In Ireland, even today, there are so many superstitions, rituals and traditions in the day to day life of its people. This is especially true when it comes to the passing of dear friends and relatives, their funeral arrangements, and their final interment. These superstitions and traditions might vary slightly from family to family, but each holds strongly to their own. In fact they hold so faithfully to their own family rituals that on occasions they can lead to anger and physical violence when different families come together to mourn in different ways.
When I was a young man my favourite way of spending my leisure time was to take long walks through the countryside and sketch many of the interesting sites that I would come across. Over the years I had filled my artist’s sketch book with pictures of beautifully sited thatched cottages, old barns, ruins, and old churches. On one particular sunny day, I was sitting alone on a grassy embankment at the edge of the desolate graveyard and church in Drumm. In that beautifully quiet place I became almost totally lost in my efforts to capture, on paper, that special scene that lay before me. Occasionally I would lift up my eyes from my sketchbook to look directly at the detail that was present in this interesting ruin which I was attempting to paint. It was also an opportunity wipe the perspiration from my brow, that was caused by the heat of the sun radiating down upon my head.
The quiet stillness that had prevailed all that particular day was suddenly broken by a faint and wild sound that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life. Admittedly, the strange sound startled me and caused me to stop my sketching for a moment or two. Alone in that graveyard I began to listen nervously, waiting for that strange sound to repeat itself. I didn’t have to wait very long for this weird, unearthly sound to once again vibrate through the still air of the evening. It was now even more loud than it had been at first and, as I listened to its strange vibration and tone, I decided that it could be likened to the sound made by many glasses, ringing and tinkling as they are crowded in together.
I stood up, rising from the place where I had been seated, and I began to search around for the possible source of this strange noise. There was not another body in my vicinity when, once again, this heart-chilling sound suddenly filled the air about me with its wild and wailing intonation. At first the sound reminded me somewhat of a tune being played upon an aged harp. When another burst of the sound came forth, it became quite obvious to me that it was the sound of many human voices that were being raised in lamentation somewhere close by. It was a loud, heart-chilling, wail of sorrow about which, before this occasion, I had only ever heard only rumours. Now, for the first time in my life I heard that wild and terrifying sound and shivered with cold fear. Those who read this tale, and who have already heard the same sound, will surely understand just how anxious I was when I heard it in the silence of that day in Drumm.
As my eyes scanned the area outside of the graveyard I could clearly see, in the light of that day, a crowd of local people, both male and female. In an orderly line they wound their way along a low path that led them toward the churchyard where I was standing, and among them the strong men carried the coffin of someone who was a dear departed friend or relative. As they came closer toward me, occasion I heard a loud and pitiful wail of sorrow that arose from the mourners in that crowd. The voices rang loudly, in a wild and startling unison, as they moved up the hill, until the sound gradually descended in its volume, finally becoming little more than a subdued wail. Diligently, these local people continued to carry their loved one’s body onward, but not in the same measured and solemn step as before. Now, they were moving in a much more rapid and irregular manner, almost as if the pain of their grief was hurrying them on to the graveside, which was the much hoped for culmination of all their efforts.
The overall effect of this large local rural funeral was, I must admit, certainly more impressive than any of the other funerals I had ever seen in my short life. There was very little of the pomp and circumstance of other funerals I had observed, such as a hearse, or large commemorative wreaths. But, the equal of the pallbearers could never have been found as they steadily bore along the body of their dear departed friend on their shoulders in the stillness of evening until they reached the cemetery. The male friends and relatives of the deceased person carried the coffin into the interior of the ruin. There the women had gathered to continue their mourning for the dead, and half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately began to prepare a grave. I can honestly say that I have seldom seen men more full of activity. But, scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, than the loud peal of the pipes was heard at some distance. The young men paused in their work, and they turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point from where the sound appeared to originate.
As I looked up I clearly observed that another funeral procession was winding its way slowly around the foot of the hill. Immediately the young men at the graveside returned to their work with greater effort than before. As the spades dug into the black soil anxious shouts from onlookers constantly encouraged them to complete their work as quickly as possible. Some of the more polite followers shouted, “For Jaysus sake, hurry boys, hurry.”
“Shift your big arse, Paddy!” others called.
Friends of some of the men shouted out to them, “Put your back into it, Mike! ”
“If you could shift the sod as quick as you shift the ‘Guinness’, it would suit you better,” others laughed aloud.
By this time the second funeral party, that was approaching, could see ahead of them that the churchyard to which they were going was already filled with people. Almost immediately this second funeral party quickened their pace, and their sounds of mourning rose more loudly in the morning air as they came nearer to the churchyard. Quite unexpectedly, a small detachment of men, carrying a variety of picks and spades, came forward out of the main party. Then, without warning, this group of armed men rushed headlong up the hill toward the churchyard, accompanied by loud shouting. At the same time an elderly woman, her eyes streaming with tears and her hair dishevelled, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had taken their coffin. Arms raised, she ran towards the young men who were digging at the ground with all their might and, passionately, she begged them to do their work more quickly. “Ahh Boys! Sure you wouldn’t let them beat you to the job and have my sweet boy wandering about, alone on these long, dark nights. Please dig hard boys. Lay into it with all your power and gain, for yourselves, a sorrowful mother’s blessing for ensuring my wee Paddy will have rest.”
Standing among those men in her bedraggled appearance, and the intensity of her manner as she pleaded with them, I thought the poor woman was crazy. In fact, such was her condition, that I could barely make out what she was saying to the young men, and I was obliged to inquire off one of the bystanders if they could fill in the blank spaces.
“Are you asking me because you believe she is going crazy? ” said the person that I had asked, as he looked at me in a very puzzling manner. “Sure, I thought everyone knew the answer to that. Especially someone who looks as well learned as you. The poor woman doesn’t want her dead son to be walking about in the night, as he must, unless those boys are smart.”
“What do you mean, walking about in the night?” I asked him. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Whisht! whisht!” he urged me to be quiet. “Here they come now and, in the name of God, they have Joe Gallagher at their head,” he said to me as he anxiously looked towards the advanced-guard of the second funeral, which had now gained the summit of the hill. They quickly leaped over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery and advanced towards the group that surrounded the newly excavated grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.
“Stop what you are doing there, I tell you!” shouted Joe Gallagher to those men who were working at opening the ground and were still using their implements with great energy.
“Stop it now, or it’ll be worse for you! Did you not hear me, Rooney?” said Gallagher again, as he laid his muscular hand on the arm of one of the young men who were digging, suddenly stopping him from continuing his work.
“Of course I heard you, Gallagher,” said Rooney; “but I just chose not to listen to you.”
“Just you keep a civil tongue in your head, wee man” Gallagher warned him.
“By God, Gallagher, but you’re a brave man and very fond of giving people advice that you should listen to yourself,” Rooney retorted and, once again, plunged his spade into the earth.
“Didn’t I tell you to stop, you Gobshite?” Gallagher roared, “or, I’ll put my boot so far up your arse, Rooney, that you’ll be chewing leather for six months!”
“Get away out of this, Gallagher! What brings you here at all?” interrupted another of the men by the graveside. “Just looking for trouble is it?”
“Sure what else would bring the likes of him here, but to cause mischief?” said a grey-haired man, who was standing just a couple of yards away from the graveside. “Sure, don’t you know by now that there’s always a quarrel whenever there’s a Gallagher about?”
“You may thank your grey hair, you old goat, that I don’t make you take those words back with some pain,” Gallagher told the old man as he glared at him.
“There was a time,” warned the old man, “when I had something more than just these grey hairs to make such as you respect me.” As he spoke the old man drew himself up with an air of great dignity. He wanted everyone to see that he was still a tall man and had retained a broad chest, which would bear the truth of the statement that he had made. There was a bright, but briefly lived flame, that was kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and his expression of pride and defiance quickly gave way to an expression of coldness and contempt toward Gallagher.
“Listen to me, old man, I’d have beaten you more stupid than you already are, even on the best day you ever had,” sneered Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.
“Don’t you believe it, Gallagher!” said a contemporary of the old man, who had known him in his younger days. “You have plenty of conceit, and a big mouth that you use to bully those weaker than you!”
“Isn’t that the truth,” said Rooney. “He’s a great man in his own mind. By God I could be a rich man if I could buy Gallagher at what I thought he was worth, and sell him at what he thinks he’s worth.”
A loud, mocking laughter rose up among those gathered at the graveside, causing Gallagher’s agitation to increase tenfold. There was a deep darkness that came across the big man’s features, and Gallagher immediately took up a posture so threatening that a man standing close to me turned to his companion and told him, “By God, Eddie there’s going to be ‘wigs on the green’ before too long!”
The man was to be proved quite right in his prediction. Scarcely had the words been uttered by him, than I began to see many of the men around me taking off their heavy coats and jackets, and rolling up the sleeves of their jumpers and shirts. The entire scenario turned much more menacing when the men began looking around them for anything that they might use as a weapon. With their weapons in hand there was a general closing-in of the bystanders around this group, which made it perfectly clear to me that a huge and bloody conflict would soon begin between the opposing groups.
It did not take long before the entire world seemed to come crashing in around me. There was a general melée that began in the centre of the gathering, with the main antagonists passing through the whole group until, finally a mass battle began. Such was the speed of events that within very few minutes the belligerents had dispersed themselves throughout the ruined churchyard in various battling groups. As a spectator, I stood back from the topmost step of a style that led into the burial-ground. It was obvious to me that it was better, for my continued good health, not to stand too closely to where the action was happening. As I stood watching the battle my attention was attracted by the sudden appearance of a man, who was exclaiming at the top of his voice: “Oh, you evil people! Stop this, I tell you, you heathen people! Are you even Christians at all?”
This loud intruder was a tall, thin, pale man, who was wearing a hat which, from exposure to bad weather, had its broad, slouching brim crimped into many fantastic shapes. The crown of the hat was depressed in the middle, and the edges showed the paleness of wear, that was very far removed from its original black. He wore no collared shirt and had a narrow white scarf drawn tightly around his neck. A single-breasted overcoat of rusty black, with standing collar, was tightly buttoned nearly up to his chin, and hung over his frame to the knees of his black trousers, beneath which peeped well polished black leather shoes. He pushed his way through the fighting men and quickly climbed the stile upon which I was standing, politely saying, “Excuse me, sir,” as he pushed by.
From the top of the stile he jumped to the ground, and he proceeded with long and rapid strides, towards the groups of combatants. In his hand the man brandished a heavy bullwhip with which he began to lay about each and every one of the brawlers. In equal measure and with total impartiality, he began dealing out a heavy-handed justice. I was also greatly impressed by the fact that all these blows inflicted on them by this newcomer were not at all resented by those whom he assaulted. It almost appeared as if they had decided resistance against this man was futile, choosing instead to begin fleeing quickly before his blows. They looked like so many frightened school-boys before an angry teacher and they gathered together in one large group, which immediately became pacified by his presence.
As I watched these events happening I stepped down from my perch at the top of the stile and ran, towards the place the man was admonishing the crowd. There I found this tall, thin man delivering a severe reproof to the crowd he had quietened down. The more he reproved them for their “unchristian acts” the more evident it became that he was a religious leader of this group of troubled people. But his reproval of them was short, sharp and certainly impressive. His speech was well delivered in simple terms for the audience to whom it was directed. It was simple in the language it used and solemn in the way his deep, gritty voice spoke the words. “And now,” added the clergyman, “let me ask you why you are all fighting like so many wild savages? Your conduct makes me think that you are more likely to be savage animals rather than intelligent human beings who have been raised within the hearing of God’s word.”
There were a few moments of silence following his question until someone among the crowd mustered enough courage to answer the cleric. He told him that the entire fracas was, “due to the burying.”
“There is no more solemn a sight,” replied the priest, “But, is the burial of the departed not enough to keep the evil passions of your hearts in check?”
“The truth of the matter, if it pleases your reverence, is that there was nothing ill-natured in it. It was only a good-natured turn we were doing for poor Paddy Mooney that’s departed this life. You know it’s to yourself that we will be going for masses to be said for the poor boy’s soul.”
“Now!” answered the priest. He was anxious to nip this appeal to his own interest in the bud. “Don’t you dare talk to me about doing a good-natured turn for any person.” He stared at them all sternly, telling them, “Prayers for the souls of the faithful departed are taken up by the whole Church. But, what has such a good act have to do with your scandalous and lawless actions that I have just witnessed you all committing.”
He now turned to the last speaker, “You were one of the busiest with your weapon and you are the most riotous of the group, Rooney. You had better take care that I don’t speak out against you from the altar.”
“Oh, God forbid that your reverence would have to do the like of that!” cried out the mother of the deceased, imploring him as big teardrops chased each other down her cheeks. “Sure it was only that they wanted to put my poor son in the ground first. It’s just, as your reverence knows, that they did not want to have my poor Paddy-”
“Tut, tut! woman!” interrupted the priest, waving his hand rather impatiently, “don’t you let me hear any nonsense.”
“I ask your reverence’s pardon for I am not the type of woman who would knowingly offend my very own clergy — may God’s blessing be upon them night and day! But I was only going to put in a good word for Mick Rooney. He and everyone else of us wish for nothing but peace, but it is Joe Gallagher, who just would not leave us to do our peaceful duty.”
“Gallagher!” said the priest, in a deeply reproachful tone. “Where is he?”
Gallagher did not come forward when called, but the crowd drew back, and left him revealed to the priest. On his face he wore and expression of sullen indifference, and he also seemed to be the only person in the crowd who was totally unfazed by the presence of the cleric. The priest now moved towards him and, extending his hand in the attitude of denunciation towards Gallagher, he spoke very solemnly, “I have already spoken to you in the chapel and now, once again, I find myself having to warn you to be careful. Wherever you go trouble and strife seems to always follow you. You are a disgrace and if you do not quickly reform your life I will have no choice but to seek your expulsion from the Church. Make no mistake, Gallagher, I shall pronounce a sentence of excommunication upon you from the altar, if I feel it is necessary.”
Everyone within hearing distance was overcome by the solemnity and severity of the priest’s words. When the word “excommunication” was uttered by the cleric, a thrill of horror seemed to run through the assembled crowd. It appeared to me that even Gallagher betrayed some emotion when he heard that terrible word. Yet, for a moment he managed to show no emotion and, turning on his heel, he retired from the scene with some of the swagger with which he had entered it. The crowd opened to let him pass, giving him a wide space, as if they sought to avoid contact with one who had been so fearfully denounced.
Calling upon the entire crowd to hear him the priest told them, “You have two coffins here. Now you will immediately begin to dig two graves, and allow both bodies to be interred at the same time, and I will read the service for the dead over them.” With these instructions ringing in their ears the crowd wasted very little time in carrying them out. The narrow graves were quickly dug and the bodies of the dead were consigned to their last long sleep, as the deep, solemn voice of the priest was raised in the “De Profundis”. When he had concluded this short and beautiful psalm, the friends of the deceased closed the graves, and covered them neatly with fresh cut sods.
“You know things have been done right,” said Rooney, “when you see that the ‘Daisy Quilt’ is finally put over them.”
The priest, now that his job was done, retired from the churchyard and I followed him with the sole purpose of introducing myself to him. I was seeking from him a clear and simple explanation of what was still a most intriguing mystery to me, namely, the actual cause of the quarrel with Gallagher. From certain passages in his address to the crowd I could grasp that he understood the cause and could, perhaps explain it to me. I quickly caught up with the cleric and introduced myself to him. Thankfully, he received me with a great deal of courtesy and politeness, which was to be expected from a man with such a good heart. Now, having gained his attention, I tried to assure him that my curiosity was simply because I wished to understand the reasons for the fight that had taken place, and to which he had put a stop. I was hoping that he would not think that I was overbearing when I asked him for an explanation.
“It is no intrusion, sir,” answered the priest very frankly. He spoke with a rich, soft brogue, whose intonation expressed his inbuilt good nature. The brogue, with which he spoke, reminded me of someone from an upper middle-class and well educated family. There was no trace of the more vulgar expressions that is usually found in the manner in which the ordinary working class speak. There are those, of course, who try to sound more genteel than they really are by grafting a posh English accent to their brogue. But they often trip themselves up because the accents of the two countries can never be truly blended together. Far from making a pleasing accent, it conveys to the listener that the speaker is trying very hard to escape from his own accent, which they consider to be inferior. It is a vain attempt to demonstrate some finesse, which fails because their vulgarity is so deeply inbred.
This was not the case with the way in which Father Donnachadh Ryan spoke to me. His voice was both deep and rich in tone, a true manly voice that had boomed when he had admonished the crowd for their violent attitude. Even when he was engaged in a less formal conversation his voice lost little of its richness or depth. Still, I listened intently while the priest proceeded to enlighten me on the subject of the funerals’ etiquette, and the reason behind the quarrel that had arisen between the two groups. “The truth of the matter is, sir, that these poor people are possessed of many foolish superstitions. We might, as men, pardon their errors and simply look upon them as fictional tales that take hold in fertile imaginations. Just because we can understand how such suspicions take hold in the minds of the less educated and more susceptible, we cannot, as their spiritual leaders allow ourselves to admit openly to them that such superstitions are in error.”
His explanation, however, quite surprised me. I did not think I would find a clergyman, especially a Catholic priest, say such a thing. “The superstition that I speak of,” he continued to explain, “is just one of the many that these warm hearted people indulge in, and it is not a particularly evil one.” Then he suddenly ended his discourse and pulled out a richly cased, antique gold watch of great workmanship. “Now, sir, I must ask your pardon; I have an engagement to keep at my home, which obliges me to immediately make my way there as quickly as I possibly can. But, if you have enough time to spare, you can walk with me to the end of this little road and I shall be able to make you well acquainted with the nature of the superstition in question.”
I was happy to agree with his proposal and we set off together. As we wound our way down the little stony path that led to the main road, Father Ryan began to give me an account of the cause behind all the previous trouble. “There is a belief among the local people here that the ghost of the last person interred in the churchyard is obliged to travel, unceasingly, the road between this earth and purgatory, carrying water to slake the burning thirst of those who are confined in that terrible place. The ghost is, therefore, obliged to walk through the wasteland during the middle of the night, until some fresh body is placed in the grave and supplies a fresh ghost to relieve the guard. In this way the supply of water to the sufferers in purgatory is kept up unceasingly.”
This was the reason why the violent encounter had come about, and why the old mother had called out that her, “darling boy should not be left to wander about the churchyard dark and alone in the long nights.” In his explanation, furthermore, Father Ryan gave me some curious illustrations of the different ways in which this superstition influenced his “poor people,” as he constantly called them. But I suppose you have already had quite enough. I shall, therefore, say no more of these other cases and I am happy that I have at least provided you with this one example. Sadly, even in these more modern times such wild superstitions still exist in our land and undoubtedly owe their continued existence to the goodness of the Irish heart and the poetic imagination of our people.
You will recall that the doctor was dressed in red, because of the previous night’s dinner appointment. Moreover, Dermot was a little man, and his gold-laced hat and ponderous shoe-buckles completed the ensemble, which Danny immediately assumed to belong to the spirit that he had been hunting for. Danny was certain that, at long last, he had discovered a Leprechaun. He was so amazed by his discovery that he was riveted to the spot, and his pulse was beat so fast, that he could not move or breathe freely for some seconds. When he had recovered his senses, and he began to make his way stealthily to the place where the doctor was sleeping slept. As he moved closer to the doctor he became increasingly certain that what he was seeing was, indeed, his long sought prize. When he came within reach of his goal, Danny made one great jump, landing on the unfortunate little man, fastening his huge hand around his throat while, at the same time, he let out a cheer of triumph, “By God, my Bucko! I have finally got the hold of you!”
Being suddenly and violently aroused from his drunken stupor, the poor little doctor was shocked and bewildered. As he opened his eyes, he met the ferocious glare of triumphant and delighted Danny Kelly. “What’s happening?” he gurgled because that was all that the iron grip of Danny’s hand upon his throat would allow him to do.
“Gold!” shouted Danny. “Gold! gold! gold!”
“What about gold?” asked a panicking doctor.
“Is it Paddy Gold you’re talking about? Has he taken ill again?” asked the doctor, rubbing his eyes to make sure he wasn’t dreaming the whole thing. “Jaysus, man, don’t choke me. I will go immediately,” he said as he tried to get up on his feet.
Danny tightened his hold on the doctor and telling him, “By God, you won’t.”
“For Christ’s sake, will you let me go?” the doctor roared.
“Let you go? Aye, that would be the clever thing to do! I don’t think so”
“Will you let me go, you crazy eejit?”
“Gold! gold! you little vagabond!”
“Well I’m going, if you’ll allow me.”
“The Devil a step you’ll be taking,” Danny told him and his grip tightened so as to almost choke him.
“Oh, murder! Murder, For God’s sake!”
“Weesht, you thief! How dare you speak of God, you devil’s imp!”
The poor little man, upset by the suddenness of his waking and the roughness of the treatment he was receiving, was in a state of complete bewilderment. For the first time he now realised that he was lying on grass and under bushes. Rolling his eyes in his search for help, Dermot began to shout, “Where am l? God help me!”
“Weesht! you crooked little trickster – I swear by all that’s holy, if you say God again, I’ll cut your throat.”
“What are you gripping on to me so tightly?”
“Just in case you might try to vanish! See how well I know you, you blackguard.”
“Then, for God’s sake, if you know me so well, please treat me with proper respect.”
“Respect, indeed? That’s a good thing for you to ask. So, to hell with respect! Damn your impudence, you thieving old rogue.”
“Who taught you to call your betters such names? How dare you use a professional gentleman like me so roughly?”
“Oh, do you hear him! – a professional gentleman, is it? Do you not think I know you, you little old cobbler?”
“Cobbler? Christ’s sake man, what do you mean, you buck eejit? Let me go, now!” scolded the doctor as he struggled violently to rise from the ground.
“Not one inch will you go out of here until give me what I want.”
“What is it you want, then?”
“So you’re a thief and you want to rob me, do you?”
“What robbery are you talking about? That won’t work, even though you think yourself to be clever, and you won’t frighten me either. Come on, now, give it to me immediately. You might as well since I’ll never let go of my grip of you until you hand over the gold.”
“‘ I swear to God that I possess no gold or silver. All I have is four shillings in the pockets of my trousers, which you are most welcome to if you let go of my throat.”
“Four-shillings! What makes you think that I’m such a gobshite, that I will be satisfied with a lousy four-shillings. You know, for three straws, I would thrash you within an inch of your life this very minute for your impudence. Come, no more nonsense from you and out with the gold you’re hiding!”
“I have no gold, so don’t choke me. If you murder me, remember there’s law in this land, so you would be better letting me go.”
“Not an inch! Give me the gold, I tell you, you little vagabond!” said Danny as he began shaking him very violently.
“Don’t murder me, for Heaven’s sake!”
“I will murder you if you don’t give me a hatful of gold this minute!”
“A hatful of gold? Who exactly do you take me for?”
“Sure, I know you’re a Leprechaun, you damned deceiver!”
“A Leprechaun?” asked the doctor, in mingled indignation and amazement. “Jaysus, big man. You’ve made a terrible mistake.”
“Do I look stupid? No, of course I’m not! I have you now, and I’ll hold on to you. I’ve been looking for you for such a long time, and I’ve caught you at last. Be sure that I will either have your life or the gold.”
“Dear Jaysus, young man, you are making a mistake! I’m not a Leprechaun! I’m Doctor McFlynn.”
“That’s more lies! You’re trying to trick me, but it will not work. Do you think I don’t know the difference between a doctor and a Leprechaun. Just give me the gold, you old cheat!”
“I tell you, I’m Doctor Dermot McFlynn. Mind what you’re doing, there are laws in this land, and I think I’m beginning to recognise you. You’re that eejit Kelly!”
“Oh, you are a cunning old thief, and a complete old rogue. But, I’m far too clever for you. You just want to frighten me. You are a no-good trickster, and you’ll do anything to get away!”
“Your name is Kelly! I remember you, so take care what you do. Surely you know me? I’m Doctor McFlynn, can’t you see that I am?”
“Well, you have the dirty yellow pinched look of him, sure enough. But I know you are just trying to trick me and, besides, the doctor has dirty old, tattered black clothes on him. He isn’t all dressed in red like you.”
“But, that’s an accident, for God’s sake.”
“Give me the gold this minute, and no more of your old nonsense.”
“I tell you, Kelly–”
“Hold your tongue, and give me the gold.”
“By all that’s–”
“Will you give it to me?”
“How can I?”
“Have it your way, then. You’ll see what the end of it will be,” said Danny, as he rose up, but he still kept his iron grip on the doctor. “Now, for the last time, I ask you, will you give me the gold? or by all that’s holy, I will put you where you’ll never see daylight until you make me a rich man.”
“I swear, I have no gold.”
“Well, then, I’ll keep a hold of you until you find it,” said Danny, who tucked the little man into a headlock with his arm, and he ran home with him as fast as he could.
He kicked at the door of his cottage to gain entry, when he reached home, calling out, “Let me in! let me in! Hurry up, woman, I have him.”
“Who have you?” asked Una, as she opened the door.
“Look at that!” said Danny in triumph. “I caught him at last!”
“It’s a Leprechaun, isn’t it?” said Una.
“A devil of a one,” said Danny, throwing the doctor down upon the bed, while still holding him tightly. “Open the big chest, Una, and we’ll lock him up in it! And we’ll keep him until he gives us the gold.”
“Murder! murder!” screamed the doctor. “You’re going to lock me up in a chest!”
“Give me the gold, then, and I won’t.”
“Dear Jaysus, how many times do I have to tell you that I have no gold to give you.”
“Don’t believe him, Danny darling,” said Una. “Those Leprechauns are the biggest liars in all the world.”
“Sure, I know that!” said Danny, “as well as you do. Oh, all the trouble I’ve had with him, and only because I’m so knowledgeable, he’d have confounded me long ago.”
“Well done to you, Danny dear!”‘
“Mrs. Kelly,” said the doctor.
“Oh, Lord!” said Una, in surprise, “did you ever hear the likes of that? How does he know my name!”
“Of course he does,” said Danny, “and why shouldn’t he? Sure, he’s a fairy, you know.”
“I’m no fairy, Mrs. Kelly. I’m a doctor! Doctor McFlynn.”
“Don’t you believe him, darling,” said Danny. “Hurry up now and open the chest.”
“Danny Kelly,” said the doctor, “let me go, and I’ll cure you whenever you want my assistance.”
“Well, I want your assistance now,” said Danny, “for I’m very bad right now with poverty, and if you cure me of that, I’ll let you go.”
“What will become of me?” asked the doctor in despair, as Danny carried him towards the big chest which Una had opened.
“I’ll tell you what’ll become of you,” said Danny, and he took hold of a hatchet that lying within his reach. “By all the saints in heaven, if you don’t agree to fill that big chest full of gold for me before midnight, I’ll chop you into small pieces for the pot.” And with that Danny crammed him into the box.
“Oh, Mrs. Kelly, have mercy on me,” said the doctor, “and whenever you’re sick I’ll attend you.”
“God forbid!” said Una, “it’s not the likes of you that I’ll want when I’m sick. Attend me, indeed! The devil a bit of it, you little imp, maybe you’d run away with my baby, or it’s a Banshee you would turn yourself into, and sing for my death. Shut him up, Danny, for it’s not lucky to be talking with the likes of him.”
“Oh!” roared the doctor, as his cries were stifled by the lid of the chest being closed on him. The key was turned in the lock, and Una sprinkled some holy water over it, from a little bottle that hung in one corner of the cottage, to prevent the fairy from having any power upon it.
Danny and Una now sat down to discuss things, and they began forming their plans as to what they would do with their money. They were certain of the gold, now that the Leprechaun was completely in their power. Now and then Danny would get up from his seat and go over to the chest, much in the same way as one goes to the door of a room where a naughty child has been locked up. They just want to know “if the child is good yet,” and giving a thump on the lid, would call out, “Well, you little thief, will you give me the gold yet?”
A groan and a faint answer of denial was all the reply Danny received.
“Very well, stay there. But remember, if you don’t give in before midnight, I’ll chop you to pieces.” He then got hold of a bill-hook, and began to sharpen it close to the chest, so that the Leprechaun might hear him. When the poor doctor heard these preparations being made, he felt more dead than alive. He could hear the horrid scraping of the iron against the stone, interspersed with the occasional torment from Danny, such as, “Do you hear that, you thief? I’m getting ready for you.” Then away he’d rasp at the grindstone again, and as he paused to feel the edge of the weapon, he would exclaim: “By Jaysus, I’ll have this as sharp as a razor soon.”
In the meantime, the prisoner was very lucky that there were many large chinks in the chest, or else suffocation from his confinement would have brought about the fate that Danny had promised him. Now that things appeared likely to go hard with him, the doctor began to think that he should pretend to be what Danny mistook him for and, perhaps, regain his freedom by underhand methods. To this end, when Darby had finished sharpening his bill-hook, the doctor replied, in answer to one of Danny’s demands for gold, that he saw it was no point in delaying any to give it to his captor. He admitted that Darby was far too cunning for him, and that he was now ready to make him the richest man in the country. “I’ll take no less than the full of that chest,” said Danny.
“You shall have ten chests full of’ it, Danny,” promised the doctor, “if you’ll only do what I bid you.”
“Sure, I’ll do anything.”
“Well, you will have to prepare the mysticnitrationserumandsodiumcarbonlite.”
“Holy Christ, what is that and how do I prepare it?”
“Silence, Danny Kelly, and listen to me. This is a magical ointment, which I will show you how to make and, whenever you want gold, all you have to do is to rub a little of the ointment on the point of a pick-axe, or your spade, and dig wherever you please for you will always be sure to find treasure.”
“Oh, just think of that! Be sure that I’ll make plenty of it when you show me how it is made?”
“First of all, you must go into the town, Danny, and get me three things, and fold them three times in three rags that have been torn out of the left side of a petticoat that has not known water for a year.”
“Well, I can do that much, anyhow,” said Una, who immediately began tearing the required pieces out of her under-garment.
“And what three things am I to get you?”
“First bring me a grain of salt from a house that stands at a cross roads.”
“Cross roads?” asked Danny, who lucked at Una with a puzzled expression.
“By my soul, but it’s my dream that’s coming to reality!”
“Silence, Danny Kelly,” said the doctor, solemnly. “Mark me, Danny Kelly” he told him and proceeded to repeat a load of gibberish to Danny, which he told him to remember and then to repeat back to him. Danny could not do this and the doctor said he would write it down for him, and tearing a leaf from his pocket-book, he began to write in pencil. Knowing Danny could not read, the doctor wrote down the condition that he was in, and requested help to free him. He then told Danny to deliver the note to the Chemist shop in the town, and they would provide him with a drug that was the key to successfully complete the ointment.
Following Dermot’s instructions, Danny went to the Chemist Shop, and it happened to be dinner-time when he arrived. The Pharmacist had a few friends dining with him, and Danny was detained until they all chose to leave the table and to go in a group to liberate the poor little doctor. He was pulled out of the chest amid the laughter of his liberators and the fury of Danny and Una, both of whom made put up a considerable fight against being robbed of their prize. Finally, the doctor’s friends got him out of the house, and proceeded to the town for some supper. There, the whole party kept getting magnificently drunk, until sleep plunged them into dizzy dream, of Leprechauns and Fairy Finders. For several days after this the doctor swore to have vengeance against Danny, and threatened a prosecution. But, Dermot’s friends recommended that he should let the matter rest, because it would only bring it to public attention and gain him nothing but laughter for damages. As for Danny Kelly there was nothing or no-one who could ever persuade him that it was not a red Leprechaun he had caught. He swore that it was by some dark magic performed by the fairy that caused it to change form itself into the resemblance of the doctor. Danny often said that the great mistake he made at that time was “giving the little thief so much time, for if he had the chance again he would have immediately cut his throat.”
© Jim Woods Nov 2017
Many years ago at Irish country weddings, the priest who celebrated Mass and conducted the marriage ceremony was paid through voluntary contributions made by the wedding guests. The marriage, in those days, was generally celebrated in the evening, and they were followed, especially among the farming community, by a grand feast, to which the priest was always invited. After the supper, when the stomachs of the company are filled with fine meats and vegetables, roast goose, ham, and whisky-punch, the collection box goes around.
Annie Malone was the prettiest girl in the entire parish, and the bridegroom was a lucky boy on his marriage day. On the day of the wedding, it must be said, the lucky young man looked very ill at ease in his stiff, shiny, brand-new, tight-fitting wedding suit. Nevertheless, in addition to her good looks, the bride brought with her a marriage dowry of money, and three fine cows. Their married life would have an excellent start to it.
Annie looked very pretty and modest as she sat beside the priest, the blushing bride wincing often at the priest’s jokes, which were normally not to be heard in the company of women. She looked very handsome in the white frock she was wearing, which was a many-skirted garment, adorned with bows and trimmings made from white satin ribbons. It had belonged to one of the daughters from the big house, and had been sold to Annie as ‘nearly new’. The maid who had sold the dress assured her that it had been created by the grandest French dressmaker in London, and it had only been worn at a couple of country balls. The daughters of the ‘big house’ were very particular about their garments and could not abide a crease, crush or even slight soiling of the cloth. Furthermore, wearing a dress twice at any social function was not to be tolerated among the upper classes.
It is common knowledge that a priest always has his eyes on future dues from his parishioners, and there is nowhere a priest is as good-humoured as he is at a wedding. This priest, Father Murphy, was in the middle of his humorous remarks, while apparently absorbed in paying attention to the pretty bride. Annie’s health had just been drunk in a steaming tumbler of whisky punch, and the priest was keeping his business on the assembly as preparations were being made for sending around them the plate for contributions to pay him. The stir of preparations began at the end of the table where the big and wealthy farmers were thickly gathered. They were a proud set of people, stood in their large, heavy dress-coats, all of which were well tailored. All dressed in beautiful white shirts, well pressed trousers, and shoes that shone bright in the light. At their side stood their beautifully attired wives and daughters in bright coloured silken clothes.
In the middle of this group stood Jim Ryan, who was a sworn friend and follower of Father Murphy. He would have gone through fire and water to serve the priest, and kept a close watch on the parish on his behalf. Ryan was a rather small man in the parish, possessing very little as far as worldly goods were concerned. But, though he had no land or farm, Jim Ryan was a highly popular man who was thought to have a dry sense of humour, which made him very good company. When the collection plate reached Ryan his actions brought great surprise to the eye of the priest, causing him to hesitate in the middle of a pretty compliment he was making to the bride.
Jim Ryan first took hold of the collecting plate, and it appeared as if he had chosen to carry it around the crowd. Then, as if suddenly surprised by some thought or other, he stopped himself, and slammed the plate down on the table with a loud clatter, and a crash that made Mrs Malone wince, for it was a plate from one of her best china sets. The next thing that Jim did was to search all of his pockets. His fingers dived into his waistcoat, his trousers, and his fancy overcoat pockets, searching one after another, but not seeming to find what he wanted. Finally, after much hunting and shaking, and many facial expressions of disappointment, Jim took hold of the object he had been searching for. From some unseen place he carefully pulled a large and tattered leather wallet. By this time, as was his intention, everyone in the room had fixed their attention upon him. At this point he deliberately opened the wallet, and, after taking a sneaky look to ensure that those assembled were watching him, he took out from it a well folded bank-note. This note, when unfolded, was spread out and ostentatiously smoothed on the table, so that all who looked could see that had ‘’Ten Pounds’ inscribed upon it!
There were gasps of astonishment that spread through the wedding guests, and some expressions of dismay among the more wealthy of them. Fat pocket-books filled with notes, that a few moments previously were being pompously produced by their owners, were now very stealthily put back into pockets again. A sudden pause was followed by a great whispering and consulting among the farmers. At this point there were anxious and meaningful looks given by the wives of the wealthier men-folk, along with expressive nudges, and digs into their ribs where practicable. There was, therefore, a good deal of rivalry between the wealthy couples as they bid for their position in the local social hierarchy. Mister Hennessy, who drove his family to mass every Sunday in his own pony and trap, would not be seen to give less than Mister Welsh, although he too was a decent man and always got the best price for his butter at local market. And now, the shame of being outdone by Jim Ryan had to be faced! To offer the priest five pounds, when the likes of Ryan was giving ten pounds! Such an eventuality could not be allowed to happen! Therefore, after Jim had put his ten-pound note on the plate with a bit of a flourish, and had gone his rounds with the plate, it turned out to be the largest collection that had ever gladdened the heart, or filled the pockets. of Father Murphy.
As the priest was leaving the house, Jim came up to him and put his arm on the priest’s shoulder. “I certainly did you a good turn this day, your Reverence, didn’t I? Such a collection of notes, silver coins, and coppers I have never laid eyes on before this! I thought the plate would be broken in two halves with the weight of it all. And now you can give my ten pound note back to me?” he whispered, while looking around to ensure no one could hear him.
“Your ten pound note, Jim! What do you mean? Is it that you want me to return to you a part of my dues?”
“Ah, now, my dear Father Murphy, surely you’re not so innocent a man as to think that note was mine! Where, would the likes of a poor man such as I am get such an amount of money as that? Ten pounds! Sure, didn’t I borrow it, your Reverence, for a scheme I had in mind. And, I tell you that my scheme has turned out to be a mighty good and profitable one. Sure, I knew that the sight of that ten pound note would cause them to bring the money out of all their wallets. And by God, so it did!”
This was something that the priest could not deny. With a large grin on his face he refunded Jim’s “bait” and added to it a few pounds worth of thanks. Needless to say, both men left the wedding very satisfied by the day’s events.
© Jim Woods November 2017
But, all of that was in the hands of Fate, and he would have to wait on its fulfilment. In the meantime, however, he was sure that he had the castle and the “crock of gold”, and under the good omens given by his dream he had decided to take that affair immediately in hand. To help him in the work of digging, and pulling the thick walls of the castle to pieces, he selected Una. She was known to be a brave, two-handed worker, who was as great a believer in dreams and omens as Danny himself. Furthermore, Una promised him total secrecy, and she agreed to take a small share of the treasure for her reward in assisting him to find it.
For about two months Danny and Una laboured in vain until, at last, something came of their exertions. In the course of their work, when they got tired, they would both sit down to rest themselves and talk over their past disappointments and future hopes. Now it was during one of these intervals of repose that Danny, as he was resting himself on one of the large, dressed corner-stones of the ruin, suddenly realised that he had fallen in love with Una. At the same time, Una had begun to think much in the same way about Danny, and when the work was done he and Una were married the first available Sunday.
Any calculating men among you will ask if he found the treasure before be married the girl? But, Danny was an unsophisticated type of boy, and such boys never calculate on these occasions. The story goes that Una Lennon was the only treasure Darby discovered in that old castle. Danny’s acquaintances were over the moon on the occasion of his marriage, and they swore that he had got a great woman. Others felt such comments to be quite humorous, for Una, was a woman who was on the large side of the scale. Some people would, indeed, be unkind enough to say that she was “the full of a door,” and the joyous news spread like wildfire all over the country.
” Hey there, did you hear the news?”
“The news about Danny Kelly.”
“What about him?”
“Sure, didn’t he find finally find himself a fairy.”
“Get away out of this!”
“It’s the truth I’m tellin’ you. He’s married to Una Lennon.”
“Ha! ha! ha! by all that’s holy, she is some kind of fairy! But, more power to you, Danny, you’ve definitely caught one now!”
But the fairy he had caught did not satisfy Danny enough to persuade him to give up his life-long pursuit of a wealthy future. He still kept constantly on the look-out for a Leprechaun, and one morning as he was going to his work, he was stopped suddenly on the path, which lay through a field of standing corn. Danny’s eyes caught sight of something ahead of him, and his gaze became riveted upon the object as he planned his approach. He crouched and crawled, and was making his way with great caution towards the object of his riveted gaze, when he was, quite unexpectedly, hit on the back of the head with a thump that considerably. Such was the blow that Danny’s eyesight suddenly became fuzzy, he swore he heard the voice of his mother, a vigorous, malicious old hag, in his ear at the same time with a hearty, “Get up out of that, you lazy bollix. What are you sneaking around here for, when you should be minding your work, you blackguard?”
“Weesht! weesht! Ma,” urged Danny as he held his hand to his lips signalling her to be quiet.
“What do you mean, you gobshite?”
“Mother, will you be quiet, for God’s sake! Weesht! I can see it.”
“What do you see?”
“Stoop down here for a moment and look straight ahead of you. Don’t you see it as plain as day?”
“That little red thing, over there,” Danny pointed.
“Well, what of it?”
“See, there its starting to move. Oh, Christ! The bloody thing is going to be gone before I can get my hands on it. Jaysus Ma! Why did you come here at all, making a racket and frightening it away?”
“Frightening what, you big Gobshite?”
“That bloody Leprechaun sitting over there. Weesht! It’s gone quiet again.”
“Ah! To the devil with you! You big, useless clown! Is it that red thing over there you mean?”
“Yes! That’s it! Now keep your voice low, like I tell you.”
“Why, you damned eejit, you fool, it’s nothing but a poppy dancing in the breeze,” the old woman told him with a sneer, she went over to the spot where it grew. Plucking the plant up by the roots, she threw it at Danny, along with a great deal of verbal abuse. “Get up to hell from there and get to your work, instead of being the sneaking, lazy tramp that you are.”
It was some time after this event that Danny Kelly had a meeting with Doctor Dermot McFlynn. It has to be said at this stage that this medical man would become very famous throughout the countryside, because of the great events that occurred from this meeting. But, before we hear about this it is necessary that you learn something of the doctor himself. His father, Paddy McFlynn, had been a popular and very prosperous veterinarian with the local cattle farmers. Such was the regard in which his father was held that his son, Dermot, became determined to qualify as a physician and make human beings, instead of animals, the object of his care. He was assisted in his endeavours by his father, who had scraped some money together to help his son set up his surgery in the neighbouring village. Here Dermot soon earned himself the reputation of being a “great bone-setter”, and mender of cracked skulls, which were the result of fair fighting and whisky over-indulgence. But Dermot’s father eventually passed away and, as he was the only son, Dermot inherited all the old man’s money. The amount of money left to him was considerable, and he decided to better his qualifications. For this purpose, Dermot gave up his small surgery and went abroad.
He remained abroad for some years before he returned to Ireland, declaring himself to be a Professor of medicine, gained from one of Europe’s most noted universities. Dr. McFlynn became known to his neighbours, one and all, as Dr. McFun, which better described his activities in the community. The little money that he once possessed was now spent in his pursuit of professional honours, and he returned to his home with a full title, but an empty wallet. Unfortunately, McFlynn’s small, rural practice did not provide enough funds to replenish his empty coffers. This state of affairs, eventually effected his efforts to maintain his personal and professional appearance in the community. His clothes became ragged and his mode of transport was of so much a lesser standard than what was expected of a man in his position.
He was glad to accept an invitation to a meal whenever he had the luck to get one, and the offer of an overnight stay was always certain to be accepted, because that assured him of breakfast the next morning. He was, however, often asked to dinner from a mix of motives, such as out of kindness, and for fun. Although a good dinner was always a welcome novelty to the McFlynn, his efforts to maintain the pretence of his status and the manner in which communicated with others made him a subject of fun to those invited him. He had managed to gain an invite from all of the wealthier farmers and country gentlemen in the district, but he finally was honoured to receive an invitation from the largest landowner in the area. On the appointed day Doctor McFlynn dressed himself in the manner of a faculty member of the university from which he graduated. Dressed in this manner he made his way the few miles to the ‘Lodge’, where he presented himself.
When the doctor appeared in the drawing-room of the large house, dressed as he was, it caused considerable amusement among those gathered there. But, their attention was redirected from him by the announcement that dinner was served. Such an announcement always attracts the immediate attention of a group dinner, because free food always supersedes every other consideration. The ‘Lodge’ was always famed for providing excellent dinners, and the doctor took great advantage of it by ensuring that no opportunity of filling his glass with the choice wines that were provided. In fact he took advantage so many opportunities, that the poor little man was very intoxicated by the time that the guests were about to separate.
At the doctor’s request his vehicle was brought to the front door, just as the last remaining guests were about to make their way home separate. Every one of the guests had left the ‘Lodge’, and still there was no sign of the vehicle being at the door. Finally, a servant made his appearance, and he told Dermot that it was not possible for him to drive home.
“What do you mean by ‘not possible’?” said the owner of the house. “Is the car not in the garage area?”
“Yes, sir,” said the servant, “but the doctor is not capable…” At this point a, sometimes heated, discussion took place. The host asked the doctor if he was certain of his ability to make his way home. The doctor, of course, insisted that he was and immediately began to stagger his way to where his vehicle was parked. The servant and the host made every attempt to dissuade him from taking such action, but all were in vain. Every manoeuvre that they made to prevent the doctor met with a counter, sometimes resorting to on squealing and flinging up his arms, to break through the barrier put up against him.
This was the manner in which the doctor hoped to secure the offer of a bed for a night. He may even have been successful if it was not for an old yardman who had heard the loud discussion outside the ‘Lodge.’ He was doubled over with arthritis, using a walking stick and had a severe shake in his hand. “Don’t you worry doctor, just let me at the car, and I’ll drive you to your home, where I could stay until morning.”
“Oh, Jaysus,” said the doctor, “Don’t trouble yourself, I’ll be able to drive alright.” He went to the place where his car was parked and got himself into the driver’s seat.
“I don’t think you should be doing this,” said the host.
“There’s no trouble. Sure, it’s only a few miles to home and it won’t take much time,” slurred the doctor, and proceeded to turn the key in the ignition.
With several turns of the steering-wheel, and much crunching of gears, the doctor managed to get the car pointed in the right direction and slowly drove off, in low gears and with a jumping motion. It was not, however, his destiny to sleep at home that night. Dermot was filled with the choicest and most potent of wines, overpowering his senses that he was unable to accurately steer his vehicle homeward. He could not remember seeing the open gate, or even driving through into a meadow, and finally into a shallow ditch. At the side of an upturned car, a hundred yards from the road, spent the rest of the night, unhurt and snoring peacefully. He was awakened the next morning by the golden light of a rising sun and the lowing of the cows as they gathered around the vehicle. At the same time Danny Kelly was walking along the track that ran alongside the ditch where the doctor was beginning to awaken, and on seeing the doctor’s car, Danny went to help.
It was a sad day when Tim Scanlan died. All his life he had been a labouring man, working hard in whatever work he could find, and receiving very little in remuneration for the effort he put in. But, Tim was well known and well liked in the district. Everyone agreed that his funeral would be an unusually large gathering and, most likely the biggest to be seen in many a year. Great crowds of people flocked to Tim’s wake, and there was a major effort undertaken to provide sufficient tea, cakes, sandwiches, whisky, beer, and tobacco for all who attended. As is common in these things, Tim’s widow occupied her post of honour at the head of the coffin, and gave an excellent display of grief for her dead husband. She wept bitterly on her own and, joined in loudly when the loud group wailing, or ‘keening’, was led by the older women. The widow was, however, young enough to have been the daughter of the dead husband. She had come to Tim’s house as a very young servant-girl, whom he had conveniently married and ruled over all these years past.
As the night wore on, the amount of whisky that had been drunk was beginning to tell on those wandering outside the room where Tim’s corpse lay. The crowd noise inside the house increased to a level where some began to complain that it was loud enough to wake the dead. Quite unexpectedly, and much to the consternation and amazement of every one present, the corpse gave a deep sigh and several loud groans, opened his eyes and struggled to bring himself up into a sitting posture in the coffin. When the startled company in the house had recovered from their shock, they helped lift poor Tim out of the coffin, and whisky was liberally poured down his throat. They wrapped Tim up well in warm blankets and helped to seat him in the big chair by the fire, where he gradually revived from the trance, or stupor, that had been mistaken for death. When the last of the guests had departed from the cabin, Tim, who was still propped up beside the fire, was left to the tender care of his wife. But, instead of coming near her husband, she chose to creep away quietly to cringe timidly in a dark corner behind his chair. From her hiding place she directed frightened glances at her husband, who had appeared to have been resurrected from death.
“Mary!” Tim called out to her in a stern voice. But, he did not get an answer.
“Are you there?” he asked as he peered around at her, his weak face quivering with anger.
“Yes, Tim, I’m here,” Mary’s voice faltered, but she did not stir an inch.
“’Bring me my stick”’
“Ah! No Tim! No! Sure you’ve never lifted your hand to me yet! And you’ll not do it now, surely, when you’ve come back from the dead in one piece.”
“Bring me my stick.”
The stick was brought to him, and down on her knees beside the big chair Tim’s cowering wife went. “Well you know what you deserve. You know, you young deceiver, that if I was to start this minute and beat you as black as a hearse, it would only serve you right, after the mean, dirty, and shameful thing you’ve done to me!”
“Aye, Tim! It’s true, it would!” sobbed the girl.
“Look at this!” gasped Tim, opening his funereal jacket to show an old and tattered shirt. “Just look at these rags! Look at what you dressed my poor corpse in, shaming me before all my neighbours and friends at the wake! And you knew, as well as I did, about the elegant brand-new shirt I’d bought to be buried in. It’s a special shirt that I wouldn’t have put on my back if I was still alive. No, not if I had to walk about naked! But, you knew that I had it stored in the chest there, and you begrudged it to my unfortunate corpse when I couldn’t speak up for myself!”
“Oh Tim, darling, forgive me!” cried Mary. “Forgive me this once, and on my two knees I promise that I will never, never do the likes of that again! I don’t know what came over me. Sure, may the good Lord save us, I think it was the devil who was guiding me when I went to get out that shirt. He tempted me, by whispering that it was a pity, and a sin, to put good clothing like that into the clay. Oh, how could I do it?”
“Now, listen to me, Mary,” said Tim as he raised the stick and laid it on her shoulder. She knew that he wouldn’t beat her even if he could with his trembling hands, but she pretended to wince and cower away from him. “You mind what I say to you. If you ever do something like this again, and dress me up in those indecent rags, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll haunt you!’
“Oh don’t do that, Tim! Please don’t!” shrieked Mary, her face as pale as ashes. “Kill me now, if that’s what you want, or do anything to me you like, but for the love of the blessed Virgin and all the Saints, keep you to your grave! I’ll put the new shirt on you. My two hands will starch it and make it as white as snow, after it being laid aside so long in the old chest. You’ll be a lovely corpse, never fear about that! And I’ll give you the greatest wake that ever a man had, even if I have to sell the pig, and part with every stick in the cabin to buy the tea and the whisky. I swear to you I will, on this blessed night, my darling man.”
“Well, mind that you do, or it will be all the worse for you. And now give me a drop of water to drink, and put a taste of that whisky through it, for I’m ready to faint with thirst and with weakness.”
Mary kept her promise to her husband. Never in the history of that parish was there such a wake was that given for Tim Scanlan. It all occurred very soon after the events described above. Poor Tim really did depart this life, and manner in which his corpse was laid out, with his “elegant brand-new shirt”, was the admiration of all beholders of all who saw it.
© Jim Woods Nov 2017
Wherever you travel in Ireland there is a phrase you may often hear, namely – “Finding a fortune”. When a man dreams of wealth he will often say that he is “dreaming of finding a fortune. Likewise, if any poor man eventually becomes a man of wealth, this progress is scarcely ever thought of as being the result of hard work, intelligence, or even perseverance. Generally, the people around him will say that he either “found a fortune”, or fell into one. Some would even suggest that he had become wealthy by secretly digging up “a crock of gold” in the ruins of an old abbey, or by catching hold of a Leprechaun and forcing him to give a crock of gold as his ransom. How, when and where the man came into the wealth is totally immaterial, because most people will be satisfied with the simple suggestion that, “He found a fortune”. Many Irishmen would suggest that going into the particulars would only destroy the romance, and their love of wonder is much more fulfilled by the thought that the change from poverty to wealth was the result of superhuman aid. The very idea that the journey to wealth can be attributed to the merely mortal efforts of hardwork and prudence is so very boring.
There is always some old gossip in every community who has a plentiful supply of stories to make her listeners marvel at the wonderful and extraordinary short cuts that some have used to gain their fortunes. There is an old Irish saying that states, “That there never was a fool who had not a greater fool to admire him.” In the same manner there never was an old woman who told such stories, who did not have plenty of listeners to her. One listener to such stories was Danny Kelly, and he enjoyed listening to a certain ‘Cailleach’ who had an extensive library of stories for every possible occasion. Danny was a true devotee to the old hag and would often give her small gifts to encourage her to relate her tales. In most cases these gifts were packets of cigarettes, to which she had a particular craving.
Another regular attendant at the feet of the Cailleach was Una Lennon, who was as much mesmerised by the stories as was Danny Kelly. In fact, the two of them were as idle as each other when it came to work. A day never passed that Danny and Una did not pay a visit to the old woman, because she was always ay home, seated in a huge armchair, because she was too old and decrepit to move far. In fact, the furthest that the old woman could walk was from her armchair to the large seat outside the cottage door. In the warm summer days she could be found seated here enjoying the warming rays of the sun and ready to tell her stories. There she would sit and rock herself to and fro in the sunny days of July and August, dressed in her old creased clothes that appeared not to have been washed in a very long time. With her long, untidy grey hair not brushed the casual observer may have asked if she was made for the dilapidated cottage, or had they simply grown into a likeness of one another. The tattered thatch on the roof resembled the old woman’s straggling hair, and the spots of old age on her face were like the grey lichens that covered the cottage walls. The sallow colour of those walls bore a very strong likeness to the tint of the old woman’s shrivelled skin. At the top of the roof there was a rudely built chimney that out of which flowed clouds of grey-blue smoke. In fact, the chimney and the old woman could be seen smoking away from morning until night, and both were poorly dressed, lonely, and were fast falling into decay.
It was at this cottage that Danny Kelly and Una Lennon were sure to meet every day. Danny would usually saunter up to the cottage and call out, “Good morning, Granny!”
“The same to you, dear boy,” the old woman would mumble in her usual way.
“Here are some cigarettes for you, granny.”
“Ah, sure you’re a real wee darling, Danny. Many thanks, but I hadn’t expected to see you today.”
“No, Granny, you wouldn’t have, for I was only passing this way, while I ran an errand for the Boss and I thought that I might as well step over and find out how you were doing.”
“You’re a good boy, Danny.”
“Thanks, but it’s a hot day, by God, and it’s not going to get any cooler soon. I’m totally out of breath and the sweat is running down the sheugh of my arse, for I’m not fit for all this running. But, this is an important errand, and the Boss man told me to hurry up. That is why I was running, and I took a short cut across the fields and past the old castle. When I was passing by there I suddenly remembered what you told me a wee while ago. You know, about the crock of gold that is hid there for certain, and waiting for anyone that could, to come upon it.”
“Aye, and that’s the truth, Danny, wee darling. I have never heard about any other hidden crock of gold, that I can remember.”
“Well, well! think of that! Then, it will be me that will be the lucky man that finds it.”
“Good luck to you, Danny. But, that will not be until it is laid out for someone to pick it up.”
“Sure, isn’t that what I have often said to myself, and why would it not be my chance to be the man that the treasure was laid out for.”
“Well, there’s no one who knows that,” mumbled the old woman mysteriously, as she put out the butt of her cigarette and lit a new one from the fresh stock Danny had brought her.
“That’s true enough. Oh, but you have a great deal of knowledge, granny! There is no knowing what the future holds for anyone, but they say there’s great virtue in dreams.”
“Sure, there is no one that can deny that, Danny,” said the Cailleach, “and by the way maybe you would step into the house and bring me out a bit of live turf from the fire to light my cigarette.”
“Of course I will, granny;” and away Danny went to do what he had been asked.
While Danny was raking from amongst the embers on the hearth for a piece of still live turf, Una made her appearance outside the old woman’s cottage, giving her the usual cordial greeting. Just as she had given her greeting, Danny emerged from the cottage, holding a bit of glowing turf between two sticks that acted as a pair of makeshift tongs. “Surprise, surprise, is that you Danny?” Una asked.
“Sure, who else would it be?” said Danny.
“Well, you told me over an hour ago, down there in the big field, that you were in a hurry and hadn’t got time to talk.”
“True. I am in a hurry, and I wouldn’t be her at all only I just stepped in to say ‘Good day!’ to the old one, and to light a cigarette for her, the poor dear.”
“Well, don’t be standing there and allowing the coal to go black, Danny,” said the old woman; “but let me light my cigarette immediately.”
“Of course, granny,” said Danny, as he applied the lit piece of turf to the end of her cigarette until it began to glow read with inhale. “And now, Una, darling, if you’re so sharp when it comes to other peoples’ business, what the devil brings you here, when you should be taking care of the geese up in the yard. It is there you should be, and not here. I wonder what would the Boss woman would say if she knew?”
“Oh, sure I left them safe, and they should be able to take care of themselves for a wee bit longer, and I wanted to ask granny about a dream I had.’
“But, so do I,” said Darby, “and you know the rule is first come first served. And so, granny, you have always said that there’s a great amount of truth in dreams.”
She took a long-drawn drag of her cigarette and said nothing at all about dreams. “By Jaysus, but that’s a good bit of tobacco in them cigarettes! Aye, it’s fine and strong, and almost takes the breath from you, it’s so good. Well done to you Danny, darling boy!”
“You’re very kind, granny. But, as I was saying about the dreams–you said that there was a great amount of truth in them.”
“Who says there is not?” said the old woman in an authoritative tone, and gave Danny a dark and disapproving look.
“Sure, it isn’t me you would suspect of saying such a thing? I was only going to tell you that I had a very clear dream last night, and sure, I came here to ask you about what it meant.”
“Well, my dear, tell us your dream,” said the old woman as she took an increasing number of long drags from her cigarette.
“Well, you see,” said Danny,
“That’s very true, my darling boy! Now go on.”
“Well, as I was saying, I came to the cross-roads, and soon after I saw four walls. Now, I think those four walls means the old castle to me.”
“That’s likely enough, dear boy.”
“Oh,” said Una, who was listening with her mouth as wide open as Carlingford Lough, “sure, you know the old castle has only three walls, and how could that be it?”
“That doesn’t matter at all,” said the old woman, “It ought to have four walls, and that’s the same thing!”
“Well, well! I never thought of that,” said Una, as she lifted her hands above her head in wonder. “Sure enough, so it ought!”
“Go on, Danny,” said the old woman .
“Well, I thought the greatest number of crows that I have ever seen flew out of the castle, and I think that must mean that the gold is there!”
“Did you count how many there was?” asked the Cailleach, solemnly.
“No! Sorry, but I never thought of that,” said Danny, deeply vexed by his apparent omission
“Well, could you tell me if there was an odd or even number of them, dear boy?”
“No, sure I could not say for certain.”
“Well, that’s it!” said the old woman, shaking her head in disappointment. “How can I tell the meaning of your dream, if you don’t know how it came out exactly?”
“Well, granny, but don’t you think the crows were a sign of gold?”
“Yes–if they flew low down.”
“By God then, now I remember, they did fly low down in the sky, and I said to myself there would be rain soon, because the crows were flying so low.”
“I wish you didn’t dream of rain, Danny.”
“Why not, granny? What harm is there in it?”
“Oh, nothing, only it comes in an awkward place in your dream.”
“But it doesn’t spoil the dream, I hope?”
“Oh no, not at all. Go on.”
“Well, with that, I thought I was passing by Dolan’s grain store, and he asked me, ‘Will you carry home this sack of meal for me?’ Now, you know, meal is a sign of money. Sure, every fool knows that.”
“You’re right, dear boy.”
“And so I took the sack of meal on my shoulder, and I thought the weight of it was killing me, just as if it was a sack of gold.”
“Go on Danny.”
“And with that I thought I met with a cat, and that, as you know, means an ill-natured woman.”
“That’s right, Danny.”
“And says she to me: ‘Danny Kelly,’ says she, ‘you’re mighty yellow about the face. God bless you! Is it the jandies (jaundice) you have?’ says she. Now wasn’t that mighty sharp of her? I think the jandies means gold?”
“Yes. If it was the yellow jandies you dreamed about, but not the black jandies.”
“Well, it was the yellow jandies.”
“Very good, dear boy, that’s making a fair job of it.”
“I thought so myself,” said Danny, “even more so when there was a dog in my dream next, and that’s another sign, you know.”
“Right, dear boy.”
“And he had a silver collar on him.”
“Oh, that silver collar is not so good, Danny. What made you dream of silver, anyway?”
“Why, what harm is there in that?”
“Oh, I thought you knew better than to dream of silver. Why, my young friend, sure, silver is a sign of disappointment, everywhere.”
“Oh, damnation!” said Danny, in horror, “and is my dream spoilt by that bloody collar?”
“It is almost spoilt. But, it isn’t yet. It would be spoilt only for the dog. Now, the dog is a good sign, and so it will be only a small disappointment, maybe a falling out with some acquaintance.”
“Oh, what does that matter,” said Danny. “Sure, the dream is still good, isn’t it?”
“Aye, the dream is still good. But, tell me if you also dreamed of three sprigs of spearmint at the end of it?”
“Well, I could not say for certain, because I was just about to awaken at that time, and the dream was not so clear to me.”
“I wish you could be more certain of that.”
“You know, I have it my mind that there was spearmint in it, because I thought there was a garden in part of it, and the spearmint was likely to be there.”
“It is, sure enough, and so you did dream of the three sprigs of spearmint.”
“Indeed, I could almost swear on the good book that I dreamt of it. I’m nearly certain, if not completely sure.”
“Well, that’s reasonable. It’s a good dream, Danny.”
“Is it, really?”
“Indeed it is, Danny. Now wait until the next quarter of the new moon, and dream again then, and you’ll see what’ll come of it.”
“Be sure that I will, granny. Oh, but it’s you have taken the meaning out of it beyond everything, and rest assured that, if I find the crock, it will be yourself who will also profit from it. But, I must be going now, granny. The Boss man told me to hurry with my errand, or else I would stay longer with you. Good morning’ to you, good morning! Una! I’ll see you to-morrow sometime, granny.” And Danny went off with a new spring in his step.
From the foregoing story you can see just how gullible poor Danny was, but it was not in his belief of the “truth in dreams” alone that his weakness lay. He had a very deep belief in fairy folk of all sorts and sizes when discussions came around to them, and he was always on the look-out for a Leprechaun. Now, a Leprechaun is a fairy of peculiar tastes, properties and powers, which it is necessary to acquaint you, the reader, with. His taste as to occupying his time is humbly working at making shoes, and he loves to hide himself away in shady nooks where he can sit alone and pursue his vocation undisturbed. In fact, he is quite a hermit in this respect, for there is no instance of anyone seeing two Leprechauns together.
But, the Leprechaun is quite handsome in his outfit, which usually includes a red square-cut coat, that is richly laced with gold, a waistcoat and trousers of the same style, a cocked hat, shoes and buckles. He has the habit of deceiving, in a great degree, those who chance to discover him. To date none has ever been known to outplay a Leprechaun in the “keen encounter of wits,” which his meeting with mortals always produces. This is brought about by him possessing the power of bestowing unbounded wealth on whoever can keep him within sight until he is so weary of being observed that he gives in to the ransom demanded. This is the final objective of any mortal who is fortunate to surprise and seize the Leprechaun. He must never look away from him, until the threat of his destruction forces the Leprechaun to produce the hidden treasure. This fairy being is, however, usually much too clever for us clumsy mortals and almost always sure to devise some trick that will make us avert our eyes, which will allow him to vanish from our grasp.
It was this ‘Enchanted Cobbler’ of the meadows that Danny Kelly was always seeking. Although he was constantly on the look-out for a Leprechaun, he had never even gotten within sight of one, and he had been given the name of the ‘Fairy Finder’ as a sign of the derision he was held in by others. There was also many a trick that was played upon him. On some occasions a twig stuck in the long grass, with a red rag hanging from it, has fooled Danny into cautious observance. He would carefully approach the decoy for a closer inspection, and a laugh from behind a bush or hedge would then have shown that he was the tool of some trickster. Yet, although this happened quite often, it did not cure him from his folly. There wasn’t a turkey- cock that had a quicker eye for a bit of red, or flew at it with greater eagerness, than Danny Kelly, and he continued to believe that one day or other he would reap the reward of his watching, by finding a real Leprechaun.
“So,” he said, without any introduction, “you’ve lost your butter.”
“Yes,” I replied, “it is certainly gone.”
“Well, if you want me to, I will get it back for you,” he said in a matter of fact way. “My name is O’Hara, and I live at the ‘White Glen’, where I am known to the people as ‘The Fairy Man.’ I am able to find things that have been stolen, for I carry the ‘garvally’.” (This was an implement like a Shepherd’s Crook which was carried by magicians and holy men, and was said to have mystical powers)
“Is that right?” I remarked with a disbelieving tone of voice, “Sure, you must be a very clever man, but can you get my butter?”
“Have no doubt of it,” said O’Hara, “if it is in the country at all, then I will get it back for you.”
Naturally, being a native of the area I had heard about the ‘garvally’ on previous occasions, when it was described to me as “a crooked thing like the handle of an umbrella, covered with green baize.” It was used in bygone years for swearing upon and, it was said to be, “ a terrible thing, for if you swore falsely and it was around your neck, your mouth would turn to the back of your head, or you’d get choked in such a way as you’d never fully recover.” In recent times it had, however, lost much of its virtue and fame, through so many wastrels putting it around their necks and swearing to a deliberate lie, without suffering any visible harm.
As for O’Hara, he made no strange demands. He simply requested that he be given a deep plate, some water and salt, with a little of the cow’s milk. When these were provided, he began by asking my wife and I to come forward a little. He then asked our names, if I was the owner of the cow, how long I had had her, if that woman was my wife, when we had lost our butter, and if we suspected any person who might have taken it. To all these questions I gave the necessary answers, but to the last of these I told him that I did not believe in witchcraft.
“Don’t you believe in fairies?” he asked.
“Not Much,” said I.
“No matter,” said O’Hara, “maybe before I’m done you will begin to believe in them.”
Turning back to the plate he proceeded, in a very solemn manner, to pour some water into the plate on three individual occasions, following this procedure: He would say “In the name of the Father,” and add a drop; then, “in the name of the Son,” and another drop; finally, “in the name of the Holy Ghost,” and the third drop would be poured. He then proceeded to add the milk in the same manner, and finally sprinkled in the salt, using the same formula. O’Hara now stirred the mixture three times with his finger, repeating the words as before, and asked us both to do the same. I hesitated to do this, because I did not want him to think that I had any faith in the process, by taking an active part in it. But, O’Hara convinced me to act against my scruples by asking me if what he was doing is not being done for a very honourable reason. I could do nothing else but agree that, so far, I saw nothing very objectionable in what he was doing. My wife, of course, had no such scruples and eagerly joined with O’Hara to persuade me to do what I had been asked.
His next step was to make the sign of the cross over the plate with his hands, and then, waving them over his head, he made several curious figures in the air while muttering some kind of language that I could not fully understand. From the odd sound and syllable that I could catch, it sounded as if he was talking some kind of vulgar Latin. Gradually, the man became very excited, raving like a demon, stamping with his feet, and shadow-punched with his fists. As he spoke, it was if he was pleading rather than opposing or issuing commands. All the while his eyes appeared to be fixed upon and following the motions of some being he was talking to, but we could not see. Suddenly he gave out an unearthly scream, as if in an agony of terror and pain. At the same time, he held up his hands as if he was warding off some kind of threat, retreating backwards around the room as if being by some kind of implacable enemy. Gradually, he returned to the place that he had left and, turning himself to the four cardinal points, he made the sign of the cross at each turn after dipping his fingers in the mixture. He blessed himself devoutly by anointing his forehead, shoulders, and breast. As he regained his self-possession, O’Hara raised his hands and eyes toward heaven in an attitude of fervent thankfulness, and wiped the perspiration which streamed profusely from his brow with the cuff of his coat. As he gradually recovered his breath, he moved from a state of the greatest possible excitement, and became calm and collected once again.
In my mind, all of this was an act, albeit was done extremely well. I must confess, however, even though I was convinced that it was all false, the entire show made a very powerful impression upon me. In truth I did not feel at all comfortable with this play acting. I did not like the idea of being in the same room with the evil one, who to all appearances was chasing my friend, the magician, around it. I began to feel a sudden and indescribable sensation of dread creeping over me, and there were more than a few drops of perspiration that formed on my brow. My hair, of which I do not have very much, mysteriously began to stiffen and to become wiry. My wife clung closely to my side seeking protection, and the great agitation in her mind could be felt through the heavy pumping of her heart, which in that moment matched the beating of my own.
Having taken a short pause, the magician asked for a ribbon, which he immediately passed over his forehead and around his head. Bringing the ends to the front, he knotted it over his nose before twining it round his fingers in the manner that children call a cat’s cradle. O’Hara knelt down and peered through the ‘cradle’ attentively into the mixture, which I imagined at the moment fermented and sent up a blue vapour.
After gazing a few seconds in this manner he cried out “Aha! She that has your butter is not far off! Bring me a lighted candle.”
We hurried to do as he asked and, when it was brought to him, he placed the candle in the plate. “Now,” he said, “both of you kneel down here. Do as I do, and say as I say, and we’ll have her brought here directly.”
“No!” I exclaimed loudly, “we will not.” By this time, I thought we had gone far enough. I was convinced that if what we were engaged in was not an unholy act, it was at least a piece of gross deception, and I did not want to continue with the charade, or give it any authority through my further participation.
“Why?” O’Hara exclaimed in surprise, “do you not want to get your butter back?”
“Yes,” I told him, “I would like to have my butter returned, but I don’t want it done through a charm or other black art.”
“What is being done here is undoubtedly a charm,” he said, “but it is done with the best of intentions, and I have done the same for others who are as every bit as good as you ever were.”
“So much the worse for them,” I replied, “that they would allow such profane things to be done, and I am sorry that any person would be so wicked, or so foolish, as to encourage you in your tricks. Allow me to tell you that I neither like you, nor your trickery, and the sooner you get about your own business the better.”
The conjuror jumped to his feet angrily, blew out the candle, grabbed hold of the plate, and attempted to throw the contents into the fireplace. My wife, however, was in no mood to have her hearth wet, and she took the plate from him, putting it in a place of safety. He was very angry and began to shout, accusing me of allowing him to take a great deal of trouble on my account, and he insisted on getting on with his task. But, I was determined not to give in to him, and, being considerably upset and annoyed by what had transpired between us, I insisted that he get off my property, and I left him to what was asked of him.
A few moments after I left O‘Hara I heard the noise of a violent altercation and scuffle, and I was loudly called on for help. Rushing to the scene of altercation, I found my wife holding O’Hara tightly by the neck, and preventing him from leaving.
“What is going on now, for God’s sake?” I shouted.
“Your man, here” said she, “when he leaving us, decided to take a glowing coal out of the grate, and then he told me to take care of my children.”
Of course, O’Hara strongly denied all this, until he was confronted by the young girl, whom my wife employed as a servant. I immediately threatened to call the police and to have him charged as an impostor. But, he began to stammer, and finally acknowledged that he had said those things to my wife. He quickly added that he had meant no harm by it. “And sure,” said O’Hara, “there’s absolutely no harm in advising you to mind them well. For, just as easily as one of your cows could get injured, so maybe your children can be just as easily injured.”
“You’re not treating me well,” he continued; “I came here at the request of a friend to try to do you a good turn, and I asked for nothing in return, yet now you’re putting me out of your house. But, I’ll tell you that you will be happy to see me yet. Just take my advice and never throw out your Sunday’s ashes until Tuesday morning, and always sweep your floor in from the door to the hearth.” And, with those final words, away he went.
My heart now began beating a lot easier, because I thought that we had finally got rid of the ‘Fairy Man’. This, however, was not to be the end, for I was to be mystified even further. When I looked at the plate over which he had performed his incantations, I discovered that the contents were thick, yellow, and slimy, with a sediment that looked like globules of blood at the bottom. This was something extraordinary, because I had watched the man very closely, and I did not see him put anything into the plate but the milk, water, and salt.
The end of the month now drew near, and our bread still had no butter to spread upon it. This was the reason why almost every morsel of bread seemed to stick in my poor dear wife’s throat. She, of course, did not possess the same scruples of conscience as I had, and she was of the opinion that the cow had been bewitched. She would remind me of my faults by complaining, “Here we are day after day, losing our income when all our problems could have been solved but for your squeamishness, in not allowing the ‘Fairy Man’ to finish his task.”
She would harangue me almost every day in this way, and did not hesitate to call me a fool, an eejit, and a complete ass. I must admit that nearly every one of my neighbours were much of the same opinion as she was. One of my neighbours, a respectable farmer’s wife, was particularly tenacious about her opinion. One evening, while visiting, she said, “My Robin was down in Sligo, and he heard that if you got the coulter of a plough (a vertically mounted component of many plows that cuts an edge about 7 inches (18 cm) deep ahead of a plowshare), and made it red-hot in the fire while you were churning, the butter would come back. Or, if you chose to churn on Sunday morning before the lark begins to sing, you will surely get the butter back.”
“Don’t you tempt me anymore, more with your spells, for I will not stand for it,” said I, impatiently. “I will never swop my peace of mind for a pound of butter, if I should never eat another morsel.” But, in all honesty, my peace of mind was already gone. The continual urging and yammering, that I was being subjected to, had made me heartily sick. Inwardly, I had made mind up to sell the cow at the first opportunity I had, and thereby end the matter completely.
In the afternoon of May eve, I had reason to leave home for a very short time, and, when I returned, I was rather surprised to find all the windows in the house closed, as well as the door locked against me. I knocked on the door and called out for someone to let me in, but I received no answer. I could, however, hear the noise of churning going on inside, and the truth of what was happening flashed across my mind. Annoyed by my wife’s belief in such superstitious nonsense, I went to the garden to await the result of her ritual. In a very short period of time she came running out of the house like a demented person, clapping her hands and screaming, “Oh! we’ve got the butter, we’ve got the butter!”
As I went into the house I found a coulter of a plough fizzing and sparkling at a white heat in the fire, an ass’s shoe under the churn, my worthy neighbour standing over it, panting and blowing from the exertions she had made on my behalf, and wiping the dew-drops from her really lovely face. Meanwhile, in the churn, floating like lumps of gold in a sea of silver, as fine a churning of butter as ever we had been blessed with. Well, I will admit that I was gobsmacked by the entire episode, and when I was asked, “Now, is there no witchcraft or magic in a red-hot coulter?” I could scarcely muster up courage to utter “No.”
I tried, in vain, to protest that the butter came back to us because “Brownie” had got back to her pasture. It was all, I argued, because of the change in her feeding, from dry fodder to the mellow and genial production of spring grass. The loss, I said, was the result of changing her feed from grass to hay. In the face of what had happened in the house, however, it was futile to argue such a case. Everyone was convinced that it was all due to O’Hare’s incantations, or the magic of the red-hot coulter, the influence of the ass’s shoe, or the tremendous pommelling the milk had been subjected to.
A few days after the event, I had the opportunity to talk to a knowledgeable man who was a herdsman in charge of a large stock farm. He patiently listened to my story and when I had finished he burst into hearty laughter. “Dear God,” said he, “I took you for a sensible man, and never thought for one minute that you would believe in such nonsense.”
“Some time ago I would sooner have believed that black was white,” I told him. “But how can I ignore the chain of circumstantial evidence that I have witnessed? Firstly, ‘The Hawk’ coming to me with her high priced geese, then the gypsies and the piper, and finally losing my butter just at that moment.”
“It is very easy to account for it,” he said. “In the first place, you took your cow from grass and fed her on hay.”
“Yes, we did. But, we made sure that she had plenty of winter cabbages, and we gave her boiled potatoes.”
“Just the thing. Cabbage is good for helping to provide plenty of milk, but not for butter. I bet you that you gave her the potatoes warm.”
“And she got a scour?”
“Indeed she did, and her hair fell off.”
“So I thought. And afterwards she got in good condition?”
“Oh! aye, she put her butter on her ribs. Did you kill a pig at Christmas?”
“Where did you put your bacon?”
“Why, under the shelf in the dairy.”
“Now the truth is out! Never as long as you live put meat, either fresh or salted, near your milk-vessels. If you do, you will surely spoil your milk and lose your butter.”
“This may account for my loss, but what have you to say to its coming back?”
“Why, what’s to stop it, when your bacon is in the chimney and your cow at grass?”
“But the red blobs in the plate, and O’Hare fighting the devil for me, what do you say to that?”
It was at this point that the man burst into such a violent fit of laughter that I really thought he would actually snap the waistband of his trousers. “O’Hare! ha! ha!— O’Hare! ha! ha! ha!— sure he’s the greatest villain that ever breathed fresh air. He came to me one time when I had a cow sick, and said she was enchanted by the fairies, and that he would cure her for me. He began with his tricks with the milk and water, just the same as he did with you. But, I watched him very closely, and when I saw the smoke rising out of the plate, I got him by the neck, shook a little bottle of vitriol out of the cuff of his coat, and took a paper of red earthy powder out of his waistcoat pocket.”
I was both shocked and confounded by what he told me. Could I have been made a complete fool of by the ‘Fairy Man’? Even the thought of this made me feel humiliated, and I began to wish that I had remained in complete ignorance. On reflection, however, I had every reason to congratulate myself that it had been only a temporary lapse in my beliefs. I had been right in my original opinion, that, except the witchery of a pair of blue languishers, or the fairy spell of a silver-tongued siren, there is now no evil of the kind to be believed in.
There are, however, exceptions. In several districts in Ireland, especially in the west of the country there are those who still believe that evil-disposed persons can deprive their neighbours of their milk or butter. This is said to be done in various ways, the most usual of these being the use of a corpse hand, which is kept shrivelled and dried to stir the milk and to gather the butter. Another method that is adopted is to follow the cows on a May morning, and gather the soil which drops from between their cloots (the two halves of a cloven hoof). Yet another strategy is said to be by collecting the froth, which forms on a stream running through their pasture, and milking your own cow on it. While some insist that these means are so simple that their absurdity is enough to refute any belief in them.
Yet, such things are still firmly believed in. Allow me to demonstrate that this is indeed the case, and also, at the same time, expose the trickery and sleight of hand by which some criminal types succeed in throwing dust into the eyes of the native population. I will relate to you an event in which I was personally concerned, and to disclose the matter fully in all of its ramifications, twists and turns. I must confess that I was, for a short time, almost inclined to believe myself to be the dupe of a fairy man.
It has been quite a number of years since I lived in the area known as the “Vale of the Blackwater”. It is still well known to be good pasture land, and I owned a good cow who provided me with a plentiful supply of milk and butter, which were of excellent quality, and helped greatly in contributing to the material comforts of my family. That cow was a beautiful and a gentle creature, which, I was certain, would be the beginning of a large herd of similar cattle that would help me build a profitable and extensive dairy.
Around the ‘Blackwater’ there was a very strong belief that an evilly-disposed person possessed the power to deprive a dairy farmer of his milk and butter, and I heard many complaints about such things happening. The majority of these complaints named the main culprit to be a woman who lived in the vicinity, and who was known locally as “The Hawk,” She was a handsome, middle-aged woman who lived in reasonably comfortable circumstances, but there was a fire in her eye and a terrible sharpness in her tongue that justified the name locals had given her. Her husband was a small farmer, but there were many who suspected him of being concerned in a murder some years before this. She, however, was a reputed to be a witch, and the entire family were disliked and avoided by the people who lived in the area.
One cold January morning, while working outside, I was informed that a woman had come into the kitchen of the house. She had simply sat herself down at the kitchen table and began to watch the motions of the family, without stating the purpose for which she had come. When I went down to the house, I found her sitting at the table, neatly dressed, but with a very sinister expression on her face that made me feel uncomfortable from the beginning. On asking her the purpose of her business with me, she told me that she had heard I was in the market for some geese, and that she had a few birds to dispose of.
“How many?” I asked.
“A goose and a gander,” she replied tersely.
“How much do you want for them?”
When she told me the price she was asking I was taken aback and exclaimed, “How Much?“ Her price was almost three times the usual market price and that was why I was so shocked. Then, I thought that I had, perhaps, made a mistake in the number, and I asked her again, “Why, how many have you?”
“A goose and a gander,” said she.
“And what kind of an eejit do you suppose me to be, that I would agree to give you such a price as that?” I said abruptly.
“Oh!” said she, “they are good geese, and only I wish to help you out I would not offer them to you at all.”
“Indeed! I am much obliged by your good wishes,” said I, “but as I think you want to make a fool of me, you should take your geese to another market. Rest assured I will not take them at any price, and the sooner you take yourself off with them the better.”
The woman appeared to be highly offended by what I said and, as she got up from the table to leave, I heard her mutter something about my being sorry for refusing her offer. The woman left the house angrily and it was only after she had left, that I discovered it had been “The Hawk” who had favoured me with the visit.
On that same morning, a gang of ‘travellers’, consisting of tinkers, chimney-sweeps, a couple of beggars, and a piper, had pitched their tent on the road side, a short distance from my home. The members of this group had spread themselves out, over the surrounding district in pursuit of some work they could do. All of this coincided with it also being churning-day, and my wife had set up everything in their proper order, and she was proceeding well with her work. The milk had cracked, the butter was expected, and suddenly the sound of music could be heard throughout the farm. The piper, who was a member of the party of ‘travellers’ had come to the farm to give us a sample of his musical skill. He played for us all a few planxties and hornpipes, was duly rewarded for his efforts, and he left. Shortly after he was gone, two buxom beggars, both brown and bare-legged, with cans in their hands, kerchiefs on their heads, and huge massive rings on their fingers, came and demanded alms. They were told that there was nothing then ready, and one of them immediately asked a drink.
“I have absolutely nothing to offer you but water,” said my wife, “until the churning’s done.”
“It’s Well water,” said my wife proudly and went to get some. On getting the water the beggar-woman took a sup or two, put the remainder in her can, and then went off. Strange as it may seem, my butter went off too. From that day in January until the following May eve, not a morsel did we get from our beautiful ‘Brownie’.
Because I did not put any faith in tales of witchcraft, I was willing to attribute this difficulty to some natural cause affecting the cow. But, in all this time the milk did not show any perceptible change in either its quantity or quality. At the same time, the cow did not exhibit any symptoms of being sick or out of sorts, except that she began to cast her hair. We made sure that she was well supplied with good fodder, comfortably lodged, well attended to, and every possible care was taken of the milk. But all these precautions served no purpose, because the butter was not forthcoming and, because I did not believe in witchcraft, I was laughed at by my neighbours.
“Your cow is bewitched,” they cried, “and you may as well throw spit against the wind, if you think you will get your butter back without first getting the charm.”
Some said “The Hawk” had it, while others said that the gipsy took it away in her can, and some others suggested that it had followed the piper. None of these things seemed to matter, because I still had to eat my bread without butter, and brood over my loss, and not one word of sympathy did I get. There were, however, various counter-charms recommended for me to employ. “Send for Andy, the Scotsman from the other side of the Lough,” said one, “he fears neither man nor beast, and he will surely get it for you.”
“Send for ‘The Hawk,’ and clip a bit off her ear,” said another neighbour.
“Let them keep their mouths full of water, and never speak while they are churning,” said a third.
The one thing that I did learn at this time was that there were as many ways of getting it back, as there were of losing it, and all of them equally simple, and probably just as efficient. In this way matters continued until the early part of April when, one morning, a man called to the house wanting to see me. He was a bright, active, and handsome fellow, who was small in stature and not richly dressed. He was a sinewy man, well built and strong looking, with that tanned wrinkled skin of a man who is used to being outdoors. He was well clothed in tweed jacket, well worn cord trousers, and a pair of black working boots. His cloth cap sat at an angle on his head and he had a good pair of boots on his feet. There was certainly no shyness in demeanour and he possessed a certain look about himself, which seemed to say, “I’d have you know that I am actually a clever man.”
If 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.