Biddy’s – A Story of Lough Neagh

A Strange Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubting Thomas

Mothers and grandmothers tell us that it is a good thing not to be scared of the fairy folk, or ‘Goodpeople’. If you show no fear toward them then the fairy folk will have less power over you an your actions. It is equally important, however, that you should not show too much familiarity with them, or to totally disregard and disbelieve in their existence. There is nothing more foolish that a man or woman can do than profess their disbelief in the existence of the fairy folk.

Yet another good, traditional piece of advice handed down from the older generation is that: “Good manners is not a burden, and civility toward others costs nothing.” Nevertheless, every day of our lives we encounter people who carelessly disregard doing the civil sort of thing. They do so thinking that they can never harm or hurt themselves,  or anyone else. In fact, these same people will actually go out of their way to cause some sort of mischief that cannot ever do them any good. There is an old Irish adage: “Long runs the fox,” which is another way of saying that such people will, sooner or later, learn their lesson and come to know better. Let us consider the story of Tommy Hall, for example, who was a fine, well built boy from Derryard and had a reputation for making mischief.

Tommy Hall was a carefree young man, who would wander from place to place, doing whatever pleased him because he feared nothing and no person. Unlike many of his peers he preferred to travel by night  because darkness hid his mischievous ways much better. Stories of ghouls, ghosts, or fairies could not deter him from entering cemeteries, fairy glens, or other places where spirits might lie in wait. Tommy simply did not believe in such things and laughed in the faces of those who did. So deep was his dislike of such superstitions that he never made the sign of the Cross, or wished a person good luck in any  new endeavour that they might undertake.

One night Tommy found himself walking home along ‘Kiln Lane’, on the outskirts of Derryard. As he passed the ‘Holy Well’ at the foot of ‘Fern Hill’ he met another man who was walking in the same direction as he was. The stranger was a well dressed man in his forties and walked at a good pace. The night was very dark and the two men walked side by side without much conversation passing between them. In fact, both men barely greeted each other when they first met upon this road. Then Tommy asked the stranger just how far he was going.

 “I am not going very far, your way,” said the man who, from his appearance, looked like a farmer. “I am just going to walk to the top of this hill,” he added.

“Why would you want to go there?” asked Tommy, “especially at this time of night.”

“Simple,” replied the man. “I am going to see the good people.”

“The fairies?” Laughed Tommy.

“Be quiet! Keep your voice down as you might just be a sorry man,” said the farmer as he turned off the main road on to a narrow pathway that led up the side of the mountain. “Good Night, young man, and a safe journey home,” he said.

As he watched the stranger start along the narrow path his suspicious mind began to work overtime. “That man is up to good,” Tommy told himself. “Fairies! Absolute nonsense! I am certain that whatever he is up to, it has nothing to do with fairies, Good People. There is something more than superstitious nonsense taking him up that mountain at this time of night.”

Tommy looked again at the stranger as he got further along the path. “Fairies, damn it!” He swore to himself. “What would make a respectable looking man like him be wanting with fairies? I know there are some who believe in such nonsense, but there are many who do not. But, whether they are real or not, they hold no fear over me, no matter how many there might be.”

As all these thoughts rushed through his mind he kept his eyes steadfastly upon the hillside, behind which a full moon was rising brightly. In that bright silver light Tommy could see the figure of a man walking briskly up the path. It was, undoubtedly, the figure of the farmer with whom he had not long parted company. Tommy now resolved to follow the stranger up the hillside. His curiosity and his sense of determination had now reached a peak and he decided to move. Muttering loudly to himself he declared, “I am going to follow you and see exactly what you are up to!”

Although the full moon gave a bright light, it was a difficult task to follow the path that the stranger had taken. Nonetheless, Tommy persevered in his task and was assisted when he occasionally looked up the hillside and saw the man still ahead of him. The time passed quickly as he toiled along that rugged and swampy path, finally coming to a grass covered area at the top of a the hill. But, Tommy was greatly puzzled that there was no sign of the stranger and, despite his best efforts, no trace of him could be found. But, as Tommy searched, he discovered an opening in the hill, which resembled the mouth of a pit. It crossed Tommy’s mind that when he was a young boy he had been told about “The Black Hole of Fern Hill.” In those days the story was told that this hole was actually the entrance to a fairy castle, which was supposed to be hidden within the mountain. The older people within the town recalled the story of a surveyor called O’Hara who had spent weeks mapping the area. It was said that he had come across the pit and tried to measure its depth with a line. They could only surmise that he had been dragged into the depths by the fairies, because he was never heard of again.

This was only one of a series of mysterious tales concerning “The Black Hole” but Tommy disregarded them. “They are just old wives’ tales,” said Tommy to himself and decided since he had taken the trouble to climb the hill he would first knock the castle door and see if the fairies were at home. Tommy took up a large stone from the ground and, using all his strength, he threw the stone down the ‘Black Hole’. He leaned his head over the hole to hear the progress of the stone down the ‘Black Hole’ as it fell down the pit. It bounded and tumbled from one rock to another with a great noise that echoed through the pit. Tommy leaned over the pit a little more to hear it reach the bottom. But, he heard nothing, for the stone was returning up the pit with as much force as Tommy had thrown it down there. Without any signal or warning this large stone hit Tommy a full blow in the face that caused him to be knocked head over heels. Down that hillside Tommy tumbled from one crag to another, much faster than he had climbed the hillside.

It was not until the following morning that Tommy Hall regained consciousness and gingerly made his way home from the foot of ‘Fern Hill’. When he arrived home and looked in the mirror he saw the damage sustained because of his fall. He had broken the bridge of his nose, his head was covered with bruises and cuts, both eyes were swollen shut and as black as a Panda’s eyes. But, Tommy Hall had learned his lesson and never again wandered near possible haunts of fairies after dark. On those rare occasions, after this incident, when he found himself alone in a dark place he would hurriedly and directly make his way home. He never asked questions of strangers and never again sought out the ‘Good People’.

An Interesting Trial

This is the story of an extraordinary trial that took place in Ireland just before the turn of the 20th Century and was revealed to me through the records of a provincial newspaper, printed in 1899. I think for many of my readers this will be their first introduction to the story.

The case in question began in the northern province of Ireland and is being reported here for the first time since its original publication, over one hundred and eighteen years ago. It was at a time of political upheaval and much talk about ‘Home Rule’, supporters and opponents of which marched regularly through the streets. It is my intention that the story of this trial is told exactly the way it happened and the manner it was reported. The report of the trial states the evidence that was given at the time, and I am writing it down exactly according to what was deposed at the trial.

In the criminal court it was said that Joan O’Rourke, wife of Andy O’Rourke, had been murdered, but the only question left to answer was, “How did Joan come by her death?” From the evidence of the coroner’s inquest on the body, and from the depositions made by Mary O’Rourke, John Croke and his wife, Agnes, it appeared that Joan O’Rourke had committed suicide. Witnesses stated that they had found the unfortunate woman lying dead in her bed, with the knife sticking in the floor, and her throat cut from ear to ear. They also stated that the night before they found her body Joan had went to bed with her child, and her husband was not in the house. They swore that no other person came into the house at any time after Joan had gone to bed. The witnesses said that the truth of their statements lay in the fact that they had been lying in the outer room, and they would have undoubtedly seen or heard any strangers who might have tried to enter the house.

With this evidence established in the court, the jury finally submitted their verdict that in their opinion Joan O’Rourke had indeed committed suicide. This verdict, however, came under some pressure afterwards, when rumour arose within the neighbourhood that suicide was not the cause of Joan’s death. Further investigation and discovery of some diverse circumstances began to suggest that Joan did not, nor, according to those circumstances, could she possibly have murdered herself. The jury, whose verdict had not yet been made official by the coroner’s office, was summoned again and requested that the coroner’s office exhume the body. The request to remove the body from the grave, in which she had already been buried, was granted. Thus, almost thirty days after she had died, Joan’s corpse was taken up in the presence of the jury members, and a substantial number of other witnesses, and the sight that greeted them caused the jury to change their verdict.

Those persons who had been brought before the court to be tried were all acquitted. But, there was now so much the evidence, against the previous verdict, that the trial Judge was of the opinion that an appeal should be made, rather than allow such a gruesome murder to go unpunished by the law.  As a result, the four most likely suspects were brought to trial on an appeal, which was brought by the young child, against his father, grandmother, and aunt, and her husband John Croke. The evidence that was now brought against them was so strange, that one would need to read through it very carefully to ensure a good understanding of it. The paper recorded the evidence as follows –

At the subsequent trial the prosecution called forward a person of unimpeachable character to give evidence. The Parish Priest of the town where the act was committed was deposed and began to speak. He confirmed that the body, which had been taken up out of the grave, had lain there for thirty days after the woman’s death. The priest stated that the corpse was laid out on the grass in her cheap pine coffin, and the four defendants in the dock were also present at the exhumation. Each of the defendants where then requested to place a hand upon the Joan’s long dead body. Agnes Croke, the priest said, immediately fell upon her knees, and she prayed aloud to God that he would do something to show that she was innocent of doing any harm to Joan. She mumbled out some other words in her grief, but the priest was unsure about what she said.

None of those who were standing trial refused to touch Joan’s dead body. But, after they had done this, the dead woman’s brow which, beforehand had been a dark bluish grey in colour, like that of carrion, began to have a dew or gentle sweat come out upon it. This perspiration now began to increase so much that the sweat began to run down in droplets over the face. Almost like magic the brow began to turn, and it quickly changed to a more lively and fresh colour. Unbelievably, as we watched, the dead woman opened one of her eyes and shut it again. This action of opening the eye and then closing it was carried out by the corpse three times. In addition to this, the dead woman thrust out her marriage finger three times, and swiftly pulled it in again, and, as she did so, drops of blood dripped from the finger down onto the grass,” explained the priest.

The Judge who was hearing the case, not surprisingly, had some doubts about the evidence that was being given and he asked the Parish Priest, “Who else saw these things besides yourself?”

The priest felt that his veracity was being questioned and was quite annoyed by the question that had been posed. But, he chose not to react angrily and simply answered, “Your Honour, I could not swear to what others may have seen or not. But, your Honour, I firmly believe that the entire company saw these things for themselves. In fact, if any of my testimony had been considered to be in doubt, some proof of that doubt would have been presented and many would have spoke out against this statement.

As he stood in the witness stand, the priest was able to observe that many of those listening to him were showing some admiration for him, and he was encouraged to speak further. “Your Honour,” he began, “I am Priest of the parish, and I have known all the parties involved for a very long time. I have never had any occasion to be displeased with any of them, nor have I ever had much to do with any of them, or they with me, outside of my pastoral duties as a minister of the Church. The things that happened amazed me and filled my mind with wonder. However, the only interest that I have in these matters is to do what I have been asked to do and that is to testify to the truth. This, I assure you, I have done.”

This witness was aged about seventy years and highly respected in the district. When he spoke his testimony, he did so in a clear voice, slowly and elegantly, which won the admiration of all who heard him. Clearing his throat, he again began to speak to the Judge in the case, saying, “May I point out, at this time, your Honour, that my brother priest, who is present in the court, is the minister of the parish adjacent to my own, and I am assured that he saw everything to which I have testified.”

This other priest, who was just a little younger than the first, was invited into the witness box, where he was sworn in and invited to give his evidence. His testimony supported every point that had been previously made. He confirmed the sweating of the brow, the changing of its colour, the mystical opening of the eye, and the three times that the corpse’s finger thrust itself out and drew in again. The only area in which he differed from the first witness was in declaring that he had, himself, dipped his finger into the blood which had exuded from the dead body. He said that he had examined it and was certain in his own mind that it was blood.

I can understand the difficulty of believing such testimony. Modern ideas on the paranormal often leave us doubting our own eyes and senses. But, there were others who had observed these things and agreed with the testimony given by the priests. There is no reason to doubt the testimony of the clerics, for why would they be persuaded to lie about such things. At the same time, allow me to assure you that the reports from the trial have been recorded here accurately. Evidence was also given against the prisoners in the dock, namely, the grandmother of the plaintiff, and against Croke and his wife, Agnes. It was stated that all four confessed that they had lain in the next room to the dead person that entire night, and that no other person had entered the house until they found her dead the next morning. The only conclusion to be drawn, therefore, was that if this woman did not murder herself, then they must be the murderers.

To prove such a charge, however, further evidence was needed and to this end the medical examiner was called forward. Looking at his notes on the examination he had made of the crime scene and the body of the dead woman. Then, point by point he explained his findings to the court. Firstly, he described the scene that he had found when he arrived at the house, and told the jury, “I found the dead woman lying in her bed, in a quite composed way. The bed clothes and other things in the room had not been disturbed in any way, and her child lay by her side in the bed. Immediately, I could see that the deceased woman’s throat was cut from ear to ear, and her neck was broken. It is completely impossible for the deceased person to first cut her throat, and then break her own neck in the bed; or vice-versa.

The examiner continued to explain that he had found no blood in the bed, except for a small spot of blood on the pillow where she had laid her head. “But, there was no evidence of major blood loss on the bed, which there should have been if the death had occurred in the place that she was found. On further investigation, however, we found a stream of blood on the floor of the bedroom, which ran along the wooden floorboards until it found obstructions that caused it to spread in pools. There was, at the same time, another stream of blood found on the floor at the bed’s feet. This stream had caused small ponds of blood to form, but there was no sign of both blood streams being connected. This suggests that the woman bled severely in two places. Furthermore, when I turned up the mattress of the bed, I found clots of congealed blood in the underneath of the straw-filled mattress.

The court was informed that the blood-stained knife was found that morning after the murder, sticking in the wooden floor a good distance from the bed. “The point of the knife, as it stuck in the floor was pointing towards the bed, while the handle pointed away from the bed,” he explained. “On the knife itself I discovered the print of the thumb and four fingers of the left hand.

At this point the judge interrupted the testimony of the Examiner and asked him, “But, how can you know the print of a left hand from the print of a right hand in such a case as this?

Your Honour,” he began to reply, “it is hard to describe, but easier to demonstrate. If it would please your Honour, could you put your clerk’s left hand upon your left hand. You will see that it is impossible to place your right hand in the same posture.

The Judge did as he was asked and was satisfied by the demonstration. The defendants, however, were given an opportunity to put forward a defence against all these claims. But, they decided to maintain their silence and gave no evidence at any stage of the trial. The Jury, therefore, was directed to retire and deliberate their verdict. It took them only an hour to return to the court and announce their findings. John Croke was acquitted of all charges, but the other three defendants were found guilty as charged. The judge turned to the three guilty persons and asked if they had anything to say about why judgement should not be produced. Their reply was simply, “I have nothing to say except that I am not guilty. I did not do this.

Judgement was passed upon all three. The grandmother and the husband were executed by hanging, while the aunt was spared execution because she was pregnant. None of them confessed anything before their execution and the aunt never spoke as to any possible motivation for the murder. In fact, the aunt never spoke about the incident ever again. She moved away from the district with her husband, where she died some fifteen years after her niece had been brutally killed.

A Midnight Funeral

An Irish Mystery

Ah, would you ever be quiet?” the old man in the corner shouted as we were in the middle of discussing strange stories we had heard. “Would you ever believe this?

Would I believe what?” I asked him.

I’ll tell you a true story that I heard from the man’s own mouth. God be merciful to him and him as truthful as the day is long,” the old man declared.

What story would that be?” I asked.

Do you know Barney Douglas who lived over beyond Ballymore?” replied the old man. But when I shook my head to show that I didn’t know the man, the old man continued, “Ah, sure, you would not have known him, for he died before you came here. Well, Barney was coming home from town one night, after midnight and, maybe, nearer to one in the morning. He had his ‘donkey cart’ with him and he was walking along happily at the pony’s head. He was enjoying a wee smoke to himself on a fine moonlit night until he came across three men ahead of him in the middle of the road, and they were carrying a coffin. It was quite a while before they let the coffin down. Sure, the hair was standing on Barney’s head with fear, but blessing himself with the sign of the cross he walked on until he came to where the three men were standing beside the coffin.

“‘The Blessing of God on you all,” Barney greeted them in Irish. ‘and what is happening?’

’The same to yourself,’ said one of the three men, “but c’mon take a place under this coffin and ask no more questions.

Well he was going to aske them what would he do with his pony and cart, but he decided not to now that he was told to ask no more questions. But he didn’t have ask for the men knew well what was in his mind, and another one of the men told him, ‘Sure, your pony and cart will be alright here until you get back.

Well, Barney went with them and helped them to carry the coffin, and a heavier corpse he had never known, by God. They went ahead until they left the coffin in the graveyard and then he was told that he could go back to his pony and cart. ‘Sure, men, I will help you to dig the grave.’

’Do what you’re told,’ said the third man, who hadn’t spoken before, ‘or maybe it would be the worse for you.’

’Well, Barney didn’t want to repeat himself, so he returned to his pony and cart and found them exactly where he had left them.”

Did Barney know them?” I asked when the old man had finished.

Did he know them? By God he knew them! For they were three of his own first cousins who had died long before that night.”

“So, who was in the coffin?” I asked.

Barney’s own brother, who had died in California that same night, as he heard afterwards in a letter that was sent by his uncle in America,” the old man informed me. But he also assured me that Barney was never known to tell a lie in his life, and that he is dead now, may his soul rest in peace.

Amen,” I answered.

Now, all of you who are reading this let me ask you not to make fun! You may never be asked by the dead to carry the dead at a mysterious midnight funeral, but I urge you not to make fun of Barney Douglas’ experience.