“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.’”
“Ah, would you be quiet!” cried an old man with whom I was discussing such topics, “Would you believe this?“
“Would I believe what?” I asked him.
“It’s as true as I’m living,” he insisted. “I heard it from the man’s own lips, may God be merciful to him! And Lord forbid that I should tell a lie on him!“
“What was it?” I asked again impatiently.
“Did you ever know Brian Douglas that lived over there in Ballymacnab?” the old man replied, and, like the proverbial Irishman, I shook my head.
“Oh no, you wouldn’t have known him” he went on, “he died before you came here. Well, he was coming home one night from town. It was after twelve o’clock or maybe coming near to one. He had his horse and cart with him, and he was walking along at the horse’s head, smoking away at his pipe as content as you like, and it was a fine moonlit night, Glory be to God! Then, what should he see before him in the middle of the road but three men carrying a coffin. Well, it wasn’t long, sir, until they put down the coffin. Sure, the hair was standing on Brian’s head with fear, but he made the sign o’ the cross on himself, and he walked on until he came up to where the three men had been standing beside the coffin. ‘The blessing of God on you,’ said Bryan in Irish, ‘and what’s wrong with you all, at all?’
“’The same to yourself,’ spoke up one of the three men, ‘ but come and take a fourth man’s place under this and ask us no more questions.’ Well, sir, he was going to ask, ‘What will I do with my horse and cart?’ but he thought better of it, and he didn’t, for you see he was told to ask no more questions, and it wouldn’t have been right for him to go against them. But sure he didn’t need to ask, for they knew well enough what was going through his mind, and another of the men said to him, ‘ your horse and cart will be here when you come back.’
“Well, he went with them and helped them to carry the coffin, and never was there a heavier corpse, the Lord be good to us, ever buried he told us. They went on until they left the coffin in the graveyard, and then they told him he might go back to his horse and cart. ‘Oh,’ says Brian, ‘I’ll help you to dig the grave now that I’m here.’
“’Do what you’re told,’ said the third of the men, who hadn’t spoken before this, ‘or maybe it would be al the worse for you.’
“Well, sir, Brian was reluctant to say anything more, so he went back to his horse and cart, and sure enough they were waiting for him at the very spot where he had left them.“
“Did Brian know the men?” I asked the old man when he had finished.
“Did he know them? Indeed, he did, for they were his own three first cousins who died long before this event.”
“And who was in the coffin?“
“It was Brian’s own brother, who had died in California that same night. But he only heard this afterwards, when he received a letter that came from his uncle in America.”
The old man assured me that Brian had never told a lie in his life and that he was dead now, may God be merciful to him!
You, who are reading this now, I ask that you should not scoff the story. You may never be called upon to assist the dead to carry the dead at a mysterious midnight funeral, but do not ridicule the story of Brian Dougan’s experience that has been brought to you by an honourable man.
Eileen Lennon was a small, lively, four-year old child with an Angel’s face and a smile that could melt the hardest of hearts. Her long, red curly hair flowed down over her shoulders and highlighted her bright, hazel coloured eyes. She was the unspoiled only child who had been gifted to her mother and father by a loving God and they treasured every moment that they could spend with her. Joey, Eileen’s father, was a hard working labouring man who also looked after a few sheep, which were allowed to roam on a small plot of land that he owned in the hills on the outskirts of town. Meanwhile, Sarah, Eileen’s mother, was an industrious housewife who took pride in the way she cared for her daughter, her home and the small flock of sheep, which allowed her husband to work hard, earning cash as a labourer with a local builder.
As with most farmer’s wives, the Spring was always Sarah’s busiest season of the year. Over those weeks she and joey would work all hours together to ensure that the ewes were safely delivered of their lambs. Spring was also Eileen’s favourite time of the year because she could see the little lambs frolic about the farm and, sometimes, hold them. She particularly loved to prance about the small field behind the house, where her parents would keep the lambs and ewes until they were less dependent on their mother’s milk. Every morning, even before breakfast, Eileen would traipse around after her mother begging to be allowed out into the small field with the lambs. Sarah, being the good mother she was, would not permit the child to leave the house until she had breakfasted and dressed appropriately. There were times, nonetheless, when Sarah’s attention was elsewhere that Eileen would quietly open the kitchen door to the outside and make her way toward the lambs. But, such escapes often did not last long and Eileen more often than not would find herself back at the breakfast table with her mother’s scolding words echoing in her ears.
One bright, sunshine filled Spring morning young Eileen sat at the family breakfast table, silently eating a bowl of ‘Weetabix’ and milk, her favourite cereal. She had been particularly well behaved that morning, but she was very eager to be outdoors and in the lambing field. A new, black lamb had been born a couple of days previously and she so wanted to go to it and snuggle into its soft fleece. That morning, her mother had dressed Eileen in a beautiful powder blue tee-shirt and blue jeans, and on her feet were her oldest pair of sandals. These were, Eileen knew, her ‘rough clothes’ and they would be staying home that day. She was very excited at the prospect of spending the entire morning with her beloved lambs, and especially the new black addition to the flock. “Mammy, I’m all done,” the little girl called out to her mother. “I have put my dishes in the sink, so can I go out now into the fields for a while?”
“Well, if you are finished your breakfast, I can’t see why not? But keep close to the house, Eileen! I am going to do the washing and I will be checking on you,”
“Okay, Mammy,” the child answered with a large beaming smile that lit up her entire face. She jumped down from her seat at the table and wasted no time in hurrying out of the kitchen door. “Don’t be running, for you will hurt yourself!” warned Sarah as Eileen ran out of the door and closed it loudly behind her. “That will keep her occupied for an hour or so and out from under my feet,” Sarah sighed gratefully. “I hate washing day!”
Sarah began sorting out the clothes from the washing baskets into “Whites” and “Coloureds” before she placed them, in their separate groups, into the washing machine. Once the first load of washing was switched on Sarah began to tidy away all the breakfast dishes into the sink, where they would be washed. There was one thing that anyone could be sure of when it came to Sarah Lennon, and that was her dedication to cleanliness within her home. There were many occasions when Joey had voiced his frustration at being obliged by his wife to remember that there was a place for everything and everything had to be put in its place. Despite the frustration, Joey was aware of the fact that his wife was not the sort of woman to tolerate untidiness in the home.
Earlier that morning Joey had left the house to cycle into town to undertake another day’s work on the building site. Over the previous few years the town of Derryard appeared to be expanding at a great rate, with new homes being built everywhere. The new creamery and cheese factory had encouraged people to move into the area and now the building of a sugar processing unit promised an influx of people seeking work. Quite a number of people had asked Joey, why did he not seek work in one of the factories? But, he would simply tell them that he had worked outdoors all his life and could not even contemplate in a factory environment. “Sure I wouldn’t see the sky, or breathe the sweet fresh air. I would not hear the birds sing, or the bleating of the sheep. It would be like sentencing me to jail to put myself in one of those places,” he would tell people. There was little doubt that Joey did indeed enjoy the outdoor life, and those who knew him said you would have to go a long way to find a man who worked as hard as he did.
As the town expanded and he was fully employed building new houses for the anticipated workforce, it often puzzled Joey as to how people could actually afford to buy these new houses. He saw the billboards advertising some houses for £125,000, others for £140,00, and even some at £175,000. The cottage in which he lived with his family, and the bit of land that came with it, had been inherited through the passing of a spinster aunt who had left it to him in her will. He knew nothing about mortgages or other means of financing property. Joey had been brought up in a family that believed in the idiom, “Never a borrower be.” He had no loans, either owed or owing to him, and his dealings with others were mostly in cash. Sarah, being the recognised sensible person, was the family’s banker and ensured that whatever surplus of money they had was put into the town’s branch of the “Credit Union.”
In the cottage, while Joey was at work, Sarah bused herself in the home. She began to make the beds and finished hoovering the hall before she went back to the kitchen to check if the first load of washing was complete. The washing machine’s cycle had finished and Sarah opened the machine’s door to begin lifting the still damp clothes out on to the kitchen table. When the washing machine was emptied she filled it with a second load of clothes and put it on another cycle. The second cycle would continue while she folded the clothes from the first was in preparation for the drying line in the garden. This was always the routine that she followed, but she had been too busy to notice that the weather was about to change for the worse. The rain had begun to fall outside while she folded her clothes. Sarah had hoped that a full week’s washing of dresses, shirts, blouses and undergarments would be completed and hung out to dry before lunch, but she now heard the sound of rain drops beating heavily against the glass pane of the kitchen window.
“Ah, good Jesus, no!” she exclaimed loudly as she watched the rain bounce off the glass. “Eileen? Eileen? Where are you?” she called out from the opened Kitchen door. Eileen might only have been four years old, but she knew that when the rain began, playtime outside was over and it was time to come back into the house. There was, however, no reply and the rain began to get heavier.
“Eileen? Come here now!” she shouted at the top of her voice, but again there was no reply. Opening the door wider and putting a coat over head and shoulders, Sarah stepped outside and could see no sign of her daughter. The sheep had moved nearer to the hedgerows to find some shelter and Sarah thought that maybe Eileen had followed their lead. Again she called out loudly and again there was no reply forthcoming. “If she is acting the ‘cod’ with me now, I’ll give her a red bottom with the strap,” Sarah promised herself. But she was more frustrated and worried than angry with her daughter. Pulling her raincoat closer around herself Sarah made for the small gate that led into the field where the sheep and lambs were. As soon as she opened the gate, and despite the rain blowing in her eyes, Sarah caught sight of her daughter lying prostrate on the ground a few yards into the field.
“Eileen?” she screamed, her lungs nearly bursting with the effort and her heart pounding in fear.
Without a moment’s hesitation Sarah ran to the body of her child, which lay motionless in the wet grass as the rain continued to pours down on her. Immediately she noticed a large, bloody gash at the side of the child’s temple, where she had evidently hit her head against a large rock that lay half-buried in the soft ground. Picking Eileen up into her arms, Sarah called for the child to awaken, begging her to open her eyes, as she moved quickly to the shelter of the cottage. There was, however, no movement from the child.
Eileen was laid carefully on the couch and a ‘fleece throw’ was put over her damp, cold body. With her daughter comfortable, Sarah lifted the phone and dialled for an emergency ambulance. “It’s my daughter!” Sarah told the operator excitedly. “She has had an accident and is not moving!”
“Please speak slowly and clearly,” the operator asked. “What has happened?”
“She has fallen and hit her head off a rock, and she is cut at the side of her head,” replied Sarah, hurriedly.
“Is she responsive?”
“No! She’s not moving, please send an ambulance!”
“I am sending it now, Madam,” replied the operator. “Is the child breathing?”
“Yes; No; I don’t know!” Sarah panicked.
“I know it is hard, but please try to keep calm. An ambulance is on its way and I need you to check if she is breathing,” the operator told Sarah calmly.
“I don’t know for sure; I don’t think so; My God help me!”
The operator continued to talk calmly to Sarah over the phone, giving her instructions on how to administer CPR. But Sarah was in no state of mind to carry out the exercise precisely. She tried to listen to what the operator was saying and tried her best to follow the instructions, but all her efforts appeared to be in vain. The seconds were lost in minutes as Sarah tearfully tried to encourage Eileen to awaken, and the minutes ticked by relentlessly as the child remained unresponsive. She didn’t know how long she had been on the phone, or even when she had contacted the operator, but her heart filled with new hope as the ambulance pulled up outside the cottage with all lights flashing. In moments a para-medic entered the house, closely followed by the ambulance driver, who was carrying oxygen cylinders and a plethora of other equipment.
Sarah, now relieved of her nursing duties, sat back and allowed her emotions to take control. She wept and wept until large tears flowed from her eyes, down her pale cheeks and dripped on to the cushion that lay on her knees. She didn’t want to wipe away the tears, preferring to stretch her hands out to hold the small, pale, cold hands of her daughter. “Will she be okay?” she asked the para-medic as he worked frantically with the unconscious little girl.
“Paddles!” he called out to the driver. “Keep your hands away,” he told Sarah.
The paddles were put on her bare chest and the shock caused her body to jump, and then the CPR continued. Nothing.
He tried again and as the driver tried CPR the para-medic interrupted him and shook his head. He turned to Sarah and asked, “Is there someone we can contact for you?”
“She is going to be alright?” Sarah asked but she noticed the desolation in the man’s eyes and received her answer. All the hope she had for Eileen’s recovery was gone in a moment. “I’m sorry Mrs Lennon, but she has gone,” confirmed the para-medic in a very quiet tone.
Sarah screamed in her grief, kissing her daughters face and crying bitter tears of heartbreak. Quietly the ambulance driver noted the time of death and began to tidy away the equipment, for the police would soon be at the scene.
Many years ago, there lived a hard-working farmer named Liam Mooney, who lived on the borderlands between County Armagh and County Louth. Times had been harsh for many seasons and there was little money to be made from poor harvests. Then, one day, the landlord came to Liam and told him, “You owe me three years’ rent now, and unless you can pay it all to me within the week, I’ll throw you, and all of your family out on the road.“
“Ah, sir,” replied Liam, “I will be going to Newry tomorrow with a load of wheat to sell, and when I get it all sold, I will be able pay you all that I owe.”
Next morning, Liam put a load of wheat on the cart, and headed off to market with it. But, after he had travelled only a couple of miles from his house, he met a prosperous looking gentleman, who asked him, “Is that a load of wheat that you’ve got on your cart?“
“It is, indeed,” replied Liam, “and I’m going to sell it at the market so that I can pay my rent.”
”How much is there in that load?” the gentleman asked politely.
“There’s a ton in it,” said Liam with a certain pride.
“I’ll buy it from you,” said the gentleman, “and I’ll give you the best price that’s going in the market. Now, when you reach the cart track that’s on your left, turn down it and continue along the track until you come to a big house in the valley. I’ll be there before you arrive, and I can give you your money.“
Pleased with the deal he had struck, Liam came to the cart track he turned in, continuing on his way, as instructed, until he came as far as the big house described by the gentleman. Liam then began to wonder, when he came as far as the big house, for having been born and raised in this part of the country he had never seen this building before, and he thought he was familiar with every house within five miles of where he lived. When Liam came near to the barn that was close to the big house, a small boy came running out and said, “Good man Liam Mooney, you’re very welcome.” The boy then lifted a sack onto his back and went into the barn with it. Almost immediately another little lad came out and welcomed Liam, put a sack on his back, and went into the barn with it. Very soon various lads were coming out, welcoming Liam, and putting the sacks on their backs to carry them into the barn, until the entire ton of wheat was all gone.
It was then that all the boys came around Liam, who told them plainly, “You boys all know me, and I don’t know one of you!“
One of the boys stepped forward and replied to Liam, saying, ”Go in and eat your dinner, for the master’s waiting for you.”
Liam went into the main house and sat down at the table to eat. But he had not taken a second mouthful when he began to feel a heavy sleep overcame him, and he fell down under the table. Then this mysterious gentleman used his magic powers to fabricate a man in Liam’s image, and then sent him home to William’s wife with the horse and cart. When the false Liam eventually arrived at Liam’s house, he went into the bedroom, where he laid himself down on the bed and died.
Within a few hours the news had spread far and wide that Liam Mooney had died. The wife put some water on the fire to heat and, when it was hot, she washed the body of her ‘husband’ and laid it out to be waked. His friends and neighbours from all over the district came to the house, and they grieved for him deeply. There was also great comfort for Liam’s poor wife, who did not show much grief herself on the passing of her husband, for Liam was an older man and she was quite young.
The next morning saw the poor man’s body buried, and afterwards there was very little thought given to the man. The wife had a young house-boy, and she called him to her and said, “You should marry me, you know, and take Liam’s place.”
“Surely, it’s too early, after himself just dying and his body hardly cold in the ground?” the boy replied. “Wait, at least until Liam has been buried a week.”
Meanwhile, after the real Liam had slept for seven days and seven nights, a little boy came to him and awoke him, saying, “You’ve been asleep for a week, Liam! But we sent your horse and cart home. Now, here’s your money, and you should go.”
Liam, still confused by all that had happened to him, made his way home, and because it was late at night no person saw him. However, on the morning of that same day, Liam’s wife and the young servant lad went to the local priest and asked if he would marry them. “Have you the marriage money?” asked the priest.
“No,” said the wife, “but I have a great beast of a pig at home, and you can have her in place of money.“
The priest accepted, married the couple, and said, “I’ll send for the pig tomorrow.”
When the wife and the servant boy were going to bed that evening, Liam came to the door of his house and struck it a hefty blow. Surprised by the intrusion the newly wedded couple asked, “Who’s there?”
“It’s I,” replied Liam, “Now, open the door for me.”
When they heard the voice, they immediately recognised that it was Liam’s voice. Terrified by this knowledge the wife called out, “I can’t let you in! Sure, it’s a shameful thing for you to be coming back here again, after you have been lying seven days in your grave.”
“Have you gone mad? ” asked Liam.
“No! I’m not a mad woman!” declared the wife. “Sure, doesn’t every person in the entire parish know that you are dead, and that I buried you decently. Now, old man, go back to your grave, and I’ll have a mass read for your poor soul in the morning.“
“Wait until morning comes,” said Liam, “and I’ll give you the weight of a dead man’s boot as the price for all this foolishness!” Angrily he turned from the door and went into the stable, where his horse and the pig were, to stretch himself out on the straw and get some sleep.
Early the next morning, the priest called one of the local lads to him and told him, “Go you to Liam Mooney’s house, and the woman that I married yesterday will give you a pig to bring back to me.“
When the boy came to the door of the house, he began knocking at it with a heavy-stick but the woman of the house was afraid to open it. Instead she called out, “Who’s there ? “
“It’s me,” said the boy, “the priest has sent me to get a pig-from you.”
“She’s out in the stable,” said the wife, “you can go gather her for yourself, and drive her back with you.“
The lad went into the stable, and he began to drive out the pig, when Liam suddenly rose up and said, “Where are you going with my pig ? “
When the boy saw Liam he never stopped to look again, but he ran out of there just as hard as he could, and he never stopped running until he came back to the priest. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest with terror that he thought it would burst out of his chest. “What’s the matter with you? ” asked the priest. The lad told him that Liam Rooney was in the stable and wouldn’t let him drive out the pig.
“Hold your tongue, you liar!” scolded the priest. “Liam Rooney’s dead and cold in his grave this week.”
“I don’t care if you say he was in his grave this past seven years, Father, I saw him in the stable two moments ago, and if you don’t believe me, then come yourself, and you’ll see him.”
The priest and the boy then went together to the door of the stable, and the priest told the lad, “Go in and turn me out that pig.“
“What? I wouldn’t go in there for all the money you could get!” said the boy.
The priest went in instead of the boy, and began driving out the pig, when Liam rose up out of the straw and asked, “Where are you going with my pig, Father?“
When the priest saw Liam standing before him, he turned on his heels and ran as if all the devils in hell were after him, crying out, “In the name of God, I order you back to your grave, Liam Rooney.“
Liam began running after the priest, and saying, ”Father, Father, have are you gone mad? Wait and speak to me.“
But the priest would not wait for him and continued to make for home just as fast as his feet could carry him, and when he got into the house, he shut the door behind him. Liam was knocking at the door until he was tired, but the priest would not let him in. Finally, the priest put his head out of an upstairs window of the house, and called to him, “Liam Rooney, go back to your grave.“
” You’re mad. Father! Sure, I’m not dead, and I never was in a grave since I was born,” said Liam.
“I saw you dead,” said the priest; “you died suddenly, and I was present when you were put into the grave. Sure, didn’t I make a fine sermon over you?“
“God preserve us, but, as sure as I’m alive, you’re raging mad !” said Liam.
“Get out of my sight now,” said the priest, “and I’ll read a mass for you, tomorrow.”
Liam went home then, and knocked at his own door, only to fine that his wife would not let him in. Then he said to himself: “I may as well go and pay my rent now.”
On his way to the landlord’s house everyone who saw Liam was running before him, for they thought he was dead. When the landlord heard that Liam Rooney was coming his way, he immediately locked the doors and would not let him in. Liam began knocking frantically at the front-door until the landlord thought he’d break it in, and he went to a window at the top of the house, put out his head, and asked, “What is it that you want? “
“I’ve come to pay my rent like any honest man,” replied Liam.
“Go back to your grave, and I’ll forgive you your rent,” said the landlord.
“I won’t leave this,” said Liam, “until I get it in writing from you that I’m paid up until next May.”
The lord gave him the written statement he wanted, and he came home again and knocked at his own door. But, once again the wife refused to let him in. She said that Liam Rooney was dead and buried, and that the man at the door was only a deceiver. “I’m no deceiver,” said Liam, “I’m after paying my master three years’ rent, and I’ll have possession of my own house, or else I’ll know the reason why.”
He went to the barn and got a big bar of iron, and it wasn’t long until he broke the door down. The wife and her newly married husband were terrified, for they began to believe that the ‘Last Days’ had come and that the end of the world had arrived. “Why did you think I was dead?” asked Liam.
“Doesn’t everybody in the parish know you’re dead?” said the wife.
“To the devil with you woman,” said Liam, “you’ve been humbugging me long enough now, go and get me something to eat.“
The poor woman was greatly afraid, and she sliced him some meat. Then, when she saw him eating and drinking, she said, “It’s a miracle!“
Then Liam told her his story from first to last, and she told him each thing that happened. Then, and then he said, “I’ll go to the grave to-morrow, to see the body that is buried in my place.“
The next morning Liam brought a lot of men with him to the churchyard, and they dug open the grave. They were raising the coffin, when a huge black dog jumped out of it, and ran off, with Liam and the men chasing after it. They were following it until they saw it going into the house in which Liam had been asleep. Then, suddenly, the ground opened and swallowed the house, and from that moment on nobody ever saw it again, although the big hole that it left is still to be seen unto this day. When Liam and the men went home, they told everything that had happened to the priest of the parish, and he dissolved the marriage between Liam’s wife and the servant boy. Liam lived for years after this, leaving great wealth behind him, and his story is still remembered in that border area.
Deaths and burials are not the most enjoyable topics of conversation for everyone to involve themselves in. But I have often found it interesting to read about the very odd notions people have had about burials and the way that they have been carried out at various times and in various parts of this world. Here I would like to offer the reader some of the more strange and eccentric burials that I have heard about.
1. It is said that on of England’s major figures in the industrial revolution, who made his fortune in iron was determined that he would take some of his accomplishments to the grave with him. When the man died, he had himself buried in the garden of his home in an iron coffin, over which he had built an iron tomb that weighed some twenty tons. It was a task that he could not leave to be completed by anyone and, as an extra precaution, he instructed the coffin and tomb to be built while he was still alive and would conduct tours for his friends and visitors, to show them what he planned for his final resting place.
Despite his personal supervision, however, when the gentleman died the family discovered that the coffin was too small. It was decided that until a new coffin was made, he could be laid in the ground temporarily. Then, when he was eventually buried in his iron coffin it was decided that the coffin was too near to the surface and was transferred to cave that had been excavated in a rock. The story, however, does not end there for when the man’s estate was sold many years after his death the family instructed his body to be removed from its rock tomb and buried in a local churchyard. Mr. Wilkinson, the subject of this story, has the questionable honour of being a man who died once and was buried four times, and prior to his death he was very happy to make presents of iron coffins to any of his friends who expressed a wish to have one. In a somewhat similar fashion, a certain clergyman in the granite county of Cornwall is said to have had a coffin made of granite, in which he was subsequently buried.
2.Quite a number of people don’t want to face death and would prefer to be immortal, but that will not happen. Perhaps, it is this fact that encourages people to have their coffins ready long before they are ready and keep them close at hand to look at, or have others admire them as reminders of the fate that is due to us all, until the day come when it is finally put to its proper use. There was a story of a Scottish slater who is said to have made his own coffin, decorated it with seashells and displayed it with other fancy, shell-decorated items in a room which he called his grotto. In similar fashion a joiner from the North-east of England made his own coffin and, during the intervening period used it as a toolbox that included sliding shelves and a lid that was fixed to hinges. But in this series of stories, I will try to avoid the age-old theory that people from the North of England and Scotland are tight when it comes to money. It is much better to call them thrifty and practical, and that is the reason that there are so many instances of northern working men constructing their own coffins in their leisure time.
To show this neutral stance let me offer some examples of odd burial traits from elsewhere in England and further abroad. The first story that comes to mind is of an Alderman of Gloucester, who had his coffin and his monument built before his death. When the monument was finished the Alderman decided he did not like the way in which his nose was carved on his effigy and had a new one carved. Fortunately for the Alderman the task was finished just in time, for the man died immediately after the nose was finished. Then, there is the example a Nottingham man, called Wheatley, who bought himself a coffin and filled it with liquor. Unfortunately, the poor man was quickly brought into disrepute in the town, for the coffin became his own private tavern. Just as odd, however, is the story of a navy surgeon who rose to a very important position in Portsmouth and had a favourite boat converted into a coffin and stored it under his bed for many years. Finally, there is the tale of a German couple who provided themselves with coffins, which they kept in a stable and utilised them as cupboards for storing various types of food. But it was not to end well for the couple, for when the man was the first to die, his widow packed the contents of both coffins into one and put his body into the other. Of course, the coffin full of eatables was lowered into the coffin and the mistake was not discovered until the next day when the widow opened the other cupboard to find the body of her husband there. Naturally, all that food could not go to waste and the coffins were changed over and the funeral repeated.
3. I used to joke with my mother and tell her she was not to worry about where she was going to be buried, for I would dig a hole in the garden and bury her standing up, waving goodbye. She used to laugh at the very idea of it, but the burying of people in an erect position had often been carried out. The famous late sixteenth century poet and playwright, Ben Jonson, was buried upright in Westminster Abbey, which inspired the following lines the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’
“Even rare Ben Jonson, that famous wight,
I am told is interred there bolt upright,
In just such a posture, beneath his bust,
As Tray used to sit in to beg for a crust.”
4. In fact, it is not that strange for people to buried in standing, or upright positions after death. Military heroes, for example, have often been buried by their men in upright positions on the battlefield where they died, sometimes with spear, sword, or lance in their hand. Records show that one of these types of burial was discovered at the Curragh of Kildare. Archaeologists opened an earthen tumulus and, inside the ancient monument, they discovered the skeleton of an old Irish Chieftain in an upright position, with a barbed spear in, or near, one of the hands.
Despite what some may think, it is quite easy to bury a body in an upright position by setting up the coffin on one end. However, when considering this trait, we must also look at the many instances when a body was placed in a sitting position, which made a coffin unnecessary. There are many recorded instances of this happening including the occasion when the Emperor Frederick ‘Barbarossa’ opened the tomb of Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle and found the body of the great Emperor seated on a throne, as if he was still alive, dressed in his Imperial clothes, with this sceptre in one hand and a copy of ‘Bible’ on his knees.
There is also the story of a tomb in a London graveyard that could be seen from the high road and was said to have been placed there by a certain Dr. John Gardiner. It was made up of a large headstone containing an inscription that described this tomb as being his ‘last and best bedroom.’ The tomb itself was prepared some years before Gardiner’s death and, it is said, that the Doctor was buried there, although there is no strong proof.
5. Sadly there are many more cases of people being put into their graves with something that would be considered an excuse for a coffin. Among these is recorded the burial of a Mrs Fisher Dilke, during the time of Cromwell and the puritans. The lady’s husband does not appear to have had much regard for his recently deceased wife for he commissioned a coffin be made from some old boards that lined his barn and organised a grave for the lady in the graveyard a third of the normal price. The husband then invited eight of his neighbours to act as bearers and paid them with them a selection of cheap cakes and wine, while he read over the corpse from the Old Testament. The bearers then placed the body in the grave and they each threw a full spade of dirt into the grave before the husband and his neighbours trudged their way home.
Another similar instance for the provision of a poor coffin took place in an old English, which had once been a nunnery. On one occasion there had been a need to take up the kitchen floor and when this work began, twelve skeletons were found lying in a row, each between two planks. At the time of the discovery, it was decided that the bodies were those of nuns who had died there.
6. There have also been plenty of people who have been buried without the comfort of any type of coffin at all. There was once a military officer who declared in his last will and testament that his body should be attended to by medical men, wrapped in ‘Cerecloth’, and buried without a coffin in a particular part of his estate. He also insisted that acorns were sown on the burial spot so that sturdy oak trees would flourish having been nourished by his remains. Instructions were left with his gardener to weed and water the plant and today a fine oak grows there.
Similar to this the story is the strange burial, or absence thereof, for Jeremy Bentham, who was born on 15th February and died on 6th June1832 in London. He was a famous English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, who is regarded as the founder of ‘Modern Utilitarianism’. His will called for a head of wax to be attached to his skeleton after dissection and the entire figure to be stuffed to the proper size and dressed in Bentham’s own clothes. The body was then seated on his own armchair and the man’s walking stick placed in one hand.
7. It was not uncommon for there to be burials without coffins in the years between the mid-eighteenth, and the mid-nineteenth centuries. In fact, there are numerous Parish Registers that contain entries showing that it was up to 25% cheaper for a burial without a coffin. One particular country gentleman directed that his body be buried without a coffin and at least ten feet deep in a particular field near his house. He also declared that the field would then be thoroughly ploughed over, as if to obliterate his memory as completely as was possible.
It is a fact that the St. Clair family of Rosslyn fame were for many generations, at least the male members) buried without coffins. The latest of these family burials is said to have taken place towards the close of the seventeenth century. It is reported that when the vault was next opened, the body of Sir William St Clair could be seen lying in his armour with a red velvet cap on his head. Apparently, there was nothing decayed except for a small part of the white fur-edging to the cap.
In some parts of Ireland, at one time, it was customary to carry the body of the deceased person to the graveside in a coffin, upon which the body was taken out of the coffin and reverently buried in the earth. There was one Augustinian abbey graveyard in particular, not far from Enniscorthy, in which certain families were generally buried in this fashion, with the graves being scrupulously prepared with boards, earth, sods, and grass. It is said that the Superior of the first Cistercian abbey founded in England since the Reformation was buried in a similar fashion in the chapterhouse of the abbey. There was also a merchant, called Thomas Cooke, who had given considerable donations to a local college who willed that his body should be buried in a winding-sheet, minus coffin, in the grounds of the college.
8. Just as some people have been buried without coffins, so have there been occasions when coffins were buried without people, most of which involved fraud in some manner. There is a tale of a foreigner who died in 1871 and whose death was entered into the Parish Register, accompanied by an authentic medical death certificate. A coffin was bought for the body and a grave was commissioned to be dug in the local Roman Catholic graveyard, and a funeral took place along traditional lines. Then, a few weeks after this, the widow made a claim for a hundred thousand francs from an insurance office. The recently deceased person, however, was known to have been a fugitive fraudulent bankrupt and the police were called in to look at the case. The grave and coffin were opened, and they discovered that there was no corpse there. It appears that the fugitive had made out the certificate of his own death, ordered his own grave and coffin, and followed his own coffin to its last home as chief mourner!
8. With or without coffins, many persons have been buried in places other than churchyards or graveyards. It is not unknown, for example, for people to be buried in their own gardens, farms, parks, or plantations. There is the story of one family that had a coffin placed as a table in a summerhouse. Another story tells of Sir William Temple, former Member of the Irish Parliament, and diplomat, who, before his death in 1700, ordered his heart to be enclosed in a silver casket, and buried under a sundial in his own garden, opposite a particular window. However, where the body was buried remains unknown. Another odd burial was that of William Liberty, a brickmaker, who was buried in a tomb that he had built himself by the side of a lonely footpath, which ran across a field. Later, it was discovered that there was a room built in the same tomb for William’s widow. And so there are many stories told in like manner.
9. But strangely there are many strange stories concerning bodies being left unburied, or kept above-ground, in an effort to avoid the consequences of some law or other. One of the strangest stories tells of a farmer whose body was kept in a barn, enclosed in lead, and placed upon one of the roof beams. The locals gave two theories to explain this, the first one being that the farmer had expressed a desire that his body should be kept there ‘until the day of judgment.’ The other theory said that the farmer believed he would return to life again thirty years after his death, and he left his property subject to this contingency. After the thirty years the farmer’s representatives gave him three days’ grace, but then buried him, and finally disposed of his property.
 Material that had been treated with melted wax or gummy matter and formerly used especially for wrapping a dead body
Those who have read some of my books of Irish Short Stories or have followed my stories will know that they contain several stories about “The Banshee”, which, of all Irish spirits, fairies, and ghosts, is the most widely known. Those people from other countries who visit Ireland usually read up on the customs and folklore of the nation, along with its flora, fauna, and wildlife. Indeed, some visitors arrive believing that ‘The Banshee’ is one of the sites of our country and they seem to expect it to manifest itself to them at some time during their stay.
The Banshee, however, is an Irish legend whose roots go way back to the dark days of pre-history, when there were all sorts of mystical and magical creatures that were said to roam the land. But the first recorded sighting of ‘The Banshee’ was the spirit that attached itself to the Clan of O’Brien, from among whose ranks came several High Kings of Ireland, and haunted their old Castle of ‘Kincora’, the ruins of which remain near Killaloe in County Clare. Then, at the great and bloody ‘Battle of Clontarf’, that was fought in 1014 A.D. between the Irish and the Danes, Ireland’s famous High King, Brian Boru, was killed at the very moment of his victory. It is rumoured, however, that ‘The Banshee’ appeared to the old King on the eve of battle to tell him of his future victory, while forewarning him that he would not survive the battle.
There is a story from more recent times, which is said to have occurred in the countryside of North County Armagh. Although there are no longer any surviving witnesses to what happened at that time, the story is accepted as fact by the local community. The story tells us that at a house, which still stands in this rural area, an old man lay upon his deathbed waiting for eternal sleep to overcome him. The man’s three grown-up sons had, in the meantime, sent for the local doctor and were anxiously awaiting his arrival just as the first light of dusk crossed the sky. They were having a smoke on the front steps of the cottage, and they quietly chatting among themselves when they first heard the heavy rumbling noise of coach wheels on a metalled road. They looked up and they saw a huge, black coach drive into their farmyard, which stretched out from the main door of the house. Nervously, one of the old man’s sons went down to meet the coach, believing that it was carrying the doctor, but the coach swept past him at speed and continued to move down the lane to a gate. Witnessing all this, the other two sons ran after the coach, which was became hidden from view by high hedges, but they could still hear the rumbling of the coach wheels. In their rush, the two young men almost crashed into the gate, which was closed across the lane and barring the exit. The rumbling of the coach had stopped by this time and the carriage itself had totally vanished, without leaving as much as a wheel rut in the ground. The large padlock on the gate remained completely intact and there was no sign at all that the gate had been tampered with. But, a short time later, the doctor arrived at the house and he quickly came to realise that there was nothing that he could do for the old man, who died quietly only an hour or so after the visit.
There is an older story, which relates to an event that took place one night in early spring, in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Two house servants had been instructed to await the arrival of a coach, which was bringing home the family’s eldest son. The young man had travelled to England, and further afield, seeking a cure to the illness from which he was suffering, but all his efforts had proved to be fruitless. One of the servants, who had been dozing in the hall, was suddenly awakened by the heavy rumbling noise of an approaching coach. Still half asleep, he immediately awakened his companion and they both went out of the house door and down the long flight of steps to open the carriage door. But, as the servant reached out his hand to turn the handle to the door, he was surprised and terrified to see a skull looking out of the window at him. In his terror, he screamed loudly and fell in a heap at the side of the coach and, when he finally awakened once more the servant slowly picked himself up from the ground, but he saw neither sight or sound of the coach. About ten minutes later the invalid eldest son’s coach arrived, and the servants carried him to his bed. Unfortunately, the young man’s illness had become very much worse and his suffering ended when he died in his sleep.
On a winter’s night, at the beginning of the last century, a coach was seen by a gamekeeper who was doing his rounds of a large property, which stood in a scenic wooded glen among the beautiful Glens of Antrim. It was a calm and frosty night as he made his patrol of the property, and he suddenly heard the loud rumbling of wheels on the avenue that ran up to the back of the house. But he knew that it was not possible for any vehicle to be arriving at the property so late at night, and all sorts of strange thoughts began to enter his head. Recalling ancient legends from the district, his thoughts quickly turned to the possibility that the noise could be the approach of the ‘Death Coach’. As this possibility dawned upon him, he ran to open the gates on the avenue before the ‘coach’ arrived, and he just about managed to open the last gate and throw himself on the ground beside it, when he heard the coach go past. With his head buried in the damp ground the man did not actually see the coach itself as it went past, but the next day he heard the news that the property owner’s uncle had died suddenly in London. But, in this story, there is a very important fact for the reader and uninitiated to learn, namely that at the sight or sound of a coach all gates that might bar its way should be immediately thrown open. It is only by doing this can a person ensure the ‘Death Coach’ will not stop at their house to call for a member of the immediate family, but it will only warn of the death of a relative who is somewhere else.
Despite the many stories and legends about the Banshee, we must remember that she is not always the harbinger of death in Irish families, because certain families have other strange and varied warnings that death is near to them. There was one local family that I recall, who believed a death in their family is foretold by a female ghost, dressed in a white satin dress and opening the door into the living area where she walks across the room and through the hallway. A friend once told me that his family believed that the breaking of a mirror is an omen of death, while a cousin related that he knew of a family who was convinced that the independent opening and shutting of the farm gate foretells the passing of a family member. Among Irish families, there are varied traditions concerning the fore-telling of death, including one that says the cry of a cuckoo, in any season of the year, is a herald of death. In another family, that warning of death may be the sound of a ringing bell, even when there is not a bell in the house. I can remember my uncle’s wife telling me, at one time, that a rat crossing their path is a warning of a death in her family, while a neighbour’s family are certain that seeing a large white owl is a certain sign of death among them.
This list is short, but I am certain that there are many people from various areas of Ireland who could add to my list and make it much more comprehensive.
Recently, I was reading through several books on the ‘Great Famine in Ireland’, or ‘Genocide for those who prefer to think of it that way. I read about Mayo, Sligo, Galway and West Cork where the men women and children died in their thousands during the ‘Great Famine’ in towns like Skibbereen and Ballinrobe. But, among this list should be numbered a coastal town in County Clare that is located in the south-west of the county, near the mouth of the River Shannon. This is Kilrush and there were few places, except for those named above, that suffered more severely from a combination of eviction and famine in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Reading an article by Paul Gray and Liam Kennedy, both lecturers in history at Queen’s University, Belfast, which was published in a recent edition of “History Ireland”, heightened my interest in all areas of life affected by the Famine. They pointed out that Kilrush was renowned for something that I had never thought of before. The area became noteworthy for the apparent surge in illegitimate births that occurred over the twenty years after the ‘Great Famine’. According to reports, by 1864 these illegitimate births accounted for at least ten per cent of all births that were recorded in the baptism register for the Catholic parish of Kilrush. Both Gray and Kennedy point out that this was a remarkably high proportion for mid-Victorian Ireland, especially when one considers that prior to the ‘Famine’ the ratio was barely one percent in most years. Their conclusion was that the spectacular and sustained rise in recorded illegitimate births might suggest that there was a radical change in sexual mores in this County Clare town and its surrounding area. The surprise in these statistics lies in the fact that this occurred in the west of Ireland, which is generally considered to be the one region of Ireland were morals were high and, therefore, there were very few illegitimate births.
The article’s authors questioned the possibility that the ‘Famine’ and the associated evictions were likely causes for the surprising rise in illegitimate births. They suggested that it was possible, that in all the tragedy and suffering experienced by the people of Kilrush and its environs during those years of ‘Famine’, that sexual morals may have been forced to disappear by circumstances. With starvation rampant, surely it is not too far-fetched to imagine that some women felt it necessary to barter their bodies for food, a roof over their head, or money to help their suffering. It is an unfortunate fact of life that food shortages in a male dominated society can also open numerable opportunities for the sexual exploitation of women by unscrupulous men. In many cases there were many who became pregnant and were comfortable to declare that their husbands had abandoned them to sail for America, or other destinations. In more normal times, the alleged father would have most certainly been dragged to the altar and obliged to honour his responsibilities. These days, however, were far from being normal times. The collapse of the Irish peasantry’s potato-led economy, the decimation of family, the breakdown of communal support, and the beginnings of mass emigration made abandonment of responsibilities a strategic alternative for the restless and rash-minded males. For these women, in such desperate times, the ability to bring social pressures to bear on such men was not easily accomplished. The vulnerable and too trusting women, especially if the family and community support network had been lost because of death or emigration, were left to bring up the child alone in conditions that were not good for continued survival.
From the records it appears that illegitimacy in Kilrush rose considerably during the ‘Famine’, as well as during its immediate aftermath. The effects of the ‘Famine’, however, were only short-term rather than long-term in nature, which suggests other possible causes for the rise in illegitimate births in this area. One possible answer could be the fact that Kilrush is a port town, which are often associated with prostitution and illegitimacy. Furthermore, with the rise of coastal holidays during the Victorian era, the town became the gateway to the growing holiday resorts of west Clare, such as Kilkee on the Atlantic coastline. The authors of the article, Gray and Kennedy, quote a visitor to Kilkee complaining that the resort was “infested by a number of unfortunate women, who disturb the inhabitants and visitors at night”. This must have been a most enjoyable attraction to some of the visitors to the town because, despite a public condemnation from the pulpit of the Catholic Church, the infestation continued unabated. It is reported that two of these unfortunate ladies from Kilrush, were assaulted by the local priest as they plied their trade. The priest, however, was arrested and was subsequently fined one shilling and costs for his pains. There are also suggestions that the sex trade in this area was being supplemented seasonally, to coincide with the tourist trade, by prostitutes from Limerick city.
The increase in the incidence of illegitimacy suggests that this can only be a small part of the story as to why it occurred. There is, of course, the speculation that Kilrush, and the area surrounding the town, had within it a “bastardy-prone sub-society”. Research suggests, however, that of the 211 mothers recorded as giving birth to children outside wedlock in the quarter-century after the ‘Famine’, only eighteen per cent were bearers of more than one illegitimate child. The article gave the example of a woman called, Mary Giffin, had illegitimate children baptised in August 1858, August 1861, September 1863 and September 1868. A certain Margaret Byrnes is also mentioned, whose illegitimate children were baptised in June 1859, March 1861, August 1863 and May 1865. These examples, however, were more the exception than the rule and most single mothers did not repeat the experience of bearing a child out of wedlock.
The explanation put forward by Mr Gray and Mr Kennedy is much simpler than any of the preceding suggestions. Taking a more detailed examination of the Catholic baptismal register for Kilrush parish revealed that approximately sixty per cent of births for the period 1850–75 were to women from the workhouse. But, the Kilrush workhouse served the entire union and not just the parish of Kilrush. When these workhouse births were excluded from the statistics, then the numbers that could be attributable to Kilrush were reduced to the more normal levels expected in a town situated in the west of Ireland. From these results, then, the inflated levels of illicit sexuality in Kilrush after the ‘Famine’ appear to be due to a quirk of registration rather than from any radical shift in the sexual behaviour of Clare men and Clare women. But, the result raises wider questions about the validity of parish register information on illegitimacy. This is true, not just for Ireland but for all those societies where the institutionalised provision of welfare might affect the recording of illegitimate births.
What kind of life did these unmarried mothers, who increasingly used the workhouse, live? The answer is not clear to us since the indoor relief registers for Kilrush, which would give some detail of the individual lives of unmarried mothers, have not survived. The indoor relief registers for the Rathdrum and Shillelagh Poor Law unions have somehow survived, and they provide a touching image of unmarried mothers and their children. While some of these women appear to have merited only a few lines, there were others who were more regular visitors. Mary Donnelly, was a 22-year-old servant from Arklow, who was admitted to Rathdrum workhouse on 16 August 1850. She was heavily pregnant when admitted and she gave birth to Thomas on 6 September, leaving the institution with the child ten days later and does not appear to have returned to the workhouse. A certain Ellen Power entered Rathdrum workhouse on 18 February 1851, as a homeless 24-year-old charwoman. Her daughter was born on 27 March 1851 and taken from the workhouse without her mother on 8 August 1851. Ellen subsequently left the workhouse on the 14th of that month. Another young woman called Eliza Ashton, a 22-year-old servant, arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850, and left again a week later. Then, on 6 October, Eliza was admitted into the workhouse as a patient and less than a week later Thomas was born. Both mother and child left on 26 October, Eliza does not appear to have returned to the workhouse again.
While some unmarried mothers left little trace in the workhouse record, there were others who made many appearances in those records. A woman called Eliza Geoghan, a 25-year-old garden worker, used the Rathdrum workhouse 23 times between 27 August 1850 and 2 June 1862. During that time her son John was born on 21 December 1850, with mother and child subsequently leaving the institution on 24 February 1851. Both entered the workhouse again, however, with John being removed on 24 June, a month before his mother left. While nothing more of John is recorded, Eliza returned to the workhouse, pregnant again, on 19 February 1854, and Dennis was born just over a week later. Both mother and child left the workhouse on 23 June 1854, but they were to enter the institution three more times between June 1854 and April 1856. Unfortunately, during their last visit, beginning on 23 September 1855, Dennis was to die on 9 April the following year. Eliza appears to have left only 9 days later, on 18 April 1856 but returned many times, spending the winters of 1856 and 1857 there, though she gave birth to no more children in the workhouse. It appears that most of the time she lived within the electoral division of Dunganstown East, only changing her residence to another townland twice. On her last two visits to the workhouse, however, she was most probably homeless and suffering increased destitution. She was mostly described as a ‘servant’, but also a ‘garden worker’ and, on what was her penultimate visit, she was said to be ‘infirm’ and apparently unemployed.
Yet another example of the multiple user was that of Jane Allen, who was to use Rathdrum workhouse on 34 occasions between 17 September 1850 and 13 March 1863. She was a twenty-six years old servant, who first arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850 and gave birth to her son, John, on 19 October. John was subsequently taken away on 6 June 1851 and Jane left four days later. While nothing more is known about John, we do know Jane was to have three more children: Eliza (30 July 1852), born in the workhouse, Ellen (1856), born outside the workhouse, and James (8 September 1861), born in the house. During these years Jane is known to have stayed in Dunganstown South or Dunganstown West electoral divisions, though she did occasionally change townlands. It is also known that sometimes she and her children would stay for several months. On other occasions they would stay only a matter of days. Although during her earlier stays in the workhouse Jane was referred to as a servant, for most of the times that stayed in the workhouse she was described as a ‘charwoman’. More interestingly, it seems that her marital status changed during the period, for example she was registered as being single for the period up to February 1861, then she is described as ‘married’ during her stay in February/March 1861, but on her next admittance, in August 1861, she is described as ‘single’ once again. Her children were admitted as ‘deserted’ in March 1861, leaving in June 1861, but the family was reunited in August 1861. They were to enter the workhouse five more times after this and, on each occasion, Jane is described as married. Her marital status can be said to be confusing during these years and one must wonder if she was not in fact a deserted wife, or perhaps intermittently so.
Stories such as these help to give us a much clearer picture of the perilous existence that faced an unmarried mother at this time. To some the workhouse was viewed as a resource in the constant battle against poverty, especially among the peasantry, including unmarried or abandoned mothers. We can, therefore, say that to some extent the unmarried mother did have some support, but in mid- and late Victorian Ireland this support system was of an extremely restricted kind. Throughout rural Ireland the life that faced unmarried mothers was one of desperation. They faced religious, family and community hostility, as well as an unsympathetic and sometimes punitive system of welfare provision. Those who were known as ‘bastard-bearers’ were generally ground down between the actions of society and the state although, to some extent, their Unfortunatelysituation may have varied within the urban and industrialised Province of Ulster
Little is known of the fate of the illegitimate children born during this period. But, Gray and Kennedy give us the case of Eliza Pearson, who was aged four-years when she was discovered at the door of ‘Shillelagh’ workhouse and was deserted by her mother, Anne. Eliza was taken into the workhouse on 19 June 1850 and left on 10 April 1856. Another child, Thomas Dwier, who was aged five and described as a ‘bastard’, was admitted on 29 February 1852. His mother had been transported and had left him ‘destitute without food’ and, in fact, is one of the very few instances where a male illegitimate child is mentioned in the records available. There is, however, no record of his departure from the workhouse. Finally, Bridget Nugent was nine when she was deserted by her father and as a deserted bastard, she had no friends or home. She was, therefore, admitted on 10 January 1851 and did not leave the workhouse until the 28 July 1855.
It has surely not gone unnoticed that unmarried and pregnant women suffered stigmatisation and degradation under both the workhouse system and in the larger society, men appear to have largely escaped notice or sanction. The Thurles union replied to a circular from the ‘Poor Law Commissioners’, concerning moral classification, by condemning the unfairness in gender terms of a system that singled out female morality in the workhouse. At the same time the Thurles Union pointed out that no classification in this respect has been made at the male side. It is a fact that there are few clues as to the unmarried mothers in Kilrush, whose names are contained in the parish records. It must be said that even less is known about those shadowy but potent figures of males who had set women on a downward course to vilification, destitution and disgrace.
It is an irony of the history of the Irish workhouses that they could have become places for ‘immoral behaviour’, despite the rules and regimentation that governed these grim institutions. In the minutes of the Kilrush union for 1853 it is revealed that the master and the matron of the workhouse had been accused of immorality. The accused persons were, however, later acquitted. According to the rules and regulations of the Poor Law system, women and men were to be strictly segregated within the penal institution of the workhouse. But in 1853 the master reported, no doubt with some concern – ‘I beg to report to the board that Mr Nolan the resident apothecary informed me on Sunday last that a pauper woman named Kate Quinn who has been in this house for a long time was pregnant. On enquiry it would appear that a pauper man named John Griffin who is also in the house for a long period is the father. Kate Quinn left the workhouse on the 15th inst. Griffin also took his discharge on the 17th inst.’
As expected ‘The Poor Law’ guardians were not amused – ‘It is much to be regretted that such an evil should have occurred, and the guardians conceive that there must be much neglect on the part of the officers in charge’.
The workhouse system itself was the subject of much criticism, and it certainly bore down heavily on its inmates, both in terms of physical hardship and stigmatisation. But, we must also recognise that it also furnished a safety net for the single mother in her battle for survival in an increasingly hostile moral climate of later Victorian Ireland. There appears to be a tradition within Ireland of labour exploitation and repression, and sometimes outright cruelty, in various societies like the workhouses and the later Magdalene asylums, that were run by Irish Catholic nuns. In pre-independence, or post-independence, Ireland it is evident that society would ensure that there was no easy way out of the trap of unmarried motherhood.
N.B. If you should wish to read more of the work of P. Gray and L. Kennedy the following books are available –
‘Famine, illegitimacy and the workhouse in Western Ireland’, in A. Levene and P. Nutt (eds), Illegitimacy in Britain (London, 2005).
Also L. Kennedy’s study,
‘Bastardy and the Great Famine: Ireland, 1845–1850’, Continuity and Change 14 (3) (1999).
In my various readings and studies of Irish Traditions and Folklore I have picked up many useful notes on how best to behave. These notes refer to an ‘Irish Wake’, which is very solemn occasion, but also full of celebration that the soul of the dead person has gone to a much better place.
Consider these points:
Never use a short cut to bring a body home to the house of the church.
Stop the clocks in the ‘wake house’.
When fires go out, do not remove any ashes from the ‘wake house’.
Do not light a candle from the flame of another at a wake. If you cannot find a match or lighter, then light it at the fire.
Refuse no person a smoke at a wake, let them take at least a couple of draws.
Refuse no person a drink or a bite to eat but give out both liberally.
Don’t silence laughter, because it may be caused by humorous stories concerning the actions of the deceased.
Put a cloth over all mirrors in the house.
Besides the above there are several useful helpful tips and warnings about things that might just happen
A cock crowing at an unusual hour at night is a sign of trouble or death, while a hen crowing at any time is a much surer sign.
A dog crying round a house is also a sign of death in that house.
You should not look not in a looking-glass at night, and if you break a looking-glass, you’ll have no luck for seven years.
You should never brush a floor in the direction of the door, because if you do you sweep away all the luck that’s in the house.
Finally, other than something borrowed and something blue, a girl who is getting married should wear, on her wedding day, something that belongs to a married woman.
Occasionally the bedroom door would open and a visitor would pass the old man as he sat huddled in his chair, without throwing even a glance in his direction, and go directly to the side of the bed on which the body lay to kneel down and pray. They usually prayed for two or three minutes before they got up and lightly walked away to the kitchen, where they joined the rest of the company.
Sometimes these visitors came in pairs, occasionally in groups of three, but they all followed the same ritual. They prayed for precisely the same time, and then left the room on tiptoe, making the same noises that would sound so loud in the silence of that room. Meanwhile, the old man simply wished that they would all just stay away, for he had been sitting in his chair for hours, revisiting old memories, until his head was in a total whirl. He wanted to concentrate his mind on these good memories and felt that the visitors to the house were preventing him from doing so.
It was big Danny Murphy, a tall, thin red-haired farmer who, a long time previously, had been best man at his wedding. “Michael James,” he said again.
“What is it?”
“I hear young Kelly’s in the village.”
“What about it?”
“I just thought that you should know,” Danny told him and waited a moment before he went out again on tiptoe, walking like a robot in low gear. Meanwhile, down the drive Michael heard steps coming, then a struggle and a shrill giggle. There appeared to be some young people coming to the wake, and he knew, instinctively, a boy had tried to kiss a girl in the dark, and he felt a surge of resentment fill his body. She was only nineteen when he married her, and he was sixty-three. She had married him because he had over two hundred acres of land and many head of milk and grazing cattle, and a huge house that rambled like a barrack. It was her father that had arranged the marriage, and young Kelly, who had worked on her father’s farm for years, had been saving to buy a house for her, when he was suddenly thrown over like a bale of mildewed hay.
Young Kelly had made created several violent scenes in the past. Michael James could remember the morning of the wedding, when a drunken Kelly waylaid the bridal-party coming out of the church. “Mark me,” he said in an unusually quiet tone for a drunk man—“mark me. If anything ever happens to that girl at your side, Michael James, I’ll murder you. I’ll murder you in cold blood. Do you understand?”
Michael James, however, was in a very forgiving mood that morning and told him, “Run away and sober up, boy, and then come up to the house and have a dance.”
But Kelly had taken to roaming the countryside for weeks, getting himself drunk every night, and making terrible threats of vengeance against the old farmer. Shortly after this, a wily recruiting sergeant of the ‘Connaught Rangers’ had tricked him into joining the ranks and took him away to barracks in Aldershot. Now he was home again, on furlough, and something had happened to her.
Young Kelly was now coming up to the house make good his threat, even though Michael James himself didn’t quite understand what had happened to her. He had given her everything he could to make her happy, and she had taken everything from him with a modest thank you. But he had never had been given anything by her except her total lack of interest. She had never shown any interest or concern for the house, and every day she grew a little thinner and weaker until, a few days ago she had lain down and, last and last night she had died, quite indifferently. Nevertheless, he knew that young Kelly was coming up to the house that night for an accounting with Michael James, and the old man had said to himself, “Well, let him come!”
He was the only one who spoke in his natural voice, and he turned to a portly farmer’s wife who had followed him in, and asked her about the hour that had been scheduled for the funeral. In hoarse whisper, she told him and respectfully gave him a curtsy. The priest then turned to Michael James and told him, “You ought to go out and take a walk. You oughtn’t to stay in here all the time.” And then, he left the room again. But Michael James paid no attention to him, for his mind was wandering to strange fantasies that he just could not keep out of his head. Pictures crept in and out of his head, joined together as if by some thin web, and somehow he began to think about her soul, wondering just what a soul was like. He began to think of it being like a dove, and then like a bat that was fluttering through the dark, and finally, like a bird lost at twilight. He thought of it as being some kind of lonely flying thing with a long journey ahead of it and no place to rest. In his mind he could almost hear it making the vibrant and plaintive cry of a peewit. Then, it struck him with a great sense of pity that the night was very cold.
In the kitchen they were having tea, and the rattle of the crockery was loud and very distinct. Michael James could clearly distinguish the sharp, staccato ring of a cup being placed on a saucer, from the nervous rattle heard when a cup and saucer were being passed from one hand to the other, while spoons struck the china with a faint metallic tinkle. But to Michael James it felt as if all the sounds were being made at the back of his neck, and the crash seemed to burst loudly in his head. Then, Dan Murray creaked into the room. “Michael James,” he whispered, “you ought to take something. Have a bite to eat. Take a cup of tea. I’ll bring it in to you.”
“Oh, let me alone, Daniel,” he answered and, at the same time, felt like kicking and cursing him.
“But you must take something, Michael James,” Murray’s voice rose from a whisper to a low, argumentative tone. “You know this is not natural. You’ve got to eat.”
“No, thank you, Daniel,” he answered, as if he was talking to a good-natured boy who was also very tiresome. “I don’t feel like eating now, but maybe I will afterwards.”
“Michael James,” Murray continued.
“Well, what is it, Daniel?”
“Don’t you think it would be better to go down and see young Kelly and tell him just how foolish he would be to come up here and start fighting? You know it isn’t right and so, should I not go down, for he’s at home now?”
“Leave it alone, Daniel, I tell you.” The thought of Murray interfering in a matter that was between himself and the young man filled Michael James with a sense of injured pride.
“I know he’s going to make trouble for you.”
“Just allow me to handle that, like a good fellow, and leave me alone, if you don’t mind.”
Michael straightened himself up a little, for sitting crouched forward was causing his back to be strained, and he unconsciously sat upright to ease the discomfort he was feeling. As he sat up, however, he caught a glimpse of the cotton gloves on the bed, and he suddenly recalled that the first time he had seen her she had been walking along the road, hand in hand with young Kelly, one Sunday afternoon. When they saw him they quickly let go of each other’s hand, grew very red, and began giggling in a half-hearted way to hide their embarrassment. Michael remembered that he had passed them by without saying a word, but with a good-humoured, sly smile on his face. He felt a good feeling within himself, and had thought wisely to himself that young people will be young people, and what harm was there in a little bit of courting on a Sunday afternoon after a long week’s work was finished? He also recalled other days on which he had met her and Kennedy, and how he became convinced that here was a girl for him to marry. Then his memory returned to how, quietly and decidedly, he had gone about getting her and marrying her, just as he would have gone about buying a team of horses, or making arrangements for cutting the hay.
Until the day he married her Michael felt like the driver of a coach who has his team of horses under perfect control, and who knows every bend and curve of the road upon which he is travelling. But since the wedding day he had been thinking about her, worrying and wondering where he stood in her life. Everyday just appeared to be a day filled with puzzlement, much more like a coach driver with a restive pair of horses who only knew his way to the next bend in the road, but he knew that she was the biggest thing in his life. He had reached this conclusion with some difficulty, for Michael was not a thinking sort of man, being more used to considering the price of harvest machinery and the best time of the year for buying and selling. But here this dead young girl now lay, whom he had married when she should have married another man, who was nearer to her age and who was coming sometime tonight to kill him. So, at sometime this evening his world would stop and, as he thought about it, he no longer felt like a person. Instead, he felt he was simply part of a situation, like a chess piece in a game which might be moved at any moment and bring the game to an end. His min was in such a flux that the reality around him had taken on a dim, unearthly quality. Occasionally a sound from the kitchen would strike him like an unexpected note in a harmony, and the crisp, whiteness of the bed would glare at him like a spot of colour in a subdued painting.
From the kitchen there was a shuffling noise and the sound of feet moving toward the door and with a loud click the door latch lifted. Michael could also hear the hoarse, deep tones of a few boys, and the high-pitched sing-song intonations of girls, and he knew they were going for a few miles’ walk along the roads. Going over to the window, he raised the blind and, overhead, the moon shone like a disc of bright saffron. There was a sort of misty haze that appeared to cling around the bushes and trees, causing the out-houses to stand out white, like buildings in a mysterious city. From somewhere nearby, there was the metallic whir of a grasshopper, and in the distance a loon boomed again and again. The little company of young people passed on down the yard followed by the sound of a smothered titter, then a playful resounding slap, and a gurgling laugh from one of the boys. As he stood by the window Michael heard someone open the door and stand on the threshold, asking “Are you coming, Alice?”
Michael James listened for the answer, for he was eagerly taking in all outside activity. He needed something to help him pass the time of waiting, just as a traveler in a railway station reads trivial notices carefully while waiting for a train that may take him to the ends of the earth. Then, once again he heard, “Alice, are you coming?” But there was no answer.
“Well, you needn’t if you don’t want to,” he heard in an irritated voice say, and the person speaking tramped down toward the road in an angry mood. Michael recognized the figure of Flanagan, the young football-player, who was always having little arguments with the girl he said that he was going to marry, and Michael was shocked to find that he was slightly amused at this incident. Then, from the road there came the shrill scream of one of the girls who had gone out, followed by a chorus of laughter. It was then that he began to wonder at the relationship between man and woman and he could not find a word for it. “Love” was a term that Michael thought should be kept to the story-books, for it was a word that he was suspicious of, and one that most people scoffed at. Nevertheless, he had a vague understanding of such a relationship, liking it to a crisscross of threads binding one person to the other, or as a web which might be light and easily broken, or which might have the strength of steel cables that might work into knots here and there, and become a tangle that could crush those caught in it. But it did puzzle him how a thing of indefinable grace, of soft words on June nights, of vague stirrings under moonlight, of embarrassing hand-clasps and fearful glances, might become, as it had become in his case, Kelly, and his dead young wife, a thing of blind, malevolent force, of sinister silence, like a dark shadow that crushed. And then it struck him with a sense of guilt that he had allowed mind to wander from her, and he immediately turned away from the window. Michael thought to himself, how much more peaceful it would be for a body to lie out in the moonlight than on a sombre oak bedstead in a shadowy room with yellow, guttering candle-light and five solemn-looking chairs. Then, Michael thought again how strange it was that on a night like this Kelly should come as an avenger seeking to kill, rather than as a lover with high hopes in his breast.
“Listen to me, Dan,” replied Michael. “How do you know Kelly is coming up at all?”
“Flanagan, the football-player, met him and talked to him, and he said that Kelly was clean mad.”
“Do they know about it in the kitchen?”
“Not a word,” and there was a pause for a moment.
“Right, now go you right back there and don’t say a word about it, at all. Wouldn’t you be the quare fool if you were to go down to the police and Kelly didn’t come at all? And, even if he does come I can manage him. And if I can’t manage, then I’ll call you. How does that sound?”
With that, Murray went out, grumbling beneath his breath. As the door closed, Michael began to feel that his last place of safety had gone, and he was to face his destiny alone. Although he did not doubt that Kelly would make good on his vow, Michael still he felt a certain sense of curiosity about how Kelly would do it. Would he simply use his fists, or use a gun, or some other weapon he may have at hand? Michael hoped it would be the gun, for the idea of coming to hand-to-hand fighting with Kelly filled him with a strange fear. It appeared that the thought that he would be dead within ten minutes or a half-hour did not mean anything to him, and it was only the physical act itself that was frightening. Nevertheless, Michael felt as if he were very much on his own, and the cold wind was blowing around him, penetrating every pore of his body and causing a a shiver in his shoulders.
Michael’s idea of death was that he would fall headlong, as from a high tower, into a dark bottomless space, and he went over to the window again to look out toward the barn. From a tiny chink in one of the shutters there was a thin thread of yellow candle-light, and he knew for certain that there was a group of men there, playing cards to help pass the time. It was then that the terror came upon him. The noise from the kitchen was now subdued, for most of the mourners had gone home, and those who were staying the night were drowsy and were dozing over the fire. Michael suddenly felt the need to rush among them and to cry out to them for protection, cowering behind them and getting them to close around him in a solid defensive circle. He felt that all eyes were now upon him, looking at his back, and this caused him to fear turning around in case he might have to look into their eyes.
He knew that the girl had always respected him, but he did not want to lose her respect at this moment. It was the fear that he could lose it that caused him pull his shoulders back and plant his feet firmly upon the floor. Into his confused mind came thoughts of people who like to kill, of massed lines of soldiers who rushed headlong against well-defended trenches, of a cowering man who stealthily slips through a jail door at dawn, and of a sinister figure dressed in a red cloak, wielding an axe. Then, as he looked down the yard, Michael saw a figure turn in the gate and come toward the house. He knew immediately that it was Kelly, but he seemed to be walking slowly and heavily, as if he was exhausted.
Michael opened the kitchen door and slipped outside, and the figure making its way up the pathway seemed to be swimming toward him. Occasionally the figure would blur and disappear and then vaguely appear again, causing his heart to beat heavily and regularly like the ticking of a clock. Space between the two men narrowed until he began to feel that he could not breathe, and he then went forward a few paces. The light from the bedroom window of the cottage streamed out into the darkness in a broad, yellow beam, and Michael stepped into it as if into a river. “She’s dead,” he heard himself saying. “She’s dead.” And then he realised that Kelly was standing in front of him.
The flap of the boy’s hat threw a heavy shadow over Michael’s face, his shoulders were braced, and his right hand was thrust deeply into his coat pocket. “Aye, she’s dead,” Michael James repeated. “You knew that, didn’t you?” It was all he could think of saying in the moment, before he asked, “You’ll come in and see her, won’t you?” He had quite forgotten the purpose of Kelly’s visit for a moment, for his mind was distracted and he didn’t know what more he should say.
Kelly moved a little, and the light streaming from the window struck him full in the face. It was a shock to Michael James, as he suddenly realised that it was as grim and thin-lipped as he had pictured it in his mind. As a prayer rose in his throat the fear he had been feeling appeared to leave Michael all at once. As he raised his head he noticed that Kennedy’s right hand had left the pocket, and he saw that Kelly was looking into the room. Michael knew that Kelly could see the huge bedstead and the body on it, as he peered through the little panes of glass. Suddenly, he felt a desire to throw himself between Kelly and the window just as he might jump between a child and a threatening danger. But he turned his head away, as he instinctively felt that he should not look directly at Kelly’s face.
Suddenly, over in the barn voices rose as the group of men playing cards began to dispute with each other. One person was complaining feverishly about something, while another person was arguing pugnaciously, and another voice could be heard striving to make peace between the two. Then, as the voices died away to a dull background hum, Michael James heard the boy sobbing bitterly. “You mustn’t do that,” he said softly, patting him comfortingly on the shoulders. At that moment he felt as if an unspeakable tension had dissipated and life was about to swing-back into balance. Continuing to pat the shoulders, Michael spoke softly with a shaking voice and told the boy, as he took him under the arm, “Come in now, and I’ll leave you alone there.” He felt the pity that he had for the body on the bed overcome Kelly, too, and there was a sense of peace came over him. It was as though a son of his had been hurt and had come to him for comfort, and he was going to comfort him.
In some vague way he thought of Easter, and he stopped at the door for a moment. “It’s all right, laddie,” he said. “It’s all right,” and he lifted the latch. As they went in he felt somehow as if high walls had crumbled and the three of them had stepped into the light of day.