For many years the idea of fairies and the little people brought a laugh and a disbelieving shake of the head from me. In later years I was to learn better and it is to be hoped that those doubters who shall read these stories will experience the same change in their thinking. It is only to be expected that not every reader of these stories will believe in Leprechaun’s, banshees and other Irish spirits. But I am here to tell you that all these things do exist in the Irish countryside. You may consider that disbelief in such things will ensure that such spirits have less power over you. Do not be fooled by such comforting thoughts. Constantly remind yourself that you should never ignore the possibility that such spirits can and do exist. Do not give voice to your disbelief and never mock the fact that others do believe. All those things are insults to “The Good People” and the most foolish actions that any man, woman, or child can commit. Testing the fairy folk of Ireland can and will bring a response in ways that are totally unexpected.
When I was a child my parents raised me to always be polite and civil to everyone that I met, irrespective of race, colour, creed and physical appearance. My mother, may she rest in peace, always taught me that, “Good manners are a burden to no person.” She was often shocked by the way people treated each other and would warn me to always be civil because, “Civility costs you nothing.” Such moral codes were bred into my being by both my parents. “If you cannot speak well of another person then it is best to say nothing about them,” my father would tell me. He would also insist that, “if you cannot do something nice for another person, then do nothing.” My parents were very firm believers that every action a person undertakes has certain consequences for which they must accept total responsibility. “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” was a scriptural adage of which I was constantly reminded. Those who decide to ignore such words of wisdom soon discover that they would have been better to take on board the advice of those older than they are.
As an example, I recall the story of Eddie Daly, a muscular young man who was full of bravado. His muscular frame was maintained by his hard work in the fields around Knocknashee. As a worker, Eddie was well thought of by local farmers while, as an attractive young man, he was admired by many of the ladies in the area. Eddie Daly, tall but muscular, was a common sight on the many roads that criss-crossed the area around Knocknashee. He would walk from farm to farm undertaking whatever work he could find, and he appeared to be almost always in demand. Perhaps much of his demand was due to Eddie’s pleasant personality, and his ability to make people laugh. There was always a bounce in the young man’s step, a lightness in his tread, and as He walked along it was as if his heels were spring-loaded. Hence, Eddie’s friends called him “Spring Heels.”
It was not uncommon for Eddie to be seen at any hour of the day and night walking the highways and by-ways that surrounded the hill of Knocknashee. He seemed to have no fear of the darkness and the spirits that made the night their own. Because he did not believe in such things Eddie was comfortable walking through graveyards at night or settling to snooze below the branches of a fairy thorn tree. He laughed at those who gave credibility to superstitions and “old wives’ tales” that were common throughout the district. He would scoff those who would attempt to protect themselves from evil spirits with the sign of the Cross, or who would greet the fairies with a pleasant, “May goodness and peace be with you.”
It is well known that almost every county and townland contains lonely places that have become noted for the fairy activity that goes on there. However, Knocknashee was famous throughout the entire country because of the strange things that had been seen or heard in that place. On every crag and in every depression, there seemed to be a “Leprechaun Mound”, fairy trees and fairy caverns. In other places throughout the district stood dark green woodland and long abandoned grave sites. People told of instances when they had heard the Banshee wails from those places, seen strange lights reflecting in the darkness, and observed dark creatures stalking the souls of the unwary. Eddie, however, did not believe in such things and wandered, carefree, wherever he wished.
Late one evening, as he walked home from farmer McCann’s property, Eddie noticed that there was someone else on the road. Occasionally Eddie would meet people he knew walking along the Kilcoo Road, and he would chat with them to pass the time. On this occasion, however, Eddie could not recognise who his fellow traveller was, but he was sure that he was not a local resident. The man a short distance ahead of him was only an inch or two shorter than Eddie, but much better dressed. From the professional hiking gear on his back Eddie could discern that the person was just another sightseeing hiker dressed in a high-class range of outdoor clothing to protect him from the elements. It would not take Eddie too long to catch up with him.
The night was passing on, getting darker as the black, rain laden clouds gathering in the sky, threatening to soak the land with a downpour. As expected, it didn’t take Eddie much time before he caught up with the stranger and began to walk at his side. “Good evening, sir,” Eddie greeted him in his most friendly voice. “I am Eddie Daly and maybe I can walk a while with you along the road.”
“Good evening to you,” replied the stranger, “my name is Joe Crawford from Dublin and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“You’ll stay in the village tonight, Joe?” Inquired Eddie. “It could be a bad night for there a powerful lot of rain on the way.”
The stranger looked skyward as he continued to walk and, turning to Eddie, told him, “sure don’t I have my own accommodation with me.”
“And where would you be planning to put up your tent, if I might ask?”
“On top of Knocknashee Hill,” came the reply, which took Eddie completely by surprise.
“That’s right. The summit of Knocknashee Hill, so we will not have much farther to travel together.”
The stranger had now aroused Eddie’s inquisitiveness. “So, you will take the track that runs from this road up to the top of the hill?” Eddie asked and then continued, “But why would a man of your standing wish to go to that lonely, exposed and windswept place”
“You have been there?”
“I have and there is nothing there,” answered Eddie. “Even with your tent you will get little protection from the weather this night, especially up there.”
Mr. Crawford smiled at the concern his new companion was showing for his welfare. “The tent will suffice, and I intend to be settled upon the top of that hill by midnight.”
“But what in the name of all that is good, is bringing you to the top of that bleak hill? What are you looking for?” Eddie asked.
“The Good People,” said Joe, irritated by the questions. “I am going to the top of the hill to see the “Good People”.”
“Fairies!” Exclaimed Eddie in total disbelief and he sniggered at the very idea. That sort of attitude did not endear him to Joe, and he marched on in silence for a moment. “Fairies”, Eddie sniggered again.
This time Joe stopped and looked at his companion with growing anger displayed in his face. “For goodness sake, keep you voice low!” he told Eddie. “Better still keep it shut! Do you know nothing?” Eddie was taken aback by the angry tone exhibited by his companion, but Joe was not finished. “You never call “The Good People” fairies because it is a disrespectful term to them. Furthermore, to laugh at them is an unwise thing to do, because they look upon that as a grave insult. Just keep your ideas and your careless words to yourself, or you might just end up being very sorry!”
Eddie was somewhat dumbfounded by Joe’s dramatic change in attitude toward him. But he decided he would not react at this time. It all seemed a bit pointless anyway because they were approaching the track that led up to the summit of Knocknashee. Only a minute or two later they came upon the entrance to the narrow dirt path, which swept across several fields before going up the steep side of the hill to its summit. At the entrance Joe stopped and immediately offered his hand in friendship to Eddie. “Thank you for your company,” the man said. “Even though it was only for a brief period of time.”
Eddie took his hand, shook it warmly and simply replied, “Thank you, Joe.”
With their farewells said, Eddie watched as Joe climbed over a wooden stile that assisted his crossing of a barbed wire fence. On the other side he stepped on to the dirt track and began to follow it as it wound its way to the base of Knocknashee Hill. He was just about to re-start his own journey home to Kilmore, about three miles distant, when a sudden thought crossed his mind and caused him to pause again. “That man is a bit of an odd fellow, but he is definitely no fool,” he said to himself. He continued to ponder for a while as he watched Joe walk further away along the path. “I don’t believe he’s here for the fairies,” he said aloud to himself. “That man is up to something on that hill and he doesn’t want anyone else to see him. Maybe I should just follow him at a distance and find out for myself just what he is up to.” He stood for a few moments longer, watching the stranger move along the track and come closer to the base of the hill. “Fairies,” he exclaimed loudly with a certain distaste in his voice. “Mark my words, there is something more than fairies, or the “good people as he calls them, that is bringing him up that hill on a night like this.” He could not take his eyes off the man in the distance, even though what light there was left now began to fade quickly.
He muttered several curses to himself, “That man knows as much about fairies as I do about deep-sea diving.” Shaking his head in disbelief at the stranger’s declared intentions he told himself, “Fairies don’t exist and he expects a grown man like me to believe that he is going to seek them out. He tells me I should be wary about what I say concerning fairy folk, but if they don’t exist why should I be afraid?” Eddie looked down the path again, now illuminated by a shimmering full moon that had arisen from behind the hills. In that silver moonlight he could see Joe Crawford still pacing his way toward the base of the hill.
“Why would he try to frighten me off?” Eddie asked himself. “There must be something special up there that he doesn’t want another person to see.” He now strained his eyes in the lessening light to attempt to gauge just how far ahead of him Joe was. Eddie decided that it wasn’t too far and made up his mind to follow the stranger and attempt to catch him up. He was determined that he would find out the truth of the man’s decision to climb Knocknashee Hill. The more he had thought about it, Eddie became increasingly convinced that whatever the man was seeking it was most likely to be very valuable. His mind now became filled with ideas of gold, buried treasure, or jewels and he wanted to have a share in the fortune. In that instant he began to clamber over the wooden stile and begin his own journey to the summit. “Alright, big man,” he said aloud, “the game has begun.” He pulled up his trousers and closed over his jacket before setting off along the dirt path in his effort to catch the stranger.
Eddie had travelled along the track many times and despite it being illuminated only by moonlight he surefootedly pressed ahead. After a short time, he had reached the foot of the hill, just where the track turned and began to ascend windingly to the summit. At this point stood an old, gnarled, but sturdy thorn tree that local superstition had declared was a fairy tree. Eddie, of course, was not a believer in such superstitions, nonetheless something in his subconscious told him to give this tree a wide berth. He did give the tree a wide-berth and began to ascend the hill in the increasing darkness that was beginning to make the narrow path even more treacherous than was normal. With every step he took Eddie moved upward and occasionally, as the full moon peeped out from behind a dark cloud, he caught a glimpse of Joe approaching the summit of the hill.
Onward Eddie pressed, realising that he would never catch his former companion before he reached the top of the hill. Three full hours of toiling up that rugged path finally brought Eddie almost to the end of his journey. The path had taken him over broken ground, loose rocks and even areas of swampy ground. On several occasions during his journey he had almost lost his footing and fallen to the ground. It was with some relief that Eddie finally reached the end of the path and could sit down to rest his weary body. He found a dry, level, grassy spot on which he could comfortably relax and take in his surroundings. But, no matter how hard his eyes scanned the area around him, he saw no sign of his former companion.
Eddie couldn’t understand what had happened to Joe, but he was determined to seek him out. After a short rest he began to move carefully across the ground seeking the whereabouts of Joe. As he searched the area Eddie came across a large opening in the ground that sat close to a large, wind-formed thorn tree. It was the entrance to a deep shaft, the bottom of which he could not see. The hole itself was wide and deep enough to swallow up any person who might carelessly fall into it. This, he decided, may have been the fate that befell Joe Crawford and that was the reason why Eddie could not see any sign of him.
It came into Eddie’s mind that this dark shaft was none other than “The Black Hole of Knocknashee” that he had heard so much about since he was a child. Although Eddie had scaled Knocknashee Hill on many occasions he had never come across this place. Old tales suggested that “The Black Hole”, was indeed the entrance to an underworld kingdom where the fairies ruled from a magnificent, magical castle. He recalled the tales of people who were said to have gone to the top of Knocknashee and never returned. It was said that the fairies had lured them to “the Black Hole”, which simply swallowed them up. There was a famous legend that a local policeman who had set out to search for a person who was missing on the hill also never returned. He was supposed to have been a skilled climber and was well equipped for his rescue mission. Rumour suggested that even he had fallen for the wiles of the fairy folk and disappeared, never to be seen again.
These were stories that Eddie shrugged off as being nothing but old wives’ tales. Nevertheless, Eddie did realise that any person could have fallen down this hole and maybe he should check it out in case this is what happened to Joe. Lying on the ground he tried to peer into the dark depths of the shaft, but he could see nothing. “Maybe, if I throw in a stone, I might hit the gate of the magical castle,” he laughed. “At least I might get to find out if there is anyone at home.” Eddie moved away from the shaft entrance to search for a large stone and eventually came across a big, granite rock. He lifted it with both hands and bringing it to the opening of the shaft he flung it down with all his might. As he listened, he could hear the echo of the rock as it bounded downward, tumbling from one wall of the pit to another.
The large granite rock made a terrible confusion of noise and Eddie leaned his head over the hole to hear the stone reach the bottom. But, as Eddie leaned over the hole, he could still hear the rumbling of the tumbling rock and he was surprised to hear that it did not appear to be going away from him. The sound, instead, seemed to be coming louder and quite suddenly the stone shot out of the hole with as much force as it first entered the shaft. The large rock flew at Eddie, catching him totally by surprise, and hit him with great force full in his face. He was flung backward quite a distance where he lay motionless for a moment.
Eddie was still very dazed as he raised himself up from the ground and his eyes were a little out of focus. Perhaps it was concussion, but Eddie’s head was spinning violently, causing him to lose his balance. He lost his footing on the grass and soon found himself rolling down the side of Knocknashee Hill. He was now faking head over heels from one crag to another and descending faster with every roll of his body. Eddie finally came to a stop at the bottom of the hill, unconscious and unmoving. There he lay until early next morning when he was discovered by a local farmer.
At first sight the farmer was convinced he had come across a dead body, but there was a loud groan when the body was turned over. Even in the shadows of the branches of a white-thorn tree the farmer could see that the person was badly injured. The bridge of Eddie’s nose was broken quite seriously, which caused disfigurement to his entire face. There was blood dried on his face and upon the grass on which he had come to a rest after his fall. The blood came from the cuts that covered his head and hands, enhanced by a multitude of purple-black coloured bruises. Eddie’s eyes were swollen shut, blackened by deep blue and black colouring.
Although Eddie was nursed to full recovery, he was changed man. He no longer demonstrated the same bravado as he once had. He began to avoid those places associated with the fairies, especially after the sun began to set. On those few occasions when he found himself alone in lonely places, he would press hard to get home before it became too late. Even as Eddie hurried home he could not be diverted from his path, nor could he allow himself to be delayed by any person he met on the road. Never again did he seek out “The Good People” or ask questions about them. In fact, Eddie became quite introverted and avoided the company of others. Those who knew him had no knowledge of what had changed him, but some insisted that he had been touched by the fairies.
An Old Tale of the West of Ireland
“There once was an old man who said,
“How Shall I escape from this horrible cow?
“I will sit on the stile,
“and continue to smile, “
which may soften the heart of the cow.'”
The old man was walking thoughtfully through the field, with his hands behind his back, when the nervous cow saw him. She wasn’t ordinarily a bad-natured cow, but she was very angry just then, for an aggravating fly had been biting her half the morning. Then, on top of all that aggravation, just as she was drinking at the stream, a frog had jumped up with a cry and bitten her on the nose. These things had completely unsettled her nerves, and she was ready to run at anything. With the old man being the only living thing in sight, she rushed toward him.
What could the old man do? He was a short, stout old man, and could not run very fast. Although he tried his best, the old man just managed to reach the stile and plump himself down on it, all out of breath, as the cow neared him. Then he suddenly recalled reading somewhere that if you were to look an animal directly in its eyes, it would run away from you. “Ah!” he thought to himself, “I’ll look her straight in the eye, and if I smile at the same time, she won’t have the heart to hurt me.” So, he put a smile on his face, even though it was not a very attractive smile, and he stared straight into the cow’s eyes. When the cow saw that smile, ugly though it was, it so touched her heart that she stopped in her tracks. She sauntered back a little way, but the memory of that aggravating fly, and that awful frog, proved too much for her poor nerves and, turning around, she dashed madly forward again. Within a minute, the poor old man; his cane, little legs, smile and all, was up in the air.
He landed on top of a chestnut-tree. One branch grazed his eye, while two ran into his legs, and another held his smile stiff and straight. The old man stayed this way until he was sighted by an eagle, which immediately pounced down on the poor man, and flew off with him to her nest, built on a huge rock that rose straight up into the cold air and reached the summit of a mountain. Can you imagine how astonished the eagle’s chicks were when the old eagle dumped the little old man down into their nest? They opened their beaks as well as their eyes, and cried out to her, “What’s this, mother? What is this?”
“Oh! it’s only a man,” cried the old eagle. “I found him roosting in the top of a tree. I don’t know how he got there. Maybe he thought that he could fly, and suddenly discovered he couldn’t. Tell us how it was, old man.”
“Can he talk?”
“Talk!” said the eagle. “Of course, he can talk. And I bet he can tell all sorts of stories. So, if you like, you may keep him to tell you stories.”
“Oh, wont that be nice! Tell us a story, right now,” the chicks all screamed at the old man, as they pulled the old man down into the nest.
“But it’s so dirty here,” complained the old man, looking around, with his nose turned up a little. “Just let me sit on the edge of the nest, won’t you? And I’ll tell you all the stories you want.”
“You’ll fall over.”
“Oh no, I won’t. I’ll hold on with my cane and my legs. Now just shut your beaks, so you won’t look so savage, and listen carefully.” So, the old man perched himself on the edge of the nest and the eaglets took strong hold of his coat with their beaks, to prevent him from falling. Then, sitting comfortably, he began to tell them the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves“. and when that was ended, another, and then another. The old man did not eat much supper that night, for there was nothing he cook on, and he didn’t sleep well, for whenever one of the eaglets woke up during the night, it always pinched him with its beak, to make sure he was there. Tired of this, the old man quickly resolved to get away as soon as it was possible. But he didn’t seem to have any chance of escape, and so he stayed where he was and told stories until he began to yearn to wring the necks of the gaping birds that kept asking him for more.
Now, all this time, the cow had been getting more and more nervous. Every day she thought of the poor old man and his meek little legs, and his sweet old smile, and just how his coat-tails looked as he went up in the air. Finally, she sadly laid her head down on a tuft of grass by the stream and began to cry. After relieving her sadness in this way, she became calm, and, getting up from the ground said, “I’ll go to his house and find out how and where he is, if I can.” So off she started. But the house was closed, and there was no one there except for the cat, which became very frightened when the cow pushed up the pantry window with her horns.
Through the window she bellowed, “Where’s your master?”
“I don’t know,” replied the cat nervously as he retreated into a far corner, with his back up. “I haven’t set eyes on him since last Sunday.”
“Oh dear!” sighed the cow, dropping the window with a crash that broke two panes of glass. “What shall I do?”
“What’s the matter with you? And what do you want of the old man?” asked Tabby, bounding out through one of the broken panes. The cow told him.
“Well,” said Tabby, stroking his whiskers reflectively, “I guess I’ll go with you and help you look for the kindly old man.” So, they walked on, asking everybody they met about the old man. But nobody knew where he was, until finally they came across an old crow who knew everybody’s business.
“An old man?” he asked. “Sure, the eagle took an old man the other day. Did your old man have thin legs?”
“Yes, yes!” said the cat and the cow together. “With a sweet smile on his face?”
“Yes, yes!” cried the cow. “He went up with that smile, and it has been haunting me ever since,” she said as she burst into floods of tears.
“Well,” said the crow, “he’s in the eagle’s nest telling stories to the eaglets, and I’m sure the man sore and tired of that business by now, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Where is the nest?—and how can we get there?”
“It’s up at the very top of that mountain over there. Go straight ahead, and you can’t miss it.”
So straight ahead they went until they came to the rock where the eagle’s nest was, and wondered what should they do next? They could hear the old man’s little, thin voice telling stories to the birds, but they knew he wouldn’t chance to come where the cow was, even if he could clamber down that steep rock. Finally, Tabby suggested that the cow should hide herself, while he climbed up into the nest and persuaded the old man to come down. So, as the cow hid, the cat scrambled his way up to the nest and carefully poked his head into it. “Ah, master!” he whispered, “climb down the rock to-night, and I’ll show you the way home.” And then he disappeared. But his visit bolstered the old man’s courage, and when the mother-bird came home he calmly told her that he thought he would sleep at the foot of the rock that night, and she unsuspectingly took him in her talons and dropped him gently on the ground.
As soon as the Eagle had gone, the old man looked all about him, and called “Tabby, Tabby,” very softly. Tabby came out from under the roots of a tree and bounded on his shoulder, and told him how sorry the cow was, and how she was waiting in a thicket ready to carry him home, if he wanted to go. Of course, the old man wanted to go home, and in a moment the cow had come out from her hiding-place, had cried a little. But she took the old man on her back, and started down the mountain at full speed, with the cat chasing after her. It was a long way to the old man’s house, and tired out they finally reached it, got something to eat, and then they went to bed, where they slept right through the next two days. On the morning of the third day they all got up together, full of life, and, after eating a hearty breakfast, they all agreed that they would live together for the rest of their lives. This is the way that they have lived ever since that day, in perfect peace and harmony.
“The room that I was now given was a dim little triangular room in the west wing of the house. It could only be reached by crossing the ‘picture-gallery’, or by climbing a little flight of stairs which led directly upward from the low-browed arch of a door that opened into the garden area. There was one more room on the same landing, but it was used mainly to house broken furniture, old toys, and bits of timber that had accumulate over the years. As for the room in which I was to sleep for the next few nights there were tapestries on the wall, with old, faded green velvet curtains, , fresh clothes on the bed, which had been hurriedly made, and quite oddly a new carpet. The furniture in the room was half old and half new, and on the dressing-table stood a very old oval mirror, in a frame of black ebony. It is many years ago now, but my memory of that night is so good that I will never forget one detail of it.
“Every Christmas several local girls were hired to act as maids for the guests that had been invited to our home. That short winter’s day had drawn to a close and the maids busied themselves with the large number of guests, who were very much looking forward to a Christmas feast and party. A large variety of traditional yuletide foods was served to them and, after dinner, a large number of guests gathered together in the huge drawing-room, in which a great wood-fire blazed in the ornate marble hearth. Among the crowd were, of course, the old, hard-riding, hard-drinking men of the fox-hunting clique, mumbling to each other over their port in the dining-room, and father was obliged to remain with them. The ladies and all the younger gentlemen, in the meantime, were all together in the drawing-room. Some of these had been invited to spend the night at our house, while others would have to make their own way home in the early hours, navigating narrow, dark and lonely country roads.
“Roger was at the gathering, of course, and he sat by my side. It was well known by everyone that we were engaged and were only waiting until the spring came so we could marry. My sisters were not very far away, and they seemed to have found handsome men whose hearts were very responsive to them. I could see the eyes of those men sparkle and soften as they met these young, attractive women. They were full of the joys of youth, innocent and very loving young ladies to whom the young gentlemen wanted to converse.
“The drawing room was large and lofty, with an arched roof that had somewhat sombre character, caused by the polished black oak features. On the walls hung ornate mirrors and many beautiful paintings, and the room was filled with tasteful furniture, a marble chimney-piece, and a large, colourful carpet. Many lights were burning, but in a forlorn hope of brightening the dark walls and roof. But, the black oak just appeared to ingest the rays of light like the mouth of a huge cave. A searchlight might have had serious difficulty in giving that room a cheerful glow of a modern drawing room. The gloomy richness of the panels, however, matched well with the ruddy gleam from the enormous wood-fire in which, crackling and glowing, lay the mighty Yule log.
“There was a blood-red lustre from the fire, reflected off the walls and roof. I was with a large group of the young people gathered around the antique hearth in a wide circle. The light from the fire, candles, and bulbs fell upon each of our faces though not on all equally, for some preferred to stay in the shadow of another. I remember still how tall, manly and handsome Roger looked that night. He was at least a head taller than any other person in the drawing room, and full of high spirits and fun. I must admit that I too was in the highest of spirits, and the rest the rest of our company joined in our joyous mood. All, that is, except for one.
“Lady Hurst was dressed in grey silk and was wearing a quaint head-dress. She was sitting in a big, comfortable armchair, facing the fire, very quiet, with her hands and her sharp chin propped on a sort of ivory-handled stick that she used because she was lame. All the while the old woman was peering at me with half-closed eyes. She was a small, old, and had very delicate features. The grey silk dress, her spotless lace, old-fashioned jewellery, and her overall neatness in appearance, were well suited to the intelligent face, with its thin lips, and eyes of a piercing black that were undimmed by age. But, in spite of my high spirited mood, those eyes made me feel uncomfortable as they appeared to follow my every movement around the room. Still, I tried hard to be both merry and happy, even to the point where my own sisters began to wonder what come over me. my ever-ready mirth, which was almost wild in its excess. Nevertheless, Lady Hurst’s eyes did make a disagreeable impression upon me and others quickly began to notice her scrutinising, but they put it down to her eccentricity.
“That disagreeable impression lasted only a few moments I was more pleasantly distracted. My aunt now began to take part in the conversation that was happening and we found ourselves listening to a weird legend. The old lady was a good teller of stories, and one tale would, naturally, lead to another.
“Everyone in the room was called upon to contribute to the entertainment, and each story contained some form of demonology and witchcraft. It was, after all, Christmas and the season for such tales to be told. The old drawing room, with its dusky walls was the perfect place to relate stories like these. The huge logs were crackling in the hearth and burned with a warm glow. The blood-red glare of the ‘Yule log’ reflected on the faces of storyteller and listeners alike, on paintings and the holly wreaths wrapped about their frames. It is no wonder, in the shimmering lustre of an ominously ruddy hue upon the oaken panels that the ghost and goblin stories took on a life of their own. As the tales unfolded the blood of the more timid grew chill and curdled. They felt their flesh creep while their hearts beat irregularly. The young ladies peeped fearfully over their shoulders and huddled close together like frightened sheep, believing that some impish and malignant face was cackling at them from the dark corners of the old room.
“By degrees my high spirits began to die out, and I started those childish tremors that I long thought I had left behind. I listened intently to each story as it was told, but I never asked myself if I believed in the authenticity of such dismal tales. A fear grew on me, like a child left alone in the nursery and menaced by variously shaped dark shadows. I am sure that most of ladies that were present in the room, both young and middle-aged, were affected in a variety of ways by the wild and fantastic characters in these tales. Those fears and tremors would die out with the first light of a new day, when the bright sun would shine again on the frost covered grass and tree branches and was reflected by the rich red berries and glossy green spiked holly leaves. This form of entertainment soon ended, however, as my father and the older men returned into our midst. No one was courageous enough to relate such tales when these hard-headed, unimaginative men, returned, because they scorned such idle legends and superstitions.
“The previous quiet that had prevailed now disappeared, to make way for quite a bit of stir and bustle. There was tea, coffee, and other refreshments being served as some played piano and others sang. Roger and I sang a duet together. He had a very fine voice and good musical skills that carried me through the song. Surprisingly my singing was praised for its power and pathos. At the same time, I heard one lady say to another that I was by far the cleverest of my father’s daughters, as well as being the prettiest. Such compliments, however, did not make me vain since there was absolutely no competition between myself and my sisters. Roger whispered some soft, loving words in my ear as he put on his coat and got into the taxi to bring him home. It was now time for shawls, coats and other apparel to be called for as various vehicles rolled up to the porch of the house, and the guests gradually began to make their way home. At last there was no one left in the house but those who were staying the night there. Then I noticed my father, with a look of great annoyance evident on his face.
“”I have just been told a very strange story,” I heard him say, “One of the tenant farmers has just informed me that we have lost four of best ewes that we have been rearing on his land. It was that new flock that arrived at the end of October and the poor man says that they have been killed in a very strange way, with their carcasses having been torn to pieces and horribly mangled.”
“There was a collective sound of shock in the room when this news was revealed. Some of the younger men suggested that the culprit could very well have been a vicious dog. “It would seem so,” said father, “it would appear to be the work of a very vicious dog, and yet there is no dog fitting that description in this area. There are only sheepdogs and sporting dogs, all of which are well secured in yards. But, the sheep have been gnawed and bitten, because they show the marks of teeth distinctly. Some creature has done this thing, and torn those bodies apart like a wolf would. The mystery is that very little, or no, flesh has been taken from any of the bodies and that the attack was apparently made just to suck the blood from the sheep.”
“Heavens above!” was one excited cry when this news was revealed. Then one of the men recalled having heard that dogs could become addicted to sheep- killing and even wipe out an entire flock. “They say that the sight that is left to us is one of complete wantonness, scarcely waiting even a moment to taste a single morsel of flesh.”
“My father shook his head. “I also have heard of such cases,” he said, “but in this case I think that this might be the work of some unknown enemy. The teeth of a dog have been busy, of that there is no doubt, but these poor sheep have been mutilated in a very unusual manner that was as strange as it was horrible. The hearts of the animals have been torn out, and left several feet away from the carcasses, half- gnawed. The men, moreover, insist that they discovered the print of a naked human foot in the soft mud of the ditch. Near to it, this was found.” And he held up what appeared to be a broken link of a rusted iron chain.
“These revelations brought more exclamations of wonder and alarm, as well as many more suggestions, none of which appeared to have a bearing on the case. Then, when my father went on to say that two lambs of the same valuable breed had been killed in the same manner three days previously, there were further loud exclamations. All the while Lady Hurst had listened very calmly, but joined in none of our exclamations. Finally, she spoke to my father, “Try to remember if you have you any enemies among your neighbours?”
“My father gave her a puzzled look and frowned heavily at her. “Not one that I know of,” he replied, confident that he was a popular and kind man.
“Then, you are indeed a lucky man,” said the old woman, with one of her grim smiles.
“The hour was now very late, one-by-one we went off to our rooms to rest. Unfortunately, I was the family who was selected to escort old Lady Hurst to her room, the room I had vacated for her to use. It was not a task that I was fond of, because I did not like her much, godmother or not. My aunts, however, insisted that I should ingratiate myself with a woman who had as much money as she had, in case she might leave to a favourite such as might become. The old lady hobbled up the broad oaken stairs using both my arm her ivory crutch as props. When we reached the door to the room I opened it and led her into the brightly furnished room, which had a warm fire, glowing in the hearth. “This is a very nice room, dear,” she said as she looked around her new surroundings, “I should thank you, since I have been told that you have given it up to me.”
“All I could do was to smile at her compliment. “But, My dear, I sure you’ll be sorry for your generosity to me, when you consider the strange bedchamber that you have been given, especially after all those ghost stories that were told. Yes?” the old lady added. I simply shrugged this off, telling her that I didn’t believe in such things.
“Where have they put you, child?” she asked, “in some little mouse-hole in the turrets, or in a glory hole somewhere else to sleep among the discarded things of the house. You need not try to be so brave, for I can hear your heart pounding with fear at this moment. I don’t think should be alone tonight.”
“Calling up every ounce of my pride, I tried to laugh off her doubts about my courage. Deep inside my own mind, however, I realised there was quite a lot of truth in what she had said. “Is there anything more that I can get for you, Lady Hurst?” I asked her, while trying to trying to pretend to yawn in the hope that she would see that I was already very sleepy.
“There was to be no such luck for me, because the old woman’s eyes stared directly at me. “You know my dear, I rather like you,” she said, “I also liked your mother well enough before she treated me so shamefully about the christening dinner. Now, dear, I know you are frightened and fearful, and if some bird should even flutter at your window to-night, it just might drive you into hysterics. There is a lovely little sofa-bed over there which can be quickly made up for you, and you can sleep there snugly, under the old witch’s protection. Rest assured no creature will harm you, and no one will be any bit the wiser, or mock you for being afraid.” It was my chance to accept her kind offer, and if I had only known what would happen I might have said “Yes”. Unfortunately, none of us can see into the future with any sense of certainty.
Hugh John McClean was a perfect example of a rural Irish man; he was a good neighbour, a hard worker, and a man always on the look-out for an easier way to make his living. All of his life he had lived in a small country cottage, which was eventually left to him in his late father’s will. He had died quite unexpectedly when Hugh John was just a young man of eighteen years. In his father’s will, however, it had been stipulated that Hugh John’s mother would be ‘given her day’ in the cottage. In short this clause meant that the mother would be guaranteed to be able to live in the cottage for the remainder of her days. This was something, of course, which Hugh John was very happy to allow his mother to live in the cottage for the rest of her life, because he had no other person who would wash and iron his clothes, cook him hearty meals, or make his bed in the manner in which he had become used to.
It had been Hugh John’s father who had gained for him his first job in ‘Deeney’s Bacon Factory’, which stood about two miles from the family cottage and to which he could cycle his bike, both evening and morning, in just over fifteen minutes. Unlike his father, Hugh John was not exactly ‘the brightest knife in the drawer’ and he was, therefore, not suitable for many of the tasks available within the factory. His first job was simply to count the pigs that farmers had brought to the factory for slaughter. On those days when there were no pigs arriving Hugh John was given the task of keeping the yards and buildings clean, and for packing produce in preparation for delivery. Mick Deeney, the factory owner, took a particular liking to Hugh John, ignoring his lack of ability and often praising his work ethic. There was none who could deny that Hugh John worked hard from Monday to a Friday and socialised well at the weekends. On the occasional Thursday evening he would, however, gather with several local friends and fellow workmates to play a few hands of cards.
To the rear of ‘Wee Jimmy’ McGinn’s house there was a ramshackle hut that had been constructed from various bits of spare wood, packing cases, corrugated iron and many other recycled materials, all of which had been painted a deep red colour. The local men who had come together to build this ramshackle, but solidly constructed, hut decided that they would call it “The Pigeon Club” though it never covered one pigeon in all of its existence. It was supposed to be a private, members only social club although only one of its members kept a pigeon coop. The main purpose of this building was a social meeting place for the local men, where they could enjoy a game of cards and a few pints of beer. They had no license to sell alcohol but you could bring in whatever you wanted to drink on the premises quite legally. Each Friday one of the committee members would buy a hundred or more cans of various beers and a few bottles of whisky, brandy, rum and vodka. The members would then ‘ donate’ a certain amount of money each time they wanted a drink and by ‘donating’ avoided the illegal selling of alcohol.
The nearest public bar for this area of the country was four miles away and no one wanted to risk drinking and driving. Some would have called it a “Shebeen” (Illegal Drinking Den), while others referred to it as a members only club and its membership continued to grow. The local women would have avoided “The Pigeon Club” because it was seen to be mainly for the men of the district, who enjoyed the various gambling games that were played there. It was even decided to buy a television for the club so that they could watch the horse racing on television, betting on the races by telephone call from “Wee Jimmy’s” house. There were occasions, however, when the wagers placed could be quite high and the losses significant, especially on those nights when “the drink was in and the wit was out,” as people say.
One particular night Hugh John reduced his alcohol intake, drinking considerably less whisky and beer than some of the other members. It was one of those rare occasions when he came home from the club reasonably sober and with a considerable amount of winnings from playing cards. The very next day, Hugh John went into the factory and began negotiating with a colleague for the purchase of a small Honda motorbike. Several men within the factory advised Hugh John that he should avoid buying the motorbike, but he was not to be deterred and spent all his winnings on the purchase. He was determined that he would have a mode of transport much better than a bicycle to get him to and from his daily work.
The Honda motorcycle was black in colour and its chrome handles shone brightly in the afternoon sunshine as he rode it home at twenty miles-per-hour with the red crash helmet on his head that had been thrown into the deal for free. When he reached home Hugh John’s old mother was very surprised to see him on a motorcycle and marched up to him, telling him, “In the name of the good Christ Hugh John, what the hell are you doing on one of those modern contraptions.”
“Ah, Ma! Sure I’ll be alright once I get used to driving it,” he told her proudly and proceeded to park the vehicle at the side of the cottage.
On the first Saturday that he had the motorcycle Hugh John rode it into town, parking outside the “Bookies’ Shop”, where he always placed his bets for the week-end and had some craic with friends. Unfortunately, friends with much more experience of motorbikes chose this time to inform Hugh John’s Honda motorcycle was actually a Honda moped. When they pointed this out to Hugh John he felt a great disappointment, but this became anger when he told them the price he had paid and they laughed. In their experience they felt that the moped was worth far less than the amount of money that he had paid. Several of his friends came outside to examine the purchase and he was told that the engine on the moped was not sounding very healthy and would need to be looked at. Upset and angry, Hugh John rode home that evening and immediately rolled the cycle into the kitchen of the cottage and fetched his toolbox.
“Holy Jaysus!” said his mother when she saw him bring the cycle into the kitchen, “What are you doing now Hugh?”
“One of the boys in town said that the engine was running a bit rough and needed looking at,” he told her. “I’m just going to fix it.”
“Sure what do you know about these modern machines, son?” she asked. “And the kitchen is not the place to do that dirty work.”
“It can’t be that hard. Sure there’s not a great difference between a motorcycle and a bicycle, mother. There’s only a small motor and sure that can’t make much of a mess.”
Opening his toolbox Hugh John selected a set of spanners and began to strip the moped down to its most basic parts. This was the easy bit of the exercise and it did not take him long to complete it. But, as he looked at the many parts of his moped spread over the kitchen floor Hugh John became totally confused about what to do next. Putting everything back in place and in order was not going to be easy. Hugh John had never thought there would be so many individual parts to such a small engine and he wondered if he could return the engine to its original condition. In the beginning he was convinced that if he took the engine apart in a certain sequence then, by reversing that same sequence, he could easily reassemble the engine. Hugh John, however, did not have the talent for clear and organised thinking, falling quite easily into difficulty through ‘Murphy’s Law’. This unwritten law is familiar to all Irishmen and is quite simple to follow, stating “If something can go wrong it will!” Try as he might, Hugh John could not recollect the sequence in which he had dismantled the engine. He simply could not recall which piece went into, beside, through, or on top of another piece.
Quite a few hours later, lunchtime the very next day in fact, the moped began to resemble the machine it was prior to Hugh John’s efforts at repair with screwdriver and spanner. Unfortunately when Hugh John tried to turn the engine over there was no kick whatsoever from the moped.
“What’s wrong with that damned thing now?” his mother asked him.
“I don’t know Ma,” replied Hugh. “I’ve done everything that I can.”
“Then, what is all that stuff on the floor over there?” she asked him.
“That’s what is left over, after I had put it all back together,” he told her. “There was no room for that stuff.”
“Well, just you take that load of scrap, and that bike, down to young Geordie’s and get him to fix it. At least he knows something about those modern contraptions.”
“More money!” sighed Hugh John.
“You broke it, now you fix it,” his mother told him.
“Right, Ma!” he snapped like a child in a tantrum.
A day or two later Hugh John gathered the bike and the box of leftovers and wheeled them down the narrow country road to Geordies’ house and workshop. Geordie was a well known mechanic in the area who was fully employed in repairs of cars and motorcycles. It was said that what Geordie didn’t know about cars and motorcycles wasn’t worth knowing. For this reason Hugh John left the moped and all the spare engine parts with the man, asking only that Geordie didn’t “stick the arm in up to the elbow” when it came to price.
It took Geordie a few days to strip the moped down again and to put it back together in the right way, ensuring everything ran smoothly. While he was at it he increased the power output from the small engine, making it reach speeds that it had never reached previously, and delivered it back to Hugh John. When he started the moped Hugh John was not expecting the speed at which this small machine could travel, which frightened the life out of him. “In the name of Christ, Geordie, are you trying to kill me altogether!” he complained. “I almost crapped myself going down that road!”
The very next morning Hugh John rode the moped very slowly to work and offered it for sale and little Des Connolly jumped up and offered him his price immediately. “That is just the thing for me and Bernie to get about on,” he said. Bernie was his wife and, while Des was small and thin, Bernie was almost six feet tall and eighteen stone in weight. Hugh John did not choose to tell Des that the moped was incapable of carrying both of them at the same time. In fact he was concerned that the moped might not even carry Bernie alone. But, he shook hands with the man and the deal was sealed. A few days later he watched Des riding the motorcycle along the road with Bernie on the back, and the front wheel at forty-five degree angle in the air. Although Des did not confirm it, there was a rumour that the entire rear of the moped collapsed under the strain, coming home from church one Sunday morning and Hugh John never saw it again.
After the moped incident Hugh John, as is the case with most young men of his age, began to take a healthy interest in the female sex. Encouraged by his friends Hugh John began to attend the various dances that were held in the local “Calypso Ballroom”, but he did not actually dance very often. He would often be found near the soft drinks bar admiring the young ladies on the dance-floor, displaying themselves in their best dresses. Unfortunately for the young man he could never have been considered to be among the best dressed males in the area, and he would never have been considered a “Gene Kelly” on the dance-floor. The man had two left feet and the only foxtrot that he knew was the one a fox did after a farmer shot at him. At one time he spent a considerable sum in buying himself a “Teddy Boy” outfit with drainpipe trousers, long jacket and blue suede shoes with crepe soles. Rather than improve his reputation among the ladies he became known to them as “The Calypso Kid.”
Fortunately for the “Kid” not all the female attendees at the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ thought he was a fool. One night he was persuaded to ask a young lady to dance, while his friend asked her companion to dance with him. That was to be his first introduction to Winnie Lavery, who was a big girl in more ways than one.
Winnie had the build of a Russian weightlifter and the voice to match. Many people suggested that Hugh John only continued to date her because he was afraid to say that he didn’t want to see her again. When he danced with Winnie it appeared that Hugh John simply floated across the dance-floor, but it was more likely due to the fact that Winnie held him so tight the man’s feet never touched the floor. For a considerable length of time, Winnie had been seeking a man who just might make a good husband for her, and Hugh John McClean fitted the bill perfectly. He was a quiet sort of man whom, she felt she could dominate. He was a good worker, well-mannered and, best of all in her book, not too bright. Winnie had now set her sights on marrying this man and becoming Mrs. McClean and assuming control of his house irrespective of the fact that Hugh John’s mother, Mary, still lived there. Not surprisingly, with a woman so determined, within six months of their first meeting in the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ Hugh John had been persuaded to believe that he had met the woman of his dreams and, as she expected, he proposed to Winnie. She ensured that the engagement was a short one and they were eventually married in the local church and honeymooned in Dublin for a few days.
On the return of the happy couple Hugh John had little choice but to settle down into married life, while Winnie immediately gave up the job and began to make the house her own, much to the Mary’s resentment. Instead of involving the elderly woman in any of the changes she was making, Winnie began changing the furniture and fittings to a style of her own liking. By ignoring the feelings of the elderly woman, Winnie had stoked up years of animosity between the two women in Hugh John’s life and the years that followed could not have been worse for Hugh John. The happy life that he had thought he was getting when he married, suddenly became a nightmare.
The constant battle of wills between Mary and her daughter-in-law gradually wore the older woman down, causing the old lady’s health to deteriorate. When Mary eventually passed away some months later there were many of her neighbours and friends who were deeply saddened by the passing of such a generous, kind-hearted lady. Hugh John was particularly upset by his mother’s death and he never quite forgave Winnie for all the grief she had caused the old woman. From that day they continued to live as husband and wife in public, while they lived like strangers in private. Although Winnie quickly discovered that she no longer had the influence over husband that she once had, Hugh John did not prevent her from continuing to furnish the home. Perhaps it was this growing distance between them that the couple never experienced the joy of having a family of their own. Over the years that followed Hugh John spent gradually began spending less and less time at home. He preferred to spend much of his leisure time in the company of friends in “The Pigeon Club”, or in the public houses of the nearest town.
“McKeever’s” was noted in the town for quality of its draught Guinness stout and became the favourite drinking place of Hugh John, where he would spend two or three nights every week, drinking with friends and workmates. The bar was also noted for being the oldest public house in the town and attracted all types of people to it. There were, for example, quiet, easy-going types who enjoyed the occasional drink among good company. But, as is often the case, the bar also attracted the more boorish type of person who could not enjoy a few drinks without causing or encouraging trouble. One such visitor to the bar was a well-built young man called Jimmy Duggan, known to all in “McKeever’s” as ‘Mean Jimmy’ because he was the greatest bully in the town. Jimmy was so filled with well toned muscles that he always appeared to be ready to burst out of his clothes. Hugh John was a quiet peace loving man who had never given Jimmy any reason to confront him. But, one particular evening, something about Hugh John’s appearance changed everything. It was a typical Saturday evening in the bar when Hugh John walked in wearing his best suit and a brand new pair of brown leather brogues.
“Where are you going?” asked the barman.
“I’m going to Wilson’s wake,” Hugh John told him.
“Jaysus, I heard the man was dead. When is the funeral?”
“Tomorrow, after twelve o’clock Mass,” replied Hugh John as he took a drink from his pint of Guinness.
“Those are nice shoes, Hugh John,” commented Jimmy Duggan, interrupting the conversation between Hugh John and the barman. “I wouldn’t mind those shoes myself.”
“Thanks,” said Hugh John. “I bought them in the sale at Clarkes.”
“Good for you,” replied Jimmy in a quiet, but more threateningly. “You’ll be able to get yourself another pair easy enough, then.”
Hugh John laughed, “And why would I want to buy another pair?”
“Because, Hugh John, I want those shoes you have on your feet,” Jimmy told him coldly. There was no sign that he meant it jokingly.
“These?” laughed Hugh John. “Are you joking?”
Jimmy Duggan drew closer to Hugh John and told him, “I never joke. Now take the shoes off.”
“And what am I supposed to do?” asked Hugh John.
“Have you never been in your sock-soles? Now, just take them off before I rip them from your feet!”
Not one person in the bar saw where that punch came from. They only heard the loud crack as the fist connected with chin and, as they turned to see what had happened, they saw Jimmy Duggan’s body rise into the air. Hugh John had hit Duggan so hard that he was lifted off his feet and seemed to float, airborne, for several yards before he finally crashed to the floor. Jimmy Duggan lay unconscious on the floor of McKeever’s bar and from that moment Hugh John’s reputation in the town was made. He became a man with the courage of a tiger and the strength of a bull elephant, making him a man that nobody wanted to upset or trifle with.
Hugh John’s new reputation as a ‘hard man’ with great courage could have taken a very serious knock if news had been spread, about his fear of mice. Even Winnie, for such a large woman, could not her paralysing fear of these small creatures and she did everything she could to ensure none would ever enter their home. But, there is no such a thing as complete security in anything, and there is always “Murphy’s Law” that applies to most things in life – “If something can go wrong, then it will.” One morning as Winnie cooked the breakfast she noticed a mouse, scampering across the kitchen floor and immediately squealed, in her terror, “Mouse!”
That terrible squeal of anguish that echoed through the house caused Hugh John to run immediately to the aid of his terrified wife. But, when he heard the word ‘mouse’ he suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Just you hold on here, Winnie!” he called to his wife. “I will be back in a few minutes!!”
Hugh John left the house and ran the entire distance to Billy Robb’s shop and garage, which was about a quarter of a mile distant. Breathlessly he asked Billy, “Have you any mouse-traps?”
“I have,” answered Billy, “How many do you want?”
“How many have you got?”
Surprised by Hugh John’s question Billy pulled out a box from under the counter and, after a moment, he told Hugh John, “A dozen.”
“I’ll take them all!”
“Jesus, Hugh John, you must have a plague of the wee devils!” said Billy.
“No, thank God, just the one,” explained Hugh John as he reached into his pocket for his wallet.
“Twelve traps for one mouse?” exclaimed Billy. “Do you call it Houdini?”
“Aye, very funny. Just give them here,” said Hugh John.
Still laughing heartily, Billy handed the box of traps to Hugh John and took the man’s money. With a box of traps in his hands, Hugh John returned home and found Winnie just where he had left her, standing on the kitchen table shaking in fear. One by one Hugh John laid out the traps across the kitchen floor and just as he set the last trap one suddenly snapped as it was released. The spring in the trap had been tripped and the trap snapped on to the fragile neck of the little creature, killing it. A dead mouse, however, did not suddenly cure Hugh John’s fear of the creature and, despite Winnie’s continued for him to remove the little corpse, he would not go anywhere near it. Instead, he went outside and retrieved a long-handled shovel with which he scooped up both the mouse and the trap. Keeping his catch in the shovel she guided it through the back door of the cottage and disposed of it in the bin. With the terrifying creature gone, Winnie came down from the table still shaking and the domestic life of the cottage continued much as it had previously.
Just after his fortieth wedding anniversary Hugh John woke one morning to find that Winnie had passed away, while sleeping beside him in the bed during the night. Although Winnie and Hugh were no longer a loving couple, it was still a shock to him and he was a little sad that she was now gone. It may not have been a marriage filled with romance and good times, and Hugh John may have found it difficult to be in her presence for any length of time, or truly communicate, but he did retain a certain affection for her and he missed her when she went from his life. Hugh John was now left all alone in that small cottage, retired from work and with plenty of time on his hands. But, housekeeping and cooking were talents that Hugh John did not possess and the house began to quickly fall into a very untidy condition. Winnie’s sister, Bernie, was the first to pick up the courage to tell him that he needed to do something about taking care of himself and the house.
“You need somebody to do the cleaning and cooking for you, Hugh John,” she told him.
“Can you not do it?”
“Certainly not,” Bernie told him bluntly. “I have my own home, husband and children to take care of. Why don’t you advertise for help in the local paper?”
“Sure I wouldn’t know what to say, or pay,” he told her. “You do it for me, Bernie.”
After giving the matter some consideration Bernie placed the following advert in the local paper – “Young, single woman required as live-in housekeeper for an elderly gentleman. All interested parties please apply to 4 Damson Terrace.”
When the newspaper came out, the following Thursday, the news of Hugh John’s search for a housekeeper became widespread throughout the entire area. The idea of such a search caused considerable humour among the neighbours and several jokes did the rounds of the various public houses, many suggesting that Hugh John was searching for a new wife rather than a new housekeeper. There were quite a few of Hugh John’s neighbours who thought the old man should be thinking about his ‘plot’ rather than a young housekeeper, whose very presence might cause over excitement in a man who had been so deprived of female company for such a considerable time. One local, young man with a mischievous mind thought he could get some fun out of the situation if he was to dress up in female clothing and present himself for interview. He decided to put his plan into action on the Saturday morning, and encouraged several local people to observe the practical joke at first hand by secreting themselves at various observation points.
Tommy was the young man’s name and he convinced his sister, Mary, to assist him with his female disguise. She began by dressing him in a brassiere around his chest, filling the cups with tissue paper and couple of pairs of socks. Over a pair of football shorts, Tommy wore a brightly flowered skirt that stretched almost to his ankles. He borrowed a large woollen jumper and on his feet he squeezed a pair of black, patent-leather high heels. Once her brother was dressed , Mary sat him down in a chair beside her dressing table and began to apply make-up to his face. She applied foundation before applying eyelash and eye-brow make-up, and finally red lipstick. To add authenticity to this great plan of deceiving old Hugh John, Mary finally placed a wig of long, shiny, flowing black hair upon her brothers head. So complete was the disguise that, when Tommy left the house, it was virtually impossible to tell that he was a man and not a female. Those who witnessed the transformation were certain that Hugh John would not recognise the deception which was going to played upon him.
Tommy walked down the terrace of houses until he came to the entrance into Hugh John’s cottage and stopped. In his best female manner he opened the ornamental mental gate and walked up the path to the front door, which he knocked loudly. None of those watching the scene could be observed, but they could see all that was happening. Tommy was standing on the doorstep when the cottage’s front door opened and Hugh John came out of the house leaning on a walking stick. “Hello,” he greeted what he thought was a young woman standing before him.
“Hello, Mr. McClean,” Tommy greeted the old man. “I have come to apply for the housekeeper’s position.”
“Come on ahead in,” Hugh John invited the visitor cordially and Tommy went into the cottage. When the door closed behind Tommy, those who had been watching the action began to giggle and snicker at the thought of Hugh John being so easily fooled. But the laughter was quickly silenced when a loud scream of terror echoed from the house and all the neighbours waited to see what had happened. There was another loud scream and the sound of raised voices that seemed to originate from the rear of the cottage. Several of the neighbours now rushed to better positions that would allow them to see exactly what was happening and the sight that met their eyes was almost unbelievable. They saw Tommy, dressed as a young girl, running as fast as his feet would carry him across the field that stretched uphill from the rear of the cottages. Holding his dress up with his hands and having no shoes on his feet, Tommy was making good progress and putting good distance between himself and his pursuer. Behind him, Hugh John was limping after Tommy with his walking stick in hand and he was shouting at the top of his voice, “Come back wee darling. Let me show you just what I want you to do!”
But, Tommy was not answering.
In Ireland, even today, there are so many superstitions, rituals and traditions in the day to day life of its people. This is especially true when it comes to the passing of dear friends and relatives, their funeral arrangements, and their final interment. These superstitions and traditions might vary slightly from family to family, but each holds strongly to their own. In fact they hold so faithfully to their own family rituals that on occasions they can lead to anger and physical violence when different families come together to mourn in different ways.
When I was a young man my favourite way of spending my leisure time was to take long walks through the countryside and sketch many of the interesting sites that I would come across. Over the years I had filled my artist’s sketch book with pictures of beautifully sited thatched cottages, old barns, ruins, and old churches. On one particular sunny day, I was sitting alone on a grassy embankment at the edge of the desolate graveyard and church in Drumm. In that beautifully quiet place I became almost totally lost in my efforts to capture, on paper, that special scene that lay before me. Occasionally I would lift up my eyes from my sketchbook to look directly at the detail that was present in this interesting ruin which I was attempting to paint. It was also an opportunity wipe the perspiration from my brow, that was caused by the heat of the sun radiating down upon my head.
The quiet stillness that had prevailed all that particular day was suddenly broken by a faint and wild sound that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life. Admittedly, the strange sound startled me and caused me to stop my sketching for a moment or two. Alone in that graveyard I began to listen nervously, waiting for that strange sound to repeat itself. I didn’t have to wait very long for this weird, unearthly sound to once again vibrate through the still air of the evening. It was now even more loud than it had been at first and, as I listened to its strange vibration and tone, I decided that it could be likened to the sound made by many glasses, ringing and tinkling as they are crowded in together.
I stood up, rising from the place where I had been seated, and I began to search around for the possible source of this strange noise. There was not another body in my vicinity when, once again, this heart-chilling sound suddenly filled the air about me with its wild and wailing intonation. At first the sound reminded me somewhat of a tune being played upon an aged harp. When another burst of the sound came forth, it became quite obvious to me that it was the sound of many human voices that were being raised in lamentation somewhere close by. It was a loud, heart-chilling, wail of sorrow about which, before this occasion, I had only ever heard only rumours. Now, for the first time in my life I heard that wild and terrifying sound and shivered with cold fear. Those who read this tale, and who have already heard the same sound, will surely understand just how anxious I was when I heard it in the silence of that day in Drumm.
As my eyes scanned the area outside of the graveyard I could clearly see, in the light of that day, a crowd of local people, both male and female. In an orderly line they wound their way along a low path that led them toward the churchyard where I was standing, and among them the strong men carried the coffin of someone who was a dear departed friend or relative. As they came closer toward me, occasion I heard a loud and pitiful wail of sorrow that arose from the mourners in that crowd. The voices rang loudly, in a wild and startling unison, as they moved up the hill, until the sound gradually descended in its volume, finally becoming little more than a subdued wail. Diligently, these local people continued to carry their loved one’s body onward, but not in the same measured and solemn step as before. Now, they were moving in a much more rapid and irregular manner, almost as if the pain of their grief was hurrying them on to the graveside, which was the much hoped for culmination of all their efforts.
The overall effect of this large local rural funeral was, I must admit, certainly more impressive than any of the other funerals I had ever seen in my short life. There was very little of the pomp and circumstance of other funerals I had observed, such as a hearse, or large commemorative wreaths. But, the equal of the pallbearers could never have been found as they steadily bore along the body of their dear departed friend on their shoulders in the stillness of evening until they reached the cemetery. The male friends and relatives of the deceased person carried the coffin into the interior of the ruin. There the women had gathered to continue their mourning for the dead, and half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately began to prepare a grave. I can honestly say that I have seldom seen men more full of activity. But, scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, than the loud peal of the pipes was heard at some distance. The young men paused in their work, and they turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point from where the sound appeared to originate.
As I looked up I clearly observed that another funeral procession was winding its way slowly around the foot of the hill. Immediately the young men at the graveside returned to their work with greater effort than before. As the spades dug into the black soil anxious shouts from onlookers constantly encouraged them to complete their work as quickly as possible. Some of the more polite followers shouted, “For Jaysus sake, hurry boys, hurry.”
“Shift your big arse, Paddy!” others called.
Friends of some of the men shouted out to them, “Put your back into it, Mike! ”
“If you could shift the sod as quick as you shift the ‘Guinness’, it would suit you better,” others laughed aloud.
By this time the second funeral party, that was approaching, could see ahead of them that the churchyard to which they were going was already filled with people. Almost immediately this second funeral party quickened their pace, and their sounds of mourning rose more loudly in the morning air as they came nearer to the churchyard. Quite unexpectedly, a small detachment of men, carrying a variety of picks and spades, came forward out of the main party. Then, without warning, this group of armed men rushed headlong up the hill toward the churchyard, accompanied by loud shouting. At the same time an elderly woman, her eyes streaming with tears and her hair dishevelled, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had taken their coffin. Arms raised, she ran towards the young men who were digging at the ground with all their might and, passionately, she begged them to do their work more quickly. “Ahh Boys! Sure you wouldn’t let them beat you to the job and have my sweet boy wandering about, alone on these long, dark nights. Please dig hard boys. Lay into it with all your power and gain, for yourselves, a sorrowful mother’s blessing for ensuring my wee Paddy will have rest.”
Standing among those men in her bedraggled appearance, and the intensity of her manner as she pleaded with them, I thought the poor woman was crazy. In fact, such was her condition, that I could barely make out what she was saying to the young men, and I was obliged to inquire off one of the bystanders if they could fill in the blank spaces.
“Are you asking me because you believe she is going crazy? ” said the person that I had asked, as he looked at me in a very puzzling manner. “Sure, I thought everyone knew the answer to that. Especially someone who looks as well learned as you. The poor woman doesn’t want her dead son to be walking about in the night, as he must, unless those boys are smart.”
“What do you mean, walking about in the night?” I asked him. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Whisht! whisht!” he urged me to be quiet. “Here they come now and, in the name of God, they have Joe Gallagher at their head,” he said to me as he anxiously looked towards the advanced-guard of the second funeral, which had now gained the summit of the hill. They quickly leaped over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery and advanced towards the group that surrounded the newly excavated grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.
“Stop what you are doing there, I tell you!” shouted Joe Gallagher to those men who were working at opening the ground and were still using their implements with great energy.
“Stop it now, or it’ll be worse for you! Did you not hear me, Rooney?” said Gallagher again, as he laid his muscular hand on the arm of one of the young men who were digging, suddenly stopping him from continuing his work.
“Of course I heard you, Gallagher,” said Rooney; “but I just chose not to listen to you.”
“Just you keep a civil tongue in your head, wee man” Gallagher warned him.
“By God, Gallagher, but you’re a brave man and very fond of giving people advice that you should listen to yourself,” Rooney retorted and, once again, plunged his spade into the earth.
“Didn’t I tell you to stop, you Gobshite?” Gallagher roared, “or, I’ll put my boot so far up your arse, Rooney, that you’ll be chewing leather for six months!”
“Get away out of this, Gallagher! What brings you here at all?” interrupted another of the men by the graveside. “Just looking for trouble is it?”
“Sure what else would bring the likes of him here, but to cause mischief?” said a grey-haired man, who was standing just a couple of yards away from the graveside. “Sure, don’t you know by now that there’s always a quarrel whenever there’s a Gallagher about?”
“You may thank your grey hair, you old goat, that I don’t make you take those words back with some pain,” Gallagher told the old man as he glared at him.
“There was a time,” warned the old man, “when I had something more than just these grey hairs to make such as you respect me.” As he spoke the old man drew himself up with an air of great dignity. He wanted everyone to see that he was still a tall man and had retained a broad chest, which would bear the truth of the statement that he had made. There was a bright, but briefly lived flame, that was kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and his expression of pride and defiance quickly gave way to an expression of coldness and contempt toward Gallagher.
“Listen to me, old man, I’d have beaten you more stupid than you already are, even on the best day you ever had,” sneered Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.
“Don’t you believe it, Gallagher!” said a contemporary of the old man, who had known him in his younger days. “You have plenty of conceit, and a big mouth that you use to bully those weaker than you!”
“Isn’t that the truth,” said Rooney. “He’s a great man in his own mind. By God I could be a rich man if I could buy Gallagher at what I thought he was worth, and sell him at what he thinks he’s worth.”
A loud, mocking laughter rose up among those gathered at the graveside, causing Gallagher’s agitation to increase tenfold. There was a deep darkness that came across the big man’s features, and Gallagher immediately took up a posture so threatening that a man standing close to me turned to his companion and told him, “By God, Eddie there’s going to be ‘wigs on the green’ before too long!”
The man was to be proved quite right in his prediction. Scarcely had the words been uttered by him, than I began to see many of the men around me taking off their heavy coats and jackets, and rolling up the sleeves of their jumpers and shirts. The entire scenario turned much more menacing when the men began looking around them for anything that they might use as a weapon. With their weapons in hand there was a general closing-in of the bystanders around this group, which made it perfectly clear to me that a huge and bloody conflict would soon begin between the opposing groups.
It did not take long before the entire world seemed to come crashing in around me. There was a general melée that began in the centre of the gathering, with the main antagonists passing through the whole group until, finally a mass battle began. Such was the speed of events that within very few minutes the belligerents had dispersed themselves throughout the ruined churchyard in various battling groups. As a spectator, I stood back from the topmost step of a style that led into the burial-ground. It was obvious to me that it was better, for my continued good health, not to stand too closely to where the action was happening. As I stood watching the battle my attention was attracted by the sudden appearance of a man, who was exclaiming at the top of his voice: “Oh, you evil people! Stop this, I tell you, you heathen people! Are you even Christians at all?”
This loud intruder was a tall, thin, pale man, who was wearing a hat which, from exposure to bad weather, had its broad, slouching brim crimped into many fantastic shapes. The crown of the hat was depressed in the middle, and the edges showed the paleness of wear, that was very far removed from its original black. He wore no collared shirt and had a narrow white scarf drawn tightly around his neck. A single-breasted overcoat of rusty black, with standing collar, was tightly buttoned nearly up to his chin, and hung over his frame to the knees of his black trousers, beneath which peeped well polished black leather shoes. He pushed his way through the fighting men and quickly climbed the stile upon which I was standing, politely saying, “Excuse me, sir,” as he pushed by.
From the top of the stile he jumped to the ground, and he proceeded with long and rapid strides, towards the groups of combatants. In his hand the man brandished a heavy bullwhip with which he began to lay about each and every one of the brawlers. In equal measure and with total impartiality, he began dealing out a heavy-handed justice. I was also greatly impressed by the fact that all these blows inflicted on them by this newcomer were not at all resented by those whom he assaulted. It almost appeared as if they had decided resistance against this man was futile, choosing instead to begin fleeing quickly before his blows. They looked like so many frightened school-boys before an angry teacher and they gathered together in one large group, which immediately became pacified by his presence.
As I watched these events happening I stepped down from my perch at the top of the stile and ran, towards the place the man was admonishing the crowd. There I found this tall, thin man delivering a severe reproof to the crowd he had quietened down. The more he reproved them for their “unchristian acts” the more evident it became that he was a religious leader of this group of troubled people. But his reproval of them was short, sharp and certainly impressive. His speech was well delivered in simple terms for the audience to whom it was directed. It was simple in the language it used and solemn in the way his deep, gritty voice spoke the words. “And now,” added the clergyman, “let me ask you why you are all fighting like so many wild savages? Your conduct makes me think that you are more likely to be savage animals rather than intelligent human beings who have been raised within the hearing of God’s word.”
There were a few moments of silence following his question until someone among the crowd mustered enough courage to answer the cleric. He told him that the entire fracas was, “due to the burying.”
“There is no more solemn a sight,” replied the priest, “But, is the burial of the departed not enough to keep the evil passions of your hearts in check?”
“The truth of the matter, if it pleases your reverence, is that there was nothing ill-natured in it. It was only a good-natured turn we were doing for poor Paddy Mooney that’s departed this life. You know it’s to yourself that we will be going for masses to be said for the poor boy’s soul.”
“Now!” answered the priest. He was anxious to nip this appeal to his own interest in the bud. “Don’t you dare talk to me about doing a good-natured turn for any person.” He stared at them all sternly, telling them, “Prayers for the souls of the faithful departed are taken up by the whole Church. But, what has such a good act have to do with your scandalous and lawless actions that I have just witnessed you all committing.”
He now turned to the last speaker, “You were one of the busiest with your weapon and you are the most riotous of the group, Rooney. You had better take care that I don’t speak out against you from the altar.”
“Oh, God forbid that your reverence would have to do the like of that!” cried out the mother of the deceased, imploring him as big teardrops chased each other down her cheeks. “Sure it was only that they wanted to put my poor son in the ground first. It’s just, as your reverence knows, that they did not want to have my poor Paddy-”
“Tut, tut! woman!” interrupted the priest, waving his hand rather impatiently, “don’t you let me hear any nonsense.”
“I ask your reverence’s pardon for I am not the type of woman who would knowingly offend my very own clergy — may God’s blessing be upon them night and day! But I was only going to put in a good word for Mick Rooney. He and everyone else of us wish for nothing but peace, but it is Joe Gallagher, who just would not leave us to do our peaceful duty.”
“Gallagher!” said the priest, in a deeply reproachful tone. “Where is he?”
Gallagher did not come forward when called, but the crowd drew back, and left him revealed to the priest. On his face he wore and expression of sullen indifference, and he also seemed to be the only person in the crowd who was totally unfazed by the presence of the cleric. The priest now moved towards him and, extending his hand in the attitude of denunciation towards Gallagher, he spoke very solemnly, “I have already spoken to you in the chapel and now, once again, I find myself having to warn you to be careful. Wherever you go trouble and strife seems to always follow you. You are a disgrace and if you do not quickly reform your life I will have no choice but to seek your expulsion from the Church. Make no mistake, Gallagher, I shall pronounce a sentence of excommunication upon you from the altar, if I feel it is necessary.”
Everyone within hearing distance was overcome by the solemnity and severity of the priest’s words. When the word “excommunication” was uttered by the cleric, a thrill of horror seemed to run through the assembled crowd. It appeared to me that even Gallagher betrayed some emotion when he heard that terrible word. Yet, for a moment he managed to show no emotion and, turning on his heel, he retired from the scene with some of the swagger with which he had entered it. The crowd opened to let him pass, giving him a wide space, as if they sought to avoid contact with one who had been so fearfully denounced.
Calling upon the entire crowd to hear him the priest told them, “You have two coffins here. Now you will immediately begin to dig two graves, and allow both bodies to be interred at the same time, and I will read the service for the dead over them.” With these instructions ringing in their ears the crowd wasted very little time in carrying them out. The narrow graves were quickly dug and the bodies of the dead were consigned to their last long sleep, as the deep, solemn voice of the priest was raised in the “De Profundis”. When he had concluded this short and beautiful psalm, the friends of the deceased closed the graves, and covered them neatly with fresh cut sods.
“You know things have been done right,” said Rooney, “when you see that the ‘Daisy Quilt’ is finally put over them.”
The priest, now that his job was done, retired from the churchyard and I followed him with the sole purpose of introducing myself to him. I was seeking from him a clear and simple explanation of what was still a most intriguing mystery to me, namely, the actual cause of the quarrel with Gallagher. From certain passages in his address to the crowd I could grasp that he understood the cause and could, perhaps explain it to me. I quickly caught up with the cleric and introduced myself to him. Thankfully, he received me with a great deal of courtesy and politeness, which was to be expected from a man with such a good heart. Now, having gained his attention, I tried to assure him that my curiosity was simply because I wished to understand the reasons for the fight that had taken place, and to which he had put a stop. I was hoping that he would not think that I was overbearing when I asked him for an explanation.
“It is no intrusion, sir,” answered the priest very frankly. He spoke with a rich, soft brogue, whose intonation expressed his inbuilt good nature. The brogue, with which he spoke, reminded me of someone from an upper middle-class and well educated family. There was no trace of the more vulgar expressions that is usually found in the manner in which the ordinary working class speak. There are those, of course, who try to sound more genteel than they really are by grafting a posh English accent to their brogue. But they often trip themselves up because the accents of the two countries can never be truly blended together. Far from making a pleasing accent, it conveys to the listener that the speaker is trying very hard to escape from his own accent, which they consider to be inferior. It is a vain attempt to demonstrate some finesse, which fails because their vulgarity is so deeply inbred.
This was not the case with the way in which Father Donnachadh Ryan spoke to me. His voice was both deep and rich in tone, a true manly voice that had boomed when he had admonished the crowd for their violent attitude. Even when he was engaged in a less formal conversation his voice lost little of its richness or depth. Still, I listened intently while the priest proceeded to enlighten me on the subject of the funerals’ etiquette, and the reason behind the quarrel that had arisen between the two groups. “The truth of the matter is, sir, that these poor people are possessed of many foolish superstitions. We might, as men, pardon their errors and simply look upon them as fictional tales that take hold in fertile imaginations. Just because we can understand how such suspicions take hold in the minds of the less educated and more susceptible, we cannot, as their spiritual leaders allow ourselves to admit openly to them that such superstitions are in error.”
His explanation, however, quite surprised me. I did not think I would find a clergyman, especially a Catholic priest, say such a thing. “The superstition that I speak of,” he continued to explain, “is just one of the many that these warm hearted people indulge in, and it is not a particularly evil one.” Then he suddenly ended his discourse and pulled out a richly cased, antique gold watch of great workmanship. “Now, sir, I must ask your pardon; I have an engagement to keep at my home, which obliges me to immediately make my way there as quickly as I possibly can. But, if you have enough time to spare, you can walk with me to the end of this little road and I shall be able to make you well acquainted with the nature of the superstition in question.”
I was happy to agree with his proposal and we set off together. As we wound our way down the little stony path that led to the main road, Father Ryan began to give me an account of the cause behind all the previous trouble. “There is a belief among the local people here that the ghost of the last person interred in the churchyard is obliged to travel, unceasingly, the road between this earth and purgatory, carrying water to slake the burning thirst of those who are confined in that terrible place. The ghost is, therefore, obliged to walk through the wasteland during the middle of the night, until some fresh body is placed in the grave and supplies a fresh ghost to relieve the guard. In this way the supply of water to the sufferers in purgatory is kept up unceasingly.”
This was the reason why the violent encounter had come about, and why the old mother had called out that her, “darling boy should not be left to wander about the churchyard dark and alone in the long nights.” In his explanation, furthermore, Father Ryan gave me some curious illustrations of the different ways in which this superstition influenced his “poor people,” as he constantly called them. But I suppose you have already had quite enough. I shall, therefore, say no more of these other cases and I am happy that I have at least provided you with this one example. Sadly, even in these more modern times such wild superstitions still exist in our land and undoubtedly owe their continued existence to the goodness of the Irish heart and the poetic imagination of our people.
Superstition is, and will probably remain, one of the major characteristics of the Irish people. One of the greatest sources of superstition, however, and one which has been the most productive of what are styled “well-founded and authenticated stories of supernatural occurrences,” is that ever changing ‘monster’ that is known in all its forms by the title of “Remarkable or Curious Coincidences.”
When events, which are precisely similar in detail, occur, they are considered coincidental. Some may consider them to be remarkable, given that these events are usually simple and ordinary. But, if these precisely similar events were repeated then they were considered to be a wonder. Quite recently, I was given an excellent example of this when I heard mention of a particularly curious coincidence having occurred not far from my home. It was the story of three men having been found drowned at various times during one winter season. Each body was found in the same river, at virtually the same place, and each wore two shirts. From that time it became a very strong belief among the locals that wearing two shirts was very unlucky.
Some people would suggest, however, that those people who would allow themselves to be guided by such beliefs would find their lives very burdensome. To be guided in their actions by these observations would require them to be in a state of constant alertness for the rest of their lives. The following story will, for instance, demonstrate the necessity of a person getting to know the names of fellow travellers, in case anyone with the name of Paddy Murphy be among them.
There was a time when the children in a large inland town rarely if ever saw the sea, unless they went on a day excursion organised by a local church group. In many of these seaside resorts enterprising persons often organise boat trips for fishing, sight-seeing, or simply for the experience of being on the open water. This was such in a resort that was, at one time, reachable by train from our home town. On one September morning a small pleasure boat with forty-one persons on board set out to travel down the Lough to the sea. It was a windy day, but not stormy enough to give any concern. When the boat reached the middle of the Lough the boat was overturned and only one man was saved. This fortunate man was called Paddy Murphy, a passenger on an excursion from m home town. Less than ten years after this incident a similar fate befell the twenty-five passengers aboard a small excursion craft. Again, only one man survived the incident, and he was called Paddy Murphy.
There are people who put a lot of credence in such coincidences, while others have no belief whatsoever in such things at all. Some people who have heard this story actually fear to trust their lives on any kind of boat with any man called Paddy Murphy. A little local knowledge and calm reflection, however, would go quite a way to removing such apprehensions. There are very few, if any, events in this life that cannot be traced back to natural causes.
The name of Murphy is very common in my home town, and Patrick, shortened to Paddy, is of course a favourite Christian name throughout all Ireland. There is every possibility, therefore, that persons with the name of Murphy, and very possibly even Paddy Murphy, were lost amongst the passengers on each of those occasions. But, the fact that people from the same town were on the excursions on each of those days appears to have been overlooked, while the coincidence of the individual saved on each occasion being of the same name was recorded. The events could have been simply accounted for by the ordinary rules of calculating odds or chances. Where the name of Paddy Murphy was common, there was certainly a greater chance of a person of that name being saved than one of any other, and, as has been remarked previously, no notice was taken of just how many Paddy Murphys had perished in these events.