Saved by a Pipe

“Saved by a Pipe! Yes, by God,” said Charlie Hannon one night as we sat at a wake. “Let me tell you, there’s a powerful lot of strange things to be seen and felt, and don’t let anyone tell me that there’s not!”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, Charlie,” said I.
Without even recognising that I had answered him, Charlie continued, “The night my father died I went to Dungannon for to get pipes and tobacco for the wake, and to tell my sister that lived there about the death of our da. Well, I left the house about eight o’clock, or thereabouts, for as you know I had a long road to travel – aye, fifteen miles if it’s an inch. I went by the Rock, for I had a fine lump of a mare with me that I had bought at the time. Her name was Sally, and sure there wasn’t another horse the likes of her to be had in all the parish. Now, it was pretty late when I left Dungannon, between midnight and one o’clock at least, but I didn’t hear or see a thing until I came as far as the wood on this side of Rock. We must have been just in the middle of it when the mare suddenly stopped, and she gave three snorts out of her nostrils. Well, as you know, I never was one to be afraid of anything, but I thought to myself that if maybe there’s something unnatural roaming around here now? You see, I never have known Sally to be afraid of anything dead or alive before that night.”
“’ Go on Sally,’ says I and patted her gently on the neck with my hand. But, the devil a bit would the poor mare stir. She just kept snorting, and snorting, and going back and back. ‘ Be you devil or sent by him!’ cries I, ‘man or beast, or whatever you are, get out of the mare’s way and let me get home to me father’s wake with the pipes and tobacco for the neighbours who are waiting for them.’ But, devil the answer did I get. Things were not looking good, I thought to myself, and what am I going to do now? It was then that I remembered that it was the right thing to do, to put a pipe in the lining of your hat whenever you come across anything unnatural. Sure, I had a couple of the pipes in the pocket of my coat that I couldn’t fit in the box and I put down my hand and took one up and put it inside the lining of my hat. Well, by all that’s holy! I had no sooner done that than up came a man on horseback.
“It was a clear night, and I swear that he must have come up out of the road itself, for there neither one thing or another that moved there before that. Sally kept on snorting and the man rode on past on my left. But just as he was passing, he stretched out one hand to me and pulled up his horse with the other, without speaking a word. ‘Here,’ says I, reaching him a pipe, ‘take it, if that’s what you want, and for God’s sake leave me alone.’ Well, he took the pipe, but as soon as he heard God’s name, he and his horse rose up into one big lump of fire, and the noise that was made as the fire struck against the wall along the roadside, was the fiercest thing I ever heard. And I hope that I never will hear the like of it again. The rattle of the stones falling, and the whizzing of the fire through the trees, is still in my ears yet.
“Sally went on, then, happy enough, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m all right now.’
Horseman of Death“But I was mistaken. I hadn’t moved but a foot or two until I felt something jumping up behind me on the mare, and I felt two hands around my back, and a cold breath on my neck behind. As I told you I never used to be afraid, but the fear of God was put in to my heart that night. The poor mare’s back was bending with the dreadful weight of the thing behind me. I tried to shake off the hold it had of me, but not a budge I was able to do at all, one way or another. I didn’t know, what in heaven, I was going to do. I wasn’t able to speak, and the mare wasn’t able to move. But praise be to God ! I wasn’t long that way until who should I see standing beside me on the road but the man on horseback that I had given the pipe to. He had no horse with him this time, but he had a whip in his hand. ‘Get off, immediately ‘ says he to the thing behind me.
“The Devil an answer did he get. ‘I tell you again,’ says he, getting very cross, and raising the whip above his head, ‘get off.’
“No answer. ‘For the third, and last, time,’ says he, in a terrible rage now, entirely, ‘I tell ye to get off.’
“Not a word did the thing behind me speak, nor a budge did it put out of itself. When the man seen that it wouldn’t come off, he began slashing, and slashing at it, and every slash he gave, I saw the fire rising above my head until at last I felt the weight go off the mare, and I knew I was rid of it. ‘Go home now,’ said the man, crying, ‘you won’t be troubled any more, but take my advice and don’t be out so late at night again by yourself.’”

Shot by the Fairies!

SusieIn some parts of Ireland, when a cow becomes dull, refuses to take food, moans, and gives other indications of suffering peculiar pain, the farmers will almost immediately conclude that “she’s shot,” or, as is expressed in Irish Gaelic, “id sidithte.” The phrase suggests the involvement of the ‘sidheoga’ or fairies, and the belief is that they have shot the cow, and there are certain symptoms that appear to be peculiar to this condition. These symptoms point unmistakably to the observer that the cow has been shot, the chief symptom is a swelling of the body and painful moaning.

When such a condition arose, however, only the village’s ‘cow-doctor’ could tell for definite if the beast had been shot by the fairy folk. My great grandfather spoke one time of these ‘cow doctors’, whom he had often seen diagnosing such things. He told how he had even helped these men to perform the curing ceremony which is one of the strangest I have ever heard described.

St. Martin's FireThe ‘doctor’ stood to one side of the cow, while his assistant stood at the other. The assistant takes hold of a pair of tongs to grab a glowing ember of turf and slightly burns the “the Sign of the Cross” on the hair of the cow’s side. When this is complete, he hands the tongs across, under the cow’s body, to the ‘doctor,’ who burns the “Sign of the Cross” on the other side and afterwards passes the tongs over the cow’s back to his assistant again. This ritual is repeated three times, and the first and principal part of the ceremony is concluded by making the “Sign of the Cross” with the ember on the cow’s nostrils.

The second part of the ceremony appears to be more a ‘test’ than a ‘cure.’ The doctor ‘measures’ the cow with his arm from ‘elbow’ to the ‘point’ of his fingers, beginning at the cow’s tail and going towards the horns. The ‘measurement’ is also repeated three times, and if the cow is to get better, the second measurement should be shorter than the first, and the third measurement shorter than the second, &c. Should the attempted ‘cure’ fail, which will not happen if the cow suffers from ‘shot’ and the doctor is called in time, the owner is asked that, in order to prevent the beast’s death, to ‘Tabhair do Mairtain,’ meaning ” Give her to Martin,” namely St. Martin. The owner usually agrees to this measure, and then a “nick” is cut in the animal’s ear. Blood flows from the wound and the death of the cow is averted. In most areas of Ireland, the animal can never be sold after this, but must be killed and eaten as a feast on St. Martin’s Eve, though not necessarily for many years afterwards.

In the north of Ireland, where I live, the practice was somewhat different. The owner is not barred from selling the animal, and instead of giving it to “Martin,” some member of the family, who is thought to be “lucky”, was presented with it. It was no uncommon thing to see several animals, particularly cows and sheep, at fairs with nicks cut in their ears, or a piece cut out. If there were many nicks it is regarded as a sign that the animal was of a delicate constitution, which naturally resulted in there being a reduction in the price. The number of incisions showed to all the number of times that an animal was in danger of death.

UPDATE

I have just had a message from a gentleman called Michael Hegarty with reference to this bit of folklore. He informs me that he once” saw a cow cured of ‘Red Water’ in similar circumstances without the need of getting a vet.” When asked to expand, Mr. Hegarty told me, “I was a kid at the time and the cure was to stick a pin in effected manure and say a prayer to St. Martin … It worked right away.”

Thanks to Michael for this piece of folklore. If anyone has similar experiences or stories please let me know by commenting on the Blog.

A Strange Burial

A Fairy Encounter

Many years ago, there lived a hard-working farmer named Liam Mooney, who lived on the borderlands between County Armagh and County Louth. Times had been harsh for many seasons and there was little money to be made from poor harvests. Then, one day, the landlord came to Liam and told him, “You owe me three years’ rent now, and unless you can pay it all to me within the week, I’ll throw you, and all of your family out on the road.

Ah, sir,” replied Liam, “I will be going to Newry tomorrow with a load of wheat to sell, and when I get it all sold, I will be able pay you all that I owe.”

Next morning, Liam put a load of wheat on the cart, and headed off to market with it. But, after he had travelled only a couple of miles from his house, he met a prosperous looking gentleman, who asked him, “Is that a load of wheat that you’ve got on your cart?

It is, indeed,” replied Liam, “and I’m going to sell it at the market so that I can pay my rent.”

”How much is there in that load?” the gentleman asked politely.

There’s a ton in it,” said Liam with a certain pride.

I’ll buy it from you,” said the gentleman, “and I’ll give you the best price that’s going in the market. Now, when you reach the cart track that’s on your left, turn down it and continue along the track until you come to a big house in the valley. I’ll be there before you arrive, and I can give you your money.

Pleased with the deal he had struck, Liam came to the cart track he turned in, continuing on his way, as instructed, until he came as far as the big house described by the gentleman. Liam then began to wonder, when he came as far as the big house, for having been born and raised in this part of the country he had never seen this building before, and he thought he was familiar with every house within five miles of where he lived. When Liam came near to the barn that was close to the big house, a small boy came running out and said, “Good man Liam Mooney, you’re very welcome.” The boy then lifted a sack onto his back and went into the barn with it. Almost immediately another little lad came out and welcomed Liam, put a sack on his back, and went into the barn with it. Very soon various lads were coming out, welcoming Liam, and putting the sacks on their backs to carry them into the barn, until the entire ton of wheat was all gone.

It was then that all the boys came around Liam, who told them plainly, “You boys all know me, and I don’t know one of you!

One of the boys stepped forward and replied to Liam, saying, ”Go in and eat your dinner, for the master’s waiting for you.”

Liam went into the main house and sat down at the table to eat. But he had not taken a second mouthful when he began to feel a heavy sleep overcame him, and he fell down under the table. Then this mysterious gentleman used his magic powers to fabricate a man in Liam’s image, and then sent him home to William’s wife with the horse and cart. When the false Liam eventually arrived at Liam’s house, he went into the bedroom, where he laid himself down on the bed and died.

Within a few hours the news had spread far and wide that Liam Mooney had died. The wife put some water on the fire to heat and, when it was hot, she washed the body of her ‘husband’ and laid it out to be waked. His friends and neighbours from all over the district came to the house, and they grieved for him deeply. There was  also great comfort for Liam’s poor wife, who did not show much grief herself on the passing of her husband, for Liam was an older man and she was quite young.

The next morning saw the poor man’s body buried, and afterwards there was very little thought given to the man. The wife had a young house-boy, and she called him to her and said, “You should marry me, you know, and take Liam’s place.”

Surely, it’s too early, after himself just dying and his body hardly cold in the ground?” the boy replied. “Wait, at least until Liam has been buried a week.”

Meanwhile, after the real Liam had slept for seven days and seven nights, a little boy came to him and awoke him, saying, “You’ve been asleep for a week, Liam! But we sent your horse and cart home. Now, here’s your money, and you should go.”

Liam, still confused by all that had happened to him, made his way home, and because it was late at night no person saw him. However, on the morning of that same day, Liam’s wife and the young servant lad went to the local priest and asked if he would marry them. “Have you the marriage money?” asked the priest.

No,” said the wife, “but I have a great beast of a pig at home, and you can have her in place of money.

The priest accepted, married the couple, and said, “I’ll send for the pig tomorrow.”

When the wife and the servant boy were going to bed that evening, Liam came to the door of his house and struck it a hefty blow. Surprised by the intrusion the newly wedded couple asked, “Who’s there?

It’s I,” replied Liam, “Now, open the door for me.”

When they heard the voice, they immediately recognised that it was Liam’s voice. Terrified by this knowledge the wife called out, “I can’t let you in! Sure, it’s a shameful thing for you to be coming back here again, after you have been lying seven days in your grave.”

“Have you gone mad? ” asked Liam.

No! I’m not a mad woman!” declared the wife. “Sure, doesn’t every person in the entire parish know that you are dead, and that I buried you decently. Now, old man, go back to your grave, and I’ll have a mass read for your poor soul in the morning.

Wait until morning comes,” said Liam, “and I’ll give you the weight of a dead man’s boot as the price for all this foolishness!” Angrily he turned from the door and went into the stable, where his horse and the pig were, to stretch himself out on the straw and get some sleep.

Early the next morning, the priest called one of the local lads to him and told him, “Go you to Liam Mooney’s house, and the woman that I married yesterday will give you a pig to bring back to me.

When the boy came to the door of the house, he began knocking at it with a heavy-stick but the woman of the house was afraid to open it. Instead she called out, “Who’s there ?

It’s me,” said the boy, “the priest has sent me to get a pig-from you.”

She’s out in the stable,” said the wife, “you can go gather her for yourself, and drive her back with you.

The lad went into the stable, and he began to drive out the pig, when Liam suddenly rose up and said, “Where are you going with my pig ?

When the boy saw Liam he never stopped to look again, but he ran out of there just as hard as he could, and he never stopped running until he came back to the priest. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest with terror that he thought it would burst out of his chest. “What’s the matter with you? ” asked the priest. The lad told him that Liam Rooney was in the stable and wouldn’t let him drive out the pig.

Hold your tongue, you liar!” scolded the priest. “Liam Rooney’s dead and cold in his grave this week.”

I don’t care if you say he was in his grave this past seven years, Father, I saw him in the stable two moments ago, and if you don’t believe me, then come yourself, and you’ll see him.”

The priest and the boy then went together to the door of the stable, and the priest told the lad, “Go in and turn me out that pig.

“What? I wouldn’t go in there for all the money you could get!” said the boy.

The priest went in instead of the boy, and began driving out the pig, when Liam rose up out of the straw and asked, “Where are you going with my pig, Father?

When the priest saw Liam standing before him, he turned on his heels and ran as if all the devils in hell were after him, crying out, “In the name of God, I order you back to your grave, Liam Rooney.

Liam began running after the priest, and saying, ”Father, Father, have are you gone mad? Wait and speak to me.

But the priest would not wait for him and continued to make for home just as fast as his feet could carry him, and when he got into the house, he shut the door behind him. Liam was knocking at the door until he was tired, but the priest would not let him in. Finally, the priest put his head out of an upstairs window of the house, and called to him, “Liam Rooney, go back to your grave.

You’re mad. Father! Sure, I’m not dead, and I never was in a grave since I was born,” said Liam.

I saw you dead,” said the priest; “you died suddenly, and I was present when you were put into the grave. Sure, didn’t I make a fine sermon over you?

God preserve us, but, as sure as I’m alive, you’re raging mad !” said Liam.

Get out of my sight now,” said the priest, “and I’ll read a mass for you, tomorrow.”

Liam went home then, and knocked at his own door, only to fine that his wife would not let him in. Then he said to himself: “I may as well go and pay my rent now.”

On his way to the landlord’s house everyone who saw Liam was running before him, for they thought he was dead. When the landlord heard that Liam Rooney was coming his way, he immediately locked the doors and would not let him in. Liam began knocking frantically at the front-door until the landlord thought he’d break it in, and he went to a window at the top of the house, put out his head, and asked, “What is it that you want?

I’ve come to pay my rent like any honest man,” replied Liam.

Go back to your grave, and I’ll forgive you your rent,” said the landlord.

I won’t leave this,” said Liam, “until I get it in writing from you that I’m paid up until next May.”

The lord gave him the written statement he wanted, and he came home again and knocked at his own door. But, once again the wife refused to let him in. She said that Liam Rooney was dead and buried, and that the man at the door was only a deceiver. “I’m no deceiver,” said Liam, “I’m after paying my master three years’ rent, and I’ll have possession of my own house, or else I’ll know the reason why.”

He went to the barn and got a big bar of iron, and it wasn’t long until he broke the door down. The wife and her newly married husband were terrified, for they began to believe that the ‘Last Days’ had come and that the end of the world had arrived. “Why did you think I was dead?” asked Liam.

Doesn’t everybody in the parish know you’re dead?” said the wife.

To the devil with you woman,” said Liam, “you’ve been humbugging me long enough now, go and get me something to eat.

The poor woman was greatly afraid, and she sliced him some meat. Then, when she saw him eating and drinking, she said, “It’s a miracle!

Then Liam told her his story from first to last, and she told him each thing that happened. Then, and then he said, “I’ll go to the grave to-morrow, to see the body that is buried in my place.

The next morning Liam brought a lot of men with him to the churchyard, and they dug open the grave. They were raising the coffin, when a huge black dog jumped out of it, and ran off, with Liam and the men chasing after it. They were following it until they saw it going into the house in which Liam had been asleep. Then, suddenly, the ground opened and swallowed the house, and from that moment on nobody ever saw it again, although the big hole that it left is still to be seen unto this day. When Liam and the men went home, they told everything that had happened to the priest of the parish, and he dissolved the marriage between Liam’s wife and the servant boy. Liam lived for years after this, leaving great wealth behind him, and his story is still remembered in that border area.

A Midnight Funeral

A Tale of Mystery

Ah, would you be quiet!” cried an old man with whom I was discussing such topics, “Would you believe this?

Would I believe what?” I asked him.

It’s as true as I’m living,” he insisted. “I heard it from the man’s own lips, may God be merciful to him! And Lord forbid that I should tell a lie on him!

What was it?” I asked again impatiently.

Did you ever know Brian Douglas that lived over there in Ballymacnab?” the old man replied, and, like the proverbial Irishman, I shook my head.

graveyardOh no, you wouldn’t have known him” he went on, “he died before you came here. Well, he was coming home one night from town. It was after twelve o’clock or maybe coming near to one. He had his horse and cart with him, and he was walking along at the horse’s head, smoking away at his pipe as content as you like, and it was a fine moonlit night, Glory be to God! Then, what should he see before him in the middle of the road but three men carrying a coffin. Well, it wasn’t long, sir, until they put down the coffin. Sure, the hair was standing on Brian’s head with fear, but he made the sign o’ the cross on himself, and he walked on until he came up to where the three men had been standing beside the coffin. ‘The blessing of God on you,’ said Bryan in Irish, ‘and what’s wrong with you all, at all?’

“’The same to yourself,’ spoke up one of the three men, ‘ but come and take a fourth man’s place under this and ask us no more questions.’ Well, sir, he was going to ask, ‘What will I do with my horse and cart?’ but he thought better of it, and he didn’t, for you see he was told to ask no more questions, and it wouldn’t have been right for him to go against them. But sure he didn’t need to ask, for they knew well enough what was going through his mind, and another of the men said to him, ‘ your horse and cart will be here when you come back.’

Well, he went with them and helped them to carry the coffin, and never was there a heavier corpse, the Lord be good to us, ever buried he told us. They went on until they left the coffin in the graveyard, and then they told him he might go back to his horse and cart. ‘Oh,’ says Brian, ‘I’ll help you to dig the grave now that I’m here.’

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

Well, sir, Brian was reluctant to say anything more, so he went back to his horse and cart, and sure enough they were waiting for him at the very spot where he had left them.

Did Brian know the men?” I asked the old man when he had finished.

Did he know them? Indeed, he did, for they were his own three first cousins who died long before this event.”

And who was in the coffin?

It was Brian’s own brother, who had died in California that same night. But he only heard this afterwards, when he received a letter that came from his uncle in America.”

The old man assured me that Brian had never told a lie in his life and that he was dead now, may God be merciful to him!

You, who are reading this now, I ask that you should not scoff the story. You may never be called upon to assist the dead to carry the dead at a mysterious midnight funeral, but do not ridicule the story of Brian Dougan’s experience that has been brought to you by an honourable man.

The Ten Pound Note

wedding

Many, many years ago the weddings of the Irish country peasants were conducted by the priest, who was paid by the voluntary contributions of those guests attending the wedding. The ceremony itself was usually celebrated in the evening and was followed, especially among the wealthier farming classes, by a great feast, to which the priest was always invited. After the supper, when the company are still merry with the food and drink, they have consumed, the hat was passed around for contributions.

Kitty Malone was the prettiest girl in the entire parish, the bridegroom was the luckiest of men on his wedding day. was the bridegroom. You wouldn’t have thought that if you had seen the expression on the man’s face as he stood, looking very ill at ease in a stiff, shiny, brand-new, tight-fitting suit of wedding clothes. Yet, he was the fortunate man to have won Kitty’s heart and was about to claim a beautiful bride, who had fifty pounds to her fortune and three fine cows.

Most of the guests, however, were looking at Kitty. She was sitting beside the priest, very pretty and modest, blushing at the clergyman’s broad jokes. But the female guests were admiring the beautiful ‘white frock’ that she was wearing, many of them envious of its ‘bow-knots’ and trimmings of white satin that adorned the many-skirted garment. “It’s as good as new,” the lady’s maid at the big house assured her when she had bought it. “It was made by one of the finest dressmakers in London, and it has only been worn at a couple of balls. Her ladyship is very particular about her clothes and wouldn’t stand for the slightest sign of a crush or soiling on her gown.

There is no place where a priest is so good-humoured as when at a wedding. There, in the middle of his jokes and his jollity, he keeps his attention focused on the future dues he would get. All the while, to all the guests, he appears to be absorbed in giving his attention to the pretty bride, whose health he had just drunk to in a steaming tumbler of whisky-punch. But, Father Murphy kept his business eye on the preparations that were being made for sending the plate around the room for his benefit.

wedding 2The stirring began at the end of the table where the farmers were gathered in a large group, and all of them dressed in their finery. Wearing their large heavy greatcoats of fine cloth, their finest trousers, and shiny shoes that reflected the candlelight as they walked. Their lady wives and daughters all dressed in capacious blue, green or scarlet cloth cloaks with a silk-lined hood, which, like the greatcoats of the men, are an indispensable article of clothing in social functions among their class, even on the bad days. And there, as usual, in the middle of that group was Paddy Ryan, who was a sworn friend and supporter of Father Murphy. Paddy was rather small in build and one of the least well-off men in the parish when it came to the possession of worldly goods. But although he had neither a large holding or dairy cattle Paddy was very popular and was considered by most of the men as being good company. Nevertheless, such was his loyalty to the priest, that he would have gone through fire and water to serve his Reverence. As the priest caught sight of his devoted follower, his mind concentrated on Paddy’s actions to the extent that a very nice compliment he was making to the bride was interrupted.

At first, Paddy Ryan took a hold of the collecting plate and appeared to be about to carry it around the guests.  Then, as if suddenly remembering something important that he had forgotten, he stopped and threw the plate down on the table with a clatter and a bang, which cause the bride’s mother to wince, for it was one of the plates from her best china set. Paddy, however, now began to try all the pockets in his clothes. He searched his waistcoat, trousers, and the pockets of his greatcoat, one after another, but did not seem to find what he had been looking for. At last, after much hunting and shaking, and many grimaces of disappointment, Paddy seized the object of his search, and from some unknown depths, a large tattered leather pocket-book was withdrawn with great care. By this time, however, because he made that much fuss during his search, now everyone’s attention was fixed upon him. With great deliberation, he opened the pocket-book and peered inside, after which, having first ensured by a covert glance around that the guests were watching him, he took out a folded bank-note. He took great care unfolding the bank-note and, after spreading out on the table, he ostentatiously flattened it out smoothly to ensure that all who saw it might read the ‘Ten Pounds’ that was inscribed upon it!

Not surprisingly there was a sudden rumble of astonishment among the guests, with certain signs of dismay being seen among the richer portion. The thick, money-filled wallets, that only a few moments before were being brandished by their owners, were now quickly and stealthily pushed back into pockets again. For several moments there was a pause among the crowd that was followed by a great amount of whispering as the farmers began to consult one another. While this continued there were many anxious and meaningful looks directed to these farmers by their wives, along with various nudges, and severe digs into their ribs. In such circumstances as these, there was always great rivalry in the giving of offerings. Mister Hanratty, who drove his family to Mass every Sunday in his own jaunting car, would certainly not want to be seen giving less than Mister Wilson, who was also a charitable sort of man and earned plenty of money from his butter in the city market. Now, there was the threat of being outdone by the likes of Paddy Ryan! To contribute five pounds to the priest’s collection, when the likes of Ryan was seen by all to give ten pounds, could not even be considered! So, the result, after Paddy had put his note on the plate with a complacent flourish and had started to go around everyone with the collection plate, was the largest collection that Father Murphy had ever seen, and he was overjoyed as he began to stuff his pockets with notes.
But, as the priest was leaving the Malone home, Paddy came up to him and took hold of the bridle of the priest’s horse. “That was a quare good turn that I have done your Reverence this night, didn’t I? Such a collection of notes and piles of silver and coppers I have never laid eyes on before! Sure, I thought the plate would break in two halves with the weight of it. And now” — he took a quick look around to ensure there was no one listening to them and began to whisper, “you can slip my ten-pound note back to me.’
“Your ten-pound note, Paddy? What do you mean by asking for it back? Is it that you want me to give you back part of my dues?”
‘Ah now! Father Murphy, surely you are not so innocent as to think that note was mine? Sure, where would a poor man like me come upon such an amount of money like that? Ten pounds, Father! Didn’t I borrow it, from yourself Father, for the scam? And what a mighty good and profitable scam it was. Didn’t I tell you that the sight of me putting it on the plate would draw every coin out of all their pockets? By the good Lord, it did!’ This was, of course, a fact that the priest could not deny and, along with some interest, he refunded Paddy’s clever decoy.

 

The Confessional Seal

A Priestly Predicament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What news?

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

Is he badly hurt, or …?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes,” replied Martin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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