A Tale of Lough Neagh
Lough Neagh is one of the largest and most beautiful bodies of water in the British Isles and lies in the centre of Ireland’s northernmost Province, Ulster. The waters of the lake are transparently blue in many places allowing you to see even small pebbles on the bottom, at a considerable depth. Near the southern end, a survey of the Lough bottom revealed cut stones that appear to have been laid in order, and careful observations have traced the remnants of the regular walls of a considerable sized structure. The Tradition of those who live on the shoreline tells us that this structure was once a castle, surrounded by a village, both of which succumbed to the expansion of the lake many generations past. In ancient times, it is said that the castle was owned by an Irish chieftain called Shane O’Donovan, who was noted for his bad character traits, such as being merciless in war, a tyrant in peace, feared by his neighbours, hated by his own family, and reviled by all for his inhospitality and lack of charity.
In those far off days, his castle stood by the bank of the lake, on an elevated promontory. It was almost an island, being joined to the mainland only by a narrow isthmus that stood at a small height above the level of the lake water. It is said that at one time an angel chanced to come into that part of Ireland, who had been sent from heaven to observe the people and to note their piety. Disguising himself in the clothes and body of a man, who was weary and footsore with travelling the country, the angel observed the castle from the hills above the lough and came down to boldly request a night’s lodging there. But his request was bluntly refused and, what’s more, the nasty and uncivil Shane O’Donovan set his dogs to bite the weary man. The angel immediately turned away from the castle, but he had no sooner passed through the castle gate than the villagers gathered around him and a contest began between them as to who should have the honour of entertaining the traveller.
The Angel made his choice and decided he would go to the house of a cobbler who was so poor that he had only one potato, and when he wanted another, he cut the one in two. Gratefully the heavenly visitor shared the cobbler’s potato and he slept on the cobbler’s floor, putting his feet onto the hearth to keep them warm. But as daylight dawned he rose, and called all the villagers together, led them out, across the isthmus to a nearby hill, and bid them look back. As they did so, they saw the castle and promontory separate from the mainland and begin to sink into the blue waters of the lough. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, the castle sank, while the waters rose around it. But the waters stood like a wall on every side of the castle and did not wet a single stone from the highest turret to its foundation. After some time, the entire wall of water had risen higher than the battlements and, as the angel waved his hand, the waves suddenly rushed over the castle and its sleeping inmates, punishing the O’Donovan for his lack of hospitality. When all was done, the angel pointed to a spot close by, telling the villagers that they were to build and prosper there. Then, as the awe-stricken villagers knelt before him, the traveller’s clothing became pure white and shining wings appeared upon his shoulders, and he rose into the air to vanish from their sight.
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A Tale of Divine Justice
After Oliver Cromwell’s ruthless attack on the Irish Catholic Population, every effort was made to ensure that the Catholic Mass and sacraments could not be celebrated by the faithful. The ‘Penal Laws’ introduced and enforced after William III’s victories, gave the persecution of Irish Catholics the protection of ‘Law’. As well as outlawing Roman Catholic religious rites, Catholic Bishops were banished from Ireland and Catholic priests had to register with the authorities to preach. All these actions by the English government made the practice of Roman Catholicism in Ireland both difficult and dangerous, and saw the creation of ‘Priest Hunters’. These were ruthless men who were paid to seek out and arrest unregistered priests and present them to the authorities, who would execute them in the most barbarous of ways. The following story is a tale about the fate that met one particular ‘Priest Catcher’ in the northern portion of the country.
Charlie McCann had been hunting down a large dog fox that had been preying on the chickens that he kept around his cottage, but he had lost its track and was angry that it had gotten away. On his way home he had been met Mrs. O’Brien and described to her the loss of his prey. While she too had suffered from the predations of the fox, Mrs. O’Brien was a woman who was always full of advice. “Charlie,” she began to say, “I think that bog, where your fox escaped, was the same place where a ‘Priest Catcher’ met his fate in the days of the Penal Laws.”
“By God, Mrs. O’Brien,” Charlie replied, “do you know that I have heard two different stories, and I have forgotten both. Perhaps, you could relate the story that you know?”
“I will to be sure,” replied Mrs. O’Brien. “There was once a poor priest, who was making his escape from danger as well as he could in those terrible times. He was terrified, tired, hungry, and filled with despair sore. As he was passing through Moneyreagh, he came across a small cabin that stood just off the side of the road and went inside, where he found a woman standing near the hearth cooking some food in a pot. Breathlessly he apologised for entering without invitation into her home and asked the woman if she could spare him something to eat, and somewhere where he could lie down for a while and get some rest. Poor though she was, the woman gave him the best of what she had, which was only a square of barley-bread, some milk, and some soup. In his hunger, the priest devoured what food he had and lay down in the cabin’s only bed, where he fell asleep in a very few minutes. But, about an hour later, the woman’s husband came home and was quite taken aback to see a stranger in the bed. His wife immediately explained the entire story to him. the man’s head was filled with the silver coin given as a reward for handing in the priest, and in his greed, he decided at that moment to go and inform the local authority. Without any bye or leave the man rushed as fast he could to see the local magistrate, who lived at Derrymartin, while his wife watched in disgust. She knew, well enough, what was in his mind, but she never said a word in protest. Instead, the poor woman thought and prayed about what she should do until, finally, she decided that she could run over to the house of Mr. Whitten and tell him the entire story. She was sure that although he was Protestant, like herself, he was a kind-hearted man who would not hurt the hair on the head of a priest or a bishop. After telling Mr. Whitten her story he told her to awaken the priest and send him over to his house immediately, where he would be waiting for him at the hall-door, and try to get him into the house without anyone seeing him. He also gave her a large coat for the priest to put over his own clothes as a disguise.
“Well, everything turned out alright, and no one in the house knew of the priest being there, except Mr. Whitten and his wife, and one servant that they both knew they could trust with the secret. Mr. Whitten had every intention, as soon as nightfall came, to take the fugitive to a safer place. Well, the priest-catcher set out on the very same path as your fox to bring the information he had to the local magistrate. On his return home, just as he was passing near the bog that you mentioned, he saw a bull running at full-speed toward him from across the field. The attack was so sudden that the poor man had no means of avoiding the charge and, so, turning around he made for the bog, and within seconds he found himself up to his chin in the sludge. Down he went, there being nothing to which he could hold on to. Throwing up his arms, his hands slapping at the water for a moment, and crying out to God for forgiveness, he was sucked down, and no trace of him was ever seen again. Meanwhile, Mr. Whitten kept the fugitive priest in his house for several days and then helped him on his way. But he didn’t let him go empty-handed.”
“I am sorry, Mrs. O’Brien, that the pathway across those lovely meadows has such a terribly dismal story associated with it. On the day of my first communion, some of my school friends and I myself went along that pathway to Derrymartin chapel. I remember seeing the fine and beautiful oil-paintings, one of which represented the ‘Nativity’, and another the ‘Healing the blind man’. There was also the style and beauty of the altar, which was so much better than any other altar I had seen. Father Prentice’s pleas to us about maintaining both piety and perseverance, gave us all a deep sense of prayerfulness and increased our faith that, indeed, the Lord was really present in the sacrament we were going to receive. It seemed in that moment to us, as children, that some presence converted the paintings, the altar and the sanctuary area into a paradise. It appeared to welcome us warmly and made us feel that we would have been glad to leave this world. But, unfortunately, all too quickly did life and the hardships of school return and cause that wonderful spiritual pleasure to vanish, causing reality to return. Nevertheless, Mrs. O’Brien, I suppose that the neighbours around him did not forget the great kindness shown by Mr. Whitten?”
“Indeed they did not,” Mrs. O’Brien told him, ” and they gave the same respect to all his descendants. In fact, it was because of this kindness that Tom Whitten’s life was later saved during the rebellion. Did you know that the old chapel where it all took place stood above the bridge yonder, between the river and the Killeagh road? Indeed, it’s not that long ago since I heard the old people talking about some of the ‘corner-boy ne’er-do-wells’ who would gather in an old dry sheugh outside the chapel to play cards during the Mass. They never moved until someone called to them that they better get up out of it because the priest was coming out. Now, wouldn’t their souls be in a nice state when the Lord would call upon them, and them not hearing the Mass with any devotion, and forgetting the struggle there was to keep the faith alive.”
An Old Irish Tale
In the County of Armagh, there was once a poor widow woman, who had an only son called Bernard, but known to all as ‘Bear’. There were some neighbours who would have had a good word for the boy and said that he was as sharp a boy as one would care to meet. There were others, however, that thought he was not much better than an idiot. His mother, meanwhile, was a hard-working woman who struggled night and day to ensure that there would be a roof over their heads. One day his mother called to him and told him, “ ‘Bear’, my son, bad luck is not very far from us these days. There is no food in the house, and the day will soon be here when the landlord will be coming around to collect our rent. So, I want you to take our white cow, for she is the poorest of the three, and bring her over to the fair, and sell her to whoever will give you the best price for her.”
‘Bear’ was very happy to undertake this task for his mother, because it was better fun to go to the fair than to work on the farm. He brushed his clothes down, cocked his hat, and he headed off to the fair whistling a merry tune, driving the white cow ahead of him along the road. It was still early morning. The sun was not yet high, and the dew was lying thick on the hedgerows. The birds were singing on either side of the narrow country road, almost as if they joining ‘Bear’ as joyfully whistled to himself as he walked. It was one of those beautiful mornings that made you feel good about life and ‘Bear’ soaked in the fresh morning air as he drove the white cow ahead of him.
After a while ‘Bear’ came to a stile and sitting on the top of this stile there was a little man who was scarcely two feet high, and he was dressed all in green with a small red cap lying beside him. “Good morning to you, ‘Bear’,” said the little man.
‘Bear’ answered him politely, just as his mother had taught him, but he wondered how this strange little man sitting in the bright sunshine knew that he was known to all as ‘Bear’. “And how much do you think you’ll get for the white cow at the fair?” the stranger asked.
This concerned ‘Bear’ even more as he began to wonder just how this little man knew about his business at the fair, as well as his name. “Well, my mother told me to get that I should get the best price I could,” he answered.
“Aye, but the best price for your cow may not be in gold or silver, young man. But, if you wait a bit, I’ll show you a thing or two worth that is worth seeing.” ‘Bear watched as the little man reached down into a deep pocket of his coat and brought out a tiny harp and a tiny stool. He set these on the top step of the stile and then he reached down into his pocket again, bringing out a ‘May Bug’ gently with his hand. The ‘May Bug’ was dressed in a tiny long-tailed coat and breeches, and the moment the little man set him on the stile, he drew the stool up in front of the harp and began to try the strings and tune them up. When ‘Bear’ saw this he was so surprised that he let out a great whoop of joy.
“Just wait a minute or two, for the story is not yet completed,” said the little man in green. He then took out a mouse dressed as a gentleman of quality, and a bumble-bee in a flowered silk skirt and overdress. The ‘May Bug’ began to play a tune, the mouse bowed to the bumblebee, she curtsied to him and the white cow he was driving before him. Then, as the sound of the joyful music filled the morning air, ‘Bear’ threw back his head and laughed loudly. In time with the music his feet began to jig, causing his hat to bounce on his head, and the even the cow herself began to jump about, waving her tail very happily.
After Barney had danced and laughed himself weak, the music came to an end. The dancers stopped to rest their weary legs, and Barney and the cow also stood still. “Well, and what do you think of that?” asked the little man.
“I think it’s a better sight than any that I’ll be seeing at the fair.”
“Listen to me now,” the little man said. “I am in a great need for a good cow. To tell you the truth, it is those who live under the hill who have sent me out to buy one, and if you want them, I will give you the little harp and the musician for your white cow.”
Barney looked at what he was being offered and scratched his head for a few moments before saying, “It’s not the sort of price my mother thought I’d be getting for the cow.”
“It’s a price that, eventually, will be worth more than gold and silver to you,” said the little man. A few minutes later ‘Bear’ gave the little man the cow and in exchange, he took the harp, the stool, and the little ‘May Bug’. When he took out his handkerchief and wrapped them up in it very carefully, he turned back to the little man and discovered that he had disappeared entirely. There was no sign of him or the cow anywhere.
“And that’s a curious thing, too,” said ‘Bear’ to himself as he set out for home. He put a get pace on his step and when he came within sight of the house, he saw his mother was at the window watching for him, and she came out to meet him.
“I see you sold the cow, son,” she said excitedly. “How much did you get for it?”
“Come inside and I’ll show you,” smiled ‘Bear’, eager to show his mother the treasures he had been given. They went into the house and Barney dusted off the table. Putting his hand in his pocket ‘Bear’ took out the handkerchief, untied it and put the harp, the stool, and the little musician upon the table. The ‘May Bug’ made a bow to Barney’s mother, then he seated himself and began to play. If ‘Bear’ had laughed the last time he had seen the performance, he roared even more loudly now. The old woman, too, began to laugh and that was something that she had not done for many a year before. She laughed until the tears ran down her face, and then she dropped weakly into an armchair and laughed some more. But, when the music finally came to an end, the old woman wiped the tears from her eyes, and she began to return to her normal self. Then, she remembered that the food cupboard was still bare and that the rent was still due to be paid to the landlord despite the wonderful objects that ‘Bear had brought home. “You worthless excuse for a man!” she cried out to her son. “Is that what you sold the cow for? Tell me how you expect us to fill our stomachs and pay the landlord with such nonsense as this?”
‘Bear’ couldn’t give an answer to his mother, for he didn’t have one. The money, however, had to be gathered some way or other, and the next morning, ‘Bear’s’ mother sent him off to the fair again, and this time it was the dappled cow he was driving before him, which was a much finer and larger cow than old ‘Whitey’ had been. As he came nearer and nearer the stile he kept looking and looking to see whether the little man in green was there. It was not until the young man came quite close to the stile that he spied him. There sat the small man on the top step in the sunlight, with his red cap lying beside him. “Well, how did your mother like the price you got for old ‘Whitey’?” the small man asked.
“She didn’t think very much of it, and the trouble I got into with her is all thanks to you.”
“Sure, don’t worry about it! The woman will be thankful enough someday for the price I paid you. Now, is the dappled cow for sale, too?”
“Aye, it is for sale but not to you,” answered ‘Bear’.
“Ah, ‘Bear’, ‘Bear’! I’m beginning to think you must be the eejit that some people call you. There’s no one can pay you as good a price as I can offer you. If you had this well-dressed gentleman of a mouse to dance to the music your mother would split her sides with laughter, and you can have him for yourself in exchange for that cow.”
‘Bear’ stood his ground and would not listen to any deal the little man put forward. But the little man coaxed and wheedled, until finally ‘Bear’ gave him the cow, and took the little mouse in exchange for it. When he reached home again, he found his mother was on the lookout for him. “How much money did you get for the cow?” she asked him.
‘Bear’ made no answer, but he untied his handkerchief, and let the little mouse step out on the table. The old widow looked at this new prize with its cocked hat under its arm, and with its claws on its hip, as he made a grand bow to her. She could say or do nothing but stare and grin with admiration. Then, ‘Bear’ put the ‘May Bug’ and the harp on the table too, and as soon as it had tuned up, it began to play, and the tune was pleasant that it caused his very heart dance in the bosom. The mouse then began to dance and twirl and jig up and down, and ‘Bear’ and his mother stood and laughed until they almost split their sides.
But after the tune ended, the old woman came to herself again, and she was a very angry soul. She began to cry just as hard as she had previously laughed, for both the white cow and the dappled cow were gone, and the landlord’s rent was no nearer to being paid than it had been two days before. But they had to have the money, and there was nothing left but to allow ‘Bear’ to set off the next day for the fair with the red cow, which was the finest of the three animals she once had. ‘Bear’ trudged along, driving the cow before him, and after a while, he once again came to the stile, and there, once again, was the little man in green seated upon it. “Good-day to you, ‘Bear’,” said he.
‘Bear’ never said a word.
“That’s a fine cow you have there,” said the little man, but ‘Bear’ trudged along the narrow road as though he had not heard him, and he never so much as turned his head. “No, ‘Bear’, just hold on a minute, friend,” the little man said. “We have made two bargains, and now we ought to make the third, for there is said to be good luck in odd numbers.”
‘Bear’ would have willingly walked on if he could, but when the little man said, “Wait a bit,” it seemed as though he were rooted to the ground, and he could not stir a step, however hard he tried. Then the little man began to beg and plead with ‘Bear’ to let him have the cow in exchange for the bumble-bee, and for a very long time, Barney continued to refuse. At last, however, he could hold out no longer and the trade was made. No sooner had the young man agreed and taken the bumblebee in his handkerchief than, “pouff!” the little man and the cow both disappeared like a warm breath on a window-pane.
‘Bear’ stared and wondered, and then he turned toward home again, but the nearer he came to the house the slower he walked, for he had some notion as to what his mother would have to say about the bargain he had made. Needless to say, things turned out just the way he had thought they would. When he first put the bumblebee and the others on the kitchen table, when the ‘May Bug’ began to play and the others to dance, his mother laughed and laughed as she had never laughed before in all her life. But when they stopped, and she had come to herself again, she was so angry that simply scolding the young man not enough punishment for him. She grabbed hold of a broom, and if ‘Bear’ had not run out and hidden in the cow byre, he would have had a beating that would have more than dusted his coat for him. However, what was done was done, and what they were to do now to get food and money was more than either of them could say. But the next morning, ‘Bear’ suddenly had a grand scheme in his head.
“Listen, mother, I have a great plan in mind that might bring us in a few pennies,” he said. “I will take the ‘May Bug’, the mouse and the bumble-bee with me to the fair to-day. When we are there the ‘May Bug’ will play the harp and the mouse and the bumble-bee will dance, and it may be the people will be so happy with their tricks that they will give me some pennies.” There was nothing better than this that she could think of, and so the widow gave her consent, and off Bear set for the fair. But I can tell you that if his heart was light his stomach was lighter, for he had had nothing to put in it that morning. He trudged along and trudged along the road, and after a time he came to the stile, and there was the little green man sitting on it just as he had sat before.
“Good-day, Bear,” the little man greeted him.
“Good-day, and bad luck to you,” answered Bear sternly. “It was a dirty trick you played on me when you took our three cows from me and gave me only such nonsense as I carry here in my pocket as payment.”
“Bear,” said the little man in a solemn tone, “I tell you that never again in all your life will you make as good a bargain as you made with me. I will tell you now, truthfully, that the price I paid you shall be the making of you.”
“Aye, and how will that come about?” asked Bear sarcastically.
“Sure, isn’t that what I came here to tell you,” replied the little man. “I’m sure that you already know that the king of Erin has a daughter.”
“Aye,” answered Bear.
“But you may not know that this princess is so beautiful that there never was likes of her seen anywhere in all the world before and that the poor girl is as sad as she is beautiful. It is feared, indeed, that unless something happens to cheer her up, she will grieve her life away. Therefore, the king, her father, has promised that whoever can make her laugh three times shall have her for his wife.”
“But what has all that to do with me?” asked Bear.
“What? Can’t you see that you may be the lad to raise the laugh from her and win her for your wife, and it is with the ‘ May Bug’, the mouse and the bumble-bee that you shall be able to do it.”
“Man dear isn’t that the truth!” exclaimed Bear slapping his leg, “there’s surely nobody in all of this world that could look at those creatures playing their wee tricks and keep a sober face on him.”
The little man then laid out to Bear exactly how he was to proceed and act, and Bear listened intently until he had made sense of all the little man had to say, and then in a flash, he vanished from sight, and Barney saw him no more. He now turned his face away from the direction of the fair and toward where the palace stood, and off he set, one foot before the other, just as fast as he could go.
After a long journey Bear and came to the place, he wished to go, and a very grand fine palace it was when he reached it. But in front of it, there was a strange, terrifying sight, which did nothing for Bear’s confidence or his will to continue. There in front of the door stood twelve tall stakes, and upon eleven of these stakes were eleven heads, but upon the twelfth stake, there was no head at all. Bear decided he would not stare long at this scene and, gathering all the courage he still had he went forward, marching up to the palace door and rapping it loudly with his stick. A few moments later it opened and there stood a man, all in gold lace, looking out at him. “What do you want here?” he asked.
“I have come to see the princess and to make her laugh,” Bearn answered boldly and with confidence.
“Well, you have a hard task before you,” said the man. “However, I am not the one to tell you can or can’t, and I will go and tell the king you are here.”
He went away and then presently he not much later he returned with the king at his side. The king looked at Bear intensely for a moment or two and then he said, “You are a fine stout lad, but I doubt that you are the one to make the princess laugh. Nevertheless, you can try if you wish, although there are certain conditions must know about before you begin. You must make her laugh three times before you can have her for a wife, and if you fail your head will be cut off and set upon a stake, for the princess has made me promise that this shall be the punishment for failure.” The king went on to tell him that eleven stout lads had already lost their heads,“and there they are to prove it,” he said, as he pointed to the stakes before the palace door.
Bear looked and saw again that the twelfth stake had nothing on it, and he liked the looks of it even less than before, for it seemed to him to be waiting for his head to be fitted on top. However, he was not the type of man to turn back at this stage and he told them, “Your majesty, I will give it a try, whether I succeed or fail.”
“Very well,” said the king; “and when will you try?”
“Now,” said Bear, “if you will just give me a moment or two.”
He then took out the ‘May Bug’, the mouse and the bumble-bee and tied them all together with a long piece of string, one in front of the other. Then, setting them on the floor, he took the end of the string in his hand. Now, when the king saw that, he began to laugh, and the man in gold lace began to laugh. They laughed and laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks and they had to wipe them away. “Do you know, boy,” said the king, “you may be the one to win the princess for a wife, after all.” With that they set off down a long hall, the king first, and the man in gold lace next, and, last of all, Bear with the three little creatures following.
At the end of the hall, there was a grand fine room with a grand fine throne placed in it. Upon the throne sat the princess, and she was looking very sad. And, all the ladies that were standing around her looked very sad too, for that was the polite and safest thing for them to do when she was sorrowful. She frowned deeply when she saw the king enter, and when she saw the man in gold lace follow, she scowled. But when she saw Bear in all his tattered clothes, holding one end of the string, and the three little creatures hopping along behind him, first she smiled and then she grinned, and then she threw back her head and let out such a laugh you could have heard it a mile away.
“That’s one!” cried Bear. Then he untied the little creatures and called for a table and set them upon it, and he drew out the harp and stool and gave it to the ‘May Bug’. It seated itself and tuned the harp, while the princess and all her ladies stared and stared. Then, it began to play and the mouse and the bumble-bee began to dance. They danced so fine and light, you’d have thought they’d had wings to their feet. At this spectacle, the princess let out a laugh that was twice as loud as the other.
“Thank you, princess,” said Bear, “that’s two.” But, at that, the princess stopped laughing and looked as glum as the grave. The ‘ May Bug’ played, the others danced, faster and faster, but not a third laugh could they get out of the princess, and it seemed as though Bear would lose his head after all. But the little mouse saw as well as Bear what was happening and suddenly, he whirled around and brought his tail, whack! across the bumble-bee’s mouth. That set the bumble-bee to coughing. It coughed and coughed as though it would cough its head off and the princess began to laugh for the third time. The more it coughed the more she laughed until it seemed as though she might die of laughing.
“That makes the third time,” cried Bear ecstatically, “and now I think you’ll agree that I’ve won the princess fairly.” Well, no one could deny that, so he was taken to another grand room in the palace and there he was washed and combed and dressed in fine clothes, and when that was done, he looked so brave and straight and handsome that the princess was glad enough to have him for a husband. They were married the next day, and a coach and four were sent to bring the old mother to the wedding. When she came and saw her own son, Bear, dressed in that way and holding a royal princess by the hand, she could hardly believe her eyes, and almost died of joy as the princess had of laughing. A great feast was held in celebration, and the little man in green was there, too, and feasted with the best of them, but nobody saw him for he had his red cap on his head, and that made him invisible
An Old Tale from the Annals of my Family
There was a time when every poor Irish peasant could tell you that he was the descendants of Chieftains and Kings, who were all beaten down by the vile English and had their lands stolen from them. Now, I am not going to tell you that my ancestry stretches back to one of the ruling families of old Ireland since I cannot trace my paternal or maternal line beyond ‘The Great Potato Famine in Ireland’, or as some would call it the ‘The Irish Genocide by the English.’ There are stories from days prior to the beginning of that terrible time that have been handed down but not earlier than the beginning of that century. It appears, after the failure of the ‘United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798’ the British Government decided to increase its military presence throughout the land. One area that saw an increase in the number of red-coated soldiers was the County of my forefathers, County Tyrone.
In the year of the ‘Union’, 1801, a certain regiment was ordered to Tyrone and was very soon dispersed over various districts of that County. One detachment was sent to be stationed in the townland of Sluggan, and their first impressions of that area were far from favourable. The detachment leader and his two assistants, however, soon discovered an Síbín (Shebeen), which was an illegal drinking place, where alcoholic drink was sold without a license and without having paid revenue to the government. This drinking den for the locals was based in the small thatched cabin where the soldiers had been sent to be billeted. One night, soon after arriving, the three soldiers began to discuss the types of leisure-time amusement that were on offer, and they were quite quickly disappointed with what they found.
Under the instructions of their military superiors, the three men were not allowed to associate with the locals or get too friendly with them because of their rumoured rebellious nature. They sought further entertainment to keep them amused but, for them, there was no hunting, no shooting, no gaming, no horses to ride, no lively young ladies that they might flirt with. It should be understood, military men in those days rarely had an interest in literature, but books suddenly became very important to these men and, when they had read the few they had, they sent to the nearest town, which was quite a distance away, for more. Unfortunately, reading is not the sort of active amusement that young, healthy men truly yearned for.
One evening the three soldiers took a walk along some of the tracks and boreens of the district, and their faces soon brightened when they saw a local peasant boy, wearing a shabby hat, a torn coat, and a pair of britches that were held together by a single button and a rope belt. As he paraded merrily along his way, he was whistling a merry tune and, in one hand dangled two fine-looking trout in one hand. In his other hand he was waving a long ‘switch’, and he marched along the track with his curly red hair blowing over his bright, rosy-cheeked face in the fresh breeze. He was a picture of health and of careless happiness.
“Hello! My fine fellow! Where did you catch these trout?” asked the leading soldier.
“Now, your honour, in the small lake, just over ‘thonder’,” replied the boy with a smile, pointing back along the track
“’Thonder!’ Where the devil is that?”
“Do you see ‘thone’ hills? Well, just behind them hills there’s the lake with plenty of fish. By Jaysus, if I had but a decent fishing-rod, and something more sensible than a crooked pin!’
“Aren’t you a handsome intelligent boy! What are you called?’
‘Patrick McCoille, if pleases your honour.’
‘Well, Paddy, if you will show us the trout lake, I’ll give you a shilling.’
Paddy McCoille had heard of a shilling, but he had never yet seen one, so he was overjoyed at the prospects of getting one. He not only showed them the small lake but made rush-baskets to carry the fish they caught. He told the three soldiers tales, sung them songs, and, by his good-humour and love of fun, very much enlivened their stay at Sluggan. He was very happy to be at the centre of the soldiers’ attention and was happy to be doing anything for them that gained him a few coppers. Now, when the time came for the soldiers to leave the district, Paddy was genuinely sorrowful at their going. The soldiers decided that they could help the young lad by recruiting him as a boy soldier in the regiment.
In those days there was no much money in a family of Roman Catholic, Irish Peasants, and Paddy’s mother encouraged him to begin a military career as a fifer in the British Regiment. There he would get clothes, shoes, a bed of his own, and three good meals a day. When he was older, Paddy entered the ranks full-time and became valet to a Captain Chalmondley-Rowbotham. Within months Paddy’s extraordinary intelligence and military bearing brought quick promotion to the rank of Sergeant. There was a war with France at this time, of course, and on two occasions he showed great courage and wisdom while leading a detachment of men in battle. As a result, Paddy was unanimously put forward for officer training and once again succeeded in gaining the promotion. Despite his rapid rise through the ranks, however, he retained the good opinion and friendship of all who had been former comrades.
It is said that Paddy was considered by many to be a handsome man and, as we have seen a very clever person. What he lacked in education he took advantage of every opportunity to improve himself. But no one is perfect, and Patrick McCoille became extremely ambitious and ever vainer. He came to a point in his ‘new’ life that he did not want to remain in a situation where his very humble origins were so well known, and he finally transferred to another regiment, where he soon became equally as popular with his new companions as he had been with his old friends. Eventually, however, war with France came to an end and Paddy’s financial status quickly fell below that which he had been used to. He needed a new life and he decided to use his long-held talents to help him seek out a fortune and further growth in his social status.
With the peace gained, Paddy settled himself in a town that lay along the north coast of France and began to seek a wife that would bring with her position and wealth. He did not have long to wait. Having become a fluent French speaker and his quick wits helped him greatly to open many doors which were closed the higher born, but less talented army companions. Before very long, he met the widow of a wealthy hotelkeeper who, though twenty years his senior, gave him clear signals that all he needed to do was to propose. Whether this was a case of him being greedy or a real case of love, it is hard to say. Nevertheless, they married, and lived together for three years, during which he was both affectionate and kind to her. Then, when his wife died, she left him all that she had, which, although much less than he had hoped for, made up, together with his army pension, a reasonably good income.
Although this amount of income would have represented a mere pittance to most men, it was a fortune to such an adventurer. Armed with this money and his natural talents, Paddy set out for Paris, where he made a great impression upon a young and beautiful widow who held a high situation within French society, and very soon after they met the two were married. One problem arose, however, during the nuptial preparations when the lady objected to his name.
“McCoille!” she cried, (pronouncing it as M’ecole — My School); “I cannot allow myself to accept such a name in my social circle. It is demeaning!”
“Well, my dear, I am very sorry about that, but it is my name.”
“Does your family not possess a title?”
“None,” said Paddy, who now insisted on being called Patrick.
“What, then, is the name of your father’s estate?”
Patrick’s thoughts turned to the small thatched cabin in which he had passed his childhood. He recalled the pig that had once been a playmate before it was delivered to the landlord to pay the rent. He remembered his father, in his long, heavy coat, with a hay-band round his hat, and his mother, dressed in fluttering rags which so many of the Irish peasantry thought added smartness to their dress. After so many years he, perhaps, thought with regret of the warm, loving hearts that had beat beneath in their breasts, so fond and so proud of him. With quiet dignity, he told her, ‘Sadly, my love, it is no longer in our family.‘
“But,” persisted the lady, “you were born near some village, or in some place that had a name?”
“The townland of Sluggan was where we lived.”
“Fantastique! That is just what is needed! You will call yourself the Baron de Sluggan!”
“Of course, and why not? I shall not object to being called ‘De Sluggan’”.
She accordingly had her cards printed ‘La Baroness de Sluggan,’ and her husband, who had a great love of his family name, now became known to all as ‘Baron McCoille de Sluggan’. One of these cards is preserved as a memento by one of my relatives and Paddy’s adventures are frequently repeated at wakes, weddings, and other family gatherings.
The Demon Cat
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of types and breeds of Cat which share this world with us. Among all these many natural types and breeds of feline, however, there are those from the world of the supernatural, which have particularly wicked and evil ways. The Cat Sidhe, (Cat Sìth-Scottish Gaelic) is one such has become a part of Celtic mythology, which is said to look like a large black cat with a white spot on its chest, that and mainly haunts rocky high ground. Although the greater number of legends associated with these creatures are to be found within the tales of Scottish folklore, there are a few stories that occur within the folklore archives of Ireland. It is customary within Irish folklore that such creatures as these are considered as demons, or witches’ “familiars”, that adopt the disguise of a cat to gain easy entry into human residences. And, once inside the homes of mortals, they can spy on all that happens and, thereby, bring about a range of terrible events.
The idea of the Cat Sidhe (‘Fairy Cat’) may have been originally inspired by the presence of the European Wildcat in the lands of the Celts. In those days the Wildcat was a much more numerous and widespread animal than it is now. Much like the wolf, it is extinct in Ireland but the memory of the large, all black cat with the white spot prominent on its chest, still lingers. Known as the ‘Demon Feline’ by some it was a creature never to be trusted. It was even thought capable of stealing a person’s soul before it could be claimed by God, and in several areas would hold special wakes to keep the creature away from the corpse before it was buried. At these, the people would play music, and all sorts of games to distract the Cat Sidhe away from the room in which the corpse lay. At the same time, no fires were lit in the room where the body lay for, it was said, the ‘Demon Feline’ was attracted by warmth.
Although never to be trusted when encountered, legend tells that on the feast of ‘Samhain’ the Cat Sidhe would bless any house that left a saucer of milk out or it to drink. But for those houses that did not leave out a saucer of milk, there was only a curse as a reward, such as having the cow’s milk dry-up. Such things, of course, led many to believe that the Cat Sidhe was a witch that could transform at will into a cat and back again nine times. It was said that should a witch choose to go back into their cat form for a ninth time, they would remain a cat for the rest of their days, and hence the tradition of the cat having nine lives.
The ‘Demon Feline’, however, came into its own when ancient rituals for calling up the dead were practiced. From tribe to tribe these rituals varied, but generally involved torture or cruelty to animals and humans and, occasionally, included animal sacrifice. It was not unknown in some of these rituals for the bodies of cats to be roasted alive over the course of several days and nights. All these rituals were carried out to summon legions of spirits or demons in the form of black cats, with the devil at their head, to answer questions concerning the future.
The following tale from Ireland, called ‘The Fisherman’s Wife’, recalls an encounter with one of these ‘Demon Felines’ and the difficulties that she faced before overcoming the demon.
In the West of Ireland, there once lived a woman, whose fisherman husband was an industrious worker who also had good knowledge of the sea and knew where to find the best catches. He worked hard to ensure that his wife was always well supplied with a great variety of fish that she could clean, cure, store, and make ready for sale in the market. But, despite her husband’s good fortune, this woman’s life was not at all a happy one because, when the husband was out fishing, she was being constantly tormented by a huge black cat that would make its way into the house, where it would greedily devour all the best and finest fish that she had prepared for market.
Finally, she decided that if she was to successfully fight off this creature, then she needed to arm herself with a large, thick stick, and with it, in her hands, she would patiently await the cat’s next entrance. Then, one day, unexpectedly, as she was sat in the house gossiping with another woman from the village, the entire house suddenly fell into great darkness and the front door of the house burst open as if blasted by a great wind. Through the open doorway and into the house the huge black monster of a cat strolled, triumphantly marching all the way up to the glowing fire. When he reached the hearth, this demon cat turned toward the two women with a grimace on its face and roared like a lion. “Oh, dear God! Sure, it’s the devil himself!” screamed a young girl who was sorting fish on a bench not far away.
“I’ll teach you to call me names, woman!” snarled the huge, black cat and it leaped at the girl, scratching her arm deeply with its huge claws and caused blood to flow from the wound. A diabolical laugh echoed through the house as the cat sneered, “There, now, woman! You’ll hold a much more civil tongue in your head the next time a gentleman, the likes of myself, calls on you!” Saying those words, which rang loudly in the young girl’s ears, the demon cat jumped at the open door, slamming it closed again to prevent any of his captives from escaping. The cat deemed it vital now that the wounded young girl was crying hysterically from the fright and the pain she had been caused. Now, with this one terrifying leap, the huge black cat had cut-off every possible route of escape for the women.
Just as the monster slammed the front door shut, a man, who was passing by the house, was stopped in his tracks by the series of loud cries and screams that were coming from the building. Being very much concerned by the terrible cries that he heard the man rushed up to the door of the house and, using every ounce of his strength that he could muster, he tried to force it open. But the demon cat dug in its heels and, doggedly standing its ground, it refused to allow the man to enter the house and help the women. The man, however, was carrying a large, thick blackthorn stick in his hands and he began to beat down on the monster with every muscle in his body and gave the demon several great blows that told. But, the monster feline was more than a match for the man and launched itself at him with force, tearing at his face and hands so badly that the man had no choice but to take to his heels and run away as fast as he could.
Now that the potential rescuer of the women had been forced to flee the scene a huge expression of joy came across the face of the demon as he hissed at his captives, “Now, it’s time for me to eat my dinner.” Then with quick and eager steps, the cat moved toward the long bench-table upon which the fish had been spread out as if they had been made ready for him to examine.
“I hope these fish are as good as they look,” the cat sneered as it displayed its sharp, ivory-colored, teeth to the frightened women. “Now, listen to me, don’t even think of making any kind of a fuss, or disturbance while I am helping myself to this feast.” Then, using the great strength it had in its rear legs, the demon cat pounced up on to the bench-table and began to rapidly and hungrily devour all the best fish. With each fish that it gobbled down, the demon continued to stare and growl at the terrified women, who now began to fear that they too might be on his menu.
Suddenly, filled with renewed courage, the fisherman’s wife jumped up from her where she was seated and squealed at the monster, “Get away out of this place you, black devil cat!” As she squealed the woman also gave the demon several mighty blows with a set of large, brass coal-tongs that would have certainly broken the back of any normal cat. In her anger and rage, the woman screamed again at the monster cat, “Get away from here, damn you! You will have no feast of our fish this day!”
Unfazed by the woman’s screams, the huge cat turned slowly to face her and grinned triumphantly as he began to tear at and devour the fish, feeling none the worse for the heavy blows that the fisherman’s wife had struck him. Undaunted by the failure of their efforts to chase the predator away, the two women continued attacking the demon cat with whatever instruments that they could put their hands on, striking huge blows that appeared to be hard enough to kill. Still, the huge cat continued to stare at the women contemptuously, apparently unaffected by their efforts to hurt him, and it then began to spit out fire as he made a deadly leap toward them. The demon’s great claws and sharp teeth tore into the hands and arms of the women until their blood began to run freely from the wounds caused, and the women made their last-ditch effort, screaming in their terror, to rush out of the building to freedom.
Within a very few minutes of leaving the building, the fisherman’s wife sought out a bottle of Holy Water and with this, in her hands, she moved back into the building to confront the great demon. Tentatively, the woman peeked into the house through the open door and saw that the huge cat was still totally engaged in devouring the fish that had been laid out upon the bench-table. So, with great stealth, the fisherman’s wife quietly crept over to the place where her enemy stood and, without making a sound, she opened the bottle of Holy Water and threw the contents all over the unsuspecting demon cat. In an instant a dense black cloud of smoke filled the entire room, covering everything until the only object that could be seen in the darkness was the demon’s glowing red eyes, which burned bright like the coals in a fire. Then, as the thick smoke gradually began to clear away, the fisherman’s wife saw the huge cat as it was burning slowly until it finally became like a shriveled, black cinder and disappeared. It was a gratifying sight but, from that moment onward, the fish catch would remain untouched by the demon and safe from further destruction. The power of the ‘evil one’ was finally broken and the fearsome ‘demon feline’ was never to be seen again.
Now that we have reached the end of this tale, it is time to consider the long-held tradition which warns us about the very vengeful tendencies shown by all cats, and that we should make every effort to ensure that we never do anything to offend these animals. What can happen if we fail to abide by these warnings is demonstrated in the following story, which is alleged to be true –
The story tells us that there was once a fine lady of quality, who had a habit of lifting her cat into her arms and to feed it from the food on her own table during dinner. She would select tasty morsels from the plate and give them to the cat with her own hands. One evening, however, the lady decided that she would give a special dinner party for her friends. On such an occasion the lady did not feel it was appropriate for her pet to be fed from the table around which her friends would be seated. The food was served, and the needs and expectations of the cat were completely ignored, while she was rebuffed on several occasions when she approached her mistress. The cat was greatly angered by the treatment it had received and she moved into a dark corner of the room, where it lay silently sulking and planning how it might get revenge for being treated so abysmally. It awaited its opportunity, which arrived after the lady had gone to her bed for the night. The vengeful cat crept silently out from its hiding place and, making its way to the mistress’ bedroom, sprang at the sleeping woman’s bared throat. The cat bit deep into the flesh and created a wound that was so severe that within a week the poor woman became gravely sick and eventually died from virulent blood poisoning.
There is a long-standing tradition, which says that there is a power that resides within the blood of a black cat which is to be held in the highest esteem by those persons who are proficient in the making the cures of ancient times. It is such as these that know the true power of the black cat’s blood can only be unleashed when it is mixed with magical charms, thereby providing relief to suffering people through ancient potions that cure even the worst of diseases. Those ‘wise people’ who prepare these magical charms and potions will tell you that three drops of blood from a black cat are more than enough to gain the desired effect. The custom among the ‘Fairy Doctors’ and ‘Wise Women’ is that they gather this blood by nipping off a small piece of a cat’s tail. But it is my opinion that untrained persons would be better leaving such tasks to the experts because cats can become evil demons and will seek to take a terrible vengeance upon anyone who offends them.
Unknown early 20th Century Irish Poet
Awake, dear sleepers, from your wintry tombs;
The sun has turned the point of Capricorn,
And ‘gins to pluck from Winter’s wings the plumes
Of darkness, and to wind his silver horn
For your return. Come to your homes, forlorn
In absence of your odours and your faces;
Like Rachel weeps for you the reaved morn,
As often as she views your empty places,
Erewhile the daily scene of her and your embraces.
Come, pensile snowdrop, like the earliest star
That twinkles on the brow of dusky Night;
Come, like the child that peeps from door ajar,
With pallid cheek, upon a wasteful sight:
And shouldst thou rise when all around is white,
The more thou’lt demonstrate the power of God
To shield the weak against the arms of might,
To strengthen feeble shoulders for their load,
And sinking hearts ‘mid ills they could not full forebode.
Come, crocus cup, the cup where early bees
Sip the first nectar of the liberal year,
Come and illume our green, as similes
Light up the poet’s song. And O ye dear
March violets, come near, come breathing near!
You too, fair primroses, in darksome woods
Shine forth, like heaven’s constellations clear;
And come, ye daisies, throng in multitudes,
And whiten hills and meadows with your saintly hoods.
Come with thy lilies, May; thy roses, June;
Come with your richer hues, Autumnal hours;
O tell your mellowing sun, your regal moon,
Your dewy drops, your soft refreshing showers,
To lift their blessing hands in Flora’s bowers,
Nor e’en to scorn the bindweed’s flossy gold,
Nor foxglove’s banner hung with purple flowers,
Nor solitary heath that cheers the wold,
Nor the last daisy shivering in November’s cold!