Biddy’s – Neil Kelly’s Fortune

An Old Tale of Ireland

There was nothing nice or polite about Neil Kelly. He simply told his wife that he was going to the forge to get a ‘doctoring instrument’ and off he went without another word being said. When he arrived at the forge he mumbled a greeting to the blacksmith, who asked him “Where are you heading to today?

” I have come here, for to ask you to make me an instrument for some doctoring I intend to do.”

“Aye, well what type of instrument is it that you want?”

“Make me a ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’,” replied Neil.

The Smith made these instruments for him in a short period of time and Neil then returned home.

When the next day dawned, Neil Kelly rose up from his bed and prepared himself to be going out as a doctor and went out of the house.  As he walked along the road, Neil met a red-haired lad on the side of the high road. The lad politely saluted Neil Kelly and Neil did likewise in reply. “Where would you be going?” asked the red man.

I am going as far as I can to get me a doctoring job.”

It’s a good trade,” says the red man, “It would be best for you to hire me.”

What wages would be you be looking for?” inquired Neil.

“I suppose half of what we shall earn until we come back to this place again would be right.

“I’ll give you that,” said Neil without hesitation, and with this agreed the two men walked on their way together.

There’s a king’s daughter,” said the red man, “who is close to death. We should go as far as the place in which she rests, and we shall see if we can heal her.

The two men walked on as far as the gate of a strong well-guarded castle, and the porter came to answer their call. He asked them where they were going to, and they said that they had come to look at the king’s daughter they were, to see if they could do her any good. The king, hearing this gave the visitors permission to enter the castle, and they were taken to the place where the girl was lying. The red man went to her and took hold of her wrist to check her pulse, and said that if his master should get the price of his labour he would heal her. The king replied by saying that he would give his master whatever he should award himself. In response, the red man said, “If I could have the room to myself and my master, then he could work better,” and without hesitation, the king said he should have it.

He wanted a little pot of water brought down to him, which he immediately put on the fire to boil. He asked Neil Kelly, “Where is the doctoring instrument?

Here they are,” said Neil, “a crooked knife and a white knife.”

He put the crooked knife on the girl’s neck, and he took her head off her body. Then, he took a green herb out of his pocket and rubbed it into her neck. Not one drop of blood came out of the wound as he took the head and threw it into the pot of water starting to boil on the fire. He boiled it for a while, seized hold of the two ears, and taking it out of the skillet, he struck it down on the neck. The head stuck on the girl’s body as well as it ever was. “How do you feel now,” he asked the girl.

I am as well as ever I was,” said the king’s daughter.

The big man shouted for her father and the king came down to the room. When he saw his daughter, he was totally joyous, and he would not let the visitors go away again for three days. When they were eventually leaving the castle, the king brought down a bag of money and poured it out on the table. He asked Neil Kelly if there was enough there for him. Neil said that there was more than enough and that they would only take half of the amount. But the king wanted them to take the entire amount, and the two men replied, “There is a daughter of another king who is waiting for us to go and look at her.” With that, they bid farewell to the king and went on their way.

They went to look at their new patient and went to the place where she was lying ill. After looking at her in her bed she was healed in the same manner as the previous princess was healed. The king was grateful, and he said that he did not mind how much money Neil should take from him, giving him three-hundred pounds cash, and then they left to go home.

There’s a king’s son in such and such a place,” said the red man, “but we won’t go to him. We will go home with what we have.” They were heading home, with ten heifers that the king had given them, and as they walked homeward, they came upon the place where Neil Kelly had hired the red man.

I think,” said the red man, “that this is the place where I met you the first time.”

I think it is,” replied Neil Kelly, “Friend, how shall we divide the money?

Two halves,” said the red man, “that’s what we agreed.”

I think it is too much to give you half,” said Neil Kelly, “a third is enough for you. It was I who had the ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’, and you had nothing.”

I won’t take anything,” said the red man, “unless I get half the money.” The two men fell out over the money, and the red man left him.

Neil Kelly was coming closer to his home, driving his share of the cattle. The day became hotter and the cattle began to scamper backwards and forwards in the heat, with Neil Kelly trying his best to control them. When he caught one or two, the rest would be off when he used to bring them back. The horse, which he used to catch the cattle, was tied to the stump of a tree while he continued to try to catch the cattle. But they all got away and he hadn’t a clue as to where they went. Then, when he returned back to the place where he had left his horse and his money, neither the horse nor the money was to be found and he did not know what he should do.

He thought that he should go to the house of the king whose son was ill, and he went head until he came to the king’s castle. He went to look at the boy in the room where he was lying, and he took his pulse. Neil said that he thought he could heal the boy, and the king told him, “If you heal him, I will give you three hundred pounds.”

If I were to get the room to myself, for a little while,” said Neil and the king said that he would have it. He now called down for a small pot of water, which he put on the fire to boil. Then, he took his ‘crooked knife’ and went to take the head off the boy, just as he had seen the red man doing previously. He was sawing at the head, but it did not come away easily, allowing him to cut it off at the neck. The blood was pouring out as he finally took the head off the boy and threw it into the boiling water. He boiled it for a while until he considered that the head had been boiled enough. Neil then tried to get the head out of the pot and managed to get a hold of its two ears. The head fell, in a gurgling mass of flesh, and the two ears came with him. By now the blood was pouring out in great amounts, flowing down the room and seeping out from under the door.

When the king saw that the blood was flowing out from under the door of the room, he knew that his son was dead. He wanted the door opened, but Neil Kelly refused to comply with the king’s orders, and soldiers broke down the door. The young man was dead, and the floor was covered with blood. They seized Neil Kelly, whom they told would hang the next day, and they gathered a company of guards to take him to the place where he was to be executed. They went with him the next day and were walking toward the tree where he should be hanged, and he stopped his screaming. Ahead they saw man stripped and running quickly toward them with a type of mist around him. When he came up to them, the running man cried aloud, “What are you doing to my master?

If this man is your master, you had better deny him, or you’ll get the same treatment,” they warned him.

But it is me who should be suffering, for it me who caused the delay. He sent me for medicine, and I did not come in time. If you free my master, perhaps we can still heal the king’s son.”

They freed Neil and the two men were taken to the king’s house. The red man went to the place where the dead man was, and he quickly began to gather up the bones that were in the small pot. He gathered them all except for the two ears. “What did you do with the ears ?” he asked Neil.

I don’t know,” said Kelly, “I was so frightened.”

The red man finally got the ears and he put them all together. From out of his pocket he took a green herb, which he rubbed around the head. The skin soon covered it again and the hair grew as fine as it had been previously. He put the head in the skillet again and allowed it to boil a while. The red man put the head back on the neck, where it stuck as well as it ever had done, and the king’s son rose up in the bed. “How are you now?” asked the red man.

I am well,” said the king’s son, “but I feel terribly weak.”

The red man shouted again for the king and the king was overjoyed to see his son alive again. They spent that night celebrating and, the next day, when they were going away, the king counted out three hundred pounds. He gave the money to Neil Kelly and told him that, if he had not enough, he would give him more. But Neil said that he had been given enough and that he would not take a penny more. He bade farewell and left his blessing, and struck out, heading straight for home. When they saw that they had reached the place where they had fallen out with one another the red man pointed out, “I think that this is the place where we had our difference.

“It is,” said Neil, and they sat down to divide the money. He gave half to the red man, and he kept another half for himself.

The red man said farewell, and he went. He was walking away for a while, and then went back. ” I am here again,” said the red man, “I had another thought to myself that I would leave all the money with yourself, for you yourself were open-handed. Do you mind the day you were going by past the churchyard, and there were four people there with the body in a coffin? Two of the people were seeking to bury the body, but the dead person owed some debts. The two men who were owed the debts by the dead man were not going to allow the body to be buried. They were arguing, and you were listening to them. Then, you went in and asked how much they were owed by the dead man. The two men said that they each were owed a pound by the body and that they would not let it be buried until the people, who were carrying the coffin, promised to pay at least part of the debts. You said, ‘I have ten shillings, and I’ll give it to you, and let the body be buried.’ You gave them ten shillings, and the corpse was buried. Well, it was I who was in the coffin that day. When I saw you going doctoring, I knew that you would not do the business, and when I saw you in deep trouble, I came to save you. I give you all the money, and you shall not see me again until the last day. Go home now, and don’t do a single day’s doctoring so long as you live. It’s only a short walk now until you get your share of cattle and your horse.” Neil went on towards home, and he didn’t walk far until he came across his share of cattle and his horse, as the red man had said. He took them all home with him. There is not a single day since, that he and his wife do not thrive on their fortune.

Biddy’s – Our Dead Friends

“Our dead Friends are right,” an old man told me after hearing that it was my custom to sit up late at night to read. “No, sir, that isn’t right at all,” he sighed and shook his head disapprovingly.

I was curious as to his reasoning and I asked him, “Why is that?

Well,” the old man began, “sure, don’t you know that your dead relatives, if it’s God’s will that they should be wandering about the place, always like to spend their nights in the old home. They come at ten o’clock, and if the house is not quiet, they go away again. Then, they return at eleven o’clock, and if there is still any noise from inside, or anyone sitting up, they do the same. But, at twelve o’clock they come for the last time, and if they are obliged to leave again, they must spend the night wandering about in the cold! But if they get into the house at any time between ten o’clock and twelve o’clock, they will sit around the hearth until the cock crows to herald the new day.”

The old man’s eyes showed the knowledge of his years and the easy way in which he explained things assured me that he was a man well versed in folklore. His explanation of the dead relatives visiting the home at night gave some light on customs that I had seen when visiting relations with my father in the days of my youth. One such custom that I had observed was that of the woman of the house carefully sweeping around the hearth and arranging the kitchen chairs in a semicircle in front of the “raked” fire before the last person awake finally makes their way to bed.

The old man listened intently as I told him about the custom I watched, many years before, and he told me that such preparations were often made in the homes of country folk. “Sure, what would the relatives think,” he said with a smile, “if the place was not tidied up before their arrival? It is little respect we had for them they’d say.”

I loved to walk along the country highways and byways of the county, especially in the summer. One day, I was walking along a road in the south of county and was accompanied by a good friend of my father’s, called Peter. We passed a poorly clothed and wretched-looking woman, who acted most oddly as we approached. Much to my amazement, as we came closer to her, the woman turned her back to us and stood with her head bent towards the ground until we had passed by. “What in the name of God is wrong with her, is she away in the head? ” I asked Peter.

Aye,” answered my friend, “the poor woman is a little astray in the mind, and that is what she always does when she sees a stranger.”

Peter then began to explain to me that he recalled seeing the same woman, when she was young lady and he was only a boy. At that time, she was growing up into a very attractive and sensible young girl, who was admired by all the young men in the entire neighbourhood. “Then, she saw something,” Peter told me in a mysterious tone of voice, “and the poor woman was never the same again.”

What, in the name of God, did she see? ” I asked.

Sure, I wouldn’t know,” he replied, “but, it might have been something similar to what her brother saw before he died.”

What was that? “

Well, her brother was playing cards in a local village one night, and was returning home after twelve o’clock, when his eyes caught sight of a great number of strangely dressed, little men coming towards him. It struck him that every one of these little men were of the same size, and that they were marching to the sound of grand music. In the front of the parade there was one little man, who held a big drum and was heartily beating away at it, accompanied by two or three more little men with smaller drums, and the rest of the company had flutes. The poor woman’s brother was almost frightened to death by what he saw, and he stood rooted to the spot unable to move even an inch. The little man beating the big drum came up to him and asked him why he had dared to come along their way at that late hour of the night. The poor woman’s brother was completely mesmerised by the scene and could not utter a word in reply. Then, the little drummer ordered the rest of the parade to take hold of him and carry him along with them. ‘No!’ said one of the little men, ‘you won’t touch him this time. He is my own brother. Don’t you know me, Hughey?‘ he said as he turned toward the terror-stricken young man. In fact, he was his brother, who had died about a year earlier. ‘Go you home now, Hughey dear,’ the little man told him, in as mournful a voice as ever was heard,

‘’So, you see,” concluded Peter, “it is not advisable to be out late at night, particularly after twelve o’clock. And it is generally believed it was something similar that the poor sister had seen, which left her in her current condition.”

Naturally, I made no effort to question the supposition because I knew only too well, from past experiences, that any such efforts would prove to be fruitless. You, when you hear stories such as these, might choose to ridicule them and regard them as being complete nonsense. But, let me warn you that such ridicule and attempts to disprove such stories would only be a waste of your energy and your words. Those who have been brought up believing in the power of the Spirits, the ‘Good People’ and the Sidhe (Shee) are as convinced of their power and existence, as they are convinced of their own existence. In response to your efforts to dissuade them they will simply tell you that they know what they know.

Biddy’s – Good for the Cow

St. John’s Eve Lore

At sunset on June 23rd, another of the ancient fire festivals begins and is known as St. John’s Eve. Not that long ago, it was a wide-spread tradition throughout Ireland that on St. John’s Eve a curious practice prevailed, in some districts, which related to the time-honoured tradition of lighting a bonfire.

Before sunset on St. John’s Eve a small fire was built and lit in a place that was near to the byre because in such a position the milk-cows would pass close to the fire as they returned from the fields. In fact, great care was taken to drive the cows as close as possible to the fire itself. This was done, it was said, to allow the cows to “smell” the fire, which it was believed would have a very beneficial effect on the quantity and the quality of the milk and butter produced. It was also believed to be a safeguard against any evil spirits or witchcraft which might befall the cow herself. Then, coals were taken from the little fire, and one of them is thrown into each field of potatoes that belong to the owner of the cow. Through this ritual, it was thought, a great increase in the cow’s production would be achieved..

It was the custom in some places that when a cow begins to calve the owner would place a “grape” (the ordinary steel fork used in farming operations) near her head until she “cleans” (Rids herself of the afterbirth). The steel or iron from which they form the grape was considered “lucky,” and effective defence against any evil influences spread by the fairy-folk. There may, of course, be other customs resorted to on such occasions as this, but what kind of results they achieve I couldn’t say. There is another custom where a silver coin is placed in the first drink that is given to the cow after it has calved, and the reason behind this curious custom was simply that it was considered “lucky to let the cowlick the silver.”

There are many other peculiar practices, such as tying a red rag to the tail of the milch-cow (Milk Cow), with a few horse-shoe nails, a partially burned coal, and some salt are rolled in the rag. It was quite common at one time to see red rags hanging from the tails of milch -cows at fairs in the west of Ireland, allowing the intending purchasers of milch-cows to easily recognise the milking cow, from the ones due to calve (‘springer’).  

Tradition also advises farmers to take a very necessary precaution when the cow calves. Strangely this is to give the first of the milk, a small glassful is enough, to that very useful domestic animal, the cat. The reason behind this peculiar tradition, I have been told, is that they give the first of the milk to the cat so that the cat can take the bad luck away with her on her paws.

Biddy’s – The Seer

The normal things that amuse people are considered by the ‘Seer’ as being little else than vanity, if not something even worse. He despises those people who live and think only for the present, without ever once doing something for posterity, by attempting to discover the great events that lie in our future.

Domestic joys or the distresses that ordinary people encounter do not affect him in the least because the ‘Seer’ is not at all interested in feelings or emotions, but with a person’s principles. The speculations in which he indulges, and by which his whole life and conduct are regulated, place him far above the usual impulses of humanity. He does not care much who has been married or who has died, for his mind is more interested in communing with unborn generations upon affairs of high and solemn importance.

In the Seer’s mind, the past is something, but the future is everything, while the present unless it is marked by the prophetic symbols, means little or nothing. The topics of the ‘Seer’s’ conversation are vast and mighty, being nothing less than the fate of kingdoms, the revolution of empires, the ruin or establishment of creeds, the fall of monarchs, or the rise and prostration of principalities and powers. It is not surprising then, that a mind engaged in such things does not want to consider the lesser subjects of ordinary life, which are the priority of ordinary men. It is understandable that a man who is hard at work in evolving out of prophecy the subjugation of some hostile state, couldn’t care less if ‘Joe Bloggs’’ daughter was married to ‘Desperate Dan’s’ son, or not.

The ‘Seer’ could be called ‘The Prophecy Man’ because he devotes himself solely to the close observation of those political occurrences which mark the signs of the times, as they bear upon the future. It is his business to link such events with his own prophetic theories, which he spreads around. Many of the itinerant characters of old had when compared with him, a very limited area of operations. Instead of being confined to a parish or a barony, the bounds of the ‘Prophecy Man’s’ travels were those of the entire kingdom.

My Great-grandfather once told me about such a man, whom he said was the only one worthy of the title of ‘Prophecy Man’. He was known Barney Hagan, but my great-grandfather said that he didn’t know where in Ireland he was born. It remained a mystery, which is almost an advantage for a man who was constantly spoken of as ‘The Prophecy Man’. Quite oddly, although Barney could not read, he always carried about with him several old books and manuscripts that were concerned with his favourite subject.

Barney was a tall man and was always neatly dressed. He could not be considered a beggar, by any means, but was viewed as a person who must be received with respect wherever he went. People knew perfectly well that it was not with every farmer in the neighbourhood that he would feel happy to stay with. There was nothing of the austere and half-starved man in his appearance, which might be considered as a common trait of a Prophet. But Barney’s appearance was far from that, for he was quite portly. However, like a certain class of fat men, his natural disposition was to be calm and meditative. His movement was slow and regular, and his travel from one resting-place to another never exceeded the length of ten miles. Yet, even at this rate of travel, he covered the entire kingdom several times. Furthermore, there was hardly a local prophecy of any importance within the country with which he was not acquainted.

He took great delight in the words of the greater and lesser prophets in the Old Testament, but his favourite was the Revelations of St John the Divine. Usually, when the family came home from work in the evening, he would stretch himself on two chairs, with his head resting upon the hob, and his eyes closed to show that his mind was deeply engaged with the matter in hand. As he rested like this, he would ask someone to read the particular prophecy on which he wished to talk at length. It was generally curious and amusing entertainment to hear the text, accompanied by his own singular and original commentaries. There were, of course, many occasions when he was hoaxed by various jokers, and this was evident from the startling errors in the text which had been put into his mouth, and which, having been once put there, his tenacious memory never forgot.

Barney’s arrival in the neighbourhood was soon known far and wide throughout the district. As a result, the house in which he had thought it proper to stay became crowded every night. When their work had finished the people would eagerly gather to hear him speak. “Barney, old friend,” his host would say, “here’s a lot of the neighbours that have come to hear a lesson from you on the Prophecies. Sure, if you can’t give it to them, then who is there to be found that can?

By God, Paddy Trainor, although I say so myself, there’s a lot of truth in that. That same knowledge has cost me many a weary blister and sore heel in hunting it up and down, through mountain and glen, in Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connaught. And, sure, we should not be forgetting the Highlands of Scotland, where there is what they call the ‘short prophecy,’ or second sight. But, in that place, there is very little of the Irish or long prophecy, that tells what is to happen the ‘winged woman’ that had flown into the wilderness. No, indeed, their second sight isn’t true prophecy at all. If a man goes out to fish or steal a cow, and he happens to be drowned or shot, then another man who has the second sight will see this in his mind’s eye about or shortly after the time it occurs. But that’s no great thing. Many a time our own Irish dreams are equal to it, and indeed I have it from a knowledgeable man, that the gift they boast of has four parents, namely an empty stomach, thin air, a weak head, and strong whiskey. It is said that a man must have all these, especially the last before he can truly possess the second sight, and that is my own opinion as well. Now, I have a little book that contains a prophecy about the milk-white hind and the bloody panther, and a warning about the slaughter that there’s to be in the ‘Valley of the Black Pig’, as was foretold by ‘Beal Derg’, or the prophet with the red mouth, who never was known to speak except when he prophesied, or to prophesy only when he spoke.

The Lord bless and keep us! Why was he called the ‘Man with the Red Mouth’, Barney?

I’ll tell you that. First, because he always prophesied about the slaughter and fighting that was to take place in the future; and, secondly, because, while he spoke, the red blood always trickled out of his mouth, as proof that what he fore-told was true.

“Glory be to God! but that’s wonderful altogether. Well, well!”

“Aye, and ‘Beal Derg’, or the ‘Red Mouth’, is still living.”

“Living? why, is he a man of our own time?”

Our own time? The Lord help you! It’s more than a thousand years since he made the prophecy. The case you see is this. He and the ten thousand witnesses are lying in an enchanted sleep in one of the dark mountains.

An’ how is that known, Barney?

It’s known. Every night at a certain hour one of the witnesses and they’re all soldiers, by the way, must come out to look for the sign that’s to come.

And what is that, Barney?

It’s the fiery cross, and when he sees one on each of the four mountains of the north, he knows that the same sign is established in all the other parts of the kingdom. ‘Beal Derg’ and his men are then to waken up, and with their help, the ‘Valley of the Black Pig’ is to be set free forever.

“And what is the Black Pig, Barney?”

“The Presbyterian Church, that stretch from Enniskillen to Derry, and back again from Derry to Enniskillen.”

“Well, well, Barney, but prophecy is a strange thing to be sure! Only think of men living a thousand years!”

“Every night one of ‘Beal Derg’s’ men must go to the mouth of the cave, which opens of itself, and then look out for the sign that’s expected. He walks up to the top of the mountain, and turns to the four corners of the heavens, to try if he can see it. And when he finds that he cannot, he goes back to ‘Beal Derg’, who, after the other touches him, starts up, and asks him, ‘Has the time come?’ He replies, ‘No. The man is, but the hour is not!’ and in that instant, they’re both asleep again. Now, you see, while the soldier is on the mountain top, the mouth of the cave is open, and anyone may go in that might happen to see it. One man it appears did, and wishing to know from curiosity whether the soldiers were dead or living, he touched one of them with his hand, who started up and asked him the same question, ‘Is the time come?’ Very, fortunately, he said ‘No’ and at that minute the soldier was as sound in his trance as before.

“And, Barney, what did the soldier mean when he said, ‘The man is, but the hour is not?’”

“What did he mean? I’ll tell you that. The man is Bonaparte, which means, when put into the proper explanation, the right side, namely the true cause. Learned men have found that out.”

“Barney, wasn’t Columcille a great prophet?”

“Aye, he was a great man entirely at the prophecy, and so was St Bridget. He prophesied ‘that the cock with the purple comb is to have both his wings clipped by one of his own breed before the struggle comes.’ Before that time, too, we’re to have the Black Militia, and after that, it is time for every man to be prepared.”

“And, Barney, who is the cock with the purple comb?”

“Why, the Orangemen to be sure. Isn’t purple their colour, the dirty thieves?”

“And the Black Militia, Barney, who are they?”

“I have gone far and near, through north and through south, up and down, by hill and hollow, till my toes were corned and my heels cut in pieces but could find no one able to resolve that or bring it clear out of the prophecy. They’re to be soldiers in black, and all their arms and accouterments are to be the same colour, and more than that is not known as yet.”

“It’s a wonder that you don’t know it, Barney, for there’s very little about prophecy that you haven’t got at the tips of your fingers.”

Three birds is to meet”, Barney proceeded, “upon the seas, two ravens and a dove, the two ravens are to attack the dove until she’s at the point of death. But before they take her life, an eagle comes and tears the two ravens to pieces, and the dove recovers. There are to be two cries in the kingdom. One of them is to reach from the Giants’ Causeway to the centre house of the town of Sligo. The other is to reach from the Falls of Beleek to the Mill of Louth, which is to be turned three times with human blood. But this is not to happen until a man with two thumbs and six fingers upon his right hand happens to be the miller.

“Who’s to give the sign of freedom to Ireland?”

“The little boy with the red coat that’s born a dwarf, lives a giant and dies a dwarf again! He’s lightest of foot but leaves the heaviest foot-mark behind him. And it’s he that is to give the sign of freedom to Ireland!”

Stories of Seamus No. 26

The Piper’s Three Tunes

If ever you were expecting to visit the county of Armagh in the early decades of the nineteenth century, you may have been advised, beforehand, to keep watch for a tall, stout, lazy-looking man, with sleepy eyes and a huge cocked nose. He dragged his feet along as if they were heavy wooden clogs that had been forced upon him by nature. They deliberately restrained his movement rather than helping him move forward as he dawdled along the highways and byways of the county. More often than not, however, he could be caught lounging about a public-house, with a green bag under his arm. That man was Tim Callaghan and you would have been advised to be wary of him and his ways. The following account by a fellow traveller who met with Callaghan will, perhaps, shed more light on the subject –

“When first I met Tim Callaghan, he assured me that he had served seven long years with, as he said himself, ‘as fine a piper as ever put chanter under an arm.’  He said that at the end of that well-spent period he began to enchant the gentry of the county on his own account, being the owner of a splendid set of pipes, and three whole tunes that earned him a good living. This puzzled me for a time and as we chatted quietly I asked him, quite innocently – ‘Isn’t it a pity Tim, that with your fine taste in music and possession of top-class set of pipes you didn’t try to learn a half dozen tunes at least?’

“Immediately, I knew that had annoyed the man by the sulky expression that crossed his face. ‘Oh now, friend,’ he answered me, ‘that very same question has been put to me by dozens of people, before you and I hate to hear it! It was only yesterday that a lady asked me that same question. ‘Dear madam,’ said I, ‘did you ever play a tune on the pipes in your life?’ ‘Never, indeed,’ said she, looking a bit ashamed by her ignorance, as she should have been. ‘Because if you did,’ said I again to her, ‘you would soon say, “great job, Tim Callaghan, to get over the three tunes so well, without asking people to do what’s impossible.” And now I appeal to you, Sir, what use is there in complicating people’s brains with six or seven tunes when three does my business just as well?’  After I told him that I could not fault his argument we became very good friends. Being grateful for my patience and forbearance, he eternally murders those three unfortunate tunes for my pleasure. In all honesty I doubt now if I could truly enjoy those tunes being played well, because I have grown so accustomed to Tim’s efforts.

“Tim Callaghan, it must be said, was a politically astute character, and his three tunes were expressly chosen and learnt so as to win over the ears and the acclamation of all denominations of Christian men. Thus, the “Boyne water” is the tune played to please the Protestant audience, while “Patrick’s Day” was just the tune to satisfy an audience of Roman Catholics, and when Tim’s not sure of the creed of the audience he wishes to please, to suit Quakers, Methodists, and other non-conformists,  “God save the Queen” is the third tune. For many years he was perfectly content to give these favourite tunes in their original musical purity, but some wicked gobshite, probably another piper, persuaded him that his melodies would be totally irresistible to the audience if he would add some ornamental variations to them of his own choosing.  Tim was a man who was unaccustomed to flattery, and so naïve that he would never suspect someone having a joke at his expense. Not surprisingly, then, he jumped at this bright idea, overcame his natural and acquired laziness, and made an effort to add variety in his tunes. When Callaghan thought he had mastered the difficulties of the task, he decided to do me the honour of appointing me as the person to pronounce judgement on his melodious additions. All I shall say about those variations is, let the dumbest eejit that ever looked dreamily down an empty well, listen to Tim Callaghan’s variations, and watch his face while he performs those variations. I promise you the man will require heavy drugs if he would ever get time to sleep for laughing!

“When Tim arrives at the door to a gentleman’s residence, he usually begins to entertain with a suitable serenade, and he will drone away at that until the few pence he receives for piping permits him to leave contented. But if he is kept waiting too long, and he sees that there is no real chance of a reward   he becomes furious, and in his anger he will begin to play that one of the three tunes which he believes is the most disagreeable and opposite to the politics of the offender. If the party is a Roman Catholic, he will be unpleasantly shocked, and all his prejudices aroused, by “the Boyne water,” performed with unusual vigour. If the offender is a church-goer, he will never recover from the trauma of “Patrick’s Day,” that is given with an energy that would shatter any goodwill between the parties. Should Tim be asked to play a person’s favourite, or a popular tune, it would be like asking him to stand up and repeat a passage from Homer in the original Greek. If you are lucky he might even give you a civil reply along the lines of, ‘I haven’t got that, but I’ll play one that is as good,’ and one of his trio of tunes would follow. If the customer is keen on something new being played he could find himself cut short with, ‘Who do you think you are to telling me what to play. Anyone else, better even than you, would be content with what I gave you and reward me handsomely’.

“The first occasion that I had the pleasure to see and hear Tim Callaghan, was in the middle of the dark and dreary winter, and in a quiet country home of a local minister. It was so quiet, in fact, that even the vile screeching of a tin whistle would have been welcomed until we had something better. You can imagine the joy we felt when the inspiring drone of the bagpipe caused our ears to prick to attention and expectation! The Minister’s servants were excited, noisily expressing their absolute delight, and in asking the minister to permit the piper be brought into the house and play the pipes. Their request was granted, the minstrel was allowed in, and seated in the hall. Well, Tim’s first tune in the minister’s house was, of course, ‘the Boyne’, which he played with a great spirit.  Moreover, he played very accurately on the whole, with the exception of a few rather essential notes that he omitted as being unnecessary and troublesome, or, some servants believed, because his fingers were so cold. Finally, Tim was led into the kitchen, where they seated him opposite a blazing fire. ‘Now he’ll play in earnest!’ they cried out with one voice, and they all gathered around him in expectation of more music.

“Tim was now in the house of someone he considered to be in the lower levels of the gentry, but he was willing to please all requests and conditions. Hesistation came when he began to wonder whether he shall repeat the ‘Boyne,’ or begin to play all-enlivening ‘Patrick’s Day.’ In an attempt to gain an answer he turned to a little boy who was gaping with wonder at the grand pipes that Tim was holding. ‘What religion are the servants?’ he asked the boy

‘They are of all sorts, sir,’ whispered the little boy, Tommy in reply, blushing all over because the piper had taken notice of him.

‘Of all sorts!’ muttered Tim and instantly decided, with much solemnity of face to play ‘God save the King.’

“The butler listened awhile with his expert’s ear. ‘You’re a great performer on the pipes!’ he told Tim at length, and with a hand on each hip. ‘and that’s a fine piece of Hannibal’s composition! But it’s not suitable for all occasions, and a livelier air would agree with our temperament much better. Change it to something new.’ Then, tucking his apron aside, the butler gallantly took the rosy tips of the housemaid’s fingers and led her out, while the gardener politely did likewise with the cook. The piper looked a little sullen, and he still continued the national anthem as if he knew what he was doing, and was determined to play out his tune. But, the butler did not like being ignored and his temper began to bristle.

“‘Really,’ he observed with a snobbish smile, ‘we are very loyal people around here, but at this particular moment we don’t want to join in a prayer for our sovereign’s welfare! Stop that melancholic thing, man! give us one of Jackson’s jigs.’

“’Out of fashion?’ asked Tim sullenly, ‘but I’ll give you all one as good,’ and ‘Patrick’s Day’ set them all in motion for a quarter of an hour.

’Oh, we’re all quite tired of that!’ the housemaid said at length, ‘do, piper, give us a waltz or quadrillel. Do you play ‘The Haymaker’s Jig?’ for Jem Sidebottom and I used to dance it beautifully when I lived at Mr Andrew’ s!’

“’What do you call it?’ asked Tim rather sneeringly.

’The Haymaker’s Jig,’ replied the young lady, drawing herself up with an air enough to kill a piper.

’Phew!’ replied Tim contemptuously, ‘that’s out of fashion too. But, I’ll give you one as good.” and the “Boyne” followed, played neither faster nor slower than he had been taught it, which was in right time, and nowhere near dancing time, much to the annoyance of the dancers. Another and another jig and reel was demanded, and to all and each Tim Callaghan replied, ‘I haven’t got that, but I’ll give you one as good,” and the “King,” the “Boyne,” and the “Day,” followed each other in due succession.

“Was there anything more provoking! There stood four active, zealous dancers, with toes pointed and heads erect, anxiously awaiting a further top class exhibition of Tim Callaghan’s powers! There stood the dancers, looking beseechingly at the piper. There sat the piper staring at the dancers, wondering what in the name of God they were waiting for, quite satisfied that they had got all that could be reasonably expected from him. ‘And have you nothing else in your chanter?’ the butler angrily demanded at last.

“’E— ah,’ Stammered Tim Callaghan, as if he did not understand the question. But, the question was put to him again, slower and a little louder. ‘Jaysus, you are powerful for asking questions of a man!’ Callaghan retorted impatiently, ‘your master would be content with what I played for you, and he would be grateful for it!’

“’By all that’s holy!’ exclaimed the butler, ‘this beats everything I ever heard of about entertaining! Tell me, did you ever attend a concert for the nobility? — Ha! ha! ha!’

“‘As sure as God,’ laughed the housemaid, ‘I am certain that this boy is going to get a great many more kicks than pennies! — Ha! ha! Ha!’

“’And that’s good enough for him!” added the gardener, ‘for a man that has only three half tunes in the world, and none of them right! Jaysus, what is your name, friend?’

“’What’s that to you?’ growled the Callaghan.

“’Absolutely nothing, friend! Only I thought that you might be the piper that played before Moses — Ha! ha! ha!’

“’Oh! This eejit wouldn’t even know who Moses was,’ said the cook, as she returned to her kitchen. The butler, meanwhile, had had enough and showed his disappointment and displeasure in Callaghan by taking hold of the piper and throwing him out from the comforts of the fire and the house.

“It was after this that I once again had the delight of hearing Tim Callaghan play. It was in another part of the county, where he was not so well known. A lady had gathered a number of young people to a sea-side dance one evening. But, just before the dance was to begin, she had heard that the fiddler she had employed had become ill, and could not possibly play that night. There was, as far as she could see, nothing that could be done. So, when the guests arrived, and the terrible news communicated to them, the gentlemen in spite of themselves looked very disappointed, as if they anticipated a dull evening ahead. The lovely bright faces of the ladies were overcast, though as usual, they tried to hide their disappointment and continued to act as if nothing was wrong. In this middle of this dilemma one of the young men suddenly remembered that he had seen a piper coming into the village that evening. He told the organisers that he thought it was probable the piper would stop for the night at one of the public-houses nearby. There was now a fresh sense of hope that instantly illuminated all faces, and a messenger was immediately sent for the piper. For my part, whenever I heard mention of a piper, I knew who was going to appear before me.

“’What sort of person is your piper?’ I asked the gentleman that had introduced the subject.

“‘A tall, stout, rather drowsy-looking fellow,’ he told me.

“’Oh!’ cried I, ‘it is the unique Mr. Tim Callaghan!’

“I was eagerly asked if Callaghan was a good piper. But, as I was reluctant to give an answer, another person, who knew honest Tim and his ways, answered, ‘Now, anyone in their right mind will not attempt to trumpet the praises of any other person, because one person’s opinion may not match another’s opinion.  For this reason, then, we leave Tim Callaghan’s musical merit to speak for itself.’

“At this time I can relate another anecdote that occurred while the messenger had gone to retrieve Callaghan. Another servant, called John, was once sent on a similar errand. John’s master had friends spending the evening with him, and he wanted his servant to procure a musician for the young folks for whatever price he could get. After half an hour John returned home to report that his search had proved fruitless. But, instead of simply saying that ‘he could not find one,’ he flung open the main living-room door, and announced his failure in the following way —

“’I searched the city’s cir-cum-fe-rence round,

And not a musician is there to be

found!

I fear for music you’ll be at a loss,

For the fiddler has taken the road

to Ross!’

John then made his bow and retired.

“Tim now made his appearance, and was seated in place at the top of the room, with the attention and respect that was due to his abilities. For my part, the very sight of Tim, and the thought of his consummate assurance, or stupidity, in attempting to play for dancing, amused me beyond any expectations. But, I suppressed all urges to laugh, and kept my eyes and ears on the alert, wondering what was going to come next.

“A bowl of his favourite punch was prepared for him, and while he was sipping it, I thought he cast a scrutinizing and anxious glance at the company that was assembled. I am quite certain that Tim was probably thinking how he should adjust his politics to suit those ready to listen to him. But, poor Tim had little time to settle, for a quadrille set was immediately formed, and he was called on to play! The eager ladies and their young men never once thought that a modern piper might not play quadrilles. In truth, I found it extremely difficult to stop myself from bursting into laughter! There stood the eight elegantly dressed and refined dancers ready to begin, and there sat Tim Callaghan in all his surly stupidity, with a dreadfully puzzled look on his face. He hummed and hawed, tuned and droned much longer than  was really necessary, completely unaware of the demand that was about to be made on him and his pipes. He was much more interested in wracking his brains as to which of his three tunes he should play first.

“’A quadrille, piper, when you are ready!’ one of the gentlemen called out.

“’E— ah!’ stammered Tim Callaghan as he opened his sleepy eyes wide with surprise and began to fiddle some more with the pipes.

“’ A quadrille!’ repeated the young gentleman.

“Ogh,  sure all of that is out of fashion, but I’ll give you one just as good,” and because the company was a mixed one, of whose political opinions he could not be sure, the dancers were suddenly astounded with the most unpleasant rendition of  “God save the King” that they had ever heard!

“All stared at him in disbelief, and most laughed heartily, but what was more hurtful to poor Tim was that his arm was grabbed roughly, and he was forced to stop in the middle of his tune. Then there was an angry demand that if he could not play any quadrilles he could play such and such a waltz, and the names of a dozen popular waltzes were called out to him. Unfortunately, Tim had never heard of any of them in his life! In his confusion and panic Tim began to play “the Boyne,” and some person angrily called the lady of the house. The name called seemed to Tim to be a Catholic one, and a sudden ray of joy shot through his body to his ends of his fingers, and from there to his pipes, and “Patrick’s Day” was the result. A kind of jigging quadrille was then danced by those people who were not so fussy and wanted just to have fun. But, one fussy couple, which included a finely dressed and perfume soaked lady and an aristocratic looking man with his nose permanently stuck in the air, returned to their seats with looks and gestures of horror and disgust. Tim was too busy to notice any of this as he threw himself wholeheartedly into his piping, excited that the ‘quality’ was actually dancing to his music!

“Well! As there seemed nothing better to be had, “Patrick’s Day” was played continuously, as a quadrille, then as a country-dance, much enjoyed by all who preferred dancing to sitting.  He played it before and after supper until, at last, everyone was weary of it, and the general view was that Tim should drop the “Day” and take up the “Boyne,” and try to make it move as best he could. By that time, too, Tim had become very tired of the patron saint’s tune, and now that he had drunk his fourth full-flowing tankard of punch he was more inclined to have a sleep rather than play more tunes. But he was soon roused by our worthy host, who was a man who enjoyed fun and was the very soul of the party. ‘For pity’s sake, piper,’ he said, ‘try to give us something that we can put bit of a step to! I wasn’t in the right mood for dancing to-night until now. If you are an Irishman at all, just take a look at the pretty girl that is to be my partner for the next dance, and perhaps those lovely eyes might inspire even you, you sleepy sot, with a bit of movement to perform some sort of a miracle on those pipes!’

“Short as this address was, and lightly as it was uttered, it had no effect on Tim other than making him even more ready to sleep. While the elderly host was speaking, the drowsiness was descending upon Tim faster and faster. He dozed and was shaken awake again. ‘What do you want?’ he growled loudly. ‘What the devil do you all want?’ Looking down at the assembled crowd as he was, I expected him to say, poetically, ‘Now my weary lips I close; Leave me, leave me to repose.”

“‘Play more music! More music!’ said our host, laughing loudly. ‘Any sort of music, any sort of noise,’ and he left the piper and took his place amongst the dancers. Tim mechanically fumbled at his pipes, while the gentlemen busied themselves in procuring partners. There was silence for some seconds until our host called out to him. ‘Begin, piper.’

“‘Out of fashion,’ muttered Tim in broken half-finished sentences, ‘but— I’ll— give— you  one— as— good,’ and a long, a loud reverberating snore at that instant almost made good his promise of music as harmonious as the sounds obtained from his pipes!

“You can just imagine the scene that followed. The smelling salts and perfumed handkerchief of the ladies were immediately required as they began to feel that they were about to faint! Those who were nervous jumped at the sound, as if a gun had been fired, while others simply joined in a chorus of laughter.  This laughter quickly changed to a degree of regret when it was realised that the Inimitable, and undisturbed, continued to sleep prolonged his sleep, and his nasal performance was his grand finale to the evening. ‘Now’, said the friend who had quietened my attempt to praise the piper, ‘hasn’t Tim Callaghan made his own speech of praise? Hasn’t his talent spoken for itself? What a figure our famous piper would have cut, had we ushered him in here with great words of praise!’

When the storm of laughter had subsided, and when all considered that their unrivalled musician had had enough sleep, he was once more aroused, to receive his well-earned reward, when the following discussion began:

“’Tell me, piper, what is your name?’ asked our host with all the gravity of a judge, as he took out a notebook and pen

“’E— ah? Why, Tim Callaghan.’

“’Ha! Tim Callaghan,’ said the host as he wrote down the answer, ‘I shall certainly remember Tim Callaghan! I suppose, Tim, you are quite famous?’

“’E— ah?’

“’I suppose you are very well known?’

“Why, those that know me the once, will know me again’  said Tim Callaghan.

“’I do believe so! I think I shall know you at all events. Who taught you to play the pipes?’

’A man called Tom Harte, of the county Derry.’

“’Had he much trouble in teaching you?’

“’Him! Trouble! I know nothing about his trouble, but I can well remember my own trouble! There are lumps on my head to this very day, from the unmerciful cracks he used to give it when I went astray.’

‘“Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, poor fellow! Well, farewell, Tim Callaghan! I hope your path through life will be pleasant, and may your fame spread through the thirty-two counties of green Erin, until you’re rewarded by playing the pipes in heaven!’

‘”Sure, I’d rather be rewarded with a good dinner!’ said Tim Callaghan, and made his exit.

“For a couple of years afterward I quite lost contact with Tim, and I began to fear that he had vanished from the earth altogether, without leaving a trace. But, this very summer, that particular bright star appeared again, with a strapping big wife, and a young boy called Timothy at his heels. The child being a perfect copy of his father, his nose, sleepy eyes, shovel feet and all, and all the family apparently surviving very well on Tim’s repertoire of three basic tunes, and their variations.”

Stories of Seamus No 24

The Hurling Stick

This is a story that was related to me by a very old grand-aunt who lived in the heart of Connemara. As we sat by a blazing turf fire she told me that these things happened to a person who was very well-known to her, and so I have absolutely no reason to doubt a word of her tale. She lived all alone in a small, thatched and white-washed cottage , which stood on a lonely, narrow mountain road. Two fields to the rear was the two-storey farmhouse that belonged to the affluent and influential Meehan family. Tom Meehan was the head of that prosperous family, widely known and very much respected in the district. He was, moreover, recognised and famed as one of the finest hurlers that the County had ever produced.

Tom was very friendly to my old grand-aunt and many evenings he would stop by her cottage to see if she was keeping well. She had been a very good friend to Tom’s mother all her life, and Tom was going to make sure that she wouldn’t be too lonely in her old age. On those evenings when he called around to her cottage, he would tell her how the farm was progressing and keep her up to date about events among the neighbours. During the darker nights of autumn and winter, Tom would always ensure that the old woman had plenty of coal by the fire and a wee glass of whisky on her night stand as she would watch television.

The old woman would often share local folk tales and myths with Tom, constantly warning him about fraternising with the ‘Good People’, Leprechauns, and the various spirits that lurked about the mountain roads and forests. Tom, of course, was not the superstitious kind and would often laugh at her warnings, causing her some annoyance. Then, one bright, moonlit, autumn evening he was walking home, as usual, after spending the entire day in the fields. Following a well-travelled track Tom found himself walking through a small copse of trees and, in the distance he could hear excited voices. He followed the sound, which appeared to him to be coming from a field that sloped gently down from the edge of the trees. As he emerged silently from the shadows of the trees, Tom was surprised to see before him two teams of small men. They were dressed in different colours and playing a game of Hurling in the field, which was now brightly illuminated by the light from a full moon.

Tom stood among the tall trees and silently watched the game. As he watched he could not help but admire their prowess with their ‘Hurling sticks’ (Caman – pronounced ‘Cum-mon’), and he quickly came to the conclusion that these players were not ordinary men. From what he could see in that field, Tom was certain that these men were none other than ‘Good People’, who had often been described to him by my old grand-aunt. The quick and talented manner in which these men played the game totally captured Tom’s admiration, and he stood for a very long time just to see how the game progressed. Then, as the end of the match approached, Tom saw one of the men on the field trap the ball (Sliotar – Slit tar) in the air with his ‘caman’ and, as it dropped down, he stroked it so gracefully over the bar from the half way line. This was, without doubt, one of the best Hurling strokes that Tom had ever seen in his life. In his appreciation of the player’s move, Tom roared out a great shout of delight, causing the game to be stopped and all the players quickly turned toward the area from where the shout came.

There was silence for a moment until one of the players called out to om from the centre of the field. “Would you like to join in our game?” he asked. It was a surprising question because the player must have recognised that Tom was actually a mortal being.

Tom had often been warned about mixing with ‘Good People’  but the thought of playing hurling with such beings was too exciting to ignore. “I would,” he replied shyly, “but is there a place for me among you all? And if there is would I be good enough to join one of your teams?”

“There is room for one more player, which you can fill if you have a mind to,” came the reply as some of the other players laughed loudly at the prospect of a mortal being playing alongside them.

Tom became really excited at the prospect of playing hurling with ‘The Good People’, but he had no ‘caman’ of his own to play with, and he asked, “Would you have a hurley with which I can play a game?”

To his surprise, one of the little men reached to the ground for a spare ‘caman’ and handed it over to Tom. “Here,” he said, “This caman is made from the finest Ash and is one of the finest made, but  we will allow you to use it.”

Taking the hurling stick n his hand, Tom admired the comfortable grip of it in his hand and its balance in the swing. Never had he seen a hurling stick of its kind or finish, and he could hardly wait to join in the game with the others. Rolling up his shirt sleeves Tom took up his position in midfield just as the whistle blew shrilly in the evening air. Almost immediately the new caman appeared to help Tom play in a manner that he had never before experienced, and with his assistance the team that he had joined in the field won the game by a small margin. As they walked off the field the leader of the team came to him and told him, “You are a good player for a mortal! I suppose that now would be a good time to tell you who we are.” Tom nodded in agreement and he listened attentively as the small man explained, “We are called the ‘Good People’ in these lands and our home lies in that churchyard over yonder.” Tom watched as the team leader pointed toward an old church steeple in the distance. Then in an exceptionally friendly, almost secretive, manner he quietly continued, “But, let me tell you that we that we find ourselves to be in a great fix!”

“What sort of fix would that be?” Tom asked his new found companion.

“Well, the truth is that we have to play an important match against our greatest rivals in the next clan, and it all takes place a week from tonight. That is why we have been practising so hard lately. But, we have discovered recently that they have recruited the assistance of a mortal called ‘Red Mick Shea’.”

“Red Mick?” exclaimed Tom when he heard the name.

“Aye, and he is said to be the finest hurler in three counties. Do you think that you might be able to help us?”

“’Red Mick’ is one of the best alright,” Tom replied. “But, if I can have the same hurling stick then I will help you the best that I can.”

“You can have that caman, by all means,” the leader of the ‘good people’ agreed with delight and he immediately began to announce the arrival of their newest recruit to the team. “I think, boys, that we are now ready for all comers,” he called out and there were loud cheers from all those gathered on the field.

For the next seven days Tom could hardly contain his excitement at the prospects of playing in such a match. But, he could not tell anyone about the forthcoming match and made plans to get to the field without anyone knowing. A week from that very same night, boots in hand, Tom quietly crept out of the house without disturbing anyone. He had kept the secret of his great adventure, and his entire body shook with excitement as he headed out to play the game that he had promised the leader of the ‘good people’.

When Tom reached the same field, that he had played on the week before, he discovered that the two teams of ‘good people’ were already lined up and ready for the throw in. ‘Red Mick’ was at the ready on the half-back line and Tom saw him as he came on to the field of play and was handed the hurling stick. Tom took up his position within the team and the whistle sounded for the game to begin, followed by a great cheer from the spectators.

The sliotar was thrown into the centre and a great frenzy of players came together to try and take control of the game. Up and down the field the game swayed as first one team and then the other team gained superiority over the other. Hurling sticks clashed against each other, mixing their noise with the clap of leather balls being hit by the camans. The spectators watched closely as one moment Tom’s team dominated the play and, in the next moment, it was the rival team that appeared to be supreme. Score followed score, with very little between the two teams until, finally, the whistle blew loud to end the game. It was Tom’s team who had gained victory in the well-matched contest and there was great cheering and whoops of joy among the home crowd, whose team had  because of the victory.

The small man who had led ‘The Good People’ now came up to Tom, shook his hand warmly and told him, “We would like to thank you for all your efforts this day. If you would  just tell me what you would like to have for yourself  as a memento and, if it is in my power, you shall have it. Tell me then, is there anything?”

“To tell you all the truth,” smiled Tom and his eyes twinkled with joy. “I’ have taken a great fancy to that hurling stick that you loaned to me for the match, and that is all that I wish to have. That is, without doubt, the finest hurling stick I have ever played a game with. High Balls, Low Balls, and Fast Balls all came my way this night and I never missed one the entire game with that stick in my hand.”

“Now isn’t that the truth of it, Tom,” the leader replied. “You never missed even one ball during the entire match. But now, sadly, you have asked us for the one thing that is not within our power to grant you. The hurling stick, in our tradition, is the sole property of the fairy clan and no single one of us can just give one away to someone outside the clan. Especially to a mortal.”

The great disappointment that he felt at these words was immediately visible on Tom’s face. He believed that, after all, he had played a very significant role in the clan’s victory over their greatest rivals and now, despite his contribution to their victory, they had refused him the one simple prize that he felt he deserved. Still, he insisted, “But I must have it!”

“We are sorry, friend, but the hurling stick can never be yours,” Tom was told in no uncertain terms and it seemed that the discussion was at an end, as far as the ‘good people’ were concerned.

“I must,” insisted Tom, obstinately raising his voice and a tear rising in his eye with frustration. But this obstinacy only caused offence to some and an angry murmur began to arise among the good people. There  was division and a war of words now began, which developed into an almost muddle of loud, angry voices. Finally, still feeling that it was his due to have the hurling stick given to him, Tom slowly and silently walked off the field of play and grimly took the hurling stick with him.

Although it was not very far to his own home from the field, Tom almost immediately began to feel rather ill and nauseous as he walked off with the ‘caman’ in his hand. By the time that Tom had gotten to his own front door he was in a state of near collapse, and his family sent an emergency call for a doctor to attend to him. There was, however, nothing that any doctor could do for the unfortunate man. He lay motionless in his bed, weakening further day after day, and his wife cried as she solemnly asked him, “Is there anything at all that you need me to do for you, Tom?”

“Yes, my dear,” he answered her weakly. “There is a hurling stick  that is lying in the loft. Would you ever bring it down here for me and place it at the foot of the bed, where I can see it?”

“Of course I will, my dear,” Tom’s wife told him and she immediately set about fulfilling the task he had set her. From that very moment, every hour of every day that followed, Tom’s sickly condition appeared to worsen until everyone could finally see that there was little hope of  his recovery. As things became critical Tom’s wife came to his bedside and, holding his hand tenderly, she asked him, “Is there any last wishes that you would like us to carry out for you?”

By this time, the dying man could barely open his eyes to see his family, but he managed to turn to them and, in a very weak voice, Tom told them,”I want you to promise me just one thing.”

“Anything!” they answered.

“Will you all simply promise me that you will place that hurling stick by my side as I lie in my coffin, so that it will be buried with me?” he asked them.

They sadly agreed to do what they were asked and, when the time came, the family carried out Tom Meehan’s last wishes. The much prized hurling stick was subsequently buried with him in the Parish graveyard. But, even today, there are still some who say that Tom Meehan is still playing a great game of hurling, with that stick, in heaven and is still leaving his opponents completely astounded by his artistry.

Stories of Seamus No.23

The Discontented Stones

This is an old tale that relates to the famine days in Ireland, when ideas of liberty and justice were refreshed among the ordinary people. But, this story is also a warning about what liberty means to some people, and how it affects the lives of others.

This was a time when paid work for any man was a bonus. So it was that, with some gratitude, a stone-mason was busily employed in the building of a stout wall to protect a garden. At the side of the mason there was a heap of stones that had been piled up. One by one he picked up each stone in succession, examined it, and then decided the best place in which to set it. The stones, for their part, quietly accepted what was their lot in this world, allowing themselves to be handled by the mason and to be introduced into those places that he thought was most appropriate. There was no need for the stones to be difficult, for they were fully aware that the mason’s object was simply to erect a strong wall. They were also very much aware of the fact that this wall would not be built if they decided to oppose the mason’s efforts.

Isn’t it ‘Murphy’s Law’ that states – “If something can go wrong at the most inopportune moment, then it will.” To the amusement of this stone-mason, after he had completed a considerable portion of the wall, one particularly cantankerous rock became very argumentative the moment the mason laid a hand upon it. The rock began to vehemently argue about the rights of stones, and the terrible tyranny of mankind in forcing stones to do their will. He told the mason, in no uncertain terms, that whether placed in the wall or out of it he was determined to enjoy the liberty he believed was the right of every stone upon this earth. This stone also swore that he would sooner be broken down into dust than surrender its liberty.

“Let me speak plain and honestly to you, Master Mason,” said the stone. “I will never allow myself to be restrained by anyone. I must have room to do what I want to do. To be able to look about me and decide for myself where I want to go, and to be able to roll freely as I think proper.”

Totally taken aback by this outburst, the mason could not help but laugh aloud. “By the good God,” says he, “haven’t I found an odd, mouthy specimen of the ‘Rock People’? And it tells me that it wants to have enough room to roll freely about, is that the way of it?”

“Aye, that’s the way of it,” says the rock.

“Tell me, Mr. Stone, did you ever hear of the old saying that, ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss?’”

“I did of course,” sneered the stone, “and I don’t like it one little bit! Moss you see is a sign of old age, and in my world old age is an absurdity. So, I tell you, I hope to God that I will be kept from ever gathering any moss!”

“What?” the mason gasped with complete surprise and disbelief. Then, contemptuously he asked, “Just what the hell do you think you are?”

“What am I!” the rock angrily replied. “I, sir, am just a plain and simple stone, nothing more and nothing less.”

“Well, now that we have that sorted can I ask if you are happy that I should give you a place in this wall I am building?”

“Well, of course I am,” confirmed the stone.

“Hold on!” said the mason, “You have just told me that you will never allow yourself to be forcibly restrained by anyone or anything. You said that you must have room to do whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted to! Your inconsistency is really most ridiculous, and you should really make up your mind as to exactly what you want. So, for the last time, will you go into the wall where I place you, or shall I simply leave you lying there on the ground?”

“Inconsistent? What inconsistency? I have already told you that I will allow you to place me into the wall,” replied the Stone, patronisingly, “but I will not allow you to ever deprive me of my natural rights! Liberty is the first of these rights, and I must insist that I have liberty, even in the wall.”

 “And so you shall!” said the mason. “Your liberty will be that of obtaining your proper place in the wall, and of maintaining that place without being disturbed by anyone or anything.”

“You certainly have some funny ideas about liberty. I will tell you again, you gobshite, that I need to have room in which I can expand and move about in. What, in the name of God, makes you even think that I would lower myself to fill a place in the wall as just another mere wedge?”

“You are now beginning to stretch my patience, friend,” the mason warned. “You know, of course, that there is very little to be gained by continuing to argue the matter any further. If there is no hope of getting you to take up a particular place in the wall, then there is nothing left to me but to throw you back on the ground.”

 “If that’s the way you feel about it, then go ahead and do your worst,” replied the Stone, stubbornly. “But I must still insist on liberty before all things! So, just throw me away, but at a respectable distance from these other stones. In this way I might just feel myself to be free and independent. When all is said and done I have exactly the same right to be a free-stone, as much as you have to be a free-mason.”

“That’s it then, there you go!” said the mason as he raised his hand and threw the stone away from himself with all of his might. It landed with a loud clatter in the middle of narrow road that passed nearby.

The Stone was now in a place where could fully enjoy every minute of the liberty he had longed for. This, he counted as a victory and he congratulated himself on winning through stubborn defiance. For a time everything went well for the stone in his new found liberty. It was the summer time and the weather was mild, the skies were bright, and the road was busy with various people making their way from one place to another.  As the vehicles and people passed over the stone it was being continually transferred from one place to another, daily opening it up to more and more of the world’s ways. But, unfortunately, all good things come to an end eventually and the summer could not last forever. The autumn came, bringing with it clouds of dust and great showers of golden yellow leaves. When the gusts of wind had subsided they were followed by heavy torrents of rain, covering the narrow the road in a mire of mud, which also covered the entire stone and made it almost indiscernible from the land on which it rested. In this condition it lay there, fallen from the heights it had once considered itself to have reached, completely unrecognisable to the passing eye and treated in the same manner that the vilest of rubbish would be.

Unfortunately for the stone this was not the worst that it was to endure. Over the following few weeks the rains continued to fall quite regularly and the ground became a virtual sea of mud. The earth beneath the stone softened and the stone, under its own weight, sank slowly deeper in the mire until less than a quarter of its surface remained above ground. To add to the stone’s misfortunes there was no longer any possibility of retracing its steps, because the mason had now completed his wall and had moved on to other profitable work elsewhere. There was nothing left for the stone but to sink deeper and deeper into the earth, until none of its surface remained visible.

The stone’s fate was sealed. The ideals of Liberty and Independence had been very much desired by the stone, and he was determined that he would achieve these things in his life. But< In The manner in which he tried to achieve these ideals, the stone learned a very valuable life lesson. He had seen that those who seek such ideals at the expense of the social order do absolutely nothing but make a senseless and irremediable blunder.

In the spring of the following year the mason was once again gainfully employed in building another wall, which he hoped would be completed without the interruption he had suffered the previous year. He was, however, to become greatly disenchanted very quickly when, just like the year before, one of the stones began to grumble, and loudly protest against the treatment to which it was about to be subjected. The stone-mason, recalling the hassle he had endured on the previous occasion was just on the point of throwing the stone away, but hesitated. He had second thoughts about casting the stone away without at least trying to reason with it.

“Since no two stones are alike,” he said loudly, “it may be just that I met a stone that stood up against my arguments. It does not mean that another stone might to be prove to be less intractable after I have talked to it.”

“It was spoken truly! You are definitely a gobshite!” shouted the stone angrily. “You think that no two stones are alike! And this ignorance on your part is definitely your biggest and most foolish mistake. I can tell you here and now, eejit, that there is no difference between one stone and another. I am just as good as any of those stones in the wall, and I demand my rights.”

“Aren’t you the one with the big mouth?” exclaimed the mason, “But, I admit you are a sturdy lump of rock! Would you like to briefly inform me as to what you consider your rights to be? Don’t take all day about it, but simply tell me how you would like me to dispose of you.”

“I want to be a corner-stone,” the rebel stone demanded, “and I will be nothing other than a corner-stone. It is my destiny and I demand that this be done. Be quick now, mason, and place me in the wall as a corner-stone!”

“That I cannot do for you, my friend,” replied the mason. “Can you not see quite clearly that I have already chosen and placed all the corner-stones in their proper places?”

“Do you think that I’m blind?” asked the stone impatiently. “I can see well enough what has been done, but a man of your talents can easily take one of them out of the corner and put in its place. I have just as much of a right to be there as any of those stones, after all we are all equal. Each of us originated from a common quarry and, therefore, we are all alike. Just take one of them out, now, and put me in its place.”

“Now, can you not see just how grossly inconsistent you are?” The mason asked. “One moment you insist that all stones are equal, and have the same rights as each other. And yet you insist that I just rudely remove one of the corner-stones, just for your pleasure, despite your own acknowledgement that you are no better than they are! Christ, stone, I have to say that you have a very peculiarly odd idea of what equality actually entails. There is absolutely no way that I can continue to stand here and question what actually constitutes equality, because my time, unlike yours, is precious. I ask you, therefore, to decide if you want to be placed in this wall or not.”

“Of course, I want to be part of the wall,” said the stone, “but only as a corner stone. How can you be so blind as not to see that each of us stones is alike, and all, therefore, equal?”

“You are all stones alike,” replied the mason, “and are equal, but only in a certain sense. Your equality with each other exists in the fact that you are all equally able to be used as wall-stones, and not all of you being equally qualified to be used as corner-stones.”

The stone now cried out aloud, “To the devil with your ideas and doctrines! Either you make me a corner-stone, or you can build your wall without me.”

“Is that your final decision?” asked the mason. “Let me warn you not to try and make an eejit out of me, for I have not the patience or the time for such nonsense. This wall needs built and I cannot wait on your decision any longer.”

“I have decided! That’s it!” said the Stone. “Let me tell you that I would prefer to see your wall toppled and crushed into dust, along with everything else, before I would give up any of my principles in life. So, mason, just do whatever pleases you.”

“You are just one crazy, mixed-up, rock,” exclaimed the mason, “You are a complete gobshite, stone, so go and enjoy your ideas on equality where no one is likely to dispute it!” Saying this, he raised his hand and threw the stone as far away as he could from him. The stone-mason had thrown the stone with such force that, after it had travelled through the air, the stone fell down to the ground and sank several feet into the soft bottom of a deep and slimy pool.

To all intents and purposes this terminated the existence of that rebellious stone, for whatever became of it in that pool is impossible to know. It is almost two hundred years since the events in this tale took place and, since it became a total unknown because of its attitude, it is highly probable that is has eroded away. If this has not been the case, the stone has at least been eaten away by its foolishness in confronting the mason. We could conclude also that its predecessor from the year before suffered a similar fate. In this way, when seeking equality and liberty, it is important to know exactly what these two terms mean and how best you can achieve them. Knowing your role and keeping true to its ideals will encourage others to join with you in the cause. Being too demanding and having no support for your ideas may cause you to be cast out and perish in total anonymity. Equality and freedom is every person’s ideal, but you cannot hope to achieve it if demands and recklessness cause you to die in the course of achieving them.

Nines

The magic number of the Celts

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.

William Carleton,

Historian of the Famine

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.”[1]

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”.[2]

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.”[3] 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.

William Carleton

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.[4]

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.

[1] From an article by Laurence M. Geary in ‘History Ireland’ Magazine.

[2] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[3] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[4]  J. Robins, ‘The Miasma. Epidemic and panic in nineteenth-century Ireland’, Dublin, 1995.

The Charms of Salt

Traditional Folklore

Salt

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.