The Merrows

From the many ideas and images that fill the folklore and mythology of Ireland there have been various mystic creations that have been given imaginative form and existence. One of these mystical creatures ‘The Merrow’ (or in Irish Morvadh, Morvach) is one of these and takes the legendary shape of a fantastic sea spirit that follows closely our idea of a mermaid. They are semi-human in their nature and shape of the body. From head-to-waist they appear, for intents and purposes, human. Then, from the waist, it is covered with greenish-tinted scales that appear to be the body and tail of a fish. In temperament, we are told, they are of a modest, affectionate, gentle and beneficent disposition. In the Irish their name appears to be a compound of ‘Muir’ (the Sea), and ‘Oigh’ (maid).

These marine creatures are also called by the Irish ‘Muir-gheilt’; Samhghubha; Muidhucha’n; and Suire and they appear to have been residing around our shores from the distant past, basking on our rocky coastline. According to the earliest chronicles available, when the Milesian ships bore onward, seeking a friendly harbor along our shores, the Suire, or ‘Sea-Nymphs’ played around them as they made their passage.

It is said that ‘The Merrow’ was able to have a close relationship with human beings and, it appears, they intermarried, living together with them for many years. There is, naturally, some exaggeration within the tales told by the various families and groups that live and thrive on Ireland’s southern and western coasts and claim a partial descent from these inhabitants of the seas and oceans. There can be little doubt, however, that the natural instincts of ‘The Merrow’ are likely to have prevailed over their romantic interests. Another problem that may have upset relationships with mortals would undoubtedly have been the very strong desires that they possessed to always return to their former haunts and companions in their undersea world.

Tradition suggests that the ‘Merrow-Maiden’ was the daughter of a King from beneath the sea, but it also informs us that these maidens might be found living under the waters of our lakes. These mermaids are said to allure young mortals to follow them beneath the surface of the water, where they will live in an enchanted state with each other.

‘Merrows’ wear a ‘Conuleen Druith’, or a little charmed cap, which was generally covered with feathers and used for diving under the water. Should they ever lose this small cap they would lose the power to return to their homes in the depths of the seas and oceans. They have, however, been known to leave their outer skins behind them in the sea so that they might assume other more magical and beauteous appearances. But, they retain the soft white webs between their fingers and are often seen with a comb of gold, parting their long green hair on either side of their head, enhancing her very beautiful features. Also, beautiful and attractive is the music of ‘The Merrow’, which can be heard coming up from the lowest depths of the ocean, and sometimes floating across the water’s surface to encourage ‘Merrows’ to dance upon the shore, the strand, or on the waves that roll against the shoreline. Though all their features and fascinations are designed and practiced in order to seduce young mortal men, these maidens can occasionally be very vengeful.

It is strange to think of the possibility that there are ‘Merrow-Men’, but tradition insists that they do exist. It is said, however, that the ‘Merrow-Man’ is deformed in its shape and its features. More menacingly, the ‘Merrow-Men’ are said to keep the spirits of drowned fishermen, and sailors, captive in cages that are fastened to the bottom of the sea.

The myth of the Merrow-Maiden is known in various folklore traditions, but under different names. In Scotland, these creatures are known as Selkies and like Merrows in Ireland they can be either male or female. Furthermore, the Selkies are seals while in the water and what differentiates them from mermaids, other than the choice of animal, is that they undergo a full body transformation upon coming to shore. They do not merely transform their seal tails into human legs, but rather completely shapeshift from the sea animals into a human form. This is accomplished by shedding their seal-skin when they come to land.

O’Carroll’s Banshee

A Story of the Shannon

The Banshee or ‘The White Woman’, famed in Irish folklore is sometimes called the ‘Shee Frogh’, ‘House-Fairy’. She is usually represented as a small, shriveled, old woman. Occasionally, however, she is pictured as being a young, beautiful woman with long, flaxen hair, and it is this long hair that she is often depicted as combing, while she freezes the observer’s blood with her wild and startling wail that sounds every bit a soul-piercing melody.

A Banshee is reputed to herald the immediate death of members of a particular ‘Old Irish’ family. But, she is always to be seen alone at these times, in a melancholy mood, when she is found near the home-place of the doomed person, which may be familiar to her. Some folklorists will inform us that the Banshee is most likely to be the spirit of some person who had suffered a violent death at the hands of an ancestor of the doomed family. Frighteningly unrelenting, the Banshee repeats her vengeful wails from a single place, fulfilling her designated role as the herald announcing the imminent death of at least one of the guilty ancestor’s descendants. In many cases, her cry appears to be coming from a water source, a spring, a river, or a lake, with which the Banshee’s name is connected. In most stories that concern her visitation, it appears to matter little if she is a friendly spirit or an enemy of the people to whom her wails are directed.

The famed, but now ruined, castle of Terryglass and its four circular bastions, which stood proud on the four corners of its once massive walls, overlooks the upper waters of Lough Derg that lies along the course of the River Shannon. The remnants of those walls are still immensely thick, although they are not even one-third of their original height. On a fine and breezy autumn day, the rough waters of the Lough roll along with every sweep of the cool winds, and the wavelets that are created break upon the shore, a short distance from the stout foundations of this once massive fort.

The people who live in this area call the runs ‘Old Court’. The gateway to the castle opens toward the wide Shannon and, near it, one of the corner bastions is open to all who wish to enter. Inside, a broken and winding, but quite wide, circular stone stairway leads the visitor to the upper level of the Terryglass Castle’s walls. Those adventurous visitors who have strong nerves could, possibly, walk above the remaining grass covered tops, especially if no strong winds are blowing. Then, from this height, the visitor can look down upon the ground-plan of the ruined building and see that it is almost quadrangular. They will also see that a thick dividing wall separates the interior of the castle into two almost equal parts. Then, as the visitor makes their way, they will reach each angle of the fortress and may see, in the ruin’s interior, the circular bastions beneath him. These remain ina tolerable condition even after all these years, with old elder or thorny shrubs growing in the lower soil, while the narrow, looped windows on the outside are splayed inward, dimly lighting various compartments.

The entire structure rests upon a limestone rock foundation, around which rich meadow pastures, corn-fields, and tangled thorn fences stretch, or slope gently down to the bright waters of the lough. Around the castle, the lower walls spread near the foundations, and incline inwardly to a certain height, which helps to strengthen their superstructure in what, at one time, must have been an accepted military structural technique. Weather-beaten and worn are these old ruins, and they are choked with briars and shrubs. But traces of their former grandeur and vastness remain, leaving the visitor with enough evidence to show that this was once a lordly fortress in former times, with its parapets raised high in the air and proudly looming over the lough and its surroundings.

In those remote, historical days the halls of the ‘Old Court’ were inhabited by an Irish Chieftain called O’Carroll and his armed retainers. Within those, many centuries before, an evening’s entertainment ended with singing and dancing. But, when the old Harper drew his last tones from the strings of his ‘Clairseach’ (Harp), everyone retired to their beds and the guards went to take up their posts on the highest tower, where they kept watch through the night.

O’Carroll had ordered his men to make his private lake-boat ready for the next morning, along with his forester, Huntsman, and two strong soldiers. After breakfast, he had proposed to have his men row the boat over to the lower shore of Thomond, where he could visit one of the O’Briens. That morning the sun rose bright over the lough and the day was perfectly calm as the boat and its passengers sliced gracefully through the glistening surface of the wide lake. Very quickly the boat became just a speck to those who were watching its departure from the castle, and with the strong, regular strokes of the oarsmen, the boat eventually landed on a distant foreland.

The chieftain was not expected to return until the evening of the next day. But, while the night-watch prepared for their duty on the tower, and before the people in the ‘Old Court’ had gone to bed, a loud, piercing and unearthly wail was heard, and it sounded as if it was coming from the nearby lough. The hearts of those who heard it felt their hearts stop in terror, while the castle’s servants rushed to every loop-hole window in the upper storey and even onto the roof, to determine who was making this frightful lamentation and from where was it coming. In the night sky, the moon had just appeared, spreading its mellow light over the surrounding landscape and illuminated every object of any significance. It did not take the look-outs long to see a beautiful female figure, clad in white, with long flowing locks streaming over her shoulders. She glided slowly over the clear surface of the lake, while the piercing mournful dirge became momentarily more feint until, at last, it died away in the distance.

The shimmering figure finally dissolved as if it too was just one of the passing shadows of the night. These people, who had heard and watched the strange apparition for some time, now looked at one another in silent astonishment or made exclamations of wonder and foreboding. “There is no doubt, it’s O’Carroll’s Banshee,” cried out one of the watchers, “and I am afraid that some sad accident will soon bring an end to our chieftain!

The next morning everyone’s eyes were anxiously directed across the lake toward the far-off shores of Thomond. A boat had already been sent toward Thomond earlier that morning with news of the strange warning to be taken to the chieftain. Since just before midnight the previous evening an unfortunate misunderstanding had arisen between O’Carroll and men from the O’Brien clan. An insult was alleged to have been directed toward the O’Briens and nothing would satisfy them but to settle the matter by force of arms. Although mutual friends made every effort to persuade the two sides of the argument to put down their arms, it was in vain. Both combatants insisted that their difference could only be decided on the lawn at the front of O’Brien’s castle before the morning dawned. For quite a while the talented and gallant swordsmen wielded their sharp, trusty swords against each other with great vigour. The duel went constantly back and forward, defence and attacks, cut and thrust, with neither man giving any quarter. But, the wary O’Brien seized upon an unguarded moment by his opponent and, without hesitation, he ran his sword through the heart of his adversary. O’Carroll, the Lord of Terryglass Castle fell dead upon the ground which was dampened by the morning dew.

With sorrowful tears in their eyes, O’Carroll’s men carried their chieftain’s remains towards the boat and with deep sadness, in their hearts, they pulled on their oars and rowed back across the lake to their home. Almost as soon as the boat was seen upon the lake many people rushed to line the Terryglass shore and welcome home their chieftain, but they did not know then that he was dead. Their grief and lamentation were loudly and angrily wailed when they saw the lifeless body of O’Carroll and heard the cause of his untimely fate.

The body was taken into the castle, where mourners and the funeral ceremonies were arranged. Finally, the chieftain’s remains were taken with all honours to the neighbouring churchyard of St. Columba MacCruinthannan, where they were consigned to the earth with all honours that were due to him. All the while, an immense crowd of weeping relatives and servants surrounded the grave as the final rites were completed.

The Well of Derrydownan

An Old Story from Ireland

In a time, long before the coming of Saint Patrick, there was an old king in Connacht, who had been blessed with three sons. The old king had been bothered by a sore foot for many years, and he could get nothing to cure it. One day he sent for blind ‘Wise-man’ and said to him, “I’m giving you wages this twenty-years and you can’t even tell me what will cure my foot.”

“You’ve never asked me that question before,” said the ‘Wiseman’, “but I’ll tell you now that there is nothing in this world that will cure you but a bottle of water from the Well of Derrydowan. “

The next morning, the king called his three sons to him and told them, “My foot will never be better until I get a bottle of water from the Well of Derrydowan, and whichever of you brings me that, will inherit my kingdom.”

“We will go in search of it to-morrow,” the sons replied. The names of the three young men were Art, Nart, and Cart, and the next morning the king gave to each one of them a purse of gold as he sent them on their way.

When they came as far as the cross-roads Art spoke, “Each one of us ought to take a road for himself, and if one of us is back before a year and a day is past, let him wait until the other two come, or else let him set up a stone as a sign that he has come back safe.”

They parted company after that, with Art and Nart going to an inn, where they began drinking. But Cart went on by himself, walking all that day without knowing with any certainty where he was going. Then, as the darkness of night fell, he entered a great wood, and he pressed on until he came to a large house. Cart went into the building and looked around, but he saw nobody, except for a large white cat sitting beside the turf-fire. When the cat saw him, she rose up and went into another room, while a very tired Cart sat himself beside the fire. But it was not long until the door of the room opened, and out came an old hag and declared, “One hundred-thousand welcomes to you, son of the king of Connacht.”

“Oh, many a good day I spent in your father’s castle, and I have known you since you were born,” said the old hag. Then she prepared a fine supper and gave it to him and, when he had eaten and drunk enough, she said to him, “You made a long journey to-day, now come with me ‘til I show you a bed.” She brought him to a fine room, showed him a bed, and the king’s son quickly fell asleep.

Cart did not awake until the sun was coming in through the windows the next morning. Then he rose up, dressed himself, and was going out of the house, when the hag asked him where he was going. “I don’t know,” replied the king’s son. “I left home to find out the Well of Derrydowan.”

”I’ve walked in many a place,” said the hag, “but I never heard tell of the Well of Derrydowan before.”

The king’s son left the house and travelled on until he came to a crossroads between two woods. He did not know which road to take but he noticed a seat under the trunk of a great tree. When he went up to the seat found a notice, saying, “This is the seat of travellers.” The king’s son now sat down, and after a minute he saw the most beautiful woman in the world approaching him. She was dressed in red silk, and she spoke quietly to him, saying “I have often heard it said that it is better to go forward than back.” Then she vanished from his sight, as though the ground had suddenly swallowed her up.

The king’s son rose up from the seat and went forward, walking all that day until the darkness of the night began to come on, and he began to wonder where he would get lodgings. He saw a light coming from the wood, and he moved towards it. The light was coming from a little house where there was not as much as the end of a feather jutting up on the outside, nor jutting down on the inside, but only one single feather that was keeping the house up. He knocked at the door, and an old hag opened it to him. “God save all here,” said the king’s son.

“A hundred welcomes before you, son of the king,” said the hag.

“How did you know me?” asked the king’s son.

“It was my sister that nursed you,” said the hag, ” and sit yourself down a while until I get your supper ready.”

When he had eaten and drank enough, she gave him a comfortable bed, where he slept until morning. Then, rising the next morning, he prayed to God to direct him on the road to find his goal. “How far will you go to-day?” asked the hag.

“I don’t know,” said the king’s son, “I’m in search of the Well of Derrydowan.”

“Well, I’m three hundred years here,” said the hag, “and I have never heard of such a place before. But I have a sister, who is older than myself, and, perhaps, she may know of it. Here is a ball of silver for you, and when you go out on the road just throw it up before you and follow it ‘til you come to the house of my sister.”

When he went out on the road, he threw down the ball, and he followed it until the sun began to go under the shadow of the hills. Then he went into a wood and came to the door of a little house. When he knocked on the door, a hag opened it to him, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes before you, son of the king, who was at my sister’s house last night. You have made a long journey today, so sit yourself down for I have a supper ready for you.” When the king’s son had eaten and drank his fill, the hag put him to bed, where slept until the next morning. Then the hag asked him, “Where are you going to ?”.

“I don’t really know,” said the king’s son. “I left home to find the Well of Derrydowan.”

“Well, I am over five hundred years of age,” said the hag, “and I have never heard anyone talk of that place before. But I have a brother, and if there is any such place in the world, he will certainly know of it. He lives seven hundred miles from here.”

“It’s a long journey,” said the king’s son.

“You’ll be there to-night,” said the hag as she gave him a little horse about the size of a goat.

“Sure, that wee beast will never be able to carry me,” said the kings’ son.

“Wait ‘til you start riding it,” said the hag, and the king’s son got on the wee horse and together they moved as fast as lightning. When the sun was going down that evening, Cart came to a little house in a wood.

He dismounted from his small mount, went up to the house, and it was not long until an old grey man came out, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, son of the king. You’re searching for the Well of Derrydowan.”

“I am, indeed,” said the king’s son.

“Many a good man went that way before you, but not a man of them came back alive,” said the old man. “However, I’ll do my best for you. Stop here tonight and we’ll have some sport to-morrow.” Then he prepared a supper and gave it to the king’s son, and when he had eaten and drank sufficiently, the old man put gave him a bed to sleep on. The next morning, the old man told Cart, “I found out where the Well of Derrydowan is, but it is difficult to get there. We must find out if you are any good at using the bow.” Then he brought the king’s son out into the wood, gave him a bow and arrow, and put a mark on a tree forty yards away from him, and told him to strike it. He drew the bow and struck the mark, causing the old man to say, “You’ll do the business.”

They then returned to the house, where they spent the day telling stories until the darkness of night fell over the wood. When the night came, the old man gave him a bow and a quiver of arrows, saying “Come with me now.”

They went on until they came to a great river, and the old man said, “Get on my back, and I’ll swim across the river with you. But, if you see a great bird coming, kill him, or we shall both be lost.”

Then the king’s son climbed on the old man’s back, and the old man began swimming. When they reached the middle of the river the king’s son saw a great eagle coming towards them with its beak wide open. The king’s son drew the bow and wounded the eagle. “Did you strike him?” said the old man.

“I struck him,” said the king’s son; “but here he comes again.”

He drew the bow for a second time and the eagle fell, dead and when they came to the riverbank the old man declared, “We are on the island of the Well of Derrydowan. The queen is sleeping, and she will not awaken for a day and a year. She only goes to sleep once every seven years. There is usually a lion and a monstrous beast watching at the gate to the well, but they go to sleep at the same time as the queen, and you will have no difficulty in going to the well. Here are two bottles for you. Fill one of them for yourself, and the other for me, and it will make me a young man again.”

The king’s son went off, and when he came as far as the castle, he saw the lion and the monster sleeping on each side of the gate. Then he saw a great wheel throwing up water out of the well, and he went and filled the two bottles he had been given, and while he was coming back, he saw a shining light from the castle. He looked in through the window and saw a great table, upon which sat a loaf of bread, with a knife, a bottle, and a glass. He filled the glass, but he did not empty the bottle. He observed that there was a writing on the bottle and on the loaf; and he read on the bottle, “Water For the World,” and on the loaf, “Bread For the World.” He cut a piece off the loaf, but it only grew bigger. “My God! It’s a pity we haven’t that loaf and that bottle at home,” said the king’s son, “and there would be neither hunger nor thirst on the poor people.” Then he went into a great chamber, and he saw the queen and eleven waiting-maids asleep, and a sword of light was hanging above the head of the queen. It was the sword that was giving light to the whole castle and when he saw the queen, he said to himself, “It’s a pity to leave that pretty mouth without kissing it.” He kissed the queen, and she never awoke, and after that he did the same to the eleven maidens. Then he took the sword, the bottle, and the loaf, and came back to the old man, but he never told him that he had those things. “How did you get on?” said the old man.

“I got the thing I was in search of,” said the king’s son.

“Did you see any marvel since you left me?” asked the old man, and the king’s son told him that he had seen a wonderful loaf, a bottle, and a sword.

“You did not touch them?” asked the old man, warily. “Shun them, for they would bring trouble on you. Come on my back now ‘til I bring you back across the river.”

When they went to the house of the old man, he poured water out of the bottle on himself, and made himself a young man again. Then he said to the king’s son, “My sisters and myself are now free from enchantment, and they are young women again.”

The king’s son remained there until the most part of the year and day were gone. Then he began his journey home, but he did not have the little horse with him. He walked the first day until the darkness of the night came down. He saw a large house, went to the door, knocked on it, and the man of the house came out to him. “Can you give me lodgings ?” he asked.

“I can,” said the man of the house, “only I have no light to light your way.”

“I have a light myself,” said the king’s son. He went into the house, drew the sword, and gave a fine light to them all, and to everybody that was on the island. They then gave him a good supper, and he fell asleep. When he was going away in the morning, the man of the house asked him for the honour of God, to leave the sword with them. “Since you have asked for it in the honour of God, you must have it,” said the king’s son and he walked that second day until darkness began to fall. He went to another great house, knocked the door, and it was not long until the woman of the house came out to him, and he asked her for lodgings.

The man of the house came and told him, “I can give you that, but I have not a drop of water to make any food for you.”

“Sure, I have plenty of water myself,” said the king’s son. He went in, took out the bottle, and there was not a vessel in the house he did not fill, and still the bottle remained full. Then a supper was prepared for him, and when he had eaten and drank enough, he went to sleep. In the morning, when he was going, the woman asked him, in the honour of God, to leave them the bottle. “Since you have asked it for the honour of God,” said the king’s son, “I cannot refuse you, for my mother made me promise her, before she died, never, if I could, refuse anything that a person would ask of me for the honour of God.” Then he left the bottle to them.

He walked the third day until darkness was came, and he reached a great house on the side of the road. He knocked on the door and when the man of the house came out, he asked if he could have lodgings there. “I can give you that, and welcome,” said the man, “But I’m sorry that I have not a morsel of bread for you to eat.”

“I have plenty of bread myself,” said the king’s son as he went in, got a knife, and began cutting the loaf, until the table was filled with pieces of bread. Yet, the loaf was as big as it was when he began. Then they prepared a supper for him, and when he had eaten enough, he went to sleep. Then, when he was leaving the next morning, they asked him, for the honour of God, to leave the loaf with them, and he left it with them. The three things were now gone from him and he walked the fourth day until he came to a great river, and he had no way to get across it. He went down on his knees, and he asked God to send him help. After half a minute, he saw the beautiful woman he had seen the day he had left the house of the first hag and, as she came near him, she asked him, “Son of the king, has it succeeded with you?”

A Sacred Well

“I got the thing I went in search of,” said the king’s son; “but I don’t know how I shall get over this river.”

She drew out a thimble and said, “It would be a bad day that I would see your father’s son without a boat.” Then she threw the thimble into the river and made a splendid boat from it. “Get into that boat now,” said she, “and when you come to the other side, there will be a horse there ready to bring you as far as the cross-road, where you left your brothers.”

The king’s son stepped into the boat, and it was not long until he was at the other side of the river, and there he found a white horse standing before him. He mounted it, and it went off as swiftly as the wind, bringing him to the cross-roads at about twelve o’clock that day. The king’s son looked around him, and he did not see his brothers, nor any stone set up, and he said to himself, “Perhaps they are at the inn.” When he went there, he found Art and Nart, and both were two-thirds drunk. They asked him how he gotten on since he had left them. “I have found the Well of Derrydowan, and I have the bottle of water,” said Cart.

Nart and Art were filled with jealousy, and they said to one another, “It’s a great shame that the youngest son should have the kingdom. We’ll kill him, and bring the bottle of water to our father,” said Nart, “and we’ll say that it was us that went to the Well of Derrydowan.”

“I’m not with you there,” said Art, “but we’ll get him drunk, and we’ll take the bottle from him. My father will believe me and you, before he’ll believe our brother, because he has an idea that there’s nothing in him but a half-wit.” Then, he said to Cart, “Since it has happened that we have all come home safe and sound we’ll have a drink before we go home.” They called for a quart of whiskey, and they made Cart drink the most of it, causing him to fall drunk. Then, they took the bottle of water from him, went home themselves, and gave it to the king, who put a drop of the  water on his foot, and it made him as well as ever he had been. Then they told him that they had great trouble to get the bottle of water. That they had to fight giants and overcome great dangers.

“Did you see Cart on your road?” asked the king.

“He never went farther than the inn, since he left us,” they told him, “and he’s in it now, blind drunk.”

“Sure, there never was any good in him,” said the king, “but I cannot leave him there.” So, he sent six men to the inn, and they carried Cart home and, when he recovered from his drunkenness, the king reduced him to a servant and was to do all the dirty jobs about the castle.

Gaelic Warrior

When a year and a day had gone by, the queen of the Well of Derrydowan and her maids-in-waiting woke up, and the queen and her eleven maidens found a young son by her sides. The queen was extremely angry, and she sent for the lion and the monster, to ask them what had become of the eagle that she had left in charge of the castle. “He must be dead, or he’d be here when you awakened,” they said.

“I’m destroyed! Myself, and the maids-in-waiting,” said the queen angrily, ”and I won’t stop until I discover who is the father of my son!” Then she called for her enchanted coach to be made ready, with two fawns to pull it, and she hurried off until she came to the first house where the king’s son had been given lodging. There she asked if there had been any stranger there lately, and the man of the house said that there had.

“Yes!” said the queen, “And he left the sword of light behind him! It is mine, and if you do not give it back to me quickly, I will turn your house upside down.” They immediately gave her the sword, and she went on until she came to the second house, in which he had been given lodging, and she asked if there had been any strangers there lately. They said that there had been. “Yes!” said she, “And he left a bottle after him. Give it back to me immediately, or I’ll bring this house down upon you!” They quickly returned the bottle to her, and she went off again until she came to the third house, where she asked if there had been any strangers there lately. They said there was. “Yes!” said she, “And he left the loaf of lasting bread after him. That belongs to me, and if you don’t return it to me quickly, I will kill you all!” She got the loaf, and she set off once more, and never stopped until she came to the old king’s castle, where she pulled the challenge bell outside the gate. When the king came out, she asked him, “Have you a son?”

“I have,” said the king.

“Send him out here ‘til I see him,” said she and in response the king sent out Art. The queen asked him, “Were you at the Well of Derrydowan?”

“I was,” said Art.

“And are you the father of my son?” she asked.

“I believe I am,” said Art.

“I will know that soon enough,” she said, and she drew two hairs out of her head, flung them against the wall, and they were made into a ladder that went up to the top of the castle. Then she said to Art, “If you were at the Well of Derrydowan, you can go up to the top of that ladder.” Art went up half-way before he fell and broke his thigh. “You were never at the Well of Derrydowan,”said the queen and she asked the king, “Have you any other son?”

“I have,” replied the king.

“Bring him out,” said the queen. When Nart came out, she asked him, “Were you ever at the Well of Derrydowan?”

“I was,” said Nart.

“If you were, go up to the top of that ladder,” said the queen, and he began going up. But he had not gone very far until he fell and broke his foot. “You were not at the Well of Derrydowan,” said the queen and again she asked the king if he had any other son. When the king said he had, he added, “But it’s a half-wit he is, that has never left home.”

“Bring him here,” said the queen, and when Cart came, she asked him, “Were you at the Well of Derrydowan ?”.

“I was,” said Cart, “and I saw you there.”

“Go up to the top of that ladder,” said the queen, and she watched as Cart went up the ladder like a cat. When he came down, she said told  him, “Yes, you are the man who was at the Well of Derrydowan, and you are the father of my son.” Then Cart explained the trick that his brothers played on him, and the queen was about to slay them both, until Cart asked her to pardon them. The king then declared that Cart must inherit the kingdom, and he dressed him in robes and put a chain of gold around his neck. Then, Cart got into the coach beside the queen, and they departed the castle for the Well of Derrydowan. The maids-in-waiting gave Cart a great welcome, and they all came to him, with each one asking him to marry them. He stayed in that place twenty-one years, until the queen died, and then he brought back with him to Galway his twelve sons Galway. Each of the sons married a wife, and it is from them that the twelve tribes of Galway are descended.

Poor Man’s Bridge

When ghosts, as cottage maids believe,

Their pebbled beds permitted leave,

And goblins haunt, from fire or fen,

Or mine or flood, the walks of men.”

Collins.

This is a story adapted from an original tale written by John Keegan, an Irish writer, and storyteller, who was born in the townland of Killeaney, near the village of Shanahoe in County Laois (formerly Queen’s County). John was born in 1816, in the house of his uncle, Thomas Maloney, who was a local hedge-school teacher, with whom John’s parents lived. He was educated by his uncle, who had established a school in the sacristy of Shanahoe chapel, about 1822, prior to the erection of a school in the village in 1830.This particular story was published in 1846 and is an excellent example of Irish storytelling in the eighteenth century, before, during and after the great Famine.

It happened one evening last winter. It was a Christmas holiday evening, and the western wind was sweeping wildly from the grey hills of Tipperary, across the rich and level plains of County Laois. When a blast of wind blast roared down the chimney, and the huge raindrops pattered saucily against the four tiny glass panes which constituted the little kitchen window, I was sitting in the cottage of a neighbouring peasant. I was in the middle of a small but happy group of village rustics and enjoying with them that enlivening mirth and sinless delight, which I have never found anywhere else but at the fireside of an Irish peasant.

The earthen floor was well scrubbed over, while the various bits and pieces of furniture that existed were arranged with more than the usual tidiness. Even the crockery on the well-scoured dresser reflected the ruddy glare from the red fire with redoubled brilliancy, glittering and glistening as merrily as if they felt conscious of the calm and tranquillity of that happy scene. And happy indeed was that scene, and happy was that time, and happier still the hearts of the laughing people by whom I was, on that occasion, surrounded. It has been among people such as these that I have spent the lightest and happiest hours of my existence.

It was, as I said, a wild night. But even the violence of the weather outside gave an additional relish to the enjoyments within that building. The wind’s blast whistled fiercely in the cracks of the old and weather-beaten wall, but the huge fire blazed brightly on the hearthstone. The rain fell in torrents, but, as one of the company laughingly remarked, “the wrong side of the house was out,” and I myself mentally exclaimed with Tam O’Shanter,

The storm without may roar and rustle,

We do not mind the storm a whustle.”

Meanwhile, to help wind up the climax of our happiness, a bit of a boy who had been dispatched for a large tankard full of ‘poteen,’ now returned. Within a few minutes a huge jug of half ‘poteen’ and half boiling water steamed on the table and was circulated around the smiling and expectant ring of people. It was passed with a speed, the likes of which the peasantry of Ireland will in a very short time, from certain existing causes, have not even the remotest idea.

The River Nore

Well, such an evening as we had, I shall never forget! It would be virtually impossible to even attempt a description of the festivities. Those who have witnessed similar scenes require none, and to those who have not, any attempt at one would be useless. All, therefore, I shall say, is, that such a scene of fun and frolic and harmless foolishness could not be found anywhere outside that ring which encircles the Emerald Isle. Even within that bright zone, nowhere but in the cabin of an Irish “peasant”

The songs of our fathers, sung with all that melancholy softness and pathetic sweetness for which the voices of our wild Irish girls are renowned. The wild legend recited with that rich brogue and self-deprecating humour that is peculiar alone to the Irish peasant. The romantic and absurd fairy tale, that is told with all the reverential awe and caution, which the solemnity of the subject required, long amused, and excited the captivated listeners. But at length, more is the pity, the vocalist could sing no more, having “a mighty great cold on him entirely.” The storyteller was “as dry as a chip with all his talking,” and even the sides of most of the company “were ready to split with all the laughing that was done.” Meanwhile, as if to afford us another illustration of the truth of the old proverb, “one trouble never comes alone,” even the old crone who had astonished us with the richness and the extent of her fairy lore, had also finished, having exhausted her huge reservoir of earthly spirits to entertain us.

Well, what could we do? The night was still young, and, better than that, a good drop still remained in the large tankard. Not surprisingly, as we all had contributed to procure the drink, everyone declared that none should leave until the very last drop was drained. But what were we to do to occupy ourselves? The singer was silenced, the storyteller was exhausted, and the volleys of wit and foolishness had exploded until everyone was exhausted from the laughter, and yet to remain silent was considered by all as the most uncomfortable way to spend such an evening as this.

Puzzled by this dilemma the man of the house scratched his scalp, and, in an sudden impulsive act, he stood up and handed me an old book that was covered in soot. “Maybe you’ll entertain us all by reading a story or two for the education of the company here, until it would be time for us all to go home?

Without hesitation I agreed to do as he asked, and on opening the dusty and smoke-begrimed book discovered that it was, in fact, “Sir Charles Coote’s Statistical Survey of the Queen’s County,” printed in Dublin by Graisberry and Campbell, and published by direction of the Dublin Society in the year 1801. I was, of course, well aware that the dry details of a work that was exclusively statistical, were not designed to amuse, or even interest, an audience such as this. But sadly, the library of an Irish peasant is always, unfortunately, scanty. In this particular instance, with the exception of a few mediocre works on religious subjects, there was only this ‘Statistical Survey.’ Nevertheless, I was determined to make it as interesting to my audience as was possible. For that reason, I opened it at Sir Charles’s description of the immediate district in which we were situated, namely, the barony of Maryborough West, and townland of Killeany.

I began to read, “On Sir Allen Johnson’s estate stand the ruins of Killeany Castle, the walls of which are injudiciously built of very bad stones, although an excellent quarry is nearby. … ‘Poor-man’s Bridge’ over the River Nore was lately widened, and is very safe, but I cannot learn the tradition why it was so called.”

Read that again, sir,” said a fine grey-headed, patriarchal old man, who was present. “Read that again,” said he emphatically, and I did so.

He cannot learn the tradition of ‘Poor-man’s Bridge,’ the eejit!” the old man said with a sneer. “Sure, I can’t believe it. Normally, with a man of his education, I’d take his word as gospel. But, if he had come to me when he was travelling the country making up his statistics, I could have opened his eyes on that subject, and many others too.

Some of those present laughed outright at the manner in which the old man made this confident boast. “You needn’t laugh! You can all just shut your potato-traps,” said the old man indignantly. “He might have thought he was a great man, with his gold and silver, his coach and horses, and his servants with gold and scarlet livery. But I could tell him a thing or two about the ancient history and traditions of our country. In fact, a lot more history and tradition than all those landlords and landowners whom he visited, could have given him on his tour through the Queen’s County.”

Such boasting only served to increase the storm of ridicule which was beginning to gather around the old man’s head. So, in order to put a stop to any potential bad feelings, which the occasion might cause, I asked him to simply tell us the tradition surrounding “The Boccough Ruadh.

After some coaxing and some flattery, he agreed, and he began to tell us a curious story, the substance of which follows: –

The River Nore flows through a district of the Queen’s County that is famous for its fertility and romantic beauty. From its source among the blue hills of Slievebloom to where the river’s bright ripples mix with the briny waves of the Irish Sea, at New Ross, many excellent and even some beautiful bridges span its stream. Until the beginning of the last century, however, except in the vicinity of the towns, there were only a few permanent bridges across this river. In the country districts access, for the most part, was gained over the river by means of causeways, or, as they are often called “fords.” These were usually constructed of stones and huge blocks of timber that were fixed firmly in the bed of the river and extended in irregular succession from bank to bank. Over this pathway foot passengers crossed easily enough, but cattle and wheeled carriages were obliged to struggle through the water as well as they could. But, in time of flooding, and in the winter season when the waters were swollen, all communication was cut off except to pedestrians alone.

One of those “fords,” in former times, crossed the Nore at Shanahoe, a very pretty neighbourhood, about three miles northwards of the beautiful and rising town of Abbeyleix, in the Queen’s County. Here, the river winds its course through a silent glen, and several snug cottages and farmhouses arise above its banks at either side. The country in this neighbourhood is remarkably beautiful. Several great homes are scattered along the banks of the river in this vicinity, all elegant and of modern erection. Meanwhile, swelling hills, sloping dales, gloomy groves, and the ruins of churches, towers, and grey castles, ornament and beautify the scene.

About a hundred years ago, on a gentle piece of rising ground, along the eastern bank of the river, stood the cabin of a man named Neale O’Shea. At that time there was not another dwelling within a mile or two of the ford, and on many occasions, Neale was summoned from his midnight slumbers to guide the traveller as he made his way over the lonely and dangerous river pathway.

One wild and stormy December night, when the angry foaming water of the agitated river beat against the huge limestone rocks that formed the stepping-stones of the ford, Neale O’Shea’s wife thought she heard, between the pauses of the wind, the cry of someone in distress. She immediately awakened her husband, who was stretched out and asleep on a large oak stool in the chimney corner and told him to look outside. Neale, who was always willing to assist a fellow-creature, got up from his resting place. Flinging his grey cloak over his wide shoulders and grabbing hold of a long iron-tipped pole, which he constantly took with him on his nightly excursions, hurriedly made his way down to the river’s edge. He stood for a moment at the verge of the ford and tried to see through the intense gloom of the night, to try and identify a human form, but he could see nothing. “Is there any one there?” he shouted out in a loud voice, which rose high above the whistling of the wind, and the rushing of the angry and swift-flowing river.

A voice sounded at the other end of the ford, and with steady step great determination, crossed over the wet and slippery stepping-stones. “Who the devil are you?” Neale called out to the figure of a man who was stretched out on the brink of the river, very near to the entrance of the ford. “Whoever I am,” the stranger faintly replied, “you are my guardian angel, and it was surely my good fortune which caused you to come and rescue me from a watery grave.

Whoever you are,” said Neale, “come along with me, and Kathleen and the children will make you welcome in my cabin until morning.” Having given the invitation, he seized the bent form of the travel weary stranger and using all his strength to fling him on his back, Neale trudged over the stepping-stones, chuckling with delight, and happily whistling a tune as he went.

The dangerous path was soon crossed, and arriving at the door, Neale pushed it open before him, and with a smile he laid his trembling burden down on the warm hearth. A fine fire blazed merrily, and its flickering flames fell brightly on the pale face of the stranger. He was a tall, portly figure of a man, stooped as if from extreme suffering rather than from age, and he had a wooden leg. His features, which had evidently been handsome in his youth, were worn, pale, and extremely thin, and looked as though he might be about fifty years of age. His clothes were faded and ragged, and he was entirely without shoes or stockings. The man’s head was covered by a broad-brimmed leather hat, under which he wore an enormous red nightcap of coarse woollen cloth.

Neale’s good wife, Kathleen, now set about preparing supper, and while she was doing this, the stranger gave them both a brief account of his life. He told them that he was a native of the north of Ireland, and that he had spent several years of his youth at sea. He admitted that he had been wounded in a fight with smugglers on the coast of France, and after losing his leg, he had been discharged from his employment, and sent out into the world, without having one friend on earth, or a penny in his pocket. In this emergency he had no alternative but to beg for assistance from his fellowmen and had thus for the last twenty years wandered up and down the land, entirely dependent on the bounty and charity of the public.

Supper was now ready, and having taken a share of a comfortable meal, the wanderer went to rest in a comfortable “shake-down” bed, which the good woman had prepared for him in the chimney corner. The storm died away during the night, and next morning the watery beams of the winter’s sun shone faintly yet cheerfully on the smooth surface of the silvery Nore. The stranger was up at sunrise, and was preparing to leave, but his kind host and hostess would not allow him to go. They told him to stop a few days to rest, and in the interim, that he could do no better than take his post at the ford and ask alms of those who passed that way. There were always a great many people that passed there and, he was told, as nothing was ever begged from them in that place, they would cheerfully extend their charity to a person worthy of help.

Acting on their suggestions, the old sailor was soon sitting on a stone at the western end of the ford. With his old beret in his hand, and his head enveloped in the gigantic red nightcap, he begged for alms, in the name of God and the Virgin, from all those who passed that way. Before the faint beams of the December sun had sunk behind the distant hills, the old sailor could show that had earned more money than ever he did before, or since his limb was swept off by the shot of the smugglers.

The next morning, and every morning after, the sailor was to be found at his post at the ford. He soon became so well known to all the villagers, and from the circumstance of his always appearing with no other headgear than the red nightcap, they nicknamed him the “Boccough Ruadh.” This was the name by which he was known for ever after until his death.

The days and weeks passed by as usual, and the one-legged old sailor still conducted his lucrative employment at the river’s ford. Neale O’Shea’s cabin still continued to supply him with shelter every night, and all his days, from cockcrow until the final evening song of the wood-thrush, were spent at the ford, seated on that large block of limestone that is called to this day the “Clough-na-Boccough.”

The old sailor’s hand was stretched out to every stranger for alms, claiming it was “for the good of their souls,” and very few passed without giving something to the Boccough Ruadh. In this way he acquired considerable sums of money, but constantly denied having even a penny to his name. Whenever he was tormented by any of the neighbouring children about the size of his purse, he would get into a great rage. Angrily he swore, by the cross made by his crutch, that between buying a wee bit of tobacco and paying for other things he wanted, he hadn’t as much as would jingle on a tombstone, or as much that would buy a farthing candle to show a light on his poor corpse at the last day. He described the food that he ate as being the very worst, and unless it was supplied by the kind-hearted Kathleen O’Shea, he would sooner go to bed without supper than lay out one penny to buy bread. He allowed his clothes to go degrade into rags, unless any person in the area gave him old clothes for charity, and he would not pay for soap to even wash his shirt. Despite their best efforts, however, no one could find out what he did with his money. The man did not spend a half-crown in a year, and most people believed that he was piling it all up to give for masses that would benefit his soul on his dying day.

The years rolled by, and Neale O’Shea having reached old age, died, and was buried with his own people in the adjacent green churchyard of Shannikill, that lay on the banks of the winding Nore. The Boccough followed the remains of his kind benefactor to his last earthly resting-place and poured his sorrows over his grave in loud and long-continued lamentations. But though Neale was gone, Kathleen remained, and she promised that while she lived, neither son nor daughter should ever turn out the Boccough Ruadh.

It was now forty years since the Boccough first crossed the waters of the Nore, and still he was constantly to be found from morning until night on his favourite stone at the river’s side. In the meantime, all the O’Shea children were married, and spread out through various parts of the country, with the exception of Terry, the youngest son. He was a fine stout fellow, now about thirty-five years of age, who still remained in a state of bachelorhood, and said he would continue to be single, “until he would lay the last sod on his poor old mother.” He had great strength, and he inherited all his father’s kindness of heart and undaunted bravery. Terry was particularly attentive to the Boccough, whom he regarded with the same affection as a child would a parent.

One morning in summer, the Boccough remained in his bed longer than was his usual custom, and thinking that he might be unwell, Terry went to his bedside, and asked him why he was not up as usual. “Ah, Terry,” said the old man sorrowfully, “I will never get up again until I get the wooden box. Sure, my days are spent, and I know it, for there is something over me that I cannot describe, and I won’t be alive this time tomorrow.” and as he said these words, he heaved a deep groan, and Terry, wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his coat began to weep bitterly.

Will I go for the priest?” asked Terry, sobbing as if his heart would break.

No,” replied the old man sorrowfully, “I do not want him. It is a long time since I complied with my religious duties, and now I feel it is useless.

There is mercy still,” replied Terry; “you know the old saying,

Mercy craved, and mercy found

Between the saddle

and the ground.’”

The old man did not reply, but shook his head, indicating his determination to die without the consolations that religion might provide, while Terry trembled for his hopeless situation. “Well, since you won’t have the priest, will you give me some money till I bring you the doctor?” said Terry.

The old man’s eyes literally flashed fire, his form heaved with rage, and his face showed an almost demoniac indignation.

What’s that you say?” he demanded in a ferocious tone, and Terry repeated the question. “Send for a doctor? Give you money?” echoed the old man. “Where the devil would I get money to pay a doctor?”

You have it, and ten times as much,” said Terry, “and you cannot deny it.”

If I have as much money as would buy me a coffin,” said the Boccough, “may my soul never rest quiet in the grave.

Terry crossed his brow with terror. He knew the unhappy wretch was dying with a lie on his tongue, but he resolved not to press the matter further. “You are dying as fast as you can,” remarked Terry; “have you anything that you want to say before you go?

Nothing,” he replied faintly. “But let me be buried with my red nightcap on me.”

Your wish must be granted,” said Terry, and he went to awake his old mother, who still lay asleep. When he returned, he found the old man breathing his last. He uttered a convulsive groan and expired.

He was washed and stretched, and waked, with all the honours, rites, and ceremonies belonging to a genuine Irish wake. On the third day following, being the Sabbath, he was followed to the grave by crowds of the village peasantry, who remained in the churchyard until they saw his remains deposited, as they thought forever, in the rank soil of the cemetery.

There were many rumours that arose with respect to the Boccough’s money. Everyone but Terry believed that the fortune was now in the hands of Terry himself. But Terry, who knew better, believed, and affirmed that “what was got under the devil’s belly, always goes over his back.” In other words, that the “old boy” had taken the spoils, and that he had concealed them in some crevice along the bank of the river.

The night following the burial of the old sailor was passed in a very disturbed and agitated manner by Terry O’Shea. He did not sleep a wink, when he finally fell into a slumber, he jumped and moaned in his bed, appearing to be frightened and annoyed. “What’s wrong with you?” his old mother demanded affectionately. She was sleeping in the same room as Terry and was kept awake by her son’s restless and disturbed manner.

I don’t know, mother,” replied Terry; “I am so frightened and tormented with dreaming of the Boccough Ruadh, that I am almost out of my natural senses. Even at this moment I think I see him in front of me, walking about the room.”

Holy Mary, protect us!” screamed the old woman. “And it is no wonder that his unfortunate soul would be stargazing about, for he died without the priest, and a curse and a lie in his mouth!

Terry groaned agitatedly at her words, and then the old woman asked him, “And how does he appear in your dreams?

As he always was,” replied Terry. “But I think I see him pointing to his red nightcap, and endeavouring to pull it off with his old, withered hand.”

Umph!” said the old woman, in a knowing tone. “Ha! ha! I have it now. Are you sure that the strings of his night-cap were loosened before he was nailed up in the coffin?

I don’t know,” was the reply.

I’ll go bail they weren’t,” said the old woman, “and you know, or at any rate you ought to know, that a corpse can never rest in the grave when there is a knot or a tie upon anything belonging to its grave-dress.

Terry emitted another deep groan.

Well, dear boy,” said the old mother, “go tomorrow, taking a neighbour with you, and open the grave to see if anything is astray. If you find the nightcap or anything else not as it should be, set it to rights, and close the grave again decently, and he will trouble you no more.

Please God,” replied Terry briefly but emphatically.

Early the next morning Terry was at the Boccough’s grave, accompanied by a local man. The coffin was opened, the corpse examined, and, according to the mother’s prediction, the red nightcap was found knotted tightly under the dead man’s chin. Terry immediately began to unloosen it, and in the act of doing so, a corner of the nightcap gave way, and out slipped a shining golden guinea.

Ah ha!” mentally exclaimed Terry, “that’s no bent penny, for sure. There is a lot more where that was hid, but I had better keep a straight face about this!” So, without seeming to appear any way affected, he opened the knot, closed the coffin, shut up the grave, and left to go home, without once letting his companion aware of what he had seen.

The moment Terry entered door of his house, he told his mother about the golden guinea, and his determination to go back to the grave that very night and fetch the red nightcap home with him. Excitedly, he told her, “Body and bones and all, for that guinea has its friends about it, and I’ll bet you a bucketful of money that is where the old devil has hidden his fortune. That is why he insisted on me burying the red cap with him in the grave.

Wait a minute, sweetheart,” said his mother, with a note of worry in her voice. “Won’t you be afraid?

Afraid!” asked Terry, “Devil a bit of it! Afraid, me? And my fortune perhaps in that red nightcap.

The mother consented to his adventure, but she made him promise not to tell anyone about the matter, in case it turned out to be a disappointment. Terry vowed that he would say nothing, and immediately set about his usual tasks in the garden.

At last, the night came, and Terry set about preparing for his strange adventure. All the folk arts and prayers and charms of old Kathleen were put in place to ensure his preservation from danger. Just as the clock struck the witching hour of twelve o’clock, with his spade on his shoulder, and his clay pipe in his mouth, the bold-hearted Terry set forward all alone to the graveyard. He walked along the winding banks of the dark river that glittered in the moonlight. He whistled as he strode on, but not to keep his mind busy, for never was man’s mind more busily occupied than was Terry’s, in deciding how he would spend the money which he expected to find in the ‘Boccough Ruadh’s’ nightcap.

After a short walk, Terry arrived at the churchyard. It was a lovely summer’s night, the full moon shining gloriously, and myriads of pretty stars blinking and twinkling in the blue expanse, but all their native lustre was drowned in the borrowed splendour of the brightly shining planet of Venus. Terry paused for a moment to investigate his surroundings, and, resting on his spade, he looked about him with an anxious gaze. There was nothing out of place. All was silent as the departed beneath his feet, except for the murmuring of the river’s waters flowing past, or the barking of some village dog in the far distance. Terry moved on to the grave of the Boccough, and in a few minutes the ghostly moonbeams shone upon the pale, grim features of the dead. He snatched the nightcap quickly from the bald head of the corpse, put it in his pocket, and, despite his fears and the great terror that he felt, Terry chuckled to himself as he quietly commented on the “dead weight” of the Boccough’s headgear. He then closed the coffin, and as he proceeded to cover it, the clay and stones fell on it with an appalling and unearthly sound. Then, with the grave covered up again, Terry again shouldered his spade, and sought the river’s edge, striding hurriedly along its banks in the direction of his home. In the quiet of the night, he could clearly hear the splash of an otter and the diving of a waterhen, both of which momentarily disturbed the thread of his lonely thoughts.

Terry was soon at his mother’s side, who since his departure had been on her knees, praying for his safe return. The nightcap was ripped up, and from it flowed three hundred golden guineas as his reward for his churchyard adventure! Stitched carefully in every part of the huge nightcap, the gold lay secure, so as not to attract the notice of anyone, or cause the least suspicion of its nearness to the old man’s scalp.

Terry and his mother were ecstatic. Farms were already purchased in minds, cattle bought, houses built, and Terry even began in his mind to make preparations for his wedding with Annie Kinsella. She was a rich farmer’s daughter of the neighbourhood, for whom he had breathed many a hopeless sigh, and who, in addition to her beauty, was possessed of fifty pounds in hard gold, a couple of good yearlings, and a featherbed as broad as the “nine acres.”

The mother and son retired to bed, as happy as the certain possession of wealth, and the almost as certain expectations of honour and distinction, could make them. After a long time spent in constructing and condemning schemes for the future, Terry fell asleep. He had not slept long, however, when he started up with a loud scream, crying out, “The Boccough! The Boccough!”

Och, Jaysus he is seeing the Boccough again!” exclaimed the mother. “Is he coming for the nightcap and the gold?

Oh, no,” said Terry, calmly. “But I was dreaming of him again, and I was frightened.

What did you dream to-night?” asked the old woman.

I was dreaming that I was going over the ford by moonlight, and that I saw the Boccough walking on the water towards me. Then he stopped at a certain big stone and began to examine under it with his hands. I came up to him and asked him what he was searching for, when he looked up with a frightful look on his face, and he cried out in a monstrous voice, ‘For my red nightcap!’”

God Almighty never opened one door but he opened two,” exclaimed old Kathleen. “Examine under that stone to-morrow, and as sure as there’s an eye in a goat, you’ll find another fortune of money in it.

Maybe so,” replied Terry, “sure, there’s no harm in saying ‘God willing,’ and that He may make a thief of you before a liar.”

Amen, to that,” replied Kathleen.

Next morning at daybreak, Terry got up, and proceeded to the exact same stone where he had dreamed that he had seen the spirit of the Boccough. He examined it closely, and after a thorough search, discovered in the sand beneath the rock a leather pouch full of money. He cheerfully seized it, and on counting its contents, found it amounted to almost a hundred pounds, in silver and copper coins. “What a lucky born man you are, Terry O’Shea!” cried the overjoyed treasure hunter, “and what a bright day it was for your family that the Boccough Ruadh crossed over the waters of the Nore.

It was not a bright day at all, but a wild, gloomy, stormy night,” said the old woman, who, unknown to Terry, had followed her son to watch the success of his treasure hunt.

Who cares about that?” said Terry, “There never was so bright a day in your seven generations as that dark night. I am now a rich man, and I would not salute the Lord Lieutenant at this time.

That joyful day was passed by the happy mother and son counting and examining the gold, and again proposing plans, and considering the best purposes to which it could be applied. They passed the hours until the summer sun had long sunk behind the crimson west, and Terry again went to bed. He jumped from his sleep with a wild shriek, “Mother of mercy!” He then frantically screamed aloud, “Here is the Boccough Ruadh! I hear the tramp of his wooden leg on the floor.”

The Lord save us!” said the old woman in a trembling voice, “what can be the trouble with him now? Maybe it’s more money he has hid somewhere else.

Oh, do you hear how he rattles about the place! Devil a thing in the cabin but he will destroy it,” exclaimed poor Terry. “It’s a black day for us whenever we caught sight of himself, or his dirty trash of money. And, if God saves me till morning, I’ll go back and leave every bit of it where I got it.

Sure, wouldn’t that be a terrible crime to leave so much fine money simply moulding in the clay, while there are so many in want of it. Well, you shall do no such thing,” said the mother.

I don’t care a jot for that,” said Terry. “I would not have that old sinner, God rest his soul, rummaging every other night about my honest decent cabin for all the gold in the Queen’s County.

Well, then,” says the old woman, “go to the priest in the morning, and leave him the money, and let him dispose of it as he likes for the good of the old vagabond’s unfortunate soul.

This plan was agreed to, and the conversation dropped, although the ghost of the Boccough still rattled and clanked about the house. He never ceased stumping about, from the kitchen to the room, and from the room to the kitchen. Pots and pans, plates, and pitchers, were tossed here and there. The dog was kicked, the cat was mauled, and even the raked-up fire was lashed out of the grate. In fact, Terry declared that if the Devil himself was about the place, there couldn’t have been more noise than there was that night with the Boccough’s ghost, and this continued without a pause until the bell of Abbeyleix castle clock tolled the midnight hour.

Terry got up out of his bed the next morning at sunrise, and he packed up the money, which he believed was the cause of all his trouble, in his mother’s check apron. Then, with a heavy heart, he proceeded to the parochial house, which was about two miles from the present Poor-man’s Bridge, to see the priest. The priest, however, had not yet risen when Terry arrived, but being well known to the domestics, the young man was admitted into the priest’s bedroom.

You have started early,” said the priest; “what troubles you now, Terry?

In response, Terry gave a full and true account of his troubles and concluded by telling the priest that he had brought him the money to dispose of it as he thought best. “I won’t have anything to do with it,” said the Father. “It is not mine, so you may take it back again the same road.

Not a piece of it will ever go my road again,” said Terry. “Can’t you give it for his unfortunate old soul?

I’ll have no hand in it,” said the priest.

Well, neither will I,” said Terry. “I wouldn’t have the old miser thumping about my quiet floor another night for a king’s ransom.”

Well, take it to your landlord. Sure, he is a magistrate, and he will have it put to some public works connected with the county,” said the priest.

Bad luck to the lord or lady that I will ever take it to,” said Terry, turning on his heels, and running down the stairs, leaving the money, apron, and all, on the floor at the priest’s bedside.

Come back, come back!” shouted the Father urgently and with increasing anger.

Good morning to your reverence,” said Terry, as he sprang and bound across the priests’ garden like a mountain deer. “Ay, go you back! You have the money now, and you may make a bog or a road with it, whichever pleases you more.

An hour later, the priest’s servant man was on the road to Maryborough, mounted on the priest’s own black horse. Strapped in a large bag behind the servant was a sealed parcel containing the Boccough’s money, and a letter addressed to the treasurer of the Queen’s County grand jury. This letter detailed the curious circumstances by which the money came into the priest’s possession and recommending him to use it for whatever purpose the gentlemen of the county should consider the most urgent.

The summer assizes came on in a few days, and the matter was brought before the grand jury, who agreed to use the money to build a stone bridge over the ford where it was collected.

Within a year from that day, the ford had disappeared, and a magnificent bridge of seven arches spanned the sparkling waters of the River Nore, which pretty broad at this point and of considerable depth. From that day to this it has been called the “Poor-man’s Bridge,” and I never cross it without thinking of the strange circumstances which led to its erection.

The spirit of the Boccough Ruadh never troubled Terry O’Shea after that day, but often, as people say, amid the gloom of a winter’s night, or the grey haze of a summer’s evening, the figure of a wan and decrepit old man with his head enveloped in a red nightcap, was seen wandering about Poor-man’s Bridge, or walking quite “natural” over the glassy waters of the River Nore.

William Carleton,

Historian of the Famine

The famous Irish author and poet, W.B. Yeats, once described the 19th Century Irish author William Carleton (1794–1869) as ‘a great Irish historian’. Yeats considered “the history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields but in what the people say to each other on fair-days and high days, and in how they farm, and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage”. In all of his books and short stories these were precisely the things that Carleton recorded and left for succeeding generations to read. A new edition of his book “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry” was published in 1843, and in its ‘Introduction’ he explained that he was trying to give his readers “a panorama of Irish life among the people . . . their loves, sorrows, superstitions, piety, amusements, crimes and virtues”. With great word skills Carleton had as he said, “painted them honestly and without reference to the existence of any particular creed or party”. Throughout his novels and his sketches of peasant life in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century William Carleton described in great detail the living conditions and living standards of the poor, alongside other social realities that existed such as the relationship between poverty and illness, the prevalence of disease among the poor, and the recurring famines and accompanying fever epidemics that had become a major feature of Irish peasant life.

Carleton’s story ‘The Black Prophet’ was subtitled ‘A Tale of Irish Famine’, and it was serialised in the Dublin University Magazine between May and December 1846. By this time the entire country was gripped in the crisis that was to become the ‘Great Irish Famine’ and Carleton’s story created such interest that it was published in book form early in the following year. The story itself was based on the author’s experience of famine between 1817 and 1819, and again in 1821 and 1822. In that same year, 1846, an influential pamphlet concerning famine and fever as cause and effect in Ireland also appeared. It was written by Dr Dominic Corrigan, whose work with many of Dublin’s poorest inhabitants had led to him specialising in diseases of the heart and lungs, and the abnormal “collapsing” pulse of aortic valve insufficiency is named ‘Corrigan’s Pulse’ Corrigan’s influential pamphlet on famine and disease was based on earlier famines and fever epidemics that had plagued the country. His central thesis was that fever was the inevitable consequence of famine. From his studies he had come to the conclusion that famine would always be accompanied by a lethal outbreak of disease.

Corrigan’s pamphlet was widely noted and widely reviewed, because his argument was extremely controversial. This was a time when medical science was still a great mystery and long before the germ theory of disease was formulated and causes of disease were still speculative. But, the manner in which Carleton portrayed fever in ‘The Black Prophet’ was closely based on Corrigan’s controversial pamphlet. In a footnote to the story, Carleton reproduced several extracts from the pamphlet, including the final paragraph in which Corrigan compared the relative impact of typhus fever and Asiatic cholera, both of which had appeared in Ireland for the first time in the early 1830s, causing unprecedented consternation and panic. In Corrigan’s opinion fever was much more lethal and destructive than cholera or any other infectious disease. Corrigan stated – “Cholera may seem more frightful but it is in reality less destructive. It terminates rapidly in death, or in as rapid recovery. Its visitation too is short, and it leaves those who recover unimpaired in health and strength. Civil war, were it not for its crimes, would be, as far as regards the welfare of a country, a visitation less to be dreaded than epidemic fever.”[1]

As Carleton wrote in his lengthy footnote, Corrigan’s pamphlet “ought to be looked on as a great public benefit”, because it revealed “it conveyed ‘most important truths to statesmen’. Both Carleton’s story and Corrigan’s pamphlet were written with the purpose of serving as a warning to the government in England and its administration in Ireland about the inevitable consequences of the current famine situation that was evolving throughout the country. In ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton warned that during the famine and fever epidemic of 1817–19 “the number of those who were reduced to mendicancy was incredible”, which was an observation that was corroborated by numerous contemporary accounts. Carleton compared Ireland during these years of famine to a huge fever-hospital that was filled to capacity with victims of famine, disease and death. Adding to the desolation of the scenes that he had witnessed he wrote, “The very skies of heaven were hung with the black drapery of the grave”. The author also commented that hearses, coffins, and long funeral processions appeared to be everywhere one looked. Describing the deathly note of the constantly pealing church bells, Carleton wrote about the roads of the countryside being “literally black with funerals”.[2]

The language and imagery used in ‘The Black Prophet’ resembles those used by a young Irish doctor, Dr. Robert James Graves, who had been sent to Galway during the famine of 1822 as an emergency physician. He reported that the local peasants were always scrupulous in the manner that they conducted wakes, while the cries and lamentations of the large numbers that thronged after funerals, alongside the tolling of the death-bell from the church, always gave the local area a strikingly mournful appearance.  But, one of the features of Graves’s report, which occurs regularly in Carleton’s stories, is the terrible fear of infection among the Irish peasantry. It was a fear that intensified on every occasion that any one of the deadly epidemic diseases that plagued Ireland periodically, in the first half of the nineteenth century, appeared among them. Dr. Graves had accurately described the alarm that he met among the people when he arrived in Galway during late September 1822, where, he noted, that the common topics of conversation among the peasants were the sick and the dead. The ties of blood, friendship and hospitality were frequently broken by the same fear of contagion, Graves reported, and those who had been infected were either turned out of their cabins or left therein and abandoned to their own devices.

 “The dreadful typhus was now abroad in all its deadly power, accompanied, on this occasion, as it always is among the Irish, by a panic, which invested it with tenfold terrors. The moment fever was ascertained, or even supposed, to visit a family, that moment the infected persons were avoided by their neighbours and friends as if they carried death, as they often did, about them, so that its presence occasioned all the usual interchanges of civility and good-neighbourhood to be discontinued.”[3] In this extract from ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton captures the reaction of the ordinary people to communicable diseases like typhus fever. There are also contained within Carleton’s tales that make up ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’ many echoes of Dr. Graves’s reports.

In the ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton also wrote, “Such as had typhus in their own families were incapable of attending to the wants or distresses of others, and such as had not, acting under the general terror of contagion which prevailed, avoided the sick houses as they would a plague”. This is an authentic portrayal of Irish social realities in the first half of the nineteenth century. The fear, dread, mass panic and hysteria that filled the people were features that were prevalent in all outbreaks of fever and other diseases in Ireland. It was a terrible fear of the unknown, because these simple and virtually uneducated people did not understand how these diseases were caused. Not knowing the causes, they had no idea how to begin to cure them, and they feared anything that they did not know and could not control. But, they were very much aware of the terrible impact and consequences of diseases like fever upon those already weakened by hunger. If these diseases did not kill their victims, they were often left in much worse condition than prior to infection.

William Carleton

Unfortunately, the Irish people had an unrivalled knowledge of fever, its symptoms and its consequences. They were very much aware that the disease was contagious, and their terrible fear of infection drove them to quarantine any fever victims. There were, at the time, two main ways in which they could try to keep people in isolation, each of which was dependent upon the family circumstances of the affected persons. Those victims from the middle and upper classes of Irish society, with better housing and superior domestic arrangements than their poorer neighbours, would often try to isolate the infected person within their homes. One common method was described by a County Kilkenny doctor in 1844, stating that when fever appeared in the homes of wealthier farmers the door of ‘the sick room’ was “built up with sods, and a hole made in the back wall, through which the doctor must scramble in the best way he can upon all fours into an apartment which is almost invariably dirty, dark and damp”. However, he added that such efforts were invariably fruitless and any attempts at domestic segregation of the sick did little to check the spread of disease.[4]

The method employed by the peasantry to isolate the fever victims was to house them in shelters that they called ‘fever huts’. These huts usually consisted of a few stakes, covered with long sods called ‘scraws’ and a small portion of straw or rushes. These flimsy structures were quickly thrown together at the side of a road, the corner of a field or at the verge of a bog. In the 1830s a County Kildare doctor informed a parliamentary commission that was inquiring into the circumstances of the Irish poor, the so-called ‘Poor Inquiry’, of a fever patient he had found lying on some straw in a ditch. He told the commission, “It could not be called a hut, because it had only two sides, the back of the ditch forming one and some straw and furze tied together formed the other. This was removable and changed to whatever side the wind blew from.” In 1839 a visitor to County Fermanagh 1839 came across five instances “where the inmates of fevered hovels had fled to the roadside and struck up a kind of wigwam, composed of an upright stick, at the back of a ditch, and a lock of straw”.

In ‘The Poor Scholar’, one of several tales forming Carleton’s “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry”, the author describes the experiences of Jemmy McEvoy, who had contracted fever. He writes, “The early symptoms of the prevailing epidemic were well known . . . The Irish are particularly apprehensive of contagious maladies. The moment it had been discovered that Jemmy was infected, his school-fellows avoided him with a feeling of terror scarcely credible.” In Carleton’s story, the infected schoolboy was avoided as if he was a leper. Even when a group of agricultural labourers discovered the dazed and barely conscious Jemmy, they too were afraid of the disease but, after some deliberation, agreed to help him because, as one of them said, “there’s a great blessin’ to thim that assists the likes of him”. “Let us help him!” exclaimed another, “for God’s sake, an’ we won’t be apt to take it thin!” The labourers then built a small hut’ for Jemmy on the side of the public road, which was built from a few loose sticks that were covered over with “scraws”, which are the sward of the earth pared into thin strips. Jemmy, the ‘Poor Scholar’, Jemmy, was placed on some straw that had been laid in this structure, and food and drink were passed to him by means of a pitchfork and a long-shafted shovel, which was the custom of the time. It was a strategy that the peasantry resorted to in their efforts to avoid coming into personal contact with the infected person.

The sentiments expressed in Carleton’s story follows the evidence that was recorded in the ‘Poor Inquiry’ relating to the provision of charity to beggars and vagrants. ‘The Poor Inquiry’, conducted in the mid-1830s, took place almost at the same time as Carleton was writing ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’. When speaking to the inquiry several contributors expressed sentiments, such as, “When I give, I do so for the good of my soul, the honour of God, and for their benefit”, “I give, recollecting that I have another place to go to, where, if I give alms, I will receive fourfold reward”. Because of his knowledge of the people Carleton was able to capture the popular voice, which we find is often absent from the historical record. But, we must recognise the fact that Carleton was more than just a social chronicler. ‘The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine’ has a special meaning with regard to the Anglo-Irish politics of the day.  Carleton dedicated this work to Lord John Russell, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, acknowledging that both Russell and his predecessor, Sir Robert Peel, were “sincerely anxious to benefit” Ireland. However, in his dedicatory preface he did add, “. . . the man who, in his ministerial capacity, must be looked upon as a public exponent of those principles of government which have brought our country to her present calamitous condition, by a long course of illiberal legislation and unjustifiable neglect, ought to have his name placed before a story which details with truth the sufferings which such legislation and neglect have entailed upon our people.”

Carleton assured the Prime Minister that all of the facts and circumstances that he had depicted in his book were authentic, and he expressed the hope that Russell would prove himself to be ‘a friend’ of Ireland.  Although well-meaning it had little chance of success, as the events of the ‘Great Irish Famine’ would show. ‘The Black Prophet’ is indeed an historical record of the manner in which the peasant way of life in Ireland disappeared, and how an entire society was utterly changed by that ‘Great Famine’. Anyone who has read the wonderful stories written by William Carleton will without doubt agree with W.B. Yeats that he was a historian of the people, and through his words we have a better insight into what life in early-nineteenth century Ireland was like.

[1] From an article by Laurence M. Geary in ‘History Ireland’ Magazine.

[2] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[3] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[4]  J. Robins, ‘The Miasma. Epidemic and panic in nineteenth-century Ireland’, Dublin, 1995.

Banshee

The Keening Spirit

We Irish have the reputation of being very superstitious, but it is rather an exaggerated view. The truth is that we are no more superstitious than the country people of England, France, or Germany. In fact, it has been my experience that the people of the Scottish Highlands are much more attached to their superstitious beliefs and legends. What is unique about the Irish imagination is, however, that it is so vibrant that they can give Ireland’s legends an individuality that I have not found in the tales, myths and superstitions of most other peoples. Perhaps, it is our command of language that allows us to present the creatures of Irish imagination in a way that makes them appear to be so real and so original that they can become very startling to the imagination of others. The creatures born from within the Irish imagination, are often humorous, sometimes grotesque, and are regularly awe-inspiring and wonderful. In my mind the most fascinating creature of Irish legend is the weirdly-wailing Banshee, that sings her mournful cry at night, giving the family she attends a warning that one of their members is soon summoned into the world of spirits. This most dreaded spirit is called different things by different scholars of folklore, including the ‘Female Fairy’, the ‘Woman of Peace’, the ‘Lady of Death’, the ‘Angel of Death’, the ‘White Lady of Sorrow’, the ‘Nymph of the Air’, and the ‘Spirit of the Air’.

The ‘Banshee’ is quite different from the ‘Fear-shee’ or ‘Shifra’, (the Man of Peace), which brings good news and sings in a joyful mood near the house when unexpected good fortune is about to befall any or all members of the family. The Banshee, however, is really a disembodied soul of a person who, when alive was strongly attached to the family, or who had good reason to distrust and dislike its members. The Banshee’s song, therefore, may be different under different circumstances and can be inspired by opposite motives. For example, when the Banshee loves those whom she calls, the song is a low, soft chant. She is, of course, giving notice that the angel of death is near, but she is doing so with a tenderness of tone that will help reassure the one destined to die and comfort those who are left to mourn. It is more a welcome than a warning, and because its tones a are filled with celebration, it is as if the messenger spirit is bringing good news to the dying that he has been summoned to join those ancestors who are awaiting him. But, when she was alive, if the Banshee was an enemy of the family, her cry will be the scream of a fiend, howling in diabolical delight at the forthcoming death of another of her foes.

In some parts of Ireland there still exists a belief that the spirits of the dead are not taken from this world to another, and that they do not lose all their former earthly interests. It is thought that they enjoy the happiness of the saved, or endure the punishment imposed upon them for their sins, in the places where they lived while they had bodies of flesh and blood. At those times when people encounter certain problems, these disembodied spirits will display their joy or grief in a way that attracts the attention of living men and women. At weddings, for example, they are frequently unseen guests. At funerals they are always present, and sometimes, at both weddings and funerals, their presence is recognized by aerial voices or mysterious music which is almost of unearthly origin.

We believe that the good spirits wander with the living as their guardian angels, but the evil spirits restrained in their actions, and are compelled to do penance at or near the places where they carried out their bad deeds. Some are chained at the bottoms of the lakes, others are buried under ground, while others are confined in the mountain gorges. There are some that hang on the sides of precipices, while others are transfixed on the tree-tops, and others are left to haunt the homes of their ancestors, but all are waiting until their penance has been fulfilled and the hour of their release finally arrives. In County Antrim, the Castle of Dunseverick, is believed to be still haunted by the spirit of a chief, who is confined there to atone for a terrible crime he committed. Meanwhile, while the castles of Dunluce, of Magrath, and many others are similarly haunted by the spirits of the wicked dead. In the Abbey of Clare, the ghost of a sinful abbot walks and will continue to do so until his sin has been atoned for by the prayers that he unceasingly mutters in his tireless march up and down the aisles of the ruined nave.

As we have seen, the Banshee is one of those spirits who look with interest upon earthly things. They are deeply attached to the old families, or else regard all the family members with a strong hatred, and lingers about their homes to soften, or aggravate, the sorrow of the approaching death. The Banshee attends only the old leading families of Ireland, and although the descendants of those families may be brought down from their high position to the ranks of common people, through misfortune, she never leaves nor forgets them until the last member has been gathered to his ancestors in the churchyard. The MacCarthys, Magraths, O’Neills, O’Rileys, O’Sullivans, O’Reardons, O’Flahertys, and almost all the other old leading families of Ireland, have Banshees, though many representatives of these names are now in abject poverty. The song of the Banshee is commonly heard a day or two before the death of which it gives notice, although instances have been recorded of the Banshee’s song being heard at the beginning of an illness, or a course of conduct, which would result in death fatally. There is a story of a young girl who was engaged to a young man, and the moment she accepted his offer of marriage, they both heard the low, sad wail coming from above their heads. Later, the young man would desert her, she would die of a broken heart, and the night before she died, the Banshee’s song was heard, loud and clear, outside the window of her mother’s cottage. Another story records that one of the O’Flahertys, of Galway, marched out of his castle with his men on a raid, and, as his troops filed through the gateway, the Banshee was heard high above the walls of the fortress. The next night she sang again, and was heard no more for a month, at which time his wife heard the wail under her window, and on the following day his followers brought back his dead body. It is said that one of the O’Neills of Shane Castle, in Antrim, as he started out on a journey before daybreak, heard the Banshee’s cry and was accidentally killed some time after, while he was on that same journey.

Although the Banshee’s wail comes most frequently at night, there have been cases are reported of Banshees singing during the daytime, the song being often unheard by any person but the one for whom the warning is intended. This, however, is not usually the case since the notice of a death is meant for the family rather than just for the doomed individual. The Banshee is generally alone when delivering notice to a family, but on rare occasions it has been recorded that several banshees are heard singing in chorus. A lady of the O’Flaherty family, who was greatly loved by all for her social qualities, kindness, and piety, was taken ill at the family mansion near Galway. Nobody was overly concerned about the lady making a full recovery, as her illness seemed to be no more severe than a slight cold. But, after she had been lying in her bed for a day or two, several of her friends came to visit and cheer her up. Then, as the small group of friends were chatting merrily, strange sounds were heard, causing them all to tremble with fear and to turn pale as they recognized the singing from a chorus of Banshees. The lady’s illness developed into pleurisy, from which she passed away only a few days later and sweet, plaintive chorus was heard again as the spirit departed from her body. It is a great honour to be warned by more than one Banshee, and only comes to the purest of the pure.

The “Avenging Banshee” is a spirit that is greatly dreaded by members of a family against which she seeks revenge, and one noble Irish family, that I shall not name, is attended by a one of this type of Banshee. This Banshee, it is reported, is the spirit of a young girl who was deceived and afterwards murdered by a former head of this family. But, with her dying breath, she cursed her murderer and promised him that she would stay with him and his family forever. Many years passed, and the chieftain reformed his ways and the crime of his youth was almost forgotten, even by himself. Then, one night, he and his family were sitting by a huge fire when, suddenly, the most terrifying shrieks were heard outside the castle walls. They all ran out into the courtyard but could see nothing. During the night, however, the screams continued as though the castle was being besieged by demons, and the chieftain began to recognise, in the cry of the Banshee, the voice of the young girl he had murdered. The next night, the chieftain was assassinated by one of his followers, and again the wild, unearthly screams of the spirit were heard in celebration over the man’s fate. Since that night, this “Avenging Banshee” has never failed to notify the family, with shrill and happy cries of revenge, when the end-time for one of their number has arrived.

Banshees are not often seen, but those that have made themselves visible differ as much in personal appearance as in the character of their cries. The “Friendly Banshee” is usually a young and beautiful female spirit, with pale face, regular, well-formed features, hair sometimes coal-black, sometimes golden, with blue, brown, or black eyes. Her long, white clothing falls below her feet as she floats in the air, chanting her weird warning, and lifting her hands as if in tender pity, she was praying for the soul she has summoned. The “Avenging Banshee”, however, is a horrible hag, with angry and distorted features. They say that evil can be seen in every line of her wrinkled face, and her arms to call down every possible curse on the doomed member of that hated family.

Usually the only sign of a Banshee’s presence her cry, though a notable exception to this is found when it comes the O’Reardon family. The doomed member of this family is always notified of their death by a Banshee that appears in the shape of an exceedingly beautiful woman, and she sings a song so sweet and solemn as if to reconcile him to his approaching fate.

Though the Banshee does not follow members of a family that go to a foreign land, but if they die when abroad, she will give notice of the death to those who remain at home. It is said that when the Duke of Wellington died, a Banshee was heard wailing round the house of his ancestors, and during his campaigns against Napoleon, she frequently notified Irish families of the death in battle of Irish officers and soldiers. Furthermore, on the eve of the ‘Battle of the Boyne’ several Banshees were said to have been heard, singing in the air over the Irish camp, the truth of their prophecy being shown in the names of those who died the next day. How the Banshee obtains early and accurate information from foreign parts of the death in battle of Irish soldiers is yet unknown among those who study such things. One theory is that there exist, in addition to the two kinds already mentioned above, “Silent Banshees,” who attend members of old families, one to each member. It is thought that these silent spirits follow, watch, and bring back information to the family Banshee in Ireland, who then sings her sad refrain. The basis for such a theory derives from the fact that the Banshee has given notice at the family home in Ireland of those who have died in various battles fought in every part of the world. From every place where Irish regiments followed the call of British war drums, news of the prospective deaths of Irishmen has been brought home, each of which was preceded by the Banshee’s wail outside the ancestral home.

Among folklorists in Ireland this theory of the existence of the ‘Silent Banshee’ not widely accepted or well received. Going by the evidence that we have to date there are only two kinds of Banshee, and that, through supernatural means, they have knowledge of the immediate future of those in whom they are interested. At one time it was considered blasphemy to doubt the existence of the ‘Wild Banshee’ that was once alleged to have been heard in every part of Ireland. Now, in these modern times, it is recognised that the Banshee attends only the old families of Ireland and does not change to the new. The truth of this can be seen in the fact that with the disappearance of many old noble Irish names over the centuries so their Banshees appear to have gone. It seems to be in only a few remote districts in the West and North of Ireland that this dread spirit is still to be found, while in most other parts of this island the Banshee has become only a superstition. From being held with great respect and fear, this death-warning angel, has quickly sank to the level of the Fairy, the Leprechaun and the Pooka, which have become the subject for stories to amuse and terrify both the idle and the young.

Selkie

Selkies or “Seal Folk” are mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin. These selkie folk are recounted in both Irish and Scottish mythology with  folk-tales frequently revolving around female selkies being coerced into relationships with humans by someone stealing and hiding their sealskin. While “selkies” is the proper term for such shapeshifters many refer to them merely as mermen or mermaids (Merrow), which in Ireland regarded as a half-seal, half-human being.

Selkie

The Mermaids (Merrow)  in Irish folklore have been regarded as seal-women in some instances. In a certain collection of lore in County Kerry, there is a tale from Tralee, which claimed that the ‘Lee’ family was descended from a man who took a mermaid for a wife, but she later escaped and joined her seal-husband, suggesting she was of the seal-folk kind.

There is also the tradition that the ‘Conneely Clan’ of Connemara was descended from seals, and it was taboo for them to kill the animals because it would bring ill luck to them. And since the name “conneely” became a by-word for the animal, many changed their surname to Connelly. There is also a mention in this folklore connection mentioning that there is a Roaninish (Rón-inis, “seal island”) off Donegal, outside Gweebarra Bay.

In many versions of the Selkie myth, the children produced by the coupling of a Selkie and a human, are born with certain physical characteristics that set them apart from normal children. The children of male selkies and human women have webbed toes and fingers, and when the webbing is cut, a rough and rigid growth takes its place. Such tales as these, stem from before the advent of modern medicine, when many physiological conditions were untreatable. When children were born with abnormalities, it was common to blame the fairy folk. One family became known locally as the ‘Seal Family’, claiming to be descended from a union between a fisherman and a selkie. This was an explanation for a hereditary growth of skin between their fingers that made their hands resemble flippers. At the same time children born with “scaly” skin were also thought to be the descendants of Selkies, though this could have been caused by ‘ichthyosis’, a genetic skin disorder that causes patches of skin to harden and appear “scaly.” This condition can be severe, appearing all over the body, but it is more likely to only cause slight disfigurement.

The Red Cap

The Redcap is what happens when a good fairy goes bad. It is a type of malevolent, murderous, leprechaun-type of being mostly found in Scotland, but occasionally can be found roaming ruined castles in the north-east of Ireland. He is said to inhabit ruined castles and, especially, those that were the scenes of brutal and wicked deeds, and the Redcap is known for soaking his cap in the blood of his victims.

The Red Cap

He is usually depicted as “a short, thickset old man with long prominent teeth, skinny fingers armed with talons like eagles, large eyes of a fiery red colour, grisly hair streaming down his shoulders, iron boots, a pikestaff in his left hand, and a red cap on his head” When unwary travellers take refuge in his lair, he flings huge stones at them, and if he kills them, he soaks his cap in their blood, giving it a crimson hue. It is said that he is unaffected by human strength but can be driven off by using words of Scripture or by brandishing a Crucifix, which will cause him to utter a dismal yell and vanish in flames, leaving behind a large tooth.

According to some 19th-century folklorists, the redcap has other varieties of his kind, some of which inhabit old forts, castles and some old church towers. It is said that the main activity of this other type of Redcap is to make noise like the beating of flax, or the grinding of barley in a hollow stone quern. But, if this sound goes on longer or louder than usual, it is considered to be an omen of death or misfortune. It is said that many of these forts and castles were built by the early occupants of the land, who allegedly bathed the foundation stones in human blood and caused such hauntings to occur. Those who study the spirit world  suggest that the Redcaps might indeed be ‘Elementals’, because they are made up of the ‘ethers’ and are ‘ethereal’ and therefore invisible to (most) of us, attaching themselves to practically every natural thing.

Pooka

An Irish Spirit

I have spelt the name for this particular spirit as ‘Pooka’, but there are other spellings – púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka. However, it is spelt, the ‘Pooka’ is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore.  Some sources suggest that the origin of the name may have come from the Old Norse term ‘pook’ or ‘puki’, which refers to a “nature spirit”. The usage of the term in Ireland, however, predates the arrival of Viking settlers and may be derived from the Irish word ‘poc’, meaning a male goat, which is a form the creature is often said to take.

Pooka

‘Pookas’ are thought to bring either good and bad fortune, either helping or hindering the rural and marine communities in which they are found. They are said to be shape changers, which have either dark or white fur or hair. Because they are adept at changing their form the Pookas could take on the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. Moreover, it is not unknown for them to take human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail. There exists a brief description taken by Thomas Crofton Corker from a boy living in Killarney in which he tells us, “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous…long ago…, were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things…that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them, and that did much to harm unwary travellers.”

One theme that runs through all folklore concerning the Pooka is their constant appetite for mischief. They are said to entice humans to take a ride on their back, giving the foolish rider a wild and terrifying journey before finally dropping the unlucky person back at the place they were taken from. It is said that the rider may be able to take control of the pooka by wearing sharp spurs and using those to prevent being taken, or to steer the creature if already on its back. While such pooka stories can be found across northern Europe, the Irish tales alone specify a protective measure for encountering them. The protective power of the “sharp things,” as they are always referred to by the pooka in the tales, may stem from the Irish belief that “cold iron” has the ability to ward off the supernatural. These stories bear similarities to other Irish folk creatures, such as the ‘good people’ or the ‘fairy host’, who are said to target humans on the road or along their regular fairy routes. Pooka encounters with humans, however, tend to occur in rural, isolated places, far from settlements or homes.

On occasion the pooka is represented as being helpful to farmers, particularly in tales where the creature intervenes before a terrible accident, or before the person is about to happen upon a malevolent fairy or spirit. In several of the regional variants of the stories where the pooka is acting as a guardian, the pooka identifies itself to the bewildered human. What makes this action particularly noteworthy is that it is in stark contrast to the lore of many other folkloric beings, who guard their identities or names from humans.

There were certain agricultural traditions surrounding the pooka, and it is especially associated with Samhain, a harvest festival, when the last of the crops are brought in. Anything that remained in the fields was considered “pooka”, or fairy-blasted, and was, therefore, inedible. In some regions reapers left a small share of the crop, the “pooka’s share”, to placate the hungry creature. Nonetheless, 1 November was always considered to be the ‘Pooka’s Day’ and, therefore, the one day of the year when it could be expected to behave in a civil manner. In some areas, however, the beginning of November saw the pooka either defecate, or spit, on the wild fruits rendering them inedible and unsafe.

I have spelt the name for this particular spirit as ‘Pooka’, but there are other spellings – púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka. However, it is spelt, the ‘Pooka’ is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore.  Some sources suggest that the origin of the name may have come from the Old Norse term ‘pook’ or ‘puki’, which refers to a “nature spirit”. The usage of the term in Ireland, however, predates the arrival of Viking settlers and may be derived from the Irish word ‘poc’, meaning a male goat, which is a form the creature is often said to take.

‘Pookas’ are thought to bring either good and bad fortune, either helping or hindering the rural and marine communities in which they are found. They are said to be shape changers, which have either dark or white fur or hair. Because they are adept at changing their form the Pookas could take on the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. Moreover, it is not unknown for them to take human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail. There exists a brief description taken by Thomas Crofton Corker from a boy living in Killarney in which he tells us, “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous…long ago…, were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things…that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them, and that did much to harm unwary travellers.”

One theme that runs through all folklore concerning the Pooka is their constant appetite for mischief. They are said to entice humans to take a ride on their back, giving the foolish rider a wild and terrifying journey before finally dropping the unlucky person back at the place they were taken from. It is said that the rider may be able to take control of the pooka by wearing sharp spurs and using those to prevent being taken, or to steer the creature if already on its back. While such pooka stories can be found across northern Europe, the Irish tales alone specify a protective measure for encountering them. The protective power of the “sharp things,” as they are always referred to by the pooka in the tales, may stem from the Irish belief that “cold iron” has the ability to ward off the supernatural. These stories bear similarities to other Irish folk creatures, such as the ‘good people’ or the ‘fairy host’, who are said to target humans on the road or along their regular fairy routes. Pooka encounters with humans, however, tend to occur in rural, isolated places, far from settlements or homes.

On occasion the pooka is represented as being helpful to farmers, particularly in tales where the creature intervenes before a terrible accident, or before the person is about to happen upon a malevolent fairy or spirit. In several of the regional variants of the stories where the pooka is acting as a guardian, the pooka identifies itself to the bewildered human. What makes this action particularly noteworthy is that it is in stark contrast to the lore of many other folkloric beings, who guard their identities or names from humans.

There were certain agricultural traditions surrounding the pooka, and it is especially associated with Samhain, a harvest festival, when the last of the crops are brought in. Anything that remained in the fields was considered “pooka”, or fairy-blasted, and was, therefore, inedible. In some regions reapers left a small share of the crop, the “pooka’s share”, to placate the hungry creature. Nonetheless, 1 November was always considered to be the ‘Pooka’s Day’ and, therefore, the one day of the year when it could be expected to behave in a civil manner. In some areas, however, the beginning of November saw the Pooka either defecate, or spit, on the wild fruits rendering them inedible and unsafe.

Cailleach

In Gaelic mythology ‘Cailleach is’ Irish for “hag”. A divine hag, a creator deity and weather deity, and an ancestor deity. In Irish lore, she goes under many names, including Digde, Milucra, Birog, Buach, etc. The word itself is found as a component in many Terms, such as cailleach-dhubh (“nun”); cailleach-oidhche (“owl”); cailleach feasa (“wise woman, fortune-teller”); and cailleach phiseogach (“sorceress, charm-worker”).

The Cailleach displays several traits that would be typical of winter, herding deer, she fights spring, and her staff freezes the ground. Alongside and in partnership with the goddess Brighde, the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between Samhain (1 November or the first day of winter) and Bealtainn (1 May or the first day of summer), while Brìghde rules the summer months between Bealltainn and Samhainn. It is said that the Cailleach turns to stone on Bealltainn and takes human form again on Samhainn, just in time to rule over the winter months.

Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brìghde (1 February) at the earliest, Latha na Cailliche (25 March), or Bealltainn (1 May) at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìghde.  Là Fhèill Brìghde is also said to be the day when the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure that the weather on 1 February is bright and sunny so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if Là Fhèill Brìghde is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over.

Traditionally, in Ireland, the first farmer to finish the grain harvest made a ‘Corn Dolly’, representing the Cailleach, from the last sheaf of the crop. The figure would then be tossed into the field of a neighbour who had not yet finished bringing in their grain. The last farmer to finish had the responsibility to take in and care for the corn dolly for the next year, with the implication that they would have to feed and house the hag all winter, so the competition was fierce to avoid having to take in the Old Woman.

There are some who believe the Old Irish poem, ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beara’ speaks of Cailleach. It was said that she had fifty foster-children in Beare. She was said to have had seven periods of youth one after another so that every man who had lived with her came to die of old age, and her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races.