continued, “Can I ask the court to simply consider the feelings of this decent, respectful, loving wife, and mother, who has had no less than three husbands.”
“Aye!” Mrs. Fearon now called out. “And, if please God, I will get myself another one!”
Duffy smiled at this comment, but he did not allow the interruption to disturb his train of thought as he spoke on. “Yes, gentlemen! Three husbands and ten children, six of whom rest peacefully in the family’s plot, while the remaining four are all distinguished members of the constabulary. This man, Dick Fearon, was once a model husband and father until he took to the poteen. He once would have done anything his wife asked, just to please her, but the ‘gargle’ changed him into the useless blackguard you see here today.”
It was Mrs. Fearon who now jumped to her feet and stared at Philip Duffy with eyes full of anger. She brought herself up to full size and, gritting her teeth, she said, “Hold on for just one minute! Who, in the name of God, do you think you are Philip Duffy, to have the gall to say that my husband is a blackguard? Let me tell you, gobshite, that my husband is one decent, hardworking man who has never had reason to call on the likes of you for any help!”
The magistrate, Robert St. John Stevens, was very irritated by Mrs. Fearon’s outburst in the court and, believing that things were getting out of control he began to bang his gavel and shout, “Order! Order!” When he had restored some order he announced, “Unless you all begin to behave in a correct and proper manner, I will have the entire court emptied, the guilty arrested for contempt, and this case will continue without you.”
“Ah, now, your honour!” Mrs. Fearon smiled, “Sure, a man like yourself does not expect a woman as upright as me to sit quietly while her husband is insulted before her very eyes? Well, I will tell you this! There is no way that I will listen to puffed-up gobshites, like that boy, say bad things against my man, as long as I have a tongue in my head!”
“Now, now, Mrs. Fearon! I must prevail upon you for a modicum of order,” insisted Robert, hoping that he would be able to quieten her a little. But Robert was a stranger to the ways of Irish women and did not realise just how determined she was to make herself heard. As she moved to stand up again Sergeant Heaney was concerned about what she might say in front of the court and put his hand over her mouth.
Mrs. Fearon was annoyed by Heaney’s efforts to silence her, and she struggled to get free of him. She succeeded when she nudged her elbow forcibly into the police sergeant’s groin and causing him to groan loudly as he crumpled to the floor. With a great deal of ‘tut-tutting’ she helped Heaney back to his feet again despite her anger with him. “By Christ!” groaned Heaney, “If you were my wife, I would stitch that mouth of yours closed!”
Looking him straight in the eyes she answered, “And do you think that I would be allowing you? It would not be just a nudge in the boondocks you would be getting!”
“That’s quite enough, Mrs. Fearon!” shouted a very Irate magistrate, who was determined to have his voice heard. “This is scandalous behaviour for any lady! You must learn to keep your unwelcome comments to yourself in this court! In short, Mrs. Fearon, shut up!”
“Aye, that will work,” Dick Fearon commented sarcastically. “Sure, you might as well tell a whale to whistle the ‘Foggy Dew’ or ask a Cavan man for the loan of a penny!”
“Mr. Fearon, you have been warned! Now, Mrs. Fearon you can come forward and give the court the benefit of your testimony,” said Robert, more calmly.
Mrs. Fearon tidied her dress and fixed her hat correctly on her head before she strode up to take her place in the witness box. “You are Margaret Fearon, better known to your family, friends, and neighbours as ‘Peggy’?”
“That’s right, your honour,” smiled Peggy confidently.
“You are married to the prisoner?”
“I am, may God forgive me,” she replied. “That lump of manhood is my third husband, and he is twice the bother of the two fine men who came before him. That man would drink the bit out, day and night if he could, and then stumble home at all hours of the night, all heated up and ready to fight.”
“Has he ever hit you in the past?”
“Hit Me?” Peggy laughed aloud. “Well dare he even lift his hand to me, for I would swing for him. They would have to dig me out of him, and I would make sure there wasn’t a part of him to be found. No. Dick knows better than attempt to hit me.”
“Well, could you please tell us what caused him to wreck the house on the evening in question?”
“Sure, wasn’t the blackguard drinking and gambling with his friends and when his money was spent, so was his welcome. He had no choice but to come home and some comfort in a bottle of poteen.”
“You were storing the bottle of poteen for him?”
But Peggy was not going to be caught out that easily and replied, “Sure, I didn’t know there was any in the house! I had closed and locked the door for I didn’t want him coming in and staggering all over my clean house, while I was in bed. I was in bed a good couple of hours when he began his hammering on the front door and calling me every vile name he could think of, but I stayed silent until he broke the door down!”
“Aye and tell them who was in the bed with you!” Dick Fearon called out.
“That’s a damned lie!” Peggy squealed at him.
“Wasn’t it himself that you were sharing the bottle with? You Jezebel!”
Peggy turned to the magistrate and told him, “That was his excuse for breaking down the door and wrecking my furniture and possessions, the thug. He was drunk and there was no other man in my bed. When he could not find anyone else in the house, he began to pull the house apart, shouting out for his bottle of poteen.”
“Did he find it?”
“Aye,” answered Dick. “I found it in the bedroom, beside the bed where her and her lover had lain and shared the bottle.”
“You’re a liar, Dick Fearon, and everyone knows it. Sure, the truth would choke you to tell it!” roared Peggy.
“It will hang you,” laughed Dick. “Sure, isn’t that why the sergeant is sporting the two black eyes I gave him for his romantic dallying?”
Seán Óg McVeigh was a tall man whose body was thin as that of a skeleton, and he would walk around the town in a long, heavy black coat, the hems of which trailed the ground. On his head he would wear a wide-brimmed hat that cast a shadow to hide his bright blue eyes. But in the area Seán Óg was a widely known and highly respected personage who was greeted with deference that would usually be reserved for a doctor or a clergyman. This was surprising since Seán Óg had left school at the tender young age of thirteen years, without any qualifications or hope of a trade. He had, however, been the only child of a woman who was famed for her wisdom in the use of herbs and charms to cure many ills and difficulties. Under her tutelage, Seán Óg had spent years studying the ways of ‘mother nature’ and the cures that proper use of her fruit could provide. There were those who were certain that Seán Óg’s mother had spent a long time living among the ‘good people’ from whom, it was said, she had been gifted with many cures and fairy knowledge. It was because of the care taken in passing her knowledge to her son that Seán Óg was often called upon to treat ailments that affected the local people.
As part of his treatments, Seán Óg refused to resort to pills, or bottles filled with foul tasting potions to achieve cures. Instead, he used his time gathering nettles and other plants that he would combine in various ways to create his cures, and he was always the target of hurtful, disparaging comments by the local doctors. Each time that Seán Óg was sent for, he would readily answer their call, arriving punctually at the patient’s home carrying a bundle containing his herbs, nettles, and other plants in neatly tied bunches. But the nettles he carried were of a special type. They were mature nettles that he had plucked at dawn the same day and they still had the dew of morning still coating the leaves.
Perhaps it was a sign of their confidence in Seán Óg that made them feel so much better the moment that he entered their home. But with raised spirits they would watch as the tall, thin man removed his long, heavy black coat, and take off his wide-brimmed hat from his head. This done, Seán Óg would immediately set about getting his patients to lie down on a nearby couch, or bed. If it was a male patient, they would be politely asked to remove their shirt or their trousers, if it were parts of their lower body that were giving them bother. And being a true gentleman in all things, Seán Óg would always defer to natural shyness of women when it came to them revealing the areas of their body that were affected by pain.
With the affected areas revealed Seán Óg that made them feel so much better the moment he entered their home. With raised spirits they would watch as the tall, thin man removed his long, heavy, black coat and took off his wide-brimmed hat from his head. This done Seán immediately set about getting his patient to lie down on a nearby couch, or bed. If it was a male patient, they would be politely asked to remove their shirt, or their trousers if it were parts of the lower body that were giving them bother. And being a true gentleman in all things, Seán Óg would always defer to the natural shyness of women when it came to them revealing the areas of their body that were afflicted with pain.
With the affected area revealed Seán Óg would spit lightly on both hands and rub them together like a man making ready to dig a ditch with a spade. Then, holding a bunch of nettles with both hands, Seán would begin to beat the affected area of the poor patient’s body until it was a mass of red, blistered lumps that stung the patient to the bone. The procedure would take Seán between ten and fifteen minutes before he would feel ready to step back from his patient and inspect his work. Satisfied that his treatment had been delivered properly Seán Óg would tell them to redress, while assuring them they would not feel so much as a tinge of pain ever again, although the pain they had felt had been due to rheumatism, lumbago, or other ailments. Naturally, the treatment they had received had painful side-effects which had taken several days to disappear. But Seán Óg’s assurance was not a false one, for many who had suffered long years of pain before undergoing the ‘nettle treatment’, had become a new person and enjoyed better health because of Seán’s efforts.
Now, those who live in rural areas have learned by bitter experience that nettles are always at their stinging best in the Spring or early Summer. The seasons, however, had no influence over Seán Óg or the treatment he was famed for giving patients suffering from pain. Most of us believe that in the depths of winter the stinging nettles lose most of any curative properties they may have. It is further proof to how good Seán Óg was because his treatment was still effective even at the Christmas period when the nettles barely had a sting left and he could continue to attend patients who needed him.
As is usual with such unusual treatments there are always the immoral and unethical people who will follow Seán Óg’s actions, in the hope that they would gain fame and wealth. ‘Spring-heels’ Eddie was just one of these characters, who was always on the lookout to make a bit of easy money on the back of another person’s difficulties, and he thought he would take up Seán Óg’s therapy. However, Eddie had the bright idea of collecting huge bunches of nettles and extract their juices from them, which he believed would achieve the same results as Seán had, but without the side-effects. ‘Spring-heels’ immediately established a production line in the kitchen of his home and, despite his wife’s bitter complaints, filled his first twenty-four small bottles with the elixir. With his first production complete, Eddie was keen to test it, and he began his journey to wealth and fame. For his first guineapig, therefore, he chose his next-door neighbour and best friend who was always complaining about his sore back.
The neighbour was informed by Eddie that the bottle contained Seán Óg’s treatment that would, in this new form, act much more quickly to ease his pain. He also assured him that there would be no uncomfortable side-effects. Putting the small bottle of liquid to the patient’s mouth, Eddie watched as he gulped down almost a half of the bottle. Within seconds the patient went a bright red, which turned very quickly to a sickly yellowish-green and he began to roll on the ground grabbing his chest. An extremely frightened Eddie wasted no time in sending for the doctor, who rushed to the scene in his car. Deciding that the patient was poisoned he gave him something to drink which induced him to be sick, and then an ambulance was called.
There was once a neighbour of our own family who suffered terribly from pains that prevented hi from ploughing his fields since he found it very difficult to guide the plough behind the horses. He constantly complained to anyone who would listen that, “I would be dead if I had the will to stiffen”, and he called on his long-suffering brother-in-law, ‘Squinky’ Hoy, to help him on the farm. The patient, who was known to all as Joey ‘Soup’ Campbell, heard about the wonderful results that Seán Óg was achieving in curing people in persistent pain and he begged ‘Squinky’ to contact the ‘miracle worker’.
‘Squinky’ was not a man who believed in magic cures or fairy charms, although there were many in the district that did. He was not convinced, therefore, that a beating with stinging nettles by Seán Óg would cure ‘Soup’. He was sure if Seán Óg could do it, then so could he. That afternoon he went to a nearby woodland and gathered a large pile of nettles and, later that night, he took them to ‘Soup’s’ house. In the kitchen area of the house several men had gathered to play cards and ‘Soup’ was surprised to see his brother-in-law arrive with a huge bunch of nettles in his hands. Looking at him quizzically he asked ‘Squinky’, “What in the name of God are you doing with those nettles?”
“Right, Big Man,” began ‘Squinky’ as he reached down to his brother-in-law. “Drop those trousers and we will soon have you on your feet again!”
‘Soup’ stared at ‘Squinky’ blankly as he stood there waving his nettles in front of his friends. “Have you lost your feckin’ mind, you buck eejit?” he shouted as he rose angrily from his seat at the kitchen table and painfully moved toward ‘Squinky’. “Get out of here, you gobshite before I put my size twelve boot up your arse, so far you’ll be sucking leather for a year!”
‘Squinky’, you can understand did not need to be told twice as he fled quicker than a hare at a coursing event.
It was one of those nights when low-lying clouds virtually covered the sky, obscuring almost all the light from the moon, making the entire area dark and impenetrable. Then, in the blackness of the night, bright flames coloured red, orange, yellow, and gold stretched upwards to the sky giving light to the dark clouds as they slowly floated over the mountains, westwards. The source of those bright leaping flames shone out like a beacon from its position higher up the mountain, visible for many miles in all directions and attracting the attention of many who were living nearby. It is difficult to recall exactly what the time when I first noticed the great hullabaloo of an approaching crowd of people that awakened me from a deep and most enjoyable sleep. In fact, it was my wife that was awakened first and, in her panic, nudged me with her boney elbow until I finally opened my eyes. “What the …,” I began to complain angrily but I held my tongue when I heard the crowd approaching the house. There was a rumble that appeared to be an earthquake threatening to shake the house, followed by the sound of voices.
“Who is it, Jackie?” my wife asked. When I didn’t answer immediately, she bellowed in my ear with a voice that sounded like that of a ‘Maghery Fishwife’. “Will, you get up, Jackie, for God’s sake and see what’s happening?”
The sleep needed to be rubbed from eyes before I could get up out of bed and move to the cottage door. “Who’s there?” I shouted sleepily, and then asked my wife, “Who do you think is out there?”
“How would I know?” she replied with a hiss and a sour look that I had often seen during forty years of marriage.
“It’s just that I am wondering who it is that is making all that noise, and it’s making me nervous,” I told her.
“Now, how would I know the answer, for Christ’s sake, you gobshite?” she snapped back impatiently. “Just get your fat arse out outside and ask them ‘what the hell is going on?’”
Still rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I went and lifted my trousers from the top of the blanket box sitting at the bottom of the bed, and I pulled them on. “There had better be a very good reason for all this noise-making, Maggie. Decent people are asleep at this hour and not shouting all over the place! Is this some kind of joke? If it is, then it is not very funny, and It will be their greatest ever mistake.”
“Christ, Jackie, will you get out there and stop this nonsense?” urged Maggie.
Taking the oil lamp from the top of the ‘Tall Boy’ and, turning up the wick, I went to the front door od the cottage, quickly running my fingers through my hair to tidy it a little. I opened the door and was immediately confronted by a tall man who was making ready to rap my door with the knob-end of his blackthorn stick. Immediately I recognized the man was Seán Curran, a close neighbour and friend to both Maggie and me.
“Jesus, Jackie,” groaned Sean, “Have you not seen the great fire that is blazing up yonder.” I had not seen a thing since, until five minutes previously, I had been fast asleep until rudely awakened by Maggie. In total amazement I looked in the direction that Seamus was pointing. “It looks like it’s old Paddy-kill-the-Cats’ house that has gone up in flames!” he said.
In the hope of getting a better view I stepped out of the doorway and, pushing my way through about a dozen men or more, I reached the gable wall of our cottage. From this viewpoint I could look up the mountain to where I knew Paddy’s cottage stood, and I saw the great flames leaping angrily toward the heavens, splitting the black, overcast sky and casting a flickering light over the entire area. “What, in the name of God, has happened? Paddy’s place is an absolute inferno!” I asked.
“Sure, Jackie, who would know the answer to that question?” Sean replied. “But I have gathered a crowd of local men, as you can see, and we intend to go up to that place to see if we can save anything from those flames.”
“That sound good to me,” I assured him. “I’ll get my heavy coat and boots and follow you up there. Let’s hope and pray that old devil up there and his wife, Bessie, have both survived this disaster.” I was still pulling up the collar of my overcoat up and around my neck as I caught up with the group, and we quickly marched up the stone-covered lane toward the blazing house. When we reached the site, the flames were still leaping skyward, and the air was filled with smell of burning thatch and charred wood. The men started their work without delay by establishing a chain of men passing buckets of water from the nearby stream to the burning house. Others, armed with various agricultural tools began pulling down large burning areas of the building and dowsing the flames with water. But there was no saving the old cottage which had quickly become a burned-out ruin that was beyond rescue. With the burning thatched roof removed the glowing embers that were once wooden rafters quickly crumpled into the house, while the earth walls that had once the cottage its strength crumbled and tumbled to the ground in the heat. Even a cursory glance at what remained of the cottage, still burning, or smoldering on the ground, gave proof to any claim that if there had been any person alive in there when the fire started there was certainly no one left alive after the conflagration.
Sean’s face was grime covered by the smoke and ashes from the fire. As he approached me, I could see his weary, sad eyes seeking me out. “Ah, Jackie, it looks like Paddy and Bessie are lost to us,” he sighed as he made the ‘Sign of the Cross’. Then, he added “May they rest in peace.”
“You might be right Sean,” I answered him. “But let us both join the rest of the lads and get stuck into putting out these gorse fires before the entire mountain goes up in flames.” The flames, the sparks, the intense heat from the cottage fire had caused nearby tinder-dry patches of gorse to burst into flames. With our shovels, rakes, and every other tool at our hands every man worked together, systematically, to beat out the fires and glowing embers so that the rest of the hillside would be secure.
Slowly the sky began to lighten as the new day began to dawn from the east just as the last flames of the burned-out cottage were dying, leaving only embers of wood that glowed red when the morning breeze blew over them. There was nothing left of the building that had once been a home to the elderly couple, who were so well-known in the area. Scattered about the place were the broken, charred and still smoking remnants of furniture that had once filled the rooms of that small comfortable home. “Whatever will we do with Paddy’s sheep, now that he is gone?” I asked as the problem first entered my mind.
Sean shrugged his shoulders and suggested, “Why don’t you take Paddy’s sheep and graze them with your own, Jackie?”
“And then what?”
“Well, at the next fair day you could sell them, and you could give the money to a charity, naming Paddy and his wife as the benefactors.”
“By Jesus, Sean Curran and Jackie Murphy, you will do no such thing!” came a voice from somewhere behind us. “The first man who dares to put a hand on just one of my sheep, I’ll crown him with my ‘Plant’. (Blackthorn Stick)” Taken by surprise I turned to see who had spoken. About fifty feet away, in the direction from which the voice came, there was a group of furze bushes and from the middle of these Paddy Dillon stood up with Bessie at his side, and both were looking in my direction. They were standing upright, rigidly and were wrapped in white bedclothes like no ghosts in that early morning light, with the grey smoke from the ruined cottage drifting over them.
Both Sean and I stared at the two figures whom we had been sure were buried in the ruins somewhere. “Christ, Paddy! Where did you and Bessie spring from? We were sure you were both dead!” I told him.
At this point, the most unnerving thing for me was that the two people that I had assumed to be dead were now actually walking toward me. Paddy called out to me, “It wasn’t for any lack of effort on the part of the all-consuming flames, for they wanted to consume us as well as our home. But we managed to scramble quickly out through our bedroom window to safety. When we found a secure place, we just lay down until we heard voices.”
“But what happened, Paddy? How did the fire begin in the first place?” I asked.
“Ah, sure, it was all down to Bessie and her novenas,” he answered. “She always lights one of those damned candles she buys from the chapel, and she starts to say her prayers for continued good health and for the souls in Purgatory. But we were very near joining them this night!”
“Come on, now, both of you,” I replied. “We will get you some warm coats to wrap yourselves in and then we will go down the lane to any house and get some hot tea with buttered bread. We will get you settled comfortably and then we can talk about what can be done to help you to get your lives back on track.”
Seamus Curran was a popular businessman in the town and the news of his sudden death came as a terrible shock to everyone who knew him. From every corner of the town and outlying district people came to the house where his body was being waked to pay their respects to their friend and the family he had left behind. After first visiting Seamie lying in his coffin most of the mourners were crowded into the front room of the house, where they had a smoke, drank a little whiskey to the man’s memory, and recalled stories from the man’s life.
It was well after ten o’clock when Hughie McCann, the local undertaker, came into the room and was immediately handed a cup of tea, for the poor man had ‘taken the pledge’ twenty years previously. But Hughie had barely gotten his backside settled in the chair before several men in the room began to press him to relate a few of his stories to entertain everyone. He knew that a few humorous stories would shorten the long night ahead of those who would be sitting up with the deceased until morning. So, Hughie cleared his throat and told them all that he would do his best, although everyone who knew Hughie also knew that his ghostly tales were always the best. On this occasion, however, Hughie began with a song and encouraged everyone to join in and, when he had finished the gathering called for another.
In the kitchen of the wake house many of the neighbour women had joined together to supply the food for those who attended the wake. Among the women there was one who had three daughters of marriageable age and a good match was sought for each. The mother, of course, knew Hughie McCann well and she was aware that he was an unattached male who was well on in years and had never once thought of marriage. She spoke quietly to a woman friend standing beside her in the kitchen. “Sure, wouldn’t I be a happy mother if I could get your man McCann to take one of my daughters as a wife,” she said. “He’s a man with plenty of money behind him and a good business to give him a good living. Would you speak to him? But don’t mention my name.”
A short while later the woman approached Hughie McCann with a fresh cup of tea in her hand and casually mentioned that she knew a fine and beautiful girl who would make him a good wife. “You know, Mr. McCann, you are no spring chicken, and you are not getting any younger. It is time you got yourself a good wife, before it’s too late.”
Hughie rose up from his chair, his eyes filled with anger and told her bluntly, “There is not a woman yet born who I would even consider marrying, and not even two hundred wild horses would ever be able to drag me to the altar to do so!”
The mother of three daughters had heard him speaking and was deeply insulted by his words and, being the type of woman she was, she was not going to let him get away with it. “May bad luck follow you, for you are an insignificant wee brat of a man!” she told him. “You could have gotten yourself a beautiful young bride whose shoelaces you are not fit to tie, Hughie McCann! But all you will be left with are the corpses you have put in cheap old coffins that you hammer together. It’s like the dead burying the dead.”
“Allow me to tell you something,” retorted Hughie, “I would rather have the dead about me than many of the living any day, especially when the living people are like yourself. The dead have been good to me over the years, may they rest in peace, employing me to build their coffins, for when all is said and done the living would rather avoid me.”
The angry woman was not finished with what she wanted to say and told him, “That would be right! Sure, you are half-dead yourself, and it is with the dead you should be, and not with the living. Why don’t you just get out of here and look to the dead for company?”
“You can be sure, if I knew how to find them, I would go there,” Hughie answered tersely.
“Ah, you could ask them over for supper!” she laughed.
Hughie did not reply to her and walked out of the kitchen door and, in a loud voice that all could hear , she called out, “Men, women, and children, and for all those for whom I built a coffin, listen to me now as I issue an invitation for you all to come to my home tonight and partake in a feast that I will give in your honour.”
All those people standing around the coffin in which the corpse was laid out were totally dumbfounded when the dead man appeared to smile as Hughie spoke. In terror each one standing there took to their heels, and Hughie McCann hurried out of the wake house, making his way back to his work premises. But as he passed a public house he went in and purchased a bottle of whiskey, which he put into the pocket of his jacket before he moved on. When he reached his workshop, however, he saw that the interior lights were switched on. He knew that he had closed-up the workshop securely before he had gone to the ‘Wake house’. What he saw now concerned him, for he thought that thieves may have broken into the shop and night set fire to it. He stopped and hid himself in a dark shadow covered corner of the building opposite the shop to confirm his worst fears. However, all that Hughie could see were crowds of men, women, and children walking quietly toward his workshop, which they entered, one after another. As he watched, Hughie unexpectedly felt a tap on his shoulder and heard a voice asking, “Is this where you have been, and all of us waiting for you to make an appearance? Now, this is not polite way to treat your guests, so, come on now with me.”
As Hughie entered the shop with the man, it quickly became clear that a large crowd of people had gathered there. As his eyes scanned the faces in the crowd, he recognized several of his former and other people he had known in the past, all of whom were singing, dancing, and chatting among themselves. At that moment a man came out from the crowd and made his way up to Hughie and asked, “It seems you do not know me, Hughie McCann?”
“No,” replied Hughie answered, “I don’t know you! Sure, how could I?”
“There was a time when you knew me well,” said the man. “Even now you will recall who I am, for I am the first man that you built a coffin for. It was me that gave you a start in the undertaking business.”
Another man approached and he was very lame. “Do you know who I am, Hughie?” he asked.
“God forgive me, but I don’t,” replied Hughie.
“Jesus, man!” gasped the lame man. “Sure, I am your cousin, and it is not long ago since I died.”
“Of course, you are!” Hughie beamed with delight. “Now I recognize you and I can clearly remember how became lame. But how will I ever get all these people out of here? What time is it now?”
“It is early yet, Hughie! Sure, it’s hardly eleven o’clock,” replied his cousin. “Just make them all feel welcome and entertain them.”
“But I don’t have any money on me now to get food or drink for them. Anyway, it’s almost midnight and all the stores are closed,” Hughie told him.
“Well, just do the best you can!”
The fun and the dancing continued unabated and, as Hughie looked around the room, he caught sight of a woman who was standing in the far corner of the room. She was looking very shy and was not even trying to join in the festivities. “Why is that woman not joining in the fun?” asked Hughie. “She is not dancing and enjoying the craic like the others.”
“Her?” replied Hughie’s cousin pointing in the direction where the woman was standing. “Sure, that woman is not long dead. In fact, you donated a coffin to the poor woman because she did not have the money to buy one.”
“Well, the poor woman is afraid you will ask her for the money, or that you might even let it slip that she had not paid for her coffin,” the cousin added.
The best dancer in that room was Johnny Braden and he had died at least two years before this. Playing the fiddle was Tommy Riley, who had chosen to make a fiddle for the occasion rather than bring one. He peeled off what little flesh was left on his body and rubbing up and down he made music, for each rib gave a different note. To everyone’s surprise the music Riley played was excellent and, without doubt, the best Hughie had heard play. Then, everyone in the room decided to follow Tommy Riley’s example, pulling off what flesh remained on them, and they began to dance in their bones. You can just imagine the scene in front of Hughie as these skeletons danced their jigs, reels, and hornpipes. When they would accidentally clash against each other the air was filled with the loud rattling of bones, and the rush to put them back in place again.
Hughie McCann’s mind was filled with the desire to just survive the night, although there was no sign of daylight breaking. Meanwhile, ‘Big Alo’ Sullivan was moving around the room suspiciously, and Hughie remembered him well because he had been married twice in his lifetime, and his two wives were accompanying him. The undertaker watched as ‘Big Alo’ took the second wife on to the dancefloor, and they began to dance so well that the entire place was delighted, the skeletons all applauding and calling for more. Unfortunately for ‘Big Alo’ and his partner they danced too well for one of the guests, who was his first wife and she had become filled with a jealous rage. She ran on to the dance area and taking ‘Big Alo’ by the arm shouted that she had more of a right to dance with him since he had married her first.
“Catch yourself on,” screamed the second wife. “It is me that has the better right. When he married me, you were already dead, and he was free to marry whoever he wanted to! And besides that, I am a much better dancer than you! So, whether you like it or not I shall dance with him!”
“Ah, shut your beak you old crow!” the first wife screamed. “Sure, you wouldn’t even been here dancing tonight at all if you had not been able to borrow another woman’s shin bones!”
‘Big Alo’ stared down at his two wives and asked the second wife, “Have you someone else’s shin bones?”
“Aye! Of course, I have. Didn’t I borrow them from a neighbour woman?”
“Tell me, who owns the shin bones?” asked ‘Alo’.
“They belong to Katie Murray, but she didn’t have a good name about her!”
“But why did you not come on your own two feet?”
“Well, you see, I hadn’t a good name about myself either, but I was put under a curse that whenever there was a feast or a ball, I wouldn’t be able to attend unless I could borrow a pair of shins,” she told him.
As the blush of embarrassment rose in his face, so did ‘Alo’s’ anger. Much to his shame he had been told that the shin bones he had danced with had been borrowed from a woman who did not have a good reputation. In his anger, ‘Alo’ lifted his hand and slapped his wife, sending her spinning into a corner, much to the disgust of the woman’s friends and relations in the room.
“We cannot let him get away with that!” said one of them. “We have to knock some manners back into him!”
They all came together like a mob and because they no weapons, they pulled off their left arms to strike and slash at anyone who got in their way, and a terrible fight began. Hughie McCann, in the meantime, stood in silent amazement as the battle was launched, but he soon became concerned at the prospect of being killed in the bitter struggle. ‘Alo’ was busy dodging the various blows that were being aimed at him, and he accidentally on Hughie’s toe. Caught by surprise, and in pain, Hughie struck out with his fist and knocked ‘Big Alo’s’ head clean off his shoulders, causing it to roll to the far side of the room.
When ‘Alo’ realized that he had lost his head he rushed to recover it and used it to strike out at his attacker. His strike was true, knocking Hughie under a bench and being at a disadvantage, he found himself being throttled by ‘Big Alo’’. Hughie’s throat was being squeezed so tightly that he lost consciousness and could remember nothing more. But when he did come to his senses again, the following morning, his apprentice found him stretched out under the bench with an empty whiskey bottle under his arm. The poor man was bruised from all the pounding he had received, and his throat was very sore from the way he had been throttled by boney hands. But Hughie did not know how all the previous evening’s festivities had ended, or when his guests had left.
It was at Mick Harte’s funeral that I first met Paul Quinn, a popular and friendly man who was, before this occasion, a stranger to me. Paul, however, had been a very good friend to my Uncle Mick and he had, I was to discover, helped my father’s brother to avoid the full penalty of the law on many occasions.
“Mick was your uncle?” he asked as we walked behind the black hearse. “Then, it was Danny who was your father?”
“Aye, that’s right,” I confirmed. “Did you know them both well?”
“It was your father who was the eldest of the two and I got to know him. But it was your Uncle Mick and I who were the best of friends. In fact, Mick and I were born in the same week, just three or four months before the end of the great war.”
“I bet things in Ireland were a lot different in those days?”
“Aye, it was time when Ireland was very troubled and virtually lawless, and our early years were filled with a bitter and bloody struggle to gain our nation’s independence. The shock wave caused by the ‘Easter Rebellion’ were still being felt throughout Ireland, and the ‘Black and Tan’ thugs took the conflict to a higher level of cruelty and bloodletting, with neither side showing any pity to the other. We were still toddlers when the peace treaty was signed, and ‘Free State’ was created. But signing a treaty was much easier than maintaining lengthy period of peace.”
“I can imagine that it must have been an exciting time, but it must also have been very frightening,” I commented.
“Exciting is one word that could describe those days in our young lives,” Paul smiled as he searched his memories. “But it was a time of ambushes, guns, and the killing of Irish men by their fellow countrymen. There was one day, When Mick and I were only five years old, and we were playing in a field at the edge of town which ran adjacent to “Hennessey’s Wood.’ Without a warning there was an explosion of gunfire that appeared to us to last quite a few minutes, but it was probably only for a few seconds. We were shaking with fear as we lay in the grass, and we attempted to gather our senses quickly when the gunfire ceased so we could escape the danger. But from where we lay we saw twelve men coming out of the wood with rifles over their shoulders and bandoliers of ammunition across their chests. In their hands, however, these men were carrying a variety of birds and rabbits that would have provided them with a great feast. These were what our parents called ‘irregulars’ and they had been able to avoid the ‘Free State Soldiers’ that had been patrolling the area for the previous two weeks. For two very young boys who were only innocent children it was our first experience of the troubled country in which we lived.”
“Some experiences, Paul,” I commented as I slowly shook my head in wonder as we walked on.
“It was for someone so young,” said Paul. “My father, God rest him, had a worse experience. He was the owner of a busy local grocery shop and pub, and he owned one of only two cars in our small town.”
“What happened him?” I asked.
“It was in the summer of 1922 and there had been several skirmishes in the area around the town over previous weeks, mainly due to ambushes being set up by ‘irregulars. Well, it was daylight when my father was heading home in his car, and he had a keg of whiskey secured on the passenger seat. He was quite unaware that while he was away, some local irregulars had been busy excavating a trench in preparation for an ambush against an expected patrol of soldiers along the road. As usual my father was in a hurry and didn’t see the obstruction that the irregulars had placed in the road until he was almost on top of it. In his panic to avoid the obstruction he pulled on the steering wheel, forcing the car to swerve with a loud screech of brakes. But such was his speed and the sharpness of the swerve that the car overturned and crashed into the trench. The car was a complete wreck and the keg of whiskey it was carrying was busted open and splashed all over the small band of men, who were forced to jump out of the trench in which they were hiding. These armed men wanted to avoid being hit by an out-of-control car and they dispersed quickly, and the planned ambush did not take place. It was only after old Joe Murray came with his Shire Horses was the car pulled free of the trench and towed home. The news of the crash was the talk of the entire district for a month.”
“Dear God, that must have been some experience for your father?” I commented and was in two minds as to whether I should laugh or not. “What did Uncle Mick say?”
Paul smiled as he recalled, “Sure, Mick never said much about anything in those days, for in those days he was a bit of a tear-away himself.”
“Uncle Mick was a bit of a tear-away? That’s a bit hard for me to see, from what I know of him.”
“Aye! Mick was always a bit of an eejit, like myself,” Paul told me. “I’ll admit that things were much different in those days. The countryside around her was like a magical kingdom for two adventurous boys. We could have wondered anywhere without fear, and our parents had no concerns for our safety. There were many evenings that we would go after school to rob birds’ nests as part of our egg collecting hobby, which was a great past-time when we were young. You know, there were times when we would have to put an egg in our mouth so we could both hands to get down from the branches. It wasn’t always a successful choice, for there were times when the egg would break in our mouths as we descended and jumped the last few feet.”
We laughed together at the idea of birds’ eggs breaking in their mouths. “Aye! Egg collectors and poachers,” added Paul.
“Poachers?” I gasped.
“Aye, that’s right! We became very good friends and poachers when we were young, catching hundreds of trout by tickling them,” he told me.
“Did they just laugh their way into a net?” I joked.
Paul remained straight faced and began to explain, “In truth, it was Mick who was the real expert. His secret was to move his hand slowly and noiselessly under an overhanging riverbank, never hurrying or grabbing at his target. But when the opportunity came Mick would sweep the fish onto the bank with one swift scoop of his hand. At night we would take lamps and a gaff to catch the fish, but whether day or night we always had to be on our guard for police and gamekeepers. Maybe because we were so young, we never gave too much consideration to the punishment we might receive for our actions. We hunted hares, rabbits, pheasants, fish, and it was ‘Young Alo’, the postman in those days, who taught us everything about snares and other poacher tools. Now and again, ‘Young Alo’ would also bring his two big greyhounds and we would have great sport flushing out hares and rabbits, and watching the dogs chase them down.”
“Great times and great fun! Not at all like today?” I suggested.
There was now a more serious expression that came across Paul’s face as he remembered, “Well, life wasn’t all one period o constant joy and carefree abandon, for the people around here did face hard times. Most of the people around this place lived in stone and mortar cabins with thatched roofs. Although they made them as comfortable as they could, the homes were not luxurious homes. Poverty was widespread at that time, with Tuberculosis and other serious illnesses rampant, and alcohol and tobacco were their only means of relaxing. The Parish Priest, an old and spiritually gifted man, was constantly busy with his parochial duties, especially the funerals of those poor people who succumbed to the scourge of Tuberculosis, for which there was no cure. There were many funerals that Mick and I had to attend, for our schoolfriends or their parents.”
We walked on silently for a little while until Paul again began to speak. “There was not much in the way of work for a man in those days. The biggest employer in this area was ‘Tully’s Factory’, within which pigs were slaughtered and then processed to produce high quality pork and ham products. Of course, not all the locals were able to get employment there and those lucky enough to secure a job would stay for many years. It was said that you would have to shoot someone dead in the factory before you would face the possibility of dismissal. Just wounding a person would not even be considered a serious disciplinary offence.”
After lighting a cigarette, Paul continued to explain, “There were many others who indirectly benefitted from ‘Tully’s’ by gaining employment with the numerous pig farms that supplied the factory. Every Tuesday the pigs would be marched or transported in wagons and lorries from the nearby farms to the factory. On arrival they would be weighed and checked by the factory’s vet, for the better-quality pig would always be worth the greater amount of money for its farmer. It was a good time for the farmers, but as the prices for ham and pork products rose and fell, the farmers’ income could vary greatly, effecting the lives of their workers.”
Paul smiled as he told me, “There were, naturally, men who preferred to do little or no work, but still need money to survive. It was such men that found a home in illicit businesses, like smuggling and Poteen. However, there were more temperate people who were convinced that Poteen was the brew by which Satan entrapped mankind in permanent drunkenness. But the greater number were those who admired poteen and its manufacture. They considered the brew to be the ‘Nectar of the Gods’ which had been given to man to Pacify their hearts. Do you know that there are some men who will tell you that it is great stuff for rubbing on the backs of greyhounds, the forelocks of horses, and even the arthritic joints of men and women? But the truth of poteen’s attraction was that it could be made cheaply and sold at a good profit, and tax-free. Despite it being illegal, many stills were built and the people who made the spirit became socially acceptable to the community as a whole.”
“Surely the law came after them?” I asked.
“Of course, they did! In those days turf was used to heat the stills, which made the more easily detectable by the police and gaugers, who would destroy those they found. But there were those manufacturers who would double, or triple distill their poteen, improving its quality and bringing in a better price. Indeed, it wasn’t unknown, for some policemen and gaugers to ensure that they reserved the better-quality goods for themselves before destroying the still.”
“Ah, sure, you can trust no one. But the craic must have been good for Mick and you,” I smiled. “There mustn’t have been a corner of this county which was safe from you two rascals.”
“Travelling was not just as easy in those days,” said Paul as he caught his breath. “The roads were rough and very hard upon the types of motor vehicles as well as horses’ hoofs. Local Councils were constantly making efforts to improve road quality, sending out men to break stones as aggregate, which was then pressed and flattened by a steam roller. Travelling for fun by car or other vehicle was rare and there were many occasions when we would walk twenty miles to the nearest town, herding our cattle to be sold there. On those days we would accompany the cattle driver, who could earn a few extra shillings for his efforts. But the going with cattle was far from easy, especially when some of the moody beasts broke away from the herd and would run off in all directions across fields, bogs, and woods.”
Paul went on to explain, “On a fair day in town the sale of animals would begin about six o’clock in the morning and would last most of the day, with buyers and sellers coming in from miles around to bargain with each other. Big dealers would come from Dublin and as far away as England, and it would be to those places that most of the cattle went. The bullocks and bulls were the most difficult to handle, especially when they took the notion to wander off. Some of the farmers, however, would punch a hole in its ear and thread through some wild honeysuckle, which was said to stop the beast from trying to escape. It didn’t always work, however, and my father never believed in such old wives’ tales, preferring a much more hands on approach. There was one day when a bullock took a lunge at him and, without any fear, and with blood running down his rubber boot, he grabbed the beast’s head and thrust two fingers into its nose. With brute force he would twist its neck until it became still again. It frightened the life out of me, but he was a rough, tough man.”
“You know, there was one thing about people in those days,” he continued. “They were very much in favour of law and order, for they had seen enough destruction during the ‘War of Independence’ and the ‘Civil War’. I remember my parents were very strict, as were your own grandparents, and they had little patience for bad language or drunkenness. My own mother was always praying and saying novenas, and my father had very high morals, but neither of them would allow themselves to be dominated by any cleric. My father also detested anyone who would steal from him or tell him lies. He always said that you could watch a thief, but you could never watch a liar. Anyone who committed either offence against him would be severely punished with his fists, which were like giant sledgehammers beating down.”
“I can remember one fine summer day when Mick and I were playing just outside the local pub while both our fathers were enjoying a quiet pint together. But it didn’t stay quiet for long when Tom Riley, the leader of the local tinkers, arrived and was already the worse for drink. The barman refused to serve Riley and told him that he had enough taken. Riley, not surprisingly, did not take kindly to this and a war of words quickly broke out. The air was filled with all sorts of swear words and deadly oaths, which continued until my father spoke up, saying, “You have had enough now, Tom. It’s time to go.””
“Tom’s reply was to take a swing at my father, but he missed. My father drew back a little before he drove home a short jab, knocking the tinker chief to the floor on his back. The police were summoned to the bar and Tom was given a cell where he could sober-up overnight and get some treatment for the broken jaw he had suffered. That was the end of it and every time he came o the pub after this incident, he was sober and made welcome.”
The funeral cortege was turning into the cemetery by this time, and I said to Paul, “Well, it’s time now to put Mick in his place of rest.”
“Aye, its true enough,” replied Paul sadly, “and I never go a chance to say goodbye to him.” “Sure, you are saying goodbye now, and you have told me more about my Uncle Mick than I ever knew before. For that, Paul, I thank you.” I tried to comfort him and offered him my hand, which he took and warmly shook. At that moment the cortege came to a stop, for we had reached the church door and the priest began to say a prayer of welcome for the deceased.
Young Tony Cullen, if you have never heard of him, was descended from a long line of ‘Poteen-Makers’. It is not surprising then to learn that he was a young man who was filled with a practical wit, wisdom, cunning, and a fertile mind that would help him get out of many dangerous situations. His talents had been sharpened by the experiences of family created from generation to generation in handling trouble, building a bank of craft and guile that was handed down from father to son. There was not a trick, an evasive movement, plot, scheme, or maneuver that had been used and perfected by his ancestors that Tony could not immediately recall, to serve his own ends.
At the time of this story, Tony was just a gorsoon of sixteen years, but you shall see that even at this young age he had a mind that had been well-trained over years of practicing all the resources he needed to meet the vigilance, and stealth of his greatest predator, the Excise-man or Gauger. Thankfully, Tony’s talents were not totally reliant on his knowledge gained from his forefathers. These things, because of their age, provided little defence against the constantly changing, ingenious methods employed by the enemy to improve his stalking and capturing methods. But every new plan put into practice by the gauger was often met and defeated by a counterplan that was equally novel. The only difference between the two being that the gauger devises his plan after mature deliberation, while the counterplans employed by Tony were necessarily rapid and automatic reactions. In fact, the hostility between the gaugers and the illicit distillers continued through such strategies, which are filled with duplicity, adroitness, and unexpected turns of events. There would, indeed, be little hope of success for either side if they were to constantly rely on obsolete tactics and maneuvers. It must be said that the contest between the Customs & Excise, and the moonshiner is a full-blooded contest between mind and mind, between wit and wit, and between rogues and knaves.
The history of Ireland is filled many varied encounters describing the practical cunning, which is a part of the relationship between the ‘Poteen Maker’ and his eagle-eyed foe, the gauger. Stories of such encounters throw a light upon the national character of our people. They also demonstrate the readiness of Irish wit, the fertility of invention, and the irresistible humour which is so much a part of our lives no matter how difficult or critical that life may be. Indeed, it is the character of the ordinary, everyday Irishman to rise up and face the encounter and laugh at it or face down the difficulty until it is overcome.
Our short story begins with two men, dressed as gentlemen, riding along a remote by-road. It was a chilly October morning, and the air was remarkably clear, keen, and bracing. A hoar frost had set in over the previous few nights and lay on the fields around them, gradually melting in the heat of a sun that gradually rose in the sky. It being autumn, of course, the sun’s beams didn’t reach all the way into the valleys or the sides of the hills, and with evening’s return the feathery whiteness would again begin to cover everything.
One of the two horsemen reached a turn in the road, which skirted the brow of a bank on his right. It had a moderate degree of a slope, but the ground flattened out at the base and was studded with furze bushes, which grew so close together and level with each other that you might have thought you could walk upon their surface. As the riders reached this point, they noticed that some two hundred and fifty ahead of them a young boy coming toward them with what appeared to be a keg on his back. The eyes of one of the riders immediately lit up with a sparkle of excitement that marked him as a well-practiced gauger. For a moment he drew up his horse, giving away the fact that he had located a likely suspect. But that short, swift action had also alerted the young lad of possible danger. No sooner had he noticed the horse being drawn up that he crossed the ditch and disappeared down the bank into the forest of furze. Immediately the two horsemen galloped to the spot where he had gone down the bank and pursued the young boy by following his movements, all of which took only a minute or two.
“Aye, we have him!” called out the gauger. “We have him, and he cannot escape us!”
“Just speak for yourself, Sinton,” replied his companion. “As for me, with not being an officer of His Majesty’s Excise, I totally refuse to take any part in the pursuit of that boy! It is a fair contest, so fight it out among yourselves. At this moment I am with you only out of curiosity.”
The companion had hardly finished speaking when they heard a ice singing the following lines. Curiously, it appeared the singing was being performed in a hearty and hilarious spirit, with a devil-may-care attitude and no sign of apprehension. The voice sang out –
“Oh! Jimmy she sez, you are my true love,
You are all the riches I do adore:
I solemnly swear now, I’ll never have another,
My heart is fixed to never love more.”
The music then changed to a joyous whistle and suddenly the two horsemen were confronted by a young man, who was dressed in an old red coat, patched with grey material. The youth, when he saw the two riders, showed his natural and complete surprise at having come across them. He stopped whistling immediately and with firm respect put his hand to his hat. In a quiet, deferential voice he greeted the men, “God save you, gentlemen.”
The gauger stared down hard at him and asked, “Boy, where is that fellow with a keg on his back? He crossed over there just a moment ago.”
With a deep and puzzled look in his eyes, the boy asked, “When? Where? sir?”
“Where? When? Why it was but a minute ago, and it was here in this place!”
“Right, sir! And was it a whiskey keg, sir?”
“Boy! I am not here to answer your questions,” replied Sinton tersely. “By God, you young blackguard, are you trying to examine me, for I’ll not have it! Now, look boy! Where is the lad with the keg on his back?”
“A lad?”, he asked again. “I did see a lad, sir, but there was no keg on his back. Did he have a grey frieze coat on him?”
“He had!” Sinton replied eagerly.
“And it was a little bit short about the skirt. Wasn’t it, your Honour?”
“There he goes again!” sighed Sinton in frustration. “Damn you, boy! Unless you tell me where he is in one half-second, I shall lay my whip across your shoulders!”
“But I didn’t see any keg, Sir! The last keg I seen was – “
“Did you see a boy without the keg, who answers the description I gave you?”
“Sure, you gave no description of it, sir. But even if you did, how could I tell your honour anything about it when I didn’t see it?”
“You villain! Where is that lad?” shouted the gauger in his anger at the young man. “Where has he gone? You admitted you saw him. As for the keg, it cannot be far from us here, but where?”
“Aye, you’re right! I did see a boy with a short frieze coat on him, and him crossing the road down the other side of the ditch,” the boy replied. It was, however, all too obvious that such a lie would never stand up to questioning, for the road was no more than a slight mound that ran down a long field, on which there was not even the remains of a shrub.
The Gauger looked at his companion in total dismay and, turning back to the boy, said “Come on, boy, you know that is a black lie you are telling me. Can you not see that even a rat could never have run off in that direction without me seeing it?”
“By God, your honour, and I saw him,” gasped the boy. “With his grey coat upon him that was a little too short in the tail, and that was better than half-an-hour ago.”
“The lad of whom I speak, you must have met,” Sinton pointed out through gritted teeth. “For Christ’s sake, it is not five minutes ago. No! It’s not more than three minutes since he came inside the field!”
The gauger began to take a closer look at the boy for a moment or two and, pulling a silver coin from his pocket and said, “Listen to me, my boy! Let’s have a wee word in private.”
The gauger had taken note of the cautious distance at which the boy had kept, and just out of reach of either him or his companion. It began to dawn on him that, despite appearances, this lad might be the smuggler he sought. The more he thought about this possibility the more it became uncertain, especially when the time given to make himself and the keg invisible was too short. Then Sinton thought back on just how this lad had sung his song so cheerily and had, without pause, changed to a light-hearted whistle. Moreover, there was the natural and total surprise that the boy had shown, alongside his respectful and deferential manner. Combining all these things in his mind the gauger was still left in a quandary. Maybe, the gauger thought, the boy’s reluctance to approach closer had come from fear of the whip that he had been threatened with. Nevertheless, Sinton was determined to resolve the problem and, with the aim of getting his hands on the boy, he showed him a silver coin and began to speak more gently to him.
The boy saw the silver glint of the money and appeared to be instantly attracted to it, and he approached it like prey being tempted forward by an irresistible bait. The gauger was, nonetheless, surprised by the boy’s reaction, but he made ready to seize the lad when he came close enough. “Come now,” encouraged the gauger as he began to unbutton the boy’s coat. “You will strip!”
“Why should I?” shouted the boy. On his face was an expression which would have kept an artist busy trying to capture the perfect picture of curiosity, perplexity, and wonder.
“Why should you?” asked Sinton. “You shall see. In fact, we shall all see!”
“Now, sir, you’re not thinking that I might have hidden the keg about me?” replied the lad with an expression of complete simpleness, and an innocence that would have made man, other than a gauger, give up the cause. He saw nothing hopeless in this situation and he was determined to break this boy.
“No,” replied the gauger. “Not by any means do I think that! You young rascal.” He then turned to his companion and said, “See here, Cartwright! The keg, my dear.” He laughed and returned to the boy and told him, “It would be very cruel of me to suspect you of anything but the purest simplicity.” The, he began to pull at the boy’s coat and exclaimed, “Aha! Look here Cartwright. There’s a coat, there’s thrift, and there’s economy for you!” Then, turning again to the boy he told him, “Come on, lad, tuck on! Tuck on, and I will help you. Up with your arms now and straighten your neck. Take my word for it, but it will be straightened and stretched yet, my boy!” Laughing loudly, Sinton turned to his companion once more and asked, “Cartwright?Did you ever see such a change in your life being made so quick, complete, and unexpected?”
Cartwright was certainly surprised when he saw the boy’s red coat, when turned, became a comfortable grey frieze. It was in every detail exactly like the one he had seen on the lad who had been carrying the keg. As he examined the lad and his coat more closely, Cartwright instantly recognized him as one and the same as he had seen. But his only interest in this exercise was the simple pleasure felt by any observer of character and humour. The gauger, on the other hand, having almost cracked the case and being on the scent of the keg was in his glory. It was indeed a rare treat for him to come face to face with such an able opponent as Tony Cullen. “Now, young man,” Sinton addressed him, “don’t waste any time in telling us where you have hidden that keg.”
“Ah, sure, your honour, I have already told you there isn’t a bit of that keg did I hide from you! Didn’t the damn thing roll off my back and I lost it. Sure, wasn’t I looking for it myself?” Tony replied and he moved closer to a thin hedge, as if he was going to search there. But the hedge was so thin that it was immediately obvious that the keg could never have been hidden in that location.
Sinton smiled at his companion and asked, “Cartwright, did you ever see anything like this ripe rascal we have before us, and can you see what he’s at?” He pulled the lad closer to him and told him, “Listen to me you little gobshite, don’t think you can fool me, so get here beside us and start the search.” In a quiet aside to Cartwright he whispered, “You can be sure that whatever way he takes us from here is not the right way.”
Returning his stare to the boy he told him, “On your way boy, we shall all have a wee look about us first, just to see if we can find any signs.”
The boy walked toward the two men quietly and began looking about him, as if searching for the keg. But it soon became clear to the two horsemen that he was not serious about trying to find the missing keg and Sinton finally stopped him and commented sarcastically, “Look at yourself boy! You really do look a fool! Sure, you can’t tell your right hand from your left!”
“Aye, I can!” insisted young Tony and, holding up his left hand, he told Sinton, “There’s my right hand.”
Sinton smiled and asked the boy, “And what do you call the other?”
“Sure, that’s my left. Didn’t I tell you I knew?”
Both the gauger and Cartwright gave a hearty laugh. “Now, that’s carrying idiocy too far,” Sinton laughed. “Why don’t you show us how you worked that one out?”
Tony stood up defiantly to the gauger and told him, “Now, that’s easy enough. It is because I am left-handed this must be the right hand.” He demonstrated this with his left hand and told the gauger, “And that’s the way of it, whatever you might say.” The boy began to smile with an appearance that hid the sarcasm of his comment. The gauger and his companion simply stared at each other in disbelief.
“What the devil?” Sinton exclaimed, “We just can’t stand here all-day wasting time! Right, boy! Bring us to that keg now!”
But before the boy could answer their conversation was interrupted by a loud, long, hearty laugh that caused Sinton to look at his friend questioningly. “What the hell is the matter, now? What is the big joke?” Cartwright couldn’t answer, for he dismounted horse and was walking to and fro’ in convulsions of laughter with his body bent double, and his hands clapping like those of a madman in a fit of excitement. “Christ man, what is it?” demanded an angry Sinton. “Cartwright!” he shouted at him, “Will you tell me what it is?”
“Oh, dear,” Cartwright said as he tried to catch his breath. “I am laughing and weak from it all!”
“It must be very funny! Are you going to keep it to yourself?”
“Indeed, it is, my friend, and I shall keep it all to myself,” Cartwright laughed. “It is obvious that your much vaunted wisdom has been stretched too far in this case, and you must now content yourself with the idea od being beaten. Be assured, friend, I will not interfere in this any further.”
In a tight contest of minds, like this was proving to be, between Tony Cullen and the gauger, even an out of place glance by Cullen might give an opponent like Sinton the upper hand. Young Cullen, therefore, maintained a simple and vague expression on his face while he talked, except when it came to the question of his right and left hand. In fact, such was Tony’s ability that Sinton, who watched his opponent with his sharp eyes, noticed nothing out of place. Cartwright, however, was not so easily fooled by Young Cullen and, as he was laughing, he noticed the boy’s eye fixed upon a mark that was barely visible in the hoar frost. This mark stretched down to the furze bushes that grew at the foot of the bank upon which they stood.
When Sinton noticed the mark, just like a hound on the scent of a fox, he followed its path downward toward the furze, into which the lad trundled the keg, where it settled and was almost invisible to the eye. After he had done this, Tony had turned his frieze coat, which he had made for just such an occasion. This change had barely given him time to advance toward the two horse riders. Nevertheless, the lad had managed to change his appearance and his manner to such a degree that he managed to pass himself off as a simple Irish peasant. The two horsemen, at first, could not see how the boy could have carried the keg down to the furze cover, hide it, and return so quickly to the spot where they met him. Such an accomplishment by a young lad appeared to be so impossible that Sinton could never suspect that the whiskey was lying in such a place. But the gauger had triumphed and self-satisfaction about his own cleverness was reflected in his face. Tony’s face, however, had lengthened considerably in the knowledge of his enemy’s victory. He was feeling rueful and mortified at the loss of his keg, and he could hardly tolerate the joy and confidence being shown in front of him.
Sinton saw the gloom in the boy’s face and wanted to mock him further. “Who is the sharpest wit now, my clever boy?” he said. “Who has the last laugh now, as matters stand?”
“Well, enjoy it while you have it, for you might never see it again,” said Tony.
“Tell me boy, what is your name?” asked Sinton.
“They call me Barry Kerrigan,” lied Tony without flinching. “I am not ashamed of that, nor am I afraid to tell it to you, or to any man.”
“One of the Kerrigans of Kilcoghlan?”
“Aye, I’m one of the Kerrigans of Kilcoghlan,” answered the boy.
“Sure, I’ve heard of that family,” said Sinton, “and they are decent people in their own way. Now, don’t be getting angry at your own failings and let me know where you were bringing this Poitin?”
“I will tell you this much,” said the lad. “I was bringing it to a better man than ever stood in your shoes.” Defiantly he looked at Sinton and added, “At least he is a real gentleman.”
“Is that right?” replied the gauger. “Well, tell us who this real gentleman is?”
“His name is Sinton!” Tony said proudly. “Gauger Sinton!”
Despite being totally surprised, Sinton showed no emotion, but fixed his eye upon the boy. For upwards of a minute his piercing stare continued, waiting for the slightest sign that may show the boy up for the liar he was. But Tony did not flinch and just stared back at his enemy with a look that betrayed his anger. It appeared that the detection of the keg had caused him to forget or abandon his attitude of cunning that had previously served him so well. But the gauger was beginning to believe the boy was speaking the truth as he knew it. The boy had lost his temper and was now, possibly, off his guard. “Well, lad, what you have said so far is very good, but who sent the keg to Sinton?”
Cullen turned to his opponent with a look of contempt for a man who would think that he would answer such a question. “Do you think that you can make me turn informer? Thank God, there are none of that kind in my family!”
“Do you know this man, Sinton?” asked the gauger.
“Now your honour, how could I know a man that I have never seen or met?” Tony angrily replied. “But there is one more thing that I don’t know, and that is if you have the right to take my whiskey or not?”
“Well, let me just ease your mind on that question by telling you that I am Sinton!”
“You, sir?” Tony asked with well-feigned surprise.
“Yes,” smiled the gauger. “I am the man that you were taking that keg to, and now I will tell you exactly what I need you to do now. You will go to my house from here, and with as little delay as possible. There you will ask to see my daughter, Miss Sinton, and present this keg to her, telling her that I wish her to put it in the cellar. She will know what key to use, and you can tell her I want the keg placed to the right of the five-gallon keg that I seized last Thursday. After this you can tell her I want her to give you breakfast.”
“Of course, your honour” Tony replied hesitantly, as if he still had misgivings. “I suppose I must be somehow …?”
Sinton, however, interrupted and impatiently asked, “My God, boy, what the hell are you grumbling about now?”
Cullen continued to view the gauger with suspicion and, as he lifted the keg, he asked, “And do I not get anything for all the work I have already done, and that which you still want me to do?”
“Here!” smiled Sinton as he threw him a silver half-crown. “Take that, along with the breakfast you will get, and be off with you! Stop! Cartwright, my friend, will you dine with me today and we shall open the keg? I can guarantee the quality of this stuff, for it’s not the first keg that I have received from the same quarter.”
“I will be there, friend, to open the keg,” Cartwright replied.
“Right, boy, get going and tell my daughter that a friend, even a friend or two, will be dining with me today. That’s all! You can go.” Sinton instructed Tony and he watched for a moment as the boy went on his way before riding off.
Cartwright now spoke to Sinton, warning him, “Surely, you are not giving that boy yet another chance to trick you out of your winnings?”
“There’s no chance of that,” laughed Sinton confidently, “That young blackguard was telling the truth, for all was lost to him when we found the keg. That was the straw that broke him, and, in his anger, he wasn’t able to deceive us anymore.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Sinton. I don’t trust that boy one inch,” Cartwright warned his friend.
“I suppose I should not trust him myself, but these Kerrigan people are well-known poteen makers and not criminal masterminds. They usually send me a keg or two every year about this time to help my attention wander away from their trade. I watched that boy’s attitude and he never flinched once. The keg of poteen was coming to me, and I have no doubt of that.”
“Nevertheless, I still do not trust him. Mark my words, he’s a trickster,” warned Cartwright.
Tony Cullen, in the meantime, had been having a quiet conversation with himself and wondering if he had really sold Sinton on the idea. He spat on the ground and muttered, “May bad luck be with you the rest of your life, Sinton. Good luck appears to follow you, but you never know, a lucky shot from behind a hedge or a break-neck fall down a cliff, or something of that nature might just happen. If that old moonshiner hadn’t his hooks into you, hard and fast, you would never have allowed me to walk away with the poteen.” He laughed quietly to himself as he told himself, “By God, wasn’t I the clever one for mentioning the Kerrigans, especially when I had heard Barney Kerrigan say that he would be sending a keg to the gauger some time this week. That Sinton didn’t think I knew him because he didn’t recognize me. Indeed, it has been a long time since those hawk eyes of his had caught sight of me.” Then he halted a moment and asked himself, “What if they now decide to follow me and ruin all my plans? I have to stop them from having any suspicions about me before I go any further along the road.”
Tony Cullen wheeled around just as Cartwright and Sinton had done the same, for the gauger wanted to question the boy a little more. He had not, however, expected the boy to be coming toward him. “Gentlemen,” said Cullen, “How do I know for certain that either of you are Mr. Sinton, and that the house you are sending me to exists and is his? One thing I do know for certain is that if the whiskey is delivered to the right man, then I will have to leave the country!”
“You, boy are either a bigger villain or more of a fool than I first thought you to be,” said Sinton. “But what proof can you give me that you will bring the keg safely to its destination?”
“Well, if I knew for certain that you are Mr. Sinton, I would be happy enough to leave the poteen with you, and I would even do without my breakfast. So, gentlemen, please tell me the truth, for if I fail, I will surely be murdered.”
“Listen, you damned fool!” said the gauger, losing his patience with the boy because he still thought Sinton was lying. “You only have to go into town and ask for Mr. Sinton’s house!”
“Isn’t it the great fool I am?” exclaimed Cullen. “What you say is true, and I never even thought of it. I’m truly sorry gentlemen, and I hope that you are not angry with me, because it is myself that will be killed and quartered if I allow anyone to make a fool of me.”
“Just you do what I ask,” Sinton told the lad. “Ask for Mr. Sinton’s house and you can be certain that the poteen will reach him.”
“Yes, Sir, and thank you. I should have thought of that myself,” Cullen said and began his journey again.”
As Sinton and his companion started their journey once more, the gauger turned to Cartwright and asked him, “Are you satisfied now?”
“I believe I am,” replied Cartwright. “If the lad’s intentions had been dishonest, instead of returning to make sure that he was not being deceived he would have made the best of his escape from us. But a rogue will never or, at least, seldom voluntarily puts himself in the way of danger, or possible detection.”
Sinton had to agree with his friend’s line of thought and that same evening, at about five o’clock, the two men arrived at the gauger’s house in the company of two others. They were all looking forward to a night of good cheer in Sinton’s home. The chill of a cold frosty evening had given them l a wish for a warm, comfortable room, in which they could enjoy a blazing fire and a good dinner. Then, no sooner was the food eaten than the tablecloth was removed, and glasses set for Sinton and his guests. Being the host for the evening, Sinton asked his daughter to assist the servant in breeching the keg, “The keg in the cellar that was left there by the young country lad.”
“A keg?” she asked.
“Yes, Maggie my love, a keg.”
“But Father there was no keg that came here today!”
Sinton and Cartwright both groaned, simultaneously, “No Keg?”
“No keg,” Maggie agreed, “but there was a country lad who came and told me that you said he had to get the five-gallon …”
“Oh no!” Sinton cried out, interrupting his daughter. “Christ Almighty! He has done me over!”
“He bought and sold you,” said Cartwright, adding insult to injury.
“Continue, Maggie, I have to hear everything,” urged a deflated Sinton.
“Well,” Maggie began. “He said that you had instructed him to get the five-gallon keg for Captain Dalton.”
“And did he take it?”
“Yes, father, the lad took it, for I had no reason to doubt him.”
“But Maggie, my dear child, surely, he brought a keg with him and left it, and it is now in the cellar?”
“No, Father! He brought no keg here. But he did bring the five-gallon keg that was in the cellar away with him.”
“Sinton, old chap, pass around the bottle!” laughed Cartwright.
“That damned, slippery rascal,” smiled the gauger. “We shall all have a drink to the boy’s health.”
With that, all the men raised their glasses and drank the health of the country lad who had craftily bought and sold the gauger.
CopyrightSept 2021; Pinebank Publishing. All rights reserved
I am in the process of writing a new book and I am requesting the help of those who follow my blog. I will be putting the first draft of each story into the blog for each of you to read and review. It is important that you review each story constructively; Do you like it? Is it of interest? Does it contain humour? wish to know your honest, but constructive thoughts and not just that you thought it was crap.
Don’t just put a like to the story. Enter a comment and let me know and I will be grateful to you all. The first of these stories is ‘Young Tony Cullen and the Gauger’. It will be posted before the end of this week and each will follow, week by week. In anticipation of your help I thank you.
For many years the idea of fairies and the little people brought a laugh and a disbelieving shake of the head from me. In later years I was to learn better and it is to be hoped that those doubters who shall read these stories will experience the same change in their thinking. It is only to be expected that not every reader of these stories will believe in Leprechaun’s, banshees and other Irish spirits. But I am here to tell you that all these things do exist in the Irish countryside. You may consider that disbelief in such things will ensure that such spirits have less power over you. Do not be fooled by such comforting thoughts. Constantly remind yourself that you should never ignore the possibility that such spirits can and do exist. Do not give voice to your disbelief and never mock the fact that others do believe. All those things are insults to “The Good People” and the most foolish actions that any man, woman, or child can commit. Testing the fairy folk of Ireland can and will bring a response in ways that are totally unexpected.
When I was a child my parents raised me to always be polite and civil to everyone that I met, irrespective of race, colour, creed and physical appearance. My mother, may she rest in peace, always taught me that, “Good manners are a burden to no person.” She was often shocked by the way people treated each other and would warn me to always be civil because, “Civility costs you nothing.” Such moral codes were bred into my being by both my parents. “If you cannot speak well of another person then it is best to say nothing about them,” my father would tell me. He would also insist that, “if you cannot do something nice for another person, then do nothing.” My parents were very firm believers that every action a person undertakes has certain consequences for which they must accept total responsibility. “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” was a scriptural adage of which I was constantly reminded. Those who decide to ignore such words of wisdom soon discover that they would have been better to take on board the advice of those older than they are.
As an example, I recall the story of Eddie Daly, a muscular young man who was full of bravado. His muscular frame was maintained by his hard work in the fields around Knocknashee. As a worker, Eddie was well thought of by local farmers while, as an attractive young man, he was admired by many of the ladies in the area. Eddie Daly, tall but muscular, was a common sight on the many roads that criss-crossed the area around Knocknashee. He would walk from farm to farm undertaking whatever work he could find, and he appeared to be almost always in demand. Perhaps much of his demand was due to Eddie’s pleasant personality, and his ability to make people laugh. There was always a bounce in the young man’s step, a lightness in his tread, and as He walked along it was as if his heels were spring-loaded. Hence, Eddie’s friends called him “Spring Heels.”
It was not uncommon for Eddie to be seen at any hour of the day and night walking the highways and by-ways that surrounded the hill of Knocknashee. He seemed to have no fear of the darkness and the spirits that made the night their own. Because he did not believe in such things Eddie was comfortable walking through graveyards at night or settling to snooze below the branches of a fairy thorn tree. He laughed at those who gave credibility to superstitions and “old wives’ tales” that were common throughout the district. He would scoff those who would attempt to protect themselves from evil spirits with the sign of the Cross, or who would greet the fairies with a pleasant, “May goodness and peace be with you.”
It is well known that almost every county and townland contains lonely places that have become noted for the fairy activity that goes on there. However, Knocknashee was famous throughout the entire country because of the strange things that had been seen or heard in that place. On every crag and in every depression, there seemed to be a “Leprechaun Mound”, fairy trees and fairy caverns. In other places throughout the district stood dark green woodland and long abandoned grave sites. People told of instances when they had heard the Banshee wails from those places, seen strange lights reflecting in the darkness, and observed dark creatures stalking the souls of the unwary. Eddie, however, did not believe in such things and wandered, carefree, wherever he wished.
Late one evening, as he walked home from farmer McCann’s property, Eddie noticed that there was someone else on the road. Occasionally Eddie would meet people he knew walking along the Kilcoo Road, and he would chat with them to pass the time. On this occasion, however, Eddie could not recognise who his fellow traveller was, but he was sure that he was not a local resident. The man a short distance ahead of him was only an inch or two shorter than Eddie, but much better dressed. From the professional hiking gear on his back Eddie could discern that the person was just another sightseeing hiker dressed in a high-class range of outdoor clothing to protect him from the elements. It would not take Eddie too long to catch up with him.
The night was passing on, getting darker as the black, rain laden clouds gathering in the sky, threatening to soak the land with a downpour. As expected, it didn’t take Eddie much time before he caught up with the stranger and began to walk at his side. “Good evening, sir,” Eddie greeted him in his most friendly voice. “I am Eddie Daly and maybe I can walk a while with you along the road.”
“Good evening to you,” replied the stranger, “my name is Joe Crawford from Dublin and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“You’ll stay in the village tonight, Joe?” Inquired Eddie. “It could be a bad night for there a powerful lot of rain on the way.”
The stranger looked skyward as he continued to walk and, turning to Eddie, told him, “sure don’t I have my own accommodation with me.”
“And where would you be planning to put up your tent, if I might ask?”
“On top of Knocknashee Hill,” came the reply, which took Eddie completely by surprise.
“That’s right. The summit of Knocknashee Hill, so we will not have much farther to travel together.”
The stranger had now aroused Eddie’s inquisitiveness. “So, you will take the track that runs from this road up to the top of the hill?” Eddie asked and then continued, “But why would a man of your standing wish to go to that lonely, exposed and windswept place”
“You have been there?”
“I have and there is nothing there,” answered Eddie. “Even with your tent you will get little protection from the weather this night, especially up there.”
Mr. Crawford smiled at the concern his new companion was showing for his welfare. “The tent will suffice, and I intend to be settled upon the top of that hill by midnight.”
“But what in the name of all that is good, is bringing you to the top of that bleak hill? What are you looking for?” Eddie asked.
“The Good People,” said Joe, irritated by the questions. “I am going to the top of the hill to see the “Good People”.”
“Fairies!” Exclaimed Eddie in total disbelief and he sniggered at the very idea. That sort of attitude did not endear him to Joe, and he marched on in silence for a moment. “Fairies”, Eddie sniggered again.
This time Joe stopped and looked at his companion with growing anger displayed in his face. “For goodness sake, keep you voice low!” he told Eddie. “Better still keep it shut! Do you know nothing?” Eddie was taken aback by the angry tone exhibited by his companion, but Joe was not finished. “You never call “The Good People” fairies because it is a disrespectful term to them. Furthermore, to laugh at them is an unwise thing to do, because they look upon that as a grave insult. Just keep your ideas and your careless words to yourself, or you might just end up being very sorry!”
Eddie was somewhat dumbfounded by Joe’s dramatic change in attitude toward him. But he decided he would not react at this time. It all seemed a bit pointless anyway because they were approaching the track that led up to the summit of Knocknashee. Only a minute or two later they came upon the entrance to the narrow dirt path, which swept across several fields before going up the steep side of the hill to its summit. At the entrance Joe stopped and immediately offered his hand in friendship to Eddie. “Thank you for your company,” the man said. “Even though it was only for a brief period of time.”
Eddie took his hand, shook it warmly and simply replied, “Thank you, Joe.”
With their farewells said, Eddie watched as Joe climbed over a wooden stile that assisted his crossing of a barbed wire fence. On the other side he stepped on to the dirt track and began to follow it as it wound its way to the base of Knocknashee Hill. He was just about to re-start his own journey home to Kilmore, about three miles distant, when a sudden thought crossed his mind and caused him to pause again. “That man is a bit of an odd fellow, but he is definitely no fool,” he said to himself. He continued to ponder for a while as he watched Joe walk further away along the path. “I don’t believe he’s here for the fairies,” he said aloud to himself. “That man is up to something on that hill and he doesn’t want anyone else to see him. Maybe I should just follow him at a distance and find out for myself just what he is up to.” He stood for a few moments longer, watching the stranger move along the track and come closer to the base of the hill. “Fairies,” he exclaimed loudly with a certain distaste in his voice. “Mark my words, there is something more than fairies, or the “good people as he calls them, that is bringing him up that hill on a night like this.” He could not take his eyes off the man in the distance, even though what light there was left now began to fade quickly.
He muttered several curses to himself, “That man knows as much about fairies as I do about deep-sea diving.” Shaking his head in disbelief at the stranger’s declared intentions he told himself, “Fairies don’t exist and he expects a grown man like me to believe that he is going to seek them out. He tells me I should be wary about what I say concerning fairy folk, but if they don’t exist why should I be afraid?” Eddie looked down the path again, now illuminated by a shimmering full moon that had arisen from behind the hills. In that silver moonlight he could see Joe Crawford still pacing his way toward the base of the hill.
“Why would he try to frighten me off?” Eddie asked himself. “There must be something special up there that he doesn’t want another person to see.” He now strained his eyes in the lessening light to attempt to gauge just how far ahead of him Joe was. Eddie decided that it wasn’t too far and made up his mind to follow the stranger and attempt to catch him up. He was determined that he would find out the truth of the man’s decision to climb Knocknashee Hill. The more he had thought about it, Eddie became increasingly convinced that whatever the man was seeking it was most likely to be very valuable. His mind now became filled with ideas of gold, buried treasure, or jewels and he wanted to have a share in the fortune. In that instant he began to clamber over the wooden stile and begin his own journey to the summit. “Alright, big man,” he said aloud, “the game has begun.” He pulled up his trousers and closed over his jacket before setting off along the dirt path in his effort to catch the stranger.
Eddie had travelled along the track many times and despite it being illuminated only by moonlight he surefootedly pressed ahead. After a short time, he had reached the foot of the hill, just where the track turned and began to ascend windingly to the summit. At this point stood an old, gnarled, but sturdy thorn tree that local superstition had declared was a fairy tree. Eddie, of course, was not a believer in such superstitions, nonetheless something in his subconscious told him to give this tree a wide berth. He did give the tree a wide-berth and began to ascend the hill in the increasing darkness that was beginning to make the narrow path even more treacherous than was normal. With every step he took Eddie moved upward and occasionally, as the full moon peeped out from behind a dark cloud, he caught a glimpse of Joe approaching the summit of the hill.
Onward Eddie pressed, realising that he would never catch his former companion before he reached the top of the hill. Three full hours of toiling up that rugged path finally brought Eddie almost to the end of his journey. The path had taken him over broken ground, loose rocks and even areas of swampy ground. On several occasions during his journey he had almost lost his footing and fallen to the ground. It was with some relief that Eddie finally reached the end of the path and could sit down to rest his weary body. He found a dry, level, grassy spot on which he could comfortably relax and take in his surroundings. But, no matter how hard his eyes scanned the area around him, he saw no sign of his former companion.
Eddie couldn’t understand what had happened to Joe, but he was determined to seek him out. After a short rest he began to move carefully across the ground seeking the whereabouts of Joe. As he searched the area Eddie came across a large opening in the ground that sat close to a large, wind-formed thorn tree. It was the entrance to a deep shaft, the bottom of which he could not see. The hole itself was wide and deep enough to swallow up any person who might carelessly fall into it. This, he decided, may have been the fate that befell Joe Crawford and that was the reason why Eddie could not see any sign of him.
It came into Eddie’s mind that this dark shaft was none other than “The Black Hole of Knocknashee” that he had heard so much about since he was a child. Although Eddie had scaled Knocknashee Hill on many occasions he had never come across this place. Old tales suggested that “The Black Hole”, was indeed the entrance to an underworld kingdom where the fairies ruled from a magnificent, magical castle. He recalled the tales of people who were said to have gone to the top of Knocknashee and never returned. It was said that the fairies had lured them to “the Black Hole”, which simply swallowed them up. There was a famous legend that a local policeman who had set out to search for a person who was missing on the hill also never returned. He was supposed to have been a skilled climber and was well equipped for his rescue mission. Rumour suggested that even he had fallen for the wiles of the fairy folk and disappeared, never to be seen again.
These were stories that Eddie shrugged off as being nothing but old wives’ tales. Nevertheless, Eddie did realise that any person could have fallen down this hole and maybe he should check it out in case this is what happened to Joe. Lying on the ground he tried to peer into the dark depths of the shaft, but he could see nothing. “Maybe, if I throw in a stone, I might hit the gate of the magical castle,” he laughed. “At least I might get to find out if there is anyone at home.” Eddie moved away from the shaft entrance to search for a large stone and eventually came across a big, granite rock. He lifted it with both hands and bringing it to the opening of the shaft he flung it down with all his might. As he listened, he could hear the echo of the rock as it bounded downward, tumbling from one wall of the pit to another.
The large granite rock made a terrible confusion of noise and Eddie leaned his head over the hole to hear the stone reach the bottom. But, as Eddie leaned over the hole, he could still hear the rumbling of the tumbling rock and he was surprised to hear that it did not appear to be going away from him. The sound, instead, seemed to be coming louder and quite suddenly the stone shot out of the hole with as much force as it first entered the shaft. The large rock flew at Eddie, catching him totally by surprise, and hit him with great force full in his face. He was flung backward quite a distance where he lay motionless for a moment.
Eddie was still very dazed as he raised himself up from the ground and his eyes were a little out of focus. Perhaps it was concussion, but Eddie’s head was spinning violently, causing him to lose his balance. He lost his footing on the grass and soon found himself rolling down the side of Knocknashee Hill. He was now faking head over heels from one crag to another and descending faster with every roll of his body. Eddie finally came to a stop at the bottom of the hill, unconscious and unmoving. There he lay until early next morning when he was discovered by a local farmer.
At first sight the farmer was convinced he had come across a dead body, but there was a loud groan when the body was turned over. Even in the shadows of the branches of a white-thorn tree the farmer could see that the person was badly injured. The bridge of Eddie’s nose was broken quite seriously, which caused disfigurement to his entire face. There was blood dried on his face and upon the grass on which he had come to a rest after his fall. The blood came from the cuts that covered his head and hands, enhanced by a multitude of purple-black coloured bruises. Eddie’s eyes were swollen shut, blackened by deep blue and black colouring.
Although Eddie was nursed to full recovery, he was changed man. He no longer demonstrated the same bravado as he once had. He began to avoid those places associated with the fairies, especially after the sun began to set. On those few occasions when he found himself alone in lonely places, he would press hard to get home before it became too late. Even as Eddie hurried home he could not be diverted from his path, nor could he allow himself to be delayed by any person he met on the road. Never again did he seek out “The Good People” or ask questions about them. In fact, Eddie became quite introverted and avoided the company of others. Those who knew him had no knowledge of what had changed him, but some insisted that he had been touched by the fairies.
There was nothing nice or polite about Neil Kelly. He simply told his wife that he was going to the forge to get a ‘doctoring instrument’ and off he went without another word being said. When he arrived at the forge he mumbled a greeting to the blacksmith, who asked him “Where are you heading to today?“
” I have come here, for to ask you to make me an instrument for some doctoring I intend to do.”
“Aye, well what type of instrument is it that you want?”
“Make me a ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’,” replied Neil.
The Smith made these instruments for him in a short period of time and Neil then returned home.
When the next day dawned, Neil Kelly rose up from his bed and prepared himself to be going out as a doctor and went out of the house. As he walked along the road, Neil met a red-haired lad on the side of the high road. The lad politely saluted Neil Kelly and Neil did likewise in reply. “Where would you be going?” asked the red man.
“I am going as far as I can to get me a doctoring job.”
“It’s a good trade,” says the red man, “It would be best for you to hire me.”
“What wages would be you be looking for?” inquired Neil.
“I suppose half of what we shall earn until we come back to this place again would be right.“
“I’ll give you that,” said Neil without hesitation, and with this agreed the two men walked on their way together.
“There’s a king’s daughter,” said the red man, “who is close to death. We should go as far as the place in which she rests, and we shall see if we can heal her.“
The two men walked on as far as the gate of a strong well-guarded castle, and the porter came to answer their call. He asked them where they were going to, and they said that they had come to look at the king’s daughter they were, to see if they could do her any good. The king, hearing this gave the visitors permission to enter the castle, and they were taken to the place where the girl was lying. The red man went to her and took hold of her wrist to check her pulse, and said that if his master should get the price of his labour he would heal her. The king replied by saying that he would give his master whatever he should award himself. In response, the red man said, “If I could have the room to myself and my master, then he could work better,” and without hesitation, the king said he should have it.
He wanted a little pot of water brought down to him, which he immediately put on the fire to boil. He asked Neil Kelly, “Where is the doctoring instrument?“
“Here they are,” said Neil, “a crooked knife and a white knife.”
He put the crooked knife on the girl’s neck, and he took her head off her body. Then, he took a green herb out of his pocket and rubbed it into her neck. Not one drop of blood came out of the wound as he took the head and threw it into the pot of water starting to boil on the fire. He boiled it for a while, seized hold of the two ears, and taking it out of the skillet, he struck it down on the neck. The head stuck on the girl’s body as well as it ever was. “How do you feel now,” he asked the girl.
“I am as well as ever I was,” said the king’s daughter.
The big man shouted for her father and the king came down to the room. When he saw his daughter, he was totally joyous, and he would not let the visitors go away again for three days. When they were eventually leaving the castle, the king brought down a bag of money and poured it out on the table. He asked Neil Kelly if there was enough there for him. Neil said that there was more than enough and that they would only take half of the amount. But the king wanted them to take the entire amount, and the two men replied, “There is a daughter of another king who is waiting for us to go and look at her.” With that, they bid farewell to the king and went on their way.
They went to look at their new patient and went to the place where she was lying ill. After looking at her in her bed she was healed in the same manner as the previous princess was healed. The king was grateful, and he said that he did not mind how much money Neil should take from him, giving him three-hundred pounds cash, and then they left to go home.
“There’s a king’s son in such and such a place,” said the red man, “but we won’t go to him. We will go home with what we have.” They were heading home, with ten heifers that the king had given them, and as they walked homeward, they came upon the place where Neil Kelly had hired the red man.
“I think,” said the red man, “that this is the place where I met you the first time.”
“I think it is,” replied Neil Kelly, “Friend, how shall we divide the money?“
“Two halves,” said the red man, “that’s what we agreed.”
“I think it is too much to give you half,” said Neil Kelly, “a third is enough for you. It was I who had the ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’, and you had nothing.”
“I won’t take anything,” said the red man, “unless I get half the money.” The two men fell out over the money, and the red man left him.
Neil Kelly was coming closer to his home, driving his share of the cattle. The day became hotter and the cattle began to scamper backwards and forwards in the heat, with Neil Kelly trying his best to control them. When he caught one or two, the rest would be off when he used to bring them back. The horse, which he used to catch the cattle, was tied to the stump of a tree while he continued to try to catch the cattle. But they all got away and he hadn’t a clue as to where they went. Then, when he returned back to the place where he had left his horse and his money, neither the horse nor the money was to be found and he did not know what he should do.
He thought that he should go to the house of the king whose son was ill, and he went head until he came to the king’s castle. He went to look at the boy in the room where he was lying, and he took his pulse. Neil said that he thought he could heal the boy, and the king told him, “If you heal him, I will give you three hundred pounds.”
“If I were to get the room to myself, for a little while,” said Neil and the king said that he would have it. He now called down for a small pot of water, which he put on the fire to boil. Then, he took his ‘crooked knife’ and went to take the head off the boy, just as he had seen the red man doing previously. He was sawing at the head, but it did not come away easily, allowing him to cut it off at the neck. The blood was pouring out as he finally took the head off the boy and threw it into the boiling water. He boiled it for a while until he considered that the head had been boiled enough. Neil then tried to get the head out of the pot and managed to get a hold of its two ears. The head fell, in a gurgling mass of flesh, and the two ears came with him. By now the blood was pouring out in great amounts, flowing down the room and seeping out from under the door.
When the king saw that the blood was flowing out from under the door of the room, he knew that his son was dead. He wanted the door opened, but Neil Kelly refused to comply with the king’s orders, and soldiers broke down the door. The young man was dead, and the floor was covered with blood. They seized Neil Kelly, whom they told would hang the next day, and they gathered a company of guards to take him to the place where he was to be executed. They went with him the next day and were walking toward the tree where he should be hanged, and he stopped his screaming. Ahead they saw man stripped and running quickly toward them with a type of mist around him. When he came up to them, the running man cried aloud, “What are you doing to my master? “
“If this man is your master, you had better deny him, or you’ll get the same treatment,” they warned him.
“But it is me who should be suffering, for it me who caused the delay. He sent me for medicine, and I did not come in time. If you free my master, perhaps we can still heal the king’s son.”
They freed Neil and the two men were taken to the king’s house. The red man went to the place where the dead man was, and he quickly began to gather up the bones that were in the small pot. He gathered them all except for the two ears. “What did you do with the ears ?” he asked Neil.
“I don’t know,” said Kelly, “I was so frightened.”
The red man finally got the ears and he put them all together. From out of his pocket he took a green herb, which he rubbed around the head. The skin soon covered it again and the hair grew as fine as it had been previously. He put the head in the skillet again and allowed it to boil a while. The red man put the head back on the neck, where it stuck as well as it ever had done, and the king’s son rose up in the bed. “How are you now?” asked the red man.
“I am well,” said the king’s son, “but I feel terribly weak.”
The red man shouted again for the king and the king was overjoyed to see his son alive again. They spent that night celebrating and, the next day, when they were going away, the king counted out three hundred pounds. He gave the money to Neil Kelly and told him that, if he had not enough, he would give him more. But Neil said that he had been given enough and that he would not take a penny more. He bade farewell and left his blessing, and struck out, heading straight for home. When they saw that they had reached the place where they had fallen out with one another the red man pointed out, “I think that this is the place where we had our difference.“
“It is,” said Neil, and they sat down to divide the money. He gave half to the red man, and he kept another half for himself.
The red man said farewell, and he went. He was walking away for a while, and then went back. ” I am here again,” said the red man, “I had another thought to myself that I would leave all the money with yourself, for you yourself were open-handed. Do you mind the day you were going by past the churchyard, and there were four people there with the body in a coffin? Two of the people were seeking to bury the body, but the dead person owed some debts. The two men who were owed the debts by the dead man were not going to allow the body to be buried. They were arguing, and you were listening to them. Then, you went in and asked how much they were owed by the dead man. The two men said that they each were owed a pound by the body and that they would not let it be buried until the people, who were carrying the coffin, promised to pay at least part of the debts.You said, ‘I have ten shillings, and I’ll give it to you, and let the body be buried.’ You gave them ten shillings, and the corpse was buried. Well, it was I who was in the coffin that day. When I saw you going doctoring, I knew that you would not do the business, and when I saw you in deep trouble, I came to save you. I give you all the money, and you shall not see me again until the last day. Go home now, and don’t do a single day’s doctoring so long as you live. It’s only a short walk now until you get your share of cattle and your horse.” Neil went on towards home, and he didn’t walk far until he came across his share of cattle and his horse, as the red man had said. He took them all home with him. There is not a single day since, that he and his wife do not thrive on their fortune.
“Saved by a Pipe! Yes, by God,” said Charlie Hannon one night as we sat at a wake. “Let me tell you, there’s a powerful lot of strange things to be seen and felt, and don’t let anyone tell me that there’s not!”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, Charlie,” said I.
Without even recognising that I had answered him, Charlie continued, “The night my father died I went to Dungannon for to get pipes and tobacco for the wake, and to tell my sister that lived there about the death of our da. Well, I left the house about eight o’clock, or thereabouts, for as you know I had a long road to travel – aye, fifteen miles if it’s an inch. I went by the Rock, for I had a fine lump of a mare with me that I had bought at the time. Her name was Sally, and sure there wasn’t another horse the likes of her to be had in all the parish. Now, it was pretty late when I left Dungannon, between midnight and one o’clock at least, but I didn’t hear or see a thing until I came as far as the wood on this side of Rock. We must have been just in the middle of it when the mare suddenly stopped, and she gave three snorts out of her nostrils. Well, as you know, I never was one to be afraid of anything, but I thought to myself that if maybe there’s something unnatural roaming around here now? You see, I never have known Sally to be afraid of anything dead or alive before that night.”
“’ Go on Sally,’ says I and patted her gently on the neck with my hand. But, the devil a bit would the poor mare stir. She just kept snorting, and snorting, and going back and back. ‘ Be you devil or sent by him!’ cries I, ‘man or beast, or whatever you are, get out of the mare’s way and let me get home to me father’s wake with the pipes and tobacco for the neighbours who are waiting for them.’ But, devil the answer did I get. Things were not looking good, I thought to myself, and what am I going to do now? It was then that I remembered that it was the right thing to do, to put a pipe in the lining of your hat whenever you come across anything unnatural. Sure, I had a couple of the pipes in the pocket of my coat that I couldn’t fit in the box and I put down my hand and took one up and put it inside the lining of my hat. Well, by all that’s holy! I had no sooner done that than up came a man on horseback.
“It was a clear night, and I swear that he must have come up out of the road itself, for there neither one thing or another that moved there before that. Sally kept on snorting and the man rode on past on my left. But just as he was passing, he stretched out one hand to me and pulled up his horse with the other, without speaking a word. ‘Here,’ says I, reaching him a pipe, ‘take it, if that’s what you want, and for God’s sake leave me alone.’ Well, he took the pipe, but as soon as he heard God’s name, he and his horse rose up into one big lump of fire, and the noise that was made as the fire struck against the wall along the roadside, was the fiercest thing I ever heard. And I hope that I never will hear the like of it again. The rattle of the stones falling, and the whizzing of the fire through the trees, is still in my ears yet.
“Sally went on, then, happy enough, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m all right now.’
“But I was mistaken. I hadn’t moved but a foot or two until I felt something jumping up behind me on the mare, and I felt two hands around my back, and a cold breath on my neck behind. As I told you I never used to be afraid, but the fear of God was put in to my heart that night. The poor mare’s back was bending with the dreadful weight of the thing behind me. I tried to shake off the hold it had of me, but not a budge I was able to do at all, one way or another. I didn’t know, what in heaven, I was going to do. I wasn’t able to speak, and the mare wasn’t able to move. But praise be to God ! I wasn’t long that way until who should I see standing beside me on the road but the man on horseback that I had given the pipe to. He had no horse with him this time, but he had a whip in his hand. ‘Get off, immediately ‘ says he to the thing behind me.
“The Devil an answer did he get. ‘I tell you again,’ says he, getting very cross, and raising the whip above his head, ‘get off.’
“No answer. ‘For the third, and last, time,’ says he, in a terrible rage now, entirely, ‘I tell ye to get off.’
“Not a word did the thing behind me speak, nor a budge did it put out of itself. When the man seen that it wouldn’t come off, he began slashing, and slashing at it, and every slash he gave, I saw the fire rising above my head until at last I felt the weight go off the mare, and I knew I was rid of it. ‘Go home now,’ said the man, crying, ‘you won’t be troubled any more, but take my advice and don’t be out so late at night again by yourself.’”