Rat Poison

An Odd Case

He had arrived at the spot where the narrow country lane forked, with one lane taking the traveller over by the edge of the old granite quarry and the other lane taking you past the ‘Fairy Tree’. ‘Banjo’ decided that he should rest for a moment, for the late summer sun was shedding its burnt-gold light over the land. The coming of the evening made the shadows lengthen, and a cold breeze had begun to get stronger, causing the blanket wrapped around the load on his shoulders to flap noisily. He lifted this load down from his shoulders and placed it rather gently in the middle of the lane before he reached into the pocket of his jacket to retrieve his cigarettes and ‘Zippo’ lighter. Using his jacket to protect the lighter from the breeze, he lit one of the cigarettes and began to smoke it as he started to consider what he going to do now.

His wife, Bernie, had devised the plan and she had told ‘Banjo’ to take the lane that led to the edge of the old quarry. At the bottom of this quarry, there was a lake of water that had accumulated and was estimated to be at least forty-feet in depth. But as his cigarette burned closer to the filter-tip he had come to a decision about what he should do. ‘Banjo’ flicked the butt away and replaced the load back over his shoulder and took the lane leading past the‘Fairy Tree’. At its beginning, this old country track wound its way uphill and the rain of recent days had caused it to be slippery under-foot. With the weight on his shoulders, he struggled along this pathway, muttering all sorts of curses under his breath, until the track became level again as it passed the old chapel and churchyard of St. Joseph. At this point, he stopped and again took his load from his shoulders.

The final light of evening was beginning to die and small ‘Pipistrelle Bats’ flittered in the air above him and close to the lichen-covered stones of the chapel’s aged walls. He took a moment to himself to scan the hillside, but he could see no person approaching, or hear anything other than the breeze and the flittering of bat-wings. Opening the rusting, iron gate ‘Banjo’ walked slowly into the churchyard and up to a tomb that stood on the east side of the chapel. The stone covering the tomb was itself covered in dark green moss, and the carvings that had once been such an attractive feature had almost vanished through the erosion by wind and rain. Retrieving the blanket-wrapped load that he had been carrying, ‘Banjo’ gently set it on the covering stone and quickly left the churchyard.

When he arrived back home, he found Bernie was waiting there for him. Walking through the front door of the house, ‘Banjo’ went straight into the kitchen and sat down at the table where his wife was already seated. “Is it done?” she asked quietly. “Have you done what I asked you?”

Not exactly,” he replied as he took off his jacket and hung it on the back of a chair. “I decided it would be better to leave him at St. Joseph’s churchyard and he will be found there in the morning when the priest comes to open the place for early Mass. Sure, that gives you plenty of time to make your escape.

Dear God!” she exclaimed in shock and thumped the table heavily with her fists. “Are you really this stupid, or were you born an eejit without a drop of sense in your brain.

Watch your mouth, Bernie. It is not me who has done the stupid thing!

But, what have you done to me? I hate you!” she screamed at ‘Banjo’ and ran into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her loudly. It was only a few moments later when Bernie came out of the bedroom again and she was hurriedly putting on her overcoat. Still making herself ready, Bernie rushed out of the front door of the house and began to make her way toward the nearby village.

‘Banjo’ fed the pig, which was grunting outside the rear door of the cottage, and then he went to gather some turf for the fire. As he disturbed a reek of turf a large black rat jumped out from its shelter among the blocks and scampered away. At the kitchen sink, he washed his hands and began to look around to ensure the kitchen was clean. He need not have worried, for Bernie was a house-proud woman who liked to leave everything clean and tidy. The fire in the stove, however, had almost gone out and his wife had prepared nothing for him to eat. So, stoking up the stove’s fire, ‘Banjo’ found all the food he needed in the cupboards and he began to make himself a decent supper.

After eating his meal, ‘Banjo’ continued to sit at the table and wait for whatever would happen next. One hour went by slowly, followed by another, and then he heard a car speeding up the lane and pulling up outside the front door of the cottage. ‘Banjo’ looked out the side window and saw that a police car had parked and in the back seat was his wife with her head in her hands. He opened the door and gave access to a stoutly built police sergeant and a quite youthful looking constable. They walked into the cottage and made their way to the kitchen table, where ‘Banjo’ was already seated, smoking a cigarette. “Well, sergeant, is my wife going to join us anytime soon? I have made her some food, but it’s gotten cold by now.”

On a white porcelain dinner plate lay a cold fried egg, a small pile of cold chips, and a portion of garden peas. “Bernie has told us everything ‘Banjo’,” the sergeant told him quietly and in a very matter-of-fact way. The sergeant sat down on a chair opposite the one occupied by ‘Banjo’. The young constable then moved toward the kitchen door to block any attempt that ‘Banjo’ might make to escape justice.

Bernie says that you killed Jimmy Shevlin because you were jealous of him. She told us that you bashed him over the head with a turf spade, splitting the poor man’s skull.”

‘Banjo’ took a deep drag of his cigarette and exhaled a large bluish cloud of smoke at the sergeant. “Well, so she has told you a story and I suppose there is no point in trying to tell you what really happened?” asked ‘Banjo’. “Will my word be any good against a good-looking woman like her? I could tell you that she and Jimmy were having an affair, but he had had enough and was ready to leave her. Bernie, however, was not ready to call it a day and lost her mind. When I arrived home, poor Jimmy was lying on the floor, just over there.”‘Banjo’ pointed directly at the spot, which was close to the feet of the young constable, who, somewhat surprised by this, he chose to take a hurried step back from the crime scene.

Ah, sure, don’t be afraid son,”‘Banjo’ smiled at the constable, “Bernie always cleans up well after her.

But it was you who took the corpse,” said the police sergeant.

Yes, I did take away the corpse. She wanted me to dump it into the old quarry, where it would never be found. But that was not the right thing to do, because I thought his family would need to have closure and the body of a beloved son to bury. When Bernie realised that the body would be found, however, she ran like a scalded cat to your police station in the village. She wanted to get her story on the record first and I, her fool of a husband, is seen by everyone as the guilty person.”

Bernie says that she was going to leave you for Jimmy, and you completely lost your head,” the sergeant told him. “In my experience, it is not in the nature of a woman to take such violent action against a man. So, I think it’s time you got your jacket on and we will all go back to the police station.

In the clothes of a remand prisoner and handcuffed to a prison guard, Banjo’s appearance to hear the charges against him was televised on the national news. Meanwhile, Bernie sat at home and watched her husband being led into the courthouse. But, as she watched her television, she felt something trickle from her nose, and a drop of blood splashed upon the vinyl table-cloth. Taking a tissue, she went to the nearest mirror and proceeded to clean the blood from her nose. She could, however, taste the blood in her mouth by this time and she spat out a deep-red coloured saliva into the tissue.

Bernie’s body began to weaken further as the day passed until she eventually had to take to her bed. Her mother rang for the doctor to come and when he arrived, sometime later, he found Bernie pale and virtually unconscious. The doctor knew immediately that nothing could be done for the woman and arrangements were quickly made.

The next morning the sergeant was called to the cottage, but word of Bernie’s sudden death had already spread through the parish. The doctor and the sergeant sat in the kitchen and began to discuss what might have caused Bernie’s death. “I think this was poison,” the doctor revealed quietly.

Self-administered or not?

The doctor simply shrugged his shoulders and explained, “Well, it wasn’t taken recently, for Rat poison takes a long time to kill someone. A week, even two weeks would be required. If ‘Banjo’ did kill Jimmy Shevlin, then he might have thought to himself that he should get both at the same time.”

The sergeant shook his head, “If he had tried to shove that stuff down her throat, she would certainly have told me.

But he wouldn’t have needed to force her to take it,” the doctor pointed out. “That stuff is easily dissolved in tea and it is sweet to the taste. I tell you, sergeant, my money is on ‘Banjo’ doing the job, but you will have the devil of a job proving it. Bernie was a very house-proud woman and has probably cleaned this kitchen every day since ‘Banjo’ has been gone.

’Banjo’ was smiling that first time we interviewed him, and, by God, he could be smiling again, very soon,” sighed the sergeant.

Banshee

The Keening Spirit

We Irish have the reputation of being very superstitious, but it is rather an exaggerated view. The truth is that we are no more superstitious than the country people of England, France, or Germany. In fact, it has been my experience that the people of the Scottish Highlands are much more attached to their superstitious beliefs and legends. What is unique about the Irish imagination is, however, that it is so vibrant that they can give Ireland’s legends an individuality that I have not found in the tales, myths and superstitions of most other peoples. Perhaps, it is our command of language that allows us to present the creatures of Irish imagination in a way that makes them appear to be so real and so original that they can become very startling to the imagination of others. The creatures born from within the Irish imagination, are often humorous, sometimes grotesque, and are regularly awe-inspiring and wonderful. In my mind the most fascinating creature of Irish legend is the weirdly-wailing Banshee, that sings her mournful cry at night, giving the family she attends a warning that one of their members is soon summoned into the world of spirits. This most dreaded spirit is called different things by different scholars of folklore, including the ‘Female Fairy’, the ‘Woman of Peace’, the ‘Lady of Death’, the ‘Angel of Death’, the ‘White Lady of Sorrow’, the ‘Nymph of the Air’, and the ‘Spirit of the Air’.

The ‘Banshee’ is quite different from the ‘Fear-shee’ or ‘Shifra’, (the Man of Peace), which brings good news and sings in a joyful mood near the house when unexpected good fortune is about to befall any or all members of the family. The Banshee, however, is really a disembodied soul of a person who, when alive was strongly attached to the family, or who had good reason to distrust and dislike its members. The Banshee’s song, therefore, may be different under different circumstances and can be inspired by opposite motives. For example, when the Banshee loves those whom she calls, the song is a low, soft chant. She is, of course, giving notice that the angel of death is near, but she is doing so with a tenderness of tone that will help reassure the one destined to die and comfort those who are left to mourn. It is more a welcome than a warning, and because its tones a are filled with celebration, it is as if the messenger spirit is bringing good news to the dying that he has been summoned to join those ancestors who are awaiting him. But, when she was alive, if the Banshee was an enemy of the family, her cry will be the scream of a fiend, howling in diabolical delight at the forthcoming death of another of her foes.

In some parts of Ireland there still exists a belief that the spirits of the dead are not taken from this world to another, and that they do not lose all their former earthly interests. It is thought that they enjoy the happiness of the saved, or endure the punishment imposed upon them for their sins, in the places where they lived while they had bodies of flesh and blood. At those times when people encounter certain problems, these disembodied spirits will display their joy or grief in a way that attracts the attention of living men and women. At weddings, for example, they are frequently unseen guests. At funerals they are always present, and sometimes, at both weddings and funerals, their presence is recognized by aerial voices or mysterious music which is almost of unearthly origin.

We believe that the good spirits wander with the living as their guardian angels, but the evil spirits restrained in their actions, and are compelled to do penance at or near the places where they carried out their bad deeds. Some are chained at the bottoms of the lakes, others are buried under ground, while others are confined in the mountain gorges. There are some that hang on the sides of precipices, while others are transfixed on the tree-tops, and others are left to haunt the homes of their ancestors, but all are waiting until their penance has been fulfilled and the hour of their release finally arrives. In County Antrim, the Castle of Dunseverick, is believed to be still haunted by the spirit of a chief, who is confined there to atone for a terrible crime he committed. Meanwhile, while the castles of Dunluce, of Magrath, and many others are similarly haunted by the spirits of the wicked dead. In the Abbey of Clare, the ghost of a sinful abbot walks and will continue to do so until his sin has been atoned for by the prayers that he unceasingly mutters in his tireless march up and down the aisles of the ruined nave.

As we have seen, the Banshee is one of those spirits who look with interest upon earthly things. They are deeply attached to the old families, or else regard all the family members with a strong hatred, and lingers about their homes to soften, or aggravate, the sorrow of the approaching death. The Banshee attends only the old leading families of Ireland, and although the descendants of those families may be brought down from their high position to the ranks of common people, through misfortune, she never leaves nor forgets them until the last member has been gathered to his ancestors in the churchyard. The MacCarthys, Magraths, O’Neills, O’Rileys, O’Sullivans, O’Reardons, O’Flahertys, and almost all the other old leading families of Ireland, have Banshees, though many representatives of these names are now in abject poverty. The song of the Banshee is commonly heard a day or two before the death of which it gives notice, although instances have been recorded of the Banshee’s song being heard at the beginning of an illness, or a course of conduct, which would result in death fatally. There is a story of a young girl who was engaged to a young man, and the moment she accepted his offer of marriage, they both heard the low, sad wail coming from above their heads. Later, the young man would desert her, she would die of a broken heart, and the night before she died, the Banshee’s song was heard, loud and clear, outside the window of her mother’s cottage. Another story records that one of the O’Flahertys, of Galway, marched out of his castle with his men on a raid, and, as his troops filed through the gateway, the Banshee was heard high above the walls of the fortress. The next night she sang again, and was heard no more for a month, at which time his wife heard the wail under her window, and on the following day his followers brought back his dead body. It is said that one of the O’Neills of Shane Castle, in Antrim, as he started out on a journey before daybreak, heard the Banshee’s cry and was accidentally killed some time after, while he was on that same journey.

Although the Banshee’s wail comes most frequently at night, there have been cases are reported of Banshees singing during the daytime, the song being often unheard by any person but the one for whom the warning is intended. This, however, is not usually the case since the notice of a death is meant for the family rather than just for the doomed individual. The Banshee is generally alone when delivering notice to a family, but on rare occasions it has been recorded that several banshees are heard singing in chorus. A lady of the O’Flaherty family, who was greatly loved by all for her social qualities, kindness, and piety, was taken ill at the family mansion near Galway. Nobody was overly concerned about the lady making a full recovery, as her illness seemed to be no more severe than a slight cold. But, after she had been lying in her bed for a day or two, several of her friends came to visit and cheer her up. Then, as the small group of friends were chatting merrily, strange sounds were heard, causing them all to tremble with fear and to turn pale as they recognized the singing from a chorus of Banshees. The lady’s illness developed into pleurisy, from which she passed away only a few days later and sweet, plaintive chorus was heard again as the spirit departed from her body. It is a great honour to be warned by more than one Banshee, and only comes to the purest of the pure.

The “Avenging Banshee” is a spirit that is greatly dreaded by members of a family against which she seeks revenge, and one noble Irish family, that I shall not name, is attended by a one of this type of Banshee. This Banshee, it is reported, is the spirit of a young girl who was deceived and afterwards murdered by a former head of this family. But, with her dying breath, she cursed her murderer and promised him that she would stay with him and his family forever. Many years passed, and the chieftain reformed his ways and the crime of his youth was almost forgotten, even by himself. Then, one night, he and his family were sitting by a huge fire when, suddenly, the most terrifying shrieks were heard outside the castle walls. They all ran out into the courtyard but could see nothing. During the night, however, the screams continued as though the castle was being besieged by demons, and the chieftain began to recognise, in the cry of the Banshee, the voice of the young girl he had murdered. The next night, the chieftain was assassinated by one of his followers, and again the wild, unearthly screams of the spirit were heard in celebration over the man’s fate. Since that night, this “Avenging Banshee” has never failed to notify the family, with shrill and happy cries of revenge, when the end-time for one of their number has arrived.

Banshees are not often seen, but those that have made themselves visible differ as much in personal appearance as in the character of their cries. The “Friendly Banshee” is usually a young and beautiful female spirit, with pale face, regular, well-formed features, hair sometimes coal-black, sometimes golden, with blue, brown, or black eyes. Her long, white clothing falls below her feet as she floats in the air, chanting her weird warning, and lifting her hands as if in tender pity, she was praying for the soul she has summoned. The “Avenging Banshee”, however, is a horrible hag, with angry and distorted features. They say that evil can be seen in every line of her wrinkled face, and her arms to call down every possible curse on the doomed member of that hated family.

Usually the only sign of a Banshee’s presence her cry, though a notable exception to this is found when it comes the O’Reardon family. The doomed member of this family is always notified of their death by a Banshee that appears in the shape of an exceedingly beautiful woman, and she sings a song so sweet and solemn as if to reconcile him to his approaching fate.

Though the Banshee does not follow members of a family that go to a foreign land, but if they die when abroad, she will give notice of the death to those who remain at home. It is said that when the Duke of Wellington died, a Banshee was heard wailing round the house of his ancestors, and during his campaigns against Napoleon, she frequently notified Irish families of the death in battle of Irish officers and soldiers. Furthermore, on the eve of the ‘Battle of the Boyne’ several Banshees were said to have been heard, singing in the air over the Irish camp, the truth of their prophecy being shown in the names of those who died the next day. How the Banshee obtains early and accurate information from foreign parts of the death in battle of Irish soldiers is yet unknown among those who study such things. One theory is that there exist, in addition to the two kinds already mentioned above, “Silent Banshees,” who attend members of old families, one to each member. It is thought that these silent spirits follow, watch, and bring back information to the family Banshee in Ireland, who then sings her sad refrain. The basis for such a theory derives from the fact that the Banshee has given notice at the family home in Ireland of those who have died in various battles fought in every part of the world. From every place where Irish regiments followed the call of British war drums, news of the prospective deaths of Irishmen has been brought home, each of which was preceded by the Banshee’s wail outside the ancestral home.

Among folklorists in Ireland this theory of the existence of the ‘Silent Banshee’ not widely accepted or well received. Going by the evidence that we have to date there are only two kinds of Banshee, and that, through supernatural means, they have knowledge of the immediate future of those in whom they are interested. At one time it was considered blasphemy to doubt the existence of the ‘Wild Banshee’ that was once alleged to have been heard in every part of Ireland. Now, in these modern times, it is recognised that the Banshee attends only the old families of Ireland and does not change to the new. The truth of this can be seen in the fact that with the disappearance of many old noble Irish names over the centuries so their Banshees appear to have gone. It seems to be in only a few remote districts in the West and North of Ireland that this dread spirit is still to be found, while in most other parts of this island the Banshee has become only a superstition. From being held with great respect and fear, this death-warning angel, has quickly sank to the level of the Fairy, the Leprechaun and the Pooka, which have become the subject for stories to amuse and terrify both the idle and the young.

A Mission of Mercy

In the early morning chill of that frost-filled winter’s morning a horse approached the large gate of the monastery, and on its back sat the figure of a man wearing a long, grey coat and a soft black hat. As soon as he reached the monastery gate the man dismounted and made his way to the smaller visitor entrance where he rang a large iron bell that hung at the side of the heavy oaken door. The bell tolled loudly in the morning stillness, and the stranger stood back for a moment to await the door being opened to him. As expected, the man did not have to wait long before he heard the loud clatter of a monk’s sandals on the stone floor as he approached the ‘Strangers’ Door’ to answer the call of the bell. He pulled strongly on the heavy iron bar that secured the oak door and it slowly creaked open to reveal the person who had rang.

Frosty Morning

The monk who opened the ‘Strangers’ Door’ was a small, portly looking man dressed in a habit of rough brown cloth, with a white rope girdle tied loosely around his expansive waist. From this rope belt was hung a large, highly polished, wooden rosary that was made from large beads. With great courtesy the stranger removed the hat from his head, and he began to fidget with it nervously as he introduced himself. Having done this, the stranger began to relate the reason for his visit to the monastery and the message with which he had been entrusted. In a quiet and nervous voice, he explained that that the friar who had been assigned to attend the sick was needed immediately by a patient that lived in the hill country, who had taken to his bed with a strange and severe illness.

The stranger told the monk that, although the local womenfolk had attended to the young patient with a variety of charms, ‘magic’ potions, and natural remedies, there had been none that had relieved his sickness. The monk was also informed that the young man had already grown very weak and that there was now a great deal of concern that the poor boy might not survive the night. As a last desperate gamble to save their son, the boy’s parents had sent this man with their appeal to the medical friar that he come and place his holy and healing hands over their son, Ciaran Horan.

With his message given, the stranger followed the monk in to see the medical friar and he explained to him just how the young man’s home could best be reached. There was no need for further explanation and within thirty minutes the friar was ready to take up his journey, and he turned to me and asked me if I would go with them. In those days it was unusual for an ordinary labourer to accompany a friar on a mission of mercy, but this friar had been born and reared in England. He had been sent to our part of the world from an associate monastery in Yorkshire and couldn’t speak a word of Irish, which was, of course, the first language for most people in this particular part of Ireland. It would be my task, therefore, on this mission of mercy to act as an interpreter because I could speak English almost as fluently as my native tongue.

We mounted our horses and rode off along the narrow country track that brought us past the lake, over the surface of which a light mist was beginning to form on that still, frosty morning. I was in the rear of the group as we passed the lake and entered a lightly wooded forest where, at the far end of it, we joined the road that would lead us straight into the hill country.

As we progressed along this road, we could see the rich arable land on both sides of the road slowly change to grey, barren, grazing land that was fit only for the raising of sheep and goats. We rode on a few miles further and the land began to turn into wild moorland and bog, coloured by the furze, heather, and bracken. The chill wind that had been blowing earlier was now still again and the sheep were lying down, with the weight of their heavy fleeces about them. The branches of the trees did not stir at all and their outlines against the pale sky appeared to be so many skeleton arms reaching up towards heaven. For the first time on this journey I was beginning to feel uneasy as we made our way through a wide network of dry-stone walls that marked the boundaries of absurdly small fields, which were all the land a family had to sustain it. Then, on a distant hillside, I saw the figure of a shepherd rise up on his feet with a crook in his hand, like some ancient prophet from the books of the ‘Old Testament’. But this ‘old testament prophet’ vanished just as quickly as he had disappeared.

The Friar

The morning had moved on to afternoon and was approaching evening. The light of day was fading and everywhere began to change tone as the scenery began to reflect the watery red sun that was setting in the west as we rode on in the silence that surrounded us. Here and there stood small stone cabins skirting the road along which we were travelling, and among those poor homes some of the residents could be seen moving around. When these people saw the friar riding past an occasional bare-footed woman would hurriedly curtsey, ensuring that her shawl covered her head. The children who were playing boisterously around the bleak stone cabins suddenly stopped and ran back into their houses at the sight of we three men on the road, popping their mop-haired heads above the half-door, and their smiling faces and sparkling eyes followed us as we went forward along the road.

The people we passed shouted out greetings to us in Irish as we rode past, but their salutations were worded as blessings for the journey that we had left to complete. Whenever we came to a stop, just for a moment or two, a small crowd of local people would gather around us, peering up at the tall friar from under their black, broad-brimmed hats with faces that had been tanned naturally by the wind and rain that is so common in the hill country. When the friar spoke to them, the crowd would turn to each other wondering what he had said. It was at these times that I would break into the conversation and repeat what the friar had said to the crowd, in Irish.

So, your reverence, it’s Ciaran Horan’s wee house that you’re going to?

It is,” I replied on the friar’s behalf.

Is his reverence going to be reading the words of the holy book over the poor boy?” one of the local men asked me.

He will, of course,” I confirmed.

Aye. The Horan’s will be expecting you, then?

Of course, they are,” I answered him. “sure, they were the ones that sent for us to come to the boy’s aid.

The man shook his head sorrowfully, saying, “We heard the poor boy was feeling pretty low and that a type of strangeness had come over him. Would that be right?

I didn’t want to say too much to the man and, instead of answering his question, I asked him, “Is the Horan home far from here?

No. It’s not that far away. Just you follow the road there, keeping the big, ivy covered, demesne wall to your right. Then, after a while, you will come to a wee stream that you will cross, and you will find a narrow boreen on your right as you come to the end of the wall. Go past that boreen and to the west you will see two large poplar trees, and beyond them you will come to another narrow track. You should take that track but be careful of the thorn hedges on each side of the boreen because they will cut your clothes and skin in the darkness. It would be better to ride your horses in line rather than side-by-side to prevent damage to yourselves. As you go along this boreen you will come to a shallow river that flows over a stone-covered bed, which will allow you all to ford the obstacle with your horses quite easily. Now, do you think you will remember all that I have told you?

Yes, and thank you very much for your help,” I replied politely.

Well, that’s a good thing,” said the man. “Now, listen carefully, for once you are across the ford at the end of the boreen, you go up to the Horan house by way of the back meadow and you will see a light shining in the north. If you give a loud call, Old Paddy Reilly will come out to you and lead your horses by the head to the house where Ciaran Horan is lying in his sick bed, God help him. Ah, sure, Ciaran’s a fine young man and a greater player of the tin whistle you have never heard. You should be off now, may God be with you all, and don’t forget to keep a keen watch out for the poplar trees.

We will,” I told him and wished him farewell on behalf of the party. As we rode onward my mind was busy trying to recall the details of the journey the man had laid out for us to Horan’s house. As directed, we rode alongside the ivy-covered wall of the demesne, across the stream, the passage, the boreens, until we finally came to the two poplar trees that stood like mighty sentinels in the rapidly reducing light. The entire land was being covered by a rapidly spreading darkness, and the clear star-filled sky above us warned of an upcoming severe frost on its way.

One-by-one, in single file, we moved through the boreen with some anxiety caused by the darkness we encountered. When we reached the end of the track we came to the shallow river, just as we had been told that we would. But despite the stone-covered riverbed, my horse needed a little touch of persuasion to enter the cold water. As we began to cross, however, we discovered that the water reached well above the fetlocks of our horses, and they splashed loudly in the slow-moving flow of water. Then, when we reached the opposite bank,      we saw the light in the north, as we had been told we would, shining in the night. As requested, I gave a loud call and we waited for Paddy Reilly to arrive. The friar had a hearty laugh at my efforts to gain Paddy’s attention, but within minutes a tall, well-built man approached us out of the darkness. It was Reilly himself and he took hold of the horses by their heads before leading them and us across the back meadow toward that light that shone brightly in the north.

Outside the long, low, thatched cabin stood a crowd of men smoking pipes and busily talking among themselves, creating a loud mumbling noise. The door to the house stood open and there were lights shining from all the windows. As we dismounted from our horses none of the men at the front of the house came to greet us but continued talking among themselves. They looked at us with cold stares and made us feel uncomfortable as strangers intruding on local business. But it was their evident discomfort at our presence that made us anxious until a voice asked, “Will you not be going into the house to see young Ciaran?” Reilly asked the friar and I translated for him. “Now, there’s no need to be worrying about these horses, for I will take good care of them for you. I will brush them down, feed them,” Paddy assured us and walked off with the horses.

As we walked to the open door of the house the men saluted the friar as was their custom and the friar, unsure of what they were going to say to him, made sure that I was by his side when we entered the cottage. From the doorway I led the way into the kitchen where two women were standing respectfully a good distance from the door, their faces looking a little anxious and fearful. Their eyes seemed to be glued to the friar and it seemed they were waiting for the arrival of a magician through the door to the kitchen. They made a little curtsey to the friar, which was more like a quick jerk of their bodies rather than a graceful movement of their female form. There was no other person in the kitchen but these two women, silently demonstrating the power that matriarchs hold in an Irish home at a time of crisis. They were, without doubt, in command of all things when a life had to be cared for. The menfolk, at these times, are usually relegated to being outside of the home and out of site. The older of the two women now came forward and welcomed the friar to her home in Irish.

At first, there appeared to be some slight misunderstanding between the woman and the friar, which I did not quite catch in time to parry, although I was interpreter to both parties. The friar, fair play to him, was well used to handling such little embarrassing moments with his bright, friendly smile that quickly thawed the icy formality that had arisen. The two women seemed to be relieved at that moment, for they had not expected him to say anything, and now they no longer concerned themselves about any appearance of being considered somewhat inferior. The friar had a natural warmth about him, and he possessed a talent for putting others at their ease in his presence. Perhaps, this was due to him being from peasant stock himself. Softly smiling, the elder of the two women led the priest into the room where Ciaran lay on his sickbed.

As the priest left the kitchen area, the younger woman placed a chair in front of the kitchen fire and invited me to sit on it. As I sat there, warming myself, I could hear the woman’s feet quickly and quietly shuffling about the floor, causing her clothing to swish as she began to undertake a variety of tasks. Then, she came over to where I was sitting and offered me a glass that contained a liquid which looked like slightly discoloured water. Despite my misgivings about this drink, the woman inspired a certain confidence within me, and I accepted the glass from her hands and began to drink the liquid it contained. There was a slight taste of peat left in my mouth, but the liquid passed smoothly down my throat, spreading a comforting warmth through my body, and I knew immediately that the liquid was poteen. As I drank, I noticed that standing to the side, and in the shadow, a young woman stood with her fair face illuminated by the yellow-red flames coming from the turf fire. Although she was standing quietly you could not fail to recognise the tension in her body as she kept alert to any movement from the sickroom.

The door to the room was slightly open and I could hear the low, soft murmur of the priest’s voice as he recited the litany of prayers in Latin. The young woman sighed loudly and made the sign of the cross before she took another chair from the table and sat herself down beside me.

My brother is very low,” she said in quiet, genteel voice.

Has he been ill for a long time?” I asked.

Aye, sure the poor boy has been ailing for a while, God love him,” she said. “But to look at him you would have thought he was as sound as a young bull heifer. At first, he became moody and just wanted to be left alone and he would spend hours down at the bottom of the meadow sitting under the ‘Fairy Thorn’ by the river, playing his tin whistle. Then he began to lose the use of his arms and legs, and he began to cry bitterly for no apparent reason. There were people who warned the family that the boy had been brought under some kind of strange influence, then he lost the power to speak. Surely, the holy friar will know the cause and what needs to be done to make him well again.

When the friar came out of the room, he was already removing the purple stole from around his neck. Just behind him walked the older woman with the excitement dancing across her face. “Ciaran spoke,” she announced to us all. “He looked up at his reverence and tried to bless himself. But I couldn’t hear what the poor boy was saying because his voice was so weak, but he definitely did speak.

Don’t be worrying yourself,” the younger woman replied, “Ciaran will live.” Her voice betrayed some of the excitement expressed by the mother, whose eyes were now fixed upon the priest and he quickly became of aware of her steady gaze. Although the woman’s gaze made him feel somewhat uneasy, the friar was more amused than frightened.

Just as I was watching all these events occur, I heard some loud shuffling of feet coming from outside the house, which reminded me of the bustle made by a herd of animals as they approached. The door creaked open and with a certain uneasiness I turned my eyes in that direction, but nothing appeared at the door, which confused me. Although nothing appeared, however, I kept a close watch on the door for some time. My alertness was rewarded by the sight of a cluster of heads and shoulders that belonged to men with weather beaten faces, all of which bore anxious expressions. They stood in the doorway, peering down at the priest who was now seated next to me at the fireside. It suddenly became clear to me that these eager faces were half-hoping that the legendary magic of a priest would conjure up some form of apparition for them. Then, this set of heads and shoulders were quickly replaced by a different grouping, all eagerly wanting to see into the house. The mother now turned to the friar and quietly asked him, “Do you think that Ciaran will live, Father?

The Sick Bed

We should all have courage,” the friar told her quietly.

Sure, we will all get a bit more courage now that you have read the prayers over him, Father

Just you keep that faith, Mrs. Horan,” the friar smiled. “It’s all in the hands of God now and, if it’s his will, all will be well again.

The bedroom door opened, and the daughter came out with an expression of immense joy etched on her face. “Ciaran’s going to live!” she announced loudly to all who were present. “He has just spoken to me!

Could you hear what he was saying?” the mother asked.

Indeed, I could hear it all. The boy told me clearly that in the month of April, when the water runs clear again in the river, I will be playing my tin whistle once more!

When the river has clear water again, then he will be playing his tin whistle again?” the mother questioned. “Sure, him and that old tin whistle of his would put years on a person!

The friar had now risen from his seat and was beginning to make his way toward the door, and I decided to follow him. But even as I followed him, I was able to catch a glimpse of the patient through the partly open bedroom door. On a crisp, white pillowcase lay the long, pallid, and anxious looking face of a young man. I noticed a light reflecting off his brow, and his eyes had an unnaturally bright shiny appearance around them. My mind began to wander as I looked at Ciaran Horan, because it seemed to me that he had the face of a teacher. I also began to think that, perhaps, his vision of playing his tin whistle by the river was just his vision of heaven on earth.

As we exited from the cottage, Paddy Reilly was already harnessing the horses in the sulphurous yellow light of the stable lantern. As we began to mount our horses the groups of men who had been standing outside the cottage began to shuffle toward us. Several of them broke the silence by speaking cordially to us and thanking us for coming. In those few minutes there was more said about young Ciaran than was said all night up to that point. We leaned enough about the young man that we began to suspect that he may have been brought under the influence of the ‘Good People.’ As we talked there was a sense of mystery and ill-omen that began to fill my very being. All the dark figures of those men standing about that lonely house mourning the loss of this tin whistle player affected me. But very soon they would hear the joyous news and would be able to depart happily as the grass beneath their feet sparkled with the heavy frost that was falling over the hill country.

JW

Baron of Sluggan

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 tales to the three soldiers, sung them songs, and, by his good-humour and love of fun, very much enlivened their stay at Sluggan. He was 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 not 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 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!

“Call myself?”

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 Wake at Big Peter’s.

Celebrating a Man’s Life

Poor Sean Maguire died, just as Mr. Roche suspected he would, and the gold and the notes were found quilted into his wretched clothing. A search was then made for any of his relatives from in and about Moneygeran. in the West of the County, where his mother was known to have lived. Meanwhile, as much was taken from the hoard by ‘Big Peter’, in whose premises he died, as was necessary to buy a shroud and coffin, and some pipes, and tobacco, and snuff. Sheets were hung up in a corner of the barn, and the poor corpse was shaved and washed, and provided with a clean shirt, before he was laid on a table in the same corner and covered with a sheet.

Two or three large, roughly coloured wood prints of devout subjects were pinned on the sheets, and candlesticks, trimmed with coloured paper and furnished with candles, were provided. One or two persons relieved each other during daylight, to keep watch and ward off any evil. Of course, any poor neighbour who was cursed with a taste for tobacco smoke was only too ready for this duty, but the approach of darkness brought company enough, more indeed than were benefitted by the social duty.

The brave old patriarch Peter rested comfortably in his own chair and was talking intently to two or three of his neighbours, as old as himself, on the old chronicles of Castleton. We had paid little attention to his legends and tales, and we are now sorry enough for our inattention. On this occasion the hero of his story was a certain Squire Heaton, who, it appears, was the possessor of the Castleton demesne in some former age, and a terrible blackguard he must have been. He was employed in some fierce argument or other with his neighbours or tenants, we cannot now remember which, about a certain common, overgrown with furze bushes. It was, in fact, a large hill, which gave shelter to hundreds of hares and rabbits, and as the Squire would not give way to the demand made on him about the hill, the party collected and set fire to it on a fine summer evening.

The Wake

Big Peter described, in a most graphic manner, the effect of the fire seen from the country round and about, all the poor hares and rabbits running for their lives, with their fur all scorched, and their eyes nearly burned out of their heads, and themselves falling into the hands of the crowds that kept watch at the edge of the burning mass. This reminiscence drew on others connected with matters that had taken place before the Rebellion, and while everyone was so engaged Eddie, Brian, and Charlie entered the room, reverently uncovering their heads, and reciting the ‘De Profundis’, verse and response. At the end they put their hats back on their heads and approached the elderly group.

A granddaughter of Peter’s and Mrs O’Brien’s servant girl, Joanna, a rattling young girl, came in with them, and after the psalm joined the ‘Big Peter’s’ womenfolk in the house, who occupied seats near the table. The older people, not willing to lose any of their usual hours of rest, began to leave, after having nearly exhausted all the interesting topics of the locality. But it was not long until a considerable amount of more lively conversation, of more interest to the younger portion of the company, began to develop itself among the various groups, two or three of the chief families keeping together near the table, as has been said.

At last a request came from a young woman in this group to Mr. Edmond, that he would entertain them with a song. Never being a man that was troubled with bashfulness, he immediately agreed, merely asking one of the little boys to bring a young cat from the kitchen to walk down his throat and clear away the cobwebs. He warned his audience that his song was useful to anyone thinking of paying a visit to the sites of Dublin.

” THE CONNAUGHT MAN AT THE REVIEW.

” With a neat house and garden, I live at my ease,

But all worldly pleasures my mind cannot please.

To friends and to neighbours I bid them adieu,

And I pegged off to Dublin to see the review.

Chorus Laddly, ta ral lal, ta ral lal, lee.

” With trembling expectations, to the town I advanced,

Till I met with a soup-maker’s cellar by chance,

Where I saw hogs’ puddings, cows’ heels, and fat tripes.

And that delicate sight

Chorus

” I stood in amaze, and I viewed them all o’er

The mistress espied me and came to her door.

‘ Step in, if you please, there is everything nice.

You shall have a good dinner at a reasonable price.’

Chorus

“I tumbled downstairs, and I took off my hat.

And immediately down by the fireside I sat.

In less than five minutes she brought me a plate

Overflowing with potatoes, white cabbage, and meat.

Chorus

” Says she, it was in Leitrim I was born and bred,

And can accommodate you to a very good bed.’

I thanked her, and straightway to bed I did fly,

Where I lay as snug as a pig in a sty.

Chorus

“In less than five minutes my sides they grew hard,

For every feather it measured a yard.

A regiment of black boys my poor corpse overspread,

And insisted they’d tumble me out of the bed.

Chorus

“I slept there all night until clear day-light,

And immediately called for my bill upon sight,

Says she, ‘as we both are come from the one town,

And besides old acquaintance, I’ll charge but a crown.’

Chorus.

” Oh, that is too much now, and conscience to boot;’

So, between she and I there arose a dispute.

To avoid the dispute, and to soon put an end,

She out for the police her daughter did send.

Chorus

“In the wink of an eye I was sorely confounded

To see my poor body so sadly surrounded.

I thought they were mayors, or peers of the land,

With their long coats, and drab capes, and guns in their hands.

Chorus

“‘Gentlemen,’ says I, ‘I’m a poor, honest man:

Before in my life I was never trepanned.’

‘ Come, me good fellow! Come pay for the whole,

Or else you will be the first man in the goal.’

Chorus

“I paid the demand, and I bid her adieu,

And was off to the Park for to see the review.

Where a soldier he gave me a rap of his gun,

And bid me run home, for the white eyes were done.

Chorus

“‘My good fella,’ says I, ‘had I you where I know,

I’d make you full Bore to repent of that blow.’

At the hearing of this, in a passion he flew,

And his long carving knife on me poor head he drew.

Chorus

There were three or four verses more, but the readers are probably content with the quantity furnished. There was clucking of tongues against palates at the mention of the roguish tricks of the Dublin dealers. But a carrier in company cleared the city-born folk of some of the bad reputation alleged by the song and pronounced country people who had made good their standing in Dublin for a few years, to be the greatest cheats in the kingdom.

Celebrating a Life

Mr. Edmond, having now a right to call someone up, summoned Joanna, the servant maid, previously mentioned, to show what she could do. Joanna, though very ready with her tongue at home, was at heart a modest girl, and fought hard to be let off. But one protested that she was a good singer, in right of a lark’s heel she had, but this was not the case, for Joanna had a neat foot. Another said that she was taught to sing by note when Tone, the dancing-master made his last round through the country, another said, that he heard herself and a young kid sing verse about one day when nobody was within hearing.

So, poor Joan, to get rid of the torment, asked what song they would like her to sing for them, and a dozen voices requested a love song about murder. So, after looking down, with a blushing face, for a while, she began with an unsteady voice, but she was soon under the influence of the subject and sung with a sweet voice one of these old English ballads, which we heard for the first time from a young woman of the Barony of Bardon, in the south.

There is another song on the same subject in some collection which we cannot at this remember at this moment. But Joanna’s version is evidently a faulty one. It has suffered from transmission through generations of negligent vocalists and now it is not easy to give it an original period of time.

“FAIR ELEANOR.

“‘Come, comb your head, Fair Eleanor,

And comb it on your knee,

And that you may look maiden-like

Till my return to thee.’

“”Tis hard for me to look maiden-like,

When maiden I am none:

Seven fair sons I’ve borne to thee,

And the eighth lies in my womb.’

”Seven long years were past and gone.

Fair Eleanor thought it long.

She went up into her bower,

With her silver cane in hand.

“She looked far, she looked near,

She looked upon the strand.

And it’s there she spied King William a-coming,

And his new bride by the hand.

“She then called up her seven sons,

By one, by two, by three.

‘ I wish that you were seven greyhounds,

This night to worry me! ‘

“‘Oh, say not so our mother dear,

But put on your golden pall,

And go and throw open your wide, wide gates,

And welcome the nobles all.’

” So, she threw off her gown of green.

She put on her golden pall,

She went and threw open her wide, wide gates,

And welcomed the nobles all.

” ‘ Oh, welcome, lady fair! ‘ she said.

‘ You’re welcome to your own.

And welcome be these nobles all

That come to wait on you home.’

” ‘ Oh, thankee, thankee, Fair Eleanor!

And many thanks to thee.

And if in this bower I do remain,

Great gifts I’ll bestow on thee.’

” She served them up, she served them down,

She served them all with wine,

But still she drank of the clear spring water,

To keep her colour fine.

“She served them up, she served them down.

She served them in the hall.

But still she wiped off the salt, salt tears,

As they from her did fall.

” Well bespoke the bride so gay,

As she sat in her chair—

‘And tell to me, King William,’ she said,

‘ Who is this maid so fair?

” ‘ Is she of your kith, ‘ she said,

‘ Or is she of your kin,

Or is she your comely housekeeper

That walks both out and in’

” ‘ She is not of my kith,’ he said,

‘ Nor is she of my kin.

But she is my comely housekeeper

That walks both out and in.’

‘\’ Who then was your father,’ she said,

‘ Or who then was your mother 1

Had you any sister dear,

Or had you any brother 1 ‘

” ‘ King Henry was my father,’ she said,

‘ Queen Margaret was my mother,

Matilda was my sister dear,

Lord Thomas was my brother.’

” ‘ King Henry was your father,’ she said,

Queen Margaret, your mother,

1 am your only sister dear.

And here’s Lord Thomas, our brother.

” ‘ Seven lofty ships I have at sea,

All filled with beaten gold.

Six of them I’ll leave with thee,

The seventh will bear me home.’ “

The usual interruptions arising from new visitors entering had occurred several times during these relaxations, with the last visitor being a young giant of a man called Tom Sweeney. He was a labourer on the farm of young Roche, and an admirer of the songstress of Fair Eleanor, who, if she returned his affection, took special care to conceal the fact from the eyes of their acquaintance. Tom was as naïve a young man as there was anywhere in the county, and Peter O’Brien called on him to give a song. But the young man could think of nothing else to sing but the lamentation of a young girl for the absence of her lover.

An Irish Wake

” THE SAILOR BOY.

“‘Oh, the sailing trade is a weary life.

It robs fair maids of their hearts’ delight,

Which causes me for to sigh and mourn,

For fear my true love will ne’er return.

“’The grass grows green upon yonder lea,

The leaves are budding from ev’ry spray,

The nightingale in her cage will sing

To welcome Willy home to crown the spring.

“’ I’ll build myself a little boat.

And o’er the ocean I mean to float:

From every French ship that do pass by,

I’ll inquire for Willy, that bold sailing boy.’

“She had not sailed a league past three

Till a fleet of French ships, she chanced to meet.

‘ Come tell me, sailors, and tell me true,

If my love Willy sails on board with you.’

“‘Indeed, fair maid, your love is not here,

But he is drowned by this we fear.

‘It was your green island that we passed by,

There we lost Willy, that bold sailing boy.’

“She wrung her hands and she tore her hair

Just like a lady that was in despair.

Against the rock her little boat she run—

‘How can I live, and my true love gone? ‘

“Nine months after, this maid was dead,

And this note found on her bed’s head.

How she was satisfied to end her life,

Because she was not a bold sailor’s wife.

“‘Dig my grave both large and deep,

Deck it over with lilies sweet,

And on my headstone cut a turtledove,

To signify that I died for love.’ “

It is probable that the sentiments of this ballad will not produce similar feelings in our readers. It was not the case with the younger portion of Tom’s audience, for he sung it with much feeling. He was, indeed, a sincere young fellow, besides being a lover.

It would be a little boring, except to those with an interest in such things, if I was to let you read many more of the songs which were sung there. If truth be told, there were few that could be distinguished by them possessing genuine poetry or good taste. The people who were there were not so lucky and had to hear “The sailor who courted a farmer’s daughter, that lived convenient to the Isle of Man.” That was followed by the merry song called “The Wedding of Ballyporeen,” which caused the audience to laugh loudly, although they had heard it many times heard before. Then there were popular tunes such as, “The Boy with the Brown Hair,” “The Red-haired Girl,” “Sheela na Guira,” and “The Cottage Maid.” Laments and Ballads about lost loves and promising romantic futures, which were popular and encouraged the audience to join in. But, at last, some of those gathered began to demonstrate by their manner and gestures, that they had heard enough sweet singing, and O’Brien, and Roche, and Redmond, were invited to get up  and perform the wake-house drama of ‘Old Dowd and his Daughters’, which would help them to hold out against the stale air in the room and the want of sleep.

The young men did not exhibit too good a sense of the moral fitness of things, since they were not normally disposed to vice, in private or in public. It was custom that influenced them to think that what was harmless at other times and in other places could be looked on as harmless at a wake. So, Charles at once assumed took his place as stage manager and assumed the role of Old Dowd with a daughter he needed to dispose of. He set the blushing and giggling Joanna on a chair beside him, Tom Sweeney, and two or three other young men on a bench at his other side, cleared an open space in front, procured a good stick for himself and each of his sons, and awaited the approach of the expected suitor.

O’Brien and Roche had gone out, and on their return were to be looked on, the first as the suitor, a caustic poet, who makes himself welcome at rich farmers’ houses by satirizing their neighbours, and the second as his horse, whose forelegs were represented by the man’s arms, and a stool firmly grasped in his hands. Roche’s election to this role was determined by his size and great strength. Finally, amid the most profound silence the performance of “Old Dowd and his Daughters” began—

OLD DOWD AND HIS DAUGHTERS.

[Present: Old Dowd, his marriageable daughter, Sheela, and his six sons. Enter poetic suitor, appropriately mounted. Father and sons eye the pair with much contempt.]

Old Dowd: Who is this, mounted on his old carthorse, coming to disturb us at this hour of the night? What kind of a tramp or traveller are you? for I don’t think we can give you a lodging, sir, and you must go on farther.

Suitor: I’m not an honest man, no more than you are yourself, you old sinner, and I don’t want a room. I’m seeking a cure for life’s troubles. In plain words, a wife who can be with me for the rest of my life on this earth. Are you lucky enough to be able to help me, for you won’t ever get another chance to make a more high-bred connection as myself? My grandfather owned seven townlands, and let more property slip through his fingers than the whole seed, breed, and generation of the Dowds possessed since Adam was a boy. Come on, are you ready for me?

Father of Bride: Aye, and what property have you got?

Suitor: A lawsuit that’s to be decided on day before Christmas Eve. If I gain it, I’ll get fifty acres of land on the side of the mountain at a pound an acre. If I lose, they can only put me in the jail. Come on, now, let us see the bride. But, first, as they used to say at the siege of Troy, let us know your breeding and bloodline.

Father. Here I am, Old Dowd, with his six sons. Himself makes seven, four more would be eleven, and hurrah, brave boys.”

At this point of the conference the patriarch flourished his stick, and aimed a few blows at the steed and rider, more, however, in courtesy than resentment. The suitor warded the strokes with some skill and gave a tap or two to his father-in-law elect. He at last setting his weapon upright and the argument ceased.

Father: Come now, I see that you are not altogether unworthy to enter the family of the Dowds. What’s your profession? How do you earn your bread? I won’t send out my dear Sheela to live on the neighbours.

Suitor: I’m a poet and live by the weaknesses of mankind.

Father: Och, what kind of trade is that? Your coat is white at the seams. Is that some sort of vest or is it a real shirt you have on you? How many meals a day do you get? Everyone knows the saying, ‘as poor as a poet’.

Suitor: Then I think three-quarters of the people about here must be in the same trade. If you were to be a father-in-law to me, then learn to be mannerly, Old Dowd. I scorn a vest, except when my old shirt is worn out, and my new one has not come from the seamstress, and if I could find an appetite, I might eat seven meals a day. I stop at a gentleman- farmer’s and repeat a few verses that I said for against a neighbour for his stinginess to one of the old-stock of the Muldoons, and a poet besides. And don’t myself and my steed live like fighting cocks, and the man of the house not daring to sneeze for fear of getting into a new a bad verse about himself. Is this my bride? Oh, the darling girl, I must make a verse in her praise off the top of my head, for if I was Homer, that noble poet, I’d sing your praises in verses sweet. Or Alexander, that bold commander, I’d lay my trophies down at your feet.”

“Venerable head of the Clan Dowd, my intended looks a little hot. I hope it wasn’t with the pot-rag she wiped her face this morning. Old Dowd, you’ll have to shell out something decent for soap. The young lady’s name is Sheela, you say. She’s not the same Miss Sheela, I hope! You know that Pat Cox, the shoemaker, was lately courting?

Father: You vagabond of a poet, do you think I’d demean the old kings of Leinster, my forefathers, by taking into my family a greasy shoemaker?

Suitor: I only asked a civil question. Pat met his darling one day, as she was binding after the reapers, and asked when she’d let him take her measure for a pair of new shoes. “No time like the present time,” says she, and off she kicked her right foot pump. Her nails were a trifle long and her lovely toes were peeping out through the worsted stockings. If there was anything between the same toes it wouldn’t be polite to mention it. So bewildered was the love-sick fool by the privilege conferred on him, that he felt in his own mind, that a prolonged communication would not be good for the peace of heart. So, the shoes are not yet made, and Pat’s nearest residence is in the village of Derrymore.

Father: And do you dare, you foul-mouthed blackguard, to cast insinuations on the delicate habits of my dear child? Take this for your reward.

Sympathetic Sons: And this … and this.”

And now began a neat cudgel-skirmish between the main contracting parties. The angry father not only struck at the evil-tongued suitor, but also whacked at the inoffensive horse. The suitor warded the blows from his trusty horse as well as he could, but still one or two made impressions on the more sensitive portions of his body, and the sons with their wooden sticks added to his overall discomfort. So, the noble animal, feeling his patience rapidly diminishing, executed a half-jump, and applying the hoof of his off hind leg to the bench on which the old gentleman and his sons were sitting in state, he overturned them with little effort, and their heads and backs made sore acquaintance with the wall and floor.

This disagreeable incident, and the still unconquered difficulties, stopped the further prosecution of the suit, and amid rubbing of sore spots, scratching of heads, and howls of laughter from all parts of the room, they set about another match with Peter’s grand-daughter being obliged to sit for the next blushing bride. In this second act, Redmond came in as a wooer, bestriding Tom Sweeney, His cue was to have nothing of the poet or the vagrant hanging to his skirts. He was the miserly, careful tradesman of country life. O’Brien represented Old Dowd.

Thrifty Suitor: God save all here!  Look here, I want a wife, and no more about it. Have you got one available?

Father: To be sure we have! Who are you if you please?

Thrifty Suitor: I’m not ashamed of my name nor of my business. I’m a brogue-maker to my trade, and my name’s Mick Kinsella, and I’m not short of a few pounds in my pocket, not like that scare-crow, Denny Muldoon, that’ll be obliged to throw his large cloak over his bride to keep her from freezing with the cold in the honeymoon. I won’t have Miss Sheela; you may depend on it.

Father: Indeed, I think you’re right, Mick-the Brogue. That dear girl was a little untidy, still she wasn’t without her good points. But she would persist in wiping the plates with the cat’s tail when the dishcloth was not at hand, and I’m afraid that her husband won’t be known by the whiteness of his shirt collar at the chapel. Well, well, we won’t speak ill of the absent. But here, you son of a turned pump, is the flower of the flock for you. Here’s one that will put a genteel stamp on your stand of brogues at a fair or market. By the way, the shoemakers don’t associate with you, men of the leather strip. They don’t look on you as tradesmen. What shabby pride! Begging your pardon, Mick, what property have you, and what do you intend to leave to your widow? After all, no one can say to your face that you married out of a frolic of youth. You’re turned fifty, I think.

Thrifty Suitor: No, I am not, Old Dowd! I am only pushing forty-five, and I have neither a red nose nor a shaky hand, Old Dowd. And I hope Mrs. Kinsella won’t be at the expense of a widow’s cap for thirty years to come, Old Dowd. But not to make an ill answer, I have three hundred red guineas under the thatch. And now tell me what yourself will lay down on the nail the day your daughter changes her name.

Father: Well, well, the impudence of some people stings! Isn’t it enough, and more than enough, to get a young woman of birth, that has book-learning and reads novels? And you, you big jackass, don’t you think but your bread will be baked the day she condescends to take the vulgar name of Kinsella? Why, man, the meaning of the word is “Dirty Head.” An old king of Leinster got it for killing a priest.

Thrifty Suitor: I don’t care a pig’s bristle for your notions and grand ideas. Give me an answer if you please.

Father: Oh, dear, dear, Old Dowd! Did you ever think you would live long enough to hear your genteel and accomplished daughter, Miss Biddy Dowd, called by the vile name of Biddy -the-Brogue?

Thrifty Suitor: Now, none of your impudence, you overbearing and immoral old toper! I want a wife to keep things snug at home, and make me comfortable, and not let me be cheated by my servants and workmen. You say that Biddy reads novels and, maybe when the ploughmen come in at noon, they’ll only find the praties put down over a bad fire, and the mistress crying over a greasy-covered book in the corner. To the Devil with all the novels in the world.

The Dowds (father and sons): This ignorant gobshite never went as far as the “Principles of Politeness ” in the “Universal Spelling-book.” Let us administer the youth a little of hazel-oil to make his joints supple and teach him some manners!”

Then another battle of arms took place, in which some skilful play was shown with the sticks, and several sound thumps were given and received, to the great delight and edification of the assembly.

Thrifty Suitor: Now that these few compliments are over, what is to be the fortune of Biddy, I beg a thousand pardons, Miss Biddy Dowd, I mean?

Father: Isn’t her face fortune enough for you, you vulgar man? Do you think nothing of the respectability of having her sitting on a pillion behind you going to fair or market to work after you, with her green silk gown and quilted purple petticoat, and her bright orange shawl? Ah, you lucky thief! Won’t you have the crowd of young fellows around you, bargaining for your ware, and inviting Mrs. Kinsella to a glass of punch? I think, instead of expecting a fortune, you should give a big bag of money for being let into my family.

Thrifty Suitor: Old Dowd, all your bluster isn’t worth a cast-off brogue. Mention a decent sum, or back I go to my work. I’m young enough to be married these fifteen years to come.”

Here the father and sons put their heads together, and finally the hard-pressed father named twenty pounds, but the worldly-minded suitor exclaimed against the smallness of the sum and insisted on a hundred. After a series of skilful thrusts and parries, they agreed to split the difference, and the candidate was asked whether he preferred to receive it in quarterly payments or be paid all at once. He inconsiderately named present payment and had soon reason to repent of his haste to become rich, for the dowry descended on himself and his charger in a shower of blows from the tough hazels and blackthorns of his new relatives. After receiving and inflicting several stripes, he shouted out that he was satisfied to give a long day with the balance. And so, with their shoulders and sides sore with blows and laughter, the play came to an end, and much appreciation was shown by the audience both with the action and dialogue, for many in the crowd knew the parties who were represented, and scarcely, if at all, caricatured. Denny Muldoon, and Mick Kinsella, and Biddy-the-Brogue, were well-known under other names.

When the enthusiasm had subsided a little, it being now about one o’clock in the morning, O’Brien, Roche, Edmond, Joanna, and Sweeney withdrew, but not before reciting some prayers before they left the room. When the vacated seats came to be filled, and lately bashful young fellows began to use the tobacco-pipes, which one but the older folk had meddled with before, the hitherto tolerably decent spirit of the society began to evaporate, and confusion and ill manners began to prevail. However, a young fellow, who felt a desire to hear himself sing in company, got some of his supporters to endeavour to quieten the noise, and request him to favour the assembly with a song. The noise did not entirely subside until the first notes were heard, and the dismal style in which the verses were sung needed to be restrained but indifferently.

” THE STREAMS OF BUNCLODY.

“Was I at the moss-house where the birds do increase,

At the foot of Mount Leinster, or some silent place,

At the streams of Bunclody, where all pleasures do meet,

And all I require is one kiss from you, sweet.

” The reason my love slights me, I do understand,

Because she has a freehold and I have no land.

A great store of riches, both Silver and gold,

And everything fitting a house to uphold.

“If I was a clerk who could write a good hand,

I’d write to my true love that she might understand,

That I’m a young man that’s deeply in love,

That lived by Bunclody, and now must remove.

” Adieu my dear father; adieu my dear mother.

Farewell to my sister, and likewise my brother.

I’m going to America, my fortune to try.

When 1 think on Bunclody, I’m ready to die.”

The general feeling at the time was too cynical to relish such a sad song. Several songs were sung, whose composers’ ghosts shall not have the gratification of seeing them here either in substance or name. At last, even the songs, such as they were, began to lose their charm, and games were introduced. The first was played in the following way –

The captain took five assistants, and arranged them in a semicircle, giving to each a name. He then began with a short stick to pound the palm of one to whom the mischance came by lot, keeping a firm hold of his wrist all the time, and naming the troop in this manner “Fabby, Darby Skibby, Donacha the Saddler, Jacob the Farmer, Scour-dish, what’s that man’s name?” He suddenly pointed to one of the group, and if the patient named him on the moment, he was released, and the fellow named was submitted to the handy discipline. If there was the slightest delay about the name, the operator went on as before—”Fibby Fabby, Darby Skibby,” etc., until the poor victim’s fingers were in a sad state.

In the second game a candle was placed on the ground, in the middle of a circle of lads, and all are told to keep their eyes fixed on it, and their hands behind their backs. The captain provided himself with a twisted leathern apron, or something equally unpleasant to be struck with, and walked on the outside of the ring, exclaiming from time to time, “Watch the light, watch the light.” Secretly placing the weapon into the hands of one of the men, he at last cried out, “Use the linger, use the linger;” and this worthy ran round the circle, using it to some purpose on the backs of his playmates. He then became the captain, and in due course delivered the instrument to someone else.

But the most objectionable trick of all was “shooting the buck.” Some person or persons who had not yet seen the performance were essential to its success, as it required a victim or two. The person acting the buck having gone out, the sportsman who was to shoot him required one to three unsuspicious persons to lie in wait inside the door, to catch the animal when falling from the effect of the shot, promising that they should see fine things. All became silent and watchful, and the retrievers were at their post, when the stag appeared in the doorway, a stool on his head, with the feet upturned to represent horns. The huntsman stooped, and squinting along a stick, cried out, “too-oo”! Back fell the animal, and down came the stool, and all the dirt with which the rogue had charged it outside, on the hats and clothes of the raw sportsmen, and great laughter rose from all the throats but theirs.

By this time, it is three or four o’clock, and time for anyone who dreads the terrors of an over-burdened conscience, while he lies passive and stretched out the next morning, to quit the scene of such frivolity. We might here moralize on the inherent evil of the institution, and the number of young men who became hardened in vice by attending wakes, and the number of young women who lost their character thereby, and everything with it, here and hereafter. The evil lay in visiting them at all, for more than a few minutes. It would be out of the question for the best-intentioned to remain in the foul room for the whole night and come out as innocent in the morning as they entered in the evening. Girls with any pretence to good conduct never remained in them beyond the early hours of the night and were always supposed to be there under the guardianship of a brother, cousin, or declared lover. We will say, for the honour of those districts of Ireland that were known to us, that it was rare to hear of a young woman, farmer’s, or cottager’s daughter, of bad character.

Selkie

Selkies or “Seal Folk” are mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin. These selkie folk are recounted in both Irish and Scottish mythology with  folk-tales frequently revolving around female selkies being coerced into relationships with humans by someone stealing and hiding their sealskin. While “selkies” is the proper term for such shapeshifters many refer to them merely as mermen or mermaids (Merrow), which in Ireland regarded as a half-seal, half-human being.

Selkie

The Mermaids (Merrow)  in Irish folklore have been regarded as seal-women in some instances. In a certain collection of lore in County Kerry, there is a tale from Tralee, which claimed that the ‘Lee’ family was descended from a man who took a mermaid for a wife, but she later escaped and joined her seal-husband, suggesting she was of the seal-folk kind.

There is also the tradition that the ‘Conneely Clan’ of Connemara was descended from seals, and it was taboo for them to kill the animals because it would bring ill luck to them. And since the name “conneely” became a by-word for the animal, many changed their surname to Connelly. There is also a mention in this folklore connection mentioning that there is a Roaninish (Rón-inis, “seal island”) off Donegal, outside Gweebarra Bay.

In many versions of the Selkie myth, the children produced by the coupling of a Selkie and a human, are born with certain physical characteristics that set them apart from normal children. The children of male selkies and human women have webbed toes and fingers, and when the webbing is cut, a rough and rigid growth takes its place. Such tales as these, stem from before the advent of modern medicine, when many physiological conditions were untreatable. When children were born with abnormalities, it was common to blame the fairy folk. One family became known locally as the ‘Seal Family’, claiming to be descended from a union between a fisherman and a selkie. This was an explanation for a hereditary growth of skin between their fingers that made their hands resemble flippers. At the same time children born with “scaly” skin were also thought to be the descendants of Selkies, though this could have been caused by ‘ichthyosis’, a genetic skin disorder that causes patches of skin to harden and appear “scaly.” This condition can be severe, appearing all over the body, but it is more likely to only cause slight disfigurement.

The Red Cap

The Redcap is what happens when a good fairy goes bad. It is a type of malevolent, murderous, leprechaun-type of being mostly found in Scotland, but occasionally can be found roaming ruined castles in the north-east of Ireland. He is said to inhabit ruined castles and, especially, those that were the scenes of brutal and wicked deeds, and the Redcap is known for soaking his cap in the blood of his victims.

The Red Cap

He is usually depicted as “a short, thickset old man with long prominent teeth, skinny fingers armed with talons like eagles, large eyes of a fiery red colour, grisly hair streaming down his shoulders, iron boots, a pikestaff in his left hand, and a red cap on his head” When unwary travellers take refuge in his lair, he flings huge stones at them, and if he kills them, he soaks his cap in their blood, giving it a crimson hue. It is said that he is unaffected by human strength but can be driven off by using words of Scripture or by brandishing a Crucifix, which will cause him to utter a dismal yell and vanish in flames, leaving behind a large tooth.

According to some 19th-century folklorists, the redcap has other varieties of his kind, some of which inhabit old forts, castles and some old church towers. It is said that the main activity of this other type of Redcap is to make noise like the beating of flax, or the grinding of barley in a hollow stone quern. But, if this sound goes on longer or louder than usual, it is considered to be an omen of death or misfortune. It is said that many of these forts and castles were built by the early occupants of the land, who allegedly bathed the foundation stones in human blood and caused such hauntings to occur. Those who study the spirit world  suggest that the Redcaps might indeed be ‘Elementals’, because they are made up of the ‘ethers’ and are ‘ethereal’ and therefore invisible to (most) of us, attaching themselves to practically every natural thing.

Pooka

An Irish Spirit

I have spelt the name for this particular spirit as ‘Pooka’, but there are other spellings – púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka. However, it is spelt, the ‘Pooka’ is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore.  Some sources suggest that the origin of the name may have come from the Old Norse term ‘pook’ or ‘puki’, which refers to a “nature spirit”. The usage of the term in Ireland, however, predates the arrival of Viking settlers and may be derived from the Irish word ‘poc’, meaning a male goat, which is a form the creature is often said to take.

Pooka

‘Pookas’ are thought to bring either good and bad fortune, either helping or hindering the rural and marine communities in which they are found. They are said to be shape changers, which have either dark or white fur or hair. Because they are adept at changing their form the Pookas could take on the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. Moreover, it is not unknown for them to take human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail. There exists a brief description taken by Thomas Crofton Corker from a boy living in Killarney in which he tells us, “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous…long ago…, were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things…that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them, and that did much to harm unwary travellers.”

One theme that runs through all folklore concerning the Pooka is their constant appetite for mischief. They are said to entice humans to take a ride on their back, giving the foolish rider a wild and terrifying journey before finally dropping the unlucky person back at the place they were taken from. It is said that the rider may be able to take control of the pooka by wearing sharp spurs and using those to prevent being taken, or to steer the creature if already on its back. While such pooka stories can be found across northern Europe, the Irish tales alone specify a protective measure for encountering them. The protective power of the “sharp things,” as they are always referred to by the pooka in the tales, may stem from the Irish belief that “cold iron” has the ability to ward off the supernatural. These stories bear similarities to other Irish folk creatures, such as the ‘good people’ or the ‘fairy host’, who are said to target humans on the road or along their regular fairy routes. Pooka encounters with humans, however, tend to occur in rural, isolated places, far from settlements or homes.

On occasion the pooka is represented as being helpful to farmers, particularly in tales where the creature intervenes before a terrible accident, or before the person is about to happen upon a malevolent fairy or spirit. In several of the regional variants of the stories where the pooka is acting as a guardian, the pooka identifies itself to the bewildered human. What makes this action particularly noteworthy is that it is in stark contrast to the lore of many other folkloric beings, who guard their identities or names from humans.

There were certain agricultural traditions surrounding the pooka, and it is especially associated with Samhain, a harvest festival, when the last of the crops are brought in. Anything that remained in the fields was considered “pooka”, or fairy-blasted, and was, therefore, inedible. In some regions reapers left a small share of the crop, the “pooka’s share”, to placate the hungry creature. Nonetheless, 1 November was always considered to be the ‘Pooka’s Day’ and, therefore, the one day of the year when it could be expected to behave in a civil manner. In some areas, however, the beginning of November saw the pooka either defecate, or spit, on the wild fruits rendering them inedible and unsafe.

I have spelt the name for this particular spirit as ‘Pooka’, but there are other spellings – púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka. However, it is spelt, the ‘Pooka’ is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore.  Some sources suggest that the origin of the name may have come from the Old Norse term ‘pook’ or ‘puki’, which refers to a “nature spirit”. The usage of the term in Ireland, however, predates the arrival of Viking settlers and may be derived from the Irish word ‘poc’, meaning a male goat, which is a form the creature is often said to take.

‘Pookas’ are thought to bring either good and bad fortune, either helping or hindering the rural and marine communities in which they are found. They are said to be shape changers, which have either dark or white fur or hair. Because they are adept at changing their form the Pookas could take on the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. Moreover, it is not unknown for them to take human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail. There exists a brief description taken by Thomas Crofton Corker from a boy living in Killarney in which he tells us, “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous…long ago…, were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things…that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them, and that did much to harm unwary travellers.”

One theme that runs through all folklore concerning the Pooka is their constant appetite for mischief. They are said to entice humans to take a ride on their back, giving the foolish rider a wild and terrifying journey before finally dropping the unlucky person back at the place they were taken from. It is said that the rider may be able to take control of the pooka by wearing sharp spurs and using those to prevent being taken, or to steer the creature if already on its back. While such pooka stories can be found across northern Europe, the Irish tales alone specify a protective measure for encountering them. The protective power of the “sharp things,” as they are always referred to by the pooka in the tales, may stem from the Irish belief that “cold iron” has the ability to ward off the supernatural. These stories bear similarities to other Irish folk creatures, such as the ‘good people’ or the ‘fairy host’, who are said to target humans on the road or along their regular fairy routes. Pooka encounters with humans, however, tend to occur in rural, isolated places, far from settlements or homes.

On occasion the pooka is represented as being helpful to farmers, particularly in tales where the creature intervenes before a terrible accident, or before the person is about to happen upon a malevolent fairy or spirit. In several of the regional variants of the stories where the pooka is acting as a guardian, the pooka identifies itself to the bewildered human. What makes this action particularly noteworthy is that it is in stark contrast to the lore of many other folkloric beings, who guard their identities or names from humans.

There were certain agricultural traditions surrounding the pooka, and it is especially associated with Samhain, a harvest festival, when the last of the crops are brought in. Anything that remained in the fields was considered “pooka”, or fairy-blasted, and was, therefore, inedible. In some regions reapers left a small share of the crop, the “pooka’s share”, to placate the hungry creature. Nonetheless, 1 November was always considered to be the ‘Pooka’s Day’ and, therefore, the one day of the year when it could be expected to behave in a civil manner. In some areas, however, the beginning of November saw the Pooka either defecate, or spit, on the wild fruits rendering them inedible and unsafe.

Pat Donnelly’s Encounter

Pat Donnelly was returning home one night, at about twelve o’clock, in his jaunting car with one side up, for he was carrying no passengers. It was a clear moonlit night, the horse was tired, and Pat smoked his pipe as he relaxed, and he allowed the tired horse to walk slowly along the road.

When they were about half-way home, Pat noticed that two men had suddenly appeared and were walking by the side of the car on which he was lying lazily. “Good God!” Pat Donnelly thought to himself, “where did they come from?” He had heard no footsteps and could not hear any now as they walked by the side of the car, although they were walking quite close to him and were going in the same direction. From his position in the driving seat of the car he had a clear view of the road to the front and to the rear all the way from town, but he had not seen anything until these two men appeared.

He wondered to himself if they had dropped down from the sky or had they risen from the ground? But he laughed at the silly ideas that were coming into his head, for he was sure that knew from where they had come. “Sure, they’re simply two beings from the mystic world who have decided to show themselves,” Pat told himself. “Will you take a lift?” he asked the two men in a friendly manner. When they did not reply, Pat thought, “By Jesus, these two are quare customers.” The two men still walked by the side of the car and their silence continued. Pat sat erect, tightening his grip on the whip, before slackening it again as he began to feel an odd sensation on the top of his head, all over his body and even to the tips of his fingers. There was a shiver that ran through him. But the strange men still said nothing as they walked on and on, at the same steady pace and in the same position with regard to the car.

The longer this went on the more courage filled Pat, and he asked politely, “Do any of you know what time it is?

Do you know what time it is yourself?” asked one of the strangers.

By God!” Pat thought to himself, “These are quare customers, for sure.

Not another word was spoke. The men evidently did not want to say anything, and Pat was much too afraid utter another word. He began to consider that these strangers may not be men at all. They were undoubtedly from another world, but what exactly they were called was a mystery to Pat. So, when they came to a crossroads, Pat parted company with the two strangers and they went off as mysteriously as they had come. One second, they were there and the next second, they were gone.

From the crossroads one of the roads wound its way northward to the hills and then into a more level stretch of road running along the sea. Pat went on and as he did so a strange drowsiness overcame him, forcing him to close his eyes no matter how hard he tried to keep them open. When his eye closed, his head gradually fell towards his chest and then he felt a slap. It was a quick, sharp blow of a cold, open hand on his cheek, and he awoke with a start. But Pat could not tell who it was that slapped him. There was no person about and still felt very sleepy. Why this should be so, he could not tell. Nervously he whipped the horse into a fast trot and suddenly came to a stop again. At the place where the two roads meet, he again caught sight of the two beings who had so recently surprised him, now running. When he pulled up his horse, the two strangers stopped running. Pat blessed himself with the sign of the cross and the mysterious beings vanished for good.

Pat once again fell asleep, totally unconscious of his surroundings and the horse continued on until it finally stopped. Pat awoke with a start and grabbed the rail of jaunting car. Looking around himself, Pat realised that he had come home, and from that moment he would relate his strange tale to all who would listen. Some believed, while other laughed and said that he was dreaming. Pat, however, would indignantly deny any such suggestion. Talking to a priest about the incident he told him, “Maybe you would believe me better after I have shown you this!” He would then point to a peculiar mark upon his cheek, where he had received the blow.

JW

Things to Remember

There are many important bits of advice among the Irish that you need to remember if you need ‘Good Luck’ in your life, and God knows none of us want ‘Bad Luck.’ So listen now to what you are being told.

Never put a boot on your foot until you have two socks on. Now, not two sock on the one foot, but one on each. You will say goodbye to your luck if you neglect this bit of advice, for St. Columbcille once put a sock and a boot on one foot, with the intention of doing the same to the other. But his enemies who were pursuing him came upon him just as he was putting on the second sock. He was unable to run away and was caught. He then gave the curse to the person who should do as he had done.

If you are driving any animals to market and you meet a person who does not ‘bless’ them, remember that you should say before the person passes on. “God Bless your heart, your eye, and my share.” The evil eye of the person cannot then ‘blink’ the animals.

The ploughman, too, needs to guard his horses from the same dreadful evil of blinking. When he is approaching the end of the field, if he observes any person standing there to whom he must speak, let him on no account allow the horses to stand until he has turned their faces towards the other end, with their tails to the person. They will be quite safe in that position.

The foregoing are preventatives, and we are all pretty familiar with the adage “Prevention is better than cure.” But is there no ‘cure’ for ‘blinking’? Indeed, there is, why wouldn’t there?

Quick is a glance of the eye under any circumstance, but quicker far is the glance of the blinker’s eye. The harm may be accomplished before we can guard against it. To counteract the spell should then be our aim. There is an antidote. Remember it. Strike, first, the affected animal with any part of your apparel or, to be accurate, with, as we say in Gaelic, the “tail of your coat,” and next the ground. Repeat the operation three times and you have affected a complete cure.

When travelling along a lonely road at night take the centre and walk between the ruts so that you can keep in the tracks which horses have made. Nothing can harm you while you follow the horses’ tracks.

Don’t give anything away on New Year’s Day. If, however, it is unavoidable, make the person who gets it bring something to you first. For instance, if your neighbour’s fire happens to be dead in the morning, don’t give a coal until you receive a turf first. Never on any account allow a coal to be removed from your house if there is any person sick within; and do not under any circumstance allow a coal out on a Monday morning.

Give no milk from the first churning. The person to whom you give milk from your dairy should ‘bless’ the milk and the cow that gave it.

Do not, as it is said in the North, “dung the byre” after sunset. It is strictly forbidden to re the manure after that hour also to put out the house sweepings. Such things should be attended to during the day, “After the sun has risen, and before he has set.”     

Put out no ashes or slops on New Year’s Day. Also have all the water required for domestic use in before dark on New Year’s Eve.JW