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.

Our Dead Friends

“Our dead Friends are right,” an old man told me after hearing that it was my custom to sit up late at night to read. “No, sir, that isn’t right at all,” he sighed and shook his head disapprovingly.

I was curious as to his reasoning and I asked him, “Why is that?

Well,” the old man began, “sure, don’t you know that your dead relatives, if it’s God’s will that they should be wandering about the place, always like to spend their nights in the old home. They come at ten o’clock, and if the house is not quiet they go away again. Then, they return at eleven o’clock, and if there is still any noise from inside, or any one sitting up, they do the same. But, at twelve o’clock they come for the last time, and if they are obliged to leave again, they must spend the night wandering about in the cold! But if they get into the house at any time between ten o’clock and twelve o’clock, they will sit around the hearth until the cock crows to herald the new day.”

The old man’s eyes showed the knowledge of his years and the easy way in which he explained things assured me that he was a man well versed in folklore. His explanation of the dead relatives visiting the home at night gave some light on customs that I had seen when visiting relations with my father in the days of my youth. One such custom that I had observed was that of the woman of the house carefully sweeping around the hearth and arranging the kitchen chairs in a semicircle in front of the “raked” fire before the last person awake finally makes their way to bed.

The old man listened intently as I told him about the custom I watched, many years before, and he told me that such preparations were often made in the homes of country folk. “Sure, what would the relatives think,” he said with a smile, “if the place was not tidied up before their arrival ? It is little respect we had for them, they’d say.”

I loved to walk along the country highways and byways of the county, especially in the summer. One day, I was walking along a road in the south of county and was accompanied by a good friend of my father’s, called Peter. We passed a poorly clothed and wretched-looking woman, who acted most oddly as we approached. Much to my amazement, as we came closer to her, the woman turned her back to us and stood with her head bent towards the ground until we had passed by. “What in the name of God is wrong with her, is she away in the head? ” I asked Peter.

Aye,” answered my friend, “the poor woman is a little astray in the mind, and that is what she always does when she sees a stranger.”

Peter then began to explain to me that he recalled seeing the same woman, when she was young lady and he was only a boy. At that time, she was growing up into a very attractive and sensible young girl, who was admired by all the young men in the entire neighbourhood. “Then, she saw something,” Peter told me in a mysterious tone of voice, “and the poor woman was never the same again.”

What, in the name of God, did she see? ” I asked.

Sure, I wouldn’t know,” he replied, “but, it might have been something similar to what her brother saw before he died.”

What was that? ”

Well, her brother was playing cards in a local village one night, and was returning home after twelve o’clock, when his eyes caught sight of a great number of strangely dressed, little men coming towards him. It struck him that every one of these little men were of the same size, and that they were marching to the sound of grand music. In the front of the parade there was one little man, who held a big drum and was heartily beating away at it, accompanied by two or three more little men with smaller drums, and the rest of the company had flutes. The poor woman’s brother was almost frightened to death by what he saw, and he stood rooted to the spot unable to move even an inch. The little man beating the big drum came up to him and asked him why he had dared to come along their way at that late hour of the night. The poor woman’s brother was completely mesmerised by the scene and could not utter a word in reply. Then, the little drummer ordered the rest of the parade to take hold of him and carry him along with them. ‘No!’ said one of the little men, ‘you won’t touch him this time. He is my own brother. Don’t you know me, Hughey?‘ he said as he turned toward the terror-stricken young man. In fact, he was his brother, who had died about a year earlier. ‘Go you home now, Hughey dear,’ the little man told him, in as mournful a voice as ever was heard, ‘apparition 2So, you see,” concluded Peter, “it is not advisable to be out late at night, particularly after twelve o’clock. And it is generally believed it was something similar that the poor sister had seen, which left her in her current condition.”

Naturally, I made no effort to question the supposition because I knew only too well, from past experiences, that any such efforts would prove to be fruitless. You, when you hear stories such as these, might choose to ridicule them and regard them as being complete nonsense. But, let me warn you that such ridicule and attempts to disprove such stories would only be a waste of your energy and your words. Those who have been brought up believing in the power of the Spirits, the ‘Good People’ and the Sidhe (Shee) are as convinced of their power and existence, as they are convinced of their own existence. In response to your efforts to dissuade them they will simply tell you that they know what they know.

O’Hara – The Fairy Man

Part 1

Spirit CouncilIf we were we to believe the stories and old wives’ tales handed down to us by our grandmothers we would not be faulted for thinking that, at one time, Ireland was a land controlled by spirits and demons. Ireland is filled with tales concerning witches, warlocks, white ladies, fairies, and leprechauns. It seems that the earth, the air, and the sky, were peopled by these mysterious beings at one time. In every crumbling and desolate cottage on the uninhabited moorland or woodland lived a witch or warlock. Elsewhere, the margins of our beautiful loughs, the hearts of our silent and isolated glens, the recesses of our romantic mountain valleys, the mould covered walls of every ancient ruin, and the mystic circle of each hill-fort, were said to be the chosen to all sorts of strange, unearthly beings.

These beliefs were not just held to by the ignorant and uneducated peasantry. In fact, many who were well educated and moved in more enlightened circles within society were equally infected by such beliefs. There were very sensible and well-informed people in the land who turned a deaf ear to any voice of reason and the dictates of common sense. In fact, such people would more easily doubt the truth of the Holy Bible than the existence of supernatural beings influencing life. The stories of such beings had become so interwoven in the superstition of the entire people, and social system, that no event could happen to a person during their lifetime in which the ‘Good People’ were not implicated, either for good or evil.

If the head, or a member, of a leading family died, the wail of the banshee was sure to be heard in the twilight calling for the ‘Death Coach’ to come. Should a favourite child in a family be brought down by disease, it was believed that the beautiful, beloved child had been changed for a squalling, ravenous, and decrepit starveling. If a farmer’s cattle ailed, or his milk cows were not productive, it was likely that the cattle had been touched by the fairies or bewitched. Should your much beloved wife be suddenly taken away from you, it was alleged that the fairies were the culprits. They took her in her most kind, loving, and the most interesting persona, and left you a bland, unattractive, wooden person in her stead.

I can recollect clearly the thrill of fear, mingled with a certain amount of pleasure, with which I listened to the tales of a great aunt. It is over fifty years since that time, when my great aunt would visit and warm herself at my mother’s fireside. She would chat idly over a cup of sweet tea and speak to me about all the spiritual beings that she had knowledge of. She was an educated woman, and very pious, but she would sooner doubt herself than the existence of witches and fairies. Her mind and memory was a fountain of knowledge and a store-room of memories of those occasions when they had played a role in the life of her family. These stories I then began to believe in most implicitly, particularly because in many instances the people involved were also members of my own family. For instance, she told me the story of how her grandfather, one autumn morning, detected a large hare, which was in the act of milking one of his cows. He fired his gun at thief, wounding it, and when he tracked the blood trail left behind, he discovered that it was flowing from the thigh of an old woman who lived in a nearby ruin of a cabin.

This knowledgeable woman could also relate how an elder brother had surprised a leprechaun as he was in the middle of making a pair of shoes for his people. Her brother could describe his clothing down to the smallest detail, and how the leprechaun had escaped captivity by pretending to strike at my uncle’s eye with his awl. This tactic caused my uncle to wink just at that moment when he was in the act of seizing the creature, and thereby prevented him from gaining his fortune. She also told the story of a child which was taken from its mother’s arms one night while she slept. Luckily, the child was missed before he could be carried out of the house, through the key-hole, and on hearing the cries of the heartbroken parent the child was dropped to the floor without suffering any injury. It had never occurred to my great aunt that the child might have rolled out of the bed accidentally.

There was another tale that she would often tell me, and it would have been worse than heresy to doubt the truth of it, because she knew the parties involved very well. There was an honest, hardworking man called John M’Kinney, who lived in a nearby village. One night, reluctantly, he was obliged to leave his warm bed during “the witching hour”. He had almost forgotten something of importance that was needed the next day and he went immediately to fetch it. While he was on his way back home the silence of the night was disturbed by the strokes of an axe reverberating through a neighbouring area of woodland. As he stopped to listen, John heard some voices in conversation with each other. His curiosity caused him to draw up and listen to what was being said. It was then, when he distinctly heard the question asked, “What are you doing to-night?” and to his dismay the response was, “I’m making a wife for John M’Kinney.”

“Devil the bit of it!” said Jack, “you’ll make no wife for me, for I have enough trouble already. I think I’ll do very well with the one I have.” With these words John turned on his heels and rushed home, hardly drawing his breath until he had his wife held tightly in his arms. He gripped her so tightly it was almost a death-grip he had on her, and we would not loosen his hold until the crisis was over, and in this way he had foiled the plans of the fairies,

In years gone by the entire social system within Ireland was deeply pervaded by the idea of supernatural influence. As a consequence of this there was an indefinable aura of dread and fear, which hung like the ‘Sword of Damocles’ over the heads of all, and embittered their very lives. It is true that the evil was only imaginary, but not on that account any the less hurtful. Superstition is a mental malady is, therefore, very difficult to counteract or eradicate, and often led to a sense of real anxiety and distress among people. Just as the case of M’Kinstrey, whose ideas were filled with witchcraft and fairy freaks, never even thought that the noise and voices he had heard might be a practical joke played by some of his neighbours. As a consequence, therefore, he suffered all the feelings of suspense and trouble that warned that there was real danger nearby.

The spread of useful knowledge and the dissemination of sound education among all classes in our society have lately effected a great change in the intellectual powers of the people. Such encounters with the supernatural, like those described herein, are still sometimes used to “adorn a tale,” are now unheeded. In fact, there are few of my countrymen who would hold, even for a single moment, any belief in the absurd idea of evil creatures. Nevertheless, there are always some exceptions. These exceptions might include a few old women, who may be still haunted by the sprites of their younger days. In some remote districts of the country a belief in witchcraft certainly prevails among the local folk. But, most of these beliefs and fears have been ingrained by prejudices from youth, and they have been fostered and kept alive by the practices of con-men and others who say they can prevent the effects of these beings with counter-charms. These low-lives exist and continue to prosper because of the credulity of the public. In general, throughout Ireland, belief in witches, fairies, and the like is virtually defunct now.

Cailleach of Ballygran III

Johnny

Derryard

The man who inadvertently walked into Luig McGarr’s life at this stage was a fine, well-educated man in his mid-fifties. Johnny Magowan was still a very handsome man, despite his age, and he was happily married to Maura, who had borne him three fine, healthy children. But, of all the men that had passed through Luig’s hands, it was to be Johnny, who would allow her time to play her tricks and to gain almost total influence over his every action.

Johnny was well situated in a top Civil Service job, after a career that stretched over thirty years, and he enjoyed a salary that reflected his high pay grade. But, that does not mean that Johnny Magowan was a wealthy man, who consorted with the upper class in society. He was, in fact, far from being the type of person who considered himself wealthy, living a simple lifestyle and preferring the company of those men with whom he had grown up in the town. A pint of Guinness was his usual tipple, he enjoyed having a bet on the horse-racing, and took a great interest in the local Gaelic Football team. In fact, when he was a young man, Johnny played for the local team and gave up much of his time to coach the schoolboy teams. Such physical activities were now a thing of the past when Johnny reached the age of fifty-five years and chose early retirement from his post.

Taking retirement at the early age of fifty-five years old was entirely his own decision and, as was his way, it was made without any consultation involving his long wife, Maura. Nevertheless, in taking voluntary retirement, Johnny did receive a considerable cash sum to go alongside the ample pension due to him, through the grades he had achieved by means of the promotions he had secured.

There were some who said that Johnny was not the easiest of people to live with, but Maura had been in love with him since she had been a teenager. In fact throughout their courtship she had worked hard to earn enough to help with Johnny’s finances, while he studied through university. She didn’t pay anything toward tuition, but she did finance much of the leisure time that they enjoyed together. It came as no surprise then, that within a few months of his graduating  from university and the securing of a permanent post, Johnny proposed to Maura. Of course there are always envious people in this world who speak cruelly about other, and some of these cruel minded people suggested that Johnny had felt obliged to marry Maura because of the money that she had spent on him while he was still at university. It was easy to tell that Maura was in love with the man, but they did not appreciate the fact that Johnny was the sort of man who would not do anything because he felt obliged to. He married Maura because he was in love with her, though it was not the sort of thing that he would have admitted.

 To those who knew the young couple in those days, their marriage did not come as a surprise, for Johnny was one of the most handsome, well-dressed and well-mannered young men in the town. As an added bonus for any young woman he also came from a well-respected family, whose father had his own business. Maura, for her part was a tall, thin, raven-haired, beauty whose sharp features reminded some of the film stars of the period, or the models in glossy magazines. There were many men who lost their hearts to Maura, but she only ever had eyes for Johnny.

Maura did not live far from Johnny’s family’s front door and had attracted the young man with her long, black hair, glided over her shoulders with a sheen on it like silk, and it always brushed to perfection. She was a dark-eyed beauty whose face was pale, but in a beautiful porcelain-like manner that was unblemished. On her lips, Maura always spread a red lipstick, which undoubtedly increased the seductiveness of her appearance and, when she walked past you, it was like one of those magazine super-models had just floated by.

Handsome Johnny, however, was often not so well thought of. There were those who thought he was both vain and conceited, but his friends would deny any such accusations. They would tell you that, even as a young boy, Johnny took care about his personal appearance and hygiene. Girls admired him for his ‘Tony Curtis’ good looks, his taste in clothes, and for his perfectly groomed hair. He, for his part enjoyed being admired by the young ladies in town, but his heart had been given to a girl called Maura McConnell and it her that he married.

Married life for the young couple was not easy, however, because Johnny was selfish in some ways. He was a man who considered his earnings his own, and it was he who took control of the household finances. But, he was much more concerned with maintaining appearances than he was about purchasing the home and the lifestyle that matched his station in life. Strangely, he never took Maura on holidays, but managed to travel the world himself with his friends. While he was away, Maura would stayed at home raising a family of three children and maintaining a house in which almost every item had been chosen by her, with his agreement. With the birth of their first child, even Johnny’s social life did not have much room for his devoted wife, because he preferred golf, horse racing, football and a few pints with his friends rather than taking Maura out for a drink, or a meal. There were many, of course, who thought it was a strange relationship and couldn’t understand it. But, nevertheless, Johnny and Maura appeared happy and raised their three children in a home that was filled with welcome and warmth.

It is unfortunate that Maura never appeared to be among Johnny’s first choice as a travelling companion on any of his journeys. In their entire married life there were only a few occasions when he made a point of takng Maura, and any of the children with him. These trips were usually short holiday excursions to his sister’s house in England. There were certain advantages that Johnny saw in these trips among which were keeping Maura and the children happy, they were not far from home and there was no accommodation to pay for. On other occasions his itchy feet took him further afield and he would be away for several weeks at a time. Just for the adventure of it all he woud take summer jobs in the Channel Islands, France, Canada, and the U.S.A. It was not until a few years before his retirement that he stopped taking these holidays, but a few years after he was retired Johnny was back on the road and shaking the dust off his shoes. There were, furthermore, at that time other changes made to his life that he took, which eventually led to a terrible revelation.

Several years before retiring, Johnny took up playing golf in his leisure time, encouraged by several colleagues at work. He became very proficient in the game for an amateur player and there was a period of time when his photograph never seemed to be out of the sports’ pages of the local newspaper, winning some golfing trophy or other. This was not unusual when it came to Johnny because, whatever he took up, he always strived to be the best he could be at it, especially if it was a sport. When he announced that he was taking early retirement, his friends teased him that he now would have plenty of time for playing golf. Within two years of retiring, however, he stopped playing golf completely, much to the surprise of friends and golfing partners alike. At this time in Johnny’s life many things were changing, and he was changing in himself.

Throughout his life, for example, Johnny had used public transport to travel from one place to another, including his workplace. Rain, hail, snow, or shine but Johnny could be seen on the bus for over the thirty years he had worked in one place. Some days, when he was working late, he would manage to get one of his colleagues to take him home in their car, even if the journey would take them miles out of their way. When I say they would take him home, they really dropped him off at his local club where, religiously, every evening he would have two pints of Guinnes with friends. It was a habit that Johnny had enjoyed almost all of his adult life, and it was about the only thing about him that did not change after early retirement. Every evening at about eight o’clock he would arrive in the club, sin in the members’ bar and have a sociable drink with friends. Just two drinks only, before he returned home at about ten o’clock to watch the news on television before going on to bed.

Maura was quite pleased that her husband was taking early retirement. She looked forward to spending more time with each other as a couple, which had not been the case since their early married days when they had moved into an apartment in a recently built block of flats. It was a comfortable first home, but as one child followed another it soon became time for the couple to find somewhere a little more commodious. Maura found a house next door to her mother’s, where they lived for quite a few years before moving into the home in which they resided at the time of this tale.

Maura was concerned about what way he would use all the spare time that he would soon have. She knew that Johnny was not the sort of man who did hobbies, and she had been surprised when he decided to try golf. Maura was just as surprised when he stopped golfing, just at the time when he had more time on his hands to devote to it. She was surprised even further when he started to work in the garden, because she was fully aware of the fact that, when it came to growing things, Johnny was not ‘Alan Tichmarsh’.

Hunting, was yet another hobby that Maura thought her husband might take up again, though he had not hunted for many years. With his brothers, Johnny had actively hunted through the hills and bogs for many years. But as his brothers passed away, Johnny lost all liking for the sport. The idea was plausible, of course, but she thought that after so many years away from it he would be reluctant to start again. Who could he persuade to go parading across heather covered mountains with a gun in their hand, or sit for hours among reed beds awaiting the arrival of ducks back on some lake? There was yet another possible problem, which bothered Maura. She wondered, after all that walking and stalking of the birds, “could Johnny still hit the target?” The question, of course, was never answered because Jimmy no longer had any love for a sport he had once shared with his dead brothers.

In Johnny’s mind, the major problem with retiring early was that all of his friends, and even his wife, were still in full-time work. It was unfortunate, but Johnny always appeared to be at a loose end, and he began spending more time watching horse-racing on the television, or playing snooker at the club. Then, one day, completely out of the blue He visited a local garage and purchased a small car for himself. Without telling anyone, Johnny had applied for his driver’s licence, learned to drive, and passed his test first time.

All through his youth and years of working in the Civil Service Johnny had never shown any inclination to drive a car, being happy with public transport, or getting lifts in other people’s cars. Now, however, he found himself with much more leisure time on his hands, and he began to feel that he would like to travel a little more. This he felt would give him much more independence but, as is always the case, he did not travel very far, mostly into town and out again.

It seemed odd to some people that Johnny would buy a car, but other strange things also began to occur. Maura noticed that the hours he would spend in the club, especially at weekends, had also changed. There were days, also, when he would drive of in the car somewhere, telling nobody where he was going, and not returning home until late at night. At this time too, his family began to notice strange behaviour and could not quite explain it to themselves. While Johnny had always taken a pride in his appearance, he now began to take extra time every morning in the shower, moisturising his body, shaving and oiling his face, and spraying all sorts of expensive male scents about himself. More surprisingly, Johnny began not to wear smart long-sleeve shirts, ties and flannel trousers, exchanging them for bright-coloured short-sleeved shirts denims, or chinos. To match these, Johnny’s hairstyle received a more modern cut, and the parts that were turning grey suddenly appeared to return to their former dark colour. With all these things happening, it is not surprising that some neighbours became suspicious that there were hidden reason for these changes. But, these people were only in a small minority, and most chose to disregard the ugly rumours as being unthinkable when it came to a man of his standing in the community.

Nevertheless, the changes in Johnny Magowan’s lifestyle continued. He was a man who, as we have said, could appreciate a good pint of Guinness and usually imbibed his pint in the Club. But, after retiring he began to explore other oases during the day. He began frequent some of the more popular public houses in the town. In those hostelries he was certain of being able to buy a decent pint of stout, and could also be sure of a decent lunch at a reasonable price. He was often seen entering the “Railway Tavern”, or “The Olde Oak”, where he regularly spent an hour or two eating and drinking, while watching the horse-racing on the television behind the bar. Both public houses were sited on the same street in town, and situated ideally half-way between them was the “Turf Accountants” where he could place his bets. This street now became the destination for his daily trips into town.

Johnny’s evening trips still took him to Ballygan Football Club, and he still met up with the friends whose company he enjoyed. The club was little more than a quarter of a mile from the house, the walk to which he often described as his nightly exercise. You could be sure that every evening he would be in that club, standing at the bar and ordering his first drink. He was so prompt in fact that the barmaid could have set the clock for him coming in. Johnny would lift his glass at the bar and take his first drink of the stout to ensure none of the precious liquid would spell as he took it to the members’ lounge, where he would join his friends.

Cailleach of Ballygran I

INTRODUCTION


The “Cailleach” (pronounced “kye-luhkh”) is said to be an ancient spirit, and is described as being one of the most fascinating, powerful, and most terrifying of the Celtic underworld. By Celtic Bards she s described …

She crouched like a wild beast ready to spring,
She of the long nails, she of the long teeth,
She ran through the hills like thunder
.”

The ‘Cailleach’ is a mystery, whose memory and presence has survived many centuries after tribal worship to her died out among the Celts. She is, however, known in Celtic tradition as a very ancient spirit. In fact her tradition is so old that we know almost nothing of her origins, or the myths and rituals that surround her. The ‘Cailleach’, however, is found in the ancient traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and England, traceable through the folklore of those countries, the names of ancient monuments, natural wonders, and through the ancient verses and stories handed downfrom generation to generation.

We know that the Celts came to these lands over two millenia ago, bringing with them their own pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. But, when they arrived here the tradition of the ‘Cailleach’ was already ancient. It is almost impossible for us to know, or understand, what this particular spirit meant to those who worshipped her, but she must have been very important because, unlike countless deities and demons, she did not disappear. In fact, there are many who insist that the ‘Cailleach’ is still alive, and still a power in these lands and we must know something about her if we are to understand the story that follows.

In Celtic folklore the “Cailleach” is known by many titles, but chiefly as the ‘Old Woman of Winter’. She shows herself in late autumn as the days grow shorter and the weather turns wintry. It is said that the cold winds of winter, which scour the land is the breath of ‘Cailleach Bheaur‘ , or the Blue Hag of Winter. It is she who is responsible for bringing cold, snow and the treacherous weather that steals life from the land. She is the Goddess of Winter, Mother of Mountains, Ageless Lady of Dark Places, and the Ancient Crone of Wisdom.

When the winter came to an end, it is said that the ‘Cailleach’ used a magic rod, which she carried in her right hand, to strike the grass into blades of ice. The end of Winter, of course, brings with it the Spring, and she could not bear the grass and sun. On first sight of the season of renewal she would fly into a temper, throwing down her wand beneath a holly tree, before disappearing in a whirling cloud of angry passion. Some accounts say that the ‘Cailleach’ turned herself into a grey boulder to await the end of the warm days, when she would be renewed. The boulder, it was said, would always be moist to the touch, because it contained slumbering substance of the spirit.

There are other tales that tell us the ‘Cailleach’ changes herself into a beautiful young woman at this time, for the other face of the Cailleach is Briege, once goddess, who has been amalgamated into Christian saint, whose feast day, February 1st is said to mark the return of the light. Tales tell us that on the eve of this feast day the ‘Cailleach’ journeys to a magical island in whose forests lies the miraculous ‘Well of Youth’. At the first glimmer of dawn, she drinks the water that bubbles in a crevice of a rock, and is transformed into Briege, the beautiful spirit whose magical, white wand turns the bare earth green once more.

The name, “Cailleach”, in simple language means, “Older wise woman”, but the title is very much connected to the tradition of witches and the dark arts. At a cultural level, this Dark Goddess appears in a number of forms, and her role was to facilitate tribal elders at important times in Celtic society, such as declaring war and the choosing of kings. The ‘Cailleach’ was described as being of fierce and terrifying in her appearance. She was described as having only one eye, but it was an eye of exceptional sight, and sat in the middle of her blue-black face. Another outstanding feature of the ‘Cailleach’ was her red teeth and her white hair, that was like a snow covered mountain top. Over her head she wore a kerchief of sorts, and over her dull grey clothing she wore a faded plaid shawl. But, it is important to remember that this old woman can take on many disguises and, in many parts of Ireland, is said to be responsible for the placing of cairns and barrow mounds on the hills and mountains. It is her association with such things that reveals her intimate connection to the underworld and the ancestral realms of death.

This Celtic spirit not only controls the seasons, the ‘Cailleach’ is considered to be a goddess of the earth and sky, the sun and moon. In the guise of an earth goddess she can create life and nurture it, but she is also a destroyer that brings only death in all its forms. The ‘Cailleach’ can also form, alongside other spirits, the group known as ‘The Storm Hags’, who can control the winds and the weather for their own means. In Ireland, alongside, ‘Babh’ (Crow), and Macha she is part of a group who unleash their magical powers to bring mists, clouds of darkness, and showers of fire and blood over their enemies. Their howls of menace can cause blood to freeze, bringing a paralysis to soldiers on the battlefield. Any aspect of this goddess might appear among opposing armies as crows or ravens, all of which are considered to be sinister black carrion birds of death.

In times of battle the warriors might just see a lean, nimble hag, hovering above the fighting, hopping about on the spears and shields of the army who were to be victorious. Another of her guises is the ‘Washer at the Ford’, which takes the form of an old woman who can be seen washing the clothing of a soldier who is about to die in battle. When the warrior saw her at this task, he knew that he would soon be crossing the river that separates life and death, and he embraced the dark side of life. They, the Celts, took to war like a lover, plunging into battle naked, while singing gloriously boastful songs. They were fearless in the face of death, which their belief in reincarnation taught them was “…but the center of a long life.” It was their belief that the blood and carnage on the battlefield fertilized and replenished the earth. War and death gave way to life and a flourishing land. In fact, it was not an uncommon thing for a man to lend money to another and agree on repayment in a future lifetime. Darkness, then, within Celtic tradition, was closely associated with new beginnings, such as the potential of the seed below the ground.

In some ancient tales, the ‘Cailleach’ does not turn to stone at the end of winter, but appears at a house where there was a young man lying. At this house she begs that she might be allowed to warm herself by the side of the fire, which is granted. But, later she would creep into the young man’s bed, and through her wily, magical spells the young man did not throw her out. Instead, he only put a fold in the blanket between them. But, after a while, the young man awoke with a start, for this old crone had changed into the most beautiful of women that man had ever seen. Such tales in Celtic folklore reinforce the tradition that says the ‘Cailleach’ endlessly chases youth, using magic means to seduce the young men. It is, therefore, right that the ‘Cailleach’, in her many disguises, is deeply feared because of her authority in the land of the dead. It is said that she outlives many husbands and lovers, while she remains youthful and mothers many children.

“The Cailleach sees with an all knowing eye,

A dark spirit with two faces,

One of which is bluish-black and

is filled with the knowledge of the ancients.

She is a withered old crone,

and older than time,

who watching over the land,

and guiding victims back to her.

With a quick and terrifying strike,

She is eager to unleash her power,

Causing mayhem and destruction in the world,

To bring about her renewal of life.”

The ‘Cailleach’. then, is known to all as ‘The Keeper of the Mysteries” promising all a new life, after the long sleep she brings to the world. But, as with any witch, the ‘Cailleach’ is interested only in her own aggrandisement. And so we meet the ‘Cailleach’ of Balligran…

The Christening

A Tale written after an old story idea by Wesley G Lyttle (1844-96)

There was a large turf fire blazing upon the broad, pleasant hearth of Matty Carr’s cottage, filling the entire house with its sweet, fragrant scents. In those days the turf was plentiful on the “Selkie Moss” and it was likely that the supply would last for a few hundred years yet. Bella, as Matt’s wife was called, was very much a house-proud woman, who was convinced that nothing makes a home more cheerful than a bright, warm, and welcoming fire in the hearth. Although she was usually a thrifty and frugal type of woman, Bella would build up the bricks of peat into a glowing pile with unsparing hands until the kitchen felt as hot as a kiln. The floor was so clean that you could have almost eaten your meal off it, and every pot and pan was washed and cleaned to such an extent that they looked like mirrors hanging from their hooks. The wooden dresser that stood against the wall was looking fresh in its white gloss finish, and everything in the house had the definite appearance of absolute cleanliness.
In the corner of the kitchen, near to the fireplace, there was a clumsy-looking, home-made cradle, in which slept the newest and most precious addition to the Carr family. Every now and again, Bella would stop in the middle of her household chores to take a look in at the sleeping child, and she would whisper sweet blessings over her newborn infant.
Hey, Bella!” Matt shouted. “Was there anybody touching my razor?” He was calling to his wife from the next door room, where he was getting himself dressed for the very important ceremony that was soon to begin.
For Jaysus sake, man dear,” she called back to him in a loud whisper, “could you not speak just a bit softer, ye eejit, or you’ll waken the child!” At the same time, one her tip-toes, she hurried to the door of the adjoining room.
Matt was in a bit of a temper with himself about something, or other, which was not uncommon and Bella could see his mood quite clearly. He was standing in the room and facing Bella when she came to the door of the room, and he held the cut-throat razor in one of his hands. His face was plentifully lathered with shaving soap, but from one side of his chin she saw that there was a cut from which blood flowed quite freely. Matt held the razor out toward her, ensuring that she had a clear view of the condition in which he had found the edge of the blade.
Aah, wee man! Have you cut your wee self?” she asked him with a false tone of pity, although she was concerned that he would be alright.
Cut myself?” he replied impatiently, being none to pleased with his wife’s tone. “Well, I think I have, or maybe I’m sweating blood! With all your blatherin’ maybe I will even bleed to death just for you. Now, just get me a plaster will you?
Returning to the kitchen, Bella fumbled in the dresser drawers and found a box of plasters, from which she took one and gave it to her angry husband. She knew that Matt was a good man, but he was also the type of man that occasionally lacked patience, and he did not suffer fools lightly. He had absolutely no doubts that some of the children had been using his razor to sharpen their pencils or other items. Matt’s mistake was simply that he had failed to check the edge of the razor before he began to shave with it. “Would you get the leather strap for me, Bella?” he asked her.
You know, maybe the strap will not be good enough to put an edge on the blade. I might have to take the bloody thing to the anvil and use a sledge hammer to put a proper edge on it. Then, if that works, I could polish it up by rubbing it along the big sharpening stone that I use for the scythe,” he told Bella in a half-joking tone of voice.
While Matt was talking to her, Bella returned to the dresser and fetched a huge glass jar, filled with a golden coloured liquid. Matt had a bright twinkle in his eyes when he caught sight of that jar in his wife’s hands. The corners of his mouth began twitching with anticipation as he came to understand her intentions. Nevertheless, he kept complaining and moaning until, finally, gave him a large tumbler filled with whisky that had been drawn from the jar.
And what’s that?” asked Matt, who was still not in the best of humour.
Aah, sure take a wee drink, darlin’. It’ll calm you down and steady your hand. It might even help stop your bleeding,” said Bella with a comforting smile.
Matt, being the sort of man that he was, did not need a second invitation to have a drink of whisky. He put the razor down by the washing bowl on the dressing table and gently took the tumbler of whisky from his wife’s hand. “Here’s to you, Bella,” he laughed as he emptied the glass in one drink.
Jaysus, Matt, you’ll have to take your time with the rest,” Bella insisted.
By God, Bella, sure you never spoke a truer word,” Matt replied. “There was a time that I could’ve drunk a river of that stuff, dry.
Indeed, you could have, wee man,” smiled Bella. “These days I would rather see you bringing in a bag of “Inglis'” flour than a jar of whisky. We can have more fun making things with the flour.
Don’t be daft, woman!” sneered Matt. “There’s more fun in that jar of whisky than there could ever be in “Inglis'” flour, even a cart load of it!
That may well be the case, my dear,” Bella replied to him. “But, like everything else, darlin’, whisky is very good as long as you keep it in its right place, and you do not abuse it.
Aye, and aren’t I just the man who knows where that right place is, and able to put it into it?” Matt laughed heartily, but Bella was not amused. He held the tumbler toward Bella again, saying, “Bella, just give me another wee measure and then I’ll quit.
But, the jar was closed and Bella had placed it back on the dresser, totally unwilling to replenish her husbands glass. “You have had enough for the time being,” she told him and began to walk away.
Och, Bella, just one more wee glass,” he pleaded with his wife. “Just to keep the first one company. You know, a bird cannot fly with only one wing.
Bella, of course, gave way to Matts pleas, as every dutiful wife would do. Matt now quickly forgot the bleeding cut on his face and, with a few strokes on the leather honing strap, the razor soon became as sharp as it had been previously. His face was soon shaven cleanly and he dressed in his best ‘Sunday Suit’. In less than half-an-hour he was standing at the front door of his cottage, waiting to welcome his invited guests. Matt had a quick eye and was able to distinguish objects at a distance from him. With that keen eyesight he scanned the various roads that led away from the house, and as soon as he saw certain people coming into his view he would call out to his wife, “They’re coming Bella! Here they are! Are those glasses ready? And the boiling water and the whisky? Is there something a little softer for the lasses, such as lemonade or cider? By Jaysus, woman, but this will be a well-remembered day and night! Sure this well may be the last christening we’ll ever have, so to hell with the expense!
It was absolutely amazing the number of people that Matt Carr was able to squeeze into that small house of his. There was both young and old, but it was mostly adults who were in attendance. They were put into the kitchen and the bedroom, and in every vacant space that was available inside the house. The first of the guests had begun arriving in the afternoon, but they were mainly the older women who came to give Bella a hand in making the needful preparations, and attend to the wants and needs of the children.
Matt was now in his glory. If you could have heard him talking to the guests you would have heard him talking to the guests, you would have thought him to be the ‘Lord of the Manor’, instead of the hardworking, hardfisted mechanic of Ballyfoss. But, Matts heart was bursting with happiness and he would not have changed places with the proudest man in Ireland.
In a comfortable chair close to the blazing fire sat Biddy Brown, who acted both as a nurse and a midwife for almost the entire district. On her head she wore a white hat and she was dressed in a spotlessly clean, blue and white checked uniform. As she sat there near the turf fire there was a look of quiet contentment and grave responsibility on her face, which is so common among the nursing profession. On her knee slept the Carr baby, dressed in a snow-white gown, which was neatly embroidered and adorned for its imminent baptismal ceremony.
Matt, of course, attended to the duty that he saw as being his main responsibility. He was distributing the whisky around his guests. Each had a glass tumbler in heir hand or near at hand, which Matt filled from a small jug that he replenished from the large glass jar mentioned earlier. As he moved around, serving each guest, he talked to them in a warm and friendly fashion. “Now, Mrs. McCall,” he said to one guest, “Not one drop have you taken from your glass since I put that first drop in your glass.
Ah, sure, dear God, Matt,” she answered him, “this is two or three times you have filled my glass. And, honest to God, my boy, I couldn’t take any more.”
Jaysus sake, Matty,” said another lady. “Please don’t offer me any more, for that must be one of the jugs that never empties and my head’s spinning circles already!
Thus it continued. Some protested and yet, as they did so, they still held out their glasses for a fresh supply. Others, however, really meant what they had said and refused to take any more of Matt’s whisky.
Aah, Biddy, we almost forgot you,” said Matt as he approached the nurse and replenished her glass. “What do you think of the new baby, Biddy?
No nicer baby has ever come into this world!” Biddy told him as she softly kissed the baby’s head. “And may it be a blessing to its mother and father, as well as a credit to the old country.
Amen to that,” came the response from most of those around them.
Well, Biddy, there could be no better judge than yourself,” exclaimed Bella and Matt. “Because you have put a good number of them through your hands this last fifty years, and now I’ll tell you one and all what I’m going to make of that child you see there –” Matt ended his speech abruptly at this point as the latch on the door lifted and into the house walked the priest, who was to christen the child.
As the priest entered the house everyone rose in respectful silence as the priest came into the cottage. Father Toner was a man with a fine physique and a commanding presence. He had gained a wide reputation for his blood and thunder homilies, in which the assembled congregation could almost smell the sulphur of hell. But, outside of the pulpit, he was much admired for his genialmanner and his great kindness toward others. “A good evening to you all,” he said as he stepped forward to shake Bella’s hand, and then he had a warm handshake with a kindly word for everyone else in the house.
At least a half-an-hour was filled with conversation among all those who had gathered in the house and, by the end of those preliminaries, it was time to make preparations for the christening. But, by this time also, Matt was in a condition that was far from suitable for the occasion. His frequent journeys to the big glass jar were now beginning to tell on both his speech and his equilibrium. There was a definite glitter in his eye and an unsteadiness in his gait that he tried to hide from others, because it was not appropriate to the occasion and those duties that he would be called upon to discharge.
Father Toner began the ritual with a heartfelt prayer and then he asked that the child be brought forward to him. There were a lot of nudges among those in the crowd, and quite a few of them had great difficulty in restraining their laughter as they watched the tremendous efforts made by Matt to appear both sober and solemn. Matt’s condition, however, did not escape the keen, observant eyes of Father Toner, and there was the faintest sign of twitching at the corners of his mouth as he lifted the child up, placing it into Matt’s arms and asked, “Are you able to hold up the child, Matthew?
Am I what?” asked Matt in inebriated surprise, “Able to hand it up! Indeed, I am Father, aye, even if it was the weight of a two year old bullock!
This remark was more than the assembled crowd could stand. At first there was a titter of laughter, but this quickly burst out into unrestrained hilarity. Even Father Toner could not hold back a smile as he demonstrated the difficulty he had in maintaining the solemnity befitting the occasion. But, nevertheless, things were going very well until the priest poured some drops of cold water upon the sleeping baby’s head. The effect was quick and immediate. The child awoke instantly and gave an ear piercing wail. In response, Matt turned angrily toward old Biddy, the nurse, and upset the gravity of the occasion once again by hissing at her, “For Christ’s sake Biddy, why didn’t you take the dead cold off the water?
Finally, it was all over and Father Toner handed the child back to its parents with a final solemn prayer. He apologised to them both that he could not stay for the celebrations that had been arranged and made ready to leave. As he bid them all farewell, the priest began walking toward Betty Gray’s house, nearby.
God go with you, father!” cried Matt as soon as the priest was beyond earshot. “Aye, God go with you, for I never feel right in myself when there is a clergyman around the house. Come on, Bella, get those tray things together and let us all have something to eat!
Bella, of course, did as she was asked, drawing a large table into the centre of the kitchen and quickly loaded it up with home-baked bread of various kinds. There were oat-cakes, potato-cakes, pancakes, soda-farls, wheaten bread, and may other products. Cheese, butter, eggs and jams were in plentiful supply, and those who could grab themselves a chair were soon at work on this feast. As it was impossible to accomodate all their company at the table, so many of them were obliged to hold their teacups and sideplates in their hands, or on their laps.
There was much discussion among the gathered crowd and many subjects were touched upon by them, from the condition in which the country found itself, to the possibility of a neighbour girl being married soon. “Did you hear about Jenny Early being three months gone?” asked Bella.
Get away with ye!” exclaimed several of the female guests. “Tell us what you know.
Well, you know Jenny’s not just the full shilling,” said Bella and several of the ladies nodded their heads in agreement. “Someone has made friends with her, but she wouldn’t tell anyone who he was. But, this man asked her to come and see his lambs and then took advantage of her in the hay shed. He told her that it was the sort of things that friends do and she, knowing nothing better, allowed him to have his way.”
“The dirty old ba….”
“Wheesht!” said Bella. “Hold your tongues for here comes Betty Gray and she has a mouth as big as Belfast Lough!”

End