Seamus Curran was a popular businessman in the town and the news of his sudden death came as a terrible shock to everyone who knew him. From every corner of the town and outlying district people came to the house where his body was being waked to pay their respects to their friend and the family he had left behind. After first visiting Seamie lying in his coffin most of the mourners were crowded into the front room of the house, where they had a smoke, drank a little whiskey to the man’s memory, and recalled stories from the man’s life.
It was well after ten o’clock when Hughie McCann, the local undertaker, came into the room and was immediately handed a cup of tea, for the poor man had ‘taken the pledge’ twenty years previously. But Hughie had barely gotten his backside settled in the chair before several men in the room began to press him to relate a few of his stories to entertain everyone. He knew that a few humorous stories would shorten the long night ahead of those who would be sitting up with the deceased until morning. So, Hughie cleared his throat and told them all that he would do his best, although everyone who knew Hughie also knew that his ghostly tales were always the best. On this occasion, however, Hughie began with a song and encouraged everyone to join in and, when he had finished the gathering called for another.
In the kitchen of the wake house many of the neighbour women had joined together to supply the food for those who attended the wake. Among the women there was one who had three daughters of marriageable age and a good match was sought for each. The mother, of course, knew Hughie McCann well and she was aware that he was an unattached male who was well on in years and had never once thought of marriage. She spoke quietly to a woman friend standing beside her in the kitchen. “Sure, wouldn’t I be a happy mother if I could get your man McCann to take one of my daughters as a wife,” she said. “He’s a man with plenty of money behind him and a good business to give him a good living. Would you speak to him? But don’t mention my name.”
A short while later the woman approached Hughie McCann with a fresh cup of tea in her hand and casually mentioned that she knew a fine and beautiful girl who would make him a good wife. “You know, Mr. McCann, you are no spring chicken, and you are not getting any younger. It is time you got yourself a good wife, before it’s too late.”
Hughie rose up from his chair, his eyes filled with anger and told her bluntly, “There is not a woman yet born who I would even consider marrying, and not even two hundred wild horses would ever be able to drag me to the altar to do so!”
The mother of three daughters had heard him speaking and was deeply insulted by his words and, being the type of woman she was, she was not going to let him get away with it. “May bad luck follow you, for you are an insignificant wee brat of a man!” she told him. “You could have gotten yourself a beautiful young bride whose shoelaces you are not fit to tie, Hughie McCann! But all you will be left with are the corpses you have put in cheap old coffins that you hammer together. It’s like the dead burying the dead.”
“Allow me to tell you something,” retorted Hughie, “I would rather have the dead about me than many of the living any day, especially when the living people are like yourself. The dead have been good to me over the years, may they rest in peace, employing me to build their coffins, for when all is said and done the living would rather avoid me.”
The angry woman was not finished with what she wanted to say and told him, “That would be right! Sure, you are half-dead yourself, and it is with the dead you should be, and not with the living. Why don’t you just get out of here and look to the dead for company?”
“You can be sure, if I knew how to find them, I would go there,” Hughie answered tersely.
“Ah, you could ask them over for supper!” she laughed.
Hughie did not reply to her and walked out of the kitchen door and, in a loud voice that all could hear , she called out, “Men, women, and children, and for all those for whom I built a coffin, listen to me now as I issue an invitation for you all to come to my home tonight and partake in a feast that I will give in your honour.”
All those people standing around the coffin in which the corpse was laid out were totally dumbfounded when the dead man appeared to smile as Hughie spoke. In terror each one standing there took to their heels, and Hughie McCann hurried out of the wake house, making his way back to his work premises. But as he passed a public house he went in and purchased a bottle of whiskey, which he put into the pocket of his jacket before he moved on. When he reached his workshop, however, he saw that the interior lights were switched on. He knew that he had closed-up the workshop securely before he had gone to the ‘Wake house’. What he saw now concerned him, for he thought that thieves may have broken into the shop and night set fire to it. He stopped and hid himself in a dark shadow covered corner of the building opposite the shop to confirm his worst fears. However, all that Hughie could see were crowds of men, women, and children walking quietly toward his workshop, which they entered, one after another. As he watched, Hughie unexpectedly felt a tap on his shoulder and heard a voice asking, “Is this where you have been, and all of us waiting for you to make an appearance? Now, this is not polite way to treat your guests, so, come on now with me.”
As Hughie entered the shop with the man, it quickly became clear that a large crowd of people had gathered there. As his eyes scanned the faces in the crowd, he recognized several of his former and other people he had known in the past, all of whom were singing, dancing, and chatting among themselves. At that moment a man came out from the crowd and made his way up to Hughie and asked, “It seems you do not know me, Hughie McCann?”
“No,” replied Hughie answered, “I don’t know you! Sure, how could I?”
“There was a time when you knew me well,” said the man. “Even now you will recall who I am, for I am the first man that you built a coffin for. It was me that gave you a start in the undertaking business.”
Another man approached and he was very lame. “Do you know who I am, Hughie?” he asked.
“God forgive me, but I don’t,” replied Hughie.
“Jesus, man!” gasped the lame man. “Sure, I am your cousin, and it is not long ago since I died.”
“Of course, you are!” Hughie beamed with delight. “Now I recognize you and I can clearly remember how became lame. But how will I ever get all these people out of here? What time is it now?”
“It is early yet, Hughie! Sure, it’s hardly eleven o’clock,” replied his cousin. “Just make them all feel welcome and entertain them.”
“But I don’t have any money on me now to get food or drink for them. Anyway, it’s almost midnight and all the stores are closed,” Hughie told him.
“Well, just do the best you can!”
The fun and the dancing continued unabated and, as Hughie looked around the room, he caught sight of a woman who was standing in the far corner of the room. She was looking very shy and was not even trying to join in the festivities. “Why is that woman not joining in the fun?” asked Hughie. “She is not dancing and enjoying the craic like the others.”
“Her?” replied Hughie’s cousin pointing in the direction where the woman was standing. “Sure, that woman is not long dead. In fact, you donated a coffin to the poor woman because she did not have the money to buy one.”
“Well, the poor woman is afraid you will ask her for the money, or that you might even let it slip that she had not paid for her coffin,” the cousin added.
The best dancer in that room was Johnny Braden and he had died at least two years before this. Playing the fiddle was Tommy Riley, who had chosen to make a fiddle for the occasion rather than bring one. He peeled off what little flesh was left on his body and rubbing up and down he made music, for each rib gave a different note. To everyone’s surprise the music Riley played was excellent and, without doubt, the best Hughie had heard play. Then, everyone in the room decided to follow Tommy Riley’s example, pulling off what flesh remained on them, and they began to dance in their bones. You can just imagine the scene in front of Hughie as these skeletons danced their jigs, reels, and hornpipes. When they would accidentally clash against each other the air was filled with the loud rattling of bones, and the rush to put them back in place again.
Hughie McCann’s mind was filled with the desire to just survive the night, although there was no sign of daylight breaking. Meanwhile, ‘Big Alo’ Sullivan was moving around the room suspiciously, and Hughie remembered him well because he had been married twice in his lifetime, and his two wives were accompanying him. The undertaker watched as ‘Big Alo’ took the second wife on to the dancefloor, and they began to dance so well that the entire place was delighted, the skeletons all applauding and calling for more. Unfortunately for ‘Big Alo’ and his partner they danced too well for one of the guests, who was his first wife and she had become filled with a jealous rage. She ran on to the dance area and taking ‘Big Alo’ by the arm shouted that she had more of a right to dance with him since he had married her first.
“Catch yourself on,” screamed the second wife. “It is me that has the better right. When he married me, you were already dead, and he was free to marry whoever he wanted to! And besides that, I am a much better dancer than you! So, whether you like it or not I shall dance with him!”
“Ah, shut your beak you old crow!” the first wife screamed. “Sure, you wouldn’t even been here dancing tonight at all if you had not been able to borrow another woman’s shin bones!”
‘Big Alo’ stared down at his two wives and asked the second wife, “Have you someone else’s shin bones?”
“Aye! Of course, I have. Didn’t I borrow them from a neighbour woman?”
“Tell me, who owns the shin bones?” asked ‘Alo’.
“They belong to Katie Murray, but she didn’t have a good name about her!”
“But why did you not come on your own two feet?”
“Well, you see, I hadn’t a good name about myself either, but I was put under a curse that whenever there was a feast or a ball, I wouldn’t be able to attend unless I could borrow a pair of shins,” she told him.
As the blush of embarrassment rose in his face, so did ‘Alo’s’ anger. Much to his shame he had been told that the shin bones he had danced with had been borrowed from a woman who did not have a good reputation. In his anger, ‘Alo’ lifted his hand and slapped his wife, sending her spinning into a corner, much to the disgust of the woman’s friends and relations in the room.
“We cannot let him get away with that!” said one of them. “We have to knock some manners back into him!”
They all came together like a mob and because they no weapons, they pulled off their left arms to strike and slash at anyone who got in their way, and a terrible fight began. Hughie McCann, in the meantime, stood in silent amazement as the battle was launched, but he soon became concerned at the prospect of being killed in the bitter struggle. ‘Alo’ was busy dodging the various blows that were being aimed at him, and he accidentally on Hughie’s toe. Caught by surprise, and in pain, Hughie struck out with his fist and knocked ‘Big Alo’s’ head clean off his shoulders, causing it to roll to the far side of the room.
When ‘Alo’ realized that he had lost his head he rushed to recover it and used it to strike out at his attacker. His strike was true, knocking Hughie under a bench and being at a disadvantage, he found himself being throttled by ‘Big Alo’’. Hughie’s throat was being squeezed so tightly that he lost consciousness and could remember nothing more. But when he did come to his senses again, the following morning, his apprentice found him stretched out under the bench with an empty whiskey bottle under his arm. The poor man was bruised from all the pounding he had received, and his throat was very sore from the way he had been throttled by boney hands. But Hughie did not know how all the previous evening’s festivities had ended, or when his guests had left.
It was at Mick Harte’s funeral that I first met Paul Quinn, a popular and friendly man who was, before this occasion, a stranger to me. Paul, however, had been a very good friend to my Uncle Mick and he had, I was to discover, helped my father’s brother to avoid the full penalty of the law on many occasions.
“Mick was your uncle?” he asked as we walked behind the black hearse. “Then, it was Danny who was your father?”
“Aye, that’s right,” I confirmed. “Did you know them both well?”
“It was your father who was the eldest of the two and I got to know him. But it was your Uncle Mick and I who were the best of friends. In fact, Mick and I were born in the same week, just three or four months before the end of the great war.”
“I bet things in Ireland were a lot different in those days?”
“Aye, it was time when Ireland was very troubled and virtually lawless, and our early years were filled with a bitter and bloody struggle to gain our nation’s independence. The shock wave caused by the ‘Easter Rebellion’ were still being felt throughout Ireland, and the ‘Black and Tan’ thugs took the conflict to a higher level of cruelty and bloodletting, with neither side showing any pity to the other. We were still toddlers when the peace treaty was signed, and ‘Free State’ was created. But signing a treaty was much easier than maintaining lengthy period of peace.”
“I can imagine that it must have been an exciting time, but it must also have been very frightening,” I commented.
“Exciting is one word that could describe those days in our young lives,” Paul smiled as he searched his memories. “But it was a time of ambushes, guns, and the killing of Irish men by their fellow countrymen. There was one day, When Mick and I were only five years old, and we were playing in a field at the edge of town which ran adjacent to “Hennessey’s Wood.’ Without a warning there was an explosion of gunfire that appeared to us to last quite a few minutes, but it was probably only for a few seconds. We were shaking with fear as we lay in the grass, and we attempted to gather our senses quickly when the gunfire ceased so we could escape the danger. But from where we lay we saw twelve men coming out of the wood with rifles over their shoulders and bandoliers of ammunition across their chests. In their hands, however, these men were carrying a variety of birds and rabbits that would have provided them with a great feast. These were what our parents called ‘irregulars’ and they had been able to avoid the ‘Free State Soldiers’ that had been patrolling the area for the previous two weeks. For two very young boys who were only innocent children it was our first experience of the troubled country in which we lived.”
“Some experiences, Paul,” I commented as I slowly shook my head in wonder as we walked on.
“It was for someone so young,” said Paul. “My father, God rest him, had a worse experience. He was the owner of a busy local grocery shop and pub, and he owned one of only two cars in our small town.”
“What happened him?” I asked.
“It was in the summer of 1922 and there had been several skirmishes in the area around the town over previous weeks, mainly due to ambushes being set up by ‘irregulars. Well, it was daylight when my father was heading home in his car, and he had a keg of whiskey secured on the passenger seat. He was quite unaware that while he was away, some local irregulars had been busy excavating a trench in preparation for an ambush against an expected patrol of soldiers along the road. As usual my father was in a hurry and didn’t see the obstruction that the irregulars had placed in the road until he was almost on top of it. In his panic to avoid the obstruction he pulled on the steering wheel, forcing the car to swerve with a loud screech of brakes. But such was his speed and the sharpness of the swerve that the car overturned and crashed into the trench. The car was a complete wreck and the keg of whiskey it was carrying was busted open and splashed all over the small band of men, who were forced to jump out of the trench in which they were hiding. These armed men wanted to avoid being hit by an out-of-control car and they dispersed quickly, and the planned ambush did not take place. It was only after old Joe Murray came with his Shire Horses was the car pulled free of the trench and towed home. The news of the crash was the talk of the entire district for a month.”
“Dear God, that must have been some experience for your father?” I commented and was in two minds as to whether I should laugh or not. “What did Uncle Mick say?”
Paul smiled as he recalled, “Sure, Mick never said much about anything in those days, for in those days he was a bit of a tear-away himself.”
“Uncle Mick was a bit of a tear-away? That’s a bit hard for me to see, from what I know of him.”
“Aye! Mick was always a bit of an eejit, like myself,” Paul told me. “I’ll admit that things were much different in those days. The countryside around her was like a magical kingdom for two adventurous boys. We could have wondered anywhere without fear, and our parents had no concerns for our safety. There were many evenings that we would go after school to rob birds’ nests as part of our egg collecting hobby, which was a great past-time when we were young. You know, there were times when we would have to put an egg in our mouth so we could both hands to get down from the branches. It wasn’t always a successful choice, for there were times when the egg would break in our mouths as we descended and jumped the last few feet.”
We laughed together at the idea of birds’ eggs breaking in their mouths. “Aye! Egg collectors and poachers,” added Paul.
“Poachers?” I gasped.
“Aye, that’s right! We became very good friends and poachers when we were young, catching hundreds of trout by tickling them,” he told me.
“Did they just laugh their way into a net?” I joked.
Paul remained straight faced and began to explain, “In truth, it was Mick who was the real expert. His secret was to move his hand slowly and noiselessly under an overhanging riverbank, never hurrying or grabbing at his target. But when the opportunity came Mick would sweep the fish onto the bank with one swift scoop of his hand. At night we would take lamps and a gaff to catch the fish, but whether day or night we always had to be on our guard for police and gamekeepers. Maybe because we were so young, we never gave too much consideration to the punishment we might receive for our actions. We hunted hares, rabbits, pheasants, fish, and it was ‘Young Alo’, the postman in those days, who taught us everything about snares and other poacher tools. Now and again, ‘Young Alo’ would also bring his two big greyhounds and we would have great sport flushing out hares and rabbits, and watching the dogs chase them down.”
“Great times and great fun! Not at all like today?” I suggested.
There was now a more serious expression that came across Paul’s face as he remembered, “Well, life wasn’t all one period o constant joy and carefree abandon, for the people around here did face hard times. Most of the people around this place lived in stone and mortar cabins with thatched roofs. Although they made them as comfortable as they could, the homes were not luxurious homes. Poverty was widespread at that time, with Tuberculosis and other serious illnesses rampant, and alcohol and tobacco were their only means of relaxing. The Parish Priest, an old and spiritually gifted man, was constantly busy with his parochial duties, especially the funerals of those poor people who succumbed to the scourge of Tuberculosis, for which there was no cure. There were many funerals that Mick and I had to attend, for our schoolfriends or their parents.”
We walked on silently for a little while until Paul again began to speak. “There was not much in the way of work for a man in those days. The biggest employer in this area was ‘Tully’s Factory’, within which pigs were slaughtered and then processed to produce high quality pork and ham products. Of course, not all the locals were able to get employment there and those lucky enough to secure a job would stay for many years. It was said that you would have to shoot someone dead in the factory before you would face the possibility of dismissal. Just wounding a person would not even be considered a serious disciplinary offence.”
After lighting a cigarette, Paul continued to explain, “There were many others who indirectly benefitted from ‘Tully’s’ by gaining employment with the numerous pig farms that supplied the factory. Every Tuesday the pigs would be marched or transported in wagons and lorries from the nearby farms to the factory. On arrival they would be weighed and checked by the factory’s vet, for the better-quality pig would always be worth the greater amount of money for its farmer. It was a good time for the farmers, but as the prices for ham and pork products rose and fell, the farmers’ income could vary greatly, effecting the lives of their workers.”
Paul smiled as he told me, “There were, naturally, men who preferred to do little or no work, but still need money to survive. It was such men that found a home in illicit businesses, like smuggling and Poteen. However, there were more temperate people who were convinced that Poteen was the brew by which Satan entrapped mankind in permanent drunkenness. But the greater number were those who admired poteen and its manufacture. They considered the brew to be the ‘Nectar of the Gods’ which had been given to man to Pacify their hearts. Do you know that there are some men who will tell you that it is great stuff for rubbing on the backs of greyhounds, the forelocks of horses, and even the arthritic joints of men and women? But the truth of poteen’s attraction was that it could be made cheaply and sold at a good profit, and tax-free. Despite it being illegal, many stills were built and the people who made the spirit became socially acceptable to the community as a whole.”
“Surely the law came after them?” I asked.
“Of course, they did! In those days turf was used to heat the stills, which made the more easily detectable by the police and gaugers, who would destroy those they found. But there were those manufacturers who would double, or triple distill their poteen, improving its quality and bringing in a better price. Indeed, it wasn’t unknown, for some policemen and gaugers to ensure that they reserved the better-quality goods for themselves before destroying the still.”
“Ah, sure, you can trust no one. But the craic must have been good for Mick and you,” I smiled. “There mustn’t have been a corner of this county which was safe from you two rascals.”
“Travelling was not just as easy in those days,” said Paul as he caught his breath. “The roads were rough and very hard upon the types of motor vehicles as well as horses’ hoofs. Local Councils were constantly making efforts to improve road quality, sending out men to break stones as aggregate, which was then pressed and flattened by a steam roller. Travelling for fun by car or other vehicle was rare and there were many occasions when we would walk twenty miles to the nearest town, herding our cattle to be sold there. On those days we would accompany the cattle driver, who could earn a few extra shillings for his efforts. But the going with cattle was far from easy, especially when some of the moody beasts broke away from the herd and would run off in all directions across fields, bogs, and woods.”
Paul went on to explain, “On a fair day in town the sale of animals would begin about six o’clock in the morning and would last most of the day, with buyers and sellers coming in from miles around to bargain with each other. Big dealers would come from Dublin and as far away as England, and it would be to those places that most of the cattle went. The bullocks and bulls were the most difficult to handle, especially when they took the notion to wander off. Some of the farmers, however, would punch a hole in its ear and thread through some wild honeysuckle, which was said to stop the beast from trying to escape. It didn’t always work, however, and my father never believed in such old wives’ tales, preferring a much more hands on approach. There was one day when a bullock took a lunge at him and, without any fear, and with blood running down his rubber boot, he grabbed the beast’s head and thrust two fingers into its nose. With brute force he would twist its neck until it became still again. It frightened the life out of me, but he was a rough, tough man.”
“You know, there was one thing about people in those days,” he continued. “They were very much in favour of law and order, for they had seen enough destruction during the ‘War of Independence’ and the ‘Civil War’. I remember my parents were very strict, as were your own grandparents, and they had little patience for bad language or drunkenness. My own mother was always praying and saying novenas, and my father had very high morals, but neither of them would allow themselves to be dominated by any cleric. My father also detested anyone who would steal from him or tell him lies. He always said that you could watch a thief, but you could never watch a liar. Anyone who committed either offence against him would be severely punished with his fists, which were like giant sledgehammers beating down.”
“I can remember one fine summer day when Mick and I were playing just outside the local pub while both our fathers were enjoying a quiet pint together. But it didn’t stay quiet for long when Tom Riley, the leader of the local tinkers, arrived and was already the worse for drink. The barman refused to serve Riley and told him that he had enough taken. Riley, not surprisingly, did not take kindly to this and a war of words quickly broke out. The air was filled with all sorts of swear words and deadly oaths, which continued until my father spoke up, saying, “You have had enough now, Tom. It’s time to go.””
“Tom’s reply was to take a swing at my father, but he missed. My father drew back a little before he drove home a short jab, knocking the tinker chief to the floor on his back. The police were summoned to the bar and Tom was given a cell where he could sober-up overnight and get some treatment for the broken jaw he had suffered. That was the end of it and every time he came o the pub after this incident, he was sober and made welcome.”
The funeral cortege was turning into the cemetery by this time, and I said to Paul, “Well, it’s time now to put Mick in his place of rest.”
“Aye, its true enough,” replied Paul sadly, “and I never go a chance to say goodbye to him.” “Sure, you are saying goodbye now, and you have told me more about my Uncle Mick than I ever knew before. For that, Paul, I thank you.” I tried to comfort him and offered him my hand, which he took and warmly shook. At that moment the cortege came to a stop, for we had reached the church door and the priest began to say a prayer of welcome for the deceased.
Young Tony Cullen, if you have never heard of him, was descended from a long line of ‘Poteen-Makers’. It is not surprising then to learn that he was a young man who was filled with a practical wit, wisdom, cunning, and a fertile mind that would help him get out of many dangerous situations. His talents had been sharpened by the experiences of family created from generation to generation in handling trouble, building a bank of craft and guile that was handed down from father to son. There was not a trick, an evasive movement, plot, scheme, or maneuver that had been used and perfected by his ancestors that Tony could not immediately recall, to serve his own ends.
At the time of this story, Tony was just a gorsoon of sixteen years, but you shall see that even at this young age he had a mind that had been well-trained over years of practicing all the resources he needed to meet the vigilance, and stealth of his greatest predator, the Excise-man or Gauger. Thankfully, Tony’s talents were not totally reliant on his knowledge gained from his forefathers. These things, because of their age, provided little defence against the constantly changing, ingenious methods employed by the enemy to improve his stalking and capturing methods. But every new plan put into practice by the gauger was often met and defeated by a counterplan that was equally novel. The only difference between the two being that the gauger devises his plan after mature deliberation, while the counterplans employed by Tony were necessarily rapid and automatic reactions. In fact, the hostility between the gaugers and the illicit distillers continued through such strategies, which are filled with duplicity, adroitness, and unexpected turns of events. There would, indeed, be little hope of success for either side if they were to constantly rely on obsolete tactics and maneuvers. It must be said that the contest between the Customs & Excise, and the moonshiner is a full-blooded contest between mind and mind, between wit and wit, and between rogues and knaves.
The history of Ireland is filled many varied encounters describing the practical cunning, which is a part of the relationship between the ‘Poteen Maker’ and his eagle-eyed foe, the gauger. Stories of such encounters throw a light upon the national character of our people. They also demonstrate the readiness of Irish wit, the fertility of invention, and the irresistible humour which is so much a part of our lives no matter how difficult or critical that life may be. Indeed, it is the character of the ordinary, everyday Irishman to rise up and face the encounter and laugh at it or face down the difficulty until it is overcome.
Our short story begins with two men, dressed as gentlemen, riding along a remote by-road. It was a chilly October morning, and the air was remarkably clear, keen, and bracing. A hoar frost had set in over the previous few nights and lay on the fields around them, gradually melting in the heat of a sun that gradually rose in the sky. It being autumn, of course, the sun’s beams didn’t reach all the way into the valleys or the sides of the hills, and with evening’s return the feathery whiteness would again begin to cover everything.
One of the two horsemen reached a turn in the road, which skirted the brow of a bank on his right. It had a moderate degree of a slope, but the ground flattened out at the base and was studded with furze bushes, which grew so close together and level with each other that you might have thought you could walk upon their surface. As the riders reached this point, they noticed that some two hundred and fifty ahead of them a young boy coming toward them with what appeared to be a keg on his back. The eyes of one of the riders immediately lit up with a sparkle of excitement that marked him as a well-practiced gauger. For a moment he drew up his horse, giving away the fact that he had located a likely suspect. But that short, swift action had also alerted the young lad of possible danger. No sooner had he noticed the horse being drawn up that he crossed the ditch and disappeared down the bank into the forest of furze. Immediately the two horsemen galloped to the spot where he had gone down the bank and pursued the young boy by following his movements, all of which took only a minute or two.
“Aye, we have him!” called out the gauger. “We have him, and he cannot escape us!”
“Just speak for yourself, Sinton,” replied his companion. “As for me, with not being an officer of His Majesty’s Excise, I totally refuse to take any part in the pursuit of that boy! It is a fair contest, so fight it out among yourselves. At this moment I am with you only out of curiosity.”
The companion had hardly finished speaking when they heard a ice singing the following lines. Curiously, it appeared the singing was being performed in a hearty and hilarious spirit, with a devil-may-care attitude and no sign of apprehension. The voice sang out –
“Oh! Jimmy she sez, you are my true love,
You are all the riches I do adore:
I solemnly swear now, I’ll never have another,
My heart is fixed to never love more.”
The music then changed to a joyous whistle and suddenly the two horsemen were confronted by a young man, who was dressed in an old red coat, patched with grey material. The youth, when he saw the two riders, showed his natural and complete surprise at having come across them. He stopped whistling immediately and with firm respect put his hand to his hat. In a quiet, deferential voice he greeted the men, “God save you, gentlemen.”
The gauger stared down hard at him and asked, “Boy, where is that fellow with a keg on his back? He crossed over there just a moment ago.”
With a deep and puzzled look in his eyes, the boy asked, “When? Where? sir?”
“Where? When? Why it was but a minute ago, and it was here in this place!”
“Right, sir! And was it a whiskey keg, sir?”
“Boy! I am not here to answer your questions,” replied Sinton tersely. “By God, you young blackguard, are you trying to examine me, for I’ll not have it! Now, look boy! Where is the lad with the keg on his back?”
“A lad?”, he asked again. “I did see a lad, sir, but there was no keg on his back. Did he have a grey frieze coat on him?”
“He had!” Sinton replied eagerly.
“And it was a little bit short about the skirt. Wasn’t it, your Honour?”
“There he goes again!” sighed Sinton in frustration. “Damn you, boy! Unless you tell me where he is in one half-second, I shall lay my whip across your shoulders!”
“But I didn’t see any keg, Sir! The last keg I seen was – “
“Did you see a boy without the keg, who answers the description I gave you?”
“Sure, you gave no description of it, sir. But even if you did, how could I tell your honour anything about it when I didn’t see it?”
“You villain! Where is that lad?” shouted the gauger in his anger at the young man. “Where has he gone? You admitted you saw him. As for the keg, it cannot be far from us here, but where?”
“Aye, you’re right! I did see a boy with a short frieze coat on him, and him crossing the road down the other side of the ditch,” the boy replied. It was, however, all too obvious that such a lie would never stand up to questioning, for the road was no more than a slight mound that ran down a long field, on which there was not even the remains of a shrub.
The Gauger looked at his companion in total dismay and, turning back to the boy, said “Come on, boy, you know that is a black lie you are telling me. Can you not see that even a rat could never have run off in that direction without me seeing it?”
“By God, your honour, and I saw him,” gasped the boy. “With his grey coat upon him that was a little too short in the tail, and that was better than half-an-hour ago.”
“The lad of whom I speak, you must have met,” Sinton pointed out through gritted teeth. “For Christ’s sake, it is not five minutes ago. No! It’s not more than three minutes since he came inside the field!”
The gauger began to take a closer look at the boy for a moment or two and, pulling a silver coin from his pocket and said, “Listen to me, my boy! Let’s have a wee word in private.”
The gauger had taken note of the cautious distance at which the boy had kept, and just out of reach of either him or his companion. It began to dawn on him that, despite appearances, this lad might be the smuggler he sought. The more he thought about this possibility the more it became uncertain, especially when the time given to make himself and the keg invisible was too short. Then Sinton thought back on just how this lad had sung his song so cheerily and had, without pause, changed to a light-hearted whistle. Moreover, there was the natural and total surprise that the boy had shown, alongside his respectful and deferential manner. Combining all these things in his mind the gauger was still left in a quandary. Maybe, the gauger thought, the boy’s reluctance to approach closer had come from fear of the whip that he had been threatened with. Nevertheless, Sinton was determined to resolve the problem and, with the aim of getting his hands on the boy, he showed him a silver coin and began to speak more gently to him.
The boy saw the silver glint of the money and appeared to be instantly attracted to it, and he approached it like prey being tempted forward by an irresistible bait. The gauger was, nonetheless, surprised by the boy’s reaction, but he made ready to seize the lad when he came close enough. “Come now,” encouraged the gauger as he began to unbutton the boy’s coat. “You will strip!”
“Why should I?” shouted the boy. On his face was an expression which would have kept an artist busy trying to capture the perfect picture of curiosity, perplexity, and wonder.
“Why should you?” asked Sinton. “You shall see. In fact, we shall all see!”
“Now, sir, you’re not thinking that I might have hidden the keg about me?” replied the lad with an expression of complete simpleness, and an innocence that would have made man, other than a gauger, give up the cause. He saw nothing hopeless in this situation and he was determined to break this boy.
“No,” replied the gauger. “Not by any means do I think that! You young rascal.” He then turned to his companion and said, “See here, Cartwright! The keg, my dear.” He laughed and returned to the boy and told him, “It would be very cruel of me to suspect you of anything but the purest simplicity.” The, he began to pull at the boy’s coat and exclaimed, “Aha! Look here Cartwright. There’s a coat, there’s thrift, and there’s economy for you!” Then, turning again to the boy he told him, “Come on, lad, tuck on! Tuck on, and I will help you. Up with your arms now and straighten your neck. Take my word for it, but it will be straightened and stretched yet, my boy!” Laughing loudly, Sinton turned to his companion once more and asked, “Cartwright?Did you ever see such a change in your life being made so quick, complete, and unexpected?”
Cartwright was certainly surprised when he saw the boy’s red coat, when turned, became a comfortable grey frieze. It was in every detail exactly like the one he had seen on the lad who had been carrying the keg. As he examined the lad and his coat more closely, Cartwright instantly recognized him as one and the same as he had seen. But his only interest in this exercise was the simple pleasure felt by any observer of character and humour. The gauger, on the other hand, having almost cracked the case and being on the scent of the keg was in his glory. It was indeed a rare treat for him to come face to face with such an able opponent as Tony Cullen. “Now, young man,” Sinton addressed him, “don’t waste any time in telling us where you have hidden that keg.”
“Ah, sure, your honour, I have already told you there isn’t a bit of that keg did I hide from you! Didn’t the damn thing roll off my back and I lost it. Sure, wasn’t I looking for it myself?” Tony replied and he moved closer to a thin hedge, as if he was going to search there. But the hedge was so thin that it was immediately obvious that the keg could never have been hidden in that location.
Sinton smiled at his companion and asked, “Cartwright, did you ever see anything like this ripe rascal we have before us, and can you see what he’s at?” He pulled the lad closer to him and told him, “Listen to me you little gobshite, don’t think you can fool me, so get here beside us and start the search.” In a quiet aside to Cartwright he whispered, “You can be sure that whatever way he takes us from here is not the right way.”
Returning his stare to the boy he told him, “On your way boy, we shall all have a wee look about us first, just to see if we can find any signs.”
The boy walked toward the two men quietly and began looking about him, as if searching for the keg. But it soon became clear to the two horsemen that he was not serious about trying to find the missing keg and Sinton finally stopped him and commented sarcastically, “Look at yourself boy! You really do look a fool! Sure, you can’t tell your right hand from your left!”
“Aye, I can!” insisted young Tony and, holding up his left hand, he told Sinton, “There’s my right hand.”
Sinton smiled and asked the boy, “And what do you call the other?”
“Sure, that’s my left. Didn’t I tell you I knew?”
Both the gauger and Cartwright gave a hearty laugh. “Now, that’s carrying idiocy too far,” Sinton laughed. “Why don’t you show us how you worked that one out?”
Tony stood up defiantly to the gauger and told him, “Now, that’s easy enough. It is because I am left-handed this must be the right hand.” He demonstrated this with his left hand and told the gauger, “And that’s the way of it, whatever you might say.” The boy began to smile with an appearance that hid the sarcasm of his comment. The gauger and his companion simply stared at each other in disbelief.
“What the devil?” Sinton exclaimed, “We just can’t stand here all-day wasting time! Right, boy! Bring us to that keg now!”
But before the boy could answer their conversation was interrupted by a loud, long, hearty laugh that caused Sinton to look at his friend questioningly. “What the hell is the matter, now? What is the big joke?” Cartwright couldn’t answer, for he dismounted horse and was walking to and fro’ in convulsions of laughter with his body bent double, and his hands clapping like those of a madman in a fit of excitement. “Christ man, what is it?” demanded an angry Sinton. “Cartwright!” he shouted at him, “Will you tell me what it is?”
“Oh, dear,” Cartwright said as he tried to catch his breath. “I am laughing and weak from it all!”
“It must be very funny! Are you going to keep it to yourself?”
“Indeed, it is, my friend, and I shall keep it all to myself,” Cartwright laughed. “It is obvious that your much vaunted wisdom has been stretched too far in this case, and you must now content yourself with the idea od being beaten. Be assured, friend, I will not interfere in this any further.”
In a tight contest of minds, like this was proving to be, between Tony Cullen and the gauger, even an out of place glance by Cullen might give an opponent like Sinton the upper hand. Young Cullen, therefore, maintained a simple and vague expression on his face while he talked, except when it came to the question of his right and left hand. In fact, such was Tony’s ability that Sinton, who watched his opponent with his sharp eyes, noticed nothing out of place. Cartwright, however, was not so easily fooled by Young Cullen and, as he was laughing, he noticed the boy’s eye fixed upon a mark that was barely visible in the hoar frost. This mark stretched down to the furze bushes that grew at the foot of the bank upon which they stood.
When Sinton noticed the mark, just like a hound on the scent of a fox, he followed its path downward toward the furze, into which the lad trundled the keg, where it settled and was almost invisible to the eye. After he had done this, Tony had turned his frieze coat, which he had made for just such an occasion. This change had barely given him time to advance toward the two horse riders. Nevertheless, the lad had managed to change his appearance and his manner to such a degree that he managed to pass himself off as a simple Irish peasant. The two horsemen, at first, could not see how the boy could have carried the keg down to the furze cover, hide it, and return so quickly to the spot where they met him. Such an accomplishment by a young lad appeared to be so impossible that Sinton could never suspect that the whiskey was lying in such a place. But the gauger had triumphed and self-satisfaction about his own cleverness was reflected in his face. Tony’s face, however, had lengthened considerably in the knowledge of his enemy’s victory. He was feeling rueful and mortified at the loss of his keg, and he could hardly tolerate the joy and confidence being shown in front of him.
Sinton saw the gloom in the boy’s face and wanted to mock him further. “Who is the sharpest wit now, my clever boy?” he said. “Who has the last laugh now, as matters stand?”
“Well, enjoy it while you have it, for you might never see it again,” said Tony.
“Tell me boy, what is your name?” asked Sinton.
“They call me Barry Kerrigan,” lied Tony without flinching. “I am not ashamed of that, nor am I afraid to tell it to you, or to any man.”
“One of the Kerrigans of Kilcoghlan?”
“Aye, I’m one of the Kerrigans of Kilcoghlan,” answered the boy.
“Sure, I’ve heard of that family,” said Sinton, “and they are decent people in their own way. Now, don’t be getting angry at your own failings and let me know where you were bringing this Poitin?”
“I will tell you this much,” said the lad. “I was bringing it to a better man than ever stood in your shoes.” Defiantly he looked at Sinton and added, “At least he is a real gentleman.”
“Is that right?” replied the gauger. “Well, tell us who this real gentleman is?”
“His name is Sinton!” Tony said proudly. “Gauger Sinton!”
Despite being totally surprised, Sinton showed no emotion, but fixed his eye upon the boy. For upwards of a minute his piercing stare continued, waiting for the slightest sign that may show the boy up for the liar he was. But Tony did not flinch and just stared back at his enemy with a look that betrayed his anger. It appeared that the detection of the keg had caused him to forget or abandon his attitude of cunning that had previously served him so well. But the gauger was beginning to believe the boy was speaking the truth as he knew it. The boy had lost his temper and was now, possibly, off his guard. “Well, lad, what you have said so far is very good, but who sent the keg to Sinton?”
Cullen turned to his opponent with a look of contempt for a man who would think that he would answer such a question. “Do you think that you can make me turn informer? Thank God, there are none of that kind in my family!”
“Do you know this man, Sinton?” asked the gauger.
“Now your honour, how could I know a man that I have never seen or met?” Tony angrily replied. “But there is one more thing that I don’t know, and that is if you have the right to take my whiskey or not?”
“Well, let me just ease your mind on that question by telling you that I am Sinton!”
“You, sir?” Tony asked with well-feigned surprise.
“Yes,” smiled the gauger. “I am the man that you were taking that keg to, and now I will tell you exactly what I need you to do now. You will go to my house from here, and with as little delay as possible. There you will ask to see my daughter, Miss Sinton, and present this keg to her, telling her that I wish her to put it in the cellar. She will know what key to use, and you can tell her I want the keg placed to the right of the five-gallon keg that I seized last Thursday. After this you can tell her I want her to give you breakfast.”
“Of course, your honour” Tony replied hesitantly, as if he still had misgivings. “I suppose I must be somehow …?”
Sinton, however, interrupted and impatiently asked, “My God, boy, what the hell are you grumbling about now?”
Cullen continued to view the gauger with suspicion and, as he lifted the keg, he asked, “And do I not get anything for all the work I have already done, and that which you still want me to do?”
“Here!” smiled Sinton as he threw him a silver half-crown. “Take that, along with the breakfast you will get, and be off with you! Stop! Cartwright, my friend, will you dine with me today and we shall open the keg? I can guarantee the quality of this stuff, for it’s not the first keg that I have received from the same quarter.”
“I will be there, friend, to open the keg,” Cartwright replied.
“Right, boy, get going and tell my daughter that a friend, even a friend or two, will be dining with me today. That’s all! You can go.” Sinton instructed Tony and he watched for a moment as the boy went on his way before riding off.
Cartwright now spoke to Sinton, warning him, “Surely, you are not giving that boy yet another chance to trick you out of your winnings?”
“There’s no chance of that,” laughed Sinton confidently, “That young blackguard was telling the truth, for all was lost to him when we found the keg. That was the straw that broke him, and, in his anger, he wasn’t able to deceive us anymore.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Sinton. I don’t trust that boy one inch,” Cartwright warned his friend.
“I suppose I should not trust him myself, but these Kerrigan people are well-known poteen makers and not criminal masterminds. They usually send me a keg or two every year about this time to help my attention wander away from their trade. I watched that boy’s attitude and he never flinched once. The keg of poteen was coming to me, and I have no doubt of that.”
“Nevertheless, I still do not trust him. Mark my words, he’s a trickster,” warned Cartwright.
Tony Cullen, in the meantime, had been having a quiet conversation with himself and wondering if he had really sold Sinton on the idea. He spat on the ground and muttered, “May bad luck be with you the rest of your life, Sinton. Good luck appears to follow you, but you never know, a lucky shot from behind a hedge or a break-neck fall down a cliff, or something of that nature might just happen. If that old moonshiner hadn’t his hooks into you, hard and fast, you would never have allowed me to walk away with the poteen.” He laughed quietly to himself as he told himself, “By God, wasn’t I the clever one for mentioning the Kerrigans, especially when I had heard Barney Kerrigan say that he would be sending a keg to the gauger some time this week. That Sinton didn’t think I knew him because he didn’t recognize me. Indeed, it has been a long time since those hawk eyes of his had caught sight of me.” Then he halted a moment and asked himself, “What if they now decide to follow me and ruin all my plans? I have to stop them from having any suspicions about me before I go any further along the road.”
Tony Cullen wheeled around just as Cartwright and Sinton had done the same, for the gauger wanted to question the boy a little more. He had not, however, expected the boy to be coming toward him. “Gentlemen,” said Cullen, “How do I know for certain that either of you are Mr. Sinton, and that the house you are sending me to exists and is his? One thing I do know for certain is that if the whiskey is delivered to the right man, then I will have to leave the country!”
“You, boy are either a bigger villain or more of a fool than I first thought you to be,” said Sinton. “But what proof can you give me that you will bring the keg safely to its destination?”
“Well, if I knew for certain that you are Mr. Sinton, I would be happy enough to leave the poteen with you, and I would even do without my breakfast. So, gentlemen, please tell me the truth, for if I fail, I will surely be murdered.”
“Listen, you damned fool!” said the gauger, losing his patience with the boy because he still thought Sinton was lying. “You only have to go into town and ask for Mr. Sinton’s house!”
“Isn’t it the great fool I am?” exclaimed Cullen. “What you say is true, and I never even thought of it. I’m truly sorry gentlemen, and I hope that you are not angry with me, because it is myself that will be killed and quartered if I allow anyone to make a fool of me.”
“Just you do what I ask,” Sinton told the lad. “Ask for Mr. Sinton’s house and you can be certain that the poteen will reach him.”
“Yes, Sir, and thank you. I should have thought of that myself,” Cullen said and began his journey again.”
As Sinton and his companion started their journey once more, the gauger turned to Cartwright and asked him, “Are you satisfied now?”
“I believe I am,” replied Cartwright. “If the lad’s intentions had been dishonest, instead of returning to make sure that he was not being deceived he would have made the best of his escape from us. But a rogue will never or, at least, seldom voluntarily puts himself in the way of danger, or possible detection.”
Sinton had to agree with his friend’s line of thought and that same evening, at about five o’clock, the two men arrived at the gauger’s house in the company of two others. They were all looking forward to a night of good cheer in Sinton’s home. The chill of a cold frosty evening had given them l a wish for a warm, comfortable room, in which they could enjoy a blazing fire and a good dinner. Then, no sooner was the food eaten than the tablecloth was removed, and glasses set for Sinton and his guests. Being the host for the evening, Sinton asked his daughter to assist the servant in breeching the keg, “The keg in the cellar that was left there by the young country lad.”
“A keg?” she asked.
“Yes, Maggie my love, a keg.”
“But Father there was no keg that came here today!”
Sinton and Cartwright both groaned, simultaneously, “No Keg?”
“No keg,” Maggie agreed, “but there was a country lad who came and told me that you said he had to get the five-gallon …”
“Oh no!” Sinton cried out, interrupting his daughter. “Christ Almighty! He has done me over!”
“He bought and sold you,” said Cartwright, adding insult to injury.
“Continue, Maggie, I have to hear everything,” urged a deflated Sinton.
“Well,” Maggie began. “He said that you had instructed him to get the five-gallon keg for Captain Dalton.”
“And did he take it?”
“Yes, father, the lad took it, for I had no reason to doubt him.”
“But Maggie, my dear child, surely, he brought a keg with him and left it, and it is now in the cellar?”
“No, Father! He brought no keg here. But he did bring the five-gallon keg that was in the cellar away with him.”
“Sinton, old chap, pass around the bottle!” laughed Cartwright.
“That damned, slippery rascal,” smiled the gauger. “We shall all have a drink to the boy’s health.”
With that, all the men raised their glasses and drank the health of the country lad who had craftily bought and sold the gauger.
CopyrightSept 2021; Pinebank Publishing. All rights reserved
Vulgar legend has it that it was St. Patrick himself who first gave the Irish the wrinkle how to make poteen. A ribald rhymester of the last century hoped to perpetuate this foolish notion when be introduced it into a song which bad a pasting popularity and then followed its author into oblivion. That poteen-making, however, is a domestic industry of considerable Antiquity is a fact of history. In the Red Book of Ossory, there is a description of the virtues of “uisge-beatha,” a Gaelic compound. signifying the Water of Life—and a recipe for manufacturing it from malt.
When the Anglo-Normans landed here more than 700 years ago, they found our ancestors according to their chroniclers. Adept in the art of distillation, and much given to the consumption of the product of their poteens. It is not clear, by the way, when the term ” poteen”– derived from the small pot-stills in which the Liquor is made – first came into general use, probably somewhere about the middle of the 18th century. when a band of smugglers set up large pot — stills in Co. Antrim and laid the foundations of the famous Bushmills Distillery, the oldest in Ireland.
HANGED FOR POTEEN-MAKING.
The manufacture of ‘uisge – beatha must have continued to flourish during the centuries immediately following the Invasion. for restrictions were at length imposed upon domestic distilling and the sale of spirits, by the Parliament of the Pale. It was characteristic of those times that while the poor man caught thereafter in the art of making poteen was led to the nearest tree and hanged, the nobility, exempt from any penalty whatsoever, could distil and drink away to their hearts’ content. Distilling without a licence was first made illicit in a statute passed at Drogheda in 1556, restricting the manufacture of whiskey —” a drink nothing profitable to be daily used, and now universally made throughout this realm, especially on the borders of the lrishry, whereby much corn, grain and other things are consumed.” Within a few years following the industry was established on a licensed basis, and persons were nominated in each province, who bad the sole power of grant licences.
WHEN WHISKEY WAS 3d. A GLASS.
The soaring prices of strong drink are said to be the main cause of the present alarming spread of poteen-making throughout Ireland. Too much stress, however, can be laid on this explanation. There were more illicit stills in the country when the duty on whiskey was only tenpence a gallon than there are to-day. Between the years 1802 and 1806, for instance, 13,439 stills,1,198 heads, and 9,732 worm were seized by the revenue police; and in 1811, when whiskey was only threepence a glass, we find the observant Edward Wakefield in his “Account of Ireland”, writing: – “I am convinced, whatever penal laws or regulations may be made, it is almost impossible to extirpate illicit distilleries from the mountains. It has been represented to me, and I believe with truth, that they are erected in the kitchens of baronets and in the stables of clergymen. The mountains are covered with them, and they are to be met with in the very last places where an English excise officer would expect to discover them.”
ELUDING THE GAUGER.
As in the days of soap and candle smuggling, eluding the gauger now became a fresh bond of union between orange and green, the Protestant planter of Ulster having as little respect for the distilling laws as had the Catholic Celt of Connacht. Just a century ago the poteen traffic had become so extensive, not alone in Ireland, but in England and Scotland as well, that more than half of the spirits actually consumed in these countries came from mountain caverns, lonely islets, and bogland wastes where the poteen distiller was able to evade the law and pursue his illicit industry without fear of molestation. The Government grew alarmed, and a Parliamentary Commission was appointed to investigate the subject. New regulations which were then adopted brought the abuse within bounds, in Great Britain, at all events. The success of this effort to stamp out the traffic soon manifested itself in an enormously increased demand for legally manufactured spirits.
DISAPPEARED IN ENGLAND.
In 1820 — the year before the Commission’s recommendations were given effect to – the quantity whiskey made in the ` licensed distilleries of the Three Kingdoms was 9,600,000 gallons. Within five years the output was almost doubled. In Scotland alone there were 14,000 poteen making prosecutions in 1823, but thirty years later this surprising total had fallen to less than 50! In England illicit distilling almost disappeared during the same period.
In Ireland, however, the efforts at suppression were much less successful. The reasons for this were several, but the principal one seems to have been that Inland Revenue police were utterly unable to cope with the work of detection, which, down to 1851 they alone were responsible for. In that year the constabulary were called in to their assistance and taking up their new duties in true R.I.C. fashion, prosecutions became suddenly more frequent, and poteen stills more of a rarity.
EMPLOYMENT OF R.I.C.
Hitherto, as implied by Wakefield in the extract just quoted, the illegal traffic had not been confined to any particular class, and magistrates and landlords had their own reasons for turning their heads away should they chance upon a still full blast. The Inland Revenue Commissioners had evidently this fact in their minds when including the following adroitly-worded passage in their annual report for 1870: “There can be no doubt that the moral effect of the employment of a force (The R.I.C.) so much respected and so closely connected with the magistracy and the Viceregal Government will have great influence on some classes in Ireland who have hitherto been too much to look with indifference upon the Revenue laws” The co-operation of the landlords was at length secured, and poteen making in Ireland continued to wane until its sudden revival in recent times.
SOME ARTFUL DODGES.
A regular literature—probably buried in the pages of defunct Irish magazines – must have grown up around the subject of poteen making a few generations ago, when the majority of Irish farmers were their own distillers, and many of them retailers of unlicensed spirits—when Lever sang: –
I was a monarch in state
Like Romulus or Julius Caesar,
With the best of fine vittels to ate,
And drink like great Nebuchadnezzar,
A rasher of bacon I’d have.
And statues the finest was seen, sir,
And for drink, it’s no claret I’d crave,
But a keg of old Mullen’s poteen, sir,
With the smell of the smoke on it still.
A law was passed imposing a heavy fine on any townland in which a poteen still was discovered. But the artful construction of private distilleries on the boundaries drove the proverbial coach and four through that statute. Stories, too, could be told of how revenue officers used to be kidnapped and kept in close confinement for weeks together, in order to prevent their giving evidence at Petty Sessions prosecutions. After the R.I.C. took to tracking down poteen makers in the fifties they would pay handsomely for information regarding the whereabouts of a still. Not infrequently it was the owner himself who would put them on the scent and then draw for a worn out and worthless apparatus as much ‘Castle Money’ as could buy him a new one.
“Sligo Champion” Oct 1900 (Downloaded from BNA, Aug.2021)
These are new stories brought to you by the team at ‘Ireland’s Lore and Tales’
My sabbatical is over and it’s time to get writing once again. The difference in these stories and recollections are that they are for the most part factual, taken from records with only names changed to protect the innocent. We hope to take things from the way life was in the past, the not so long ago, and the last fifty years, and relay them to you because they have, in all probability, never been read or heard by you before.
We shall take you on a journey in which you will occasionally find that truth is often stranger than fiction. And so, we will begin the Chronicles in August 2021.
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.
“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.
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.
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!”