Dining Belle Fey

Guest item written by Sean Carney – March 2018

This is the first guest item I have included in my blog and I present to my readers for its interest value, and in the hope it will encourage others to send in their stories.

Browsing through Donegal Town’s official website recently, I came across some snippets of information from long ago regarding the anecdotes of a local character by the name of Belle Fey. A Faye, being a fairy, or Siog [sheog] a name given to her by her Dromore neighbours as a result of her strange ways. Belle Melly being her real name according to the 1940/41Donegal town electors list, for Dromore.

Poor Belle, I’m sure she’d turn in her grave if she were able to read the comments. Who’s to say she was just an old eccentric, had the author taken leave of his imagination, really! Doesn’t anyone believe in fairies or the little people anymore.? In my opinion Belle’s name ought to be up there in lights amongst Donegal’s countless legendary characters. Perhaps a song or a poem ought to have been composed in her honour. As far as I’m concerned, she was the real thing, a real living Siog. Belle, could, tell fortunes too, and see into the future just like her wee fairy friends who would come and sit at the foot of her bed during the night: she often said, the male Sioga would also visit her bedroom, a fact which greatly annoyed her – herself being a modest female and all.

I ought to know better than most folk about Belle’s, mystic talents because as an Eight-year old I had the doubtful privilege of meeting this wrinkled, steely-grey-haired, plaid-shawled old creature, and, being on the receiving end of a ‘Belle spell’, so to speak.

When we were youngsters my father and mother often brought our family on the gruelling twenty-four-hour journey to Donegal during our summer holidays. My dad emigrated to Yorkshire in the UK and was a coalminer in Yorkshire’s forbidding and dangerous 3,000 ft deep coalmines.

We usually stayed for the two weeks holiday with my dad’s brother and sister–the postman John, and Mae Carney; their house was situated in Dromore, up the lane at the top of the hill off the Donegal road. Their slate roofed cottage stood on the brow of the winding hill with its magnificent panoramic views over Donegal Bay, and the Blue Stack mountains–when it wasn’t raining that is! And was just a stone’s throw across the lane from Belle Fey’s faded whitewashed, thatched cottage. Belle must have had her eye on me, this wee buachailin ban, [ fair haired boy] as I was often up and down the lane with my sister Patricia, with Mae’s old enamel bucket to fetch water from the well, which bubbled up from a wee crystal–clear spring at the side of the lush green overgrown lane. Aunt Mae swore the water was “the best ever for making tae.”

As I recall, it was the day my father Hugh, was visiting his youngest sister Maggie Quinn at her pub, ‘Quinns Bar’, (Lazy Bush) at the top of Mountcharles, where he often went to catch up on the local gossip and discuss the price of cattle and imbibe in a few pints with his old school cronies. That particular occasion was a signal for Belle, to make her move on me, as she invited herself into John and Mae’s, house. Shortly a whispered discussion took place with my mother and aunt Mae, who herself was fond of reading the tea-leaves and such-like, as well as blowing her cigarette smoke up the turf blackened chimney of their huge open fire-place, which puzzled this eight-year old at the time. Many years later it transpired that John hated Mae smoking!

To continue the story; I was ushered into aunt Mae’s, dimly lit front parlour, which contained a dusty dark wood dining table and chairs, with the odd religious picture randomly placed on the whitewashed walls.

Situated on the inside gable of the house was an old fashioned black Victorian cast-iron fireplace, into which Belle, proceeded to set light to a crumpled newspaper in the empty grate. As the paper blazed away brightly, shooting orange blue flames up the chimney, Belle began mumbling as she stooped over the grate, while I stood mystified at the side of her, I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was saying, but I swear it wasn’t English. After a while Belle rose from the hearth in her usual bent posture, declaring authoritatively to my mother and Mae, in her rich Donegal accent. “This wee caddy will remain fair haired for the rest of his life”.

Sixty-five years on, and a bit more, and guess what? Short of having a bit of the thatch missing at the back, I still have a modest head of fair hair, despite a lifetime of trying to alter its colour by dousing it with strong tea, before I hit the town with the lads on a Friday night.

My mother and father, brothers and sisters, were all blessed with fine heads of typically Irish, dense, wavy auburn hair. Ultimately with the passing of time and sadly for them their hair turned grey and then white. Uncle John’s, hair may have been a bit sandy looking which he got from Ding, and Grandma Sweeney’s, side of the family, but with no stretch of the imagination was he blonde. So where in the blazes, excuse the pun, did mine come from? Belle Fey, “just an eccentric old woman? My foot!

Submitted by Fergus452@btinternet.com September 2018

Brought to you by http://www.irelandsloreandtales.com

Tale of the Phooka

There are many strange geological formations in Ireland, the most well-known being the Giant’s Causeway in the County Antrim. The ocean battered cliffs on the west coast of Ireland present a striking spectacle of huge rocks carved by nature into great sculptures. Then, inland, the mountains rise like fabled giants that are marching to the protection of the people. But, here and there, stand geological anomalies that are not as tall as the mountains of the west, but not as small as the Drumlins of Armagh. The ‘Black Hill’ is one of these anomalies and consists of black layers of stone that appear to be harder and denser on the upper surfaces than they are beneath. In the rains and winds that sweep across the land the lower portion of each layer, disintegrates first, forming a clear step is the ground. The main road Derry City stretches through this area and passes by the ‘Black Hill’. Overall, the Hill is shaped like a cone and, on the slopes, the grass-covered terraces composing it are very regular in shape and size from the base to the peak. It gives the observer the impression that there is a road carved out of the sides of the mountain, that winds its way in an easy ascent to the summit of the ‘Black Hill.’.

That is known as the ‘Pooka’s Path’ by all around here.”

What, in the name of God is Pooka?”

What’s the Pooka, did you ask?” asked the old man. “Well, sure, that’s not easy to tell. Pooka 2For one thing, it’s an evil sort of spirit that does be always creating mischief. But, sure it never does any serious harm to any excepting to those that deserve it, or them that speaks of it disrespectfully. I’ve never seen it, myself, thanks be to God, but there are those who have, and they say that it looks like the finest black horse that ever wore smithy shoed. But it isn’t a horse at all, for no horse did have eyes of fire, or be breathing flames of blue with a smell of sulphur, or a snort like thunder, and no mortal horse would take the leaps and bounds that it does or go as far without getting tired. Sure, it was said that when it gave Tom O’Byrne the ride it gave him, it went from Belfast to Athlone with one jump, and the next took him Galway, and the next was in Dublin, and back again be way of Limerick and Kilkenny, and he never turned a hair. How far is that? Sure, I wouldn’t know, but it’s a brave long distance, and took him right across Ireland and back again. Byrne knew it was the Pooka because it spoke to him like a mortal Christian, only its language isn’t at all agreeable and will never give you a decent word after you’re on its back, and sometimes not even before.”

It must be a monster of a thing?” I replied, eager to move on, but the old man had not finished yet.

“Sure, Danny Burke was coming home one night. Now, I was only a boy at the time, but I mind him telling the story. He said that he had been at a fair in Galbally, where he had been having a few drinks, though some say he had a bellyful. But when he come to a rath, and just beyond it, where the fairies dance, you know, the front of the wall where that policeman was hit on the head by a poacher last winter, he fell in the ditch, completely jiggered and exhausted. Sure, it wasn’t the length as much as the wideness of the road, for he was going from one side to the other and it all proved too much for him. So, he laid still in the ditch for a bit and then tried to get up, but his legs were too weak, and his head was too heavy, and when he attempted to get his feet on the road it was his head that was on it, because his legs couldn’t balance him. Well, Burke lay on and he was entirely done, and while he was studying just how he would get up, he heard the trotting of a horse approaching on the road.

“‘Ah, sure, I’ll get a lift now,’ says he to himself as he lay waiting, and up came the Pooka. When Danny saw him, by Jaysus, he covered his face with his hands and turned away from him, roaring with fright like a mad bull.

“’Ah now, you wee sneaking blackguard,’ said the Pooka, with a mighty snort, ‘Would ever stop your bawling or I’ll kick you to the end of next week.’

“But Danny was scared, and he bellowed louder than he had before, so the Pooka, with his hoof, give him a crack on the back that knocked the wind out of him. ‘Will you be quiet,’ said the Pooka, ‘or will I give you another crack, you buck eejit?’

“Danny stopped the weeping and the Pooka began to calm himself, though his language was no less temperate. ‘Stand up, you pure-bred guzzler,‘ said the Pooka, ‘I’ll give you a ride on my back.’

“’I wish I could, but I can’t’ says Danny, ‘Sure, I’ve not been drinking at all, but smoking too much and eating, and it’s sick I am, and not drunk.’

“’You’re a drunken reprobate,’ says the Pooka, ‘Don’t you be trying to deceive me,’ lifting up his hoof again, and giving his tail a swish that sounded like the crack of a whip. ‘Didn’t I follow you for two miles by your breath,’ says the Pooka, ‘And you smelling like a poteen factory. And the nose on your face as red as a turkey-cock’s. Get up out of that, or I’ll lift you,’ says the Pooka, jumping up and cracking his hind foot like he was dancing a jig.

Danny did his best to get up, and the Pooka helped him with a grip of his teeth on Danny’s collar. “‘Pick up your cap,’ says the Pooka, ‘and climb up. I’ll give you such a ride as you have never even dreamed of.’

“‘Ah, please,’ says Danny, ‘I’d rather walk, for riding makes me dizzy.’

“’Don’t be stupid,’ says the Pooka, ‘will you just get up out of that or will I kick the stuffing out of your cowardly body.’

“The Pooka turned around and he flourished his heels in Danny’s face. Poor Danny tried, but he couldn’t, so the Pooka took him to the wall and give him a lift onto it, and when Dennis was mounted, and had a tight hold on the Pooka’s mane, the first leap he gave was down the rock there, a thousand feet into the field you can see, then up again, and over the mountain, and into the sea, and out again, from the top of the waves to the top of the mountain, and after the poor sot from the ditch was almost dead, the Pooka come back here with him and dropped him in the ditch where he had found him, and he blew in his face to put him to sleep before leaving him. It was morning before they found Danny and carried him home. The man could not walk for a fortnight after, because of the weakness of his bones after the ride he’d been given.

But sure, the Pooka’s a different beast entirely to what he was before King Bryan-Boru tamed him,” said the old man. “Never heard of him? Well, he was the king of Munster and High King of all Ireland, and he tamed the Pooka once and for all on that hill in front of you. You see, in the old days, the entire country was full of evil spirits, and fairies and witches, and devils, and the harm they did was almost unceasing, for they were always coming and going, like the shuttle on a loom, and without so much as a by your leave. The fairies would be dancing on the grass every night by the light of the moon, and stealing away the children, and many were those they took that never come back. The old rath on the hill beyond was full of the dead, and after nightfall they’d come from their graves and walk in a long line one after another to the old church in the valley where they’d go in and stay until cock-crow, then they’d come out again and back to the rath.  There was hardly a parish without a witch, and some nights they’d have a great entertainment on the Hill, and you’d see them, with snakes on their arms and necks and ears, by way of jewels, and the eyes of dead men in their hair, coming for miles and miles, some riding through the air on sticks and bats and owls, and some walking, and more on Pookas and horses with wings that would come up in line to the top of the hill, like the cabs at the door of the theatre, and leave them there and hurry off to bring more.

“Sometimes the Old Enemy, Satan himself, would be there at the entertainment, coming on a monstrous dragon, with green scales and eyes like the lightning in the heavens, and a roaring fiery mouth like a lime-kiln. It was the great day then, for they do say all the witches brought their reports at them times for to show him what they had done. Some would tell how they stopped the water in a spring, and upset the neighbours, more would show how they dried-up the cow’s milk, and made her kick the pail, and they’d all laugh like they were ready to split in two. Some had blighted the corn, while more had brought the rains on the harvest. Some told how their enchantments made the children fall ill, some said how they set the thatch on fire, more told how they stole the eggs, or spoiled the cream in the churn, or bewitched the butter so it wouldn’t come, or led the sheep into the bog. But that wasn’t all.

“One would have the head of a man murdered by her charms, and with it the hand of him that was hung for the murder. One would bring the knife she’d scuttled a boat with and point to the sea to where the corpses laid of the fishermen she’d drowned. One would carry on her breast the child she’d stolen and meant to bring up in evil, and another one would show the little white body of a baby she’d smothered in its sleep. And the corpse-candles would tell how they deceived the traveller, bringing him to the river, and the evil spirits would tell how they drew him in and down to the bottom in his sins and then to the pit with him. And old Beelzebub would listen to all of them, with a reporter, like them that’s taking down the speeches at a meeting, by his side, writing what they said, so as when they come to be paid, it wouldn’t be forgotten.

“Those were the times for the Pookas too. They had power over those that went out after night, except it was on an errand of mercy they were going. But. Not one sinner that hadn’t been to his duty regular would ever see the light of day again after meeting a Pooka, for the beast would either kick him to smithereens where he stood, or lift him on to his back with his teeth and jump into the sea with him, then dive, leaving him to drowned, or spring over a cliff with him and tumble him to the bottom a bleeding corpse. But there were great howls of joy when a Pooka would catch a sinner off-guard and brought him on the ‘Path’ on a night that Satan was there. May God protect us, what a sight it was. They made a ring with the corpse-candles, while the witches tore him limb from limb, and the fiends drunk his blood in red-hot iron cups with shrieks of laughter to smother his screams. The Pookas jumped on his body and trampled it into the ground, and the storm would whistle a tune, and the surrounding mountains would keep time, and the Pookas, and witches, and spirits of evil, and corpse-candles, and bodies of the dead, and devils, would all jig together round the rock where old Beelzebub would sit smiling, as if saying that he could ask no better diversion. God save us, but it makes my skin creep to think of it.

“Well, as I was telling you, in the time of King Bryan, the Pookas did a great deal of harm, but as those that they murdered were drunken beasts that were in the shebeens during the day and in the ditch by night, and wasn’t missed when the Pookas took them, the King paid no attention, and sure he can’t be blamed for that.

But one night, the queen’s baby took ill, and the king told one of his men, ‘Here, Riley, get you up and on the white mare and go for the doctor.’

“’Right then,’ says Riley. But, the king’s country house was in the break of the hills, so Riley would pass by the Rath and the ‘Black Hill’ on the way to get the doctor. ‘Well,’ says he quietly to himself, ‘I don’t want to be doing this job.’

So, he says to the king, ‘Will it not do until the morning?’

“‘It will not,‘ says the king to him. ‘Get up, you lazy beggar, sitting and eating my bread, while the life is leaving my child.’

“So, Riley went with a great slowness in his feet, took the white mare, and off, and that was the last that was seen of him or the mare, for the Pooka took them. For those who said that they had seen him in Cork two days later, trading off the white mare, there were no lies told. They were, in fact, deceived by a trick of the spirits that made them believe it was Riley.

“Nevertheless, the baby got well again. But, because the doctor didn’t get there, the king now began to wonder what had happened to Riley and the white mare, and although he searched wide and low for them he didn’t find them. And then he realised that they were gone, because the Pooka had not left as much as a hair of the mare’s tail.

’What’s this?‘ exclaimed the King, ‘Is it horses that the Pooka will be stealing? Well, bad luck to him and his impudence! This will never do. Sure, he’ll have us ruined entirely.’

“Mind you now, it’s my opinion from what he said, that the king wasn’t concerned too much about Riley, for he knew that he could get more Irishmen when he wanted them, but what he meant to say was that if the Pooka took to horse-stealing, he’d be ruined entirely, for where would he get another white mare? So, it was a very serious question and he retired into a room with a big book that he had, which contained some secrets. The king was very intelligent, well educated, and a mind that was craftier than that of a fox.

“So, the king read and read as fast as he could, and after reading without stopping, except for the occasional food break, for seven days and nights, he came out, and when they asked him if he could beat the Pooka now, he never said a word. He just gave a wink of his eye, as for to say he had him.

“So, that same day he went into the fields and along the hedges and ditches, from sunrise to sunset, collecting the materials for a charm against the Pooka. But, what he got I don’t know, no more does anyone for he never said, but kept the secret to himself and didn’t say it even to the queen. The king was only too aware that secrets run through a woman like water in a ditch. But there was one thing about it that he couldn’t help telling, because he wanted a certain item and couldn’t get it without help, and that was three hairs from the Pooka’s tail, without which the charm wouldn’t work. So he told a manservant he had that he’d give him a great deal of gold if he’d get them for him, but the servant pulled off his cap and scratched his head and said, ‘Dear God, your majesty, I don’t know what good the gold will do me if the Pooka gets a crack at me body with his hind heels.’ Neither would he undertake the task without a reward and the king began to fear that his plan was over before it had begun.

“But it happened on the Friday, this being on a Tuesday, that the Pooka caught a sailor that had only been on land long enough to get blind drunk, and got him on his back, and jumped over the cliff with him leaving him dead. When they came to search the sailor to see what he had in his pockets, they found three long hairs round the third button of his top-coat. So, they took them to the king and told him where they got them. The king was greatly pleased, because now he believed he had the Pooka in his grasp and could end his enchantment.

“But, as the evening came, he a doubt came into his mind and he began to wonder. If the three hairs were out of the Pooka’s tail, the charm would be good enough, but if they were not, and were from his mane instead, or from a horse instead of a Pooka, the charm wouldn’t work and the Pooka would get on top of him with all the feet he had at once and it would be the death of him immediately. So, this doubt struck the king with a great force and for a while he felt uneasy. But, with a little soul searching, he got around it. He went to confession and received absolution so that he’d be ready. He then told one of the servants to come in and tell him, after supper, that there was a poor widow in the laneway beyond the Black Hill that wanted help that night, that it would be an errand of mercy he would be on and, therefore, safe against the Pooka if the charm didn’t work.

“‘Sure, what’ll be the good of that?’ asked the man, ‘It will be a lie, and won’t work.’

“‘Don’t be worrying yourself,’ says the king, ‘just do as you are told and don’t argue, for that’s a point of metaphysics.’ It was indeed a great deal of deep learning that he had, ‘that’s a point of metaphysics and the more you argue on them subjects, the less you know,’ says he, and he’s speaking the truth. ‘Besides, even if it is a lie, it’ll deceive the Pooka, and it’s my belief that the means will justify the end,’ says he, as his thoughts turned to the white mare.

So, after supper, as the king was sitting in front of the fire, and had the charm in his pocket, the servant came in and told him about the widow. ‘By God,‘ said the king, like he was surprised, in his attempt to completely deceive the Pooka. ‘If that’s true, I must go relieve her at once.’ So he got up from his chair and put on his soldier’s boots, with spurs on them a foot across, and he took a long whip in his hand, for fear, he said, that the widow would have dogs, then he went to his chest and took his old stocking and got a sovereign out of it, and went out with his right foot first, and the spurs rattling as he walked.

“He came across the yard, and up the hill beyond and around the corner, but saw nothing. Then up the foot path round the Black Hill and never met a soul but a dog that he threw a stone at. But, he didn’t go out on the road to the widow’s, for he was afraid that if he met the Pooka and he caught him in a lie, not being on the road to where he said he was going, it would be all over with him. So, he walked up and down between the old church below there and the Rath on the hill, and just as the clock was striking twelve, he heard a horse in front of him, as he was walking down, so he turned and went the other way, getting his charm ready, and the Pooka came up after him.

“‘The top of the morning to you, your Honour,’ said the Pooka, politely, for he had noticed by his clothes that the king was not just a commoner but was one of real quality.

“‘And good day to you,‘ says the king to him, boldly, and when the Pooka heard him speak, he became even more polite in his manner, and made a low bow and scrape with his foot. With polite greetings exchanged they walked on together and began to converse.

“”Sure, it’s a black night for traveling,’ said the Pooka.

“‘Indeed it is,’ replied the king, ‘and sure, I would not be out in it, if it wasn’t a case of necessity. I’m on an errand of charity.’

“‘That’s very good of you,’ said the Pooka to him, ‘and if I may ask, what’s the necessity?’

“”It is to relieve a widow-woman,’ said the king.

“‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, throwing back his head laughing with great pleasure and nudging the king with his leg on the arm, by the way that it was a joke because the king said it was to relieve a widow that he was going. ‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, ”It is myself that’s glad to be in the company of an elegant gentleman that’s on so pleasing an errand of mercy.’ ‘And how old is the widow-woman?’ says he, bursting with the horrid laugh he had.

“‘Ah, now,’ says the king, getting red in the face and not liking the joke in the least, for just between us, they do say that before he married the queen, he was the quare-buck with the women, and the queen’s maid told the cook, that told the footman, that said to the gardener, that told the neighbours that many were the nights that  the poor king was as wide awake as a hare from sun to sun with the queen bleating  at him about that topic. Even more amusing, there was a widow in it, that was as sharp as a rat-trap and surrounded him when he was young and hadn’t as much sense as a goose, and was ready to marry him at once in spite of all his relations, just as widows understand how to do. So it’s my considered opinion  that it wasn’t decent for the Pooka to be laughing that way, and shows that evil spirits are dirty blackguards that can’t talk with gentlemen. ‘Ah, now,’ says the king, because the Pooka’s laughing wasn’t an agreeable noise to listen to, ‘I don’t know her, for I never seen her, but I believe that she’s a hundred, and as ugly as Beelzebub, and when her old man was alive, they tell me she had a temper like a gander, and was as easy to manage as an armful of cats. But she’s in want, and I’m after bringing her a sovereign.’

Well, the Pooka ceased his laughing, for he had seen the king was not  very amused, and says to him, ‘And if you don’t mind, where does she live?’

“‘At the end of the lane beyond the Black Hill,’ says the king, very short.

“‘By God, that’s a good bit,’ says the Pooka.

“‘Aye, that’s true,’ says the king, ‘what’s more, it’s uphill every foot of the way, and my back is broke entirely with the steepness of it,’ says he, giving a hint that he would like a ride.

“‘Will yer honour get upon my back,‘ says the Pooka. ‘Sure, I’m going that way, and you don’t mind getting a lift?’ says he, falling like the stupid beast he was, into the trap the king had made for him.

“‘Thanks,’ says the king, ‘I believe not. I’ve no bridle nor saddle. Besides, it’s the spring of the year, and I’m afraid you’re shedding, and your hair will come off and spoil my new britches,’ says he, pretending to make excuse.

“‘Have no fear,’ said the Pooka. ‘Sure, I never drop me hair. It’s no ordinary breed of a horse I am, but a most uncommon beast that’s used to the quality,’ says he.

“‘Yer speech shows that,‘ says the king, the clever man that he was, to be polite in such a way to a Pooka, that’s known to be an out-and-out devil. ‘But ye must excuse me this evening, because the road’s full of stones and is terrible steep, and you look so young that I’m afraid you’ll stumble and cause me to fall,’ says he.

“‘Fair play to you,’ says the Pooka, ‘it’s true, I do look young.’ And he began to prance about on the road giving himself airs like an old widow-man who is wanting a young woman, ‘but me age is older than you suppose. How old would you say I was,’ says he, smiling.

“‘Sure, I wouldn’t know,’ says the king, ‘but if it’s agreeable to you, I’ll look in your mouth and give you an answer.’

So the Pooka come up to him softly and stretched his mouth as if the king was wanting to climb in, and the king put his hand on the jaw as if he was going to see the teeth he had. Then, that moment he slipped the three hairs around the Pooka’s jaw, and when he did that, he drew them tight, and said the charm crossing himself, and the hairs immediately became cords of steel, and held the Pooka tight, as if it was a bridle.

“‘Ah, now, you bloody beast of a murdering devil,’ says the king, pulling out his big whip that he had hidden in his top-coat, and giving the Pooka a crack with it under his stomach, ‘I’ll give you a ride that you won’t forget in a hurry, you black bollix of a four-legged devil and you stealing my white mare,’ and he hit him again.

“‘Oh my,‘ says the Pooka, as he felt the grip of the iron on his jaw and he knew that he was under an enchantment, ‘Oh my, what’s this all about?’ rubbing his breast with his hind heel, where the whip had hit him, and then jumping with his fore feet out to catch the air and trying to break away. ‘Sure I’m ruined, I am, so I am,’ says he.

“‘That’s true,’ says the king, ‘By God it’s the one true thing you ever said,’ says he, jumping on his back, and giving him the whip and the two spurs with all his might.

“Now, I forgot to tell you that when the king made his enchantment, it was good for seven miles round, and the Pooka knew that as well as the king and so he started like a policeman was after him, but the king was afraid to let him go far, thinking he’d do the seven miles in no time, and the enchantment would be broken like a rotten string, so he turned him up the Black Hill.

“‘I’ll give you all the exercise you want,’ says he, ‘in travelling around this hill.’ And round and round they went, the king sticking the big spurs in him every jump and cracking him with the whip until his sides ran blood in streams like a mill race, and his screams of pain were heard all over the world so that the king of France opened his window and asked the policeman why he didn’t stop the fighting in the street. Around and around and about the Black Hill went the king, lashing the Pooka, until his feet made the path that you see on the hill, because he went so often.

And when morning came, the Pooka asked the king what he’d take to let him go, and the king was getting tired and told him that he must never steal another horse, and never kill another man, except for foreign blackguards that weren’t Irish, and when he gave a man a ride, he must bring him back to the spot where he got him and leave him there. So the Pooka consented, Glory be to God, and got off, and that’s the way he was tamed, and explains how it was that Danny Burke was left by the Pooka in the ditch just where he found him.

Moreover, the Pooka’s an altered beast in every way, for now he drops his hair like a common horse, and it’s often found sticking to the hedges where he jumped over, and they do say he doesn’t smell half as strong of sulphur as he used, nor the fire out of his nose isn’t so bright. But all the king did for him would not teach him to be civil in his speech, and when he meets you in the way, he speaks just as much like a blackguard as ever. And it’s out of devilment that he does it, because he can be polite as you know by what I have told you about him saying to the king, and that proves what I said to you that evil spirits can’t learn real good manners, no matter how hard they try.

But the fright he got never left him, and so he keeps out of the highways and travels by the footpaths, and so isn’t often seen. And it’s my belief that he can do no harm at all to them that fears God, and there’s those that say he never shows himself nor meddles with man nor mortal except they’re drunk, and maybe there’s something in that too, for it doesn’t take much drink to make a man see a good deal.”

The Irish Fairies

There was a time, and not too long ago, that the people were immersed in fairy-lore and superstitions. In our twenty-first century such things are laughed at, being considered simple superstition and old fashioned. Today, it is not considered ‘cool’ to talk about fairies and, in some circles, the word has a quite different and denigrating meaning. But, there are Irish people who believe in the ‘Fairy-World’ and the great things they are alleged to be able to do, and its on our knowledge of this world and its folk that others depend.

Evening time, as every Irish man and woman knows, is usually the period of the day when the fairy-folk choose to move from their raths and dells to new places of habitation. Furthermore, evening is the time usually selected by the fairies to indulge in their past-times and celebrations. There are many first-hand records from people who have seen the fairy-folk and witnessed the various frolics in which they indulge. From such records and witnesses has come the poetic and popular imagery that unites all to give us the depictions we have today.

The earliest records suggest that the most ancient and earliest settlers in Ireland were known as the ‘Tuatha de Danaan’. It is these ancient people who are thought to have been the first practitioners of druidism that brought natural and spiritual magic together. Tales tell us that these ‘Tuatha de Danaan’ were transformed into the fairy-folk at some remote time in the history of this island. It was at that time, too, that they were forced to live in underground places, within green hill-sides, raths and cairns. They were spread out in such numbers that even our most remote romantic dells and woodlands have become their most favoured haunts and are called by we mortals as ‘Gentle Places’. Moreover, it is known that these ‘Gentle Folk’ are also fond of living on the banks and little green hillsides that often lie beside gently flowing streams.

Dancing FairiesThere must have been an enormous number of raths covering Ireland in those far-off times. This is evident from the large number of raths that remain, but the case is made stronger by the fact that the compound word Rath, Raw, Rah, Ray, or Ra is constantly connected to the names of over a thousand various localities within Ireland. It is known that the fairy-folk enjoy getting together in these places, but it has proved difficult to gather accurate information concerning the social life of such folk, including what amuses them most and what their leisure pursuits are.

Music, it appears, is one of their most favourite amusements and their music can be heard beside the raths on most fine evenings. But, the beauty of this music has a type of ‘syren’ effect upon mortals, which causes them to linger and listen to these delightful melodies. While danger may be very close at hand, the mysterious, magical music makes them oblivious to anything other than its entrancing strains. Occasionally, the mortals may find themselves benefitting from their encounter with the fairy-folk, who may heap gifts upon mortal beings. Such gifts may cure both men and women of their infirmities and diseases, while removing any deformities they may have, and ensuring that they do not encounter any disagreeable accidents or misfortunes. The fairies are also known to pass on their supernatural power to both men and women, and invisibly assist them in many aspects of their lives.

At the same time, it has not been unknown for fairies to have a malevolent and mischievous disposition. They have been known to abduct mortals on a frequent basis, so that they can serve some selfish and degrading service for their captors. It has been known for fairies to bring a sudden stillness to the energies of mortals and ruin any of their prospects for worldly happiness. Occasionally, it is believed, they chose to leave people with their life-long illnesses, inflicting sorrow and pain on individuals and families alike. ‘Fairy Doctors’ would often prescribe an offering of ‘Cow’s Beestheens’ (some of the thick new milk given by a cow after calving) to be poured on a rath, which is supposed to appease the anger of the offended sprites. There were, indeed, many similar practices that were considered by the ‘Fairy Doctors’ to be no less potent when they are correctly used.

Sig, or Síghe (Pron: Shee) is an Irish word that is used as the generic title that is applied to the fairy, or fairy-folk. They are spread throughout the entire island, and the nearby nations of Scotland, Wales and England, where they more commonly known as fairies, elves, or pixies. The male fairy is known as the ‘Fear Shee’, while almost every person recognises the ‘Banshee’ as being the woman fairy. There have been occasions when the term ‘Mna Shee’, or women fairies, has been used in certain circumstances to describe certain of the ‘Little People’.

It must be made clear, however, that the ‘Fear Sighes’ are chiefly alluded to in the lore of ancient and legendary times. The ‘Ban-Shighes’ are commonly recognised to be supernatural beings that can often be heard wailing for deaths that are about to occur.

Traditionally it is the males only that appear in the ranks of fairy soldier troops. Fine dressed fairy lords and ladies mingle indiscriminately with other fairy-folk who sing and dance at fairy places in the moonlight. They are, it appears, social beings whose halls are often filled with song and the strains of beautiful, rhythmic music. It is these songs and music that can entrap and transport the souls of mortals, filled with a delicious enthusiasm for the journey. The sounds cause the ear to tingle with excitement as the human listeners to those magical and melodious cadences, which haunt the memory and imagination for a long time afterwards.

In the silver beams of night, we mortals are often granted sight of shadowy troop of fairies as they flit between our eyes and the wildly shining orb that is the moon. He will see, as others have done, that these ‘gentle folk’ are especially fond of singing and dancing at the midnight hour. The wild almost mesmeric strains of their unearthly music can be heard coming from every recess in the ground, within every green hill-side, or tangled wood.

Because of the lengthened daylight hours in summer and autumn the fairy-folk choose not to undertake their usual revels. They seem to feel it is inappropriate on those bright nights to gather and conduct their dancing parties in the secluded vales, or on the lush green banks of streams where the gurgling water trickles along the sheltered courses. On occasion they choose to gather near the ivied walls of old castles, beside a lake or river, or quite often in the gloomy environment of a graveyard, under the walls of its ruined church, or over the cold, lonely tombs of the dead.

Generally, it is harvest time that appear to be the best time of the year to give us frequent glimpses of our Irish fairy-folk. But, at these times, it is also important that we remember our Irish fairy-folk are very jealous of their privacy and they take great exception to any mortal intrusion into their lives. It I not unknown for them in fact, to wreak vengeance on all those people who dare intrude into their gatherings without permission.

Tradition informs us that the wild harmonies that we hear carried on soft, gentle breezesLeprechaun are truly the murmuring musical voices of the fairy-folk as they travel from place to place. Their contests and celebrations may continue through the dark hours of the night, but the first glow of the morning sun provides them with a signal for all their festivities to cease. It is then that the fairy-folk return to their shady raths, deep caverns, rocky crevices, or old grass covered barrows, where their fabled dwellings are concealed from prying human eyes. When they arrive at, or depart from, any particular spot their quick movements through the air create a noise that resembles the loud humming of bees as they swarm to and from a hive. Sometimes we can see a whirlwind that lifts soil and loose leaves into the air, but these are also known to be raised by the passing of a fairy clan.

Some fairy-folk are heard and seen while they are out hunting, blowing their horns, cracking their whips, shouting their “Tally-Ho!”, while their horses’ hooves thunder in the air, and their dogs cry out as they chase their quarry over the land. These fairy-folk are better known as ‘Cluricaunes’ and they turn the rushes and the ‘boliauns’ (Ragwort) into fine horses. When the fairies sit astride these mounts they gallop in the hunt, or transport them in a body, or troop, from one place to another. Over hedges and ditches, walls and fences, brakes and briars, hills and valleys, lakes and rivers, they sweep with incredible speed and an airy lightness.

The strange sounds that are caused by crackling furze blossoms are often attributed to a fairy presence. They like to shelter beneath clumps of gorse thickets, because they love the scent that comes from their flowers, and they create trackways that will make passage much easier through the wiry grass that grows around the roots of these bushes. From out of the yellow cup-leaved blossoms they sip the sweet dew collected there. At the same time, the fairy-folk refresh themselves by sucking the dew drops from other leaves and flowers. They are so light-footed when they are dancing, in fact, that these de drops are scarcely shaken off, even during their wildest exertions.

Filled with a great passion and eagerness for music and dancing, the fair-folk will spend the entire night, without even stopping to take a breath, at their favourite jigs and reels. They will glide around the space in lines and in circles, dancing with each other using a great variety of steps and postures. Usually they are dressed in green clothes of various shades and hues, or sometimes they are dressed in white and silver-spangled clothing and wearing high-peaked or wide-brimmed scarlet caps on their heads. In the light of the moon they can be seen under the shade of thick, ancient oak trees, dancing on or around large globular toadstools, or umbrella-shaped mushrooms.

Interestingly, we rarely find our Irish fairy-folk regularly employed in any industrial pursuits, except for those that can be chiefly conducted indoors and do not take much exertion on their part. Their efforts are used in creating items pleasing to young Irish girls, or thrifty housewives, but their scarcity is evidence of the amount of effort put into creating them. For the fairy-folk, however, it is pleasure and social enjoyment that are the delights that chiefly occupy their time, much as it does with various elements in our society. Yet, there is no need to be envious of these folks for it is only at a distance that the fairies appear to be graceful or handsome, although there clothing is always made from rich material of a fine texture.

It appears to be the habit of the Irish fairy-folk to frequently change shape, which allows them to suddenly appear and, just as suddenly vanish. Surprisingly, these elven-folk when you look closely at them, are generally found to be aged looking, withered, bent, and to having very ugly features. This is especially true of the men, while the female of the species are endowed with characteristics that give them a rare beauty in many areas and to these the little men always pay the greatest attention. But, because of their appearance, ordinary Irish people believe that they are a mix of human and spiritual natures. It is said also that their bodies are not solid but are made from some substance that we mortals are unable to feel when we touch.

It is generally agreed that these gentle-folk are filled with benevolent feelings or great resentment, depending on the circumstances of the moment. Although, during the day, these folk are invisible to humans they continue to see and hear all that takes place among men, especially when it concerns those matters in which they have a special interest. Cautious people are always anxious to ensure that they have a good reputation among the fairies and do all in their power to maintain a friendly relationship with them. It is a deeply held belief that the only means of averting the anger of the fairy-folk is always to be mannerly and open minded. This means taking care in all the actions you undertake, for example you should not strain potatoes, or spill hot water on, or over the threshold of a door because thousands of spirits are said to congregate invisibly at such a place, and to suffer from such careless actions. It was once common for a drinking person to spill a small portion of draught on the ground as an offering to the ‘good-people’.

The ordinary Irish folk have formed an ill-defined belief that the fairy-folk are like the fallen angels, in that they were driven from a place of bliss and condemned to wander this earth until the final day of judgement. The fairies themselves are believed to have doubts about their own future condition, although they do have high hopes of one day being restored to happiness. A mixture of good and evil balances their actions and motives, making them as vindictive in their passions as they are frequently humane and good in what they do. It is not unknown, for example, that desperate battles do take place between opposing bands that are hostile to each other. They meet, like the knights of old, armed from head to foot for combat. The air, witnesses have said, bristles with their spears and their flashing swords, while their shining helmets and bright red coats gleam in the bright sunshine.

Kathy’s Famine Story

I was born in a thatched cottage standing by the side of a mountain stream. It was lonely in that part of the country, but a pleasant enough place in which to live. During the summer the wild ducks would bring their little ones to feed on the nearby bog and you could not stoop over the stream’s bank to get a jug of water without disturbing a nervous trout or two.
All of this was a long time ago, for it has been many years since my brother, Rory, and I would set off to wander together up the mountain to pick wild flowers and hunt for wild bird’s nests. But, Rory has now grown up to be a fine and clever man who no longer has time for such childish pursuits.
Yes. It was all such a long time ago and I am now a happy and comfortably well-off person, residing in a big house as a maid to the master’s daughters. Because I was so close and caring to poor Miss Anne, who died slowly of the ‘wasting disease’, I am treated more like an equal than a servant. Nevertheless, when I walk out with Jimmy Feeney, a neighbour’s son, in the fields during the cool and quiet of a summer’s evening, I constantly think about those days so long ago. As we stroll along together, I talk to Jimmy about those days and it raises my spirits, makes me smile, and we laugh together.
Every evening, before I creep into my bed, I say my prayers quietly to God. Then, before I sleep, I read a chapter from the small Bible that Miss Anne gave me. But, last night I could feel tears flow from my eyes and drop onto the page as I perused one particular verse that said, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.” As I read those words, they made me think about all of those who were now gone from my world. My thoughts brought clear pictures of my father and his second wife, who was a really good mother to us children. But, above all, my thoughts turned to my little sister Betty, nestling into mother’s bosom as if she were a helpless pure-white dove seeking refuge from the world.
In those days when my father brought home his second wife I was nothing more than a slip of a girl, of ten years of age, and my brother Rory, who was about two years older. She was the daughter of a farmer from the next townland to ours and had been reared decently and with gentleness. But, her father paid an extortionate amount of rent for the land. So much rent, in fact, that the middleman between himself and the real landlord did not have to pay his own rent. It was a situation that could not be sustained and, when he was finally ejected, the farmer collected every penny he had, and prepared to set off with his family to America.
My father had long admired the farmer’s youngest daughter, and he often said that there was no sweeter creature ever drew breath. But, believing that her father was a wealthy farmer, he was very nervous about asking her to share his little cabin by the stream. When he found out the truth, however, he didn’t lose much time in discovering that this beautiful creature was willing to be his wife, and a mother to his children. She was to be all of these things and more to us. I often look back with sadness when I recall all those occasions that I hurt her with my foolishness, and my idle ways. I resented her presence at first and it took me such a long time to actually call her “mother.”
There were many times when my father would be ready to punish Rory and myself for our mischievous pranks and thoughtless acts. I can clearly recall the day when we took half-a-dozen eggs from under the hatching hen to play a game of “Blind Tom” with them, in which I would blindfold Rory and he had to try and catch the eggs when I threw them to him. She would intercede on our behalf, and say, “Tim, darling, don’t touch them this time. Sure, they are only wee children with no sense. They will grow up and get more sense soon.” Her appeals always seemed to work but, after he was out of hearing distance, she would give us both some very good advice. She never appeared to get angry at us and would speak to us so pleasantly that we could never resent her interference.
That woman also worked great wonders about the house and the garden, which were both dirty and neglected when she first came to the house. I was too young and foolish to do any cleaning or tidying, and my father was just too busy with his farm work. We had an old woman servant who lived with us, but she was too feeble and too blind to keep the house clean or decent. When she arrived, however, my mother got the floor raised, and the stagnant pool at the front of the house drained, planting in its place a parcel of roses and honey-suckles. The neighbouring wives would often say, “It is all pride and a complete waste of time for her to keep the kitchen-floor swept clean, and to put the potatoes on a dish, rather than simply emptying them out of the pot into the middle of the table.” Spitefully they would accuse her of being cruel and unnatural to take that old pool away from the ducks, leaving them no handy place to paddle. But, there was not a cruel bone in my mother’s body. Moreover, she was always too busy and happy to pay any attention to what the neighbours were gossiping about. She was, nonetheless, always prepared to do a kind turn for any of those same neighbours, and, because of the shame they felt for what they had said about her, they had at last to cease abusing her and what they called, “Her fine English ways.”
Not far from our house there was a rough, stony piece of ground, where nothing was ever grown but nettles, docks, thistles, and wild flowers of all colours. Rory and I came in from school one Monday and mother told us to begin weeding that area immediately. She added that we should bring in some buckets of good clay from the river’s banks and she promised that if we did a good job until Saturday, she would get me a new frock, and Rory a jacket, on the next market day. Encouraged by such an offer, we set about the task with great excitement and we didn’t stop working until supper time came. The next day we got stuck into weeding the ground again and, piece by piece, we saw the heap of weeds and stones that we got out grow enormously. We saw the ground becoming nice, smooth, red and rich with every bucket of river clay we deposited upon it. We were proud of what we had achieved on this bit of waste ground and we built a tidy little fence around it to protect it from the pigs. After we spread some manure on the soil, my mother planted cabbages, parsnips, and onions in it. Within a few weeks she harvested a fine crop from that parcel of land, from which she made us many a nice supper. She would cook the vegetables with, maybe, a small piece of bacon or the odd herring. From that land, aside from what she used in the home, she sold the surplus in the market. She made enough money from these to buy a good ‘Sunday Coat’ for my father, a dress for herself, a fine pair of boots for Rory, and a fine, pretty a shawl for me that I would wear every Sunday to Mass, confident that I was the prettiest girl in the Parish.
We were a poor family, but through my father’s hard-work and my mother’s good management skills, we were, thanks be to God, as comfortable as any other poor family in the country. We only paid a small rent for our land, and we always had plenty of potatoes to eat, good clothes to wear, and enjoyed the cleanliness and decency in and about our little cottage. For five years our small family enjoyed life on this land and then little Betty was born, bringing us all joy with her arrival. She was a delicate little thing, with a look in her beautiful blue eyes, that is seldom seen and is an omen of misfortune to come. She had a fondness for her father, Rory, and me, and would laugh and gurgle when she saw us. But, we were all fully aware that the deepest love that she held in her heart was for her mother. No matter how tired, or sleepy, or cross Betty might be, just one word from her would set the child’s bright eyes dancing, and her little rosy mouth smiling. Those tiny arms and legs quivered in excitement in anticipation of being lifted into the warm security of her mother’s arms. The enfolding arms of a mother who doted on the very ground she trod! I don’t believe that the Queen in all her finery could have been one bit happier than my mother, when she would sit in the shade of the mountain ash, near the door, in the quiet summer evening, singing and humming her dearest one to sleep in her arms.
Spring 1849In October 1845, Betty was only four years old, things turned against us. It was a bitter time, when the food of the earth was turned to poison. The gardens that were usually so bright and sweet, covered with the purple and white potato blossoms suddenly, in one night, became black and offensive, as if touched by some ancient devil. I had never seen such terrible, heart-breaking scenes as those working men, God help them, who had only the one half-acre to feed their little families, going out in the evenings after work, to dig for their supper from under the black stalks of the plants. Each spade of soil that was turned over, and a long stretch of ridge was dug through, before they would even get a small bowl filled with withered undersized potatoes, which in other years would hardly have been seen as fit food for the pigs.
Some time passed before we found ourselves in real distress as a family, because we had managed to save a small amount of money in the savings’ bank. Because of this we were able to purchase meal, while our neighbours were rapidly approaching starvation. But, for as long as my father and mother had that little bit of money, they shared it freely with those people who were worse off than themselves. As the last of those small savings was spent, however, the price of flour was raised. Then, to make matters worse, the farmer who employed my father on his land for only eight-pence a day was forced to send him and three more labourers away, as he couldn’t afford to pay them any longer. That was a terrible sorrowful night in our house when my father brought home that news. I well remember the desolate look on my father’s face when he sat down by the ashes of the turf fire. Mother had just baked a yellow meal cake for his supper and then she went to the other side of the fireplace. There she gave Betty a small drink of sour milk out of her little wooden cup. The child, of course, turned her nose up at it, because, being delicate child, she was always used to drinking sweet milk.
“Mammy, will you not give me some of the nice milk instead of that stuff?”
“I haven’t got it darling girl, and I can’t get any more of it,” said mother, “so don’t you be fretting.”
Betty did not say another word but turned her cheek to her mother’s neck and stayed quiet, silently listening to what was going on in the house. She heard father say, “Judy, God is good, and sure it’s only in Him that we must put our trust, for in all this wide world I cannot see anything but starvation lying ahead of us.”
“God is good, Tim,” mother replied. “Be certain that He will not abandon us.”
Just at that moment, Rory came rushing into the cabin breathless but with more joy in his young face than I had seen on him for many days. “Good news!” he declared aloud, “Good news, father! There is work for us both on the Drumgar road. The government is to begin works there to-morrow. You’ll be able to earn eight-pennies a day, and I’ll be able to earn sixpence.”
If you had seen the pleasure we derived from this news, you would have thought he had given us a thousand pounds and a ton of food, instead of just an offer of a few pennies as wages for hard-work. Our supply of potatoes was gone, and the yellow meal that was available was expensive and roughly ground. A supper of yellow meal not the same taste or fulfilment as potatoes gave to us poor people, but it was heart-warming for us to know that there was plenty of that meal. Through the government work and the buying of yellow meal we could prevent ourselves from having to go into the local poor-house, which was already crowded to such a level that the poor creatures in that place had not even the space to die in their beds, God help them! It was told by many who had witnessed the conditions there, that the inmates were crowded like livestock with hardly enough space to even sit on the floor.
Before daybreak the next morning my father and Rory left the cabin, for they had to walk a long way to get to Drumgar, and they wanted to be there in plenty of time to begin work. For their dinner they took a cake made of Indian meal, which was that would be washed down with only a tankard of cold water. My father, always the optimist and knowledgeable about such things, always said the cake good wholesome food when it was well cooked. There were, however, a considerable number of the poor people who took exception to such food because of its sickly colour, which they believed came from having mixed sulphur with it. The poor declared the supply of such food by the government was a great insult to the Irish people, because when it was mixed it looked like food that would be given to a pack of hungry dogs. Nevertheless, many of the poor people were glad to receive such food after having suffered a diet of sea-weed and nettles, and the grass growing by the roadside. At least there was some life-saving nutrition in the yellow-meal, although it was exceptionally hard to digest.
It was evening when my father and brother came home from work. The walk to and from work had combined with a hard day’s work to make them both exhausted and in need of rest. My mother, dutiful as always, would always try to have something extra for them both to eat with their porridge, maybe a bit of butter, or a bowl of thick milk, or even an egg or two. She would always make sure that I got full and plenty, but she would only allow herself a little bit, hardly enough to keep body and soul together. There were days when she would go entirely without a meal, and then slip down to the barrow boy in town to buy a little white bread-bun for Betty. Getting that little treat and watching the child eat it gave her more joy than if she had been presented with a meat-dinner for herself. But, no matter how hungry that poor little creature might have been, she would always break off a bit of her bun and placed it into her mother’s mouth, and she would not take her eyes off mother until she saw her swallow. Finally, Betty would take a drink of cold-water out of her little tin bowl, enjoying its refreshing taste as if it was sweet milk.
As the winter came upon us, the weather became wet and bitterly cold, and the poor men working on the roads suffered dreadfully from wearing wet clothes all day. Worse still was the sad fact that they did not have anything to change into when they arrived home at night, soaked to the skin and shivering with the cold. In such conditions, it came as no surprise that fever soon took hold among all the men, including my father. Mother wasted no time in bringing the doctor to see him, and by selling all the decent clothes we possessed she managed to pay for the medicine he required, but all to no avail. When he died after only a few days of illness, Mother explained to us that it was the will of God to take our father to Himself.
I find it hard now to describe the sorrow that my widowed mother and us children felt as we watched the fresh sods of grass planted on his grave. For some, I fancy, it was not the type of grief that is displayed by the ‘Quality Folk’ at such a time. But, I am sure that it is the same sharp knife of pain that slices into the same grief-filled heart that we all possess. It is only our outside appearances that differ between the rich and poor in times of mourning. I recall coming across the mistress of the house a week after Miss Anne died, as she sat in her drawing-room with the blinds pulled down. She was sitting in a low leather chair, with her elbow on the small desk and her cheek resting on her hand. I noticed that there was not a trace of anything white about her, except for a small -fringed handkerchief, and her was paler than the marble chimney-piece that had the remains of a fire glowing in the hearth.
The butler had been busy with other duties and had told me to bring the luncheon tray to the mistress. But, when she saw me, she covered her eyes with her handkerchief, and began to sob quietly, as if she did not want me to notice. As I moved out of the room, however, I overheard her speak to Miss Alice in a quiet, sobbing voice, “Always keep young Kathy here, for our darling, Anne, was so fond of her.” Then, as I closed the door behind me, I could hear the grieving woman give a long, deep sob. On the next occasion that I met her, she was much more composed. It was only the paleness of her cheek and the black dress she wore that gave anyone a clue that she was still feeling that burning pain of her child’s last kiss.
My mother, however, was forced to mourn father in a quite different manner. She could not sit quietly in a parlour but had to work very hard to keep those to whom she had given life alive. It was only in the evenings that she was able to sit down in front of the fire with Betty in her arms. Sitting there she would quietly sob and rock herself to and fro, while she mournfully sang a loving song for the father that had gone. Betty’s sad and innocent tears would flow slowly flow from her eyes and down her soft cheeks each time she saw mother weep.
It was about this time that my mother was given an offer from some traders in the area who were aware of her reputation for honesty. They asked her to go to the nearby market-town three times a week and with their meagre amount of money trade on their behalf. With the town almost ten miles away, they wanted her to bring them back supplies of bread, groceries, soap, and candles. It was a task that she willingly accepted and walked the twenty miles, half of them with a heavy load on her back, just so she could earn enough to keep us alive.
Her job was made all the more difficult because Rory could seldom get a bit of work to do. The young boy wasn’t strong, for he had also suffered from the fever too. He had recovered from the sickness and, although he was left weak, he always did his best to earn an honest penny or two wherever he could. On many occasions I asked my mother to permit me go to the town in her place and bring back the load, but she wouldn’t hear tell of such a thing, ensuring that I remained at home to take care of the house and little Betty. But, that poor, innocent child needed little minding. After breakfast she would go and sit on the step at the cabin door, and she would not move an inch all day. She would patiently watch for the approach of her mother and would pay no heed to any of the neighbours’ children that would come and ask her to play. Through those long hours she would never stir, but just kept her eyes fixed firmly on the lonesome lane. But, when the shadow of the mountain-ash grew long, and Betty caught her first glimpse of her mother, as she was coming toward home, the joy that would suddenly explode across that small, patient face, was brighter than the noon sun’s reflection on the river. Mother, though faint and weary as the poor woman was after her trek, would have embraced Betty lovingly even before she sat down. Furthermore, no matter how little she might have eaten that day, mother would always bring home a little white bread-bun for Betty. The child, who had eaten nothing since the morning, would eat it that bun so happily, and then quietly fall asleep in the warmth of her mother’s embrace.
The fever that was so common was a terrible thing and after several months had passed I caught the sickness myself, though it did not have as bad an effect on me as it had on Rory previously. Any way, he and my mother watched over me and brought me through the worst of it. They sold almost every stick of furniture that was left in the home, to buy me drink and medicine. But, thanks be to God, I gradually recovered. Then, on the first evening that I was able to sit up, I noticed an odd look in my mother’s eyes, and there came a hot flush on her thin cheeks. It was a sign that she had taken the fever and, before she lay down on her bed of straw, she brought little Betty over to me. “Take her, Kathy,” she said, giving the child a kiss between every word.
“Take her! For she is far safer with you than she would be with me. You’ve beaten the sickness, and sure it won’t last long. I’ll soon be with you, my wee darling,” she said, as she gave the little girl one long close hug and put her into my arms.
It would take far too long to tell you all about her sickness and how Richard and I, as was our good duty, attended to her both night and day. I would have to tell you how, when every farthing and farthing’s worth of food we had in the world was gone, the mistress herself came down from the big house. It was the day after the family had returned home from their holiday, and she brought us wine, food, medicine, linen, and everything we could possible need. It was shortly after that kind lady had gone that my mother appeared to take a change for the better. Her senses came back to her and she grew a little stronger, so that she could sit upright in the bed. “Bring the child to me, Kathy, my love,” she said. And when I carried little Mary over to her, she looked into the tiny face, as if she was reading it like a book.
“You won’t be long away from me, my wee angel,” she said, while her tears flowed softly down upon the child.
“Mother,” I said to her, as well as I could speak for crying, “sure you know I’ll do my best to look after her.”
“Sure, don’t I know you will, my darling girl. You were always a good and dutiful daughter to me and your poor father. But, Betty, she’s the type of wee girl that cannot thrive without a mother’s hand guiding her, and a mother’s shoulder to comfort her. And now …” That was all that was said, for she clasped the little child to her bosom, fell back on my arm, and in those few moments her life had ended. Rory and I just sat there and stared at her still body, not quite believing that this wonderful woman was dead. Adding to our grief was the long time that Betty kept hold of her stiffening fingers, and it was only when our neighbours arrived to prepare the body that we managed to persuade her to come away.
The days passed slowly by and Betty remained very quiet as went to the front door of the cabin to sit. As she had done in the past Betty would watch, hour after hour, along the road that mother used to take when coming home from market. On this occasion, however, she was waiting for something that would never happen again. When the sun began to set, her eyes would widen as she anticipated mother’s arrival. But, when the darkness fell, her beautiful blue eyes would drop in disappointment, and she would come into the house without saying a word and permit me to help her undress and put her to bed. What troubled us most, however, was the difficulty we had to get her to eat. In fact, the only thing she would allow into her mouth was a piece of a little white bun, like those her poor mother used to bring home for her. We left nothing untried to keep her happy. I would often carry her up to the big house in the belief that the change in environment might do her some good. The ladies of the house would play with her, talk to her, and would give her heaps of toys and cakes, pretty frocks and coats. But, Betty hardly noticed the fuss that was being made of her and would be restless until she got back to her own lonely door-step.
It appeared that every day the child grew paler and thinner, and her once bright eyes developed a sadness about them. Then, one evening she sat at the door a little later than usual. “Come in, darling,” I said to her. “Won’t you come in Betty?” But, the child did not move an inch. I went over to her and found her sitting quite still, with her little hands crossed on her lap, and her head drooping on her chest. Gently I touched her and felt she was cold. In my anguish I gave a loud scream, and Rory came running to me. As he reached the door he came to an abrupt stop and looked, and immediately he burst into tears, crying like a child. It clear to us both that our little sister was dead!
Well, my little Betty, the sorrow was bitter, but it was short. You are gone home to Him that will comfort you as a mother comforts a child. Our beautiful wee darling, your eyes were so blue, and your hair as golden a ripened corn, and your voice as sweet as the lark. Still, your cheeks are not pale, sweetheart, your little hands are not thin, and that sorrowful expression that had come over has now passed away from your forehead like a dark rain-cloud from the summer sky. The mother that loved you so much has now clasped you forever to her bosom, and the good Lord has wiped away all your tears, and He has placed you both with our dear father, where sorrow or fear of death cannot touch you.

No Greater Love

A Story of the ’98

Adoption of a child is not a new creation in Ireland, for the Irish peasant was known for the care that they would take of others in difficulty, even if not in their community. Considering all that happened to the Irish peasantry, this comment may come as a great surprise to you. Nevertheless, there is no feature of human nature that was surrounded in so much mystery, or less understood, than the very strong bond of affection that existed between the humble Irish peasant and his adopted brother, especially if that adopted brother is from a family that had social-rank or respect for the community. This peculiar relationship, though it may to a certain extent have been mutually felt, it was not normally regarded as being equal in its strength between the two parties. While there may have been instances of equality of feeling experience teaches us that such equality is to be found in the humbler of the two parties. We should stop there since we are getting into areas of psychology and philosophy in which I have absolutely no experience. Perhaps we can just simply agree that what I have stated is fact. In the history and tradition of our country we have enough material from which we can obtain clear and distinct proofs that the attachment of habit and closeness in these instances far transcends that of natural affection itself. Even today there are very few instances of one brother laying down his life for the other, and yet examples of such high and heroic sacrifices have occurred in the case of the foster-brothers. It is certainly impossible to attribute this wild but indomitable attachment to the force of domestic feeling. While we Irish insist that family affections among our people are stronger than those held in any other country, there are occasions when this almost inexplicable devotion have occurred in those persons we know that have very feeble domestic ties.

It is fact that the human heart has many moral peculiarities associated with it and we are not yet totally acquainted or comfortable with any of them. They constantly come at us in a great variety of wayward and irregular combinations, none of which operates in a manner that employs any of the known principles of action. It is more likely than unlikely that we shall ever completely understand them. There is another peculiarity in Irish feeling, which, as it is similar to this, we cannot neglect to mention it. It is said that when the ‘Dublin Foundling Hospital’ was in existence, the poor infants who were consigned to that gloomy and soul destroying place were often sent to different parts of the country,  where they would be taken care of by the wives of those peasants who were employed as day-labourers, cottiers, and small farmers, who also cultivated from three to six or eight acres of land. These children were either abandoned or were orphaned and were usually supported by a tax upon the parish in which they were born. To the local peasants they were known as ‘Parisheens’ and were accompanied by an upkeep grant paid to the foster parents.

You might think that such deserted and orphaned children might have been sent to people who may have seen them as servants and slaves, to be neglected, ill-treated and given little comfort. There were, undoubtedly, some of the foster parents who did such things, but there were as many more who showed themselves to be more honourable, generous and affectionate toward those placed in their care. In many cases they received the same care, affection, and tenderness that these foster parents showed to their own children. Even when they reached an age at which they were free to leave their foster home many of these stayed with the foster families, preferring the love and affection they had been shown in their lives this far to anything else that life might offer them. This, of course, is a natural reaction by anyone to someone that feeds, clothes and shows affection towards him. Over the years of being treated as a member of the family it would not be unusual for foster-brothers to form a very strong emotional attachment. As by way of an example of these attachments I will relate to you a story that I have recently heard and believe to be true, which took place over two hundred years ago during the 1798 rebellion.

Andrew Moore was a gentleman of some note in the district and he had a young daughter, who was renowned for her beauty and her accomplishments. In fact, such was the fame of this young lady that men often drank to her health as if she was the pride of her native county. A woman so beautiful had many suitors, of course, but among these there were two men who were particularly noteworthy for the thorough attentions they showed her, and their intense efforts to secure her affections. Henry Corbin was a man of means and held strong loyalist views, as did the young lady’s own father. To him the father had given his consent to win over the affections of his daughter with a view to marriage. The other suitor, unfortunately for Henry, had already gained the young lady’s affections but was considered totally unsuitable by the father. This young man was leader and, therefore, deeply involved on the side of the insurgents, known as ‘United Irishmen.’ These facts had become known to Andrew Moore some time before the breaking out of the rebellion and, because of his republican views, the man was forbidden to come to Moore’s house, and he was told not to communicate with any member of the Moore family. But, before this banishment, the young man had succeeded getting Miss Moore’s assistance to ensure that his foster-brother, Frank Finnegan, was employed as butler to the Moore family. The young lady was fully aware of the young man’s republican principles and knew that such an arrangement would never have been permitted if her father had known of the peculiar bond of affection that existed between the young men. Mr. Moore, fortunately for Frank, had no idea of the bond between him and his foster-brother. He was totally unaware that by allowing Finnegan into his family home he gave the forbidden suitor an advantage to forward his affections for the girl.

Andrew’s interference in the affair had, in fact, come too late to prevent the growth of a relationship between the young lovers. Before he issued his prohibition to Thomas Houston, the young man and his daughter had exchanged vows of mutual affection with each other. The rebellion that broke out forced Hewson to assume his place as a local leader of the rebellion. Naturally, by assuming such a role, it appeared that he had placed an insurmountable barrier between himself and the object of his affections. In the meantime, Andrew Moore, who was the local magistrate and a captain of yeomanry, took a very active part in putting down this rebellion, and in hunting down and securing all those who had chosen to rise-up against the government. Henry Corbin showed his zealousness in following the footsteps of Mr. Moore in hunting down the rebels, because he wanted to prove himself as the best choice for a future son-in-law. The two men acted in unison against the rebellion and, on occasion, the measures employed by eager Mr. Corbin were such that Andrew felt it necessary to rein-in the young loyalist’s exuberance. Such efforts to control the worst of Corbin’s impulses were, however, kept hidden from the younger man. But, since Corbin always seemed to be acting under the orders of his friend Moore it was, naturally, believed that every harsh and malicious act that was committed, was either sanctioned or suggested by Andrew Moore. It was as a consequence of these beliefs that Moore was considered to be even more vile and odious than Corbin. While the younger man became considered only as a rash and hot-headed loyalist zealot, the older man was thought to be a cool and wily old fox, who had ten times the cunning and cruelty of the senseless puppet whose strings he was pulling. In holding such views, however, they were terribly mistaken.

In the meantime, the rebellion went ahead and there were many acts of cruelty and atrocity were committed by both sides of the conflict. Moore’s house and family would have been attacked and most probably the house ransacked and its occupants murdered if it were it not for the influence that Thomas Houston held with the rebels. On at least two occasions Houston succeeded, and with great difficulty, in preventing Andrew Moore and his entire household from falling victim to the vengeance of the insurgents. Although Moore was a man of great personal courage, he would often underrate the character and bravery of those who opposed him. His caution, it must be said was not equal with his bravery or zeal, for he had been known to rush out at the head of a party of men to seek out the enemy, and by doing so left his own home, and the lives of those who were in it, exposed and defenceless.

On one of these expeditions he happened to capture a small group of rebels who were under the leadership of a close friend and distant relative of Thomas Houston. As the law in those terrible days was quick to punish the wrongdoers, the rebels who had been taken openly armed against the King and the Government were summarily tried and executed by a court-martial. As a result of this action, the rebel forces swore to reap a deep and bloody vengeance against Andrew Moore and his family. For a considerable period of time thereafter the rebels, lay in ambush for their target, to ensure that Moore got his just reward for his atrocious actions.

Houston’s attachment to Moore’s daughter, however, had been known for many months, and his previous interference on behalf of the old man had been successful because of that fact. Now, however, the group’s plan of attack was agreed without his knowledge, and they all swore solemnly that none of them would repeat the plan to any man who was not already familiar with it, which included Houston. They were convinced that if he should learn of their plan he would once more make earnest efforts to prevent them taking their bloody revenge. But, with this plan made and agreed, the group reduced their activities in the county to try and put Moore off his guard, because since his execution of the captured rebels he had felt it necessary to ensure his house was strongly and resolutely defended against rebel attack. The attack against Moore was postponed for quite a while until the concerns created by his recent activities would finally disappear, and his enemies could proceed with their plans to inflict bloodshed and destruction.

Eventually the night for taking action was decided upon and preparations were made. Each person’s role in the assault was explained to them in detail and the necessary weapons were made ready. A secret, however, when communicated to a great number of people, even under the most solemn promise not to reveal it, is more likely to be revealed. This is especially true during a civil war, where so many interests of friendship, blood, and marriage, bind the opposing parties together despite those principles which they publicly profess and under which they were to act. In this case it was Miss Moore’s personal maid whose brother, together with several of his friends and relatives, had been selected to assist in the planned attack. Naturally, he felt anxious that she should not be present on the night of the assault in case her relationship with the assailants might prove to be dangerous to them. He, therefore, sought an opportunity to see his sister and earnestly plead with her to stay away from the Moore house on the night that had been chosen for the attack.  The girl was not at all surprised by any of his hints to her because she was completely aware of the current state the countryside was in, and the enmity that most of the people felt for Moore and Corbin, and all those who were acting on behalf of the government. She replied to him that she would follow his advice and she spoke in such a manner that he decided there no longer any need maintain the secrets to which he was privy. The plot was, therefore disclosed, and the girl warned to get out of the house, both for her own sake and for that of those people who were about to wreak their vengeance on Andrew Moore and his family.

The poor girl, wanted Andrew and his family to escape the danger that was coming and she revealed the plane to Miss Moore, who immediately informed her father. Andrew Moore, however, did not make plans to escape, but took measures to gather around his home a large and well-armed force from the closest military garrison. The maid, who was known as Peggy Baxter, had developed a close relationship with Hewson’s foster-brother Finnegan, and the two had become lovers in every sense of the word. Peggy knew that the love she felt for Finnegan would be worth nothing if he was to be overcome by the danger that was approaching.  Immediately after her revelation to Miss Moore, Peggy went to her sweetheart to confide the secret to him, giving him several hours to escape. Finnegan was totally surprised by this revelation, especially when Peggy told him that her brother had said that Houston had been kept oblivious to the plan because of his feelings toward the young Miss Moore. There was now obvious means of stopping the plan from going ahead, unless contact could be made with Houston. Finnegan knew that such a task would be dangerous but, being a ‘United Irishman’ himself, he knew that he could get to Houston without any real danger. As quickly as he could, Finnegan left the house to seek out his foster-brother and soon crossed his path. When Houston heard what his foster-brother had to say he was stunned and angry that this action was about to go ahead without him being told by his comrades. His task completed, Finnegan left to return to his post, but before he reached the house the darkness had already set in. On his arrival Finnegan sought out the kitchen and the many comforts it contained. All this time he was ignorant, as were most of the servants, that the upper rooms and out-houses were already crammed with fierce and well-armed soldiers.

Matters were now reaching the crisis point. Houston was aware now that there was little time to be lost and collected a small party of his own immediate and personal friends. Not one of these men, because they were his friends, had been privilege to the plan for the attack upon Moore’s home. Determined to be ahead of the attackers, he and his friends met at an appointed place and from there they went quickly to Moore’s house with as much secrecy as possible. It was his plan to let Moore know about what was about to happen to him and his family and then to escort them all to a place of safety. Not expecting to find the house defended by armed men, Houston’s party were unprepared for an attack or sally from that direction. In a few minutes two of Houston’s group were shot, and most of the rest, including Houston himself, were taken prisoners on the spot. Those who managed to escape the scene told the other insurgents about the strength of troops which were defending Moore’s house and the planned attack was postponed rather quickly.

Thomas Houston maintained a dignified silence, but when he saw his friends being escorted under guard from the hall to a large barn he asked that he should be put with them. “No!” Moore shouted at him, “Even if you are a rebel ten times over, you are still a gentleman and should not be herded in a barn with them. Furthermore, Mr Houston, with the greatest of respect to you, we shall put you in a much safer place. The highest room in the highest part of the house is where we will put you, and if you escape from there then we shall say that you are an innocent man. Frank Finnegan, show Mr. Houston and those two soldiers up to the observatory. Get them some refreshments and leave him in the soldiers’ charge. You men will guard his door well because you will be held responsible for his appearance in the morning.”

In obedience to Moore’s orders the two soldiers escorted Thomas to the door, outside of which was their guard station for the night. When Frank and Thomas entered the observatory, the former gently shut the door, and, turning to his foster-brother he spoke hurriedly but in a low voice saying, “There is not a moment to lose, you must escape.”

That is impossible,” replied Houston, “unless I had wings and could use them.”

“We must try,” urged Frank; “we can only fail in our efforts. The most they do is to take your life and, mark my words, they’ll do that.”

“I know that,” said Houston, “and I am prepared for the worst.”

“Listen to me, for God’s sake,” said the other; “I will come up a little later with refreshments, say in about half an hour. You ensure that you are stripped when I come, because we are both the same size. Those guards at the door don’t know either of us very well and it would be possible for you to go out in my clothes. Say nothing,” he added, seeing Houston about to speak; “I have been here too long already, and these fellows might begin to suspect something. So, be prepared when I come. Good bye, Mr Houston,” he said aloud, as he opened the door; “It’s sorry I am to see you here, but that’s the consequence of deciding to rebel against King George, and all glory to him — soon and sudden,” he added in an undertone. “In about half an hour I’ll bring you up some supper, sir. Keep a sharp eye on him,” he whispered to the two soldiers, giving them at the same time a knowing and confidential wink.  “These same rebels are as slippery as eels, and they will slide easily through your fingers given a chance. And the devil knows you have a good in there;” and as he spoke, he pointed over his shoulder with his inverted thumb to the door of the observatory.

Just about the time he had promised to return, a crash was heard upon the stairs, and Finnegan’s voice in a high key exclaimed, “Damn you for a set of stairs, and to hell with every rebel in Europe, I pray to God this night! My bloody nose is broken because of you having me running about like an eejit!” He then stooped down, and in a torrent of bitter swear words he collected all the materials for Houston’s supper and placed them again upon the tray. He then continued up the stairs, and on presenting himself at the prisoner’s door, the blood was streaming from his nose. The soldiers on seeing him, could not avoid laughing at his sorrowful appearance and this angered him quite a bit. “You may laugh!” he said to them, “but I’d bet that I’ve shed more blood for his majesty this night than either of you ever did in your lives!” This only increased their laughter as he entered Houston’s room. Once inside the two men exchanged clothes very quickly, before the laughter of the soldiers died down.

“Now,” said Frank, “go. Behind the garden Miss Moore is waiting for you, for she knows all. Take the bridle-road through the broad bog and get into Captain Corry’s estate. Take my advice too, and both of you get yourselves of to America, if you can. But, easy. God forgive me for pulling you by the nose instead of shaking you by the hand, and I may never see you again.” The poor fellow’s voice became unsteady with emotion, although there was a smile on his face at his own humour. “As I came in here with a bloody nose,” he proceeded, giving Houston’s nose a fresh pull, “you know you must go out with one. And now God’s blessing be with you! Think of one who loved you as none else did.”

The next morning there was uproar, tumult, and confusion in the house of the old loyalist magistrate, when it was discovered that his daughter and the butler were missing. But when they examined the observatory, they soon discovered that Finnegan was safe and Houston was gone. There are no words to adequately describe the rage and the fury of Moore, Irwin, and the military. You might already have some idea as to what happened next. Frank was brought in front of a hastily formed court-martial and sentenced to be shot where he stood. But, before the sentence was executed, Moore spoke to him. “Now, Finnegan,” said he, “I will get you out of this, if you tell us where Houston and my daughter are. I swear on my honour and in public that I will save your life, and get you a free pardon, if you help us to trace and recover them.”

“I don’t know where they are,” Finnegan replied, “but even if I did, I would not betray them to you.”

“Think of what has been said to you,” added Irwin. “I give you my word also to the same effect.”

“Mr Irwin,” he replied, “I have but one word to say. When I did what I did, I knew very well that my life would pay for his, and I know that if he had thought so, he would be standing now in my place. Carry out your sentence. I’m ready

“Take five minutes,” said Moore. “Give him up and live.”

“Mr Moore,” said he, with a decision and energy which startled them, “I am his Foster-Brother!” He felt now that he had said enough and he silently stood at the place appointed for him. He was calm and showed no fear, and at the first volley of shots he fell dead instantaneously. In this way he passed from this life.

Houston, finally realised that the insurgent cause was becoming increasingly hopeless. Being urged by his young wife he escaped, after two or three other unsuccessful engagements, to America. Old Moore died a few years later, having survived all the resentment he had earned. He also succeeded in reconciling the then government to his son-in-law, who returned to Ireland, and it was found by his will, much to the anger and disappointment of many of his relatives, that he had left the bulk of his property to Mrs Houston, who had always been his favourite child, and whose attachment to Houston he had originally encouraged.

In an old, lonely churchyard there is to be found a handsome monument, which has the following passage inscribed upon it, i.e. “Sacred to the memory of Francis Finnegan, whose death presented an instance of the noblest virtue of which human nature is capable, that of laying down his life for his friend. This monument is erected to his memory by Thomas Houston, his friend and foster-brother, for whom he died.”

Lady Betty – The Hangwoman

The following is an old tale, whose source I do not know. The problem is that we do not know if it is true or simply another superstition.

The old jail of Roscommon stood, and, although now converted to other purposes, still stands in the market-place, in the centre of the town. It is a very high, dark, and gloomy-looking building, with a castellated top, like one of those ancient fortresses that we have often seen tower above the houses in many of the cities on the Continent. It can be seen from a great distance outside the town and, when added to the very extensive ruins of ‘O’Connor’s Castle’, in the suburbs, as well as the beautiful abbey that sits on the other side of the town, it appears to be another example of architecture that had been constructed during the middle-ages.

Roscommon JailThe fall from the gallows at Roscommon jail was considered by many to be the highest ‘fatal drop’ in Ireland. It consisted of a small doorway at the front of the building’s third storey, with a simple iron beam and pulley above. The gallows stage upon which the condemned stood awaiting execution was merely a horizontal door that was hinged to the wall beneath. When the appointed execution time arrived, this door was let fall by means of a sliding-bolt, which was pulled from the main wall, and the condemned person was consequently hanged. This elevated platform of execution was a fearful sight to behold for the folk of the town, and it was a unique in its construction. However, the gallows were no more unique than the person who acted as executioner and carried out their duty on that platform. This was no decrepit wretch of a human being, or a crime-hardened ruffian. Neither was it one of those secret and mysterious personages, who were occasionally produced by the authorities, disguised by mask or hood, to undertake this dreadful trade in public. Removing the most likely candidates for the role, you might wonder who was left that would not recoil from the unpleasant and terrible actions that were carried out on these high gallows. In fact, it was a female! She was a middle-aged, stoutly built, dark-eyed, swarthy-complexioned, but by no means forbidding-looking woman. She was widely known as ‘Lady Betty’, who carried out the final judgement and was regarded as the unflinching priestess of the executive for the Connaught circuit court for many years, with Roscommon being her main place of business.

Children born or reared in County Roscommon, two centuries ago, would often be frightened, when mischievous, into ‘being good,’ and going to sleep, and not crying when left alone in the dark, by the promise of a visit by a ‘Pooka’, or, by being told Lady Betty would get them. There is little firm evidence of ‘Lady Betty’s’ life and what we have learned about her is mostly hearsay. We are told that she was a person who had a very violent temper, although her manners were said to be rather above those of the common folk, and she was supposed to have possessed some formal education. It was rumoured that she was born and raised in the County Kerry, and that by her harsh treatment of her only son she drove him away from her at an early age. Apparently, he enlisted in the army and, after many years, he returned with a small fortune in his pocket, which he had gained through his many campaigns. On his return home he knocked at his father’s door and asked if he could get a night’s lodging. It appears that he was determined to see for himself whether the brutal mother he had left behind had in any way repented for what she had done. He wanted to know if she had softened her ways over the years before he would consider revealing his identity. He was brought into the house but was not recognised by anyone. The mother, however, discovered that the ‘stranger’ had quite a bit of money on him and during the night, as the man slept, she coldly murdered him. The crime was quickly discovered, and the wretched woman was sentenced to be hanged. She had to share the ‘dock’ along with the usual sheep-stealers, ‘Whiteboys’, thieves, and ruffians who had ham-strung cattle. Such criminals were usually brought into the dock seven or eight at a time and were invariably executed within twenty-four-hours after being sentenced by the court. But, on this occasion, no executioner could be found despite the best of efforts. The local sheriff and his deputy, considering themselves to be men of refinement, education, humanity, and sensibility, would not carry out such an odious duty. They maintained this attitude although it was a part of the office they had sworn to undertake, and for which they received payment. The wretched, murderous woman was the only person in the jail who could be found to perform the executions, and under the name of ‘Lady Betty’ she carried them out without mask or disguise. For many years after this she officiated as hangwoman and she used to publicly flog criminals in the streets, as a part of her office. There are numerous stories told about this woman’s exploits and we have not enough room here to relate them all. But we can mention one extraordinary feature of her character, which was the habit she had of drawing portraits of all those whom she had executed on the walls of her room with a burnt stick.

The Knocker Up

As a Doctor I have reason to visit the sick in their homes and several years ago, while paying a professional visit at the house of a small tradesman in the town of Belfast, I made the acquaintance of an interesting old woman, who had been employed by the tradesman to nurse his ailing wife. There are always people, especially among the female gender, who will never refuse to carry out a duty of care, especially if the person to be cared for is already known to them. This old lady, Mrs Waters, was one of those caring ladies that people can depend upon. Within a very few minutes we became good friends and she persuaded me to extend my visit for several hours, and when I eventually left the house I was as familiar with her life story just as if I had known her for many years.
I have told you that she was an interesting woman, and so she was. This was not immediately apparent from her appearance, and there was nothing that could be said to be attractive about her. Neither had she any refinement in her manner or the way in which she spoke but, she could be said to have been rather brusque and hasty in both word and action. Nevertheless, she possessed an irresistible power in the rapid glance of her large bright eyes. At first sight you might think that, from the haste which was evident in all her movements when attending to the needs of the house and family, she must be a harsh and unfeeling type of person. That would be a grave error, however, for she was really one of the kindest and most tender-hearted of women I have ever met. It didn’t take long for me to discover that she was actually a neighbour, and that she was a woman of independent means, which she had gathered together through her own hard-work. She had worked from an early age, and she had also taken great care of an invalid husband for many years and had managed to educate and provide a profession to her only son and child.
The old woman peaked my interest greatly and I decided that I would like to become better acquainted with her and the life she had led. Not being a man who was reluctant to ask questions I was soon able to discover quite a lot about her and her life. She was known in the community as a ‘knocker-up’, the duties of whom I will explain as we proceed. But, she was proud of what she had done and when asked about it she told me, “Not at all, my boy! I am not ashamed to tell you just how I came to be financially independent. Why should I be? An honest woman need not be afraid of anything!” she insisted. “I made it all, every penny of it, by knocking-up. Ay, and well you may look surprised, for I have an idea that you don’t know what ‘knocking-up is’, or if you do, you are wondering how I could save so much money from such a line of work. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I had no other means of making money, for I started a shop after I began to knock up. However, every penny that I made by shop-keeping was spent in keeping my family in food and clothing, and when my son was put into business, some of my otherwise-made money went along with him. But, I can assure you that every penny that I put by, and the income on which I now live, was got by knocking-up.
“Sure, I know you are wondering how I, a woman, should ever gotten the idea making a living in this way, never mind actually setting out to do it. Well, if I’m going to be honest with you, I never thought of it at all. I mean that I did not invent such a job, for it was actually suggested to me and I was in too great a need to be fussy about what I did. Do you know, I believe that I was near the first, if not the very first who earned money by regularly knocking up. Either way, at the time that I began the job, I knew of no one else who was doing the same thing.
“The idea came to me in this way. My husband had been a delicate sort of man from the day we first met. And he was, God love him, as different from me in spirit and ways as summer is from winter. He had hardly a day’s work in him and I have often wondered what we should have done, or what would have become of us, had it been that I was struck down instead of him. But you see, God was watching over us. It was a good thing in many ways, indeed in all ways, that it was he who was afflicted, for if it had been me, what an ill-tempered and impatient creature I would have been.
“Now it was no illness that struck my man down, but something entirely different. It all happened like this, we had been married about six years, and our son was about four years old, when my man suffered a serious accident. He was working hard in the foundry and lifting a heavy weight when something seemed to snap or give way in his back. He was brought home to me between two men, and from that day until his death, more than fifteen years afterwards, he never did a stroke of work, the poor man!
Knocker Up 3“Aye, it was after this that the knocking-up scheme was suggested to me and I was glad of it. I had gone down to the foundry one Friday evening for the wee bit of pay which the owners had kindly allowed him to lift for a while, and I got to speaking with one of the men who was working there and had worked with my husband. He asked me about our welfare and I said to him that I believed I should be able to keep the roof over our heads, and that I was willing to do anything that would help me to achieve that. The, quite suddenly he said, “If you will knock me up at three o’clock every morning but Sunday, I will give you half-a-crown a week.” I laughed at first because I thought he was joking. But, when I saw that he was not joking, I quickly took up his offer because something told me that this might just be the beginning of something special.
“The reason why ‘knocking-up’ is so widespread nowadays is simply that people get so used to the alarm-clock that it fails to awake them. Even if it does awaken them, they are sometimes so sleepy that they drop off again before the alarm runs out. This was what had happened to the person who asked me to awaken him. He had lost many mornings work because he had over-slept. He worked in the designing office and told me that he could get more work done, and of a better quality of work, during the quiet hours of the morning than at any other time. This is what he said anyway, though afterwards another reason was given to excuse his habit of over sleeping. But, the man was anxious to be up at three o’clock. Well, I agreed to do the job and it was a good thing that I did because before a year had gone past I had thirty customers employing me to do the same job for them. of the like kind. Not for the same hour in the morning, or for the same amount of pay. For the most part these other requests were for a time between five and six o’clock.
“I have no problem whatever in telling you what I earned at that time. Why should I? But let me first explain to you how I went on to grow my business, if I may call it a business. At the end of the first year, as I have said, I had thirty customers. Year by year this number of clients began to increase until, by the end of five years, I had upwards of eighty houses to go to. What is more, for the thirty years that I followed knocking-up after that, thirty-five years to be precise, I never fell below that number. Sometimes I had as many as ninety-five houses. Now, you are wondering what did they pay me for my services? All prices! When I managed to get a few more, early customers, in addition to my first one, I knocked him a shilling a week off because I didn’t think it was right to be still taking a half-a-crown. So, all those clients who were knocked up before four o’clock in the morning paid me eighteenpence a week, and those who had to be awakened soon after four were charged a shilling a week. Those clients who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid me from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance that I had to go. Of course, the greater number of customers were in the threepenny class.
“You might have a little trouble in seeing how I managed to get through so large a number of houses in so short a time, but I can assure you that I did. I also found out that a workable system was very much a needed thing to have, you may be sure of that. Then I discovered short-cuts to different neighbourhoods and streets, and I took care not to let the grass grow under my feet in keeping my business going. Another helpful talent that I had, of course, was an innate ability of rousing my employers quite quickly. Perhaps it was that my knock or ring or way of tapping windows was more effective than that of other ‘knockers-up’. Irrespective of all that, I managed to get through my engagements morning by morning. Now, of course, you are eager to find out what my weekly earnings were. Well, I’ll not keep you in suspense any longer, young man. For thirty years I never earned less than thirty shillings a week, though it was mostly thirty-five shillings and, when I had a good lot of far-away or very early customers, I could pick up as much as forty shillings in a week. You look unconvinced, but I assure you that what I am telling you is the truth. Two pounds a week for calling folks to their work, in the morning.
“Now, I’ll admit that I am not very strong or healthy as I once was, but how can a woman of seventy years be expected not to have some aches or pain after the life I have lived? But, in all those thirty-five years that I worked at the ‘knocking-up’, I never had what may be called a sick day. Dear God, sure I hadn’t got time to be laid up in a sick bed! I totally believe my early rising, and the exercise in the open air, kept me healthy. At those times when bits of cold did get hold of me, my spirit and attitude did much towards helping ward them off. Let me tell you, Spirit is everything! Did I go to bed during the day? Never! I could not afford the time for such luxury because I had my shop to take care of. You look a little surprised, but I have already told you that I kept a shop. At the time I didn’t know how long my husband might linger, and then I became so wrapped up in my poor lad’s future, for I was determined that he should be a doctor or a lawyer, or something smarter than a tradesman. Because I had such a good long day before me after my ‘knocking-up’, I decided that I would open a shop of some kind.
‘It took me quite a long time to decide upon what I should deal in. I had a natural dislike of giving credit, and as there are some things which women are not in the habit of buying on tick. In fact, when they need these items they never seem to think of asking for them on credit, and it was in such items that I decided to deal in. That is how I hit upon the idea of selling black-lead, blacking, brushes of various kinds, and even pots and pans. Surprisingly, I noticed that when a woman sent for such items she automatically sent the money to buy them. Furthermore, I realised that it would only take about ten pounds or so to get me started in this type of shop, and I saw that there would be little perishable stock or articles that would go out of fashion. An added advantage was the fact that the business did not need much learning or knowledge to manage it, and these were things which I did not have. So, it was in this way that I became a shopkeeper.
“In the beginning I was able to make my cottage do for my shop, using the bedroom and cellar as the warehouse. But, as the trade increased, I had to take the house next to the one I had, and made I made it into a shop and warehouse. Rent and taxes, you know, were not too heavy then. You know, I began this business after I had spent five years ‘knocking-up’ and only stopped about six years ago.
“I didn’t give up because I was tired of work. But, I saw that I had enough to live upon, and I now had no one belonging me to live for. My husband had been a long-time dead, and my poor son had also been taken from me. Did I sell my business? No, I did not sell either business. There was a poor man, a neighbour of mine, who was laid off his work and, as he had a large family, and his own shop was running from bad to worse every week, I just handed over the knocking-up to him. It has been a good thing for him, thank God. As for the other business, I just allowed my customers to spread themselves among other shops as they thought fit.
“You might wonder if I had made any bad debts the knocking-up business? Well, I will tell you there were not too many and, perhaps, less than you might expect. For one thing, I took pretty good care of my money, though it did take gathering in. I usually got paid on a Saturday afternoon and night. Some called and paid me as they passed my house and others left it with those appointed by me to receive it. One way or another, I got most the greater part of my money week by week. To those who began to be a bit forgetful in paying me, I just gave them the slightest hint that if they did not pay up that week-end I might forget to knock them up and let them overlie themselves now and again. This soon put the forgetfulness out of them, for they knew they would lose a deal more by being fined at the mill than they had to pay me for a whole week’s knocking-up. So, in all honesty, I had very few customers who did not pay up old scores. Of course, I am ignoring those whom I did not care to press for payment. These were often men with large families, or men who had had a fit of sickness or the like, or a poor delicate woman. But, let us pay no attention to that for they might have done the same by me.
“Aye, now there is a good chance that a knocker-up will find out what sort of tempers their customers have. God knows that I soon came to know who the surly ones were, and who were pleasant folks, or who were short-tempered and who had good patience. You know, when knocking-up began to be a regular trade we used to rap or ring at the doors of our customers. But there soon arose two objections to this way of rousing them. One objection came from the public, and the other came from the knockers-up. The public complained of being disturbed, especially if sickness was in a house, by our loud rapping or ringing; and the knocker-up soon found out that while he knocked up one who paid him, he knocked up several on each side who did not pay. It did not take us long to invent the fishing-rod-like wands which are now in use. Aye indeed, the knocker-up has a wand of office, and I was among the first who adopted these rods. With these wands we would give a few taps on the bedroom window, which no one hears but those who should.
“I will tell you that a surly, or hot-tempered customer, would growl or knock things about as he came to the window to reply, and his responding rap would sound as peevish as possible. But a good-tempered man was always quite pleasant and cheering to get out of bed, for you could almost hear from his very footstep that he was grateful, and his reply-tap sounded quite musical. Moreover, when he spoke to you and bade you a good-morning, it was truly encouraging. I have even had occasions when I knocked some men up for nothing, just because it was pleasant to hear them, especially after you had had two or three of the other kind to deal with. There were others that I had given up knocking, for no other reason than that they were sulky or angry at being disturbed and generally unpleasant. I can recall one particular man on my rounds. He was a little, slender, ill-featured man, who always reminded me of a weasel, and he had to be up at five o’clock. But, the same man was fond of the drink, so he was not only difficult to awaken, but he never came to the window without indulging in angry mutterings, which were not always the sort of things you needed to hear at that time in the morning. He was one of my shilling-a-week customers and paid regularly. But I was so pissed-off by his lousy temper and insulting ways, that at I finally gave him the elbow as a bad job.
“Surely, you would agree that a ‘knocker-up’ really deserves the gratitude of his customers and should not think that we are well compensated when we get his money. They should not forget that we have to be out of our warm beds in all sorts of weather and cannot allow a bit of a sniff or a tooth-ache to keep us at home. But, the customer can sleep on the whole night through, in peace and contentment, because they know that they will hear the wakening taps on their window at the right time. Surely, there is no person that can think that a ‘knocker-up’ is a selfish man, or even a selfish woman. No money is so well spent as that which is paid to the ‘knocker-up’ and I believe most who pay the money think the same.
“For several years I ‘knocked-up’ two young women who were sisters. They had been left orphans when they were very young, but the poor things stuck together, went to the mill, saved their wages, and finally were able to take and furnish a room. They got me to knock them up, for they kept their own little spot clean and tidy, mended their own things at night, and they went to bed tired and often late, which caused them to sleep heavily. Well, as I’ve said, I knocked them up for years and they would not let me do it for nothing. No, not even now and again. One or the other of them always had a “Good-morning,” or “How are you this morning, Mrs McNamee?” in a low kind tone for me. And about once a quarter they would invite me to spend a Sunday evening with them and take a cup of tea. Let me tell you, if any people were grateful for what I did for them, it was these girls.
“Now, I suppose you want to know how and when did I get my sleep? Well, I’ll tell you. I always went to bed at nine o’clock every night, except Saturdays. Of course, because I had an exhausted body and a contented mind, it didn’t take me very long in dropping off to sleep. And I was up again at half-past two exactly, for my first customer lived a good twenty minutes’ walk from my house, and you know he had to be awakened at three o’clock. Well, for some time I had no one else to arouse until four o’clock, so I used to come home again. Before I went out in winter I would build the fire up with ‘slack’ and get myself a cup of tea. But, in summer I would let the fire go out, and would not light it again until I came back from the early customer. Then I always made my poor husband a cup of tea, after which he slept better than he had in the earlier part of the night. You see it was he who had to awaken me, because being young and very active during the day, I slept soundly. What between him and the alarm, I never over-slept. No, not even once. But after I had been about six or seven years at the job, I got to awaken quite naturally. Indeed, it was well that I did, for when my husband died, I no longer had him to depend on.
“I can tell you also that the worst weather for any knocker-up is wet weather. Oh, it was try one’s patience, to say nothing of one’s health, to be pelted with rain and wind. Then when the streets were filled with snow and slush it was anything but pleasant. But, I always tried to think of the good I was doing for others and thinking that way proved to be a wonderful help. In fact, even a chimney-sweep or a street-sweeper could be happy in his calling if he only took such a similar view of his work. Why, we are all helping one another as well as earning our livings when we follow our vocation in life. But, I have to admit that it was an extra nice job to be doing on a fine spring or summer morning. I used to be happy all over on such mornings.
“Maybe you would like me to tell you something about my son. To tell the truth, I seldom feel like I want to talk about him because when I do talk about my dear boy, it has taken me many a day to get his image out of my mind.”
At this point I respectfully asked Mrs McNamee not to go on with the story, but she did. It was interesting and touching in some of its details, but since it is not relevant to this particular story I have decided not to include here.