The number nine was a favourite number with the Celts and was used more frequently in ‘cure ceremonials’ than any other number.
Say that last night you went to your bed and in perfect health. When you awoke this morning, you find there is a lump or tumour on your face, or on some other part of your body. You had not felt any pain until you awoke, but now there is some pain, or is at least somewhat troublesome. You know now that some spirit of evil has touched you, and would you like to know the cure? Of course, you want the cure and, here it is!
Get nine pieces of iron, any articles will do, just make certain that they are made of iron. Then, “measure” the swelling with these irons, namely you make the sign of the cross with each on the “blighted” spot and throw the ninth iron over your head. There now, you are cured! praise be to God!
You don’t believe me, but I heard this story from an old lady called Mary. She told me, “My wee Bridie went to bed one night as well as ever she was. But, in the morning she had a lump on her cheek the size of a hen’s egg. To be honest, I paid little attention to it and thought it would be alright again before night time. I was thinking to myself that it had come on her suddenly and would suddenly disappear again. But the lump got worse and old Sadie from Ballinacorr came into the house about twelve o’clock. ‘In the name of God,’ said she, ‘what’s wrong with the little girl? God bless her !‘
‘There’s none of us that knows,’ says I.
‘And did you do anything for it?‘ says she.
‘I did not,’ says I, ‘for I hadn’t a clue what to do with it.‘
‘Well get nine irons,‘ says she, ‘and though you should have done it long ago, measure her.’
Well, we did, and she was all right within a very short time, and now for you!
” For inflammation of the eyelid, an equally remarkable use is made of the number nine. The sore, which usually assumes the form of a small round lump, tapering towards the top, is called a sty. To ‘cure’ it, take nine gooseberry pricks, or “stabs ” as they are called, and in succession ‘point’ first towards the eye, next towards the ground, and the final one was thrown over the left shoulder. I know a friend that once ‘doctored’ herself in the way that I have told you, and she got immediate relief.
Why the gooseberry “stabs” are the only ones which are effective I don’t know. In the same way I cannot explain ‘The Soot o’ Nine Pots’ being a sure remedy for many kinds of illness that can effect cattle. The one thing that I do know is that any number other than nine will not do. At one time someone suggested that the number was selected in honour of the ‘Nine Muses’, (Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomeni, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope) but I believe this idea to be too fanciful to be seriously entertained. I believe it is sufficient for us to know that the directions for use are faithfully recorded and that we should use them in accordance with the precise directions that are contained in that great traditional and mystical list of medicines created by the Gaelic race since earliest times.
The famous Irish author and poet, W.B. Yeats, once described the 19th Century Irish author William Carleton (1794–1869) as ‘a great Irish historian’. Yeats considered “the history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields but in what the people say to each other on fair-days and high days, and in how they farm, and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage”. In all of his books and short stories these were precisely the things that Carleton recorded and left for succeeding generations to read. A new edition of his book “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry” was published in 1843, and in its ‘Introduction’ he explained that he was trying to give his readers “a panorama of Irish life among the people . . . their loves, sorrows, superstitions, piety, amusements, crimes and virtues”. With great word skills Carleton had as he said, “painted them honestly and without reference to the existence of any particular creed or party”. Throughout his novels and his sketches of peasant life in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century William Carleton described in great detail the living conditions and living standards of the poor, alongside other social realities that existed such as the relationship between poverty and illness, the prevalence of disease among the poor, and the recurring famines and accompanying fever epidemics that had become a major feature of Irish peasant life.
Carleton’s story ‘The Black Prophet’ was subtitled ‘A Tale of Irish Famine’, and it was serialised in the Dublin University Magazine between May and December 1846. By this time the entire country was gripped in the crisis that was to become the ‘Great Irish Famine’ and Carleton’s story created such interest that it was published in book form early in the following year. The story itself was based on the author’s experience of famine between 1817 and 1819, and again in 1821 and 1822. In that same year, 1846, an influential pamphlet concerning famine and fever as cause and effect in Ireland also appeared. It was written by Dr Dominic Corrigan, whose work with many of Dublin’s poorest inhabitants had led to him specialising in diseases of the heart and lungs, and the abnormal “collapsing” pulse of aortic valve insufficiency is named ‘Corrigan’s Pulse’ Corrigan’s influential pamphlet on famine and disease was based on earlier famines and fever epidemics that had plagued the country. His central thesis was that fever was the inevitable consequence of famine. From his studies he had come to the conclusion that famine would always be accompanied by a lethal outbreak of disease.
Corrigan’s pamphlet was widely noted and widely reviewed, because his argument was extremely controversial. This was a time when medical science was still a great mystery and long before the germ theory of disease was formulated and causes of disease were still speculative. But, the manner in which Carleton portrayed fever in ‘The Black Prophet’ was closely based on Corrigan’s controversial pamphlet. In a footnote to the story, Carleton reproduced several extracts from the pamphlet, including the final paragraph in which Corrigan compared the relative impact of typhus fever and Asiatic cholera, both of which had appeared in Ireland for the first time in the early 1830s, causing unprecedented consternation and panic. In Corrigan’s opinion fever was much more lethal and destructive than cholera or any other infectious disease. Corrigan stated – “Cholera may seem more frightful but it is in reality less destructive. It terminates rapidly in death, or in as rapid recovery. Its visitation too is short, and it leaves those who recover unimpaired in health and strength. Civil war, were it not for its crimes, would be, as far as regards the welfare of a country, a visitation less to be dreaded than epidemic fever.”
As Carleton wrote in his lengthy footnote, Corrigan’s pamphlet “ought to be looked on as a great public benefit”, because it revealed “it conveyed ‘most important truths to statesmen’. Both Carleton’s story and Corrigan’s pamphlet were written with the purpose of serving as a warning to the government in England and its administration in Ireland about the inevitable consequences of the current famine situation that was evolving throughout the country. In ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton warned that during the famine and fever epidemic of 1817–19 “the number of those who were reduced to mendicancy was incredible”, which was an observation that was corroborated by numerous contemporary accounts. Carleton compared Ireland during these years of famine to a huge fever-hospital that was filled to capacity with victims of famine, disease and death. Adding to the desolation of the scenes that he had witnessed he wrote, “The very skies of heaven were hung with the black drapery of the grave”. The author also commented that hearses, coffins, and long funeral processions appeared to be everywhere one looked. Describing the deathly note of the constantly pealing church bells, Carleton wrote about the roads of the countryside being “literally black with funerals”.
The language and imagery used in ‘The Black Prophet’ resembles those used by a young Irish doctor, Dr. Robert James Graves, who had been sent to Galway during the famine of 1822 as an emergency physician. He reported that the local peasants were always scrupulous in the manner that they conducted wakes, while the cries and lamentations of the large numbers that thronged after funerals, alongside the tolling of the death-bell from the church, always gave the local area a strikingly mournful appearance. But, one of the features of Graves’s report, which occurs regularly in Carleton’s stories, is the terrible fear of infection among the Irish peasantry. It was a fear that intensified on every occasion that any one of the deadly epidemic diseases that plagued Ireland periodically, in the first half of the nineteenth century, appeared among them. Dr. Graves had accurately described the alarm that he met among the people when he arrived in Galway during late September 1822, where, he noted, that the common topics of conversation among the peasants were the sick and the dead. The ties of blood, friendship and hospitality were frequently broken by the same fear of contagion, Graves reported, and those who had been infected were either turned out of their cabins or left therein and abandoned to their own devices.
“The dreadful typhus was now abroad in all its deadly power, accompanied, on this occasion, as it always is among the Irish, by a panic, which invested it with tenfold terrors. The moment fever was ascertained, or even supposed, to visit a family, that moment the infected persons were avoided by their neighbours and friends as if they carried death, as they often did, about them, so that its presence occasioned all the usual interchanges of civility and good-neighbourhood to be discontinued.”In this extract from ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton captures the reaction of the ordinary people to communicable diseases like typhus fever. There are also contained within Carleton’s tales that make up ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’ many echoes of Dr. Graves’s reports.
In the ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton also wrote, “Such as had typhus in their own families were incapable of attending to the wants or distresses of others, and such as had not, acting under the general terror of contagion which prevailed, avoided the sick houses as they would a plague”. This is an authentic portrayal of Irish social realities in the first half of the nineteenth century. The fear, dread, mass panic and hysteria that filled the people were features that were prevalent in all outbreaks of fever and other diseases in Ireland. It was a terrible fear of the unknown, because these simple and virtually uneducated people did not understand how these diseases were caused. Not knowing the causes, they had no idea how to begin to cure them, and they feared anything that they did not know and could not control. But, they were very much aware of the terrible impact and consequences of diseases like fever upon those already weakened by hunger. If these diseases did not kill their victims, they were often left in much worse condition than prior to infection.
Unfortunately, the Irish people had an unrivalled knowledge of fever, its symptoms and its consequences. They were very much aware that the disease was contagious, and their terrible fear of infection drove them to quarantine any fever victims. There were, at the time, two main ways in which they could try to keep people in isolation, each of which was dependent upon the family circumstances of the affected persons. Those victims from the middle and upper classes of Irish society, with better housing and superior domestic arrangements than their poorer neighbours, would often try to isolate the infected person within their homes. One common method was described by a County Kilkenny doctor in 1844, stating that when fever appeared in the homes of wealthier farmers the door of ‘the sick room’ was “built up with sods, and a hole made in the back wall, through which the doctor must scramble in the best way he can upon all fours into an apartment which is almost invariably dirty, dark and damp”. However, he added that such efforts were invariably fruitless and any attempts at domestic segregation of the sick did little to check the spread of disease.
The method employed by the peasantry to isolate the fever victims was to house them in shelters that they called ‘fever huts’. These huts usually consisted of a few stakes, covered with long sods called ‘scraws’ and a small portion of straw or rushes. These flimsy structures were quickly thrown together at the side of a road, the corner of a field or at the verge of a bog. In the 1830s a County Kildare doctor informed a parliamentary commission that was inquiring into the circumstances of the Irish poor, the so-called ‘Poor Inquiry’, of a fever patient he had found lying on some straw in a ditch. He told the commission, “It could not be called a hut, because it had only two sides, the back of the ditch forming one and some straw and furze tied together formed the other. This was removable and changed to whatever side the wind blew from.” In 1839 a visitor to County Fermanagh 1839 came across five instances “where the inmates of fevered hovels had fled to the roadside and struck up a kind of wigwam, composed of an upright stick, at the back of a ditch, and a lock of straw”.
In ‘The Poor Scholar’, one of several tales forming Carleton’s “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry”, the author describes the experiences of Jemmy McEvoy, who had contracted fever. He writes, “The early symptoms of the prevailing epidemic were well known . . . The Irish are particularly apprehensive of contagious maladies. The moment it had been discovered that Jemmy was infected, his school-fellows avoided him with a feeling of terror scarcely credible.” In Carleton’s story, the infected schoolboy was avoided as if he was a leper. Even when a group of agricultural labourers discovered the dazed and barely conscious Jemmy, they too were afraid of the disease but, after some deliberation, agreed to help him because, as one of them said, “there’s a great blessin’ to thim that assists the likes of him”. “Let us help him!” exclaimed another, “for God’s sake, an’ we won’t be apt to take it thin!” The labourers then built a small hut’ for Jemmy on the side of the public road, which was built from a few loose sticks that were covered over with “scraws”, which are the sward of the earth pared into thin strips. Jemmy, the ‘Poor Scholar’, Jemmy, was placed on some straw that had been laid in this structure, and food and drink were passed to him by means of a pitchfork and a long-shafted shovel, which was the custom of the time. It was a strategy that the peasantry resorted to in their efforts to avoid coming into personal contact with the infected person.
The sentiments expressed in Carleton’s story follows the evidence that was recorded in the ‘Poor Inquiry’ relating to the provision of charity to beggars and vagrants. ‘The Poor Inquiry’, conducted in the mid-1830s, took place almost at the same time as Carleton was writing ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’. When speaking to the inquiry several contributors expressed sentiments, such as, “When I give, I do so for the good of my soul, the honour of God, and for their benefit”, “I give, recollecting that I have another place to go to, where, if I give alms, I will receive fourfold reward”. Because of his knowledge of the people Carleton was able to capture the popular voice, which we find is often absent from the historical record. But, we must recognise the fact that Carleton was more than just a social chronicler. ‘The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine’ has a special meaning with regard to the Anglo-Irish politics of the day. Carleton dedicated this work to Lord John Russell, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, acknowledging that both Russell and his predecessor, Sir Robert Peel, were “sincerely anxious to benefit” Ireland. However, in his dedicatory preface he did add, “. . . the man who, in his ministerial capacity, must be looked upon as a public exponent of those principles of government which have brought our country to her present calamitous condition, by a long course of illiberal legislation and unjustifiable neglect, ought to have his name placed before a story which details with truth the sufferings which such legislation and neglect have entailed upon our people.”
Carleton assured the Prime Minister that all of the facts and circumstances that he had depicted in his book were authentic, and he expressed the hope that Russell would prove himself to be ‘a friend’ of Ireland. Although well-meaning it had little chance of success, as the events of the ‘Great Irish Famine’ would show. ‘The Black Prophet’ is indeed an historical record of the manner in which the peasant way of life in Ireland disappeared, and how an entire society was utterly changed by that ‘Great Famine’. Anyone who has read the wonderful stories written by William Carleton will without doubt agree with W.B. Yeats that he was a historian of the people, and through his words we have a better insight into what life in early-nineteenth century Ireland was like.
 From an article by Laurence M. Geary in ‘History Ireland’ Magazine.
 W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).
 W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).
 J. Robins, ‘The Miasma. Epidemic and panic in nineteenth-century Ireland’, Dublin, 1995.
Salt, as we all know, is useful for many purposes in life. But there are many applications for this preservative which are not known outside of the Irish community. For your sake and to remind those Irish who have forgotten many of their traditions in this modern world let me enlighten you as to some of the ‘Charms of Salt.’
You should never attend a funeral or a wake until you have taken the precaution of fortifying yourself against evil by eating a few grains of salt. At the same time, you should also take with you. If you do these things you will be safe. Neither the ‘evil eye’ of a neighbour, nor the tricks of spirits, who are forever on the alert to take advantage of those people who fail to provide themselves with protection against them.
Salt is also regarded as an infallible remedy for the traumatic effects that occur when one sees a ghost.
A pinch of salt is always put into milk that is given away and the woman of the house should never permit milk to be taken out of the premises unless this is done, whether the milk be sold or given free to a friend in need. One grain of salt will be enough, but if none were added it would result in a great misfortune of some kind befalling the dairy or the cow.
Young Pat Murphy, known to many as ‘Stitch’, went one day to the beach with an donkey to gather a load of seaweed. It was a beautiful May morning and because it was still early there were few people about. ‘Stitch’, however, was an industrious young man and was keen to have as much seaweed gathered as possible before any of the neighbours came upon the same place. Dressed well for the hard work ahead of him and armed with a strong cudgel he hastily urged his donkey, loaded with empty creels, down the boreen towards the sea.
It promised to be a good day for gathering seaweed and not a sound broke the stillness of that tranquil morning, except for the occasional whack of ‘Stitch’s’ cudgel as he urged the animal forward. Then, there was the gentle murmur of the waves as they lapped softly on the golden sandy beach before retiring quickly once again and, when ‘Stitch’ reached the beach he commanded the donkey to stop and stand still while he eagerly began to fill the creels. For a moment he raised his head from his work and looked out towards a ‘black rock’ that stood only a few yards out from shore. In a moment, his face went a deathly white, he staggered and reached out for the creels to support him, but he did not reach them and fell forward in a faint. He never made a sound but lay there for three of four minutes until Sean Rooney lifted him up. It still took him a moment or two to regain full consciousness and, when he did, he remembered what he had seen. In a feeble voice he spoke in terror, “Oh, Sean, did you see them?”
“What did I see, ‘Stitch’, and what in the name of God came over you?”
“The two women on the black rock! Sure, didn’t I see them as plain as day. God help us!” replied ‘Stitch’ as he tried to cling ever closer to Sean.
“God save us, ‘Stitch’, are you dreaming, or what?” said Sean.
“I’m not dreaming, or imagining anything, Sean! I saw her with my own eyes. The grandest lady that anyone has ever seen or heard about. She had a beautiful dress on her, upon which gold and silver decorations shone and sparkled in the sunshine. Hanging from her head and around her shoulders were the finest golden curls, framing the face of a young girl who was the image of an angel. And, on her head sat a golden crown that was covered in pearls and diamonds.”
“Well, ‘Stitch’, you will have no need to worry or fear what you have seen, for you will have nothing but good luck from this day onward,” Sean assured him.
“Sean, man dear, I don’t feel at all well after what I have seen. I am afraid that I am done for! The vision I saw took the very sight from my eyes.”
“Trust me,” Sean counselled him. “Don’t worry about it. What you have seen will never do you any harm.” His voice was calming but it did not inspire true confidence in what he said. Sean admitted to a neighbour, later, “I tried to keep the poor man’s spirits up, for God knows those spirits will be down for a while to come. It was, undoubtedly, the great lady herself that he had seen, the ‘Queen of the Sea’, and her beautiful daughter. Sure, I have only heard of them being seen once before, and the one who saw them never had a day’s luck after, until he died.”
The same was true of Pat ‘Stitch’ Murphy, for he was never the same after his experience.
When a cow becomes dull, refuses to take food, moans, and gives other indications of suffering peculiar pain, the conclusion at once arrived at is that “she’s shot,” or, as is expressed in Irish “tá sí cáithte.” The allusion is to the sídheóga, or fairies, and the belief is that they have shot the cow.
There are peculiar symptoms which proclaim unmistakably that the cow has been shot, the principal being swelling of the body and painful moaning. Only the village ‘Cow Doctor’, however, can tell definitely. I often saw these ‘handy men,’ as they are not unfrequently called, diagnosing, and helped them to perform the cure ceremony which, I venture to say, is one of the strangest ever recorded.
The doctor stands at one side of the cow, his assistant at the other. The assistant procures a pair of tongs and a red turf coal, and slightly burns the ‘sign of the cross’ on the hair of the cow’s side. He then hands the tongs across the cow’s body to the ‘doctor’, who burns similarly the ‘sign of the cross’ on the other side, after which he passes the tongs over the cow’s back to his assistant again. This is repeated three times, and the first and principal part of the ceremony is concluded by making the ‘sign of the cross’ with the coal on the cow’s nostrils.
The second part is rather in the nature of a ‘test’ than a ‘cure’. The doctor ‘measures’ the cow with his arm from ‘elbow’ to the ‘point’ of his fingers, beginning at the cow’s tail and going towards the horns. The ‘measurement’ is also repeated three times, and if the cow is to get better, the second measurement should be shorter than the first, and the third shorter than the second, etc. Should the ‘cure’ fail – and it never fails if the cow suffers from ‘shot’ and the doctor is called in time – the owner is requested, in order to prevent a fatal termination, to “Tabhair do Mhártan i,” which means, “Giver her to Martin,” meaning St. Martin. The invariably acquiesces, and then a ‘nick’ is cut in the animal’s ear. Blood flows and death is averted. The animal can never afterwards be sold but must be killed and eaten as a feast on St. Martin’s Eve, not necessarily for many years afterwards.
In the north of Ireland, the practice is somewhat different. The owner is not prohibited from selling the animal, and instead of giving it to ‘Martin’, some member of the family who is considered ‘lucky’ is presented with it. It is no uncommon thing to see several animals, particularly cows and sheep, at fairs with incisions in their ears, or a piece cut out. If there are many incisions it is regarded as a sign that the animal is of delicate constitution, with the result that there is a reduction in the price.
The number of incisions shows the number of times the animal was in danger of death.
In Ireland, even today, there are so many superstitions, rituals, and traditions in the day to day life of its people. This is especially true when it comes to the passing of dear friends and relatives, their funeral arrangements, and their final interment. These superstitions and traditions might vary slightly from family to family, but each holds strongly to their own. In fact, they hold so faithfully to their own family rituals that on occasions they can lead to anger and physical violence when different families come together to mourn in different ways.
When I was a young man my favourite way of spending my leisure-time was to take long walks through the countryside and sketch many of the interesting sites that I would come across. Over the years I had filled my artist’s sketch book with pictures of beautifully sited thatched cottages, old barns, ruins, and old churches. On one particular sunny day, I was sitting alone on a grassy embankment at the edge of the desolate graveyard and church in Drumm. In that beautifully quiet place, I became almost totally lost in my efforts to capture, on paper, that special scene that lay before me. Occasionally I would lift up my eyes from my sketchbook to look directly at the detail that was present in this interesting ruin which I was attempting to paint. It was also an opportunity wipe the perspiration from my brow, that was caused by the heat of the sun radiating down upon my head.
The quiet stillness that had prevailed all that particular day was suddenly broken by a faint and wild sound that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life. Admittedly, the strange sound startled me and caused me to stop my sketching for a moment or two. Alone in that graveyard I began to listen nervously, waiting for that strange sound to repeat itself. I didn’t have to wait awfully long for this weird, unearthly sound to vibrate through the still air of the evening once again. It was now even more loud than it had been at first and, as I listened to its strange vibration and tone, I decided that it could be likened to the sound made by many glasses, ringing and tinkling as they are crowded in together.
I stood up, rising from the place where I had been seated, and I began to search around for the possible source of this strange noise. There was not another body in my vicinity when, once again, this heart-chilling sound suddenly filled the air about me with its wild and wailing intonation. At first the sound reminded me somewhat of a tune being played upon an aged harp. When another burst of the sound came forth, it became quite obvious to me that it was the sound of many human voices that were being raised in lamentation somewhere close by. It was a loud, heart-chilling, wail of sorrow about which, before this occasion, I had only ever heard only rumours. Now, for the first time in my life I heard that wild and terrifying sound and shivered with cold fear. Those who read this tale, and who have already heard the same sound, will surely understand just how anxious I was when I heard it in the silence of that day in Drumm.
As my eyes scanned the area outside of the graveyard I could clearly see, in the light of that day, a crowd of local people, both male and female. In an orderly line they wound their way along a low path that led them toward the churchyard where I was standing, and among them the strong men carried the coffin of someone who was a dear departed friend or relative. As they came closer toward me, occasion I heard a loud and pitiful wail of sorrow that arose from the mourners in that crowd. The voices rang loudly, in a wild and startling unison, as they moved up the hill, until the sound gradually descended in its volume, finally becoming little more than a subdued wail. Diligently, these local people continued to carry their loved one’s body onward, but not in the same measured and solemn step as before. Now, they were moving in a much more rapid and irregular manner, almost as if the pain of their grief was hurrying them on to the graveside, which was the much hoped for culmination of all their efforts.
The overall effect of this large local rural funeral was, I must admit, certainly more impressive than any of the other funerals I had ever seen in my short life. There was truly little of the pomp and circumstance of other funerals I had observed, such as a hearse, or large commemorative wreaths. But, the equal of the pallbearers could never have been found as they steadily bore along the body of their dear departed friend on their shoulders in the stillness of evening until they reached the cemetery. The male friends and relatives of the deceased person carried the coffin into the interior of the ruin. There the women had gathered to continue their mourning for the dead, and half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately began to prepare a grave. I can honestly say that I have seldom seen men more full of activity. But, scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, than the loud peal of the pipes was heard at some distance. The young men paused in their work, and they turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point from where the sound appeared to originate.
As I looked up, I clearly observed that another funeral procession was winding its way slowly around the foot of the hill. Immediately the young men at the graveside returned to their work with greater effort than before. As the spades dug into the black soil anxious shouts from onlookers constantly encouraged them to complete their work as quickly as possible. Some of the more polite followers shouted, “For Jaysus sake, hurry boys, hurry.“
“Shift your big arse, Paddy!” others called.
Friends of some of the men shouted out to them, “Put your back into it, Mike! “
“If you could shift the sod as quick as you shift the ‘Guinness’, it would suit you better,” others laughed aloud.
By this time, the second funeral party, that was approaching, could see ahead of them that the churchyard to which they were going was already filled with people. Almost immediately this second funeral party quickened their pace, and their sounds of mourning rose more loudly in the morning air as they came nearer to the churchyard. Quite unexpectedly, a small detachment of men, carrying a variety of picks and spades, came forward out of the main party. Then, without warning, this group of armed men rushed headlong up the hill toward the churchyard, accompanied by loud shouting. At the same time an elderly woman, her eyes streaming with tears and her hair dishevelled, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had taken their coffin. Arms raised, she ran towards the young men who were digging at the ground with all their might and, passionately, she begged them to do their work more quickly. “Ahh Boys! Sure, you wouldn’t let them beat you to the job and have my sweet boy wandering about, alone on these long, dark nights. Please dig hard boys. Lay into it with all your power and gain, for yourselves, a sorrowful mother’s blessing for ensuring my wee Paddy will have rest.“
Standing among those men in her bedraggled appearance, and the intensity of her manner as she pleaded with them, I thought the poor woman was crazy. In fact, such was her condition, that I could barely make out what she was saying to the young men, and I was obliged to inquire off one of the bystanders if they could fill in the blank spaces.
“Are you asking me because you believe she is going crazy? ” said the person that I had asked, as he looked at me in a very puzzling manner. “Sure, I thought everyone knew the answer to that. Especially someone who looks as well learned as you. The poor woman doesn’t want her dead son to be walking about in the night, as he must, unless those boys are smart.“
“What do you mean, walking about in the night?” I asked him. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Whisht! whisht!” he urged me to be quiet. “Here they come now, and, in the name of God, they have Joe Gallagher at their head,” he said to me as he anxiously looked towards the advanced guard of the second funeral, which had now gained the summit of the hill. They quickly leaped over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery and advanced towards the group that surrounded the newly excavated grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.
“Stop what you are doing there, I tell you!” shouted Joe Gallagher to those men who were working at opening the ground and were still using their implements with great energy.
“Stop it now, or it’ll be worse for you! Did you not hear me, Rooney?” said Gallagher again, as he laid his muscular hand on the arm of one of the young men who were digging, suddenly stopping him from continuing his work.
“Of course, I heard you, Gallagher,” said Rooney; “but I just chose not to listen to you.”
“Just you keep a civil tongue in your head, wee man” Gallagher warned him.
“By God, Gallagher, but you’re a brave man and very fond of giving people advice that you should listen to yourself,” Rooney retorted and, once again, plunged his spade into the earth.
“Didn’t I tell you to stop, you Gobshite?” Gallagher roared, “or, I’ll put my boot so far up your arse, Rooney, that you’ll be chewing leather for six months!”
“Get away out of this, Gallagher! What brings you here at all?” interrupted another of the men by the graveside. “Just looking for trouble is it?”
“Sure, what else would bring the likes of him here, but to cause mischief?” said a grey-haired man, who was standing just a couple of yards away from the graveside. “Sure, don’t you know by now that there’s always a quarrel whenever there’s a Gallagher about?”
“You may thank your grey hair, you old goat, that I don’t make you take those words back with some pain,” Gallagher told the old man as he glared at him.
“There was a time,” warned the old man, “when I had something more than just these grey hairs to make such as you respect me.” As he spoke the old man drew himself up with an air of great dignity. He wanted everyone to see that he was still a tall man and had retained a broad chest, which would bear the truth of the statement that he had made. There was a bright, but briefly lived flame, that was kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and his expression of pride and defiance quickly gave way to an expression of coldness and contempt toward Gallagher.
“Listen to me, old man, I’d have beaten you more stupid than you already are, even on the best day you ever had,” sneered Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.
“Don’t you believe it, Gallagher!” said a contemporary of the old man, who had known him in his younger days. “You have plenty of conceit, and a big mouth that you use to bully those weaker than you!“
“Isn’t that the truth,” said Rooney. “He’s a great man in his own mind. By God I could be a rich man if I could buy Gallagher at what I thought he was worth and sell him at what he thinks he’s worth.“
A loud, mocking laughter rose up among those gathered at the graveside, causing Gallagher’s agitation to increase tenfold. There was a deep darkness that came across the big man’s features, and Gallagher immediately took up a posture so threatening that a man standing close to me turned to his companion and told him, “By God, Eddie there’s going to be ‘wigs on the green’ before too long!“
It was a sad day when Tim Scanlan died. All his life he had been a labouring man, working hard in whatever work he could find, and receiving very little in remuneration for the effort he put in. But, Tim was well known and well liked in the district. Everyone agreed that his funeral would be an unusually large gathering and, most likely the biggest to be seen in many a year. Great crowds of people flocked to Tim’s wake, and there was a major effort undertaken to provide sufficient tea, cakes, sandwiches, whisky, beer, and tobacco for all who attended. As is common in these things, Tim’s widow occupied her post of honour at the head of the coffin, and gave an excellent display of grief for her dead husband. She wept bitterly on her own and, joined in loudly when the loud group wailing, or ‘keening’, was led by the older women. The widow was, however, young enough to have been the daughter of the dead husband. She had come to Tim’s house as a very young servant-girl, whom he had conveniently married and ruled over all these years past.
As the night wore on, the amount of whisky that had been drunk was beginning to tell on those wandering outside the room where Tim’s corpse lay. The crowd noise inside the house increased to a level where some began to complain that it was loud enough to wake the dead. Quite unexpectedly, and much to the consternation and amazement of every one present, the corpse gave a deep sigh and several loud groans, opened his eyes and struggled to bring himself up into a sitting posture in the coffin. When the startled company in the house had recovered from their shock, they helped lift poor Tim out of the coffin, and whisky was liberally poured down his throat. They wrapped Tim up well in warm blankets and helped to seat him in the big chair by the fire, where he gradually revived from the trance, or stupor, that had been mistaken for death. When the last of the guests had departed from the cabin, Tim, who was still propped up beside the fire, was left to the tender care of his wife. But, instead of coming near her husband, she chose to creep away quietly to cringe timidly in a dark corner behind his chair. From her hiding place she directed frightened glances at her husband, who had appeared to have been resurrected from death.
“Mary!” Tim called out to her in a stern voice. But, he did not get an answer.
“Are you there?” he asked as he peered around at her, his weak face quivering with anger.
“Yes, Tim, I’m here,” Mary’s voice faltered, but she did not stir an inch.
“’Bring me my stick”’
“Ah! No Tim! No! Sure you’ve never lifted your hand to me yet! And you’ll not do it now, surely, when you’ve come back from the dead in one piece.”
“Bring me my stick.”
The stick was brought to him, and down on her knees beside the big chair Tim’s cowering wife went. “Well you know what you deserve. You know, you young deceiver, that if I was to start this minute and beat you as black as a hearse, it would only serve you right, after the mean, dirty, and shameful thing you’ve done to me!”
“Aye, Tim! It’s true, it would!” sobbed the girl.
“Look at this!” gasped Tim, opening his funereal jacket to show an old and tattered shirt. “Just look at these rags! Look at what you dressed my poor corpse in, shaming me before all my neighbours and friends at the wake! And you knew, as well as I did, about the elegant brand-new shirt I’d bought to be buried in. It’s a special shirt that I wouldn’t have put on my back if I was still alive. No, not if I had to walk about naked! But, you knew that I had it stored in the chest there, and you begrudged it to my unfortunate corpse when I couldn’t speak up for myself!”
“Oh Tim, darling, forgive me!” cried Mary. “Forgive me this once, and on my two knees I promise that I will never, never do the likes of that again! I don’t know what came over me. Sure, may the good Lord save us, I think it was the devil who was guiding me when I went to get out that shirt. He tempted me, by whispering that it was a pity, and a sin, to put good clothing like that into the clay. Oh, how could I do it?”
“Now, listen to me, Mary,” said Tim as he raised the stick and laid it on her shoulder. She knew that he wouldn’t beat her even if he could with his trembling hands, but she pretended to wince and cower away from him. “You mind what I say to you. If you ever do something like this again, and dress me up in those indecent rags, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll haunt you!’
“Oh don’t do that, Tim! Please don’t!” shrieked Mary, her face as pale as ashes. “Kill me now, if that’s what you want, or do anything to me you like, but for the love of the blessed Virgin and all the Saints, keep you to your grave! I’ll put the new shirt on you. My two hands will starch it and make it as white as snow, after it being laid aside so long in the old chest. You’ll be a lovely corpse, never fear about that! And I’ll give you the greatest wake that ever a man had, even if I have to sell the pig, and part with every stick in the cabin to buy the tea and the whisky. I swear to you I will, on this blessed night, my darling man.”
“Well, mind that you do, or it will be all the worse for you. And now give me a drop of water to drink, and put a taste of that whisky through it, for I’m ready to faint with thirst and with weakness.”
Mary kept her promise to her husband. Never in the history of that parish was there such a wake was that given for Tim Scanlan. It all occurred very soon after the events described above. Poor Tim really did depart this life, and manner in which his corpse was laid out, with his “elegant brand-new shirt”, was the admiration of all beholders of all who saw it.