Tales of a Wake – New Book 3

Seamus Curran was a popular businessman in the town and the news of his sudden death came as a terrible shock to everyone who knew him. From every corner of the town and outlying district people came to the house where his body was being waked to pay their respects to their friend and the family he had left behind. After first visiting Seamie lying in his coffin most of the mourners were crowded into the front room of the house, where they had a smoke, drank a little whiskey to the man’s memory, and recalled stories from the man’s life.

It was well after ten o’clock when Hughie McCann, the local undertaker, came into the room and was immediately handed a cup of tea, for the poor man had ‘taken the pledge’ twenty years previously. But Hughie had barely gotten his backside settled in the chair before several men in the room began to press him to relate a few of his stories to entertain everyone. He knew that a few humorous stories would shorten the long night ahead of those who would be sitting up with the deceased until morning. So, Hughie cleared his throat and told them all that he would do his best, although everyone who knew Hughie also knew that his ghostly tales were always the best. On this occasion, however, Hughie began with a song and encouraged everyone to join in and, when he had finished the gathering called for another.

In the kitchen of the wake house many of the neighbour women had joined together to supply the food for those who attended the wake. Among the women there was one who had three daughters of marriageable age and a good match was sought for each. The mother, of course, knew Hughie McCann well and she was aware that he was an unattached male who was well on in years and had never once thought of marriage. She spoke quietly to a woman friend standing beside her in the kitchen. “Sure, wouldn’t I be a happy mother if I could get your man McCann to take one of my daughters as a wife,” she said. “He’s a man with plenty of money behind him and a good business to give him a good living. Would you speak to him? But don’t mention my name.

A short while later the woman approached Hughie McCann with a fresh cup of tea in her hand and casually mentioned that she knew a fine and beautiful girl who would make him a good wife. “You know, Mr. McCann, you are no spring chicken, and you are not getting any younger. It is time you got yourself a good wife, before it’s too late.

Hughie rose up from his chair, his eyes filled with anger and told her bluntly, “There is not a woman yet born who I would even consider marrying, and not even two hundred wild horses would ever be able to drag me to the altar to do so!

The mother of three daughters had heard him speaking and was deeply insulted by his words and, being the type of woman she was, she was not going to let him get away with it.  “May bad luck follow you, for you are an insignificant wee brat of a man!” she told him. “You could have gotten yourself a beautiful young bride whose shoelaces you are not fit to tie, Hughie McCann! But all you will be left with are the corpses you have put in cheap old coffins that you hammer together. It’s like the dead burying the dead.

Allow me to tell you something,” retorted Hughie, “I would rather have the dead about me than many of the living any day, especially when the living people are like yourself. The dead have been good to me over the years, may they rest in peace, employing me to build their coffins, for when all is said and done the living would rather avoid me.

The angry woman was not finished with what she wanted to say and told him, “That would be right! Sure, you are half-dead yourself, and it is with the dead you should be, and not with the living. Why don’t you just get out of here and look to the dead for company?

You can be sure, if I knew how to find them, I would go there,” Hughie answered tersely.

Ah, you could ask them over for supper!” she laughed.

Hughie did not reply to her and walked out of the kitchen door and, in a loud voice that all could hear , she called out, “Men, women, and children, and for all those  for whom I built a coffin, listen to me now as I issue an invitation for you all to come to my home tonight and partake in a feast that I will give in your honour.

All those people standing around the coffin in which the corpse was laid out were totally dumbfounded when the dead man appeared to smile as Hughie spoke.  In terror each one standing there took to their heels, and Hughie McCann hurried out of the wake house, making his way back to his work premises. But as he passed a public house he went in and purchased a bottle of whiskey, which he put into the pocket of his jacket before he moved on. When he reached his workshop, however, he saw that the interior lights were switched on. He knew that he had closed-up the workshop securely before he had gone to the ‘Wake house’. What he saw now concerned him, for he thought that thieves may have broken into the shop and night set fire to it. He stopped and hid himself in a dark shadow covered corner of the building opposite the shop to confirm his worst fears. However, all that Hughie could see were crowds of men, women, and children walking quietly toward his workshop, which they entered, one after another. As he watched, Hughie unexpectedly felt a tap on his shoulder and heard a voice asking, “Is this where you have been, and all of us waiting for you to make an appearance? Now, this is not polite way to treat your guests, so, come on now with me.

As Hughie entered the shop with the man, it quickly became clear that a large crowd of people had gathered there. As his eyes scanned the faces in the crowd, he recognized several of his former and other people he had known in the past, all of whom were singing, dancing, and chatting among themselves. At that moment a man came out from the crowd and made his way up to Hughie and asked, “It seems you do not know me, Hughie McCann?

No,” replied Hughie answered, “I don’t know you! Sure, how could I?

There was a time when you knew me well,” said the man. “Even now you will recall who I am, for I am the first man that you built a coffin for. It was me that gave you a start in the undertaking business.

Another man approached and he was very lame. “Do you know who I am, Hughie?” he asked.

God forgive me, but I don’t,” replied Hughie.

Jesus, man!” gasped the lame man. “Sure, I am your cousin, and it is not long ago since I died.

Of course, you are!” Hughie beamed with delight. “Now I recognize you and I can clearly remember how became lame. But how will I ever get all these people out of here? What time is it now?

It is early yet, Hughie! Sure, it’s hardly eleven o’clock,” replied his cousin. “Just make them all feel welcome and entertain them.

But I don’t have any money on me now to get food or drink for them. Anyway, it’s almost midnight and all the stores are closed,” Hughie told him.

Well, just do the best you can!

The fun and the dancing continued unabated and, as Hughie looked around the room, he caught sight of a woman who was standing in the far corner of the room. She was looking very shy and was not even trying to join in the festivities. “Why is that woman not joining in the fun?” asked Hughie. “She is not dancing and enjoying the craic like the others.

Her?” replied Hughie’s cousin pointing in the direction where the woman was standing. “Sure, that woman is not long dead. In fact, you donated a coffin to the poor woman because she did not have the money to buy one.

So?

Well, the poor woman is afraid you will ask her for the money, or that you might even let it slip that she had not paid for her coffin,” the cousin added.

The best dancer in that room was Johnny Braden and he had died at least two years before this. Playing the fiddle was Tommy Riley, who had chosen to make a fiddle for the occasion rather than bring one. He peeled off what little flesh was left on his body and rubbing up and down he made music, for each rib gave a different note. To everyone’s surprise the music Riley played was excellent and, without doubt, the best Hughie had heard play. Then, everyone in the room decided to follow Tommy Riley’s example, pulling off what flesh remained on them, and they began to dance in their bones. You can just imagine the scene in front of Hughie as these skeletons danced their jigs, reels, and hornpipes. When they would accidentally clash against each other the air was filled with the loud rattling of bones, and the rush to put them back in place again.

Hughie McCann’s mind was filled with the desire to just survive the night, although there was no sign of daylight breaking. Meanwhile, ‘Big Alo’ Sullivan was moving around the room suspiciously, and Hughie remembered him well because he had been married twice in his lifetime, and his two wives were accompanying him. The undertaker watched as ‘Big Alo’ took the second wife on to the dancefloor, and they began to dance so well that the entire place was delighted, the skeletons all applauding and calling for more. Unfortunately for ‘Big Alo’ and his partner they danced too well for one of the guests, who was his first wife and she had become filled with a jealous rage. She ran on to the dance area and taking ‘Big Alo’ by the arm shouted that she had more of a right to dance with him since he had married her first.

Catch yourself on,” screamed the second wife. “It is me that has the better right. When he married me, you were already dead, and he was free to marry whoever he wanted to! And besides that, I am a much better dancer than you! So, whether you like it or not I shall dance with him!

Ah, shut your beak you old crow!” the first wife screamed. “Sure, you wouldn’t even been here dancing tonight at all if you had not been able to borrow another woman’s shin bones!

‘Big Alo’ stared down at his two wives and asked the second wife, “Have you someone else’s shin bones?

Aye! Of course, I have. Didn’t I borrow them from a neighbour woman?

Tell me, who owns the shin bones?” asked ‘Alo’.

They belong to Katie Murray, but she didn’t have a good name about her!

But why did you not come on your own two feet?

Well, you see, I hadn’t a good name about myself either, but I was put under a curse that whenever there was a feast or a ball, I wouldn’t be able to attend unless I could borrow a pair of shins,” she told him.

As the blush of embarrassment rose in his face, so did ‘Alo’s’ anger. Much to his shame he had been told that the shin bones he had danced with had been borrowed from a woman who did not have a good reputation. In his anger, ‘Alo’ lifted his hand and slapped his wife, sending her spinning into a corner, much to the disgust of the woman’s friends and relations in the room.

We cannot let him get away with that!” said one of them. “We have to knock some manners back into him!

They all came together like a mob and because they no weapons, they pulled off their left arms to strike and slash at anyone who got in their way, and a terrible fight began. Hughie McCann, in the meantime, stood in silent amazement as the battle was launched, but he soon became concerned at the prospect of being killed in the bitter struggle. ‘Alo’ was busy dodging the various blows that were being aimed at him, and he accidentally on Hughie’s toe. Caught by surprise, and in pain, Hughie struck out with his fist and knocked ‘Big Alo’s’ head clean off his shoulders, causing it to roll to the far side of the room.

When ‘Alo’ realized that he had lost his head he rushed to recover it and used it to strike out at his attacker. His strike was true, knocking Hughie under a bench and being at a disadvantage, he found himself being throttled by ‘Big Alo’’. Hughie’s throat was being squeezed so tightly that he lost consciousness and could remember nothing more. But when he did come to his senses again, the following morning, his apprentice found him stretched out under the bench with an empty whiskey bottle under his arm. The poor man was bruised from all the pounding he had received, and his throat was very sore from the way he had been throttled by boney hands. But Hughie did not know how all the previous evening’s festivities had ended, or when his guests had left.

Paul’s Story – New Book 2

It was at Mick Harte’s funeral that I first met Paul Quinn, a popular and friendly man who was, before this occasion, a stranger to me. Paul, however, had been a very good friend to my Uncle Mick and he had, I was to discover, helped my father’s brother to avoid the full penalty of the law on many occasions.

Mick was your uncle?” he asked as we walked behind the black hearse. “Then, it was Danny who was your father?

Aye, that’s right,” I confirmed. “Did you know them both well?

It was your father who was the eldest of the two and I got to know him. But it was your Uncle Mick and I who were the best of friends. In fact, Mick and I were born in the same week, just three or four months before the end of the great war.

I bet things in Ireland were a lot different in those days?

Aye, it was time when Ireland was very troubled and virtually lawless, and our early years were filled with a bitter and bloody struggle to gain our nation’s independence. The shock wave caused by the ‘Easter Rebellion’ were still being felt throughout Ireland, and the ‘Black and Tan’ thugs took the conflict to a higher level of cruelty and bloodletting, with neither side showing any pity to the other. We were still toddlers when the peace treaty was signed, and ‘Free State’ was created. But signing a treaty was much easier than maintaining lengthy period of peace.

I can imagine that it must have been an exciting time, but it must also have been very frightening,” I commented.

Exciting is one word that could describe those days in our young lives,” Paul smiled as he searched his memories. “But it was a time of ambushes, guns, and the killing of Irish men by their fellow countrymen. There was one day, When Mick and I were only five years old, and we were playing in a field at the edge of town which ran adjacent to “Hennessey’s Wood.’ Without a warning there was an explosion of gunfire that appeared to us to last quite a few minutes, but it was probably only for a few seconds. We were shaking with fear as we lay in the grass, and we attempted to gather our senses quickly when the gunfire ceased so we could escape the danger. But from where we lay we saw twelve men coming out of the wood with rifles over their shoulders and bandoliers of ammunition across their chests. In their hands, however, these men were carrying a variety of birds and rabbits that would have provided them with a great feast. These were what our parents called ‘irregulars’ and they had been able to avoid the ‘Free State Soldiers’ that had been patrolling the area for the previous two weeks. For two very young boys who were only innocent children it was our first experience of the troubled country in which we lived.

Some experiences, Paul,” I commented as I slowly shook my head in wonder as we walked on.

It was for someone so young,” said Paul. “My father, God rest him, had a worse experience. He was the owner of a busy local grocery shop and pub, and he owned one of only two cars in our small town.

What happened him?” I asked.

It was in the summer of 1922 and there had been several skirmishes in the area around the town over previous weeks, mainly due to ambushes being set up by ‘irregulars. Well, it was daylight when my father was heading home in his car, and he had a keg of whiskey secured on the passenger seat. He was quite unaware that while he was away, some local irregulars had been busy excavating a trench in preparation for an ambush against an expected patrol of soldiers along the road. As usual my father was in a hurry and didn’t see the obstruction that the irregulars had placed in the road until he was almost on top of it. In his panic to avoid the obstruction he pulled on the steering wheel, forcing the car to swerve with a loud screech of brakes. But such was his speed and the sharpness of the swerve that the car overturned and crashed into the trench. The car was a complete wreck and the keg of whiskey it was carrying was busted open and splashed all over the small band of men, who were forced to jump out of the trench in which they were hiding. These armed men wanted to avoid being hit by an out-of-control car and they dispersed quickly, and the planned ambush did not take place. It was only after old Joe Murray came with his Shire Horses was the car pulled free of the trench and towed home. The news of the crash was the talk of the entire district for a month.”

“Dear God, that must have been some experience for your father?” I commented and was in two minds as to whether I should laugh or not. “What did Uncle Mick say?

Paul smiled as he recalled, “Sure, Mick never said much about anything in those days, for in those days he was a bit of a tear-away himself.

Uncle Mick was a bit of a tear-away? That’s a bit hard for me to see, from what I know of him.

Aye! Mick was always a bit of an eejit, like myself,” Paul told me. “I’ll admit that things were much different in those days. The countryside around her was like a magical kingdom for two adventurous boys. We could have wondered anywhere without fear, and our parents had no concerns for our safety. There were many evenings that we would go after school to rob birds’ nests as part of our egg collecting hobby, which was a great past-time when we were young. You know, there were times when we would have to put an egg in our mouth so we could both hands to get down from the branches. It wasn’t always a successful choice, for there were times when the egg would break in our mouths as we descended and jumped the last few feet.

We laughed together at the idea of birds’ eggs breaking in their mouths. “Aye! Egg collectors and poachers,” added Paul.

Poachers?” I gasped.

Aye, that’s right! We became very good friends and poachers when we were young, catching hundreds of trout by tickling them,” he told me.

Did they just laugh their way into a net?” I joked.

Paul remained straight faced and began to explain, “In truth, it was Mick who was the real expert. His secret was to move his hand slowly and noiselessly under an overhanging riverbank, never hurrying or grabbing at his target. But when the opportunity came Mick would sweep the fish onto the bank with one swift scoop of his hand. At night we would take lamps and a gaff to catch the fish, but whether day or night we always had to be on our guard for police and gamekeepers. Maybe because we were so young, we never gave too much consideration to the punishment we might receive for our actions. We hunted hares, rabbits, pheasants, fish, and it was ‘Young Alo’, the postman in those days, who taught us everything about snares and other poacher tools. Now and again, ‘Young Alo’ would also bring his two big greyhounds and we would have great sport flushing out hares and rabbits, and watching the dogs chase them down.

“Great times and great fun! Not at all like today?” I suggested.

There was now a more serious expression that came across Paul’s face as he remembered, “Well, life wasn’t all one period o constant joy and carefree abandon, for the people around here did face hard times. Most of the people around this place lived in stone and mortar cabins with thatched roofs. Although they made them as comfortable as they could, the homes were not luxurious homes. Poverty was widespread at that time, with Tuberculosis and other serious illnesses rampant, and alcohol and tobacco were their only means of relaxing. The Parish Priest, an old and spiritually gifted man, was constantly busy with his parochial duties, especially the funerals of those poor people who succumbed to the scourge of Tuberculosis, for which there was no cure. There were many funerals that Mick and I had to attend, for our schoolfriends or their parents.

We walked on silently for a little while until Paul again began to speak. “There was not much in the way of work for a man in those days. The biggest employer in this area was ‘Tully’s Factory’, within which pigs were slaughtered and then processed to produce high quality pork and ham products. Of course, not all the locals were able to get employment there and those lucky enough to secure a job would stay for many years. It was said that you would have to shoot someone dead in the factory before you would face the possibility of dismissal. Just wounding a person would not even be considered a serious disciplinary offence.

After lighting a cigarette, Paul continued to explain, “There were many others who indirectly benefitted from ‘Tully’s’ by gaining employment with the numerous pig farms that supplied the factory. Every Tuesday the pigs would be marched or transported in wagons and lorries from the nearby farms to the factory. On arrival they would be weighed and checked by the factory’s vet, for the better-quality pig would always be worth the greater amount of money for its farmer. It was a good time for the farmers, but as the prices for ham and pork products rose and fell, the farmers’ income could vary greatly, effecting the lives of their workers.

Paul smiled as he told me, “There were, naturally, men who preferred to do little or no work, but still need money to survive. It was such men that found a home in illicit businesses, like smuggling and Poteen. However, there were more temperate people who were convinced that Poteen was the brew by which Satan entrapped mankind in permanent drunkenness. But the greater number were those who admired poteen and its manufacture. They considered the brew to be the ‘Nectar of the Gods’ which had been given to man to Pacify their hearts. Do you know that there are some men who will tell you that it is great stuff for rubbing on the backs of greyhounds, the forelocks of horses, and even the arthritic joints of men and women? But the truth of poteen’s attraction was that it could be made cheaply and sold at a good profit, and tax-free. Despite it being illegal, many stills were built and the people who made the spirit became socially acceptable to the community as a whole.”

Surely the law came after them?” I asked.

Of course, they did! In those days turf was used to heat the stills, which made the more easily detectable by the police and gaugers, who would destroy those they found. But there were those manufacturers who would double, or triple distill their poteen, improving its quality and bringing in a better price. Indeed, it wasn’t unknown, for some policemen and gaugers to ensure that they reserved the better-quality goods for themselves before destroying the still.

Ah, sure, you can trust no one. But the craic must have been good for Mick and you,” I smiled. “There mustn’t have been a corner of this county which was safe from you two rascals.

Travelling was not just as easy in those days,” said Paul as he caught his breath. “The roads were rough and very hard upon the types of motor vehicles as well as horses’ hoofs. Local Councils were constantly making efforts to improve road quality, sending out men to break stones as aggregate, which was then pressed and flattened by a steam roller. Travelling for fun by car or other vehicle was rare and there were many occasions when we would walk twenty miles to the nearest town, herding our cattle to be sold there. On those days we would accompany the cattle driver, who could earn a few extra shillings for his efforts. But the going with cattle was far from easy, especially when some of the moody beasts broke away from the herd and would run off in all directions across fields, bogs, and woods.

Paul went on to explain, “On a fair day in town the sale of animals would begin about six o’clock in the morning and would last most of the day, with buyers and sellers coming in from miles around to bargain with each other. Big dealers would come from Dublin and as far away as England, and it would be to those places that most of the cattle went. The bullocks and bulls were the most difficult to handle, especially when they took the notion to wander off. Some of the farmers, however, would punch a hole in its ear and thread through some wild honeysuckle, which was said to stop the beast from trying to escape. It didn’t always work, however, and my father never believed in such old wives’ tales, preferring a much more hands on approach. There was one day when a bullock took a lunge at him and, without any fear, and with blood running down his rubber boot, he grabbed the beast’s head and thrust two fingers into its nose. With brute force he would twist its neck until it became still again. It frightened the life out of me, but he was a rough, tough man.

You know, there was one thing about people in those days,” he continued. “They were very much in favour of law and order, for they had seen enough destruction during the ‘War of Independence’ and the ‘Civil War’. I remember my parents were very strict, as were your own grandparents, and they had little patience for bad language or drunkenness. My own mother was always praying and saying novenas, and my father had very high morals, but neither of them would allow themselves to be dominated by any cleric. My father also detested anyone who would steal from him or tell him lies. He always said that you could watch a thief, but you could never watch a liar. Anyone who committed either offence against him would be severely punished with his fists, which were like giant sledgehammers beating down.”

I can remember one fine summer day when Mick and I were playing just outside the local pub while both our fathers were enjoying a quiet pint together. But it didn’t stay quiet for long when Tom Riley, the leader of the local tinkers, arrived and was already the worse for drink. The barman refused to serve Riley and told him that he had enough taken. Riley, not surprisingly, did not take kindly to this and a war of words quickly broke out. The air was filled with all sorts of swear words and deadly oaths, which continued until my father spoke up, saying, “You have had enough now, Tom. It’s time to go.””

Tom’s reply was to take a swing at my father, but he missed. My father drew back a little before he drove home a short jab, knocking the tinker chief to the floor on his back. The police were summoned to the bar and Tom was given a cell where he could sober-up overnight and get some treatment for the broken jaw he had suffered. That was the end of it and every time he came o the pub after this incident, he was sober and made welcome.

The funeral cortege was turning into the cemetery by this time, and I said to Paul, “Well, it’s time now to put Mick in his place of rest.

Aye, its true enough,” replied Paul sadly, “and I never go a chance to say goodbye to him.” “Sure, you are saying goodbye now, and you have told me more about my Uncle Mick than I ever knew before. For that, Paul, I thank you.” I tried to comfort him and offered him my hand, which he took and warmly shook. At that moment the cortege came to a stop, for we had reached the church door and the priest began to say a prayer of welcome for the deceased.

Biddy’s – Neil Kelly’s Fortune

An Old Tale of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biddy’s – saved by a Pipe

“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.’”

Biddy’s Midnight Funeral

A Tale of Mystery

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.

Biddy’s – A Strange Burial

A Fairy Encounter

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.

Stories of Seamus No 24

The Hurling Stick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything!” they answered.

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

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

Odd Burial Traits

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’[1], 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.


[1] Material that had been treated with melted wax or gummy matter and formerly used especially for wrapping a dead body

The Wake

From outside the cottage the muffled conversation from the people in the kitchen sounded more like the humming of a swarm of bees. When it became more agitated and voices tried to talk over each other, it sounded more like the annoying cackling of geese in the farmyard. There would, of course, be the occasional pause and it would re-start with whispers, lowered voices that would be interspersed with choruses of dry laughter. 

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.

An Irish Wake

The flickering light of the five candles at the head of the bed distracted him, and he was glad when one of the mourners would stand in a way that shut off the glare for a few minutes. The old man was also distracted by the five chairs standing around the room like sentries, and the little table over by the window upon which had been placed the crucifix and the holy-water font. He only wanted to concentrate his mind on “herself,” as he called her, who now looked so lost in the immensity of that large oaken bed. Since early morning, the old man had been looking at her small, pinched face with its faint suspicion of blue. He was very much taken by the nun’s hood that concealed the back of the head, the stiffly posed arms, and the small hands that had been placed in white-cotton gloves. The scene before him made him feel a very deep pity for what had happened. Then, somebody touched him on the shoulder saying, “Michael James.

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!”

A sudden silence fell over the company in the kitchen, followed by a loud scraping as they stood up, and then harsher grating noise as chairs were pushed back. The door of the bedroom opened and the red flare from the fire and the lamps in the kitchen blended into the sickly yellow candle-light of the bedroom. The parish priest walked into the room. His closely cropped white hair, strong, ruddy face, and erect back gave him more the appearance of a soldier than a clergyman. He first looked at the bed for a moment, and then turned to Michael James. “Oh, you mustn’t take it like that, man,” he said. “You mustn’t take it like that. You must bear up.” 

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.

NGI 6048

Ah well, sure, You know best.” said Murray and he crept out of the room and, as the door opened, Michael could hear someone singing in a subdued voice and many feet tapping on the floor, like drums beating in time with the music. They had to pass the night outside, and it was the custom, but the singing irritated him. He could imagine all the heads nodding and bodies swaying from side to side with the rhythm of the tune. Michael recognized the tune, and it began to run through his head, and he could not get rid of it. The lilt of the tune took a hold of him, and he suddenly began about the wonderful brain that musicians must have to be able to compose music. Then his thoughts turned to a picture that he had once seen of a man in a garret with a fiddle beneath his chin.

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.

Murray slipped into the room again with a frown on his face and an aggressive tone to his voice. “I tell you, Michael James, we’ll have to do something about it.” There was a hostile note in his whisper, and the farmer did not answer. “Will you let me go down for the police? A few words to the sergeant will keep him quiet.” Although Michael James felt some pity for Murray, the idea of pitting a sergeant of police against the tragedy that was about to unfold seemed ludicrous to him. It was like pitting a school-boy against a hurricane.

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.

Jim Woods 2021 Collection 05/01/2021

Banshee

The Keening Spirit

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.