“I don’t know what happened to me, but I have the strangest feelings inside of me. Believe me, daughter, I can tell you that I have never felt like this before …
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.
“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.
They 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?”
The 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.”
Paddy M’Dermot was one of the most popular boys in the entire county and such was his popularity that there was hardly a fair or a festival that did not have him in the middle of it. In fact, just like a bad penny, Paddy turned up everywhere and it was very rare that his poor little farm was sowed in season, and where barley was expected to grow, there grew nothing but weeds. It was through this young man’s complete lack of industry that money became a scarce commodity in Paddy’s pocket. Then, the cow was sold after the pig, and nearly everything that he had followed the same path.
Paddy’s luck changed one night as he lay in a deep, drunken sleep in the Rath of ‘Moneyrack.’ As he slept he was visited by a beautiful dream that showed him he was lying in a spot that covered a pot of money, which had been buried there in ancient times. But, Paddy remembered every detail of his vision despite his high level of intoxication, and he told no other person about what he had seen. The next night he gathered a spade and a pickaxe from the barn, and into his pocket he placed a bottle of holy water. Armed in this way, Paddy made his way to the Rath and, after circling the place for a moment or two he began to dig.
‘Ah now, Paddy McDermot, be easy now,’’ said the greyhound; ‘don’t I know very well what you are looking for?’
‘Well then, if you do know, I may as well tell you at once, especially since you seem to be a civil-looking gentleman, that does not think it is below him to speak with a poor eejit like myself.’ Anyone could immediately detect that Paddy wanted to butter-up the stranger a little.
‘Well then,’ said the greyhound, ‘come out here and sit down on this bank.’
Like a damned fool, Paddy did as he was asked, but had hardly put his foot outside of the circle he had made with the holy water, when the beast of a greyhound set upon him, and drove him out of the Rath. Paddy was frightened, as well he might, at the fire that flamed from the hound’s mouth. Nevertheless, he returned the next night, certain that the money he sought was in that Rath. As he had done before, Paddy made a circle with the holy water and again hit the hidden object with the pick-axe. Once again, the strange greyhound appeared in the same place he had the previous night. ‘Oh ho,’ said Paddy, ‘you are here again, are you? Well, let me tell you that it will be a long day before I allow you to trick me again.’ Then, he lifted his pick-axe and made another stroke at the hidden object.
‘Well, Paddy McDermot,’ said the hound, ‘If it is just the money you’re after, tell me how much would satisfy your needs?’
Paddy scratched his head while he thought for a few moments. Then, looking the greyhound directly in the eye he asked it, ‘How much will you give me?’ He was still in fear of the greyhound but tried hard not to show it.
‘Just as much as you would consider reasonable, Paddy M’Dermot,’ said the greyhound craftily.
‘What?’ said Paddy to himself, ‘there’s nothing like asking enough. But, how much is enough?’ Then, turning to the greyhound he said, ‘Say fifty thousand pounds!’ He could have asked or more, for I am sure the old devil had enough to cover the bill.
Without a moment’s hesitation the greyhound said, ‘You shall have it!’ Then, after walking away a little distance, the hound came back with a crock filled with golden guineas between its paws.
‘Come here and count them for yourself,’ said the spirit dog. But Paddy knew what the old devil was up to him and didn’t move an inch from where he was. The crock was now shoved alongside the holy water circle, and Paddy quickly pulled it into his arms with the greatest of pleasure. He was so excited that his feet never stopped moving until he reached his own home, where he that the golden guineas had been transformed into bits of bones. His old mother, when she saw what her son had brought home, burst into uncontrollable laughter. Paddy now swore that he would get his revenge against the deceitful spirit dog, and he returned to the Rath the next night, where he met the hound again.
‘So, Paddy you are here again?’ the hound asked, somewhat amused.
‘I am, you dirty blackguard,’ said Paddy, ‘and I won’t be leaving this place until I pull out the pot of money that’s buried here!’
‘Is that right?’ asked the hound. ‘Well, Paddy M’Dermot, since you’re so brave and full of adventure I will make up what you are owed if you would walk downstairs with me out of the cold.” Paddy looked around and saw that it had begun to snow quite heavily.
‘May I never see home again if I follow you,’ replied Paddy, ‘All you want me for is to wear me down with old bones, or perhaps break my own, which would be just as bad.’
‘I promise,’ said the hound, ‘I am your friend, Paddy, so don’t just stand there. Come with me and your fortune is made. If you stay here, you’ll die a beggar-man.’
So, one word followed another until Paddy finally agreed. In the middle of the Rath a beautiful staircase opened up and they began to walk down it. After winding and turning they came, at last, to a house, which was considerably grander than the houses of many aristocrats, in which all the tables and chairs were made from solid gold. Paddy was delighted and, after sitting down, a fine lady handed him a glass of something to drink. But, he had hardly swallowed a spoonful when all around set up a horrid yell, and those who had appeared beautiful before now looked like what they truly were–enraged ‘fairy-folk’.
Before Paddy could even bless himself, they seized him by his legs and arms, carried him out to a great high hill that stood like a wall over a river, and flung him down. ‘Murder!’ cried out Paddy, but it was already too late. He fell upon a rock and lay there as if he was dead until the next morning, when some people found him in the trench that surrounds the mote of Coolhill, the ‘good people’ having carried him there. From that moment until the hour of his death, Paddy was one of the great wonders. He walked doubled-over and had his mouth where his ear should be.
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. For 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.”
Superstition is, and will probably remain, one of the major characteristics of the Irish people. One of the greatest sources of superstition, however, and one which has been the most productive of what are styled “well-founded and authenticated stories of supernatural occurrences,” is that ever changing ‘monster’ that is known in all its forms by the title of “Remarkable or Curious Coincidences.”
When events, which are precisely similar in detail, occur, they are considered coincidental. Some may consider them to be remarkable, given that these events are usually simple and ordinary. But, if these precisely similar events were repeated then they were considered to be a wonder. Quite recently, I was given an excellent example of this when I heard mention of a particularly curious coincidence having occurred not far from my home. It was the story of three men having been found drowned at various times during one winter season. Each body was found in the same river, at virtually the same place, and each wore two shirts. From that time it became a very strong belief among the locals that wearing two shirts was very unlucky.
Some people would suggest, however, that those people who would allow themselves to be guided by such beliefs would find their lives very burdensome. To be guided in their actions by these observations would require them to be in a state of constant alertness for the rest of their lives. The following story will, for instance, demonstrate the necessity of a person getting to know the names of fellow travellers, in case anyone with the name of Paddy Murphy be among them.
There was a time when the children in a large inland town rarely if ever saw the sea, unless they went on a day excursion organised by a local church group. In many of these seaside resorts enterprising persons often organise boat trips for fishing, sight-seeing, or simply for the experience of being on the open water. This was such in a resort that was, at one time, reachable by train from our home town. On one September morning a small pleasure boat with forty-one persons on board set out to travel down the Lough to the sea. It was a windy day, but not stormy enough to give any concern. When the boat reached the middle of the Lough the boat was overturned and only one man was saved. This fortunate man was called Paddy Murphy, a passenger on an excursion from m home town. Less than ten years after this incident a similar fate befell the twenty-five passengers aboard a small excursion craft. Again, only one man survived the incident, and he was called Paddy Murphy.
There are people who put a lot of credence in such coincidences, while others have belief in such things at all. Some people who have heard this story actually fear to trust their lives on any kind of boat with any man called Paddy Murphy. A little local knowledge and calm reflection, however, would go quite a way to removing such apprehensions. There are very few, if any, events in this life that cannot be traced back to natural causes.
The name of Murphy is very common in my home town, and Patrick, shortened to Paddy, is of course a favourite Christian name throughout all Ireland. There is every possibility, therefore, that persons with the name of Murphy, and very possibly even Paddy Murphy, were lost amongst the passengers on each of those occasions. But, the fact that people from the same town were on the excursions on each of those days appears to have been overlooked, while the coincidence of the individual saved on each occasion being of the same name was recorded. The events could have been simply accounted for by the ordinary rules of calculating odds or chances. Where the name of Paddy Murphy was common, there was certainly a greater chance of a person of that name being saved than one of any other, and, as has been remarked previously, no notice was taken of just how many Paddy Murphys had perished in these events.
© Jim Woods Nov. 2017 (www.irelandloreandtales.wordpress.com)
The breeze of that cold March day blew harshly as I walked steadfastly across the wide windswept fields towards the old burial-ground that rested in the townland of Killygann. On reaching the remains of the ancient church, I sat down for a moment upon the grassy bank that enclosed the cemetery. Taking a moment or two I contemplated the ground that lay before me and my mind wandered, thinking upon the generations of men that had taken the road to this place over the many years of its existence. In this place they had been buried to spend an eternity waiting upon the judgement of God, for whom an altar had been raised on this spot so many long years previously.
If you didn’t know what was inside this grassy enclosure, you would never have guessed that it was indeed a place of burial. There were, however, little hillocks here and there on the surface, which were about two or feet long, and defined by a stone. They were tombstones, marking the little graves that were the last resting-places of unfortunate babies that died in the act of being born, or who been born and fated to live but a short time before uttering a brief cry of pain, and going to sleep for eternity. These innocent, but unbaptized, children were never permitted to mingle with the baptised Christians and were always placed in these long disused cemeteries. In this old churchyard had not received the body of a baptised person in many decades, and its presence was almost untraceable beneath the long, rich green grass that flourished there.
It was said that the grandfather of the present landowner had decided to plant the entire area with fir-trees, which flourished in the rich soil formed by the decomposed bodies that lay many feet below. The trees, themselves, had grown to a very unusual size, and demonstrating to all that no man is totally useless, even in death. When his time is finished, and his labours are ended, a dead man’s body may still enrich the ground that is so often impoverished by his greed. In the meantime, among these tall, sheltering trees, a colony of rooks had established their airy city. And, while the young settlers to the place busily built their new nests, the older residents of the grove were engaged in repairing the damage their homes had received from the storms of winter. The air itself was busy with the shrill discordant voices of the black horde as they seemed to be mock those that sought sleep in the lower branches.
As I sat upon that grassy bank, reflecting upon the old graveyard before me, I noticed a man walking along the same path that I had followed. He appeared to be very advanced in years, but he a tall figure of a man, who supported himself with a long wooden staff. Against the chill of the March wind the old man was wrapped in a blue-grey coat that folded close under a belt of string, and a woollen hat that was drawn over his face, as if to screen it from the sharp blast of a cold-wind that rushed toward him. He suddenly stopped, then fixed his eyes on a spot in the burial ground where a wind-blasted and branchless whitethorn stood. This ‘fairy tree’ looked as if it had become part of the fabric of this ancient, lingering as it did over its grass-grown foundation. The old man then raised his eyes heavenward and sank to his knees, while his lips moved as if speaking some silent prayer. His actions at that place fuelled my imagination as to why this old man’s deep devotion, at such a place and time. I was confident that it was not from some ordinary motive that the old man had felt the need to pray. There must have been some reason, or some tradition connected with this ancient place, that had caused the old man to pray with such enthusiasm. So, as the old man rose from his knees, I approached him and said, “My friend, I hope you will pardon me for intruding, for your sudden and impassioned prayer has awakened my inquisitiveness.”
To my surprise the old man answered me in Irish and explained, “I was only begging mercy and pardon for the souls who in the close darkness of their graves cannot help themselves and I begged the good Lord to cease placing the guilt of their fathers upon the children. This spot caused me to remember a terrible act of sacrilege that my forefathers had committed. For this great sin their descendants continue to suffer, and I did not think for one moment that someone other than God had seen me.”
“Perhaps,” he continued, “as you seem to be a stranger in these parts, you have never heard of the Bald Berrys, and the blessed Whitethorn of Killygann. It is a very old tradition, and you might even say it is just a superstitious legend. But there is the whitethorn, blasted and decayed from the contact of my ancestors’ unholy hands. And here, before you, stands the last of their name. I am a homeless wanderer, with no other inheritance than this mark of the curse and crime of his race.” Removing his woollen hat as he said this, revealing a perfectly smooth head, upon which there was not one single hair.
“That old heads should become bald, is not a rare thing,” I told him, “and I have seen younger men whose heads are as hairless as yours.”
“My head,” he replied, “from my birth to this moment, never had a single hair upon it. Sadly, my father and grandfather endured the same fate, while my great-grandfather was deprived of his long, thick hair in one tearful moment. I shall tell you the whole story as we walk along together, if you are going in the direction of this path.”
As we walked together, he told me the following story. The old man spoke in such a poetic and energetic way that I wish I was able to infuse these qualities into my translation. But, for a wider audience I have had to write in English, which is a much colder language than Irish and fails to do justice to the wonderfully poetical language of the story.
“Many a biting March wind has passed over the heads of men since Colonel Berry lived at Lisnarick, whose veins had the true blood of one of old Strongbow’s chiefs, who became a sovereign prince in the land. His forebears had formed strong alliances with the ancient owners of the land, eventually renouncing any Anglo-Saxon connection and name. This noble family subsequently gloried in the title of McCoille and the colonel did nothing in his life that would bring shame on his forebears. He kept open house for all comers, and every day an ox was killed and consumed at Lisnarick. All the influential men of note in the province came there to hunt, fish and hawk. To feast and lodge there and enjoy the hall, which was always crowded with harpers and pipers, rich men and beggars, and jesters and story-tellers, who came and went as they pleased, in constant succession.” Then the old man let out a long sigh, “I can recall some of these good old times, but now they are vanished and gone for ever. The great hospitality that was so much a part of the chieftain’s hall has gone now and the hall has become a hovel on the moor. The wanderer now turns from the great towers of a Lord’ home, seeks the shelter of the peasant’s shed!
Davey Berry and his seven brothers lived with McCoille and held his name and family. Whether McCoille went hunting on horseback, or took the opportunity to shoot, or moved among the high and titled families of the land, they always went with him. They acted like a sort of body-guard, share in his sports or helping him assert his will in any quarrels. At that time, on the banks of the Bann, near the ruined tower of Shanlieve, lived a man named Edward Berry. On his farm there was a thick and thorny thicket that, for many years had been the hiding place for a fox. This, however, was no normal fox. This fox was famous throughout the Province and was celebrated for the extraordinary speed and prowess that he had shown to those many men who had tried so hard to hunt him down. There had, indeed, been many gallant and noble huntsmen sought the honour of bearing that fox’s tail as a trophy. But all efforts had been in vain and after exhausting both hounds and horses in the arduous pursuit the fox invariably returned every night to his favourite sanctuary. To outsiders it seems that a treaty of peace existed between Edward Berry and the fox. Edward’s poultry for several years, whether they sought the banks of the Bann or the barn door, never suffered because the fox was nearby. It would mix with Barry’s dogs and spend an hour or two playing with them, almost as if he belonged to the same species. Mr. Berry gave his wild crafty friend the same protection and freedom that he permitted his own domestic animals. The fame of this strange union of interests was widespread and even to this day the memory of Berry’s fox survives in the traditions of the country.
One evening as McCoille and his followers returned from a long and unsuccessful chase of Edward Berry’s fox, their route lay by the ruins of the ancient church of Killygann. Near this sacred spot a whitethorn tree had stood, and its beauty and bloom were talked about by every man, woman, and child. The simple prayerful folk who poured their petitions to God beneath its holy shade believed that the hands of guardian angels pruned its luxuriance and developed its form of beauty. They believed also that dewfall from heaven was sprinkled by angel hands to produce its rich and beautiful blossoms, which filled the cold winds of December with many tokens of holy fragrance that welcomed the heavenly coming Him who left his Father’s throne to restore to the sons of Adam the lost inheritance of heaven. McCoille was so enamoured by the beauty of the tree and caring little for its sanctity or the superstitious awe that was attached to it, he was firmly resolved to move it to his home at Lisnarick. He wanted his lawn to have that rare species of thorn which blooms in beauty when all other trees in the field are bare and barren.
Next day, when McCoille made known his intention to remove the sacred whitethorn of Kilygann, his people were astonished at his blatant lack of respect for tradition. In response they all declared that they would resist until death any attempt to commit such an audacious act of sacrilege. Now, McCoille was not a man who would permit resistance to his will and had always been accustomed to his commands being obeyed immediately and without question. When he found that his men were now refusing to obey him he exploded with uncontrollable anger. He cursed and damned all those who were standing around him, shouting, “Traitors! You have all eaten at my table and enjoyed the hospitality of McCoille, and you have all sought and been given my protection. Yet, there are none you who are grateful enough to abandon your superstitious nonsense and carry out my commands!”
“Here, my Lord, are seven of your own name and Clan,” cried Davey Berry, “men who are sworn to stand or fall together, who obey no commands but yours, and acknowledge no law but your will. The whitethorn of Killygann shall leave its sacred place, if their strong hands and brave hearts can manage its removal. If it be a sacrilege to disturb the tree, which generations have revered, the curse for this sacrilege does not rest on us. Even should McCoille command us to tear the blessed gold from the shrine of a saint, we would not hesitate to obey him. We are just carrying out the will of our legal chieftain.”
They sang McCoille’s praises as they marched to where the tree had stood for many centuries, and they immediately proceeded to desecrate the spot that was made holy by those who had revered it over the ages. Such was the reverence shown to this holy whitethorn that a mystic circle surrounded it, within which no mortal foot may go. But, men have committed many wrongs and salved their consciences by convincing themselves that they acted in obedience to the commands of their leaders, and that a prayer of contrition will purify their souls.
That same evening McCoille saw the beautiful whitethorn planted in his garden and many were thanked for bringing it to him. Gold and rank were his rewards to those faithful men who had risen to the challenge and overcome the terrors of superstition to carry out his commands. But, McCoille was very much surprised when Davey Berry interrupted his morning sleep and announced that the tree had disappeared during the night. Confusion when he told his chieftain that the tree was again planted where it had stood for ages before, in the ancient cemetery of Killygann. McCoille was convinced that the tree venerated by the people had been secretly taken by them during the night to where it formerly stood. He immediately sent his most trusted men bring it back and stand guard until morning.
The Berry brothers obeyed the call of their chief and brought the whitethorn back. They replanted the tree, carefully covering its roots with rich mould, and made ready to watch over it all night. It proved to be a long and dark night, and they were wide awake. The night-breeze had stilled and all of nature appeared to have been mysteriously silenced. In this strange quietness a deep and undefinable feeling of dread crept into the hearts of the guards. These were men who had been tried and tested in the heat of battle but were now frightened by this fearful calmness. Their normal steadfast obedience to the commands of McCoille could not still their hearts against the remorse they began to feel, and there was talk amongst them against the sacrilege he had committed. As the night advanced their fear increased and they spread out their watchful circle around the mysterious tree. Davey, the eldest and bravest of the brothers, finally fell asleep. But, his short and fitful dozes were disturbed by wild and indistinct dreams. Then, as his sleep settled down and those vague images disappeared, the following vision came into his mind –
He began to dream that as he was keeping watch by the sacred whitethorn of Killygann, there stood before him a saintly man. This man’s radiant features and shining ancient clothing illuminated the entire area around him, piercing far into the darkness that surrounded him. In his hand he held a crosier, and upon his head sat a towering mitre. His long, white beard descended to the belt that encircled his rich bishop’s clothes, and he looked every inch the mitred abbot of some ancient monastery, which the rage of the English reformation had levelled to dust. The face of this saintly man, however, bore a fearfully severe expression, and the sleeping man fell to the ground, prostrate before the piercing eye that searched his inner-most soul.
“Wretched man,” said the shining apparition, in a thunderous voice, “ lift your head and listen carefully to your fate, and the fate that shall befall your sacrilegious brothers.”
Berry lifted his head in obedience to the instruction he received, though his soul sank within him, as stood before this dreadful voice and eye of terror. “Because you have violated the sanctity of this place” the holy man continued, “which has been consecrated to God, you and your family shall wander homeless ever more as beggars, and your heads, as a sign and a warning to future generations, shall suffer the pelting of every storm, and the severity of every changing season, unprotected by the defence that nature has bestowed upon all other men. This curse will last until your name and family be erased from memory.”
After hearing this angry denunciation against him the terrified man fell to the ground prostrate pleading for mercy, and he awakened with a cry of terror which alarmed the other guards. As he began to tell them about the terrible vision he had seen in his sleep, there was a crash of thunder, a flash of lightning, and the sweep of a whirlwind, which enveloped them all. As the new day dawned, the guards were to be found senseless, and at a considerable distance from the spot where they had lain the preceding night to guard the sacred tree. The thorn had also disappeared and, most strangely of all, the long black hair that shone like a raven’s wing, and was their pride, no longer adorned their heads. The fierce whirlwind, that had tossed them about, like the stubble of the field, had brought reality the dream, and removed their thick, long hair in its vengefulness.”
This was the story of the of the ‘Bald Berrys’ as it was told to me and I hand it on to you, the reader. I will make no further comment or note on this story, but I leave it to you to decide the truth of it. Some will question how an apparently cultured people can attribute the downfall of families, or the entailment of hereditary disease, to be caused by supernatural intervention. Others will remind you of an old saying –
“There are more things in heaven
and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your
It was over a year since the tragic death of Paddy Slane when the Curate of the Church was given a letter that was delivered to him by hand. The letter that he received was a polite request for a funeral to be conducted within the Church, and it contained a series of instructions as to how the family wished the grave to be prepared. Because it was not the responsibility of the Curate to act upon such instructions personally, and he, therefore, sent a message to Bob Harte, asking him if he would call at the Curate’s house to be briefed on the family’s requests.
It was a heavy, early autumn night and there were large numbers of threatening thunder-clouds slowly rising from the earth, loading the sky with a dark and foreboding storm canopy. The deep, low growl of a distant thunder and could be heard echoing over many miles on the dull, still air of the night. It appeared almost as if all of nature had chosen to cower under the threatening influence of the approaching storm. The old clock in the hall had just struck nine o’clock when Bob put on his coal-black coat, and he readied himself to attend to the Curate’s message.
“Listen to me now, Bobby darlin’,” said Bob’s wife quietly as she handed him his hat, after she had taken it from the hat-rack. “Will you just go straight there and come straight home again, won’t you Bobby darlin’? You’ll not go near, the you know where?”
“What are you talking about, woman?” he replied rather tersely and snatched his hat from her hand.
“Ah, Bobby, sure you’ll not go near the pub at all?” she asked, in a pleading tone of voice, as she moved her hand away to avoid her husband’s grasp.
“Now, why would I want to be doing such a thing, woman? Just give me my hat, for God’s sake, so I can be on my way! It’s already late.”
“But, Bobby, will you not just promise me you won’t? Now promise me, darling!” she pleaded with him as tears filled her eyes.
“Ay, ay, of course I’ll promise you. Sure, why would I not?” he replied in a way that showed his frustration with his wife’s constant pleas.
“Ah now, Bobby, I hear you talking, but you’re not giving me your solemn promise,” she pressed him.
“Listen, woman!” said Bob, “May the devil take me if I should take a single drop of drink until I come back home again! Now, will you give my head a bit of peace now?”
“It will my darlin’,” she smiled, “and may God keep you safe.”
With this parting blessing from the lips of his wife, Bob Harte went out of the door, breathing a lot easier as his wife closed the door behind him. The night was, by this time, quite dark as Bob stepped out on to the street, while his wife, contented by her husband’s promise, returned to her armchair in the living room, where she resumed her knitting and would wait until he returned. These last few weeks she had been very worried that, perhaps, Bob had taken to drinking much more often. This would, of course, be inconsistent with his apparent reformation from previous indiscretions. Her deepest fear, however, was the temptations provided by at least a half-dozen public houses that he would have to pass on his way to the curate’s house, which stood at the other end of the town. Despite the lateness of the hour, these ‘pubs’ would still be open for business, and they gave off a sweet aroma of whiskey and porter, which smelled so enticing to a drinking man. But, true to his word, Bob continued on his way, passing each of them without once turning his head in their direction. Bob deliberately put his hands into his coat pockets and looked straight ahead as he walked, whistling a merry tune to himself, and thinking only of his forthcoming meeting with the curate and the fee that he would get for the work he would be asked to do. In this manner Bob made his way, safely avoiding all temptation, to the curate’s house feeling very pleased with himself.
At length, Bob reached the curate’s house and knocked on the front door, which was answered by the housekeeper. She informed Bob that the curate had been called out unexpectedly to attend to a very ill parishioner, but she told him that he could sit in the hall and await the curate’s return. There Bob sat in a large blood-leather armchair amusing himself by reading some magazines, that lay on the hall table, and biting his nails until the clergyman returned home. The minutes passes slowly into hours as he waited and waited. But, it was not until almost half-past eleven that the cleric returned home, and it was just gone midnight when Bob finally set out on his journey home. By this time, however, the storm clouds had gathered to a deep, pitch darkness and the roars of thunder could be heard above the barren rocks and hollows of the distant mountains. Pale, blue lightning flashes broke the darkness, reflecting upon the rain soaked facades of the houses. Bob was fully aware that, by this time of the night, every door in the street would be closed and securely locked. But, as he trudged his way home, Bob’s eyes strained through the gloom as he sought out the public-house which had once belonged to late friend, Paddy Slane.
When he came to the building, Bob noticed a faint light making its way through the slats in the window shutter, as well as the frosted-glass panes over the door-way, which created a sort of dull, foggy, and mystical halo about the front of the public houses. Now that Bob’s eyes had become very much accustomed to the darkness of the night, that faint halo of light was just enough illumination to allow him to see a strange figure of a man before him. The closer that Bob came to the strange man he began to notice that the man was wearing a type of loose overcoat, which was tightly pulled around him as he sat upon a wooden seat that was firmly fixed into the pavement below the pub’s huge main window. The seated figure was also wearing a large, broad-brimmed hat that hung very much over his eyes, and he was smoking a long, strangely shaped pipe.
On the seat, at the side of the stranger, Bob could just discern the outline of a glass and, also, a half -bottle was dimly noticeable on the pavement, just to the side of his foot. The longer that he watched this strange figure, the more certain he was that there was something extremely odd about him. This stranger had the appearance of travelling man, who had simply stopped to refresh himself on that wooden bench in a rain-soaked street. At first, Bob thought it was likely this stranger had been drinking in the pub when it closed for the night. He thought that, perhaps, this stranger had taken what remained of his drink out to the seat, where he could enjoy it as he watched the lightning flashes light up the sky. At any other time, it is likely that Bob would have given the stranger a friendly greeting as he passed him by. On this particular night, however, Bob Harte was feeling quite low in his spirits, and was certainly not in any kind of mood to be genial to any stranger. Just as he was about to pass the seated man without greeting him, the stranger lifted his half-bottle of whiskey and, without removing the pipe from his mouth, he beckoned Bob over to him. At the same time, with a slight nod of his head, and a shrug of his shoulders, the stranger indicated he wanted Bob to share his seat and his bottle.
Bob watched as the man shifted along the seat to the end, making room for Bob to sit down. There was a wonderful aroma of malt whiskey coming from the area where the man sat, and Bob was sorely tempted by it. But he recalled the promise he had made to his wife, which reinforced his will-power just as it began to weaken, and he politely told the stranger, “No. But, I thank you for your kind offer, sir, but I cannot stop for a drink this night.”
The stranger, however, was not to be so easily placated, and he beckoned to Bob even more vehemently. He pointed to the empty space on the seat beside him, as if commanding Bob to sit. This time he gave the strange man a smile as he, once again, began to excuse himself, “Thanks again for your very polite offer, but I’m very late as it is, and I don’t have any time to spare. So, I wish you a very good night.”
Jingling his glass against the neck of the whiskey bottle, the stranger was suggesting that Bob could at least swallow one mouthful of the whiskey without losing much time. He was sorely tempted, and he wondered what harm a mouthful of whiskey would him. Although his mouth watered at the prospect, he remembered the promise that he had made. Bob shook his head strongly to demonstrate that his decision was now final and, there was nothing that would move him from his resolve. But, as Bob walked on, the stranger arose from his seat with his pipe still in mouth. He had the whiskey bottle in one hand, the glass in the other, and he now began to follow close behind the sacristan. This now caused Bob some major concern, and he quickly became very suspicious of the stranger’s intentions.
Bob now began to quicken his step and listened intently as the stranger followed close behind him. The sacristan now began to feel very anxious about this pursuit and he nervously turned around to face the stranger. He was still very close behind Bob, and he was continuing to invite him to share in his liquor, with increasingly impatient gestures.
“I have already told you,’ said Bob, who was both angry and frightened, ‘I don’t want a drink and that’s final! Now just go away! Take yourself and your whiskey bottle and go!” The stranger, however, continued to approach him very slowly, causing him to become irritated and angrily he shouted at him, “In God’s name, get back from me and stop tormenting me in this way!”
But, even as he spoke these words Bob recognised that his words and attitude had only increased the anger building within the stranger. In response to Bob the stranger began to shake the whiskey bottle toward him with violent, menacing gestures. Bob continued hastily on his way and the distance between him and the stranger increased considerably. As they both continued along the street Bob could see the stranger following behind, because his pipe gave off such a warm, wonderful red glow, which duskily illuminated the stranger’s entire figure despite the darkness of the badly lit street. Bob stopped again and called out to the stranger in a rage, “I just wish you would go to the devil, whoever you are!”
“Just get away from me!” he shouted as he hurried away. But, as he walked and looked back, over his shoulder, to discover that much to his dismay, the infuriating stranger was as close as ever to him.
“Damn you to hell,” cried out Bob in desperation as he began to feel himself almost overcome with fear and rage. “Just what is it you want of me?”
The strange man just ignored Bob’s anger in Bob’s voice and approached him even more confidently than before. He continued nodding his head and extending both glass and bottle toward Bob as he moved ever closer. Then, out of the darkness behind the stranger , Bob noticed a large black horse following them in virtual silence.
“You can keep your temptations to yourself, you devil, for there is nothing but a dark evil that surrounds you,” cried Bob Harte as he felt a real sense of terror spread rapidly through his entire body. “Will you just leave me alone?” he called out aloud as he fumbled through his confused mind for a suitable prayer to rescue him from what was, he thought, a servant of Satan. Realising that he was now very close to his own front door, Bob quickened his pace to a jog rather than a walk.
As he came to the front door of his house, Bob hammered his fist upon it and called out, “Let me in, let me in, for God’s sake! Molly, please open the door!” He was breathing heavily by this time and, weak with exhaustion, he leant his back against the heavy wooden door. From the street the strange man now confronted him and, although there was no longer a pipe in his mouth, a dusky red glow still lingered around him. From the depths of his body the stranger uttered some indescribable, cavernous sounds, which imitated closely the growls of a great wolf, or some other indescribable beast. Meanwhile, just as he uttered his strange howl, he poured some of the liquid from the bottle into the glass.
Hysterical with fear, Bob kicked at the front door with all the force he could muster and, despairingly, he tearfully screamed, ‘In the name of God Almighty, once and for all, leave me alone!’
After Bob had recovered he was told that it was likely the strange figure of a man, who had sat upon the wooden seat outside Paddy Slane’s ‘pub’ was actually the spectre of Paddy’s suicide. It was suggested to Bob that this spectre had been summoned by the ‘Evil One’ to lure the church sacristan into abandoning the promise that he had solemnly sworn to his wife. The person who interpreted Bob’s encounter with this evil spectre suggested that if the apparition had succeeded in his task, it is more than likely that the ghostly, black horse that had appeared would have carried a double burden back to the underworld.
As a matter of proof that these events happened as described, the old thorn tree which overhung the front door of the house was found, in the morning, to have been blasted with the infernal stream of fire flung by the evil spectre from the glass. It looked just like a lightning-bolt had scorched the front of the house, and it was to remain in that condition for several years, because people of the town were too afraid to repair the damage they believed had been caused by the ‘fires of hell.”.