There was nothing nice or polite about Neil Kelly. He simply told his wife that he was going to the forge to get a ‘doctoring instrument’ and off he went without another word being said. When he arrived at the forge he mumbled a greeting to the blacksmith, who asked him “Where are you heading to today?“
” I have come here, for to ask you to make me an instrument for some doctoring I intend to do.”
“Aye, well what type of instrument is it that you want?”
“Make me a ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’,” replied Neil.
The Smith made these instruments for him in a short period of time and Neil then returned home.
When the next day dawned, Neil Kelly rose up from his bed and prepared himself to be going out as a doctor and went out of the house. As he walked along the road, Neil met a red-haired lad on the side of the high road. The lad politely saluted Neil Kelly and Neil did likewise in reply. “Where would you be going?” asked the red man.
“I am going as far as I can to get me a doctoring job.”
“It’s a good trade,” says the red man, “It would be best for you to hire me.”
“What wages would be you be looking for?” inquired Neil.
“I suppose half of what we shall earn until we come back to this place again would be right.“
“I’ll give you that,” said Neil without hesitation, and with this agreed the two men walked on their way together.
“There’s a king’s daughter,” said the red man, “who is close to death. We should go as far as the place in which she rests, and we shall see if we can heal her.“
The two men walked on as far as the gate of a strong well-guarded castle, and the porter came to answer their call. He asked them where they were going to, and they said that they had come to look at the king’s daughter they were, to see if they could do her any good. The king, hearing this gave the visitors permission to enter the castle, and they were taken to the place where the girl was lying. The red man went to her and took hold of her wrist to check her pulse, and said that if his master should get the price of his labour he would heal her. The king replied by saying that he would give his master whatever he should award himself. In response, the red man said, “If I could have the room to myself and my master, then he could work better,” and without hesitation, the king said he should have it.
He wanted a little pot of water brought down to him, which he immediately put on the fire to boil. He asked Neil Kelly, “Where is the doctoring instrument?“
“Here they are,” said Neil, “a crooked knife and a white knife.”
He put the crooked knife on the girl’s neck, and he took her head off her body. Then, he took a green herb out of his pocket and rubbed it into her neck. Not one drop of blood came out of the wound as he took the head and threw it into the pot of water starting to boil on the fire. He boiled it for a while, seized hold of the two ears, and taking it out of the skillet, he struck it down on the neck. The head stuck on the girl’s body as well as it ever was. “How do you feel now,” he asked the girl.
“I am as well as ever I was,” said the king’s daughter.
The big man shouted for her father and the king came down to the room. When he saw his daughter, he was totally joyous, and he would not let the visitors go away again for three days. When they were eventually leaving the castle, the king brought down a bag of money and poured it out on the table. He asked Neil Kelly if there was enough there for him. Neil said that there was more than enough and that they would only take half of the amount. But the king wanted them to take the entire amount, and the two men replied, “There is a daughter of another king who is waiting for us to go and look at her.” With that, they bid farewell to the king and went on their way.
They went to look at their new patient and went to the place where she was lying ill. After looking at her in her bed she was healed in the same manner as the previous princess was healed. The king was grateful, and he said that he did not mind how much money Neil should take from him, giving him three-hundred pounds cash, and then they left to go home.
“There’s a king’s son in such and such a place,” said the red man, “but we won’t go to him. We will go home with what we have.” They were heading home, with ten heifers that the king had given them, and as they walked homeward, they came upon the place where Neil Kelly had hired the red man.
“I think,” said the red man, “that this is the place where I met you the first time.”
“I think it is,” replied Neil Kelly, “Friend, how shall we divide the money?“
“Two halves,” said the red man, “that’s what we agreed.”
“I think it is too much to give you half,” said Neil Kelly, “a third is enough for you. It was I who had the ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’, and you had nothing.”
“I won’t take anything,” said the red man, “unless I get half the money.” The two men fell out over the money, and the red man left him.
Neil Kelly was coming closer to his home, driving his share of the cattle. The day became hotter and the cattle began to scamper backwards and forwards in the heat, with Neil Kelly trying his best to control them. When he caught one or two, the rest would be off when he used to bring them back. The horse, which he used to catch the cattle, was tied to the stump of a tree while he continued to try to catch the cattle. But they all got away and he hadn’t a clue as to where they went. Then, when he returned back to the place where he had left his horse and his money, neither the horse nor the money was to be found and he did not know what he should do.
He thought that he should go to the house of the king whose son was ill, and he went head until he came to the king’s castle. He went to look at the boy in the room where he was lying, and he took his pulse. Neil said that he thought he could heal the boy, and the king told him, “If you heal him, I will give you three hundred pounds.”
“If I were to get the room to myself, for a little while,” said Neil and the king said that he would have it. He now called down for a small pot of water, which he put on the fire to boil. Then, he took his ‘crooked knife’ and went to take the head off the boy, just as he had seen the red man doing previously. He was sawing at the head, but it did not come away easily, allowing him to cut it off at the neck. The blood was pouring out as he finally took the head off the boy and threw it into the boiling water. He boiled it for a while until he considered that the head had been boiled enough. Neil then tried to get the head out of the pot and managed to get a hold of its two ears. The head fell, in a gurgling mass of flesh, and the two ears came with him. By now the blood was pouring out in great amounts, flowing down the room and seeping out from under the door.
When the king saw that the blood was flowing out from under the door of the room, he knew that his son was dead. He wanted the door opened, but Neil Kelly refused to comply with the king’s orders, and soldiers broke down the door. The young man was dead, and the floor was covered with blood. They seized Neil Kelly, whom they told would hang the next day, and they gathered a company of guards to take him to the place where he was to be executed. They went with him the next day and were walking toward the tree where he should be hanged, and he stopped his screaming. Ahead they saw man stripped and running quickly toward them with a type of mist around him. When he came up to them, the running man cried aloud, “What are you doing to my master? “
“If this man is your master, you had better deny him, or you’ll get the same treatment,” they warned him.
“But it is me who should be suffering, for it me who caused the delay. He sent me for medicine, and I did not come in time. If you free my master, perhaps we can still heal the king’s son.”
They freed Neil and the two men were taken to the king’s house. The red man went to the place where the dead man was, and he quickly began to gather up the bones that were in the small pot. He gathered them all except for the two ears. “What did you do with the ears ?” he asked Neil.
“I don’t know,” said Kelly, “I was so frightened.”
The red man finally got the ears and he put them all together. From out of his pocket he took a green herb, which he rubbed around the head. The skin soon covered it again and the hair grew as fine as it had been previously. He put the head in the skillet again and allowed it to boil a while. The red man put the head back on the neck, where it stuck as well as it ever had done, and the king’s son rose up in the bed. “How are you now?” asked the red man.
“I am well,” said the king’s son, “but I feel terribly weak.”
The red man shouted again for the king and the king was overjoyed to see his son alive again. They spent that night celebrating and, the next day, when they were going away, the king counted out three hundred pounds. He gave the money to Neil Kelly and told him that, if he had not enough, he would give him more. But Neil said that he had been given enough and that he would not take a penny more. He bade farewell and left his blessing, and struck out, heading straight for home. When they saw that they had reached the place where they had fallen out with one another the red man pointed out, “I think that this is the place where we had our difference.“
“It is,” said Neil, and they sat down to divide the money. He gave half to the red man, and he kept another half for himself.
The red man said farewell, and he went. He was walking away for a while, and then went back. ” I am here again,” said the red man, “I had another thought to myself that I would leave all the money with yourself, for you yourself were open-handed. Do you mind the day you were going by past the churchyard, and there were four people there with the body in a coffin? Two of the people were seeking to bury the body, but the dead person owed some debts. The two men who were owed the debts by the dead man were not going to allow the body to be buried. They were arguing, and you were listening to them. Then, you went in and asked how much they were owed by the dead man. The two men said that they each were owed a pound by the body and that they would not let it be buried until the people, who were carrying the coffin, promised to pay at least part of the debts.You said, ‘I have ten shillings, and I’ll give it to you, and let the body be buried.’ You gave them ten shillings, and the corpse was buried. Well, it was I who was in the coffin that day. When I saw you going doctoring, I knew that you would not do the business, and when I saw you in deep trouble, I came to save you. I give you all the money, and you shall not see me again until the last day. Go home now, and don’t do a single day’s doctoring so long as you live. It’s only a short walk now until you get your share of cattle and your horse.” Neil went on towards home, and he didn’t walk far until he came across his share of cattle and his horse, as the red man had said. He took them all home with him. There is not a single day since, that he and his wife do not thrive on their fortune.
“Saved by a Pipe! Yes, by God,” said Charlie Hannon one night as we sat at a wake. “Let me tell you, there’s a powerful lot of strange things to be seen and felt, and don’t let anyone tell me that there’s not!”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, Charlie,” said I.
Without even recognising that I had answered him, Charlie continued, “The night my father died I went to Dungannon for to get pipes and tobacco for the wake, and to tell my sister that lived there about the death of our da. Well, I left the house about eight o’clock, or thereabouts, for as you know I had a long road to travel – aye, fifteen miles if it’s an inch. I went by the Rock, for I had a fine lump of a mare with me that I had bought at the time. Her name was Sally, and sure there wasn’t another horse the likes of her to be had in all the parish. Now, it was pretty late when I left Dungannon, between midnight and one o’clock at least, but I didn’t hear or see a thing until I came as far as the wood on this side of Rock. We must have been just in the middle of it when the mare suddenly stopped, and she gave three snorts out of her nostrils. Well, as you know, I never was one to be afraid of anything, but I thought to myself that if maybe there’s something unnatural roaming around here now? You see, I never have known Sally to be afraid of anything dead or alive before that night.”
“’ Go on Sally,’ says I and patted her gently on the neck with my hand. But, the devil a bit would the poor mare stir. She just kept snorting, and snorting, and going back and back. ‘ Be you devil or sent by him!’ cries I, ‘man or beast, or whatever you are, get out of the mare’s way and let me get home to me father’s wake with the pipes and tobacco for the neighbours who are waiting for them.’ But, devil the answer did I get. Things were not looking good, I thought to myself, and what am I going to do now? It was then that I remembered that it was the right thing to do, to put a pipe in the lining of your hat whenever you come across anything unnatural. Sure, I had a couple of the pipes in the pocket of my coat that I couldn’t fit in the box and I put down my hand and took one up and put it inside the lining of my hat. Well, by all that’s holy! I had no sooner done that than up came a man on horseback.
“It was a clear night, and I swear that he must have come up out of the road itself, for there neither one thing or another that moved there before that. Sally kept on snorting and the man rode on past on my left. But just as he was passing, he stretched out one hand to me and pulled up his horse with the other, without speaking a word. ‘Here,’ says I, reaching him a pipe, ‘take it, if that’s what you want, and for God’s sake leave me alone.’ Well, he took the pipe, but as soon as he heard God’s name, he and his horse rose up into one big lump of fire, and the noise that was made as the fire struck against the wall along the roadside, was the fiercest thing I ever heard. And I hope that I never will hear the like of it again. The rattle of the stones falling, and the whizzing of the fire through the trees, is still in my ears yet.
“Sally went on, then, happy enough, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m all right now.’
“But I was mistaken. I hadn’t moved but a foot or two until I felt something jumping up behind me on the mare, and I felt two hands around my back, and a cold breath on my neck behind. As I told you I never used to be afraid, but the fear of God was put in to my heart that night. The poor mare’s back was bending with the dreadful weight of the thing behind me. I tried to shake off the hold it had of me, but not a budge I was able to do at all, one way or another. I didn’t know, what in heaven, I was going to do. I wasn’t able to speak, and the mare wasn’t able to move. But praise be to God ! I wasn’t long that way until who should I see standing beside me on the road but the man on horseback that I had given the pipe to. He had no horse with him this time, but he had a whip in his hand. ‘Get off, immediately ‘ says he to the thing behind me.
“The Devil an answer did he get. ‘I tell you again,’ says he, getting very cross, and raising the whip above his head, ‘get off.’
“No answer. ‘For the third, and last, time,’ says he, in a terrible rage now, entirely, ‘I tell ye to get off.’
“Not a word did the thing behind me speak, nor a budge did it put out of itself. When the man seen that it wouldn’t come off, he began slashing, and slashing at it, and every slash he gave, I saw the fire rising above my head until at last I felt the weight go off the mare, and I knew I was rid of it. ‘Go home now,’ said the man, crying, ‘you won’t be troubled any more, but take my advice and don’t be out so late at night again by yourself.’”
“Ah, would you be quiet!” cried an old man with whom I was discussing such topics, “Would you believe this?“
“Would I believe what?” I asked him.
“It’s as true as I’m living,” he insisted. “I heard it from the man’s own lips, may God be merciful to him! And Lord forbid that I should tell a lie on him!“
“What was it?” I asked again impatiently.
“Did you ever know Brian Douglas that lived over there in Ballymacnab?” the old man replied, and, like the proverbial Irishman, I shook my head.
“Oh no, you wouldn’t have known him” he went on, “he died before you came here. Well, he was coming home one night from town. It was after twelve o’clock or maybe coming near to one. He had his horse and cart with him, and he was walking along at the horse’s head, smoking away at his pipe as content as you like, and it was a fine moonlit night, Glory be to God! Then, what should he see before him in the middle of the road but three men carrying a coffin. Well, it wasn’t long, sir, until they put down the coffin. Sure, the hair was standing on Brian’s head with fear, but he made the sign o’ the cross on himself, and he walked on until he came up to where the three men had been standing beside the coffin. ‘The blessing of God on you,’ said Bryan in Irish, ‘and what’s wrong with you all, at all?’
“’The same to yourself,’ spoke up one of the three men, ‘ but come and take a fourth man’s place under this and ask us no more questions.’ Well, sir, he was going to ask, ‘What will I do with my horse and cart?’ but he thought better of it, and he didn’t, for you see he was told to ask no more questions, and it wouldn’t have been right for him to go against them. But sure he didn’t need to ask, for they knew well enough what was going through his mind, and another of the men said to him, ‘ your horse and cart will be here when you come back.’
“Well, he went with them and helped them to carry the coffin, and never was there a heavier corpse, the Lord be good to us, ever buried he told us. They went on until they left the coffin in the graveyard, and then they told him he might go back to his horse and cart. ‘Oh,’ says Brian, ‘I’ll help you to dig the grave now that I’m here.’
“’Do what you’re told,’ said the third of the men, who hadn’t spoken before this, ‘or maybe it would be al the worse for you.’
“Well, sir, Brian was reluctant to say anything more, so he went back to his horse and cart, and sure enough they were waiting for him at the very spot where he had left them.“
“Did Brian know the men?” I asked the old man when he had finished.
“Did he know them? Indeed, he did, for they were his own three first cousins who died long before this event.”
“And who was in the coffin?“
“It was Brian’s own brother, who had died in California that same night. But he only heard this afterwards, when he received a letter that came from his uncle in America.”
The old man assured me that Brian had never told a lie in his life and that he was dead now, may God be merciful to him!
You, who are reading this now, I ask that you should not scoff the story. You may never be called upon to assist the dead to carry the dead at a mysterious midnight funeral, but do not ridicule the story of Brian Dougan’s experience that has been brought to you by an honourable man.
Many years ago, there lived a hard-working farmer named Liam Mooney, who lived on the borderlands between County Armagh and County Louth. Times had been harsh for many seasons and there was little money to be made from poor harvests. Then, one day, the landlord came to Liam and told him, “You owe me three years’ rent now, and unless you can pay it all to me within the week, I’ll throw you, and all of your family out on the road.“
“Ah, sir,” replied Liam, “I will be going to Newry tomorrow with a load of wheat to sell, and when I get it all sold, I will be able pay you all that I owe.”
Next morning, Liam put a load of wheat on the cart, and headed off to market with it. But, after he had travelled only a couple of miles from his house, he met a prosperous looking gentleman, who asked him, “Is that a load of wheat that you’ve got on your cart?“
“It is, indeed,” replied Liam, “and I’m going to sell it at the market so that I can pay my rent.”
”How much is there in that load?” the gentleman asked politely.
“There’s a ton in it,” said Liam with a certain pride.
“I’ll buy it from you,” said the gentleman, “and I’ll give you the best price that’s going in the market. Now, when you reach the cart track that’s on your left, turn down it and continue along the track until you come to a big house in the valley. I’ll be there before you arrive, and I can give you your money.“
Pleased with the deal he had struck, Liam came to the cart track he turned in, continuing on his way, as instructed, until he came as far as the big house described by the gentleman. Liam then began to wonder, when he came as far as the big house, for having been born and raised in this part of the country he had never seen this building before, and he thought he was familiar with every house within five miles of where he lived. When Liam came near to the barn that was close to the big house, a small boy came running out and said, “Good man Liam Mooney, you’re very welcome.” The boy then lifted a sack onto his back and went into the barn with it. Almost immediately another little lad came out and welcomed Liam, put a sack on his back, and went into the barn with it. Very soon various lads were coming out, welcoming Liam, and putting the sacks on their backs to carry them into the barn, until the entire ton of wheat was all gone.
It was then that all the boys came around Liam, who told them plainly, “You boys all know me, and I don’t know one of you!“
One of the boys stepped forward and replied to Liam, saying, ”Go in and eat your dinner, for the master’s waiting for you.”
Liam went into the main house and sat down at the table to eat. But he had not taken a second mouthful when he began to feel a heavy sleep overcame him, and he fell down under the table. Then this mysterious gentleman used his magic powers to fabricate a man in Liam’s image, and then sent him home to William’s wife with the horse and cart. When the false Liam eventually arrived at Liam’s house, he went into the bedroom, where he laid himself down on the bed and died.
Within a few hours the news had spread far and wide that Liam Mooney had died. The wife put some water on the fire to heat and, when it was hot, she washed the body of her ‘husband’ and laid it out to be waked. His friends and neighbours from all over the district came to the house, and they grieved for him deeply. There was also great comfort for Liam’s poor wife, who did not show much grief herself on the passing of her husband, for Liam was an older man and she was quite young.
The next morning saw the poor man’s body buried, and afterwards there was very little thought given to the man. The wife had a young house-boy, and she called him to her and said, “You should marry me, you know, and take Liam’s place.”
“Surely, it’s too early, after himself just dying and his body hardly cold in the ground?” the boy replied. “Wait, at least until Liam has been buried a week.”
Meanwhile, after the real Liam had slept for seven days and seven nights, a little boy came to him and awoke him, saying, “You’ve been asleep for a week, Liam! But we sent your horse and cart home. Now, here’s your money, and you should go.”
Liam, still confused by all that had happened to him, made his way home, and because it was late at night no person saw him. However, on the morning of that same day, Liam’s wife and the young servant lad went to the local priest and asked if he would marry them. “Have you the marriage money?” asked the priest.
“No,” said the wife, “but I have a great beast of a pig at home, and you can have her in place of money.“
The priest accepted, married the couple, and said, “I’ll send for the pig tomorrow.”
When the wife and the servant boy were going to bed that evening, Liam came to the door of his house and struck it a hefty blow. Surprised by the intrusion the newly wedded couple asked, “Who’s there?”
“It’s I,” replied Liam, “Now, open the door for me.”
When they heard the voice, they immediately recognised that it was Liam’s voice. Terrified by this knowledge the wife called out, “I can’t let you in! Sure, it’s a shameful thing for you to be coming back here again, after you have been lying seven days in your grave.”
“Have you gone mad? ” asked Liam.
“No! I’m not a mad woman!” declared the wife. “Sure, doesn’t every person in the entire parish know that you are dead, and that I buried you decently. Now, old man, go back to your grave, and I’ll have a mass read for your poor soul in the morning.“
“Wait until morning comes,” said Liam, “and I’ll give you the weight of a dead man’s boot as the price for all this foolishness!” Angrily he turned from the door and went into the stable, where his horse and the pig were, to stretch himself out on the straw and get some sleep.
Early the next morning, the priest called one of the local lads to him and told him, “Go you to Liam Mooney’s house, and the woman that I married yesterday will give you a pig to bring back to me.“
When the boy came to the door of the house, he began knocking at it with a heavy-stick but the woman of the house was afraid to open it. Instead she called out, “Who’s there ? “
“It’s me,” said the boy, “the priest has sent me to get a pig-from you.”
“She’s out in the stable,” said the wife, “you can go gather her for yourself, and drive her back with you.“
The lad went into the stable, and he began to drive out the pig, when Liam suddenly rose up and said, “Where are you going with my pig ? “
When the boy saw Liam he never stopped to look again, but he ran out of there just as hard as he could, and he never stopped running until he came back to the priest. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest with terror that he thought it would burst out of his chest. “What’s the matter with you? ” asked the priest. The lad told him that Liam Rooney was in the stable and wouldn’t let him drive out the pig.
“Hold your tongue, you liar!” scolded the priest. “Liam Rooney’s dead and cold in his grave this week.”
“I don’t care if you say he was in his grave this past seven years, Father, I saw him in the stable two moments ago, and if you don’t believe me, then come yourself, and you’ll see him.”
The priest and the boy then went together to the door of the stable, and the priest told the lad, “Go in and turn me out that pig.“
“What? I wouldn’t go in there for all the money you could get!” said the boy.
The priest went in instead of the boy, and began driving out the pig, when Liam rose up out of the straw and asked, “Where are you going with my pig, Father?“
When the priest saw Liam standing before him, he turned on his heels and ran as if all the devils in hell were after him, crying out, “In the name of God, I order you back to your grave, Liam Rooney.“
Liam began running after the priest, and saying, ”Father, Father, have are you gone mad? Wait and speak to me.“
But the priest would not wait for him and continued to make for home just as fast as his feet could carry him, and when he got into the house, he shut the door behind him. Liam was knocking at the door until he was tired, but the priest would not let him in. Finally, the priest put his head out of an upstairs window of the house, and called to him, “Liam Rooney, go back to your grave.“
” You’re mad. Father! Sure, I’m not dead, and I never was in a grave since I was born,” said Liam.
“I saw you dead,” said the priest; “you died suddenly, and I was present when you were put into the grave. Sure, didn’t I make a fine sermon over you?“
“God preserve us, but, as sure as I’m alive, you’re raging mad !” said Liam.
“Get out of my sight now,” said the priest, “and I’ll read a mass for you, tomorrow.”
Liam went home then, and knocked at his own door, only to fine that his wife would not let him in. Then he said to himself: “I may as well go and pay my rent now.”
On his way to the landlord’s house everyone who saw Liam was running before him, for they thought he was dead. When the landlord heard that Liam Rooney was coming his way, he immediately locked the doors and would not let him in. Liam began knocking frantically at the front-door until the landlord thought he’d break it in, and he went to a window at the top of the house, put out his head, and asked, “What is it that you want? “
“I’ve come to pay my rent like any honest man,” replied Liam.
“Go back to your grave, and I’ll forgive you your rent,” said the landlord.
“I won’t leave this,” said Liam, “until I get it in writing from you that I’m paid up until next May.”
The lord gave him the written statement he wanted, and he came home again and knocked at his own door. But, once again the wife refused to let him in. She said that Liam Rooney was dead and buried, and that the man at the door was only a deceiver. “I’m no deceiver,” said Liam, “I’m after paying my master three years’ rent, and I’ll have possession of my own house, or else I’ll know the reason why.”
He went to the barn and got a big bar of iron, and it wasn’t long until he broke the door down. The wife and her newly married husband were terrified, for they began to believe that the ‘Last Days’ had come and that the end of the world had arrived. “Why did you think I was dead?” asked Liam.
“Doesn’t everybody in the parish know you’re dead?” said the wife.
“To the devil with you woman,” said Liam, “you’ve been humbugging me long enough now, go and get me something to eat.“
The poor woman was greatly afraid, and she sliced him some meat. Then, when she saw him eating and drinking, she said, “It’s a miracle!“
Then Liam told her his story from first to last, and she told him each thing that happened. Then, and then he said, “I’ll go to the grave to-morrow, to see the body that is buried in my place.“
The next morning Liam brought a lot of men with him to the churchyard, and they dug open the grave. They were raising the coffin, when a huge black dog jumped out of it, and ran off, with Liam and the men chasing after it. They were following it until they saw it going into the house in which Liam had been asleep. Then, suddenly, the ground opened and swallowed the house, and from that moment on nobody ever saw it again, although the big hole that it left is still to be seen unto this day. When Liam and the men went home, they told everything that had happened to the priest of the parish, and he dissolved the marriage between Liam’s wife and the servant boy. Liam lived for years after this, leaving great wealth behind him, and his story is still remembered in that border area.
This is a story that was related to me by a very old grand-aunt who lived in the heart of Connemara. As we sat by a blazing turf fire she told me that these things happened to a person who was very well-known to her, and so I have absolutely no reason to doubt a word of her tale. She lived all alone in a small, thatched and white-washed cottage , which stood on a lonely, narrow mountain road. Two fields to the rear was the two-storey farmhouse that belonged to the affluent and influential Meehan family. Tom Meehan was the head of that prosperous family, widely known and very much respected in the district. He was, moreover, recognised and famed as one of the finest hurlers that the County had ever produced.
Tom was very friendly to my old grand-aunt and many evenings he would stop by her cottage to see if she was keeping well. She had been a very good friend to Tom’s mother all her life, and Tom was going to make sure that she wouldn’t be too lonely in her old age. On those evenings when he called around to her cottage, he would tell her how the farm was progressing and keep her up to date about events among the neighbours. During the darker nights of autumn and winter, Tom would always ensure that the old woman had plenty of coal by the fire and a wee glass of whisky on her night stand as she would watch television.
The old woman would often share local folk tales and myths with Tom, constantly warning him about fraternising with the ‘Good People’, Leprechauns, and the various spirits that lurked about the mountain roads and forests. Tom, of course, was not the superstitious kind and would often laugh at her warnings, causing her some annoyance. Then, one bright, moonlit, autumn evening he was walking home, as usual, after spending the entire day in the fields. Following a well-travelled track Tom found himself walking through a small copse of trees and, in the distance he could hear excited voices. He followed the sound, which appeared to him to be coming from a field that sloped gently down from the edge of the trees. As he emerged silently from the shadows of the trees, Tom was surprised to see before him two teams of small men. They were dressed in different colours and playing a game of Hurling in the field, which was now brightly illuminated by the light from a full moon.
Tom stood among the tall trees and silently watched the game. As he watched he could not help but admire their prowess with their ‘Hurling sticks’ (Caman – pronounced ‘Cum-mon’), and he quickly came to the conclusion that these players were not ordinary men. From what he could see in that field, Tom was certain that these men were none other than ‘Good People’, who had often been described to him by my old grand-aunt. The quick and talented manner in which these men played the game totally captured Tom’s admiration, and he stood for a very long time just to see how the game progressed. Then, as the end of the match approached, Tom saw one of the men on the field trap the ball (Sliotar – Slit tar) in the air with his ‘caman’ and, as it dropped down, he stroked it so gracefully over the bar from the half way line. This was, without doubt, one of the best Hurling strokes that Tom had ever seen in his life. In his appreciation of the player’s move, Tom roared out a great shout of delight, causing the game to be stopped and all the players quickly turned toward the area from where the shout came.
There was silence for a moment until one of the players called out to om from the centre of the field. “Would you like to join in our game?” he asked. It was a surprising question because the player must have recognised that Tom was actually a mortal being.
Tom had often been warned about mixing with ‘Good People’ but the thought of playing hurling with such beings was too exciting to ignore. “I would,” he replied shyly, “but is there a place for me among you all? And if there is would I be good enough to join one of your teams?”
“There is room for one more player, which you can fill if you have a mind to,” came the reply as some of the other players laughed loudly at the prospect of a mortal being playing alongside them.
Tom became really excited at the prospect of playing hurling with ‘The Good People’, but he had no ‘caman’ of his own to play with, and he asked, “Would you have a hurley with which I can play a game?”
To his surprise, one of the little men reached to the ground for a spare ‘caman’ and handed it over to Tom. “Here,” he said, “This caman is made from the finest Ash and is one of the finest made, but we will allow you to use it.”
Taking the hurling stick n his hand, Tom admired the comfortable grip of it in his hand and its balance in the swing. Never had he seen a hurling stick of its kind or finish, and he could hardly wait to join in the game with the others. Rolling up his shirt sleeves Tom took up his position in midfield just as the whistle blew shrilly in the evening air. Almost immediately the new caman appeared to help Tom play in a manner that he had never before experienced, and with his assistance the team that he had joined in the field won the game by a small margin. As they walked off the field the leader of the team came to him and told him, “You are a good player for a mortal!I suppose that now would be a good time to tell you who we are.” Tom nodded in agreement and he listened attentively as the small man explained, “We are called the ‘Good People’ in these lands and our home lies in that churchyard over yonder.” Tom watched as the team leader pointed toward an old church steeple in the distance. Then in an exceptionally friendly, almost secretive, manner he quietly continued, “But, let me tell you that we that we find ourselves to be in a great fix!”
“What sort of fix would that be?” Tom asked his new found companion.
“Well, the truth is that we have to play an important match against our greatest rivals in the next clan, and it all takes place a week from tonight. That is why we have been practising so hard lately. But, we have discovered recently that they have recruited the assistance of a mortal called ‘Red Mick Shea’.”
“Red Mick?” exclaimed Tom when he heard the name.
“Aye, and he is said to be the finest hurler in three counties. Do you think that you might be able to help us?”
“’Red Mick’ is one of the best alright,” Tom replied. “But, if I can have the same hurling stick then I will help you the best that I can.”
“You can have that caman, by all means,” the leader of the ‘good people’ agreed with delight and he immediately began to announce the arrival of their newest recruit to the team. “I think, boys, that we are now ready for all comers,” he called out and there were loud cheers from all those gathered on the field.
For the next seven days Tom could hardly contain his excitement at the prospects of playing in such a match. But, he could not tell anyone about the forthcoming match and made plans to get to the field without anyone knowing. A week from that very same night, boots in hand, Tom quietly crept out of the house without disturbing anyone. He had kept the secret of his great adventure, and his entire body shook with excitement as he headed out to play the game that he had promised the leader of the ‘good people’.
When Tom reached the same field, that he had played on the week before, he discovered that the two teams of ‘good people’ were already lined up and ready for the throw in. ‘Red Mick’ was at the ready on the half-back line and Tom saw him as he came on to the field of play and was handed the hurling stick. Tom took up his position within the team and the whistle sounded for the game to begin, followed by a great cheer from the spectators.
The sliotar was thrown into the centre and a great frenzy of players came together to try and take control of the game. Up and down the field the game swayed as first one team and then the other team gained superiority over the other. Hurling sticks clashed against each other, mixing their noise with the clap of leather balls being hit by the camans. The spectators watched closely as one moment Tom’s team dominated the play and, in the next moment, it was the rival team that appeared to be supreme. Score followed score, with very little between the two teams until, finally, the whistle blew loud to end the game. It was Tom’s team who had gained victory in the well-matched contest and there was great cheering and whoops of joy among the home crowd, whose team had because of the victory.
The small man who had led ‘The Good People’ now came up to Tom, shook his hand warmly and told him, “We would like to thank you for all your efforts this day. If you would just tell me what you would like to have for yourself as a memento and, if it is in my power, you shall have it. Tell me then, is there anything?”
“To tell you all the truth,” smiled Tom and his eyes twinkled with joy. “I’ have taken a great fancy to that hurling stick that you loaned to me for the match, and that is all that I wish to have. That is, without doubt, the finest hurling stick I have ever played a game with. High Balls, Low Balls, and Fast Balls all came my way this night and I never missed one the entire game with that stick in my hand.”
“Now isn’t that the truth of it, Tom,” the leader replied. “You never missed even one ball during the entire match. But now, sadly, you have asked us for the one thing that is not within our power to grant you. The hurling stick, in our tradition, is the sole property of the fairy clan and no single one of us can just give one away to someone outside the clan. Especially to a mortal.”
The great disappointment that he felt at these words was immediately visible on Tom’s face. He believed that, after all, he had played a very significant role in the clan’s victory over their greatest rivals and now, despite his contribution to their victory, they had refused him the one simple prize that he felt he deserved. Still, he insisted, “But I must have it!”
“We are sorry, friend, but the hurling stick can never be yours,” Tom was told in no uncertain terms and it seemed that the discussion was at an end, as far as the ‘good people’ were concerned.
“I must,” insisted Tom, obstinately raising his voice and a tear rising in his eye with frustration. But this obstinacy only caused offence to some and an angry murmur began to arise among the good people. There was division and a war of words now began, which developed into an almost muddle of loud, angry voices. Finally, still feeling that it was his due to have the hurling stick given to him, Tom slowly and silently walked off the field of play and grimly took the hurling stick with him.
Although it was not very far to his own home from the field, Tom almost immediately began to feel rather ill and nauseous as he walked off with the ‘caman’ in his hand. By the time that Tom had gotten to his own front door he was in a state of near collapse, and his family sent an emergency call for a doctor to attend to him. There was, however, nothing that any doctor could do for the unfortunate man. He lay motionless in his bed, weakening further day after day, and his wife cried as she solemnly asked him, “Is there anything at all that you need me to do for you, Tom?”
“Yes, my dear,” he answered her weakly. “There is a hurling stick that is lying in the loft. Would you ever bring it down here for me and place it at the foot of the bed, where I can see it?”
“Of course I will, my dear,” Tom’s wife told him and she immediately set about fulfilling the task he had set her. From that very moment, every hour of every day that followed, Tom’s sickly condition appeared to worsen until everyone could finally see that there was little hope of his recovery. As things became critical Tom’s wife came to his bedside and, holding his hand tenderly, she asked him, “Is there any last wishes that you would like us to carry out for you?”
By this time, the dying man could barely open his eyes to see his family, but he managed to turn to them and, in a very weak voice, Tom told them,”I want you to promise me just one thing.”
“Anything!” they answered.
“Will you all simply promise me that you will place that hurling stick by my side as I lie in my coffin, so that it will be buried with me?” he asked them.
They sadly agreed to do what they were asked and, when the time came, the family carried out Tom Meehan’s last wishes. The much prized hurling stick was subsequently buried with him in the Parish graveyard. But, even today, there are still some who say that Tom Meehan is still playing a great game of hurling, with that stick, in heaven and is still leaving his opponents completely astounded by his artistry.
Deaths and burials are not the most enjoyable topics of conversation for everyone to involve themselves in. But I have often found it interesting to read about the very odd notions people have had about burials and the way that they have been carried out at various times and in various parts of this world. Here I would like to offer the reader some of the more strange and eccentric burials that I have heard about.
1. It is said that on of England’s major figures in the industrial revolution, who made his fortune in iron was determined that he would take some of his accomplishments to the grave with him. When the man died, he had himself buried in the garden of his home in an iron coffin, over which he had built an iron tomb that weighed some twenty tons. It was a task that he could not leave to be completed by anyone and, as an extra precaution, he instructed the coffin and tomb to be built while he was still alive and would conduct tours for his friends and visitors, to show them what he planned for his final resting place.
Despite his personal supervision, however, when the gentleman died the family discovered that the coffin was too small. It was decided that until a new coffin was made, he could be laid in the ground temporarily. Then, when he was eventually buried in his iron coffin it was decided that the coffin was too near to the surface and was transferred to cave that had been excavated in a rock. The story, however, does not end there for when the man’s estate was sold many years after his death the family instructed his body to be removed from its rock tomb and buried in a local churchyard. Mr. Wilkinson, the subject of this story, has the questionable honour of being a man who died once and was buried four times, and prior to his death he was very happy to make presents of iron coffins to any of his friends who expressed a wish to have one. In a somewhat similar fashion, a certain clergyman in the granite county of Cornwall is said to have had a coffin made of granite, in which he was subsequently buried.
2.Quite a number of people don’t want to face death and would prefer to be immortal, but that will not happen. Perhaps, it is this fact that encourages people to have their coffins ready long before they are ready and keep them close at hand to look at, or have others admire them as reminders of the fate that is due to us all, until the day come when it is finally put to its proper use. There was a story of a Scottish slater who is said to have made his own coffin, decorated it with seashells and displayed it with other fancy, shell-decorated items in a room which he called his grotto. In similar fashion a joiner from the North-east of England made his own coffin and, during the intervening period used it as a toolbox that included sliding shelves and a lid that was fixed to hinges. But in this series of stories, I will try to avoid the age-old theory that people from the North of England and Scotland are tight when it comes to money. It is much better to call them thrifty and practical, and that is the reason that there are so many instances of northern working men constructing their own coffins in their leisure time.
To show this neutral stance let me offer some examples of odd burial traits from elsewhere in England and further abroad. The first story that comes to mind is of an Alderman of Gloucester, who had his coffin and his monument built before his death. When the monument was finished the Alderman decided he did not like the way in which his nose was carved on his effigy and had a new one carved. Fortunately for the Alderman the task was finished just in time, for the man died immediately after the nose was finished. Then, there is the example a Nottingham man, called Wheatley, who bought himself a coffin and filled it with liquor. Unfortunately, the poor man was quickly brought into disrepute in the town, for the coffin became his own private tavern. Just as odd, however, is the story of a navy surgeon who rose to a very important position in Portsmouth and had a favourite boat converted into a coffin and stored it under his bed for many years. Finally, there is the tale of a German couple who provided themselves with coffins, which they kept in a stable and utilised them as cupboards for storing various types of food. But it was not to end well for the couple, for when the man was the first to die, his widow packed the contents of both coffins into one and put his body into the other. Of course, the coffin full of eatables was lowered into the coffin and the mistake was not discovered until the next day when the widow opened the other cupboard to find the body of her husband there. Naturally, all that food could not go to waste and the coffins were changed over and the funeral repeated.
3. I used to joke with my mother and tell her she was not to worry about where she was going to be buried, for I would dig a hole in the garden and bury her standing up, waving goodbye. She used to laugh at the very idea of it, but the burying of people in an erect position had often been carried out. The famous late sixteenth century poet and playwright, Ben Jonson, was buried upright in Westminster Abbey, which inspired the following lines the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’
“Even rare Ben Jonson, that famous wight,
I am told is interred there bolt upright,
In just such a posture, beneath his bust,
As Tray used to sit in to beg for a crust.”
4. In fact, it is not that strange for people to buried in standing, or upright positions after death. Military heroes, for example, have often been buried by their men in upright positions on the battlefield where they died, sometimes with spear, sword, or lance in their hand. Records show that one of these types of burial was discovered at the Curragh of Kildare. Archaeologists opened an earthen tumulus and, inside the ancient monument, they discovered the skeleton of an old Irish Chieftain in an upright position, with a barbed spear in, or near, one of the hands.
Despite what some may think, it is quite easy to bury a body in an upright position by setting up the coffin on one end. However, when considering this trait, we must also look at the many instances when a body was placed in a sitting position, which made a coffin unnecessary. There are many recorded instances of this happening including the occasion when the Emperor Frederick ‘Barbarossa’ opened the tomb of Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle and found the body of the great Emperor seated on a throne, as if he was still alive, dressed in his Imperial clothes, with this sceptre in one hand and a copy of ‘Bible’ on his knees.
There is also the story of a tomb in a London graveyard that could be seen from the high road and was said to have been placed there by a certain Dr. John Gardiner. It was made up of a large headstone containing an inscription that described this tomb as being his ‘last and best bedroom.’ The tomb itself was prepared some years before Gardiner’s death and, it is said, that the Doctor was buried there, although there is no strong proof.
5. Sadly there are many more cases of people being put into their graves with something that would be considered an excuse for a coffin. Among these is recorded the burial of a Mrs Fisher Dilke, during the time of Cromwell and the puritans. The lady’s husband does not appear to have had much regard for his recently deceased wife for he commissioned a coffin be made from some old boards that lined his barn and organised a grave for the lady in the graveyard a third of the normal price. The husband then invited eight of his neighbours to act as bearers and paid them with them a selection of cheap cakes and wine, while he read over the corpse from the Old Testament. The bearers then placed the body in the grave and they each threw a full spade of dirt into the grave before the husband and his neighbours trudged their way home.
Another similar instance for the provision of a poor coffin took place in an old English, which had once been a nunnery. On one occasion there had been a need to take up the kitchen floor and when this work began, twelve skeletons were found lying in a row, each between two planks. At the time of the discovery, it was decided that the bodies were those of nuns who had died there.
6. There have also been plenty of people who have been buried without the comfort of any type of coffin at all. There was once a military officer who declared in his last will and testament that his body should be attended to by medical men, wrapped in ‘Cerecloth’, and buried without a coffin in a particular part of his estate. He also insisted that acorns were sown on the burial spot so that sturdy oak trees would flourish having been nourished by his remains. Instructions were left with his gardener to weed and water the plant and today a fine oak grows there.
Similar to this the story is the strange burial, or absence thereof, for Jeremy Bentham, who was born on 15th February and died on 6th June1832 in London. He was a famous English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, who is regarded as the founder of ‘Modern Utilitarianism’. His will called for a head of wax to be attached to his skeleton after dissection and the entire figure to be stuffed to the proper size and dressed in Bentham’s own clothes. The body was then seated on his own armchair and the man’s walking stick placed in one hand.
7. It was not uncommon for there to be burials without coffins in the years between the mid-eighteenth, and the mid-nineteenth centuries. In fact, there are numerous Parish Registers that contain entries showing that it was up to 25% cheaper for a burial without a coffin. One particular country gentleman directed that his body be buried without a coffin and at least ten feet deep in a particular field near his house. He also declared that the field would then be thoroughly ploughed over, as if to obliterate his memory as completely as was possible.
It is a fact that the St. Clair family of Rosslyn fame were for many generations, at least the male members) buried without coffins. The latest of these family burials is said to have taken place towards the close of the seventeenth century. It is reported that when the vault was next opened, the body of Sir William St Clair could be seen lying in his armour with a red velvet cap on his head. Apparently, there was nothing decayed except for a small part of the white fur-edging to the cap.
In some parts of Ireland, at one time, it was customary to carry the body of the deceased person to the graveside in a coffin, upon which the body was taken out of the coffin and reverently buried in the earth. There was one Augustinian abbey graveyard in particular, not far from Enniscorthy, in which certain families were generally buried in this fashion, with the graves being scrupulously prepared with boards, earth, sods, and grass. It is said that the Superior of the first Cistercian abbey founded in England since the Reformation was buried in a similar fashion in the chapterhouse of the abbey. There was also a merchant, called Thomas Cooke, who had given considerable donations to a local college who willed that his body should be buried in a winding-sheet, minus coffin, in the grounds of the college.
8. Just as some people have been buried without coffins, so have there been occasions when coffins were buried without people, most of which involved fraud in some manner. There is a tale of a foreigner who died in 1871 and whose death was entered into the Parish Register, accompanied by an authentic medical death certificate. A coffin was bought for the body and a grave was commissioned to be dug in the local Roman Catholic graveyard, and a funeral took place along traditional lines. Then, a few weeks after this, the widow made a claim for a hundred thousand francs from an insurance office. The recently deceased person, however, was known to have been a fugitive fraudulent bankrupt and the police were called in to look at the case. The grave and coffin were opened, and they discovered that there was no corpse there. It appears that the fugitive had made out the certificate of his own death, ordered his own grave and coffin, and followed his own coffin to its last home as chief mourner!
8. With or without coffins, many persons have been buried in places other than churchyards or graveyards. It is not unknown, for example, for people to be buried in their own gardens, farms, parks, or plantations. There is the story of one family that had a coffin placed as a table in a summerhouse. Another story tells of Sir William Temple, former Member of the Irish Parliament, and diplomat, who, before his death in 1700, ordered his heart to be enclosed in a silver casket, and buried under a sundial in his own garden, opposite a particular window. However, where the body was buried remains unknown. Another odd burial was that of William Liberty, a brickmaker, who was buried in a tomb that he had built himself by the side of a lonely footpath, which ran across a field. Later, it was discovered that there was a room built in the same tomb for William’s widow. And so there are many stories told in like manner.
9. But strangely there are many strange stories concerning bodies being left unburied, or kept above-ground, in an effort to avoid the consequences of some law or other. One of the strangest stories tells of a farmer whose body was kept in a barn, enclosed in lead, and placed upon one of the roof beams. The locals gave two theories to explain this, the first one being that the farmer had expressed a desire that his body should be kept there ‘until the day of judgment.’ The other theory said that the farmer believed he would return to life again thirty years after his death, and he left his property subject to this contingency. After the thirty years the farmer’s representatives gave him three days’ grace, but then buried him, and finally disposed of his property.
 Material that had been treated with melted wax or gummy matter and formerly used especially for wrapping a dead body
Occasionally the bedroom door would open and a visitor would pass the old man as he sat huddled in his chair, without throwing even a glance in his direction, and go directly to the side of the bed on which the body lay to kneel down and pray. They usually prayed for two or three minutes before they got up and lightly walked away to the kitchen, where they joined the rest of the company.
Sometimes these visitors came in pairs, occasionally in groups of three, but they all followed the same ritual. They prayed for precisely the same time, and then left the room on tiptoe, making the same noises that would sound so loud in the silence of that room. Meanwhile, the old man simply wished that they would all just stay away, for he had been sitting in his chair for hours, revisiting old memories, until his head was in a total whirl. He wanted to concentrate his mind on these good memories and felt that the visitors to the house were preventing him from doing so.
It was big Danny Murphy, a tall, thin red-haired farmer who, a long time previously, had been best man at his wedding. “Michael James,” he said again.
“What is it?”
“I hear young Kelly’s in the village.”
“What about it?”
“I just thought that you should know,” Danny told him and waited a moment before he went out again on tiptoe, walking like a robot in low gear. Meanwhile, down the drive Michael heard steps coming, then a struggle and a shrill giggle. There appeared to be some young people coming to the wake, and he knew, instinctively, a boy had tried to kiss a girl in the dark, and he felt a surge of resentment fill his body. She was only nineteen when he married her, and he was sixty-three. She had married him because he had over two hundred acres of land and many head of milk and grazing cattle, and a huge house that rambled like a barrack. It was her father that had arranged the marriage, and young Kelly, who had worked on her father’s farm for years, had been saving to buy a house for her, when he was suddenly thrown over like a bale of mildewed hay.
Young Kelly had made created several violent scenes in the past. Michael James could remember the morning of the wedding, when a drunken Kelly waylaid the bridal-party coming out of the church. “Mark me,” he said in an unusually quiet tone for a drunk man—“mark me. If anything ever happens to that girl at your side, Michael James, I’ll murder you. I’ll murder you in cold blood. Do you understand?”
Michael James, however, was in a very forgiving mood that morning and told him, “Run away and sober up, boy, and then come up to the house and have a dance.”
But Kelly had taken to roaming the countryside for weeks, getting himself drunk every night, and making terrible threats of vengeance against the old farmer. Shortly after this, a wily recruiting sergeant of the ‘Connaught Rangers’ had tricked him into joining the ranks and took him away to barracks in Aldershot. Now he was home again, on furlough, and something had happened to her.
Young Kelly was now coming up to the house make good his threat, even though Michael James himself didn’t quite understand what had happened to her. He had given her everything he could to make her happy, and she had taken everything from him with a modest thank you. But he had never had been given anything by her except her total lack of interest. She had never shown any interest or concern for the house, and every day she grew a little thinner and weaker until, a few days ago she had lain down and, last and last night she had died, quite indifferently. Nevertheless, he knew that young Kelly was coming up to the house that night for an accounting with Michael James, and the old man had said to himself, “Well, let him come!”
He was the only one who spoke in his natural voice, and he turned to a portly farmer’s wife who had followed him in, and asked her about the hour that had been scheduled for the funeral. In hoarse whisper, she told him and respectfully gave him a curtsy. The priest then turned to Michael James and told him, “You ought to go out and take a walk. You oughtn’t to stay in here all the time.” And then, he left the room again. But Michael James paid no attention to him, for his mind was wandering to strange fantasies that he just could not keep out of his head. Pictures crept in and out of his head, joined together as if by some thin web, and somehow he began to think about her soul, wondering just what a soul was like. He began to think of it being like a dove, and then like a bat that was fluttering through the dark, and finally, like a bird lost at twilight. He thought of it as being some kind of lonely flying thing with a long journey ahead of it and no place to rest. In his mind he could almost hear it making the vibrant and plaintive cry of a peewit. Then, it struck him with a great sense of pity that the night was very cold.
In the kitchen they were having tea, and the rattle of the crockery was loud and very distinct. Michael James could clearly distinguish the sharp, staccato ring of a cup being placed on a saucer, from the nervous rattle heard when a cup and saucer were being passed from one hand to the other, while spoons struck the china with a faint metallic tinkle. But to Michael James it felt as if all the sounds were being made at the back of his neck, and the crash seemed to burst loudly in his head. Then, Dan Murray creaked into the room. “Michael James,” he whispered, “you ought to take something. Have a bite to eat. Take a cup of tea. I’ll bring it in to you.”
“Oh, let me alone, Daniel,” he answered and, at the same time, felt like kicking and cursing him.
“But you must take something, Michael James,” Murray’s voice rose from a whisper to a low, argumentative tone. “You know this is not natural. You’ve got to eat.”
“No, thank you, Daniel,” he answered, as if he was talking to a good-natured boy who was also very tiresome. “I don’t feel like eating now, but maybe I will afterwards.”
“Michael James,” Murray continued.
“Well, what is it, Daniel?”
“Don’t you think it would be better to go down and see young Kelly and tell him just how foolish he would be to come up here and start fighting? You know it isn’t right and so, should I not go down, for he’s at home now?”
“Leave it alone, Daniel, I tell you.” The thought of Murray interfering in a matter that was between himself and the young man filled Michael James with a sense of injured pride.
“I know he’s going to make trouble for you.”
“Just allow me to handle that, like a good fellow, and leave me alone, if you don’t mind.”
Michael straightened himself up a little, for sitting crouched forward was causing his back to be strained, and he unconsciously sat upright to ease the discomfort he was feeling. As he sat up, however, he caught a glimpse of the cotton gloves on the bed, and he suddenly recalled that the first time he had seen her she had been walking along the road, hand in hand with young Kelly, one Sunday afternoon. When they saw him they quickly let go of each other’s hand, grew very red, and began giggling in a half-hearted way to hide their embarrassment. Michael remembered that he had passed them by without saying a word, but with a good-humoured, sly smile on his face. He felt a good feeling within himself, and had thought wisely to himself that young people will be young people, and what harm was there in a little bit of courting on a Sunday afternoon after a long week’s work was finished? He also recalled other days on which he had met her and Kennedy, and how he became convinced that here was a girl for him to marry. Then his memory returned to how, quietly and decidedly, he had gone about getting her and marrying her, just as he would have gone about buying a team of horses, or making arrangements for cutting the hay.
Until the day he married her Michael felt like the driver of a coach who has his team of horses under perfect control, and who knows every bend and curve of the road upon which he is travelling. But since the wedding day he had been thinking about her, worrying and wondering where he stood in her life. Everyday just appeared to be a day filled with puzzlement, much more like a coach driver with a restive pair of horses who only knew his way to the next bend in the road, but he knew that she was the biggest thing in his life. He had reached this conclusion with some difficulty, for Michael was not a thinking sort of man, being more used to considering the price of harvest machinery and the best time of the year for buying and selling. But here this dead young girl now lay, whom he had married when she should have married another man, who was nearer to her age and who was coming sometime tonight to kill him. So, at sometime this evening his world would stop and, as he thought about it, he no longer felt like a person. Instead, he felt he was simply part of a situation, like a chess piece in a game which might be moved at any moment and bring the game to an end. His min was in such a flux that the reality around him had taken on a dim, unearthly quality. Occasionally a sound from the kitchen would strike him like an unexpected note in a harmony, and the crisp, whiteness of the bed would glare at him like a spot of colour in a subdued painting.
From the kitchen there was a shuffling noise and the sound of feet moving toward the door and with a loud click the door latch lifted. Michael could also hear the hoarse, deep tones of a few boys, and the high-pitched sing-song intonations of girls, and he knew they were going for a few miles’ walk along the roads. Going over to the window, he raised the blind and, overhead, the moon shone like a disc of bright saffron. There was a sort of misty haze that appeared to cling around the bushes and trees, causing the out-houses to stand out white, like buildings in a mysterious city. From somewhere nearby, there was the metallic whir of a grasshopper, and in the distance a loon boomed again and again. The little company of young people passed on down the yard followed by the sound of a smothered titter, then a playful resounding slap, and a gurgling laugh from one of the boys. As he stood by the window Michael heard someone open the door and stand on the threshold, asking “Are you coming, Alice?”
Michael James listened for the answer, for he was eagerly taking in all outside activity. He needed something to help him pass the time of waiting, just as a traveler in a railway station reads trivial notices carefully while waiting for a train that may take him to the ends of the earth. Then, once again he heard, “Alice, are you coming?” But there was no answer.
“Well, you needn’t if you don’t want to,” he heard in an irritated voice say, and the person speaking tramped down toward the road in an angry mood. Michael recognized the figure of Flanagan, the young football-player, who was always having little arguments with the girl he said that he was going to marry, and Michael was shocked to find that he was slightly amused at this incident. Then, from the road there came the shrill scream of one of the girls who had gone out, followed by a chorus of laughter. It was then that he began to wonder at the relationship between man and woman and he could not find a word for it. “Love” was a term that Michael thought should be kept to the story-books, for it was a word that he was suspicious of, and one that most people scoffed at. Nevertheless, he had a vague understanding of such a relationship, liking it to a crisscross of threads binding one person to the other, or as a web which might be light and easily broken, or which might have the strength of steel cables that might work into knots here and there, and become a tangle that could crush those caught in it. But it did puzzle him how a thing of indefinable grace, of soft words on June nights, of vague stirrings under moonlight, of embarrassing hand-clasps and fearful glances, might become, as it had become in his case, Kelly, and his dead young wife, a thing of blind, malevolent force, of sinister silence, like a dark shadow that crushed. And then it struck him with a sense of guilt that he had allowed mind to wander from her, and he immediately turned away from the window. Michael thought to himself, how much more peaceful it would be for a body to lie out in the moonlight than on a sombre oak bedstead in a shadowy room with yellow, guttering candle-light and five solemn-looking chairs. Then, Michael thought again how strange it was that on a night like this Kelly should come as an avenger seeking to kill, rather than as a lover with high hopes in his breast.
“Listen to me, Dan,” replied Michael. “How do you know Kelly is coming up at all?”
“Flanagan, the football-player, met him and talked to him, and he said that Kelly was clean mad.”
“Do they know about it in the kitchen?”
“Not a word,” and there was a pause for a moment.
“Right, now go you right back there and don’t say a word about it, at all. Wouldn’t you be the quare fool if you were to go down to the police and Kelly didn’t come at all? And, even if he does come I can manage him. And if I can’t manage, then I’ll call you. How does that sound?”
With that, Murray went out, grumbling beneath his breath. As the door closed, Michael began to feel that his last place of safety had gone, and he was to face his destiny alone. Although he did not doubt that Kelly would make good on his vow, Michael still he felt a certain sense of curiosity about how Kelly would do it. Would he simply use his fists, or use a gun, or some other weapon he may have at hand? Michael hoped it would be the gun, for the idea of coming to hand-to-hand fighting with Kelly filled him with a strange fear. It appeared that the thought that he would be dead within ten minutes or a half-hour did not mean anything to him, and it was only the physical act itself that was frightening. Nevertheless, Michael felt as if he were very much on his own, and the cold wind was blowing around him, penetrating every pore of his body and causing a a shiver in his shoulders.
Michael’s idea of death was that he would fall headlong, as from a high tower, into a dark bottomless space, and he went over to the window again to look out toward the barn. From a tiny chink in one of the shutters there was a thin thread of yellow candle-light, and he knew for certain that there was a group of men there, playing cards to help pass the time. It was then that the terror came upon him. The noise from the kitchen was now subdued, for most of the mourners had gone home, and those who were staying the night were drowsy and were dozing over the fire. Michael suddenly felt the need to rush among them and to cry out to them for protection, cowering behind them and getting them to close around him in a solid defensive circle. He felt that all eyes were now upon him, looking at his back, and this caused him to fear turning around in case he might have to look into their eyes.
He knew that the girl had always respected him, but he did not want to lose her respect at this moment. It was the fear that he could lose it that caused him pull his shoulders back and plant his feet firmly upon the floor. Into his confused mind came thoughts of people who like to kill, of massed lines of soldiers who rushed headlong against well-defended trenches, of a cowering man who stealthily slips through a jail door at dawn, and of a sinister figure dressed in a red cloak, wielding an axe. Then, as he looked down the yard, Michael saw a figure turn in the gate and come toward the house. He knew immediately that it was Kelly, but he seemed to be walking slowly and heavily, as if he was exhausted.
Michael opened the kitchen door and slipped outside, and the figure making its way up the pathway seemed to be swimming toward him. Occasionally the figure would blur and disappear and then vaguely appear again, causing his heart to beat heavily and regularly like the ticking of a clock. Space between the two men narrowed until he began to feel that he could not breathe, and he then went forward a few paces. The light from the bedroom window of the cottage streamed out into the darkness in a broad, yellow beam, and Michael stepped into it as if into a river. “She’s dead,” he heard himself saying. “She’s dead.” And then he realised that Kelly was standing in front of him.
The flap of the boy’s hat threw a heavy shadow over Michael’s face, his shoulders were braced, and his right hand was thrust deeply into his coat pocket. “Aye, she’s dead,” Michael James repeated. “You knew that, didn’t you?” It was all he could think of saying in the moment, before he asked, “You’ll come in and see her, won’t you?” He had quite forgotten the purpose of Kelly’s visit for a moment, for his mind was distracted and he didn’t know what more he should say.
Kelly moved a little, and the light streaming from the window struck him full in the face. It was a shock to Michael James, as he suddenly realised that it was as grim and thin-lipped as he had pictured it in his mind. As a prayer rose in his throat the fear he had been feeling appeared to leave Michael all at once. As he raised his head he noticed that Kennedy’s right hand had left the pocket, and he saw that Kelly was looking into the room. Michael knew that Kelly could see the huge bedstead and the body on it, as he peered through the little panes of glass. Suddenly, he felt a desire to throw himself between Kelly and the window just as he might jump between a child and a threatening danger. But he turned his head away, as he instinctively felt that he should not look directly at Kelly’s face.
Suddenly, over in the barn voices rose as the group of men playing cards began to dispute with each other. One person was complaining feverishly about something, while another person was arguing pugnaciously, and another voice could be heard striving to make peace between the two. Then, as the voices died away to a dull background hum, Michael James heard the boy sobbing bitterly. “You mustn’t do that,” he said softly, patting him comfortingly on the shoulders. At that moment he felt as if an unspeakable tension had dissipated and life was about to swing-back into balance. Continuing to pat the shoulders, Michael spoke softly with a shaking voice and told the boy, as he took him under the arm, “Come in now, and I’ll leave you alone there.” He felt the pity that he had for the body on the bed overcome Kelly, too, and there was a sense of peace came over him. It was as though a son of his had been hurt and had come to him for comfort, and he was going to comfort him.
In some vague way he thought of Easter, and he stopped at the door for a moment. “It’s all right, laddie,” he said. “It’s all right,” and he lifted the latch. As they went in he felt somehow as if high walls had crumbled and the three of them had stepped into the light of day.
We Irish have the reputation of being very superstitious, but it is rather an exaggerated view. The truth is that we are no more superstitious than the country people of England, France, or Germany. In fact, it has been my experience that the people of the Scottish Highlands are much more attached to their superstitious beliefs and legends. What is unique about the Irish imagination is, however, that it is so vibrant that they can give Ireland’s legends an individuality that I have not found in the tales, myths and superstitions of most other peoples. Perhaps, it is our command of language that allows us to present the creatures of Irish imagination in a way that makes them appear to be so real and so original that they can become very startling to the imagination of others. The creatures born from within the Irish imagination, are often humorous, sometimes grotesque, and are regularly awe-inspiring and wonderful. In my mind the most fascinating creature of Irish legend is the weirdly-wailing Banshee, that sings her mournful cry at night, giving the family she attends a warning that one of their members is soon summoned into the world of spirits. This most dreaded spirit is called different things by different scholars of folklore, including the ‘Female Fairy’, the ‘Woman of Peace’, the ‘Lady of Death’, the ‘Angel of Death’, the ‘White Lady of Sorrow’, the ‘Nymph of the Air’, and the ‘Spirit of the Air’.
The ‘Banshee’ is quite different from the ‘Fear-shee’ or ‘Shifra’, (the Man of Peace), which brings good news and sings in a joyful mood near the house when unexpected good fortune is about to befall any or all members of the family. The Banshee, however, is really a disembodied soul of a person who, when alive was strongly attached to the family, or who had good reason to distrust and dislike its members. The Banshee’s song, therefore, may be different under different circumstances and can be inspired by opposite motives. For example, when the Banshee loves those whom she calls, the song is a low, soft chant. She is, of course, giving notice that the angel of death is near, but she is doing so with a tenderness of tone that will help reassure the one destined to die and comfort those who are left to mourn. It is more a welcome than a warning, and because its tones a are filled with celebration, it is as if the messenger spirit is bringing good news to the dying that he has been summoned to join those ancestors who are awaiting him. But, when she was alive, if the Banshee was an enemy of the family, her cry will be the scream of a fiend, howling in diabolical delight at the forthcoming death of another of her foes.
In some parts of Ireland there still exists a belief that the spirits of the dead are not taken from this world to another, and that they do not lose all their former earthly interests. It is thought that they enjoy the happiness of the saved, or endure the punishment imposed upon them for their sins, in the places where they lived while they had bodies of flesh and blood. At those times when people encounter certain problems, these disembodied spirits will display their joy or grief in a way that attracts the attention of living men and women. At weddings, for example, they are frequently unseen guests. At funerals they are always present, and sometimes, at both weddings and funerals, their presence is recognized by aerial voices or mysterious music which is almost of unearthly origin.
We believe that the good spirits wander with the living as their guardian angels, but the evil spirits restrained in their actions, and are compelled to do penance at or near the places where they carried out their bad deeds. Some are chained at the bottoms of the lakes, others are buried under ground, while others are confined in the mountain gorges. There are some that hang on the sides of precipices, while others are transfixed on the tree-tops, and others are left to haunt the homes of their ancestors, but all are waiting until their penance has been fulfilled and the hour of their release finally arrives. In County Antrim, the Castle of Dunseverick, is believed to be still haunted by the spirit of a chief, who is confined there to atone for a terrible crime he committed. Meanwhile, while the castles of Dunluce, of Magrath, and many others are similarly haunted by the spirits of the wicked dead. In the Abbey of Clare, the ghost of a sinful abbot walks and will continue to do so until his sin has been atoned for by the prayers that he unceasingly mutters in his tireless march up and down the aisles of the ruined nave.
As we have seen, the Banshee is one of those spirits who look with interest upon earthly things. They are deeply attached to the old families, or else regard all the family members with a strong hatred, and lingers about their homes to soften, or aggravate, the sorrow of the approaching death. The Banshee attends only the old leading families of Ireland, and although the descendants of those families may be brought down from their high position to the ranks of common people, through misfortune, she never leaves nor forgets them until the last member has been gathered to his ancestors in the churchyard. The MacCarthys, Magraths, O’Neills, O’Rileys, O’Sullivans, O’Reardons, O’Flahertys, and almost all the other old leading families of Ireland, have Banshees, though many representatives of these names are now in abject poverty. The song of the Banshee is commonly heard a day or two before the death of which it gives notice, although instances have been recorded of the Banshee’s song being heard at the beginning of an illness, or a course of conduct, which would result in death fatally. There is a story of a young girl who was engaged to a young man, and the moment she accepted his offer of marriage, they both heard the low, sad wail coming from above their heads. Later, the young man would desert her, she would die of a broken heart, and the night before she died, the Banshee’s song was heard, loud and clear, outside the window of her mother’s cottage. Another story records that one of the O’Flahertys, of Galway, marched out of his castle with his men on a raid, and, as his troops filed through the gateway, the Banshee was heard high above the walls of the fortress. The next night she sang again, and was heard no more for a month, at which time his wife heard the wail under her window, and on the following day his followers brought back his dead body. It is said that one of the O’Neills of Shane Castle, in Antrim, as he started out on a journey before daybreak, heard the Banshee’s cry and was accidentally killed some time after, while he was on that same journey.
Although the Banshee’s wail comes most frequently at night, there have been cases are reported of Banshees singing during the daytime, the song being often unheard by any person but the one for whom the warning is intended. This, however, is not usually the case since the notice of a death is meant for the family rather than just for the doomed individual. The Banshee is generally alone when delivering notice to a family, but on rare occasions it has been recorded that several banshees are heard singing in chorus. A lady of the O’Flaherty family, who was greatly loved by all for her social qualities, kindness, and piety, was taken ill at the family mansion near Galway. Nobody was overly concerned about the lady making a full recovery, as her illness seemed to be no more severe than a slight cold. But, after she had been lying in her bed for a day or two, several of her friends came to visit and cheer her up. Then, as the small group of friends were chatting merrily, strange sounds were heard, causing them all to tremble with fear and to turn pale as they recognized the singing from a chorus of Banshees. The lady’s illness developed into pleurisy, from which she passed away only a few days later and sweet, plaintive chorus was heard again as the spirit departed from her body. It is a great honour to be warned by more than one Banshee, and only comes to the purest of the pure.
The “Avenging Banshee” is a spirit that is greatly dreaded by members of a family against which she seeks revenge, and one noble Irish family, that I shall not name, is attended by a one of this type of Banshee. This Banshee, it is reported, is the spirit of a young girl who was deceived and afterwards murdered by a former head of this family. But, with her dying breath, she cursed her murderer and promised him that she would stay with him and his family forever. Many years passed, and the chieftain reformed his ways and the crime of his youth was almost forgotten, even by himself. Then, one night, he and his family were sitting by a huge fire when, suddenly, the most terrifying shrieks were heard outside the castle walls. They all ran out into the courtyard but could see nothing. During the night, however, the screams continued as though the castle was being besieged by demons, and the chieftain began to recognise, in the cry of the Banshee, the voice of the young girl he had murdered. The next night, the chieftain was assassinated by one of his followers, and again the wild, unearthly screams of the spirit were heard in celebration over the man’s fate. Since that night, this “Avenging Banshee” has never failed to notify the family, with shrill and happy cries of revenge, when the end-time for one of their number has arrived.
Banshees are not often seen, but those that have made themselves visible differ as much in personal appearance as in the character of their cries. The “Friendly Banshee” is usually a young and beautiful female spirit, with pale face, regular, well-formed features, hair sometimes coal-black, sometimes golden, with blue, brown, or black eyes. Her long, white clothing falls below her feet as she floats in the air, chanting her weird warning, and lifting her hands as if in tender pity, she was praying for the soul she has summoned. The “Avenging Banshee”, however, is a horrible hag, with angry and distorted features. They say that evil can be seen in every line of her wrinkled face, and her arms to call down every possible curse on the doomed member of that hated family.
Usually the only sign of a Banshee’s presence her cry, though a notable exception to this is found when it comes the O’Reardon family. The doomed member of this family is always notified of their death by a Banshee that appears in the shape of an exceedingly beautiful woman, and she sings a song so sweet and solemn as if to reconcile him to his approaching fate.
Though the Banshee does not follow members of a family that go to a foreign land, but if they die when abroad, she will give notice of the death to those who remain at home. It is said that when the Duke of Wellington died, a Banshee was heard wailing round the house of his ancestors, and during his campaigns against Napoleon, she frequently notified Irish families of the death in battle of Irish officers and soldiers. Furthermore, on the eve of the ‘Battle of the Boyne’ several Banshees were said to have been heard, singing in the air over the Irish camp, the truth of their prophecy being shown in the names of those who died the next day. How the Banshee obtains early and accurate information from foreign parts of the death in battle of Irish soldiers is yet unknown among those who study such things. One theory is that there exist, in addition to the two kinds already mentioned above, “Silent Banshees,” who attend members of old families, one to each member. It is thought that these silent spirits follow, watch, and bring back information to the family Banshee in Ireland, who then sings her sad refrain. The basis for such a theory derives from the fact that the Banshee has given notice at the family home in Ireland of those who have died in various battles fought in every part of the world. From every place where Irish regiments followed the call of British war drums, news of the prospective deaths of Irishmen has been brought home, each of which was preceded by the Banshee’s wail outside the ancestral home.
Among folklorists in Ireland this theory of the existence of the ‘Silent Banshee’ not widely accepted or well received. Going by the evidence that we have to date there are only two kinds of Banshee, and that, through supernatural means, they have knowledge of the immediate future of those in whom they are interested. At one time it was considered blasphemy to doubt the existence of the ‘Wild Banshee’ that was once alleged to have been heard in every part of Ireland. Now, in these modern times, it is recognised that the Banshee attends only the old families of Ireland and does not change to the new. The truth of this can be seen in the fact that with the disappearance of many old noble Irish names over the centuries so their Banshees appear to have gone. It seems to be in only a few remote districts in the West and North of Ireland that this dread spirit is still to be found, while in most other parts of this island the Banshee has become only a superstition. From being held with great respect and fear, this death-warning angel, has quickly sank to the level of the Fairy, the Leprechaun and the Pooka, which have become the subject for stories to amuse and terrify both the idle and the young.
Poor Sean Maguire died, just as Mr. Roche suspected he would, and the gold and the notes were found quilted into his wretched clothing. A search was then made for any of his relatives from in and about Moneygeran. in the West of the County, where his mother was known to have lived. Meanwhile, as much was taken from the hoard by ‘Big Peter’, in whose premises he died, as was necessary to buy a shroud and coffin, and some pipes, and tobacco, and snuff. Sheets were hung up in a corner of the barn, and the poor corpse was shaved and washed, and provided with a clean shirt, before he was laid on a table in the same corner and covered with a sheet.
Two or three large, roughly coloured wood prints of devout subjects were pinned on the sheets, and candlesticks, trimmed with coloured paper and furnished with candles, were provided. One or two persons relieved each other during daylight, to keep watch and ward off any evil. Of course, any poor neighbour who was cursed with a taste for tobacco smoke was only too ready for this duty, but the approach of darkness brought company enough, more indeed than were benefitted by the social duty.
The brave old patriarch Peter rested comfortably in his own chair and was talking intently to two or three of his neighbours, as old as himself, on the old chronicles of Castleton. We had paid little attention to his legends and tales, and we are now sorry enough for our inattention. On this occasion the hero of his story was a certain Squire Heaton, who, it appears, was the possessor of the Castleton demesne in some former age, and a terrible blackguard he must have been. He was employed in some fierce argument or other with his neighbours or tenants, we cannot now remember which, about a certain common, overgrown with furze bushes. It was, in fact, a large hill, which gave shelter to hundreds of hares and rabbits, and as the Squire would not give way to the demand made on him about the hill, the party collected and set fire to it on a fine summer evening.
Big Peter described, in a most graphic manner, the effect of the fire seen from the country round and about, all the poor hares and rabbits running for their lives, with their fur all scorched, and their eyes nearly burned out of their heads, and themselves falling into the hands of the crowds that kept watch at the edge of the burning mass. This reminiscence drew on others connected with matters that had taken place before the Rebellion, and while everyone was so engaged Eddie, Brian, and Charlie entered the room, reverently uncovering their heads, and reciting the ‘De Profundis’, verse and response. At the end they put their hats back on their heads and approached the elderly group.
A granddaughter of Peter’s and Mrs O’Brien’s servant girl, Joanna, a rattling young girl, came in with them, and after the psalm joined the ‘Big Peter’s’ womenfolk in the house, who occupied seats near the table. The older people, not willing to lose any of their usual hours of rest, began to leave, after having nearly exhausted all the interesting topics of the locality. But it was not long until a considerable amount of more lively conversation, of more interest to the younger portion of the company, began to develop itself among the various groups, two or three of the chief families keeping together near the table, as has been said.
At last a request came from a young woman in this group to Mr. Edmond, that he would entertain them with a song. Never being a man that was troubled with bashfulness, he immediately agreed, merely asking one of the little boys to bring a young cat from the kitchen to walk down his throat and clear away the cobwebs. He warned his audience that his song was useful to anyone thinking of paying a visit to the sites of Dublin.
” THE CONNAUGHT MAN AT THE REVIEW.
” With a neat house and garden, I live at my ease,
But all worldly pleasures my mind cannot please.
To friends and to neighbours I bid them adieu,
And I pegged off to Dublin to see the review.
Chorus – Laddly, ta ral lal, ta ral lal, lee.
” With trembling expectations, to the town I advanced,
Till I met with a soup-maker’s cellar by chance,
Where I saw hogs’ puddings, cows’ heels, and fat tripes.
And that delicate sight
” I stood in amaze, and I viewed them all o’er
The mistress espied me and came to her door.
‘ Step in, if you please, there is everything nice.
You shall have a good dinner at a reasonable price.’
“I tumbled downstairs, and I took off my hat.
And immediately down by the fireside I sat.
In less than five minutes she brought me a plate
Overflowing with potatoes, white cabbage, and meat.
” Says she, it was in Leitrim I was born and bred,
And can accommodate you to a very good bed.’
I thanked her, and straightway to bed I did fly,
Where I lay as snug as a pig in a sty.
“In less than five minutes my sides they grew hard,
For every feather it measured a yard.
A regiment of black boys my poor corpse overspread,
And insisted they’d tumble me out of the bed.
“I slept there all night until clear day-light,
And immediately called for my bill upon sight,
Says she, ‘as we both are come from the one town,
And besides old acquaintance, I’ll charge but a crown.’
” Oh, that is too much now, and conscience to boot;’
So, between she and I there arose a dispute.
To avoid the dispute, and to soon put an end,
She out for the police her daughter did send.
“In the wink of an eye I was sorely confounded
To see my poor body so sadly surrounded.
I thought they were mayors, or peers of the land,
With their long coats, and drab capes, and guns in their hands.
“‘Gentlemen,’ says I, ‘I’m a poor, honest man:
Before in my life I was never trepanned.’
‘ Come, me good fellow! Come pay for the whole,
Or else you will be the first man in the goal.’
“I paid the demand, and I bid her adieu,
And was off to the Park for to see the review.
Where a soldier he gave me a rap of his gun,
And bid me run home, for the white eyes were done.
“‘My good fella,’ says I, ‘had I you where I know,
I’d make you full Bore to repent of that blow.’
At the hearing of this, in a passion he flew,
And his long carving knife on me poor head he drew.
There were three or four verses more, but the readers are probably content with the quantity furnished. There was clucking of tongues against palates at the mention of the roguish tricks of the Dublin dealers. But a carrier in company cleared the city-born folk of some of the bad reputation alleged by the song and pronounced country people who had made good their standing in Dublin for a few years, to be the greatest cheats in the kingdom.
Mr. Edmond, having now a right to call someone up, summoned Joanna, the servant maid, previously mentioned, to show what she could do. Joanna, though very ready with her tongue at home, was at heart a modest girl, and fought hard to be let off. But one protested that she was a good singer, in right of a lark’s heel she had, but this was not the case, for Joanna had a neat foot. Another said that she was taught to sing by note when Tone, the dancing-master made his last round through the country, another said, that he heard herself and a young kid sing verse about one day when nobody was within hearing.
So, poor Joan, to get rid of the torment, asked what song they would like her to sing for them, and a dozen voices requested a love song about murder. So, after looking down, with a blushing face, for a while, she began with an unsteady voice, but she was soon under the influence of the subject and sung with a sweet voice one of these old English ballads, which we heard for the first time from a young woman of the Barony of Bardon, in the south.
There is another song on the same subject in some collection which we cannot at this remember at this moment. But Joanna’s version is evidently a faulty one. It has suffered from transmission through generations of negligent vocalists and now it is not easy to give it an original period of time.
“‘Come, comb your head, Fair Eleanor,
And comb it on your knee,
And that you may look maiden-like
Till my return to thee.’
“”Tis hard for me to look maiden-like,
When maiden I am none:
Seven fair sons I’ve borne to thee,
And the eighth lies in my womb.’
”Seven long years were past and gone.
Fair Eleanor thought it long.
She went up into her bower,
With her silver cane in hand.
“She looked far, she looked near,
She looked upon the strand.
And it’s there she spied King William a-coming,
And his new bride by the hand.
“She then called up her seven sons,
By one, by two, by three.
‘ I wish that you were seven greyhounds,
This night to worry me! ‘
“‘Oh, say not so our mother dear,
But put on your golden pall,
And go and throw open your wide, wide gates,
And welcome the nobles all.’
” So, she threw off her gown of green.
She put on her golden pall,
She went and threw open her wide, wide gates,
And welcomed the nobles all.
” ‘ Oh, welcome, lady fair! ‘ she said.
‘ You’re welcome to your own.
And welcome be these nobles all
That come to wait on you home.’
” ‘ Oh, thankee, thankee, Fair Eleanor!
And many thanks to thee.
And if in this bower I do remain,
Great gifts I’ll bestow on thee.’
” She served them up, she served them down,
She served them all with wine,
But still she drank of the clear spring water,
To keep her colour fine.
“She served them up, she served them down.
She served them in the hall.
But still she wiped off the salt, salt tears,
As they from her did fall.
” Well bespoke the bride so gay,
As she sat in her chair—
‘And tell to me, King William,’ she said,
‘ Who is this maid so fair?
” ‘ Is she of your kith, ‘ she said,
‘ Or is she of your kin,
Or is she your comely housekeeper
That walks both out and in’
” ‘ She is not of my kith,’ he said,
‘ Nor is she of my kin.
But she is my comely housekeeper
That walks both out and in.’
‘\’ Who then was your father,’ she said,
‘ Or who then was your mother 1
Had you any sister dear,
Or had you any brother 1 ‘
” ‘ King Henry was my father,’ she said,
‘ Queen Margaret was my mother,
Matilda was my sister dear,
Lord Thomas was my brother.’
” ‘ King Henry was your father,’ she said,
Queen Margaret, your mother,
1 am your only sister dear.
And here’s Lord Thomas, our brother.
” ‘ Seven lofty ships I have at sea,
All filled with beaten gold.
Six of them I’ll leave with thee,
The seventh will bear me home.’ “
The usual interruptions arising from new visitors entering had occurred several times during these relaxations, with the last visitor being a young giant of a man called Tom Sweeney. He was a labourer on the farm of young Roche, and an admirer of the songstress of Fair Eleanor, who, if she returned his affection, took special care to conceal the fact from the eyes of their acquaintance. Tom was as naïve a young man as there was anywhere in the county, and Peter O’Brien called on him to give a song. But the young man could think of nothing else to sing but the lamentation of a young girl for the absence of her lover.
” THE SAILOR BOY.
“‘Oh, the sailing trade is a weary life.
It robs fair maids of their hearts’ delight,
Which causes me for to sigh and mourn,
For fear my true love will ne’er return.
“’The grass grows green upon yonder lea,
The leaves are budding from ev’ry spray,
The nightingale in her cage will sing
To welcome Willy home to crown the spring.
“’ I’ll build myself a little boat.
And o’er the ocean I mean to float:
From every French ship that do pass by,
I’ll inquire for Willy, that bold sailing boy.’
“She had not sailed a league past three
Till a fleet of French ships, she chanced to meet.
‘ Come tell me, sailors, and tell me true,
If my love Willy sails on board with you.’
“‘Indeed, fair maid, your love is not here,
But he is drowned by this we fear.
‘It was your green island that we passed by,
There we lost Willy, that bold sailing boy.’
“She wrung her hands and she tore her hair
Just like a lady that was in despair.
Against the rock her little boat she run—
‘How can I live, and my true love gone? ‘
“Nine months after, this maid was dead,
And this note found on her bed’s head.
How she was satisfied to end her life,
Because she was not a bold sailor’s wife.
“‘Dig my grave both large and deep,
Deck it over with lilies sweet,
And on my headstone cut a turtledove,
To signify that I died for love.’ “
It is probable that the sentiments of this ballad will not produce similar feelings in our readers. It was not the case with the younger portion of Tom’s audience, for he sung it with much feeling. He was, indeed, a sincere young fellow, besides being a lover.
It would be a little boring, except to those with an interest in such things, if I was to let you read many more of the songs which were sung there. If truth be told, there were few that could be distinguished by them possessing genuine poetry or good taste. The people who were there were not so lucky and had to hear “The sailor who courted a farmer’s daughter, that lived convenient to the Isle of Man.” That was followed by the merry song called “The Wedding of Ballyporeen,” which caused the audience to laugh loudly, although they had heard it many times heard before. Then there were popular tunes such as, “The Boy with the Brown Hair,” “The Red-haired Girl,” “Sheela na Guira,” and “The Cottage Maid.” Laments and Ballads about lost loves and promising romantic futures, which were popular and encouraged the audience to join in. But, at last, some of those gathered began to demonstrate by their manner and gestures, that they had heard enough sweet singing, and O’Brien, and Roche, and Redmond, were invited to get up and perform the wake-house drama of ‘Old Dowd and his Daughters’, which would help them to hold out against the stale air in the room and the want of sleep.
The young men did not exhibit too good a sense of the moral fitness of things, since they were not normally disposed to vice, in private or in public. It was custom that influenced them to think that what was harmless at other times and in other places could be looked on as harmless at a wake. So, Charles at once assumed took his place as stage manager and assumed the role of Old Dowd with a daughter he needed to dispose of. He set the blushing and giggling Joanna on a chair beside him, Tom Sweeney, and two or three other young men on a bench at his other side, cleared an open space in front, procured a good stick for himself and each of his sons, and awaited the approach of the expected suitor.
O’Brien and Roche had gone out, and on their return were to be looked on, the first as the suitor, a caustic poet, who makes himself welcome at rich farmers’ houses by satirizing their neighbours, and the second as his horse, whose forelegs were represented by the man’s arms, and a stool firmly grasped in his hands. Roche’s election to this role was determined by his size and great strength. Finally, amid the most profound silence the performance of “Old Dowd and his Daughters” began—
OLD DOWD AND HIS DAUGHTERS.
[Present: Old Dowd, his marriageable daughter, Sheela, and his six sons. Enter poetic suitor, appropriately mounted. Father and sons eye the pair with much contempt.]
Old Dowd: Who is this, mounted on his old carthorse, coming to disturb us at this hour of the night? What kind of a tramp or traveller are you? for I don’t think we can give you a lodging, sir, and you must go on farther.
Suitor:I’m not an honest man, no more than you are yourself, you old sinner, and I don’t want a room. I’m seeking a cure for life’s troubles. In plain words, a wife who can be with me for the rest of my life on this earth. Are you lucky enough to be able to help me, for you won’t ever get another chance to make a more high-bred connection as myself? My grandfather owned seven townlands, and let more property slip through his fingers than the whole seed, breed, and generation of the Dowds possessed since Adam was a boy. Come on, are you ready for me?
Father of Bride: Aye, and what property have you got?
Suitor:A lawsuit that’s to be decided on day before Christmas Eve. If I gain it, I’ll get fifty acres of land on the side of the mountain at a pound an acre. If I lose, they can only put me in the jail. Come on, now, let us see the bride. But, first, as they used to say at the siege of Troy, let us know your breeding and bloodline.
Father.Here I am, Old Dowd, with his six sons. Himself makes seven, four more would be eleven, and hurrah, brave boys.”
At this point of the conference the patriarch flourished his stick, and aimed a few blows at the steed and rider, more, however, in courtesy than resentment. The suitor warded the strokes with some skill and gave a tap or two to his father-in-law elect. He at last setting his weapon upright and the argument ceased.
Father: Come now, I see that you are not altogether unworthy to enter the family of the Dowds. What’s your profession? How do you earn your bread? I won’t send out my dear Sheela to live on the neighbours.
Suitor: I’m a poet and live by the weaknesses of mankind.
Father: Och, what kind of trade is that? Your coat is white at the seams. Is that some sort of vest or is it a real shirt you have on you? How many meals a day do you get? Everyone knows the saying, ‘as poor as a poet’.
Suitor:Then I think three-quarters of the people about here must be in the same trade. If you were to be a father-in-law to me, then learn to be mannerly, Old Dowd. I scorn a vest, except when my old shirt is worn out, and my new one has not come from the seamstress, and if I could find an appetite, I might eat seven meals a day. I stop at a gentleman- farmer’s and repeat a few verses that I said for against a neighbour for his stinginess to one of the old-stock of the Muldoons, and a poet besides. And don’t myself and my steed live like fighting cocks, and the man of the house not daring to sneeze for fear of getting into a new a bad verse about himself. Is this my bride? Oh, the darling girl, I must make a verse in her praise off the top of my head, for if I was Homer, that noble poet, I’d sing your praises in verses sweet. Or Alexander, that bold commander, I’d lay my trophies down at your feet.”
“Venerable head of the Clan Dowd, my intended looks a little hot. I hope it wasn’t with the pot-rag she wiped her face this morning. Old Dowd, you’ll have to shell out something decent for soap. The young lady’s name is Sheela, you say. She’s not the same Miss Sheela, I hope! You know that Pat Cox, the shoemaker, was lately courting?
Father:You vagabond of a poet, do you think I’d demean the old kings of Leinster, my forefathers, by taking into my family a greasy shoemaker?
Suitor: I only asked a civil question. Pat met his darling one day, as she was binding after the reapers, and asked when she’d let him take her measure for a pair of new shoes. “No time like the present time,” says she, and off she kicked her right foot pump. Her nails were a trifle long and her lovely toes were peeping out through the worsted stockings. If there was anything between the same toes it wouldn’t be polite to mention it. So bewildered was the love-sick fool by the privilege conferred on him, that he felt in his own mind, that a prolonged communication would not be good for the peace of heart. So, the shoes are not yet made, and Pat’s nearest residence is in the village of Derrymore.
Father: And do you dare, you foul-mouthed blackguard, to cast insinuations on the delicate habits of my dear child? Take this for your reward.
Sympathetic Sons:And this … and this.”
And now began a neat cudgel-skirmish between the main contracting parties. The angry father not only struck at the evil-tongued suitor, but also whacked at the inoffensive horse. The suitor warded the blows from his trusty horse as well as he could, but still one or two made impressions on the more sensitive portions of his body, and the sons with their wooden sticks added to his overall discomfort. So, the noble animal, feeling his patience rapidly diminishing, executed a half-jump, and applying the hoof of his off hind leg to the bench on which the old gentleman and his sons were sitting in state, he overturned them with little effort, and their heads and backs made sore acquaintance with the wall and floor.
This disagreeable incident, and the still unconquered difficulties, stopped the further prosecution of the suit, and amid rubbing of sore spots, scratching of heads, and howls of laughter from all parts of the room, they set about another match with Peter’s grand-daughter being obliged to sit for the next blushing bride. In this second act, Redmond came in as a wooer, bestriding Tom Sweeney, His cue was to have nothing of the poet or the vagrant hanging to his skirts. He was the miserly, careful tradesman of country life. O’Brien represented Old Dowd.
Thrifty Suitor:God save all here! Look here, I want a wife, and no more about it. Have you got one available?
Father:To be sure we have! Who are you if you please?
Thrifty Suitor: I’m not ashamed of my name nor of my business. I’m a brogue-maker to my trade, and my name’s Mick Kinsella, and I’m not short of a few pounds in my pocket, not like that scare-crow, Denny Muldoon, that’ll be obliged to throw his large cloak over his bride to keep her from freezing with the cold in the honeymoon. I won’t have Miss Sheela; you may depend on it.
Father:Indeed, I think you’re right, Mick-the Brogue. That dear girl was a little untidy, still she wasn’t without her good points. But she would persist in wiping the plates with the cat’s tail when the dishcloth was not at hand, and I’m afraid that her husband won’t be known by the whiteness of his shirt collar at the chapel. Well, well, we won’t speak ill of the absent. But here, you son of a turned pump, is the flower of the flock for you. Here’s one that will put a genteel stamp on your stand of brogues at a fair or market. By the way, the shoemakers don’t associate with you, men of the leather strip. They don’t look on you as tradesmen. What shabby pride! Begging your pardon, Mick, what property have you, and what do you intend to leave to your widow? After all, no one can say to your face that you married out of a frolic of youth. You’re turned fifty, I think.
Thrifty Suitor: No, I am not, Old Dowd! I am only pushing forty-five, and I have neither a red nose nor a shaky hand, Old Dowd. And I hope Mrs. Kinsella won’t be at the expense of a widow’s cap for thirty years to come, Old Dowd. But not to make an ill answer, I have three hundred red guineas under the thatch. And now tell me what yourself will lay down on the nail the day your daughter changes her name.
Father:Well, well, the impudence of some people stings! Isn’t it enough, and more than enough, to get a young woman of birth, that has book-learning and reads novels? And you, you big jackass, don’t you think but your bread will be baked the day she condescends to take the vulgar name of Kinsella? Why, man, the meaning of the word is “Dirty Head.” An old king of Leinster got it for killing a priest.
Thrifty Suitor: I don’t care a pig’s bristle for your notions and grand ideas. Give me an answer if you please.
Father: Oh, dear, dear, Old Dowd! Did you ever think you would live long enough to hear your genteel and accomplished daughter, Miss Biddy Dowd, called by the vile name of Biddy -the-Brogue?
Thrifty Suitor: Now, none of your impudence, you overbearing and immoral old toper! I want a wife to keep things snug at home, and make me comfortable, and not let me be cheated by my servants and workmen. You say that Biddy reads novels and, maybe when the ploughmen come in at noon, they’ll only find the praties put down over a bad fire, and the mistress crying over a greasy-covered book in the corner. To the Devil with all the novels in the world.
The Dowds (father and sons):This ignorant gobshite never went as far as the “Principles of Politeness ” in the “Universal Spelling-book.” Let us administer the youth a little of hazel-oil to make his joints supple and teach him some manners!”
Then another battle of arms took place, in which some skilful play was shown with the sticks, and several sound thumps were given and received, to the great delight and edification of the assembly.
Thrifty Suitor: Now that these few compliments are over, what is to be the fortune of Biddy, I beg a thousand pardons, Miss Biddy Dowd, I mean?
Father:Isn’t her face fortune enough for you, you vulgar man? Do you think nothing of the respectability of having her sitting on a pillion behind you going to fair or market to work after you, with her green silk gown and quilted purple petticoat, and her bright orange shawl? Ah, you lucky thief! Won’t you have the crowd of young fellows around you, bargaining for your ware, and inviting Mrs. Kinsella to a glass of punch? I think, instead of expecting a fortune, you should give a big bag of money for being let into my family.
Thrifty Suitor: Old Dowd, all your bluster isn’t worth a cast-off brogue. Mention a decent sum, or back I go to my work. I’m young enough to be married these fifteen years to come.”
Here the father and sons put their heads together, and finally the hard-pressed father named twenty pounds, but the worldly-minded suitor exclaimed against the smallness of the sum and insisted on a hundred. After a series of skilful thrusts and parries, they agreed to split the difference, and the candidate was asked whether he preferred to receive it in quarterly payments or be paid all at once. He inconsiderately named present payment and had soon reason to repent of his haste to become rich, for the dowry descended on himself and his charger in a shower of blows from the tough hazels and blackthorns of his new relatives. After receiving and inflicting several stripes, he shouted out that he was satisfied to give a long day with the balance. And so, with their shoulders and sides sore with blows and laughter, the play came to an end, and much appreciation was shown by the audience both with the action and dialogue, for many in the crowd knew the parties who were represented, and scarcely, if at all, caricatured. Denny Muldoon, and Mick Kinsella, and Biddy-the-Brogue, were well-known under other names.
When the enthusiasm had subsided a little, it being now about one o’clock in the morning, O’Brien, Roche, Edmond, Joanna, and Sweeney withdrew, but not before reciting some prayers before they left the room. When the vacated seats came to be filled, and lately bashful young fellows began to use the tobacco-pipes, which one but the older folk had meddled with before, the hitherto tolerably decent spirit of the society began to evaporate, and confusion and ill manners began to prevail. However, a young fellow, who felt a desire to hear himself sing in company, got some of his supporters to endeavour to quieten the noise, and request him to favour the assembly with a song. The noise did not entirely subside until the first notes were heard, and the dismal style in which the verses were sung needed to be restrained but indifferently.
” THE STREAMS OF BUNCLODY.
“Was I at the moss-house where the birds do increase,
At the foot of Mount Leinster, or some silent place,
At the streams of Bunclody, where all pleasures do meet,
And all I require is one kiss from you, sweet.
” The reason my love slights me, I do understand,
Because she has a freehold and I have no land.
A great store of riches, both Silver and gold,
And everything fitting a house to uphold.
“If I was a clerk who could write a good hand,
I’d write to my true love that she might understand,
That I’m a young man that’s deeply in love,
That lived by Bunclody, and now must remove.
” Adieu my dear father; adieu my dear mother.
Farewell to my sister, and likewise my brother.
I’m going to America, my fortune to try.
When 1 think on Bunclody, I’m ready to die.”
The general feeling at the time was too cynical to relish such a sad song. Several songs were sung, whose composers’ ghosts shall not have the gratification of seeing them here either in substance or name. At last, even the songs, such as they were, began to lose their charm, and games were introduced. The first was played in the following way –
The captain took five assistants, and arranged them in a semicircle, giving to each a name. He then began with a short stick to pound the palm of one to whom the mischance came by lot, keeping a firm hold of his wrist all the time, and naming the troop in this manner “Fabby, Darby Skibby, Donacha the Saddler, Jacob the Farmer, Scour-dish, what’s that man’s name?” He suddenly pointed to one of the group, and if the patient named him on the moment, he was released, and the fellow named was submitted to the handy discipline. If there was the slightest delay about the name, the operator went on as before—”Fibby Fabby, Darby Skibby,” etc., until the poor victim’s fingers were in a sad state.
In the second game a candle was placed on the ground, in the middle of a circle of lads, and all are told to keep their eyes fixed on it, and their hands behind their backs. The captain provided himself with a twisted leathern apron, or something equally unpleasant to be struck with, and walked on the outside of the ring, exclaiming from time to time, “Watch the light, watch the light.” Secretly placing the weapon into the hands of one of the men, he at last cried out, “Use the linger, use the linger;” and this worthy ran round the circle, using it to some purpose on the backs of his playmates. He then became the captain, and in due course delivered the instrument to someone else.
But the most objectionable trick of all was “shooting the buck.” Some person or persons who had not yet seen the performance were essential to its success, as it required a victim or two. The person acting the buck having gone out, the sportsman who was to shoot him required one to three unsuspicious persons to lie in wait inside the door, to catch the animal when falling from the effect of the shot, promising that they should see fine things. All became silent and watchful, and the retrievers were at their post, when the stag appeared in the doorway, a stool on his head, with the feet upturned to represent horns. The huntsman stooped, and squinting along a stick, cried out, “too-oo”! Back fell the animal, and down came the stool, and all the dirt with which the rogue had charged it outside, on the hats and clothes of the raw sportsmen, and great laughter rose from all the throats but theirs.
By this time, it is three or four o’clock, and time for anyone who dreads the terrors of an over-burdened conscience, while he lies passive and stretched out the next morning, to quit the scene of such frivolity. We might here moralize on the inherent evil of the institution, and the number of young men who became hardened in vice by attending wakes, and the number of young women who lost their character thereby, and everything with it, here and hereafter. The evil lay in visiting them at all, for more than a few minutes. It would be out of the question for the best-intentioned to remain in the foul room for the whole night and come out as innocent in the morning as they entered in the evening. Girls with any pretence to good conduct never remained in them beyond the early hours of the night and were always supposed to be there under the guardianship of a brother, cousin, or declared lover. We will say, for the honour of those districts of Ireland that were known to us, that it was rare to hear of a young woman, farmer’s, or cottager’s daughter, of bad character.
“Ah, would you ever be quiet?” the old man in the corner shouted as we were in the middle of discussing strange stories we had heard. “Would you ever believe this?”
“Would I believe what?” I asked him.
“I’ll tell you a true story that I heard from the man’s own mouth. God be merciful to him and him as truthful as the day is long,” the old man declared.
“What story would that be?” I asked.
“Do you know Barney Douglas who lived over beyond Ballymore?” replied the old man. But when I shook my head to show that I didn’t know the man, the old man continued, “Ah, sure, you would not have known him, for he died before you came here. Well, Barney was coming home from town one night, after midnight and, maybe, nearer to one in the morning. He had his ‘donkey cart’ with him and he was walking along happily at the pony’s head. He was enjoying a wee smoke to himself on a fine moonlit night until he came across three men ahead of him in the middle of the road, and they were carrying a coffin. It was quite a while before they let the coffin down. Sure, the hair was standing on Barney’s head with fear, but blessing himself with the sign of the cross he walked on until he came to where the three men were standing beside the coffin.”
“‘The Blessing of God on you all,” Barney greeted them in Irish. ‘and what is happening?’”
“’The same to yourself,’ said one of the three men, “but c’mon take a place under this coffin and ask no more questions.’
“Well he was going to aske them what would he do with his pony and cart, but he decided not to now that he was told to ask no more questions. But he didn’t have ask for the men knew well what was in his mind, and another one of the men told him, ‘Sure, your pony and cart will be alright here until you get back.’
“Well, Barney went with them and helped them to carry the coffin, and a heavier corpse he had never known, by God. They went ahead until they left the coffin in the graveyard and then he was told that he could go back to his pony and cart. ‘Sure, men, I will help you to dig the grave.’
“’Do what you’re told,’ said the third man, who hadn’t spoken before, ‘or maybe it would be the worse for you.’
“’Well, Barney didn’t want to repeat himself, so he returned to his pony and cart and found them exactly where he had left them.”
“Did Barney know them?” I asked when the old man had finished.
“Did he know them? By God he knew them! For they were three of his own first cousins who had died long before that night.”
“So, who was in the coffin?” I asked.
“Barney’s own brother, who had died in California that same night, as he heard afterwards in a letter that was sent by his uncle in America,” the old man informed me. But he also assured me that Barney was never known to tell a lie in his life, and that he is dead now, may his soul rest in peace.
“Amen,” I answered.
Now, all of you who are reading this let me ask you not to make fun! You may never be asked by the dead to carry the dead at a mysterious midnight funeral, but I urge you not to make fun of Barney Douglas’ experience.