The Confessional Seal

A Priestly Predicament

There have been volumes upon volumes written about the terrible events that blighted and tore apart Northern Ireland in the thirty years, from 1965 until the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. There is hardly a family in the Province that did not suffer in some way from the terrors, pain, heartache and devastation of the ‘The Troubles’. But, despite all the words that have been written there are none that can truly describe the horrors of those days, except those that have been expressed by people who lived through those dark days. The ‘peace’ that has now existed for the past twenty years is tenuous, to say the least, and has done little, if anything, to remove the bitterness and hatred caused by those years of strife. Among the many stories of those days is a sad tale, which involved a man of faith who was forced to come face-to-face with his own devils.

There was nothing special about the Murphy family. They were simply a group of average individuals living a quiet life in a medium-sized mid-Ulster town. The parents had always been determined to have their children well educated, and all four sons had very much focused their attention on this. Two of the eldest sons had attended university and qualified as Chartered Accountants prior to moving to Australia to make their fortunes. The second youngest son, Martin, had chosen to join the priesthood and, after his ordination, he was assigned a Parish close to home, much to the joy of his pious mother and father. Frank, however, was the youngest son and, although as academically gifted as any of his brothers, but he wanted to enjoy his youth for a while after finishing college, rather than throwing himself into a career immediately.

After the death of their father, the two youngest brothers had spent more of their time with their mother, Annie. She missed her husband dearly but, like a typical Irish mother, she had her sons around her to keep herself active and busy taking care of them. She was a pious and loving woman, adored by all her sons and, in return, she spoiled them terribly. But, the youngest son had always been her favourite, for he was her last child and she would always look upon him as her baby boy. Although she had always shown a little more affection toward him, Annie had never allowed him to become a spoiled, weak and capricious boy. At the same time, however, she did not give her other sons any reason to feel left out, because she made a point of sharing her deep store of maternal love equally between all four boys. Naturally, with the two oldest boys being so far from home, it was Martin and Frank who benefitted most from their Annie’s care and attention.

Martin had been aware, all of his life, that his mother had a special place in her heart for Frank, but he never had any feelings of jealousy toward him. Frank, after all, was the only son who still lived in the home-place with Annie, and Martin was happy that his youngest brother got all that extra attention and love that he undoubtedly obtained from her.

Frank was a gentle, quiet-natured young man who had a great mind and a wonderful imagination. He was greatly admired by his brother, the priest and his mother called him her ‘Little Lamb’. They both expected that Frank would, eventually, achieve a degree of greatness in whatever he chose to do with his life. Annie was not overly concerned about the amount of time that Frank spent with his friends because they knew that he was the type of person who would always maintain the highest standard of personal behaviour when in public. Although Frank had always enjoyed a drink, he was never known to drink to excess. Furthermore, like his many friends, Frank liked to party but always made a point of coming home no later than midnight and completely sober.

The lives of the Murphy family, however, changed abruptly one night in the Spring of 1967. That night, Annie watched the hands on the large mantlepiece clock turn very slowly as the ‘tick, tock’ of the second hand sounded loudly in the quietness of the living-room. The clock struck one o’clock, and the anxiety that had been building up inside Annie that evening had brought a sense of panic to the mother. Frank, in all the time he had gone out with his friends, had never returned later than one o’clock, and he had never brought any trouble to the door.

It was now past one o’clock and, yet, there was no sign of Frank, and no word of excuse received from him. Fortunately, Martin was in the house that night, sitting with his mother. Rather than return the Parochial House after supper Martin decided that he would stay with Annie. He was now well settled on a comfortable armchair, which stood beside the glowing coal-fire to await Frank’s return home. But, as the minutes continued to tick by slowly, he watched his mother’s already well-frayed nerves begin to come apart. With tears forming in her eyes she quietly muttered, “I just wish Frank would come home.

He’ll be alright, Ma! He’ll soon be coming through that front door as if there’s nothing wrong, kiss you on the cheek, as he always does, and go on to his bed,” Martin told her in a soft, comforting tone of voice.

But, Annie was not comforted by Martin’s soft words. “I don’t know, Martin,” she told him. “He has never been this late and I am really worried that something might have happened to him.

Please stop fretting, Ma,” Martin urged her as tenderly as he could. “He has just been delayed, ma, and he might not be home for an hour or so yet.

But, Annie just could not relax, because her worries over Frank’s whereabouts filled every corner of her mind. She fidgeted nervously in her chair, then she made tea for her and Martin, and then she would go to the front door to see if there was any sign that Frank was nearing home. The hours, however, continued to pass slowly and still there was no sign of her youngest son. Then, as darkness gave way to the light of early morning, Annie’s concerns had grown to a point where she began to cry silently to herself, afraid that she might not see her son again. Martin could only sit and watch silently as those bitter tears fell from his mother’s eyes. He was becoming increasingly angry with his brother’s tardiness, and he promised himself that when his younger brother did arrive he would get a piece of his mind regarding his irresponsibility. At that present moment, he could not show any sign of his anger to his already upset mother. He believed it would be more beneficial to maintain his efforts to keep the old woman calm about his brother’s absence.

Martin managed to settle his mother in the chair beside the fire and began telling her humorous anecdotes about some of his parishioners, in the hope that they would keep her mind occupied with lighter thoughts. Quite suddenly, Annie’s body went rigid and her head turned quickly toward the living room window. “It’s him! It’s Frank!” she cried out. “I can hear his footsteps on the path.” She rose from her seat quickly and, loudly sighing “Thank God!”, she went to open the front door to him.

But, Martin heard the voice of a man, which he knew was not the voice of his brother, Frank. He then heard his mother give a loud and painful groan, and this caused Martin to rush to her assistance. Annie had fainted in the hallway and Martin noticed that it was a uniformed policeman that was giving her assistance.

What in God’s name has happened?” asked Martin anxiously.

The policeman rose up from his knees and helped to bring Annie into the living room, laying her comfortably on the sofa, with a cushion at her head. “I am sorry to be the one that brought such terrible news to you,” said the constable.

What news?

We have found your brother’s abandoned motorbike this morning, lying in a hedge.

Is he badly hurt, or …?

We have not located your brother yet, Father. But, we did find traces of blood on the seat and are concerned for his welfare,” said the policeman, interrupting Martin.

You can imagine the great shock and fear that Martin felt when he received this grave news. Calling a neighbour over to stay with Annie, he asked the policeman to take him to the scene of this apparent accident. He was driven, in a police car, to a narrow lane that turned off the main road and led through a bog, and he eventually came to the scene, which was marked by another police car and several uniformed officers. Some of the police officers were diligently searching the hedgerows on each side of the narrow, bog lane and Martin quickly joined in with their efforts. Even as Martin searched, there was a definite feeling of unease that began to fill his entire body, and he knew in his mind that this lane held some terrible secret for him. Martin had been up all night and was very tired, and yet he knew that this was not the reason behind his feelings of unease. There was a smell of death in the air about him, but Martin continued to search every possible nook and cranny on each side of the lane, thoroughly, for almost a mile.

Confession 2They could find nothing in their searches. There was not a trace of Frank anywhere. All that was left to be found was the motorbike and its bloodstained seat. As he took a final look around the area where the motorbike was found, Martin was suddenly brought to an abrupt standstill and he called out to the others to join him quickly. The grass in that place was very much trampled down, and Martin could not be sure if this was a sign that a struggle had taken place, or if the police had trampled the grass during their search.  When the police searchers came up to Martin’s position, he was able to discover from them that they had not trampled the grass in that area. They insisted that they had found the area in that condition. Martin now got down on his knees and began to take a closer look at the grass around him and, after a little time, discovered a quantity of fresh blood. Beside this patch of blood, Martin found a thin leather wallet that he knew belonged to his brother, and he picked it up to show the policemen. It all seemed to confirm his worst fears, that his brother Frank was indeed dead. Confirmation of this belief appeared to be supplied by the condition in which the motorbike had been found. From the way it lay in the hedgerow, it was apparent to Martin that this had not been caused by any road accident and indicated, instead, that Frank may have been murdered.

It is almost impossible to describe the pain and agony that tore through Martin’s body at this terrible moment of realisation that his brother was probably dead. There was a terrible rage that filled his heart, which was matched only by the deep sorrow that he felt for the loss. He didn’t want to believe that this tragedy had happened and that there was still hope that Frank would suddenly appear in front of Martin, alive and well. With renewed vigour and his head filled with contradictory thoughts, Martin continued in his frantic search for a body that would give the family closure on what had happened to Frank. Although the search lasted for many hours, stretching well into the evening, Martin had to return home without success. But, Martin found it was a much different home from the one that he had left earlier that day. In those long hours, the stress had aged greatly Annie and Martin now found her in a state of stupor, which had taken hold of her after a wild frenzy of screaming and crying, all brought about by the news she had been given concerning the fate of her youngest son. It was almost as if the light of life had gone out of her, and her heart had been smashed to pieces, rather than broken. Martin was at a complete loss as to what he should do and watched over his mother as she lingered for a few weeks, steadily going downhill and calling out for her dead child.

Sadly, Annie finally passed away one evening as she slept in her bed. As Martin stared down upon her small, pale face he noticed that there was a peaceful expression upon it. There was no longer any trace of the torture and agony she had been feeling since she had first gotten the news of Frank. Although there had not, even yet, been any definite confirmation from the police about Frank’s fate, Martin now felt certain that his youngest brother was dead. He could not, however, comprehend who would have wanted to kill Frank, or why? If it was an accident then why was there no body found? Surely, he thought to himself, no one could hold a grievance, but Martin could not understand who would have had a grievance against such a friendly, harmless man like Frank Murphy.

With so much sectarian hatred prevalent in Northern Ireland at this time, Martin’s first suspicions fell upon ‘loyalist’ paramilitaries. He believed that these dark, evil men murdered young Frank, believing it would be seen as a great victory to kill the innocent brother of a Roman Catholic priest. Yet, he had no proof. Despite the widespread horror that was felt at young Frank’s disappearance and probable murder, there was not a single clue as to who might have perpetrated such a crime. Using every possible contact that he had, both Catholic and Protestant, Martin tried to discover what had happened and who may have done the evil deed. But, all his efforts were in vain, and as the months passed public interest in the event seemed to fade.

The first anniversary of Frank’s disappearance had passed, and the anniversary of his mother’s death was quickly approaching. Since their deaths the young priest had chosen to throw himself completely into his Parish duties as a means of helping him to come to terms with the tragedies that had so changed his life. One Saturday evening, as was usual, he sat in the confessional box in the chapel and made himself available to those who wished to confess their sins and show penance for the wrongs they had done. One of the penitents was known to Martin but appeared to be completely unaware of the form of the religious ritual. He was not a regular church-goer and Martin was, to say the least, very surprised to see this young man enter his confessional. He knelt and began to confess the many misdeeds of his ill-spent life. It appeared that this young man simply wanted to unburden his entire conscience in one go, and he spoke of sins that were filled with unbounded selfishness, oppression, revenge and unlimited passions. There was no sin that this young man had not committed in his short life, everything from theft to betrayal, and from mild sexual thoughts to wild encounters actions were included. Martin had heard many of these same sins during his short tenure as a curate, but the confession of this young man thoroughly shocked him.

Martin would later admit that he was both nauseated and disgusted by this young man and the sins he had confessed. Even the young man himself began to falter as he revealed to the priest each immoral action and thought he had committed. At one point it seemed to Martin that the young man was equally sickened by his faults and had never realised just how extensive and appalling they were. Martin saw both surprise and confusion on the man’s face as he laid out his sins. Then, as Martin began the rite of absolution the young man called on him to stop. “Please Father,” he spoke nervously, “I am not yet finished my confession.

I’m sorry,” Martin replied, “please continue.”

But he could hear the penitent moving uneasily as he knelt in the confessional. Martin felt as if the penitent was fighting with his conscience about whether, or not, he should admit some particularly grievous sin. The man had already confessed to so many unsavoury sins already, and the priest could not quite understand why he was so reluctant now. “You have done so well this far. If there is more that you wish to confess you should continue. Free yourself of your sins and you will feel so much better. God already knows your sins and by you confessing them you are showing that you are aware of how hurtful they have been to him. Return to his love. He wants to forgive you all your sins and break those chains which bind your soul to evil. So, speak freely,” Martin urged the penitent in a gentle voice.

The priest listened to the man sobbing for a minute or two, stopping only to dry his tears and blow his nose. Then, very quietly and hesitantly at first, the young man began to mutter, nervously, that he had killed someone in cold-blood. Martin shuddered at the revelation and, from what he had heard the man say so far, he found it difficult to believe. Clearing his voice, he asked in the calmest tone that he could muster, “Please tell me, how and where did you commit an act of cruel murder? And whatever possessed you to take the life of another human being?

Confession 1The young man had kept his head bowed during his confession, but he raised his head until he could see the face of the priest behind the confessional screen that separated them. It was also the first time that Martin had seen the penitent. Despite the veil between them, the priest could see clearly the young man’s tear-soaked and reddened eyes. He noticed that they were glazed over and appeared to be ready to pop out from their sockets with terror. The blood seemed to almost drain from the man’s complexion and there was a tremor in his body. Martin now watched in total surprise as the young man slowly raised his clasped hands toward him. It was as if the penitent was praying to him, begging him to that would ease the pain in his entire being. Was this young man seeking mercy from him Martin wondered, as the penitent moved closer? With quivering lips and in a low sobbing voice the man declared, “I am the man who killed your brother, Father Martin!

Martin’s body suddenly went numb. Then, as if hit by a Taser gun, his entire body shook violently, and he was wracked with terrible pain. The priest’s entire mind went into a ‘brain-melt’ as his thoughts were scrambled together and began to spin around in his head, and his heart began to pound so fast that he became sure that it would burst. Maybe it was God, or maybe it was his own instinct for survival that caused Martin to breathe normally once again, and he began to slowly feel his blood run begin to run normally once more through the many tingling vessels in his body. The young priest’s hands were clasped to his breast, but just as his body returned to something like normality, he slumped back in his seat and began to laugh hysterically. It was not the reaction that the penitent had expected and fearing for the priest he went to assist him. Several minutes passed before Martin began to recover his equilibrium and his face was soaked in a cold sweat, and his eyes were filled with bitter, bitter tears.  As Martin became aware of his surroundings again he saw the penitent holding him close, his face wracked with the terrible thought that he had caused the priest to suffer some sort of emotional breakdown. Holding Martin close to him the priest he was pleading for his mercy and not to hand him over to the law. Martin could hardly believe that it was him that was telling the young man, “Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to worry about me or the police.  Your sins have been shared under the seal of confession, and because of that, I cannot reveal one item to another living soul. You are safe, but I beg you to get away from me now. Just get out of my sight and stay away from me until I feel able to see  you and speak to you again.” With he heard these words the young man released his hold on Martin, moved away from the confessional, and exited the church building.

Martin told me that, after this encounter, he knelt alone in the church and prayed to God for the strength to get him through this. He had, more by accident than by design, met the man who had murdered his youngest brother and, through this crime, had caused the subsequent death of his mother. Although an ordained priest, Martin also considered that he was nothing more than a simple man, would find forgiveness a difficult proposition to grant under such circumstances. Moreover, that he was a priest meant he needed God’s help to hold fast to that sacred calling to which he had dedicated his life. He prayed intensely for God’s blessing to give him the strength to fulfil the words of the Gospel as he professed them – “Love and Forgiveness.” But, God appeared to hold back his blessing for a time and it was only after much prayer and meditation that he felt able to meet the young man again. On this occasion Martin had decided to deal with him with him in the same manner as any other priest, and give him absolution for his sins, setting him a penance that he had to complete.

You often hear people repeat the adage that tells us, “Time can heal all hurts.” But, Martin found that this was not so true when it came to the hurt that filled his heart. Although years had passed by and the pain began to hurt less, it was never totally healed. The ‘Killer’ had confessed his crime to him unbidden, and he had appeared to have changed his previous lifestyle dramatically. He had begun to attend Church services and the holy sacraments almost daily. There were none other than Martin who knew of his crime, and many remarked about just how much he had quietened down since he had begun to attend the Church regularly.

There were some, however, who did not trust that young man, and Father Martin admitted that he was far from being a reformed man. The only difference between the old and the new, Martin said, was that he had become better at hiding his transgressions from public view. In fact, Martin was becoming increasingly suspicious about the young man’s true motives for apparently changing his lifestyle, and for spending so much time in his company. He was sure that all of this was simply to avoid suspicion of being directed at him and, by telling the priest his terrible secret under the seal of the confession, he ensured that his admission of guilt would not reach the ears of the law. By using the Confessional with the priestly brother of his victim he had ensured that Martin would not try to avenge his brother’s death murder.

After confessing his darkest secret to Martin, he had also made the priest aware of why he had committed such a terrible act. that the motive behind the terrible act had been jealousy. He said that Frank, being a handsome and easy-going young fellow had attracted the attention of a certain young lady from a good family. Unfortunately, Frank didn’t know that he had placed himself in competition with this young man, whose attention had been spurned by the same young lady. It was Frank who won through and was walking out with the young lady, and he had even been seen exchanging kisses with her. All these things helped stoke this young man’s jealousy and he sought vengeance. The ‘last straw’ that convinced him to get rid of Frank once and for all was when he personally witnessed them kissing.

He admitted to Martin that he armed himself with a long, sharp knife and hid in the hedgerow along the bog road, which he knew Frank would use to motorcycle home after meeting the young lady. He lay in wait until he heard Frank’s approach and saw the light from the motorbike as it shone on the road. Just as Frank was passing the hiding place his assassin sprang out from his lair, totally surprising Frank and forcing him to stop suddenly. Then, before Frank could recover his composure the assassin drove his knife into Frank’s back, killing him almost instantly. But, the young killer did not tell Martin what he had done with the body, and yet Martin was confident that he would say where he had disposed of the remains and give him the final closure he needed.

One evening, in the middle of Lent, Martin was walking along the very same road where his brother’s life had been so savagely taken. As he walked in the growing darkness, Martin heard the approach of a car behind him and he stopped so that he could allow the car to pass safely by. But, the car did not pass him and chose to stop on the road adjacent to where Martin was standing. The car’s window was wound down and the smiling face of the guilty man appeared, much to the priest’s loathing. Martin did not know why the man was on the same road as he, or why he had stopped to talk. “Good evening, Father,” he said with that sickening smile that Martin hated so much.

Good evening,” replied Martin in a dry and unwelcoming tone.

The young man got out of the car and pointed to a lone tree, standing not far into the nearby bog. “Do you see that tree?” he asked.

Yes,” replied Martin.

“It is close to that tree that your brother is buried,” he said with absolutely no emotion in his voice.

Totally astonished by this sudden revelation, Martin’s mind was not quite thinking straight, and he replied, “What brother?

Your brother Frank, of course,” said the villain. “It was there that I buried the poor man after I had killed him.

Sweet Jesus! Merciful God!” screamed the priest. Then raising his eyes to heaven, he angrily added, “Thy will be done!

Rushing at the villain Martin seized him by the lapels of his jacket and growled into his face, “You damned wretch of a man! You have admitted to shedding the blood of an innocent man who has been crying out to heaven for justice these last ten years or more. I am turning you into the police, now!

He turned ashy pale as he faltered out a few words to say that, as a priest, Martin had promised not to betray him. ” That was under the seal of confession and under that seal, I can never speak of that deadly secret you admitted to. But, God is good, and you now admit your crime in the open, where the seal of confession does not hold me back. At  last, I, the brother of your victim, will be able to avenge the innocent blood that you shed.”

The blood drained from the assassin’s face as Martin tightened his grip and pushed him into the car’s passenger seat. Martin climbed into the driver’s seat and re-started the engine. Totally overcome by events the captive killer did not try to resist while he was driven into the police station, where he was charged with murder and committed for trial.

Reports of Martin’s capture of his brother’s murderer spread far and wide. The Bishop of the Diocese summoned the young priest into his presence and arranged for a dispensation to be given to Martin with regard to the man’s confession. But, Martin did not need to use his dispensation.

Frank’s body was found in the place indicated by his murderer, and forensic science did the rest. The proof provided by the investigators was such that the jury was able to quickly find the killer guilty. The judge complimented Martin on his brave action and heroically observing the obligation of secrecy that bound him. Speaking to the press, the judge declared, “You have witnessed just how the Church of Rome believes that Confession is a sacred trust that cannot be broken. Even when the cause is the avenging of a brother’s murder, it is still an insufficient excuse for breaking that trust.”

A Strange Tale

A Story of Lough Neagh

I will admit that the following story is a very strange tale, but I can assure you that it is not a fiction, which has been dreamed up in my own imagination just amuse you. Most of my stories are, in fact, told to me by various people throughout this land, and I give you my oath that none of these stories differ in even the slightest way from the way in which they are given to me. Although the following story, which I am about to present to you is, perhaps,  one of the most remarkable, it is also one of the best authenticated stories that I have ever heard.

The person who told this tale to me was my maternal grandfather and he never doubted, even for one moment, that it was not an accurate description of facts. However, I do recall my grandfather telling the story to me in a whispering tone, almost as if the tale was too solemn a story to be spoken about in the loudness of an ordinary conversation, and too mysterious to be told in a light or flippant way. When he told me this story, almost fifty years ago, my grandfather also told me that he did not want it spread far and wide. He thought it was better not to say too much about it, but those involved in the story are now long gone, bless their souls. But, I still feel that I cannot disclose the names of those who are involved in the story, and it is not necessary to do so to relate the story accurately since the facts of the story lose nothing by the omission of names. 

An Eel Fisher's Boat at Cranfield, Lough Neagh
An Eel Fisher’s Boat at Cranfield, Lough Neagh – a view of a boat at the Lough shore with two children on board and a dog. (Location: Northern Ireland; County Antrim; Cranfield td.). Date: circa early 1900s

One fine spring morning, not too many years ago, there were two young men who lived along the shores of Lough Neagh, and they took a boat and steered it to a fair being held on the opposite shore of the great lough. As is often the case with young men, however, they took a little bit too much whisky and Guinness at the fair, in addition to the amount that they had taken with them on the boat. These two young, intoxicated men set sail before a fair wind as they began on their return journey later that same evening. Their journey back would cause them to travel just over twelve miles across the waters of the lough. Meanwhile, in the small village that they called home the two men had left behind a close friend and associate, who had been unable to go to the fair with them. Instead, this young friend had gone to the bog for turf on that fair evening, just about half an hour after his two friends had set sail for home. With great industry the young friend soon filled his creel, and got it comfortably on his back, before he started for home.

As he followed the country track towards home he had an inexplicable impulse to look around. As he did so, the young turf collector saw, sitting on a small, heather-covered mound, his two young friends who had gone to the fair. But, unknown to the turf collector, the friends had left the fair twelve miles away only half an hour before. He could clearly see that the two young men had a bottle of whisky between them and were apparently enjoying themselves. As they had made merry and laughed loudly they had spotted their friend on his way home, and they signalled for him to come and join them.

Without any hesitation he made his way over to the mound, where he sat down to get the creel more easily off his back. But, as soon as he had removed the creel, his two friends had gone, and they were nowhere to be seen! There was no doubt in his mind that he had seen them plainly. Although he had not expected them to return so early, he was certain he had seen them and could not have been mistaken. He began to believe that they were trying to play a trick on him and he looked all round in the long heather bushes that stood behind the little clumps of turf, everywhere. But, his two friends could not be found no matter how hard he looked for them!

The entire event had astonished him at first, but he then became very frightened. Taking up his creel once again he hurried home and told everyone he met about what he had seen in the bog. Worried about his friends, the young turf collector anxiously gathered a few of his neighbours, and they all made their way to the lough shore to find out if the boat had returned, or not. It was not there. In fact, the boat was not discovered until the next morning, broken into hundreds of pieces of timber, floating in a little inlet almost ten miles further away! It was not until nine days afterwards, sadly, that the bodies of the two unfortunate young men who had travelled in the boat were finally washed ashore and retrieved.

How To Treat the Fairies

A Lesson Learned

In Ireland it is customary for the people to treat the fairy folk to many little acts of kindness. One example of this occurs when a cow is milked, and care is taken to let the first couple of draws from the udder are permitted to drop upon the ground for the “wee folk” to enjoy. Meanwhile, the poteen-makers at their illicit distillation sites also pay attention to the same “wee folk”. The very first, and best part, of the liquor which comes from the worm is always thrown to them in salutation. The Poteen-makers use a small tin measuring cup (a tionaiceen) to treat friends who may visit the still-house where
illicit distillation is carried on, including the fairy folk.

toinaceen
Toinaceen

My uncles all went shooting game birds in the hills of Tyrone, developing good relations with several small farmers in the area. It was well-known that many of these small farmers used the illicit distillation of Poteen to increase their income. Among these men was ‘Pure Paddy’, so named because of the quality of the liquor that he distilled and sold. At one time I had the distinct pleasure of being with Paddy as he worked at the still, which was well hidden in the nearby turf-bog. It was during this visit that I noticed Paddy throwing a cupful of poteen behind the still to the right, and another to the left. “Why do you do that ? ” I asked the old Poteen-maker.

He had just thrown the first cupful  and he shook his head disappointedly as he threw the next into some bramble bushes that were growing adjacent to the still. “For heaven’s sake, Paddy!” I exclaimed, “Why waste the stuff like that?”

But, sure, I’m not wasting it!” said the old man, looking at me in a very odd manner, “if you only knew it.”

But, you are throwing it away,” I insisted. “Is it not a waste for you to throw it all around yourself in that fashion?”

To tell you the truth, boy,” he replied, “they’re welcome to it and as much more as they want. But, they’re not greedy in any way, you can be guaranteed of that.”

They, they? ” I demanded. ” Who in the name of God are they? ”

They’re the wee folk boy, who else? And those poor creatures need it too, for I’m sure that they must be feeling the cold.”

Oh, you mean the fairies, I suppose?” said I.

That’s right, young man.”

And do you really believe in fairies?” I asked him.

Believe in them,” he laughed. “Of course, I do, and why wouldn’t I? ”

Oh, surely, you can’t be so foolish,” I scoffed.

Foolish! By all that’s holy! Sure, it’s those people that don’t believe in them that are the true fools, I’m thinking.”

And you imagine that they drink the poteen you throw around you in that way?

Ay, they drink my poteen, and they are glad to get it,” said the old ‘moonshiner’ emphatically.

“Then,” said I, “suppose what you say is true, what would happen if you did not treat your invisible wee friends?”

By Jaysus, son, there would be open blue murder about it, without any doubt at all. Sure, they’d be so angry that they would curse the still with bad luck and, maybe, the whole lot of the poteen would be spilled, or worse, the police would get it.”

Has anything like that ever happened before?” I asked him.

Aye, of course there has! Sure, how else would we know what would happen?”

I must admit that I was convinced in the truthfulness of the old man, but I wanted to hear more about such encounters with the fairy folk. I wanted to know if he had personally met with any “bad luck” himself because he had failed to give a hospitable offering to his exacting and easily angered, though easily appeased, friends, the “little folk.” To get him talking, therefore, I began by remarking that he must have had some personal experience of such things since he spoke so knowledgeably about such things. “Aye, indeed, young man, I’m sorry to say, and I’ll be sorry while there is still breath in me body. I have experience of just how unlucky it is for a man to be miserly with the ‘good people’,” said he.

Tell me all about it,” I asked him anxiously and earnestly.

Now, there’s not much to tell, young man, but I’ll tell you about it anyway.”
StillOne night,” he began, ” I was making my first brewing in this very same place where we are now. But, in those days I was young and foolish, and I would not take the advice of old Micky Whelan when he told me to treat ‘good people’ well. The answer I gave him was that they would go to the devil before I’ll give a drop to them, or anyone living or dead, until I have the money in my hand for it first. When I said that, of course, Old Micky spoke out, and he told me that I would rue those words. Then, blessing himself he got up and left me, a little frightened. There were a couple of the neighbours here, too, and they went away with him. Well, there was not one left here but myself, and I thought to myself that I would take a wee drink to keep up my spirits, for you can see, yourself, it’s a lonely place here for one to be with oneself, without a living soul to speak to. But, by all that’s holy, wasn’t left long without plenty of company, although it was the kind that I would have rather not had. Because, as quick as you could clap your two hands together, I heard the rasp of the bow across the strings of a fiddle, up there in the bushes, and with that the prettiest and the liveliest tune that I ever heard filled the air. The first thought that came into my head was that the lads had fallen in with ‘Blind Dominic’ the fiddler, when they were leaving the still-house, and that they sneaked back with the fiddle into the bushes to try and frighten me. So, I shouted out angrily that it would be better for them to come here and give me a hand, rather than going on with their nonsense, for if they were trying to frighten me they wouldn’t manage to do it. Well, suddenly I heard three or four shouts and the sound of dancing keeping time to the tune, and fine dancing it was. I began to mock it and told them they were very merry and that maybe it was the police they wanted to bring down on me with their nonsense. Well, I can tell you, the words were not right out of my mouth, when up struck another fiddle right beside me, and it wasn’t long until another began, and another, and another, until there were fiddles playing all around me everywhere, and the shouting, and the cheering, and the laughing began in earnest. By Jaysus, I thought to myself, it is the strange creatures about, but I’ll not let on that I’m one bit afraid of them and maybe they would not harm me. So, I jumped up and declared loudly that it was great music and I began to dance on the flagstone beside the fire in a very lively fashion. With one voice the entire company shouted out at me, calling me by name and telling me that I would rue it. Sure, they were now making a great hullabaloo, and right in the middle of it I got two smart blows, first on one cheek then on the other. It was then I began to think that it was time for me to get out, but I decided that I would take the keg with me, no matter what happened. So, putting the keg on my back, I took to my heels as quickly as I could. But, I hadn’t gone more than three steps when I tripped, and fell, and the keg was broken into smithereens with every blessed drop spilled. Let me tell you, that’s when the commotion began in real earnest and ten times greater than before! You could hear the glasses, and the tin cups, and the mugs rattling against one another, and the shouts and the bustle of the wee-folk as they jostled one another trying to see who could get most of the drink that was spilled. Not even a half-penny’s worth did I get, but I heard as much as did me, and away I ran towards home as fast as my legs could carry me and not once did I look around until I reached the house. I can tell you that I never again forgot to give the good people a drink after that. And you can be sure when one does show them some hospitality they don’t forget it neither. It’s many a good turn they did me, but there was one turn in particular, and if you’re not afraid that the police will come on us I’ll tell you something about it.Police Raid“I will risk the police, Jimmy,” said I as I sat down on a vacant three-legged stool, which stood beside the blazing turf fire under the still. 

Well, then,” began the old moonshiner, “One night, about the middle of December, I was making a brew for Christmas. It was about seven or eight o’clock in the evening, or thereabouts. My partner, Mickey, that I told you about a while ago, was just after leaving me to get something to eat, for he hadn’t had a bite of food since the morning. There wasn’t one person with me in the still-house but myself. Well, boy, I was sitting here just where I am now this minute, and smoking quite contentedly, while I was watching the Poteen running from the worm into the keg in case there would be any chance of it becoming white. Well, if it did turn white I would throw some water on fire to cool it down a little, and some more on the worm until it cooled, just as you saw me doing a while ago. Well, I wasn’t long sitting that way, when three shots from a gun went just over my head, one after another. Believe me when I tell you that I jumped up quick and sudden onto my feet. At first, I thought it was the police, for that’s what they generally do when they are intent on making a seizure. Well, I took to my feet mighty fast, you can be sure that I never once looked around me until I got to the top of that hill over there. It was only then that I felt brave enough to look around, but the devil a one could I see at all. I had a full view of the still-house, and all around it, but not a person I could I clap my eyes on, only everything just as it was. Well, back I came to the still-house again, but you can be sure that I kept my eyes sharp about me until Mickey came. When I told him the story, he looked at me, and he said that the faster we are out of this the better we’ll be. I asked Mickey what it could have been, and he simply told me that it is well known to me. He also said that I would see the lads before the morning. So, I told myself, that we should waste no time lifting the keg out of this place even though it was not yet three quarters full. Well, boy, to make a long story short, we cleared away everything and hid them in the bog over there. Then we went home, and we were only just sitting down at the fire when we heard the troop, the tramping of the revenue horses, as we thought it was the revenue police. Well, young man, as I said, we heard the tramp, tramp of the horses’ feet on the road, and the clattering of bayonets and swords, and the creaking of the saddles, and the orders of command, as if there was a whole regiment of horsemen and horses on parade. Mickey was totally surprised that what I had said had now come to pass, and he went with me to the door to have a look. It was a fine clear moonlight night, just like it is tonight, but as we looked out there wasn’t the devil of a horse or rider to be seen, although we could still hear the thud of the horses’ hoofs, and the clashing of the swords plainly. Were we frightened?  By God, you may be sure that we were in a way, and, in another way, we were not, for you see we knew well enough that this a sign from the ‘good people’ telling us that the revenue men were coming. Sure, they did come a very short time later. But, although they searched every hole and corner in the place, they never discovered the place where we hid the keg and things. So, you see, you will never lose much by being kind to the good people.

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.