Craic agus Ceoil agus Rince – The three pillars of Irish society, which make us such a happy, fun-loving race. This blog concerns Rince (Dance) – Irish Dancing through the years.
I am a traditionalist at heart. I love traditional music and traditional Irish Dancing, Step-Dancing and Ceilidh. I know it will horrify some people but I am not a fan of Feis Dancing with all those wigs, make-up, false-tan. In my opinion, it is more about a beauty pageant than what is traditionally Irish. But it is my opinion…
Is this what they called a ‘Hooley’ – Is it why the church suppressed House Ceilidhs, because the people would go to a dance quicker than they would go to Mass? What has changed in Ireland?
Of all Ireland’s ghosts, fairies, or demons, the Banshee (sometimes called locally the ‘Boheentha’) is, probably, the best known to those living outside the country. I am often amused by the number of visitors from across the Channel who think that they are as common as the pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and expect her to make an appearance on demand just like one of the many famous sights of our country. They ignore the fact that the Banshee is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree that no man can measure because its roots extend back into the dim and mysterious past of Ireland.
Without a doubt, the most famous Banshee of ancient times was that which attached itself to the royal house of O’Brien. She was called ‘Aibhill’, and she haunted the rock of Craglea that stands above Killaloe, near the old palace of Kincora. In 1014 A.D. the battle of Clontarf was fought against the Danes, and the aged king, Brian Boru, who led the Irish forces was fully aware that he would never come away alive. The night before the battle, ‘Aibhill’ had appeared to him and told him of his impending fate. The Banshee’s method of foretelling a person’s death in those olden times differed from that which she adopts in the present day. Now she, generally, wails and wrings her hands, but in the old Irish tales she is often found washing human heads and limbs, or blood-stained clothes, until the water is all dyed with human blood, and this would take place before a battle. So, it appears that over a course of centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.
Reports from eyewitnesses give very different descriptions about what she looks like. Sometimes, she is pictured as a young and beautiful woman, and at other times appears as an old and fearsome hag. One witness described her as “a tall, thin woman with uncovered head, and long hair that floated around her shoulders, attired in something which seemed either a loose white cloak or a sheet thrown hastily around her, uttering piercing cries.” Another witness, who saw the banshee one evening sitting on a stile in the yard, appeared as a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red cloak. There are numerous other descriptions available, but one surprising fact about the Banshee is that she does not seem to exclusively follow families of Irish descent. At least one incident refers to the death of a member of a County Galway family, who were English by name and origin.
At this point, we should relate one of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories, namely the story contained in ‘Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw’. The good lady states that in 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish clan, who resided in his ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight, she says, she was awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of the bed, she saw in the moonlight a female face and part of a form hovering at the bedroom window. The height of the window from the ground and the position of the moat around the castle convinced her ladyship that this was a creature of the spirit world. She did notice, however, that the pale face she saw was that of a young and rather beautiful woman, and her reddish coloured hair was loose and dishevelled. This ghostly form, Lady Fanshaw recollected, was dressed much in the style of ancient Ireland and continued to appear to her some considerable time before vanishing with two shrieks that sounded like those that first attracted attention.
In the morning, still shaking with fear, Lady Fanshaw told her what she had witnessed. Surprisingly, she found that not only was he able to confirm the existence of such a being, but he was ready to explain to account for its presence in his castle. He told her quite candidly, “A near relation of my family expired last night in this castle. But we decided not to tell you that we were expecting such a visitation, in case it would throw a cloud over the cheerful welcome we had prepared for you. However, before any event of this kind happens in this family or castle, the female spectre that you have seen always appears. We believe this spirit to be a woman from a lower class, with whom one of my ancestors degraded himself by marrying. In an effort expiate the dishonour done to his family, he subsequently drowned the poor woman in the moat.”
If one was strictly applying traditional terms to such a vision, then this woman would not normally be called a Banshee. The motive for the haunting is like other tales that are on a par with this one, in that the spirit of the murdered person haunts the family out of revenge, and always appears before a death.
There was nothing special about this ruined Church. It was a simple oblong building, with long side-walls and high gables, and an unenclosed graveyard that lay in open fields. As the group of people walked down the long dark lane, they suddenly heard a distant sound of wailing voices and clapping hands, like you would hear at a country wake where neighbours and friends lament the passing of one of their own. The group of young people hurried along the lane, and they came in sight of the church ruins, There, on the side wall, a little grey-haired old woman, who was clad in a dark cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and throwing up her arms like a crazy person. The girls now became very frightened, but the young men in the group ran forward and surrounded the ruin. Then, two of the young men went into the church and, as they did so, the apparition vanished from the wall. Nonetheless, they searched every nook, and found no one, nor did any one of them become unconscious. All the young people were now well scared, and they made their way home as fast as they possibly could.
When they finally reached their home, their mother opened the door, and immediately she began to explain that she had become terribly concerned about their father. Their mother told them that she had been looking out of the window in the moonlight when a huge raven with fiery eyes landed on the window-sill, and it tapped three times on the glass. When the young ones told her their story it only added the anxiety that they were all now beginning to feel. As they stood talking among themselves, taps came to the nearest window, and they all saw the bird again. A few days later news reached them that their Father had died.
For the most part, the eye-witnesses to these events were people of good character, including the sister of a former Roman Catholic Bishop related a story about an incident that occurred when she was a little girl. She said that she went out one evening with some other local children for a walk, and going down the road, they passed the gate of the parkland near the town. On a large rock that stood beside the road, they suddenly saw something very strange and moved nearer to get a better look. Before them, they saw that the strange object was a little dark, old woman, who began to cry and clap her hands noisily. Some of the girls tried to speak to the old woman, but they became very afraid, and all of them chose to run home as quickly as they could. Next day there came news that the gentleman near whose gate the Banshee had cried, was dead, and had apparently died at the very hour when the children had first seen the spectre.
A Certain, well-respected lady from County Cork stated that she had two experiences of a Banshee within her family. She said, “My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. Suddenly, she saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was clearly visible from the house. The figure waved its arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. The wailing lasted several seconds before the figure finally disappeared. But, the next morning, her grandfather was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He stumbled, fell, and hit his head against the kerb. The poor man would never recover consciousness.”
In her second story, she states, “…my mother was very ill, and one evening the nurse and I were with her arranging her bed. We suddenly heard the most extraordinary wailing, which seemed to come in waves around and under her bed. We naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause of the wailing but in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another but said nothing since it appeared that my mother did not hear it. My sister, who was downstairs sitting with my father, heard it and thought something terrible had happened to her little boy, who was in bed upstairs. When she rushed up to his bedroom, however, she found him sleeping quietly. While my father did not hear it, in the house next door they had heard it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to their servant. But the servant immediately called out to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Someone must be near death.’“
There is another story, handed down to us from the last years of the nineteenth century. This records a curious incident that occurred in a public school and includes the presence of the Banshee. When one of the boys became ill, he was immediately quarantined in one of the many bedrooms by himself, where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by the doctor, he suddenly jumped up from his seat, declaring that he had heard somebody crying. But the doctor had heard nothing and concluded that his illness had slightly affected the boy’s brain. Nonetheless, the boy, who appeared to be quite sensible, still insisted that he had heard someone crying, and said, “It is the Banshee, for I have heard it before.” The following morning the headmaster of the school received a telegram saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot dead.
There is a mistaken belief that the Banshee is confined to the geographical limits of Ireland. In fact, there are several incidents that show how the Banshee can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and there foretell their death. The following story clearly shows that such an event can occur. A party of visitors was gathered together on the deck of a private yacht that was sailing one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull, in the conversation, one of them asked the owner, “Count, who’s that queer-looking woman you have on board?“
The Count replied that there was only those invited ladies and the stewardesses present. nobody ladies present except those who had been invited and the stewardess. The speaker, however, protested that there was a strange woman present, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his hands before his eyes, and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, what a face!” For quite a while the man was shaking with fear and dared not remove his hands from his eyes. When he finally did so, he cried out “Thank Heavens, it’s gone!“
“What was it?” asked the Count.
“It was nothing human,” stammered the man. “It looked like a woman, but not one from this world. She had on a green hood, like those worn by the Irish peasantry, framing an oddly shaped face that gleamed unnaturally. She also had a mass of red hair, and eyes that were somewhat attractive but for their hellish expression.“
An American lady guest suggested that the description reminded her of what she had heard about the Banshee. The Count turned to her and told her, “I am an O’Neill. At least I am descended from one of them. As you know, my family name is Neilini, which, just over a century ago, was O’Neill. My great-grandfather had served in the ‘Irish Brigade’, and on its dissolution, at the time of the French Revolution, he had the good fortune to escape the general massacre of officers. In the company of an O’Brien and a Maguire, he fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. When he died, his son, who had been born in Italy, felt himself to be much more Italian than Irish. He changed his name to Neilini, and the family has been known by this name ever since. But for all that we are Irish.“
“The Banshee was yours, then! So, what exactly does it mean?”
“It means,” the Count replied solemnly, “the death of someone very close to me and I pray earnestly that it is not my wife or daughter.” The Count’s anxieties were soon removed when he himself was seized by a severe angina attack and died before morning.
As a last note to readers, the reports of encounters with Banshees tell us that this spirit never shows itself to the person whose death it is heralding. While other people are able to see or hear the banshee, the one fated to die never does. So, when everyone that is present, but one, is aware of the Banshee, the fate of that one person can be regarded as being certain.
Ireland is famous as the “Land of Saints and Scholars,” but it is also a land that contains some of the greatest liars and black guards that God had ever put breath into. Now if you were to call these people “liar” to their face, whether it is true or not, they would be very insulted and might respond violently. They would, in all likelihood, insist that they were not liars but simple story tellers who were used to stretching the truth. One infamous stretcher of the truth in this town was a pensioner called Thomas Pepper, who lived alone in his retirement cottage and held ‘court’ in “The Bodhran” public house, where his stories were all well known. Every regular customer to that pub knew that Tom’s stories were far from being factual. Nevertheless, Tom would always reassure his listeners after each tale by telling them, “It’s the God’s honest truth, honest.” It was this habit that in fact caused him to be given the nickname of ‘Honest’ Tom Pepper.
One evening I was having a quiet drink at the bar in the ‘Bodhran’ public house and ‘Honest Tom’ was sitting in his usual seat at the top end of the counter. “I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks, Jim,” said the barman as he reached my drink to me.
“I have been in hospital this last three weeks,” I told him.
“Must have been serious?” said the barman.
“I had a few moles removed and had some tests done. They thought that it may have been a sign of skin cancer. But it is all clear now,” I told him.
“You’re a lucky man!” replied the barman.
“Och, sure isn’t it only the good that die young?” I laughed.
“Aye, it’s lucky you are,” interrupted ‘Honest’ Tom. “I can remember the time when I was admitted to the cancer hospital, myself. It was to get a spot cut off my lip.”
“What happened Tom?” I asked.
“Well, in those days, there was none of the fancy drugs and equipment that they have now. I was sick, sore, and tired at being prodded and stuck with needles at all those consultations with so-called experts that I had to attend. While I was there those doctors were operating on some poor man whose stomach they had lying out on the table. They were busy scraping and scrubbing at the poor creature’s stomach when a bell rang out loudly to signal that it was dinner time. By Jaysus, didn’t those eejits just up and leave. They didn’t even close and lock the operating theatre’s door. They just left everything lying where it was and went out.“
Every night that I was in that hospital I was kept awake by crying of an old ‘Tom Cat’ who spent its entire time chasing the female cats. Isn’t it terrible, all those things that you see and hear, and you without a gun in your hands? Well, this old ‘Tom Cat’ was fond of stealing little treats for himself when he could, and didn’t he sneak into the operating theatre that same day. As sure as there is an eye in a goat, the cat began to eat that poor man’s stomach. When the doctors returned to their work, after lunch, they soon saw that the man’s stomach was gone.“
“In the name of the good Jesus, Tom, what happened then?” I asked him.
“Now if you would just hold your tongue for a moment, I will tell you all,” he said tersely.
“Now, the doctors were terribly upset by all this, of course, and they sent to the ward for me to give them some advice on the situation. “What can we do now, Tommy?” says they to me. “What is your recommendation?” “Now, me buckos” says I to them. “I am no surgeon but, it seems to me that you should go the local slaughterhouse and get yourselves the stomach of young heifer or bullock and put that into the poor man as soon as possible. If you can do this as quickly as you can I think that old stomach you all spent so much time scraping will never be missed, boys.” Now, in a flash the head doctor ran out of the building and, following my advice, managed to obtain a nice, young, tender stomach. With the rest of the team and with great dexterity they quickly grafted the new stomach into the patient, and nobody suspected a thing.”
” Did nobody catch on, at all?” I asked.
“Well, to tell you the truth, the ruse remained hidden for a while until, finally, the patient was able to take food again. In the beginning the doctors put him on milk foods, because they felt that this would be much easier on the stomach. This only lasted a while, of course, until they started giving him soup, cooked meats, and a variety of food that he had always been used to eating before he came into hospital. But no matter how much food the man ate, the discomfort of hunger pains never seemed to leave him. When the doctors began wonder what they could do to help, didn’t they once again turn to me for advice. “Now, boys,” says I. “I might be wrong, but in my opinion the man is not getting the right sort of diet.” Then, as I looked out of the window, I could see a man cutting the grass on the lawn and the answer to the problem suddenly came to me. “It would be a good thing,” says I to the doctors, “if you would go outside now and bring that poor man a few handfuls of that fresh cut grass and see if that helps him.” Sure, when they did that, didn’t the man stick his head in the middle of the cut grass and began munching away until there was not a blade of grass left!“
“That’s a tall one, Tom,” I laughed.
“Wait ’til I tell you that on the day that I left the hospital, I saw that man lying on his bed relaxing and chewing his cud. That’s the God’s honest truth I am telling you; honest“
On the afternoon of 22nd April 1874 a lady called Biddy Early died in her small, two-roomed, mud-walled cottage that overlooked Lake Kilbarron, in Feakle, County Clare. Outside of Ireland she remains a virtual unknown, but in Ireland she was famous in her own lifetime, especially since her life story was first published in 1903. Since that time her reputation has grown, embellished with dark tales of witchcraft that continue to be associated with her. Such was the woman’s fame that in the 1970s attempts were made to secure funding for a newly renovated cottage on the site. These efforts, however, failed because no government agency would undertake its financial upkeep. Unfortunately, the old cottage fell into a state of ruin, in which it remains, while its former owner was buried in an unmarked grave.
Biddy’s fame for cures made the woman a household name throughout her long-life and, at some point in that long-life, she acquired a bottle made with dark glass, which contained an even darker, healing liquid. There are numerous tales from a wide variety of sources that attempt to tell the story of how she came into possession of that ‘magic bottle. They all agree, however, that its origin was with the ‘Good People’, for it was frequently used for the purposes of divining future events (Scrying). At the same time Biddy was famed for her mixing of herbal cures in this and other bottles that appeared to cure illness in animals as well as in people.
She would gather herbs and plants before sunrise, with the morning dew still shining upon them. It was widely believed by such curing women that the dew was a secretin of the light of dawn, which was a key element in the idea of eternal life. As she progressed through her later years it is claimed that Biddy became a cranky and absent-minded old woman. This attitude and the success of her potions led many to believe that she was practicing witchcraft from her small cottage. In fact, Biddy was a relatively generous woman who rarely accepted payment for her services, unless it was a gift of food. She did not, however, accept those who scorned her craft and did not believe in the ‘Good People.’
Biddy’s home became known as a place of great merriment and neighbours would frequently come to the house for a drink, in the knowledge that she always had a plentiful supply of donated poteen and other spirits. But these merry social gatherings also fell foul of the local quality folk, including the Catholic clergy, the medical profession, landlords, the police and the judiciary. They were already annoyed by the fact that Feakle already had a reputation for being the most superstitious places in Ireland, which was being strengthened every day by Biddy’s presence. At this time too, ‘Pishogues’ (Sorcerers) of various types were often employed to bring bad luck to a rival or enemy, and even today the practice still exists in parts of this island. In fact, ‘wise-women’ (Spéirbhean) such as Biddy, were often sought to help lift curses and bad-luck from the poor. These women would also be employed as special mediators to act in any disagreements that may arise with the fairies over the violation of their ancient land rights. It was a task for which Biddy was well qualified for it was said that she had spent some of her youth living among the fairies, or good people (Sidhe). In fact, there were some neighbours who insisted that Biddy, her brother and her only son, Paddy, were actually ‘Changelings’ or ‘Away with the Fairies.’
Biddy and her practices also came into conflict with the Catholic Church and the members of the medical profession. The powerful Catholic Church in Ireland was totally and vehemently opposed to many of the traditional arts because they believed them to be dangerous remnants of a pagan Ireland. The ability of the Church to oppose wise women like Biddy Early were severely restricted during the Penal times. But, after the introduction of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the church slowly began to re-emerge as a political power in the land. In many of the folktales that surround the person of Biddy Early there are many examples of confrontations with various clergymen. One story tells of a fiery young curate from County Tipperary who made his way to Biddy’s cottage to chastise her, only to find himself frozen in his saddle near Annasala Bridge. Only after he had taken back all the oaths that he had sworn to her and apologised the curate was released by using three blades of dry grass to strike the right shoulder of the curate’s horse with the trinitarian blessing – “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” In fact, it was said that Biddy always invoked the ‘Holy Trinity’ before handing over her remedies to the sick people. Furthermore, despite her difficulties with the clergy, she always advised those who visited her to listen to the advice of the priests and clergy.
One famous visitor to Biddy’s cottage was the ‘Great Emancipator’, Daniel O’Connell, who was the Member of Parliament for Clare. But, despite her popularity among the people, she found herself in conflict with medical people, which formed the basis for several stories associated with Biddy Early. It was said, for example, that she rented a cottage from a certain Doctor Murphy from Limerick, who wanted to evict her for non-payment of rent though it seems more likely that professional jealousy was the real reason. The policemen and Sheriff that were sent to evict her from the small cottage near Kilbarron Lake, were ordered by her to ‘Stay where you are.’ Rumour had it that the words were given to her in an apparition by her dead husband Pat. The men were rooted to the spot and it was two hours before she released them. But another version of the same story says that Biddy warned the men sent to evict her with the words, “Whoever is the first to put a bar to this house, he will remember it.” When one of the men put a crowbar between two stones in the wall he fell awkwardly and broke his thigh. Taking hold of their wounded colleague the men ran off in terror.
Doctor Murphy, however, would not be denied and he ensured that Biddy was forced into the Ennis Workhouse. Soon after this, Murphy’s own house in Limerick mysteriously caught fire and only a charred foot was recovered from the ruins in which the Doctor himself was trapped. It is said that Biddy warned him beforehand what his fate would be, and he refused to listen. But this was not Biddy’s last encounter with the medical profession. There was a Doctor Folan from Ennis who came to argue with Biddy but found that he could not find his way home although he knew that road well. Yet, in fairness to Biddy Early, she did not seek conflict and neither did she guarantee anyone a cure. In fact, it was not unknown for Biddy to refuse to see some patients if she felt that they were destined to die. In some cases, Biddy would give a potion to calm an anxious relative that, it is said, would break if death was inevitable. The whole idea of looking into the future was an integral part of the legend surrounding Biddy, and it wasn’t unknown for her to advise the local farmers about those stealing their or sheep and resolving family disputes.
From the historical record we know that the nineteenth century was a period of bitter agrarian violence in the County Clare. It was a time when gangs of desperate men roamed the land under the names of ‘White Boys’, ‘Ribbonmen’ and ‘Moonlighters’, seeking brutal revenge against the landlords for the large number of evictions that were happening. In 1816, Biddy was in service on the Carheen Estate, which belonged to a landlord called Sheehy. It appears that she was a participant in the raising of a petition against the raising of rents and she was given a court order to prepare for eviction from her home. In response, Biddy warned Sheehy that his bones would never lie in hallowed ground. Later, three of Sheehy’s tenants led by a man called Touhy killed the landlord and burned his house to the ground. Biddy, however, was able to advise the men that a potential witness for the Crown, a woman called Nell Canny, should not be harmed, as she might prove herself useful to them. Subsequently, Nell, who was a maid on the estate, spoke in court and told them it was her and not the accused men who had dropped hot coals on the grass the cottage. Later, in a case that involved the shooting to death of Alderman William Sheehy, brother of the same man killed by the Touhy gang, Biddy was able to advise the assassin to take a suitable escape route to America through Liscannor and Kilrush, which would avoid the ‘Peelers’ (Police). Biddy’s current husband at the time, Tom Flannery, was before the courts in 1860 for conspiracy in the same murder and lodged in Ennis gaol. The local press of the day named him and described him as being the husband of ‘The Witch’, Biddy Early. Because the chief culprits in the case had vanished the case against Tom Flannery was dropped.
There are rumours that in 1865 Biddy was tried for witchcraft, under an old law enacted in 1586. But this story has never been proved and Betty was certainly not convicted of any offence. Another surprise that she would play upon her neighbours was that before she died, in April 1874, she asked a neighbour man, Patrick Loughnane, to fetch a priest to her bedside who would give her the last rites. It is said that she asked the priest who attended her, Father Andrew Connellan, to throw her ‘magic bottle’ into a body of water that would later become known as ‘Biddy’s lake’.
Rumour has it that when this larger-than-life character died, twenty-seven priests attended her funeral. Furthermore, the next Sunday, the parish priest asked that all his parishioners should pray for the happy repose of the soul of Biddy Early and described her as a saintly woman. We wonder just what Biddy would have said if she had heard such a tribute.
For Further information you could consult the following:
E. Lenihan, “In search of Biddy Early”; Cork, 1987.
M. Ryan, “Biddy Early—wise woman of Clare”; Cork, 1978.
D. Stewart, “Biddy Early—famous ‘witch’ of Clare”, Parts I & II; Limerick Chronicle, 3rd and 10th October 1953.
It was always the tradition in many Irish homes that the cake of bread intended for the morning breakfast table should be ‘nipped’ before being put it away in the cupboard. In Irish, it is called “a bhara“, and the housewife or housekeeper was always particular about how she carried out the task. She would either break a piece off the cake herself as soon as she took it from the griddle, or else encouraged another family member to do it instead. It is said that when the cake of bread was broken in this manner then nothing ‘bad’ would happen to it through the night, and no hungry spectre or fairy folk would lay a hand or tooth upon it.
“Oh, Mary dear,” an old woman called out to her daughter one night when everyone had just gone to their beds, “sure, didn’t I forget to ‘nip’ the cake. Get up, darling girl, and do it, or else it might all be gone in the morning and your Da will have nothing to eat with his tea before he heads off to Belfast!“
“Ah, now, mother,” replied Mary, from the small back room in which she and her younger sister slept, “would you give my head peace with all your nonsense. Sure, nothing will touch it.“
“There’s no nonsense in it, I tell you,” replied the mother, “and if you don’t get up now then I’ll have to get out of bed myself, and me hardly able to move with the ‘roomytis’ (rheumatism). Oh, Sweet Jaysus, what come ever caused me to forget to do it!“
The mournful tone in which the old mother spoke about her suffering from rheumatism settled the matter, and Mary jumped out of her bed exclaiming, “For goodness sake mother you’re a nuisance with all your superstitions!” and, turning to her sister she added, “Come with me to the kitchen, Bridget, for I won’t go there by myself.”
“Would you ever get into bed and not be paying any attention to her,’ whispered Bridget quietly, hoping that her mother would not hear.
“But she will get up herself if I don’t go, and she would never let us hear the end of it.”
“Sure, she will never think about it again, Mary. So, just come into bed.”
Mary, of course, was willing enough to comply with her sister’s request, but just then her mother called out once again, “Mary, did you get up yet?”
“Aye, aye,” Mary cried out in an angry tone while, speaking quietly to her sister she said, “Do you see, now. She’s not going to forget it, so we might as well get up and do it, or we’ll get no sleep tonight.“
Neither Mary nor Bridget had much confidence in the seemingly ridiculous ritual of “nipping the cake”, to keep it safe from the hungry fairy folk that roamed the land. Nevertheless, they would do just the same themselves when they got married and took charge of household duties. They would, undoubtedly, recall that their own mother They will remember that their own dear mother did it, and what was right for her, could hardly be very wrong for them. It was in such ways that the traditions were handed down through the generations, even to the present day.
If he had died today, and in the line of duty, Detective Sergeant John Barton of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) would probably be declared a national hero. At the time, ‘The Irish Times’ editorial for 1 December 1919 did proclaim him to be “one of the bravest, most vigilant, and most intelligent defenders of the city’s peace”. ‘The Irish Independent’, likewise stated that “Sergeant Barton seemed possessed of an instinct for tracking down criminals and his name alone was sufficient to inspire terror in the hearts of evil doers”.
Barton’s name, however, was not enough to stop the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins, from having him killed, and he assigned three separate groups of Volunteers to carry out the task. On 29 November 1919, all three of these groups converged on the Detective Sergeant when he was only yards from reaching the safety of the new Central Police Station on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street). He was shot at such close range, in fact, that there were scorch-marks on his clothes. The fatal shot, it appears, was fired from the gun of Seán Treacy, who had led the Soloheadbeg ambush upon a ‘Royal Irish Constabulary’ patrol, in which Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell were killed. This incident was the spark that set off Ireland’s ‘War of Independence’ the previous January. During the incident, however, Barton managed to draw his revolver and fire one round before he exclaimed, “Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?” and having spoken these last words he collapsed on the ground. As a Dublin Fire Brigade ambulance crew took him to Mercer’s Hospital, Barton weakly said, “They have done for me. God forgive me. What did I do?”
In order to answer his question, we should look at his life and career up to that point. John Barton was born into a Kerry farming family. When he reached the required age limit, John joined the ‘Dublin Metropolitan Police’ in February 1903 and standing at six feet four and a quarter inches he exceeded the minimum criteria of the force. He was a man with an impressive physique, although his posture was somewhat spoiled by a slight stoop. Not unsurprisingly, Barton became one of the best-known members of ‘B Division’, which was based in the south-east quarter of Dublin’s inner city. He didn’t transfer to the detective department (G Division) of the DMP until 10 October 1919, which was less than seven weeks before he was killed. At the time of his death, he was the fourth DMP member, and third ‘G’ Division detective, to be killed in the War of Independence.
John Barton was a man to be feared by those in the ranks of the Irish movement, as well as those revolutionaries within Republican circles. One member of the Irish Citizen Army, who knew Barton well, accused him of being willing to do more than his duty. During the ‘1913 Lockout’ Barton personally arrested over forty people, and after the Christmas Day confrontation on the City Quay, which saw DMP Sergeant James Kiernan thrown into the River Liffey, he assisted in the arrest of a dozen workers who were allegedly involved in the incident. Patrick Higgins, a member of the ‘Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union’ (ITGWU) was personally tracked down by Barton and was subsequently sentenced to ten years imprisonment for his role in the ‘City Quay Affair’. Naturally, such actions did not make him popular among the ordinary people of Dublin, and his infamy spread after he had arrested a group of children for stealing chocolate. One twelve-year-old boy was sentenced to five years detention, while an eleven-year-old boy was sentenced to a month. A boy aged thirteen, and one aged eleven, were each given £5 bail and eighteen months’ probation.
In 1916, during the ‘Easter Rising’ in Dublin and the subsequent actions against the rebels, Barton became notorious and his infamy spread throughout the city. When the Rising began Barton ignored all orders to remain in barracks and, undeterred by the fatal shootings of three policemen and the wounding of several others, he took to the streets of the city arresting rebels and looters wherever he found them. After the rebels surrendered, Barton went to Richmond Barracks and helped ‘G Division’ detectives to identify the leaders of the Rising. It was almost a voluntary post that Barton appeared to carry out alongside his day to day police duties. Perhaps, the most infamous report that we have of him during this time comes from IRB member Seán Murphy. At a later date, he testified that it was Barton who picked out Seán MacDermott from among the prisoners. Murphy stated that when he picked out MacDermott he said, “Sorry, Seán, but you can’t get away that easy. There will be six for you in the morning, I think”. This was, of course, a reference to the six soldiers who would make up the firing squad that would execute him.
There were other detectives who took part in the identification process that day, but it was Daniel Hoey and John Barton who left the most lasting impression on witnesses. They were remembered specifically for their cynical way that they walked down the line of prisoners with a sneer on their faces’. When identifying an important figure Barton would use his walking stick to point them out to the military authorities, while Hoey used an umbrella. His cruelty toward the republican prisoners and their families appeared to have no bounds. Barton is remembered particularly for the way he spoke to Joseph Connolly and told him that his brother Sean had been killed in the ‘Rising’. When Joseph expressed his pride in his brother’s sacrifice by saying, “He died for his country”; Barton answered that Sean was a disgrace to his country. It is also reported that he would badger particularly vulnerable prisoners to such an extent that they would attempt or commit suicide.
His work with the detective division after the rising did not, however, distract Constable Barton, (Constable 37B in the DMP) from his everyday police duties. During the ‘Rising’ most of the looting occurred north of the River Liffey, while most of those arrested for the crime resided south of the river. It is amazing to note that of the 425 people convicted of looting during Easter week, 296 of these were arrested by Barton. It is important at this time to point out that Barton had arrested the majority of the women who were subsequently sentenced by the police magistrates’ courts for looting offences.
On 18 June, the first public demonstration in support of the rebels took place in Dublin. It began when a group of 400 ‘girls’ carrying a ‘republican flag’ gathered outside Christ Church Cathedral following requiem Masses for the executed Tom Clarke and Eamonn Ceannt. The demonstration by the girls rapidly gathered a crowd of 2,000 people as they marched down Dame Street towards O’Connell Street. On the way, they booed the British sentries outside Dublin Castle and the Bank of Ireland in College Green, and then they came up against the DMP lined up outside the Ballast Office. The police had been ordered to prevent the demonstration from crossing the river and conflict erupted when the police tried to seize the ‘republican flag’. To combat the police batons the crowd used anything that came to hand, including tram destination boards, and the two policemen who were most badly injured in the fighting were Constables Barton and Henry Kells. Constable Kells would soon be acting as another voluntary detective in the hope that he would be promoted to ‘G Division’ but, unlike Barton, he did not achieve his ambition. Unfortunately for him, he was also shot dead by Republicans on 24 April 1920, while working in plain clothes. Unlike Barton, his last words were not recorded.
Seven young men and three women were arrested after the confrontation and charged with offences against ‘Defence of the Realm Act2”. The chief police magistrate, however, decided to deal with the cases under the ‘Public Order Acts’ rather than employ the more drastic penalties contained in the ‘Defence of the Realm Act’. Nevertheless, none of those charged was prepared to apologise for their behaviour, and at least two of the defendants, sixteen-year-old Denis Fitzpatrick and 22-year-old Christina Caffrey, had taken part in the Rising but had evaded arrest. But, the fact that Fitzpatrick and Caffrey were apparently ‘unknown to the police’ demonstrates the totally inadequate state of the police intelligence department and suggests that the ‘G Division’ was not as knowledgeable as it was supposed to be. The truth is that there were only a few members of the division involved in the detection of political crime as opposed to the number assigned to ordinary crime.
Barton’s work and devotion to duty during 1916 were recognised on 2 February 1917 when he was awarded the King’s Police Medal (KPM). This was the highest award a police officer could be given, and the newspapers of the day recognised it by describing Barton as being- “… instrumental in the detection and apprehension of a very large number of criminals. During the first night of the rebellion he arrested at great personal risk twenty-seven persons who were looting in the vicinity of O’Connell Bridge, which was dominated by rebel fire, and on the same night, with the assistance of another officer, he arrested two armed men who were carrying a large quantity of ammunition.”
On the same day he was awarded the KPM Barton was also promoted to sergeant, and on 10 October 1919 he was transferred to ‘G Division’. He was consistently dedicated to carrying out his duty to the full at a time when many policemen in Dublin were doing everything they could to avoid working on the city’s increasingly hostile streets. It was a time when some ‘G Division’ detectives, such as Eamon Broy and David Neligan, became double agents for Michael Collins’ organisation, and they were joined by members of the uniform branch such as Joe Kavanagh and Maurice Aherne. It is true that much of the information that led to the assassination of ‘G Division members’ came from their fellow officers. Barton, however, was a loyal member of the force and received a bar to his KPM in 1918, in recognition of his continuing excellent work, including the dramatic arrest of an armed Boer officer for desertion in 1917.
Being the only member of the DMP to receive two KPMs, Barton’s enemies quickly grew in number. Even defence lawyers had no time for Barton, who was always parading around like a peacock. One person who knew him particularly well was Charlie Dalton, a recruit to Michael Collins’ intelligence operation, where he had a somewhat chequered career of his own. Of Barton, Dalton said, “… he was held in the highest esteem by the publicans, pawnbrokers and other commercial men, due to the fact that he had established a unique method in the tracing of petty larceny and illegal pawning of stolen goods. In carrying out his routine police duties, he had many news vendors and minor thieves of the pick-pocket variety in his power, and he utilised this type of informer for checking on the movements of prominent wanted volunteers.”
Frank Henderson, who was a 1916 veteran and commandant of the 2nd Battalion in Dublin, described Barton as “an efficient criminal detective … who had only undertaken ‘political work’ after the Republican Government had begun to exact the death penalty on enemy intelligence personnel? Barton was warned when he commenced his spying but did not heed the notices sent to him.” Why would Barton choose to ignore Republican warnings when so many assassinations were being carried out, and blindly pursue a method of policing that would mean almost certain death? Perhaps, it was simply that he was a single man without obligations, and had no obvious interests outside the job. Whatever the reason, we know that he was single-minded in his pursuit of the enemy, and completely oblivious to the rapidly changing political climate in Ireland.
To some who remembered him in later years, Barton was simply, “the very scum that kept us in British bondage.” Although in some circles, he was seen as a hero, the decision to kill Barton was inevitable. The countdown began when he led a raid on the home of a young volunteer called Vinnie Byrne. Later, when asked by the head of Collins’ newly organised murder group, ‘The Squad’, if he would shoot a man, the young volunteer replied, “It’s according to who it is.” When he was told that the target would be John Barton, Byrne immediately replied that he would have no objection. Later that day, after finishing work, Byrne joined with others and cornered Barton on College Street at 6pm. During the ambush, however, Barton fired off one round from his own gun before he exclaimed, “Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?” and collapsed to the ground, where he was left for dead by his attackers.
Acknowlegement for assistance in this article should be given to Padraig Yeates, the author of A city in civil war: Dublin 1921–4 (Gill & Macmillan, 2015). First published in History Ireland 5th September 2016.
Occasionally the bedroom door would open and a visitor would pass the old man as he sat huddled in his chair, without throwing even a glance in his direction, and go directly to the side of the bed on which the body lay to kneel down and pray. They usually prayed for two or three minutes before they got up and lightly walked away to the kitchen, where they joined the rest of the company.
Sometimes these visitors came in pairs, occasionally in groups of three, but they all followed the same ritual. They prayed for precisely the same time, and then left the room on tiptoe, making the same noises that would sound so loud in the silence of that room. Meanwhile, the old man simply wished that they would all just stay away, for he had been sitting in his chair for hours, revisiting old memories, until his head was in a total whirl. He wanted to concentrate his mind on these good memories and felt that the visitors to the house were preventing him from doing so.
It was big Danny Murphy, a tall, thin red-haired farmer who, a long time previously, had been best man at his wedding. “Michael James,” he said again.
“What is it?”
“I hear young Kelly’s in the village.”
“What about it?”
“I just thought that you should know,” Danny told him and waited a moment before he went out again on tiptoe, walking like a robot in low gear. Meanwhile, down the drive Michael heard steps coming, then a struggle and a shrill giggle. There appeared to be some young people coming to the wake, and he knew, instinctively, a boy had tried to kiss a girl in the dark, and he felt a surge of resentment fill his body. She was only nineteen when he married her, and he was sixty-three. She had married him because he had over two hundred acres of land and many head of milk and grazing cattle, and a huge house that rambled like a barrack. It was her father that had arranged the marriage, and young Kelly, who had worked on her father’s farm for years, had been saving to buy a house for her, when he was suddenly thrown over like a bale of mildewed hay.
Young Kelly had made created several violent scenes in the past. Michael James could remember the morning of the wedding, when a drunken Kelly waylaid the bridal-party coming out of the church. “Mark me,” he said in an unusually quiet tone for a drunk man—“mark me. If anything ever happens to that girl at your side, Michael James, I’ll murder you. I’ll murder you in cold blood. Do you understand?”
Michael James, however, was in a very forgiving mood that morning and told him, “Run away and sober up, boy, and then come up to the house and have a dance.”
But Kelly had taken to roaming the countryside for weeks, getting himself drunk every night, and making terrible threats of vengeance against the old farmer. Shortly after this, a wily recruiting sergeant of the ‘Connaught Rangers’ had tricked him into joining the ranks and took him away to barracks in Aldershot. Now he was home again, on furlough, and something had happened to her.
Young Kelly was now coming up to the house make good his threat, even though Michael James himself didn’t quite understand what had happened to her. He had given her everything he could to make her happy, and she had taken everything from him with a modest thank you. But he had never had been given anything by her except her total lack of interest. She had never shown any interest or concern for the house, and every day she grew a little thinner and weaker until, a few days ago she had lain down and, last and last night she had died, quite indifferently. Nevertheless, he knew that young Kelly was coming up to the house that night for an accounting with Michael James, and the old man had said to himself, “Well, let him come!”
He was the only one who spoke in his natural voice, and he turned to a portly farmer’s wife who had followed him in, and asked her about the hour that had been scheduled for the funeral. In hoarse whisper, she told him and respectfully gave him a curtsy. The priest then turned to Michael James and told him, “You ought to go out and take a walk. You oughtn’t to stay in here all the time.” And then, he left the room again. But Michael James paid no attention to him, for his mind was wandering to strange fantasies that he just could not keep out of his head. Pictures crept in and out of his head, joined together as if by some thin web, and somehow he began to think about her soul, wondering just what a soul was like. He began to think of it being like a dove, and then like a bat that was fluttering through the dark, and finally, like a bird lost at twilight. He thought of it as being some kind of lonely flying thing with a long journey ahead of it and no place to rest. In his mind he could almost hear it making the vibrant and plaintive cry of a peewit. Then, it struck him with a great sense of pity that the night was very cold.
In the kitchen they were having tea, and the rattle of the crockery was loud and very distinct. Michael James could clearly distinguish the sharp, staccato ring of a cup being placed on a saucer, from the nervous rattle heard when a cup and saucer were being passed from one hand to the other, while spoons struck the china with a faint metallic tinkle. But to Michael James it felt as if all the sounds were being made at the back of his neck, and the crash seemed to burst loudly in his head. Then, Dan Murray creaked into the room. “Michael James,” he whispered, “you ought to take something. Have a bite to eat. Take a cup of tea. I’ll bring it in to you.”
“Oh, let me alone, Daniel,” he answered and, at the same time, felt like kicking and cursing him.
“But you must take something, Michael James,” Murray’s voice rose from a whisper to a low, argumentative tone. “You know this is not natural. You’ve got to eat.”
“No, thank you, Daniel,” he answered, as if he was talking to a good-natured boy who was also very tiresome. “I don’t feel like eating now, but maybe I will afterwards.”
“Michael James,” Murray continued.
“Well, what is it, Daniel?”
“Don’t you think it would be better to go down and see young Kelly and tell him just how foolish he would be to come up here and start fighting? You know it isn’t right and so, should I not go down, for he’s at home now?”
“Leave it alone, Daniel, I tell you.” The thought of Murray interfering in a matter that was between himself and the young man filled Michael James with a sense of injured pride.
“I know he’s going to make trouble for you.”
“Just allow me to handle that, like a good fellow, and leave me alone, if you don’t mind.”
Michael straightened himself up a little, for sitting crouched forward was causing his back to be strained, and he unconsciously sat upright to ease the discomfort he was feeling. As he sat up, however, he caught a glimpse of the cotton gloves on the bed, and he suddenly recalled that the first time he had seen her she had been walking along the road, hand in hand with young Kelly, one Sunday afternoon. When they saw him they quickly let go of each other’s hand, grew very red, and began giggling in a half-hearted way to hide their embarrassment. Michael remembered that he had passed them by without saying a word, but with a good-humoured, sly smile on his face. He felt a good feeling within himself, and had thought wisely to himself that young people will be young people, and what harm was there in a little bit of courting on a Sunday afternoon after a long week’s work was finished? He also recalled other days on which he had met her and Kennedy, and how he became convinced that here was a girl for him to marry. Then his memory returned to how, quietly and decidedly, he had gone about getting her and marrying her, just as he would have gone about buying a team of horses, or making arrangements for cutting the hay.
Until the day he married her Michael felt like the driver of a coach who has his team of horses under perfect control, and who knows every bend and curve of the road upon which he is travelling. But since the wedding day he had been thinking about her, worrying and wondering where he stood in her life. Everyday just appeared to be a day filled with puzzlement, much more like a coach driver with a restive pair of horses who only knew his way to the next bend in the road, but he knew that she was the biggest thing in his life. He had reached this conclusion with some difficulty, for Michael was not a thinking sort of man, being more used to considering the price of harvest machinery and the best time of the year for buying and selling. But here this dead young girl now lay, whom he had married when she should have married another man, who was nearer to her age and who was coming sometime tonight to kill him. So, at sometime this evening his world would stop and, as he thought about it, he no longer felt like a person. Instead, he felt he was simply part of a situation, like a chess piece in a game which might be moved at any moment and bring the game to an end. His min was in such a flux that the reality around him had taken on a dim, unearthly quality. Occasionally a sound from the kitchen would strike him like an unexpected note in a harmony, and the crisp, whiteness of the bed would glare at him like a spot of colour in a subdued painting.
From the kitchen there was a shuffling noise and the sound of feet moving toward the door and with a loud click the door latch lifted. Michael could also hear the hoarse, deep tones of a few boys, and the high-pitched sing-song intonations of girls, and he knew they were going for a few miles’ walk along the roads. Going over to the window, he raised the blind and, overhead, the moon shone like a disc of bright saffron. There was a sort of misty haze that appeared to cling around the bushes and trees, causing the out-houses to stand out white, like buildings in a mysterious city. From somewhere nearby, there was the metallic whir of a grasshopper, and in the distance a loon boomed again and again. The little company of young people passed on down the yard followed by the sound of a smothered titter, then a playful resounding slap, and a gurgling laugh from one of the boys. As he stood by the window Michael heard someone open the door and stand on the threshold, asking “Are you coming, Alice?”
Michael James listened for the answer, for he was eagerly taking in all outside activity. He needed something to help him pass the time of waiting, just as a traveler in a railway station reads trivial notices carefully while waiting for a train that may take him to the ends of the earth. Then, once again he heard, “Alice, are you coming?” But there was no answer.
“Well, you needn’t if you don’t want to,” he heard in an irritated voice say, and the person speaking tramped down toward the road in an angry mood. Michael recognized the figure of Flanagan, the young football-player, who was always having little arguments with the girl he said that he was going to marry, and Michael was shocked to find that he was slightly amused at this incident. Then, from the road there came the shrill scream of one of the girls who had gone out, followed by a chorus of laughter. It was then that he began to wonder at the relationship between man and woman and he could not find a word for it. “Love” was a term that Michael thought should be kept to the story-books, for it was a word that he was suspicious of, and one that most people scoffed at. Nevertheless, he had a vague understanding of such a relationship, liking it to a crisscross of threads binding one person to the other, or as a web which might be light and easily broken, or which might have the strength of steel cables that might work into knots here and there, and become a tangle that could crush those caught in it. But it did puzzle him how a thing of indefinable grace, of soft words on June nights, of vague stirrings under moonlight, of embarrassing hand-clasps and fearful glances, might become, as it had become in his case, Kelly, and his dead young wife, a thing of blind, malevolent force, of sinister silence, like a dark shadow that crushed. And then it struck him with a sense of guilt that he had allowed mind to wander from her, and he immediately turned away from the window. Michael thought to himself, how much more peaceful it would be for a body to lie out in the moonlight than on a sombre oak bedstead in a shadowy room with yellow, guttering candle-light and five solemn-looking chairs. Then, Michael thought again how strange it was that on a night like this Kelly should come as an avenger seeking to kill, rather than as a lover with high hopes in his breast.
“Listen to me, Dan,” replied Michael. “How do you know Kelly is coming up at all?”
“Flanagan, the football-player, met him and talked to him, and he said that Kelly was clean mad.”
“Do they know about it in the kitchen?”
“Not a word,” and there was a pause for a moment.
“Right, now go you right back there and don’t say a word about it, at all. Wouldn’t you be the quare fool if you were to go down to the police and Kelly didn’t come at all? And, even if he does come I can manage him. And if I can’t manage, then I’ll call you. How does that sound?”
With that, Murray went out, grumbling beneath his breath. As the door closed, Michael began to feel that his last place of safety had gone, and he was to face his destiny alone. Although he did not doubt that Kelly would make good on his vow, Michael still he felt a certain sense of curiosity about how Kelly would do it. Would he simply use his fists, or use a gun, or some other weapon he may have at hand? Michael hoped it would be the gun, for the idea of coming to hand-to-hand fighting with Kelly filled him with a strange fear. It appeared that the thought that he would be dead within ten minutes or a half-hour did not mean anything to him, and it was only the physical act itself that was frightening. Nevertheless, Michael felt as if he were very much on his own, and the cold wind was blowing around him, penetrating every pore of his body and causing a a shiver in his shoulders.
Michael’s idea of death was that he would fall headlong, as from a high tower, into a dark bottomless space, and he went over to the window again to look out toward the barn. From a tiny chink in one of the shutters there was a thin thread of yellow candle-light, and he knew for certain that there was a group of men there, playing cards to help pass the time. It was then that the terror came upon him. The noise from the kitchen was now subdued, for most of the mourners had gone home, and those who were staying the night were drowsy and were dozing over the fire. Michael suddenly felt the need to rush among them and to cry out to them for protection, cowering behind them and getting them to close around him in a solid defensive circle. He felt that all eyes were now upon him, looking at his back, and this caused him to fear turning around in case he might have to look into their eyes.
He knew that the girl had always respected him, but he did not want to lose her respect at this moment. It was the fear that he could lose it that caused him pull his shoulders back and plant his feet firmly upon the floor. Into his confused mind came thoughts of people who like to kill, of massed lines of soldiers who rushed headlong against well-defended trenches, of a cowering man who stealthily slips through a jail door at dawn, and of a sinister figure dressed in a red cloak, wielding an axe. Then, as he looked down the yard, Michael saw a figure turn in the gate and come toward the house. He knew immediately that it was Kelly, but he seemed to be walking slowly and heavily, as if he was exhausted.
Michael opened the kitchen door and slipped outside, and the figure making its way up the pathway seemed to be swimming toward him. Occasionally the figure would blur and disappear and then vaguely appear again, causing his heart to beat heavily and regularly like the ticking of a clock. Space between the two men narrowed until he began to feel that he could not breathe, and he then went forward a few paces. The light from the bedroom window of the cottage streamed out into the darkness in a broad, yellow beam, and Michael stepped into it as if into a river. “She’s dead,” he heard himself saying. “She’s dead.” And then he realised that Kelly was standing in front of him.
The flap of the boy’s hat threw a heavy shadow over Michael’s face, his shoulders were braced, and his right hand was thrust deeply into his coat pocket. “Aye, she’s dead,” Michael James repeated. “You knew that, didn’t you?” It was all he could think of saying in the moment, before he asked, “You’ll come in and see her, won’t you?” He had quite forgotten the purpose of Kelly’s visit for a moment, for his mind was distracted and he didn’t know what more he should say.
Kelly moved a little, and the light streaming from the window struck him full in the face. It was a shock to Michael James, as he suddenly realised that it was as grim and thin-lipped as he had pictured it in his mind. As a prayer rose in his throat the fear he had been feeling appeared to leave Michael all at once. As he raised his head he noticed that Kennedy’s right hand had left the pocket, and he saw that Kelly was looking into the room. Michael knew that Kelly could see the huge bedstead and the body on it, as he peered through the little panes of glass. Suddenly, he felt a desire to throw himself between Kelly and the window just as he might jump between a child and a threatening danger. But he turned his head away, as he instinctively felt that he should not look directly at Kelly’s face.
Suddenly, over in the barn voices rose as the group of men playing cards began to dispute with each other. One person was complaining feverishly about something, while another person was arguing pugnaciously, and another voice could be heard striving to make peace between the two. Then, as the voices died away to a dull background hum, Michael James heard the boy sobbing bitterly. “You mustn’t do that,” he said softly, patting him comfortingly on the shoulders. At that moment he felt as if an unspeakable tension had dissipated and life was about to swing-back into balance. Continuing to pat the shoulders, Michael spoke softly with a shaking voice and told the boy, as he took him under the arm, “Come in now, and I’ll leave you alone there.” He felt the pity that he had for the body on the bed overcome Kelly, too, and there was a sense of peace came over him. It was as though a son of his had been hurt and had come to him for comfort, and he was going to comfort him.
In some vague way he thought of Easter, and he stopped at the door for a moment. “It’s all right, laddie,” he said. “It’s all right,” and he lifted the latch. As they went in he felt somehow as if high walls had crumbled and the three of them had stepped into the light of day.
After almost sixty years after the events that follow, in this book of stories, it amazes me that I can still recall so much detail. This was particularly true as I began to recall my very first bicycle. Firstly, it was not a bicycle in the true sense of the word because it had three wheels and was, therefore, technically a tricycle. From the very beginning I must point out that this tricycle was nothing like the hard, plastic tricycles that we see small, children of today using. My tricycle was a much bigger and technically advanced piece of machinery that was much more suitable for an adventurous four or five year old boy of average height. It was, in fact, a “big boy’s bike” just like the one that I had seen several weeks before Christmas in the toy display window of “Binn’s” Department Store in Middlesbrough town centre. “That’s what I want Santa to bring me for Christmas,” I told my mother even as my face was squashed up against that pane of glass admiring the tricycle. Naturally I had to ask Santa and ensure that I was a very good boy to make sure that I would even have a chance of getting this prize. My mind can clearly recall that wonderful Christmas morning, so long ago, when my eyes first fell upon that beautiful tricycle. All my prayers and efforts to be good had been rewarded by Santa Claus and he had placed my prize in front of the Christmas tree. The colourful, winkling lights on our Christmas tree reflected on the tricycle’s shiny, all-metal frame upon which three, chrome-spooked wheels with black tyres had been fixed. These were not the solid rubber wheels common to children’s tricycles of the time, but were tyres that were treaded and needed to be inflated, using the small white pump that was clipped to the tricycle’s frame.
Attached to the right-hand side of the chrome handle-bars there was a large, round-shaped, shiny steel bell and I pressed the trigger just to hear it ring. It was a wonderful sound, so loud and shrill in a silent house that Christmas morning. I can remember being so thrilled by that sound and was certain that the bell would provide a more than adequate warning to any person who might carelessly get in my way. But it was the beauty of that machine, twinkling in the lights of the Christmas tree, that truly overwhelmed me. I gently ran my hand along the chrome handle-bars and then down the glittering frame toward the black mock-leather seat. It was a nervous examination with my hand shaking as I made every effort to avoid disturbing the tricycle or leaving even the slightest of marks upon it. As my careful inspection continued I came upon a large triangular-shaped, box was secured by a clip lock and when I opened it I was pleasantly surprised at just how spacious the box was and knew that it was sufficient for carrying many of my toys in. Later I would discover that the box had other benefits, including carrying some of the groceries my mother would purchase at the local shops. On certain occasions she would send me to the shops on the tricycle to pick up certain items that she needed, making me feel proud and grown up. However, the thing that made me puff out my chest most in pride was the fact that the frame of the tricycle had been painted in a bright, metallic-red, colour. This impressed me most because it reminded me of the colour of a fire-engine and, occasionally, I would just sit on my little red tricycle in the back garden of our house, ringing that shiny bell and pretending that I was a fireman rushing to the rescue of a stricken victim.
The days I spent with friends and my little red trike are still fondly remembered. She was my pride and joy, and we went almost everywhere together. After school I would rush home to cycle it around the houses, and on week-ends I would get up early and play on the tricycle almost all day. But, sadly, children grow up and put aside the things of their childhood. I became too big for the tricycle and all my friends had started to get two-wheel bicycles for their birthdays. It was soon time for me to abandon all the trappings of childhood and this included putting aside my beloved tricycle. To assist me in making this difficult decision my parents convinced me that I should pass my little red tricycle on to my younger cousin. Nonetheless it was with much sadness in my heart that I took the tricycle on the long lonely road to her house, accompanied by my mother. She, of course, tried bravely to be a source of comfort to me on that difficult journey by constantly attempting to engage me in light-hearted conversation. But, throughout that long and sad journey I was almost totally caught up in my own thoughts and memories about the adventures That I had shared with my little red trike. Believe me the tears I shed as we separated that day were very real and came from my heart. At that time it seemed that I had lost my greatest friend and that there was nothing in this whole world that could ever replace it.
I began in early October to pray every day that God would help me get a new bicycle. Then, when Advent arrived, I sent my usual letter to Santa Claus and almost begged him to bring me a bicycle for Christmas. In return I promised Santa that I would be a good person; that I would not fight with the other boys, or say bad words, and that I would make my bed every morning. For a boy of six or seven years these were serious promises and were chosen to demonstrate my real desire for a new bicycle, just like all my friends had. But, I should never have doubted that Santa would find a way to satisfy my Christmas wish. On Christmas morning the great man once again came to the rescue of a child in need by bringing him the perfect present. My mother, of course, insisted that Santa couldn’t have done it on his own without the help of God and made me say a prayer of thanksgiving to Him.
Once again I arose on Christmas morning to find that a brand new bicycle had been placed, by Santa, in pride of place before the Christmas tree. On this occasion, however, it was definitely a bicycle and had only two wheels. The metallic painted frame sparkled with the reflections of the flashing, multi-coloured lights and tinsel that hung from the branches of our Christmas tree. Though it was again red in colour, like my tricycle, on this occasion it was a deep, crimson red that made it stand out from everything that surrounded it. The wide handle-bars were silver-chrome and there was a ‘package shelf’ attached to the rear mudguard, immediately below and behind the red and white bicycle seat. It was just like the bicycles that I had noticed in the shops, but was only allowed to admire them from a distance. Now I could sit on the saddle and put my feet on the pedals.
My heart beat heavily with pride as I examined its modern, streamlined shape with a chain guard that prevented my trouser legs from being soiled with oil. With my foot on the pedal I could imagine myself sitting on the bicycle and propelling us both forward along the highways and byways of the nearby countryside. Meanwhile, on the bike’s wide handle-bars was fixed a silver coloured bell that was much bigger, and much louder, than the bell had been on my little red tricycle. That bicycle looked like perfection to me. In my young mind this new bicycle was much more technically advanced than most of the two wheel bicycles I had seen and I was sure that I would now be the envy of all my friends. My bicycle had a headlight and a red-tail light that were both powered by a dynamo, which was driven by being pressed against the tyre wall on the rear wheel. That little red bike was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen. The departure of my little red trike was forgotten in the joy and love that I had for that new bicycle, which Santa had brought me for Christmas.
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