“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.
There are many strange geological formations in Ireland, the most well-known being the Giant’s Causeway in the County Antrim. The ocean battered cliffs on the west coast of Ireland present a striking spectacle of huge rocks carved by nature into great sculptures. Then, inland, the mountains rise like fabled giants that are marching to the protection of the people. But, here and there, stand geological anomalies that are not as tall as the mountains of the west, but not as small as the Drumlins of Armagh. The ‘Black Hill’ is one of these anomalies and consists of black layers of stone that appear to be harder and denser on the upper surfaces than they are beneath. In the rains and winds that sweep across the land the lower portion of each layer, disintegrates first, forming a clear step is the ground. The main road Derry City stretches through this area and passes by the ‘Black Hill’. Overall, the Hill is shaped like a cone and, on the slopes, the grass-covered terraces composing it are very regular in shape and size from the base to the peak. It gives the observer the impression that there is a road carved out of the sides of the mountain, that winds its way in an easy ascent to the summit of the ‘Black Hill.’.
“That is known as the ‘Pooka’s Path’ by all around here.”
“What, in the name of God is a Pooka?”
“What’s the Pooka, did you ask?” asked the old man. “Well, sure, that’s not easy to tell. For one thing, it’s an evil sort of spirit that does be always creating mischief. But, sure it never does any serious harm to any excepting to those that deserve it, or them that speaks of it disrespectfully. I’ve never seen it, myself, thanks be to God, but there are those who have, and they say that it looks like the finest black horse that ever wore smithy shoed. But it isn’t a horse at all, for no horse did have eyes of fire, or be breathing flames of blue with a smell of sulphur, or a snort like thunder, and no mortal horse would take the leaps and bounds that it does or go as far without getting tired. Sure, it was said that when it gave Tom O’Byrne the ride it gave him, it went from Belfast to Athlone with one jump, and the next took him Galway, and the next was in Dublin, and back again be way of Limerick and Kilkenny, and he never turned a hair. How far is that? Sure, I wouldn’t know, but it’s a brave long distance, and took him right across Ireland and back again.Byrne knew it was the Pooka because it spoke to him like a mortal Christian, only its language isn’t at all agreeable and will never give you a decent word after you’re on its back, and sometimes not even before.”
“It must be a monster of a thing?” I replied, eager to move on, but the old man had not finished yet.
“Sure, Danny Burke was coming home one night. Now, I was only a boy at the time, but I mind him telling the story. He said that he had been at a fair in Galbally, where he had been having a few drinks, though some say he had a bellyful. But when he come to a rath, and just beyond it, where the fairies dance, you know, the front of the wall where that policeman was hit on the head by a poacher last winter, he fell in the ditch, completely jiggered and exhausted. Sure, it wasn’t the length as much as the wideness of the road, for he was going from one side to the other and it all proved too much for him. So, he laid still in the ditch for a bit and then tried to get up, but his legs were too weak, and his head was too heavy, and when he attempted to get his feet on the road it was his head that was on it, because his legs couldn’t balance him. Well, Burke lay on and he was entirely done, and while he was studying just how he would get up, he heard the trotting of a horse approaching on the road.
“‘Ah, sure, I’ll get a lift now,’ says he to himself as he lay waiting, and up came the Pooka. When Danny saw him, by Jaysus, he covered his face with his hands and turned away from him, roaring with fright like a mad bull.
“’Ah now, you wee sneaking blackguard,’ said the Pooka, with a mighty snort, ‘Would ever stop your bawling or I’ll kick you to the end of next week.’
“But Danny was scared, and he bellowed louder than he had before, so the Pooka, with his hoof, give him a crack on the back that knocked the wind out of him. ‘Will you be quiet,’ said the Pooka, ‘or will I give you another crack, you buck eejit?’
“Danny stopped the weeping and the Pooka began to calm himself, though his language was no less temperate. ‘Stand up, you pure-bred guzzler,‘ said the Pooka, ‘I’ll give you a ride on my back.’
“’I wish I could, but I can’t’ says Danny, ‘Sure, I’ve not been drinking at all, but smoking too much and eating, and it’s sick I am, and not drunk.’
“’You’re a drunken reprobate,’ says the Pooka, ‘Don’t you be trying to deceive me,’ lifting up his hoof again, and giving his tail a swish that sounded like the crack of a whip. ‘Didn’t I follow you for two miles by your breath,’ says the Pooka, ‘And you smelling like a poteen factory. And the nose on your face as red as a turkey-cock’s. Get up out of that, or I’ll lift you,’ says the Pooka, jumping up and cracking his hind foot like he was dancing a jig.
“Danny did his best to get up, and the Pooka helped him with a grip of his teeth on Danny’s collar. “‘Pick up your cap,’ says the Pooka, ‘and climb up. I’ll give you such a ride as you have never even dreamed of.’
“‘Ah, please,’ says Danny, ‘I’d rather walk, for riding makes me dizzy.’
“’Don’t be stupid,’ says the Pooka, ‘will you just get up out of that or will I kick the stuffing out of your cowardly body.’
“The Pooka turned around and he flourished his heels in Danny’s face. Poor Danny tried, but he couldn’t, so the Pooka took him to the wall and give him a lift onto it, and when Dennis was mounted, and had a tight hold on the Pooka’s mane, the first leap he gave was down the rock there, a thousand feet into the field you can see, then up again, and over the mountain, and into the sea, and out again, from the top of the waves to the top of the mountain, and after the poor sot from the ditch was almost dead, the Pooka come back here with him and dropped him in the ditch where he had found him, and he blew in his face to put him to sleep before leaving him. It was morning before they found Danny and carried him home. The man could not walk for a fortnight after, because of the weakness of his bones after the ride he’d been given.
“But sure, the Pooka’s a different beast entirely to what he was before King Bryan-Boru tamed him,” said the old man. “Never heard of him? Well, he was the king of Munster and High King of all Ireland, and he tamed the Pooka once and for all on that hill in front of you. You see, in the old days, the entire country was full of evil spirits, and fairies and witches, and devils, and the harm they did was almost unceasing, for they were always coming and going, like the shuttle on a loom, and without so much as a by your leave. The fairies would be dancing on the grass every night by the light of the moon, and stealing away the children, and many were those they took that never come back. The old rath on the hill beyond was full of the dead, and after nightfall they’d come from their graves and walk in a long line one after another to the old church in the valley where they’d go in and stay until cock-crow, then they’d come out again and back to the rath. There was hardly a parish without a witch, and some nights they’d have a great entertainment on the Hill, and you’d see them, with snakes on their arms and necks and ears, by way of jewels, and the eyes of dead men in their hair, coming for miles and miles, some riding through the air on sticks and bats and owls, and some walking, and more on Pookas and horses with wings that would come up in line to the top of the hill, like the cabs at the door of the theatre, and leave them there and hurry off to bring more.
“Sometimes the Old Enemy, Satan himself, would be there at the entertainment, coming on a monstrous dragon, with green scales and eyes like the lightning in the heavens, and a roaring fiery mouth like a lime-kiln. It was the great day then, for they do say all the witches brought their reports at them times for to show him what they had done. Some would tell how they stopped the water in a spring, and upset the neighbours, more would show how they dried-up the cow’s milk, and made her kick the pail, and they’d all laugh like they were ready to split in two. Some had blighted the corn, while more had brought the rains on the harvest. Some told how their enchantments made the children fall ill, some said how they set the thatch on fire, more told how they stole the eggs, or spoiled the cream in the churn, or bewitched the butter so it wouldn’t come, or led the sheep into the bog. But that wasn’t all.
“One would have the head of a man murdered by her charms, and with it the hand of him that was hung for the murder. One would bring the knife she’d scuttled a boat with and point to the sea to where the corpses laid of the fishermen she’d drowned. One would carry on her breast the child she’d stolen and meant to bring up in evil, and another one would show the little white body of a baby she’d smothered in its sleep. And the corpse-candles would tell how they deceived the traveller, bringing him to the river, and the evil spirits would tell how they drew him in and down to the bottom in his sins and then to the pit with him. And old Beelzebub would listen to all of them, with a reporter, like them that’s taking down the speeches at a meeting, by his side, writing what they said, so as when they come to be paid, it wouldn’t be forgotten.
“Those were the times for the Pookas too. They had power over those that went out after night, except it was on an errand of mercy they were going. But. Not one sinner that hadn’t been to his duty regular would ever see the light of day again after meeting a Pooka, for the beast would either kick him to smithereens where he stood, or lift him on to his back with his teeth and jump into the sea with him, then dive, leaving him to drowned, or spring over a cliff with him and tumble him to the bottom a bleeding corpse.But there were great howls of joy when a Pooka would catch a sinner off-guard and brought him on the ‘Path’ on a night that Satan was there. May God protect us, what a sight it was. They made a ring with the corpse-candles, while the witches tore him limb from limb, and the fiends drunk his blood in red-hot iron cups with shrieks of laughter to smother his screams. The Pookas jumped on his body and trampled it into the ground, and the storm would whistle a tune, and the surrounding mountains would keep time, and the Pookas, and witches, and spirits of evil, and corpse-candles, and bodies of the dead, and devils, would all jig together round the rock where old Beelzebub would sit smiling, as if saying that he could ask no better diversion.God save us, but it makes my skin creep to think of it.
“Well, as I was telling you, in the time of King Bryan, the Pookas did a great deal of harm, but as those that they murdered were drunken beasts that were in the shebeens during the day and in the ditch by night, and wasn’t missed when the Pookas took them, the King paid no attention, and sure he can’t be blamed for that.
“But one night, the queen’s baby took ill, and the king told one of his men, ‘Here, Riley, get you up and on the white mare and go for the doctor.’
“’Right then,’ says Riley. But, the king’s country house was in the break of the hills, so Riley would pass by the Rath and the ‘Black Hill’ on the way to get the doctor. ‘Well,’ says he quietly to himself, ‘I don’t want to be doing this job.’
“So, he says to the king, ‘Will it not do until the morning?’
“‘It will not,‘ says the king to him. ‘Get up, you lazy beggar, sitting and eating my bread, while the life is leaving my child.’
“So, Riley went with a great slowness in his feet, took the white mare, and off, and that was the last that was seen of him or the mare, for the Pooka took them. For those who said that they had seen him in Cork two days later, trading off the white mare, there were no lies told. They were, in fact, deceived by a trick of the spirits that made them believe it was Riley.
“Nevertheless, the baby got well again. But, because the doctor didn’t get there, the king now began to wonder what had happened to Riley and the white mare, and although he searched wide and low for them he didn’t find them. And then he realised that they were gone, because the Pooka had not left as much as a hair of the mare’s tail.
“’What’s this?‘ exclaimed the King, ‘Is it horses that the Pooka will be stealing? Well, bad luck to him and his impudence! This will never do. Sure, he’ll have us ruined entirely.’
“Mind you now, it’s my opinion from what he said, that the king wasn’t concerned too much about Riley, for he knew that he could get more Irishmen when he wanted them, but what he meant to say was that if the Pooka took to horse-stealing, he’d be ruined entirely, for where would he get another white mare? So, it was a very serious question and he retired into a room with a big book that he had, which contained some secrets. The king was very intelligent, well educated, and a mind that was craftier than that of a fox.
“So, the king read and read as fast as he could, and after reading without stopping, except for the occasional food break, for seven days and nights, he came out, and when they asked him if he could beat the Pooka now, he never said a word. He just gave a wink of his eye, as for to say he had him.
“So, that same day he went into the fields and along the hedges and ditches, from sunrise to sunset, collecting the materials for a charm against the Pooka. But, what he got I don’t know, no more does anyone for he never said, but kept the secret to himself and didn’t say it even to the queen. The king was only too aware that secrets run through a woman like water in a ditch. But there was one thing about it that he couldn’t help telling, because he wanted a certain item and couldn’t get it without help, and that was three hairs from the Pooka’s tail, without which the charm wouldn’t work. So he told a manservant he had that he’d give him a great deal of gold if he’d get them for him, but the servant pulled off his cap and scratched his head and said, ‘Dear God, your majesty, I don’t know what good the gold will do me if the Pooka gets a crack at me body with his hind heels.’ Neither would he undertake the task without a reward and the king began to fear that his plan was over before it had begun.
“But it happened on the Friday, this being on a Tuesday, that the Pooka caught a sailor that had only been on land long enough to get blind drunk, and got him on his back, and jumped over the cliff with him leaving him dead. When they came to search the sailor to see what he had in his pockets, they found three long hairs round the third button of his top-coat. So, they took them to the king and told him where they got them. The king was greatly pleased, because now he believed he had the Pooka in his grasp and could end his enchantment.
“But, as the evening came, he a doubt came into his mind and he began to wonder. If the three hairs were out of the Pooka’s tail, the charm would be good enough, but if they were not, and were from his mane instead, or from a horse instead of a Pooka, the charm wouldn’t work and the Pooka would get on top of him with all the feet he had at once and it would be the death of him immediately. So, this doubt struck the king with a great force and for a while he felt uneasy. But, with a little soul searching, he got around it. He went to confession and received absolution so that he’d be ready. He then told one of the servants to come in and tell him, after supper, that there was a poor widow in the laneway beyond the Black Hill that wanted help that night, that it would be an errand of mercy he would be on and, therefore, safe against the Pooka if the charm didn’t work.
“‘Sure, what’ll be the good of that?’ asked the man, ‘It will be a lie, and won’t work.’
“‘Don’t be worrying yourself,’ says the king, ‘just do as you are told and don’t argue, for that’s a point of metaphysics.’ It was indeed a great deal of deep learning that he had, ‘that’s a point of metaphysics and the more you argue on them subjects, the less you know,’ says he, and he’s speaking the truth. ‘Besides, even if it is a lie, it’ll deceive the Pooka, and it’s my belief that the means will justify the end,’ says he, as his thoughts turned to the white mare.
“So, after supper, as the king was sitting in front of the fire, and had the charm in his pocket, the servant came in and told him about the widow. ‘By God,‘ said the king, like he was surprised, in his attempt to completely deceive the Pooka. ‘If that’s true, I must go relieve her at once.’ So he got up from his chair and put on his soldier’s boots, with spurs on them a foot across, and he took a long whip in his hand, for fear, he said, that the widow would have dogs, then he went to his chest and took his old stocking and got asovereign out of it, and went out with his right foot first, and the spurs rattling as he walked.
“He came across the yard, and up the hill beyond and around the corner, but saw nothing. Then up the foot path round the Black Hill and never met a soul but a dog that he threw a stone at. But, he didn’t go out on the road to the widow’s, for he was afraid that if he met the Pooka and he caught him in a lie, not being on the road to where he said he was going, it would be all over with him. So, he walked up and down between the old church below there and the Rath on the hill, and just as the clock was striking twelve, he heard a horse in front of him, as he was walking down, so he turned and went the other way, getting his charm ready, and the Pooka came up after him.
“‘The top of the morning to you, your Honour,’ said the Pooka, politely, for he had noticed by his clothes that the king was not just a commoner but was one of real quality.
“‘And good day to you,‘ says the king to him, boldly, and when the Pooka heard him speak, he became even more polite in his manner, and made a low bow and scrape with his foot. With polite greetings exchanged they walked on together and began to converse.
“”Sure, it’s a black night for traveling,’ said the Pooka.
“‘Indeed it is,’ replied the king, ‘and sure, I would not be out in it, if it wasn’t a case of necessity. I’m on an errand of charity.’
“‘That’s very good of you,’ said the Pooka tohim, ‘and if I may ask, what’s the necessity?’
“”It is to relieve a widow-woman,’ said the king.
“‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, throwing back his head laughing with great pleasure and nudging the king with his leg on the arm, by the way that it was a joke because the king said it was to relieve a widow that he was going. ‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, ”It is myself that’s glad to be in the company of an elegant gentleman that’s on so pleasing an errand of mercy.’ ‘And how old is the widow-woman?’ says he, bursting with the horrid laugh he had.
“‘Ah, now,’ says the king, getting red in the face and not liking the joke in the least, for just between us, they do say that before he married the queen, he was the quare-buck with the women, and the queen’s maid told the cook, that told the footman, that said to the gardener, that told the neighbours that many were the nights that the poor king was as wide awake as a hare from sun to sun with the queen bleating at him about that topic. Even more amusing, there was a widow in it, that was as sharp as a rat-trap and surrounded him when he was young and hadn’t as much sense as a goose, and was ready to marry him at once in spite of all his relations, just as widows understand how to do. So it’s my considered opinion that it wasn’t decent for the Pooka to be laughing that way, and shows that evil spirits are dirty blackguards that can’t talk with gentlemen. ‘Ah, now,’ says the king, because the Pooka’s laughing wasn’t an agreeable noise to listen to, ‘I don’t know her, for I never seen her, but I believe that she’s a hundred, and as ugly as Beelzebub, and when her old man was alive, they tell me she had a temper like a gander, and was as easy to manage as an armful of cats. But she’s in want, and I’m after bringing her a sovereign.’
“Well, the Pooka ceased his laughing, for he had seen the king was not very amused, and says to him, ‘And if you don’t mind, where does she live?’
“‘At the end of the lane beyond the Black Hill,’ says the king, very short.
“‘By God, that’s a good bit,’ says the Pooka.
“‘Aye, that’s true,’ says the king, ‘what’s more, it’s uphill every foot of the way, and my back is broke entirely with the steepness of it,’ says he, giving a hint that he would like a ride.
“‘Will yer honour get upon my back,‘ says the Pooka. ‘Sure, I’m going that way, and you don’t mind getting a lift?’ says he, falling like the stupid beast he was, into the trap the king had made for him.
“‘Thanks,’ says the king, ‘I believe not. I’ve no bridle nor saddle. Besides, it’s the spring of the year, and I’m afraid you’re shedding, and your hair will come off and spoil my new britches,’ says he, pretending to make excuse.
“‘Have no fear,’ said the Pooka. ‘Sure, I never drop me hair. It’s no ordinary breed of a horse I am, but a most uncommon beast that’s used to the quality,’ says he.
“‘Yer speech shows that,‘ says the king, the clever man that he was, to be polite in such a way to a Pooka, that’s known to be an out-and-out devil. ‘But ye must excuse me this evening, because the road’s full of stones and is terrible steep, and you look so young that I’m afraid you’ll stumble and cause me to fall,’ says he.
“‘Fair play to you,’ says the Pooka, ‘it’s true, I do look young.’ And he began to prance about on the road giving himself airs like an old widow-man who is wanting a young woman, ‘but me age is older than you suppose. How old would you say I was,’ says he, smiling.
“‘Sure, I wouldn’t know,’ says the king, ‘but if it’s agreeable to you, I’ll look in your mouth and give you an answer.’
“So the Pooka come up to him softly and stretched his mouth as if the king was wanting to climb in, and the king put his hand on the jaw as if he was going to see the teeth he had. Then, that moment he slipped the three hairs around the Pooka’s jaw, and when he did that, he drew them tight, and said the charm crossing himself, and the hairs immediately became cords of steel, and held the Pooka tight, as if it was a bridle.
“‘Ah, now, you bloody beast of a murdering devil,’ says the king, pulling out his big whip that he had hidden in his top-coat, and giving the Pooka a crack with it under his stomach, ‘I’ll give you a ride that you won’t forget in a hurry, you black bollix of a four-legged devil and you stealing my white mare,’ and he hit him again.
“‘Oh my,‘ says the Pooka, as he felt the grip of the iron on his jaw and he knew that he was under an enchantment, ‘Oh my, what’s this all about?’ rubbing his breast with his hind heel, where the whip had hit him, and then jumping with his fore feet out to catch the air and trying to break away. ‘Sure I’m ruined, I am, so I am,’ says he.
“‘That’s true,’ says the king, ‘By God it’s the one true thing you ever said,’ says he, jumping on his back, and giving him the whip and the two spurs with all his might.
“Now, I forgot to tell you that when the king made his enchantment, it was good for seven miles round, and the Pooka knew that as well as the king and so he started like a policeman was after him, but the king was afraid to let him go far, thinking he’d do the seven miles in no time, and the enchantment would be broken like a rotten string, so he turned him up the Black Hill.
“‘I’ll give you all the exercise you want,’ says he, ‘in travelling around this hill.’ And round and round they went, the king sticking the big spurs in him every jump and cracking him with the whip until his sides ran blood in streams like a mill race, and his screams of pain were heard all over the world so that the king of France opened his window and asked the policeman why he didn’t stop the fighting in the street. Around and around and about the Black Hill went the king, lashing the Pooka, until his feet made the path that you see on the hill, because he went so often.
“And when morning came, the Pooka asked the king what he’d take to let him go, and the king was getting tired and told him that he must never steal another horse, and never kill another man, except for foreign blackguards that weren’t Irish, and when he gave a man a ride, he must bring him back to the spot where he got him and leave him there. So the Pooka consented, Glory be to God, and got off, and that’s the way he was tamed, and explains how it was that Danny Burke was left by the Pooka in the ditch just where he found him.“
“Moreover, the Pooka’s an altered beast in every way, for now he drops his hair like a common horse, and it’s often found sticking to the hedges where he jumped over, and they do say he doesn’t smell half as strong of sulphur as he used, nor the fire out of his nose isn’t so bright. But all the king did for him would not teach him to be civil in his speech, and when he meets you in the way, he speaks just as much like a blackguard as ever. And it’s out of devilment that he does it, because he can be polite as you know by what I have told you about him saying to the king, and that proves what I said to you that evil spirits can’t learn real good manners, no matter how hard they try.
“But the fright he got never left him, and so he keeps out of the highways and travels by the footpaths, and so isn’t often seen. And it’s my belief that he can do no harm at all to them that fears God, and there’s those that say he never shows himself nor meddles with man nor mortal except they’re drunk, and maybe there’s something in that too, for it doesn’t take much drink to make a man see a good deal.”
“Our dead Friends are right,” an old man told me after hearing that it was my custom to sit up late at night to read. “No, sir, that isn’t right at all,” he sighed and shook his head disapprovingly.
I was curious as to his reasoning and I asked him, “Why is that? “
“Well,” the old man began, “sure, don’t you know that your dead relatives, if it’s God’s will that they should be wandering about the place, always like to spend their nights in the old home. They come at ten o’clock, and if the house is not quiet, they go away again. Then, they return at eleven o’clock, and if there is still any noise from inside, or anyone sitting up, they do the same. But, at twelve o’clock they come for the last time, and if they are obliged to leave again, they must spend the night wandering about in the cold! But if they get into the house at any time between ten o’clock and twelve o’clock, they will sit around the hearth until the cock crows to herald the new day.”
The old man’s eyes showed the knowledge of his years and the easy way in which he explained things assured me that he was a man well versed in folklore. His explanation of the dead relatives visiting the home at night gave some light on customs that I had seen when visiting relations with my father in the days of my youth. One such custom that I had observed was that of the woman of the house carefully sweeping around the hearth and arranging the kitchen chairs in a semicircle in front of the “raked” fire before the last person awake finally makes their way to bed.
The old man listened intently as I told him about the custom I watched, many years before, and he told me that such preparations were often made in the homes of country folk. “Sure, what would the relatives think,” he said with a smile, “if the place was not tidied up before their arrival? It is little respect we had for them they’d say.”
I loved to walk along the country highways and byways of the county, especially in the summer. One day, I was walking along a road in the south of county and was accompanied by a good friend of my father’s, called Peter. We passed a poorly clothed and wretched-looking woman, who acted most oddly as we approached. Much to my amazement, as we came closer to her, the woman turned her back to us and stood with her head bent towards the ground until we had passed by. “What in the name of God is wrong with her, is she away in the head? ” I asked Peter.
“Aye,” answered my friend, “the poor woman is a little astray in the mind, and that is what she always does when she sees a stranger.”
Peter then began to explain to me that he recalled seeing the same woman, when she was young lady and he was only a boy. At that time, she was growing up into a very attractive and sensible young girl, who was admired by all the young men in the entire neighbourhood. “Then, she saw something,” Peter told me in a mysterious tone of voice, “and the poor woman was never the same again.”
“What, in the name of God, did she see? ” I asked.
“Sure, I wouldn’t know,” he replied, “but, it might have been something similar to what her brother saw before he died.”
“What was that? “
“Well, her brother was playing cards in a local village one night, and was returning home after twelve o’clock, when his eyes caught sight of a great number of strangely dressed, little men coming towards him. It struck him that every one of these little men were of the same size, and that they were marching to the sound of grand music. In the front of the parade there was one little man, who held a big drum and was heartily beating away at it, accompanied by two or three more little men with smaller drums, and the rest of the company had flutes. The poor woman’s brother was almost frightened to death by what he saw, and he stood rooted to the spot unable to move even an inch.The little man beating the big drum came up to him and asked him why he had dared to come along their way at that late hour of the night. The poor woman’s brother was completely mesmerised by the scene and could not utter a word in reply. Then, the little drummer ordered the rest of the parade to take hold of him and carry him along with them. ‘No!’ said one of the little men, ‘you won’t touch him this time. He is my own brother. Don’t you know me, Hughey?‘ he said as he turned toward the terror-stricken young man. In fact, he was his brother, who had died about a year earlier. ‘Go you home now, Hughey dear,’ the little man told him, in as mournful a voice as ever was heard,
‘’So, you see,” concluded Peter, “it is not advisable to be out late at night, particularly after twelve o’clock. And it is generally believed it was something similar that the poor sister had seen, which left her in her current condition.”
Naturally, I made no effort to question the supposition because I knew only too well, from past experiences, that any such efforts would prove to be fruitless. You, when you hear stories such as these, might choose to ridicule them and regard them as being complete nonsense. But, let me warn you that such ridicule and attempts to disprove such stories would only be a waste of your energy and your words. Those who have been brought up believing in the power of the Spirits, the ‘Good People’ and the Sidhe (Shee) are as convinced of their power and existence, as they are convinced of their own existence. In response to your efforts to dissuade them they will simply tell you that they know what they know.
Paddy M’Dermot was one of the most popular boys in the entire county and such was his popularity that there was hardly a fair or a festival that did not have him in the middle of it. In fact, just like a bad penny, Paddy turned up everywhere and it was exceedingly rare that his poor little farm was sowed in season, and where barley was expected to grow, there grew nothing but weeds. It was through this young man’s complete lack of industry that money became a scarce commodity in Paddy’s pocket. Then, the cow was sold after the pig, and nearly everything that he had followed the same path. Paddy’s luck changed one night as he lay in a deep, drunken sleep in the Rath of ‘Moneyrack.’ As he slept, he was visited by a beautiful dream that showed him he was lying in a spot that covered a pot of money, which had been buried there in ancient times. But Paddy remembered every detail of his vision despite his high level of intoxication, and he told no other person about what he had seen. The next night he gathered a spade and a pickaxe from the barn, and into his pocket he placed a bottle of holy water. Armed in this way, Paddy made his way to the Rath and, after circling the place for a moment or two he began to dig. ‘Ah now, Paddy McDermot, be easy now,’’ said the greyhound; ‘don’t I know very well what you are looking for?’ ‘Well then, if you do know, I may as well tell you at once, especially since you seem to be a civil-looking gentleman, that does not think it is below him to speak with a poor eejit like myself.’ Anyone could immediately detect that Paddy wanted to butter-up the stranger a little. ‘Well then,’ said the greyhound, ‘come out here and sit down on this bank.’ Like a damned fool, Paddy did as he was asked, but had hardly put his foot outside of the circle he had made with the holy water, when the beast of a greyhound set upon him, and drove him out of the Rath. Paddy was frightened, as well he might, at the fire that flamed from the hound’s mouth. Nevertheless, he returned the next night, certain that the money he sought was in that Rath. As he had done before, Paddy made a circle with the holy water and again hit the hidden object with the pickaxe. Once again, the strange greyhound appeared in the same place he had the previous night. ‘Oh ho,’ said Paddy, ‘you are here again, are you? Well, let me tell you that it will be a long day before I allow you to trick me again.’ Then, he lifted his pickaxe and made another stroke at the hidden object. ‘Well, Paddy McDermot,’ said the hound, ‘If it is just the money, you’re after, tell me how much would satisfy your needs?’ Paddy scratched his head while he thought for a few moments. Then, looking the greyhound directly in the eye he asked it, ‘How much will you give me?’ He was still in fear of the greyhound but tried hard not to show it. ‘Just as much as you would consider reasonable, Paddy M’Dermot,’ said the greyhound craftily. ‘What?’ said Paddy to himself, ‘there’s nothing like asking enough. But how much is enough?’ Then, turning to the greyhound he said, ‘Say fifty thousand pounds!’ He could have asked or more, for I am sure the old devil had enough to cover the bill. Without a moment’s hesitation the greyhound said, ‘You shall have it!’ Then, after walking away a little distance, the hound came back with a crock filled with golden guineas between its paws. ‘Come here and count them for yourself,’ said the spirit dog. But Paddy knew what the old devil was up to him and didn’t move an inch from where he was. The crock was now shoved alongside the holy water circle, and Paddy quickly pulled it into his arms with the greatest of pleasure. He was so excited that his feet never stopped moving until he reached his own home, where he that the golden guineas had been transformed into bits of bones. His old mother, when she saw what her son had brought home, burst into uncontrollable laughter. Paddy now swore that he would get his revenge against the deceitful spirit dog, and he returned to the Rath the next night, where he met the hound again. ‘So, Paddy you are here again?’ the hound asked, somewhat amused. ‘I am, you dirty blackguard,’ said Paddy, ‘and I won’t be leaving this place until I pull out the pot of money that’s buried here!’ ‘Is that right?’ asked the hound. ‘Well, Paddy M’Dermot, since you’re so brave and full of adventure I will make up what you are owed if you would walk downstairs with me out of the cold.” Paddy looked around and saw that it had begun to snow quite heavily. ‘May I never see home again if I follow you,’ replied Paddy, ‘All you want me for is to wear me down with old bones, or perhaps break my own, which would be just as bad.’ ‘I promise,’ said the hound, ‘I am your friend, Paddy, so don’t just stand there. Come with me and your fortune is made. If you stay here, you’ll die a beggarman.’ So, one word followed another until Paddy finally agreed. In the middle of the Rath a beautiful staircase opened up and they began to walk down it. After winding and turning they came, at last, to a house, which was considerably grander than the houses of many aristocrats, in which all the tables and chairs were made from solid gold. Paddy was delighted and, after sitting down, a fine lady handed him a glass of something to drink. But, he had hardly swallowed a spoonful when all around set up a horrid yell, and those who had appeared beautiful before now looked like what they truly were–enraged ‘fairy-folk’. Before Paddy could even bless himself, they seized him by his legs and arms, carried him out to a great high hill that stood like a wall over a river, and flung him down. ‘Murder!’ cried out Paddy, but it was already too late. He fell upon a rock and lay there as if he was dead until the next morning, when some people found him in the trench that surrounds the mote of Coolhill, the ‘good people’ having carried him there. From that moment until the hour of his death, Paddy was one of the great wonders. He walked doubled over and had his mouth where his ear should be.
This is the first guest item I have included in my blog and I present to my readers for its interest value, and in the hope it will encourage others to send in their stories.
Browsing through Donegal Town’s official website recently, I came across some snippets of information from long ago regarding the anecdotes of a local character by the name of Belle Fey. A Faye, being a fairy, or Siog [sheog] a name given to her by her Dromore neighbours as a result of her strange ways. Belle Melly being her real name according to the 1940/41Donegal town electors list, for Dromore.
Poor Belle, I’m sure she’d turn in her grave if she were able to read the comments. Who’s to say she was just an old eccentric, had the author taken leave of his imagination, really! Doesn’t anyone believe in fairies or the little people anymore.? In my opinion Belle’s name ought to be up there in lights amongst Donegal’s countless legendary characters. Perhaps a song or a poem ought to have been composed in her honour. As far as I’m concerned, she was the real thing, a real living Siog. Belle, could, tell fortunes too, and see into the future just like her wee fairy friends who would come and sit at the foot of her bed during the night: she often said, the male Sioga would also visit her bedroom, a fact which greatly annoyed her – herself being a modest female and all.
I ought to know better than most folk about Belle’s, mystic talents because as an Eight-year old I had the doubtful privilege of meeting this wrinkled, steely-grey-haired, plaid-shawled old creature, and, being on the receiving end of a ‘Belle spell’, so to speak.
When we were youngsters my father and mother often brought our family on the gruelling twenty-four-hour journey to Donegal during our summer holidays. My dad emigrated to Yorkshire in the UK and was a coalminer in Yorkshire’s forbidding and dangerous 3,000 ft deep coalmines.
We usually stayed for the two weeks holiday with my dad’s brother and sister–the postman John, and Mae Carney; their house was situated in Dromore, up the lane at the top of the hill off the Donegal road. Their slate roofed cottage stood on the brow of the winding hill with its magnificent panoramic views over Donegal Bay, and the Blue Stack mountains–when it wasn’t raining that is! And was just a stone’s throw across the lane from Belle Fey’s faded whitewashed, thatched cottage. Belle must have had her eye on me, this wee buachailin ban, [ fair haired boy] as I was often up and down the lane with my sister Patricia, with Mae’s old enamel bucket to fetch water from the well, which bubbled up from a wee crystal–clear spring at the side of the lush green overgrown lane. Aunt Mae swore the water was “the best ever for making tae.”
As I recall, it was the day my father Hugh, was visiting his youngest sister Maggie Quinn at her pub, ‘Quinns Bar’, (Lazy Bush) at the top of Mountcharles, where he often went to catch up on the local gossip and discuss the price of cattle and imbibe in a few pints with his old school cronies. That particular occasion was a signal for Belle, to make her move on me, as she invited herself into John and Mae’s, house. Shortly a whispered discussion took place with my mother and aunt Mae, who herself was fond of reading the tea-leaves and such-like, as well as blowing her cigarette smoke up the turf blackened chimney of their huge open fire-place, which puzzled this eight-year old at the time. Many years later it transpired that John hated Mae smoking!
To continue the story; I was ushered into aunt Mae’s, dimly lit front parlour, which contained a dusty dark wood dining table and chairs, with the odd religious picture randomly placed on the whitewashed walls.
Situated on the inside gable of the house was an old fashioned black Victorian cast-iron fireplace, into which Belle, proceeded to set light to a crumpled newspaper in the empty grate. As the paper blazed away brightly, shooting orange blue flames up the chimney, Belle began mumbling as she stooped over the grate, while I stood mystified at the side of her, I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was saying, but I swear it wasn’t English. After a while Belle rose from the hearth in her usual bent posture, declaring authoritatively to my mother and Mae, in her rich Donegal accent. “This wee caddy will remain fair haired for the rest of his life”.
Sixty-five years on, and a bit more, and guess what? Short of having a bit of the thatch missing at the back, I still have a modest head of fair hair, despite a lifetime of trying to alter its colour by dousing it with strong tea, before I hit the town with the lads on a Friday night.
My mother and father, brothers and sisters, were all blessed with fine heads of typically Irish, dense, wavy auburn hair. Ultimately with the passing of time and sadly for them their hair turned grey and then white. Uncle John’s, hair may have been a bit sandy looking which he got from Ding, and Grandma Sweeney’s, side of the family, but with no stretch of the imagination was he blonde. So where in the blazes, excuse the pun, did mine come from? Belle Fey, “just an eccentric old woman? My foot!
There are many people who have heard about the adventures, but there are only a very few who may have heard of what caused all the perils he faced, which was the error of having slept beneath the walls of the Pooka’s tower. He was a man that I was very friendly with and many were the times that I visited his house at the bottom of ‘Shields’s Hill’, where he told me his story. This tale I now write it down for you …
“Sure, I am often asked to tell my story, so this is not the first time that I relate it. The Squire’s son had finally come home from foreign parts, much to the joy of his parents. In celebration of his return the Squire organised a great meal to which all the people of the district were invited, high-born and low-born, the rich and the poor. And what a feast it was, the best of everything and plenty of it. We ate our fill, and we drank our fill, and we danced the night away. In short, as you have undoubtedly guessed, I became quite inebriated. I was as drunk as a Lord and so, as I was taking the stepping-stones to cross the river at Ballyknock, I slipped, missed my footing, and fell head over heels into the cold water. ‘Ah! Good Jaysus!’ I shouted, ‘I’ll be frozen to death if I don’t drown first!’ But, Ibegan to swim and swim, as fast as I could. I swam for my dear life until I finally I reached shore, which I did not recognise. By some strange means I had swam to the shore of an abandoned island.
“I wandered about that island, not knowing where I was going or what I would meet, until my feet took me, stumbling, into a large bog. The moon was shining as bright as day, and my eyes searched to the east and west, and to the north and south. But, wherever I looked my eyes could only see a vast swathe of bog land. I began to scratch my head in my confusion, and I whistled a sorrowful air as I began losing hope of seeing home again.Suddenly, the sky grew darker and the moon grew black. In my fear I looked and saw something that appeared to be moving swiftly down between the moon and me, and I could not tell what it was. Down it swooped toward me, and it looked at me full-square in the face. By Christ, it was an eagle, and it stared into my face and spoke. Says he to me, ‘Well, Daniel Burke, how do you do?’
‘Very well, I thank you sir,’ says I in return. ‘I hope you’re well also.’ You can be sure that, even as I spoke to him, my mind was busy trying to reason how an eagle could speak to me like a mortal man.
‘What brings you here, Daniel?’ he asked.
‘By God, sir, I wish I knew,’ says I, ‘I only wish that I was safe home again in my own house.’
‘So, Dan, you want to go out of the island?’ says he.
‘Oh, you can be sure of that!’ says I.
‘Daniel?’ says he, ‘You know fine well that it is not the proper thing to do for you to get drunk on a feast day, but you are a decent and, normally, sober man, who attends Mass regular. You are also not one of those who throw stones at me or mine or shouts out at us when we are in the fields. So, my friend, get upon my back and take a tight grip in case you fall off, and I will fly you out of this place.’
‘Would you get away out of that?’ says I, ‘you’re trying to make an eejit out of me, Sir. Who has ever heard of a man riding horseback on an eagle before?’
‘I swear to you, Dan,’ said he, ‘I am being straight with you, so you can either take up my offer or starve in the bog. By the way, don’t take too long to make up your mind for your weight is sinking the stone in the bog.’
“Aye, it was true enough, for I found the stone sinking further and further every minute I was standing on it. ‘I thank you, Sir,’ says I without hesitation, ‘for the offer and I accept it!’ I, therefore, climbed upon the back of the eagle, and clasped my arms tightly around his throat, and up he flew in the air as graceful as you like. At this time, however, I had no inkling of the trick that he was going to play on me. Upward, upward, and upward still he flew until I lost all idea of how high we had risen, dear knows how far he flew. It came to me at this moment that, perhaps, the eagle did not know the right road to my home. ‘Excuse me,’ said I to him in a quiet and civil way. I did not want to upset him, especially when we were so high above the ground and I was so vulnerable. ‘Sir,’ says I, ‘I don’t mean to be disrespectful or discourteous, but if you would just fly down a bit lower you will find that we are just over my wee cottage, and you could drop me off there with my deepest gratitude.’
‘Are you mad, Dan?’ says he, ‘do you think me an eejit to be putting you down there? Take you a wee glance at the next field, and those two men down there with a gun! It would be quare joke on me to be shot by such men, while I helped a drunken blackguard that I took off a sinking stone in a bog.’
Well, kept, flying, flying, upward despite all my pleas to him to fly down. ‘Could you tell me, sir, just where in the world are you going?’ I asked him.
‘Ah, Dan, would you whisht (be quiet) for a minute! Just you mind your own business, and don’t be trying to interfere in the business of other people.’
“Finally, where should we come to, but to the moon itself. You can’t see it now, but there is, or at least there was in my day, a reaping-hook sticking out of the side of the moon, like this –’ (Dan began to draw the shape of the reaping-hook on the ground with the end of his stick).
‘Dan,’ said the eagle, ‘I’m absolutely exhausted after this long flight. My bloody wings are aching! I had no idea that it was so far.’
‘And, who in the name of God asked you to fly so far?” says I. ‘It wasn’t me! I was the one on your back begging, then praying and finally beseeching to stop half-an-hour ago!’
‘Now, there’s no use giving out, Dan,’ says he, ‘I’m too tired to listen, so just you get off now, and sit down there on the moon until I rest myself for a wee while.’
‘What? Sit down on the moon, did you say?’ asked I. ‘You want me to sit upon that wee round thing? Sure, I’d fall off in a minute, and be killed and split, and smashed all to bits! You are some saviour, so you are.’
‘Ah, sure don’t be like that, Dan,’ said the eagle. ‘You can take a tight hold of that reaping hook that’s sticking out of the side of the moon, and that will stop you from falling.’
‘Indeed, by God, I won’t,’ said I.
‘Maybe you won’t,’ he said to me under his breath. ‘But if you don’t, I might just give you a shake, and a slap of my wing, and send you down to the ground again, where every bone in your body will be smashed to smithereens and splashed all over the place.’
‘Well, that’s a lovely thing to say,’ I thought to myself, ‘how in the name of Jaysus did I ever get mixed up with the likes of him,’ and so I called him the worst word I could think of, in Irish of course in case he would understand what I had said. I slipped off his back, nervously taking hold of the reaping-hook, and I sat down upon the moon. That was a mighty cold seat, I can tell you that.
“When he was sure that I was secure the eagle turned to face me and said, ‘Good morning to you, Daniel Burke,’ said he. ‘I think I’ve certainly got you now. You are the blackguard that robbed my nest last year, and your reward is that you are very welcome to pass the time dangling your heels from the moon. Thief!’
‘Is that it, and now this is the way I am to be, you brute?’ I shouted at him in anger. ‘You are nothing but an ugly and unnatural beast that would leave me in such a predicament.’ But, all my anger and shouting made not one bit of difference. He turned away from me laughing loudly, spread out his great wings, and flew away like he had been shot out of a gun.
‘Stop!’ I bawled after him, but I might as well have been shouting in the wind for all the attention he took. Away he flew, and I never saw him again from that day to this, may he fly into a cliff the blackguard. As for me, I can tell you I was both heartbroken and very afraid. All that I could do was angrily call out all sorts of insults to the one who had abandoned me. Then, to my complete surprise a door opened, with a great creaking noise, right in the middle of the moon. Such was the noise that you would have thought the door had not had its hinges oiled or greased in an age. But, who do you think walked out of the door? None other than the man in the moon, himself. I immediately recognised him by the beard that he wore.
‘Good day to you, Daniel Burke,’ says he, ‘and how are you keeping?’
‘I’m doing very well, thank you,’ I told him. ‘I hope you are doing well, yourself.’
‘Whatever has brought you here, Dan?’ he asked.
So, I began to tell him the whole sad and dreary tale. ‘Dan,’ said the man in the moon as he took a pinch of snuff, ‘You can’t stay here! when I was done, ‘you must not stay here.’
‘Is that right?” I replied rather sarcastically. ‘Allow me to inform you that I am here very much against my will, and I just want to go home. My only problem is that I don’t know how to get back.
‘Well, Dan, that is your business,’ said he. ‘Mine is to inform you that you cannot not stay, so be off now as quickly as you can.’
‘Sure, I’m doing no harm,’ I insisted, ‘I am only holding on tightly to the reaping-hook, in case I fall off.’
‘That’s just what you must not do, Dan,’ says he.
‘Just a minute,’ says I, ‘may I ask you how many there are in your family, since it must be the size of the family that persuades you not to give a poor traveller a lodging. I’m sure that it is not very often that you’re troubled with strangers calling to see you, for it’s a long way to travel.’
‘As a matter of fact, I’m by myself, Dan,’ says he, ‘but you would be better letting go of the reaping hook.’
‘I know what you are saying,’ I told him bluntly, ‘but, I’ll not let go of my grip, and the more you tell me to do so, the tighter will my grip become.’
‘You had better, Dan,’ says he again.
‘Well, my wee bucko,’ says I, taking in the entire build and stature of the man in the moon from head to foot, ‘there are two words I could say to you now but won’t. I will not budge one inch from this place, but you may if you like.’
He was not at all pleased at how I had spoken to him and he sternly answered, ‘We’ll just see about that.’ He went back through the door and loudly slammed it behind him, the shudder that it brought almost convinced me that the moon would fall from the sky.
“I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for the trial of strength with him, that I was sure would happen when he came back again. And come back again he did, only this time he had a kitchen cleaver in his hand, and without saying a word he too two almighty swipes at the handle of the reaping hook that was holding me up, and with a loud crack it snapped in two.
‘Good morning and Goodbye to you, Dan,’ said the old blackguard, spitefully, as he saw me falling downward with a bit of the handle still in my hand. ‘I thank you for your visit, and now Daniel, cheerio!’
It all happened so fast that I did not have time to answer his jibe, for I was tumbling over and over, and rolling, at such a speed that it would have taken the light from your eyes. ‘This is not good,’ said I to myself aloud, ‘for a decent man, the likes of me, to be seen in this mess! By God I am rightly f—.’I did not get to finish what I was saying as my attention was taken by a loud ‘swishing’ noise as a flock of wild geese flew by, close to my ear. They must have flown all the way from my own bog of Ballyknock, for how else could they have known who I was?
The old gander, who was their leader, turned his head toward me and cried out, ‘Is that you, Dan?’
‘It is,’ said I, not at all surprised that he knew my name because, by this time, I had become used to all kinds of strange things happening. Besides this old gander was no stranger to me.
‘Good day to you,’ says the gander, ‘Daniel Burke, how are you keeping this lovely morning?’
‘Very well, sir,’ says I, ‘and I thank you kindly for asking. I hope you are the same, old friend.’
‘I think you are falling, Daniel,’ says he.
‘Well, I suppose you could say that,’ says I.
‘And where are you going to that you have travel so quickly?’ asked the gander.
So, I began to tell him the whole sad, sorry tale of falling into the river, the eagle taking abandoning me on the moon, and the old man in the moon causing me to fall.
‘Don’t worry, Dan’ says he, ‘Just take hold of my leg and I’ll fly you home.’
‘You are a life-saver!’ says I, though I wasn’t sure if I could trust him. But what could I do only take hold of his leg as tightly as I could. We flew, and flew, until we came over a wide ocean, which I knew well. On my right I could see Cape Clear, sticking up out of the water.
‘Friend!’ I called to the goose, ‘just fly me to land, please.’
‘That’s impossible, Dan,’ he replied, ‘because we are going to Arabia.’
‘To Arabia!’ I gasped, ‘surely that’s a foreign place, and far away. Oh dear! There’ no man to be more pitied than me.’
‘Whisht, you eejit,’ said he, ‘would you hold your tongue. Arabia is a very decent place, not unlike Ballyknock, only with a wee bit more sand.’
Just as we were talking, a ship came in sight. ‘Ah! Would you kindly drop me on that ship, please?’
‘We are not rightly above it,’ said he.
‘We are,’ I insisted.
‘We are not, and if I dropped you now you would splash into the sea.’
‘I would not,’ says I. ‘I know better than that, for it is just under us, so let me drop immediately.’
‘If that’s what you want,’ said he. ‘There you go,’ and he opened his claw, and, sure enough, down I came right into the very bottom of the salty sea! I sank to the very bottom, where I gave myself up for ever. But, a whale now walked up to me, scratching himself after his long night’s sleep. He looked me full in the face, and said nothing except he raised his tail, splashing me all over again with cold, salt water until there wasn’t a dry stitch on my entire body.
It was then that I heard a familiar voice speaking to me and saying, ‘Get up out of that you, drunken old fool!’ Startled by the voice, I woke up, and there was Jenny with a tub full of water in her arms, which she was splashing all over me. God love her, she was a good wife to me, but she could never bear to see me drunk, and she had a bit of a fist of her own.
‘Get up,’ said she again, ‘for of all places in this parish you would have to choose to lie in drunken sleep beneath the old walls of Carrigaphooka, and I could wager that you did not rest too easily there.’
By God she had the truth of that. I was almost driven insane with meeting the eagle, the man in the moon, flying ganders, and whales. My head was astray with being driven into bogs, and up to the moon, and down to the bottom of the green ocean. I can tell you that no matter how much drink I’d taken, it would be a long time before I’d lie down in that same place again, that’s for sure.”
“Don’t stay out after dark, or the bogeyman will get you!” was the warning a mother would give her children when they went out to play. But, more often than not, the children would laugh at the very idea of a bogey-man existing. Tradition in Ireland, however, does warn us that it is very dangerous for any person to be wandering the country roads and lanes on a late November night because that is the time that the dead celebrate the fact that they are able to wander the earth once again.
Tradition says that the busiest night for these spirit celebrations is the very last night of the month, for that is the evening on which the celebrations cease. It is on that night their right to dance freely on the hill with the fairy folk comes to an abrupt end. After they have danced their last dance the dead have to return to their cold graves, where they will lie in the ice-cold earth without music or drink until November returns the next year. It is only at that time will they be able to spring-up once again from their graves, dressed in what remains of their funeral clothing, and rush into the moonlight shouting loud howls of joy. But some might wonder from where such a tradition originated and, perhaps, the following story might help in answering the question.
“One cold November night there was a local woman who was making her way home at a time when it was said, the dead roamed the land. But she was very tired and carelessly she sat down on a large rock that stood by the side of the road so she could rest for a few moments and regain her breathing in the cold night air. Within a few moments of her sitting down upon the rock, however, a young man came walking by and he began to speak with her. ‘If you wait here a little while,‘ he told her, ‘you will see the most beautiful dancing that you have ever witnessed, over there by the side of the hill.‘”
“The woman stared quietly at the young man for a moment and noticed that his face was very pale and wore a very sad expression. ‘Why are you so sad?‘ she quietly asked him. ‘Your face is as pale as that of a corpse.‘”
“‘ Take a good look at me,‘ the young man told her. ‘Do you know me?‘”
“‘ Yes,‘ she said nervously, ‘Now I know who you are! Sure, you are young Breen and you were drowned last year when you went out fishing. What are you doing here?‘”
“‘ Look over there,’ he told her, ‘On the side of that hill over there you will see the reason for me being here.‘”
“The woman took a look over to where he pointed and saw a large crowd dancing in time to sweet music, and among their number she could see all those who had died as far back as she could remember. There were men, women and children, all dressed in white clothing, and their faces were as pale as the moonlight. ‘Now,‘ the young man said ominously to the woman, ‘you should run for your life, for if the fairies see you here, and bring you into the dance you will never be able to ever leave again.‘”
“While the woman and the young man were talking, however, the fairy folk came up to them both and danced in a circle around the woman, joining their hands together. At that moment she fell to the ground in a faint, and she was to remain in an unconscious state until the next morning when she awoke in her own bed. All those people who saw her at that time said that her face was as pale as that of a corpse, indicating that the woman had been given a ‘fairy-stroke.’ Having realised that she was afflicted the herb doctor was asked to help cure her, but despite their best efforts, she remained the same. As soon as the moon rose that night there was soft, low music heard from all around the house. Then, when the neighbours went to check on the woman, they found her dead.
“It is sinful and painful to take a pin, No matter how thick, No matter how thin,“
So, sang little Andy Smyth, in his loud and shrill voice.
“Jaysus, Andy. It’s bad enough listening to your singing without hearing your efforts at poetry,” laughed Harry Crowe as he patted little Andy’s flaxen-haired head in a friendly, mocking manner.
“Just talking of stealing,” said Charlie Brennan, dropping the pumpkin that he was carving into a Halloween lantern, “did I ever tell you boys about the day that I went down to old Pop Robinson’s orchard to steal apples, and came back past the black barn where the horse-thief is said to have hung himself years and years ago? The man knew that the ‘Peelers’ were after him, and that he’d be spending a long time in jail when he was caught. Even if the ‘Peelers’ didn’t get him the local farmers might, and they would string him up. Well, if I haven’t told you already, here’s a ghost story for you all, and I hope that it will prove to be a warning that you should never take anything that doesn’t belong to you, especially apples.
“Young Benny Evans and I were staying with our families at the hotel in Ardtermon that summer, and Pop Robinson’s farm was only about two miles away. He used to bring eggs and chickens and vegetables and fruit to the hotel. But, by God, he was one tight-arsed bollix of a man. Stingy is too mild a description for that fellow! He wouldn’t even give a child the bite of a rotten apple, and he made sure he took the last penny off you for anything you received. Benny grabbed a punnet of strawberries from off Pop’s wagon and the old devil trembled all over with anger, and he caught young Benny and dragged him to his parents and demanded the money from them. Oh, he was a regular old miser, with lots of money in his pocket and a halfpenny to spare. But, Pop had one of the largest and best apple orchards in the district, which was ripe for the taking. After the old man had embarrassed Benny over the strawberries and caused him to be punished for his efforts at petty thievery, the boy wanted revenge.
‘Let’s go down to Pop’s orchard some night and help ourselves,’ said Benny, with a mischievous smile on his face.
‘Dogs,’ said I warily.
‘There’s only the one,’ says Benny, ‘I know him, and so do you. Its old ‘Snapper’! I gave him almost all the meat we took for bait that day we went fishing and didn’t catch any thing, but a foundering.’
‘All right,’ says I.
“Then, on the night for the raid came about, Benny was unavailable. His cousins, two girls, had come down from Belfast to visit, and Benny had to stay home and to entertain them. Now, in those days, I didn’t have much time for girls and, afraid that I might be roped-in to help entertain them, I made myself scarce. I decided that I would go alone to Pop Robinson’s orchard and carry out the planned raid. It was a great night for the adventure and I remember that the moon shone so bright that it was almost as light as day. Almost without care, I strolled down the country road, whistling a merry tune, until I got within a half-mile of the famed orchard. It was then that I stopped making noise and walked as softly as possible, until I came to the first apple-tree. It didn’t take me but a minute to shin up that tree, where I filled my bag with fine, ripe ‘Beauty of the Bath’ apples, before I slid silently down the tree again. All the while that I was in that tree old ‘Snapper’ didn’t make an appearance. But, my first real difficulty came when I reached the ground and tried to lift the bag upon my shoulder, only to find that it was far too heavy for me to carry all the way back to the hotel. I was going to remedy the situation by dumping some of the apples out of the bag, until I suddenly remembered that if I made my way across the meadow to the boreen (country lane), I could make my way back to the hotel in half the time it would take me to go the way I had come.
“Comforted by this plan, I shouldered my load of apples, and was nearly across the meadow before I even thought about the haunted barn standing at the end of it. Now, it wasn’t exactly nice thought to recall for a young boy like me, but I wasn’t going to turn back now; ghost or no ghost. To encourage me, I tried to whistle again, when into my mind came that bloody song that Andy Smyth was trying to sing. Says I to myself, ‘That’s it, Charlie Brennan, you and your mates might think it’s great craic to help yourselves to other people’s apples, pears, and such things, but it’s just as much stealing as if you had gone into a man’s house and stole his coat.’ It doesn’t seem as bad when you’re going to raid an orchard, but when you’re returning, up a lonely road, all alone, at ten o’clock at night, with a lot of stolen apples on your back, and a haunted barn not far off, it seems to be a much worse situation.
“‘There it is,’ says Barney!”
“I kept a tight hold of the bag of apples and, when I faced the barn, I was determined I would whistle even if I was to die in the effort. But, wait until I tell you, boys, I don’t think any person could have told you what tune I whistled. I couldn’t tell you myself, because I was so terrified. But, I can tell you, my heart jumped in my chest when I passed that tumbled-down old building. Then, it appeared to come to a stop when, as I marched up the boreen, I heard a step behind me. In an instant I wheeled myself around, but there was nothing at all to be seen, although the moon still shone as bright as ever. Says I to myself, ‘Jaysus, Charlie, you must have imagined it,’ and I walked on at a slightly quicker pace. All the while I listened as intently as I possibly could and, sure enough, I could hear pat, pat, pat, as the step came after me. Once again I wheeled round, but I still saw nothing. Onward I continued to walk, feeling the weight of apples growing heavier and heavier with each step. Pat, pat, pat, came the step. I began to think that it did not sound like the step of a human being, and this made it all the more frightening.
‘It must be the ghost,’ I began to think to myself, and I don’t mind telling you, boys, I never was so frightened in all of my life. Even that time that I fell overboard was nothing compared to the terror I felt that night. In fact, I had made up my mind, when I reached the bridge that crossed the little river near our hotel that I would sprint the rest of the way home. For some reason, or other, before I got to that bridge, I said to myself, ‘Perhaps he wants the apples.’ I must have said the words out loud, though I didn’t mean to, because a hoarse voice, with a horrific laugh, answered ‘Apples!’
“I can tell you, boys, you never saw a bag of apples fly so quick and so far, and I wasted no time in making myself scarce. Over the bridge I went with the speed of lightning, and ran right into Barney Reagan, one of the hotel staff, who was coming to look for me. ‘There’s something following me,’ I gasped, ‘from the haunted barn! A ghost!’
‘Did you see it?’ says he to me.
‘No,’ says I, ‘though I turned around a dozen times to look for it. But I heard its footsteps going pat, pat, pat, behind me all the way.’
‘And it’s behind you now,’ says Barney, ‘there!’ he shouted loudly as he burst into laughter. I jumped about six feet off the ground with fright when Barney, roared again, and was pointing toward Pop Robinson’s tame raven! That sly old bird looked up at me, nodding its shining black head, and croaked ‘Apples!’ as it walked off. That damned bird had followed me all the way from the barn. Every time I that wheeled around quickly, it hopped just as quickly behind me, and so, of course, I saw only the long, dark road and the moonlight reflected on it. Let me tell you all that never again do I want to be so scared as I was that night. And, if ever any of you boys go for looking to take anything that belongs to another person, make sure that you don’t count me in.”
“What became of the apples?” asked Terry O’Neil.
“Now, Terry, if you had been there I could have told you,” said Charlie.
Ghosts? Sure, I know you don’t believe in them and neither did I at one time. I had read the books and heard the stories, but I would laugh at the very mention of a spectre, headless horseman, or a weeping woman in white. The Ghost of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas to come did nothing to change my mind and I would often make fun of those who believed in such fantasies. That was until one evening, about twenty-years ago when I had my first encounter with a ghost. We lived in one of those old Georgian-type terrace houses where every room seemed to have stairs leading into or leading out it. On the evening in question I was downstairs in the kitchen area, sorting out some dishes, when I was suddenly distracted by the appearance of a strange woman who walked down the stairs leading into the room. I didn’t know it then, but I was to see her many times after this first appearance. I had heard the footsteps echo on the stairs a few moments before I turned, but it did not worry me because I knew there were other people in the house. Then, when I turned to where I had heard the footsteps, I found myself looking at al tall, stout, elderly woman, who was wearing an old-fashioned bonnet on her head and a shawl over her shoulders. From under her bonnet her glittering, silver-grey hair was clearly visible, framing a face that had a warm, kind and welcoming expression. I could only just stand and gaze at her for what seemed to be five minutes but was probably more like twenty seconds. In the beginning there was not any feeling of fear but, gradually, as I stood looking at her in silence a feeling of discomfort touched me and increased until my body was filled with terror. Slowly, I stepped back and continued to retreat from the apparition until I could feel the cold, brick wall at my back. Then, as suddenly as she appeared, the apparition faded away. This terrible feeling of terror always overcame me on all the subsequent occasions that she visited me. I am sure the feeling was brought on by the sudden unexpectedness of her appearances, which numbered at least fifteen occasions. She appeared to me over the years in every room in the house, and at every hour of the day or night. The last occasion on which I was visited by that old woman was just over ten years ago and, on that particular evening, my husband and I had just returned from a concert of Irish Traditional music. As was normal for us, on such occasions, we sat in the living-room and talked about the music we had heard and the musicians who had performed for us. After a while, for some reason I am still not sure of, I got up from my chair and went to the living-room door, opened it and found the old lady standing before me. She was bent over slightly towards the door as if she had been listening to what we were talking about. Startled by her sudden appearance I called out loudly and, almost immediately, my husband was at my side. She had gone, and that was the last time I was to see her. I can recall that almost every time that the old woman appeared to me she expressed her strong dissatisfaction with any disorder or untidiness in the home. She also had a strong objection to anything that led to a change in the general routine of the household, particularly if guests were to spend the night in the house. Guests who spent the night in the house were shown the old lady’s disapproval by turning the chairs in their room downward to face the floor. I remember one occasion when my brother-in-law stayed with us that he had to return to his room to collect something he had forgotten. When he was coming downstairs again we could hear him muttering to himself angrily, “Jaysus! You people! What in the name of God have you been doing with the furniture? Sure, I’ve almost broken my bloody big toe stumbling over one of those chairs lying down on the floor!” Twice during that same day my husband and I had turned the chairs to their proper place and, therefore, his remarks about the chaos in his bedroom did not surprise either of us. We decided, however, that it would be better if we did not enlighten him about the cause of the disruption. At some time during the years the old lad visited our home everyone in the family had been disturbed by peculiar knocking sounds, which they heard in various rooms in the house. Most frequently the sound could be heard on the walls or doors, but occasionally they could be heard on the furniture, close to where we were sitting. Sometimes the knocking was loud enough that it could be heard in the house next door and, on one occasion, our neighbour asked my husband what he could be hammering at such strange hours of the day. But, I can also recall another strange and fairly frequent occurrence happening, which involved some fur coats that I kept in my wardrobe. I hardly ever wore the coats and occasionally I was conscious of an odour emanating from them. My husband told me many times that it was just my imagination but, nevertheless, I would take them out and lay them across two chairs in an adjacent room to air them. I am always particular about my clothes but, the first time that I laid the coats out, I found, to my surprise, one of the coats lying in one corner and the other in another corner. Neither of these fur coats had been handled with any care, but I did not suspect that some supernatural being was at work in this. Mary, a young girl that I employed to help me keep the house in order, was suspected and I asked her about it. She, however, assured me that she had not been in the room at all that particular day. Although I accepted what Mary had told me, I was determined to investigate the matter for myself. So, late one night I removed the furs and laid them out as usual before taking care to lock the door to the room as I left. Furthermore, as part of my investigation, I ensured that I was the first to enter the room the following morning. Once again, I discovered the furs had been disturbed and thrown across the room. It was a few years after the apparitions and activity stopped in the house that I heard about the strange history that this house hid. About a century beforehand a young bank manager in London was assigned to a new post in Ireland, and he arranged for a house to be made ready for himself and his family. As he had to remain in London a few days to tidy up some domestic and business issues he sent his wife and two young children, along with their nurse, ahead. When the new tenants arrived at the house they found an old cleaning woman in the house, but she left very soon after their arrival. As the mother and nurse settled in to the new house that day they discovered that several things were needed, and the nurse was sent to purchase them from a local shop. When she returned to the house she went to the mother and asked her if the children were alright. The mother told her that she believed they were fine and was puzzled as to why the nurse would ask such a question. When the nurse explained that she had seen two ghostly forms pass her on the door-step! The two women rushed up to the nursery and discovered that both of the children were still in their cots, but their throats were cut, and blood had poured from the wounds, soaking all the bedclothes. Despite an intense investigation by the police, the murderer was never brought to justice, and there was no motive ever discovered. Sadly, the unfortunate mother of those children went insane with grief and never recovered. I wondered if this was the cause of the strange and eerie feeling that lingered in the house many months after the old lady ceased to appear to me. Was there more than the spirit of that old woman still clinging to the house, including the two little children who had been so brutally murdered. Not unexpectedly, we decided not to stretch our luck any further, sold the house to a local developer and moved many miles from the area.
The breeze of that cold March day blew harshly as I walked steadfastly across the wide windswept fields towards the old burial-ground that rested in the townland of Killygann. On reaching the remains of the ancient church, I sat down for a moment upon the grassy bank that enclosed the cemetery. Taking a moment or two I contemplated the ground that lay before me and my mind wandered, thinking upon the generations of men that had taken the road to this place over the many years of its existence. In this place they had been buried to spend an eternity waiting upon the judgement of God, for whom an altar had been raised on this spot so many long years previously.
If you didn’t know what was inside this grassy enclosure, you would never have guessed that it was indeed a place of burial. There were, however, little hillocks here and there on the surface, which were about two or feet long, and defined by a stone. They were tombstones, marking the little graves that were the last resting-places of unfortunate babies that died in the act of being born, or who been born and fated to live but a short time before uttering a brief cry of pain, and going to sleep for eternity. These innocent, but unbaptized, children were never permitted to mingle with the baptised Christians and were always placed in these long disused cemeteries. In this old churchyard had not received the body of a baptised person in many decades, and its presence was almost untraceable beneath the long, rich green grass that flourished there.
It was said that the grandfather of the present landowner had decided to plant the entire area with fir-trees, which flourished in the rich soil formed by the decomposed bodies that lay many feet below. The trees, themselves, had grown to a very unusual size, and demonstrating to all that no man is totally useless, even in death. When his time is finished, and his labours are ended, a dead man’s body may still enrich the ground that is so often impoverished by his greed. In the meantime, among these tall, sheltering trees, a colony of rooks had established their airy city. And, while the young settlers to the place busily built their new nests, the older residents of the grove were engaged in repairing the damage their homes had received from the storms of winter. The air itself was busy with the shrill discordant voices of the black horde as they seemed to be mock those that sought sleep in the lower branches.
As I sat upon that grassy bank, reflecting upon the old graveyard before me, I noticed a man walking along the same path that I had followed. He appeared to be very advanced in years, but he a tall figure of a man, who supported himself with a long wooden staff. Against the chill of the March wind the old man was wrapped in a blue-grey coat that folded close under a belt of string, and a woollen hat that was drawn over his face, as if to screen it from the sharp blast of a cold-wind that rushed toward him. He suddenly stopped, then fixed his eyes on a spot in the burial ground where a wind-blasted and branchless whitethorn stood. This ‘fairy tree’ looked as if it had become part of the fabric of this ancient, lingering as it did over its grass-grown foundation. The old man then raised his eyes heavenward and sank to his knees, while his lips moved as if speaking some silent prayer. His actions at that place fuelled my imagination as to why this old man’s deep devotion, at such a place and time. I was confident that it was not from some ordinary motive that the old man had felt the need to pray. There must have been some reason, or some tradition connected with this ancient place, that had caused the old man to pray with such enthusiasm. So, as the old man rose from his knees, I approached him and said, “My friend, I hope you will pardon me for intruding, for your sudden and impassioned prayer has awakened my inquisitiveness.”
To my surprise the old man answered me in Irish and explained, “I was only begging mercy and pardon for the souls who in the close darkness of their graves cannot help themselves and I begged the good Lord to cease placing the guilt of their fathers upon the children. This spot caused me to remember a terrible act of sacrilege that my forefathers had committed. For this great sin their descendants continue to suffer, and I did not think for one moment that someone other than God had seen me.”
“Perhaps,” he continued, “as you seem to be a stranger in these parts, you have never heard of the Bald Berrys, and the blessed Whitethorn of Killygann. It is a very old tradition, and you might even say it is just a superstitious legend. But there is the whitethorn, blasted and decayed from the contact of my ancestors’ unholy hands. And here, before you, stands the last of their name. I am a homeless wanderer, with no other inheritance than this mark of the curse and crime of his race.” Removing his woollen hat as he said this, revealing a perfectly smooth head, upon which there was not one single hair.
“That old heads should become bald, is not a rare thing,” I told him, “and I have seen younger men whose heads are as hairless as yours.”
“My head,” he replied, “from my birth to this moment, never had a single hair upon it. Sadly, my father and grandfather endured the same fate, while my great-grandfather was deprived of his long, thick hair in one tearful moment. I shall tell you the whole story as we walk along together, if you are going in the direction of this path.”
As we walked together, he told me the following story. The old man spoke in such a poetic and energetic way that I wish I was able to infuse these qualities into my translation. But, for a wider audience I have had to write in English, which is a much colder language than Irish and fails to do justice to the wonderfully poetical language of the story.
“Many a biting March wind has passed over the heads of men since Colonel Berry lived at Lisnarick, whose veins had the true blood of one of old Strongbow’s chiefs, who became a sovereign prince in the land. His forebears had formed strong alliances with the ancient owners of the land, eventually renouncing any Anglo-Saxon connection and name. This noble family subsequently gloried in the title of McCoille and the colonel did nothing in his life that would bring shame on his forebears. He kept open house for all comers, and every day an ox was killed and consumed at Lisnarick. All the influential men of note in the province came there to hunt, fish and hawk. To feast and lodge there and enjoy the hall, which was always crowded with harpers and pipers, rich men and beggars, and jesters and story-tellers, who came and went as they pleased, in constant succession.” Then the old man let out a long sigh, “I can recall some of these good old times, but now they are vanished and gone for ever. The great hospitality that was so much a part of the chieftain’s hall has gone now and the hall has become a hovel on the moor. The wanderer now turns from the great towers of a Lord’ home, seeks the shelter of the peasant’s shed!
Davey Berry and his seven brothers lived with McCoille and held his name and family. Whether McCoille went hunting on horseback, or took the opportunity to shoot, or moved among the high and titled families of the land, they always went with him. They acted like a sort of body-guard, share in his sports or helping him assert his will in any quarrels. At that time, on the banks of the Bann, near the ruined tower of Shanlieve, lived a man named Edward Berry. On his farm there was a thick and thorny thicket that, for many years had been the hiding place for a fox. This, however, was no normal fox. This fox was famous throughout the Province and was celebrated for the extraordinary speed and prowess that he had shown to those many men who had tried so hard to hunt him down. There had, indeed, been many gallant and noble huntsmen sought the honour of bearing that fox’s tail as a trophy. But all efforts had been in vain and after exhausting both hounds and horses in the arduous pursuit the fox invariably returned every night to his favourite sanctuary. To outsiders it seems that a treaty of peace existed between Edward Berry and the fox. Edward’s poultry for several years, whether they sought the banks of the Bann or the barn door, never suffered because the fox was nearby. It would mix with Barry’s dogs and spend an hour or two playing with them, almost as if he belonged to the same species. Mr. Berry gave his wild crafty friend the same protection and freedom that he permitted his own domestic animals. The fame of this strange union of interests was widespread and even to this day the memory of Berry’s fox survives in the traditions of the country.
One evening as McCoille and his followers returned from a long and unsuccessful chase of Edward Berry’s fox, their route lay by the ruins of the ancient church of Killygann. Near this sacred spot a whitethorn tree had stood, and its beauty and bloom were talked about by every man, woman, and child. The simple prayerful folk who poured their petitions to God beneath its holy shade believed that the hands of guardian angels pruned its luxuriance and developed its form of beauty. They believed also that dewfall from heaven was sprinkled by angel hands to produce its rich and beautiful blossoms, which filled the cold winds of December with many tokens of holy fragrance that welcomed the heavenly coming Him who left his Father’s throne to restore to the sons of Adam the lost inheritance of heaven. McCoille was so enamoured by the beauty of the tree and caring little for its sanctity or the superstitious awe that was attached to it, he was firmly resolved to move it to his home at Lisnarick. He wanted his lawn to have that rare species of thorn which blooms in beauty when all other trees in the field are bare and barren.
Next day, when McCoille made known his intention to remove the sacred whitethorn of Kilygann, his people were astonished at his blatant lack of respect for tradition. In response they all declared that they would resist until death any attempt to commit such an audacious act of sacrilege. Now, McCoille was not a man who would permit resistance to his will and had always been accustomed to his commands being obeyed immediately and without question. When he found that his men were now refusing to obey him he exploded with uncontrollable anger. He cursed and damned all those who were standing around him, shouting, “Traitors! You have all eaten at my table and enjoyed the hospitality of McCoille, and you have all sought and been given my protection. Yet, there are none you who are grateful enough to abandon your superstitious nonsense and carry out my commands!”
“Here, my Lord, are seven of your own name and Clan,” cried Davey Berry, “men who are sworn to stand or fall together, who obey no commands but yours, and acknowledge no law but your will. The whitethorn of Killygann shall leave its sacred place, if their strong hands and brave hearts can manage its removal. If it be a sacrilege to disturb the tree, which generations have revered, the curse for this sacrilege does not rest on us. Even should McCoille command us to tear the blessed gold from the shrine of a saint, we would not hesitate to obey him. We are just carrying out the will of our legal chieftain.”
They sang McCoille’s praises as they marched to where the tree had stood for many centuries, and they immediately proceeded to desecrate the spot that was made holy by those who had revered it over the ages. Such was the reverence shown to this holy whitethorn that a mystic circle surrounded it, within which no mortal foot may go. But, men have committed many wrongs and salved their consciences by convincing themselves that they acted in obedience to the commands of their leaders, and that a prayer of contrition will purify their souls.
That same evening McCoille saw the beautiful whitethorn planted in his garden and many were thanked for bringing it to him. Gold and rank were his rewards to those faithful men who had risen to the challenge and overcome the terrors of superstition to carry out his commands. But, McCoille was very much surprised when Davey Berry interrupted his morning sleep and announced that the tree had disappeared during the night. Confusion when he told his chieftain that the tree was again planted where it had stood for ages before, in the ancient cemetery of Killygann. McCoille was convinced that the tree venerated by the people had been secretly taken by them during the night to where it formerly stood. He immediately sent his most trusted men bring it back and stand guard until morning.
The Berry brothers obeyed the call of their chief and brought the whitethorn back. They replanted the tree, carefully covering its roots with rich mould, and made ready to watch over it all night. It proved to be a long and dark night, and they were wide awake. The night-breeze had stilled and all of nature appeared to have been mysteriously silenced. In this strange quietness a deep and undefinable feeling of dread crept into the hearts of the guards. These were men who had been tried and tested in the heat of battle but were now frightened by this fearful calmness. Their normal steadfast obedience to the commands of McCoille could not still their hearts against the remorse they began to feel, and there was talk amongst them against the sacrilege he had committed. As the night advanced their fear increased and they spread out their watchful circle around the mysterious tree. Davey, the eldest and bravest of the brothers, finally fell asleep. But, his short and fitful dozes were disturbed by wild and indistinct dreams. Then, as his sleep settled down and those vague images disappeared, the following vision came into his mind –
He began to dream that as he was keeping watch by the sacred whitethorn of Killygann, there stood before him a saintly man. This man’s radiant features and shining ancient clothing illuminated the entire area around him, piercing far into the darkness that surrounded him. In his hand he held a crosier, and upon his head sat a towering mitre. His long, white beard descended to the belt that encircled his rich bishop’s clothes, and he looked every inch the mitred abbot of some ancient monastery, which the rage of the English reformation had levelled to dust. The face of this saintly man, however, bore a fearfully severe expression, and the sleeping man fell to the ground, prostrate before the piercing eye that searched his inner-most soul.
“Wretched man,” said the shining apparition, in a thunderous voice, “ lift your head and listen carefully to your fate, and the fate that shall befall your sacrilegious brothers.”
Berry lifted his head in obedience to the instruction he received, though his soul sank within him, as stood before this dreadful voice and eye of terror. “Because you have violated the sanctity of this place” the holy man continued, “which has been consecrated to God, you and your family shall wander homeless ever more as beggars, and your heads, as a sign and a warning to future generations, shall suffer the pelting of every storm, and the severity of every changing season, unprotected by the defence that nature has bestowed upon all other men. This curse will last until your name and family be erased from memory.”
After hearing this angry denunciation against him the terrified man fell to the ground prostrate pleading for mercy, and he awakened with a cry of terror which alarmed the other guards. As he began to tell them about the terrible vision he had seen in his sleep, there was a crash of thunder, a flash of lightning, and the sweep of a whirlwind, which enveloped them all. As the new day dawned, the guards were to be found senseless, and at a considerable distance from the spot where they had lain the preceding night to guard the sacred tree. The thorn had also disappeared and, most strangely of all, the long black hair that shone like a raven’s wing, and was their pride, no longer adorned their heads. The fierce whirlwind, that had tossed them about, like the stubble of the field, had brought reality the dream, and removed their thick, long hair in its vengefulness.”
This was the story of the of the ‘Bald Berrys’ as it was told to me and I hand it on to you, the reader. I will make no further comment or note on this story, but I leave it to you to decide the truth of it. Some will question how an apparently cultured people can attribute the downfall of families, or the entailment of hereditary disease, to be caused by supernatural intervention. Others will remind you of an old saying –