Lady Betty – The Hangwoman

The following is an old tale, whose source I do not know. The problem is that we do not know if it is true or simply another superstition.

The old jail of Roscommon stood, and, although now converted to other purposes, still stands in the market-place, in the centre of the town. It is a very high, dark, and gloomy-looking building, with a castellated top, like one of those ancient fortresses that we have often seen tower above the houses in many of the cities on the Continent. It can be seen from a great distance outside the town and, when added to the very extensive ruins of ‘O’Connor’s Castle’, in the suburbs, as well as the beautiful abbey that sits on the other side of the town, it appears to be another example of architecture that had been constructed during the middle-ages.

Roscommon JailThe fall from the gallows at Roscommon jail was considered by many to be the highest ‘fatal drop’ in Ireland. It consisted of a small doorway at the front of the building’s third storey, with a simple iron beam and pulley above. The gallows stage upon which the condemned stood awaiting execution was merely a horizontal door that was hinged to the wall beneath. When the appointed execution time arrived, this door was let fall by means of a sliding-bolt, which was pulled from the main wall, and the condemned person was consequently hanged. This elevated platform of execution was a fearful sight to behold for the folk of the town, and it was a unique in its construction. However, the gallows were no more unique than the person who acted as executioner and carried out their duty on that platform. This was no decrepit wretch of a human being, or a crime-hardened ruffian. Neither was it one of those secret and mysterious personages, who were occasionally produced by the authorities, disguised by mask or hood, to undertake this dreadful trade in public. Removing the most likely candidates for the role, you might wonder who was left that would not recoil from the unpleasant and terrible actions that were carried out on these high gallows. In fact, it was a female! She was a middle-aged, stoutly built, dark-eyed, swarthy-complexioned, but by no means forbidding-looking woman. She was widely known as ‘Lady Betty’, who carried out the final judgement and was regarded as the unflinching priestess of the executive for the Connaught circuit court for many years, with Roscommon being her main place of business.

Children born or reared in County Roscommon, two centuries ago, would often be frightened, when mischievous, into ‘being good,’ and going to sleep, and not crying when left alone in the dark, by the promise of a visit by a ‘Pooka’, or, by being told Lady Betty would get them. There is little firm evidence of ‘Lady Betty’s’ life and what we have learned about her is mostly hearsay. We are told that she was a person who had a very violent temper, although her manners were said to be rather above those of the common folk, and she was supposed to have possessed some formal education. It was rumoured that she was born and raised in the County Kerry, and that by her harsh treatment of her only son she drove him away from her at an early age. Apparently, he enlisted in the army and, after many years, he returned with a small fortune in his pocket, which he had gained through his many campaigns. On his return home he knocked at his father’s door and asked if he could get a night’s lodging. It appears that he was determined to see for himself whether the brutal mother he had left behind had in any way repented for what she had done. He wanted to know if she had softened her ways over the years before he would consider revealing his identity. He was brought into the house but was not recognised by anyone. The mother, however, discovered that the ‘stranger’ had quite a bit of money on him and during the night, as the man slept, she coldly murdered him. The crime was quickly discovered, and the wretched woman was sentenced to be hanged. She had to share the ‘dock’ along with the usual sheep-stealers, ‘Whiteboys’, thieves, and ruffians who had ham-strung cattle. Such criminals were usually brought into the dock seven or eight at a time and were invariably executed within twenty-four-hours after being sentenced by the court. But, on this occasion, no executioner could be found despite the best of efforts. The local sheriff and his deputy, considering themselves to be men of refinement, education, humanity, and sensibility, would not carry out such an odious duty. They maintained this attitude although it was a part of the office they had sworn to undertake, and for which they received payment. The wretched, murderous woman was the only person in the jail who could be found to perform the executions, and under the name of ‘Lady Betty’ she carried them out without mask or disguise. For many years after this she officiated as hangwoman and she used to publicly flog criminals in the streets, as a part of her office. There are numerous stories told about this woman’s exploits and we have not enough room here to relate them all. But we can mention one extraordinary feature of her character, which was the habit she had of drawing portraits of all those whom she had executed on the walls of her room with a burnt stick.

Charlie Brennan’s Ghost

“It is sinful and painful to take a pin,
No matter how thick,
No matter how thin,

So, sang little Andy Smyth, in his loud and shrill voice.
“Jaysus, Andy. It’s bad enough listening to your singing without hearing your efforts at poetry,” laughed Harry Crowe as he patted little Andy’s flaxen-haired head in a friendly, mocking manner.
“Just talking of stealing,” said Charlie Brennan, dropping the pumpkin that he was carving into a Halloween lantern, “did I ever tell you boys about the day that I went down to old Pop Robinson’s orchard to steal apples, and came back past the black barn where the horse-thief is said to have hung himself years and years ago? The man knew that the ‘Peelers’ were after him, and that he’d be spending a long time in jail when he was caught. Even if the ‘Peelers’ didn’t get him the local farmers might, and they would string him up. Well, if I haven’t told you already, here’s a ghost story for you all, and I hope that it will prove to be a warning that you should never take anything that doesn’t belong to you, especially apples.
“Young Benny Evans and I were staying with our families at the hotel in Ardtermon that summer, and Pop Robinson’s farm was only about two miles away. He used to bring eggs and chickens and vegetables and fruit to the hotel. But, by God, he was one tight arsed bollix of a man. Stingy is too mild a description for that fellow! He wouldn’t even give a child the bite of a rotten apple, and he made sure he took the last penny off you for anything you received. Benny grabbed a punnet of strawberries from off Pop’s wagon and the old devil trembled all over with anger, and he caught young Benny and dragged him to his parents and demanded the money from them. Oh, he was a regular old miser, with lots of money in his pocket and a halfpenny to spare. But, Pop had one of the largest and best apple orchards in the district, which was ripe for the taking. After the old man had embarrassed Benny over the strawberries and caused him to be punished for his efforts at petty thievery, the boy wanted revenge. ‘Let’s go down to Pop’s orchard some night and help ourselves,’ said Benny, with a mischievous smile on his face.
‘Dogs,’ said I warily.
‘There’s only the one,’ says Benny, ‘I know him, and so do you. Its old ‘Snapper’! I gave him almost all the meat we took for bait that day we went fishing and didn’t catch any thing, but a foundering.’
‘All right,’ says I.
“Then, on the night for the raid came about, Benny was unavailable. His cousins, two girls, had come down from Belfast to visit, and Benny had to stay home and to entertain them. Now, in those days, I didn’t have much time for girls and, afraid that I might be roped-in to help entertain them, I made myself scarce. I decided that I would go alone to Pop Robinson’s orchard and carry out the planned raid. It was a great night for the adventure and I remember that the moon shone so bright that it was almost as light as day. Almost without care, I strolled down the country road, whistling a merry tune, until I got within a half-mile of the famed orchard. It was then that I stopped making noise and walked as softly as possible, until I came to the first apple-tree. It didn’t take me but a minute to shin up that tree, where I filled my bag with fine, ripe ‘Beauty of the Bath’ apples, before slid silently down the tree again. All the while that I was in that tree old ‘Snapper’ didn’t make an appearance. But, my first real difficulty came when I reached the ground and tried to lift the bag upon my shoulder, only to find that it was far too heavy for me to carry all the way back to the hotel. I was going to remedy the situation by dumping some of the apples out of the bag, until I suddenly remembered that if I made my way across the meadow to the boreen (country lane), I could make my way back to the hotel in half the time it would take me to go the way I had come.
“Comforted by this plan, I shouldered my load of apples, and was nearly across the meadow before I even thought about the haunted barn standing at the end of it. Now, it wasn’t exactly nice thought to recall for a young boy like me, but I wasn’t going to turn back now; ghost or no ghost. To encourage me, I tried to whistle again, when into my mind came that bloody song that Andy Smyth was trying to sing. Says I to myself, ‘That’s it, Charlie Brennan, you and your mates might think it’s great craic to help yourselves to other people’s apples, pears, and such things, but it’s just as much stealing as if you had gone into a man’s house and stole his coat.’ It doesn’t seem as bad when you’re going to raid an orchard, but when you’re returning, up a lonely road, all alone, at ten o’clock at night, with a lot of stolen apples on your back, and a haunted barn not far off, it seems to be a much worse situation.
“‘THERE IT IS,’ SAYS BARNEY!”
“I kept a tight hold of the bag of apples and, when I faced the barn, I was determined I would whistle even if I was to die in the effort. But, wait until I tell you, boys, I don’t think any person could have told you what tune I whistled. I couldn’t tell you myself, because I was so terrified. But, I can tell you, my heart jumped in my chest when I passed that tumbled-down old building. Then, it appeared to come to a stop when, as I marched up the boreen, I heard a step behind me. In an instant I wheeled myself around, but there was nothing at all to be seen, although the moon still shone as bright as ever. Says I to myself, ‘Jaysus, Charlie, you must have imagined it,’ and I walked on at a slightly quicker pace. All the while I listened as intently as I possibly could and, sure enough, I could hear pat, pat, pat, as the step came after me. Once again I wheeled round, but I still saw nothing. Onward I continued to walk, feeling the weight of apples growing heavier and heavier with each step. Pat, pat, pat, came the step. I began to think that it did not sound like the step of a human being, and this made it all the more frightening. ‘It must be the ghost,’ I began to think to myself, and I don’t mind telling you, boys, I never was so frightened in all of my life. Even that time that I fell overboard was nothing compared to the terror I felt that night. In fact, I had made up my mind, when I reached the bridge that crossed the little river near our hotel that I would sprint the rest of the way home. For some reason, or other, before I got to that bridge, I said to myself, ‘Perhaps he wants the apples.’ I must have said the words out loud, though I didn’t mean to, because a hoarse voice, with a horrific laugh, answered ‘Apples!’
“I can tell you, boys, you never saw a bag of apples fly so quick and so far, and I wasted no time in making myself scarce. Over the bridge I went with the speed of lightning, and ran right into Barney Reagan, one of the hotel staff, who was coming to look for me. ‘There’s something following me,’ I gasped, ‘from the haunted barn! A ghost!’
‘Did you see it?’ says he to me.
‘No,’ says I, ‘though I turned around a dozen times to look for it. But I heard its footsteps going pat, pat, pat, behind me all the way.’
‘And it’s behind you now,’ says Barney, ‘there!’ he shouted loudly as he burst into laughter. I jumped about six feet off the ground with fright when Barney, roared again, and was pointing toward Pop Robinson’s tame raven! That sly old bird looked up at me, nodding its shining black head, and croaked ‘Apples!’ as it walked off. That damned bird had followed me all the way from the barn. Every time I that wheeled around quickly, it hopped just as quickly behind me, and so, of course, I saw only the long, dark road and the moonlight reflected on it. Let me tell you all that never again do I want to be so scared as I was that night. And, if ever any of you boys go for looking to take anything that belongs to another person, make sure that you don’t count me in.”
“What became of the apples?” asked Terry O’Neil.
“Now, Terry, if you had been there I could have told you,” said Charlie.

The Knocker Up

As a Doctor I have reason to visit the sick in their homes and several years ago, while paying a professional visit at the house of a small tradesman in the town of Belfast, I made the acquaintance of an interesting old woman, who had been employed by the tradesman to nurse his ailing wife. There are always people, especially among the female gender, who will never refuse to carry out a duty of care, especially if the person to be cared for is already known to them. This old lady, Mrs Waters, was one of those caring ladies that people can depend upon. Within a very few minutes we became good friends and she persuaded me to extend my visit for several hours, and when I eventually left the house I was as familiar with her life story just as if I had known her for many years.
I have told you that she was an interesting woman, and so she was. This was not immediately apparent from her appearance, and there was nothing that could be said to be attractive about her. Neither had she any refinement in her manner or the way in which she spoke but, she could be said to have been rather brusque and hasty in both word and action. Nevertheless, she possessed an irresistible power in the rapid glance of her large bright eyes. At first sight you might think that, from the haste which was evident in all her movements when attending to the needs of the house and family, she must be a harsh and unfeeling type of person. That would be a grave error, however, for she was really one of the kindest and most tender-hearted of women I have ever met. It didn’t take long for me to discover that she was actually a neighbour, and that she was a woman of independent means, which she had gathered together through her own hard-work. She had worked from an early age, and she had also taken great care of an invalid husband for many years and had managed to educate and provide a profession to her only son and child.
The old woman peaked my interest greatly and I decided that I would like to become better acquainted with her and the life she had led. Not being a man who was reluctant to ask questions I was soon able to discover quite a lot about her and her life. She was known in the community as a ‘knocker-up’, the duties of whom I will explain as we proceed. But, she was proud of what she had done and when asked about it she told me, “Not at all, my boy! I am not ashamed to tell you just how I came to be financially independent. Why should I be? An honest woman need not be afraid of anything!” she insisted. “I made it all, every penny of it, by knocking-up. Ay, and well you may look surprised, for I have an idea that you don’t know what ‘knocking-up is’, or if you do, you are wondering how I could save so much money from such a line of work. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I had no other means of making money, for I started a shop after I began to knock up. However, every penny that I made by shop-keeping was spent in keeping my family in food and clothing, and when my son was put into business, some of my otherwise-made money went along with him. But, I can assure you that every penny that I put by, and the income on which I now live, was got by knocking-up.
“Sure, I know you are wondering how I, a woman, should ever gotten the idea making a living in this way, never mind actually setting out to do it. Well, if I’m going to be honest with you, I never thought of it at all. I mean that I did not invent such a job, for it was actually suggested to me and I was in too great a need to be fussy about what I did. Do you know, I believe that I was near the first, if not the very first who earned money by regularly knocking up. Either way, at the time that I began the job, I knew of no one else who was doing the same thing.
“The idea came to me in this way. My husband had been a delicate sort of man from the day we first met. And he was, God love him, as different from me in spirit and ways as summer is from winter. He had hardly a day’s work in him and I have often wondered what we should have done, or what would have become of us, had it been that I was struck down instead of him. But you see, God was watching over us. It was a good thing in many ways, indeed in all ways, that it was he who was afflicted, for if it had been me, what an ill-tempered and impatient creature I would have been.
“Now it was no illness that struck my man down, but something entirely different. It all happened like this, we had been married about six years, and our son was about four years old, when my man suffered a serious accident. He was working hard in the foundry and lifting a heavy weight when something seemed to snap or give way in his back. He was brought home to me between two men, and from that day until his death, more than fifteen years afterwards, he never did a stroke of work, the poor man!
Knocker Up 3“Aye, it was after this that the knocking-up scheme was suggested to me and I was glad of it. I had gone down to the foundry one Friday evening for the wee bit of pay which the owners had kindly allowed him to lift for a while, and I got to speaking with one of the men who was working there and had worked with my husband. He asked me about our welfare and I said to him that I believed I should be able to keep the roof over our heads, and that I was willing to do anything that would help me to achieve that. The, quite suddenly he said, “If you will knock me up at three o’clock every morning but Sunday, I will give you half-a-crown a week.” I laughed at first because I thought he was joking. But, when I saw that he was not joking, I quickly took up his offer because something told me that this might just be the beginning of something special.
“The reason why ‘knocking-up’ is so widespread nowadays is simply that people get so used to the alarm-clock that it fails to awake them. Even if it does awaken them, they are sometimes so sleepy that they drop off again before the alarm runs out. This was what had happened to the person who asked me to awaken him. He had lost many mornings work because he had over-slept. He worked in the designing office and told me that he could get more work done, and of a better quality of work, during the quiet hours of the morning than at any other time. This is what he said anyway, though afterwards another reason was given to excuse his habit of over sleeping. But, the man was anxious to be up at three o’clock. Well, I agreed to do the job and it was a good thing that I did because before a year had gone past I had thirty customers employing me to do the same job for them. of the like kind. Not for the same hour in the morning, or for the same amount of pay. For the most part these other requests were for a time between five and six o’clock.
“I have no problem whatever in telling you what I earned at that time. Why should I? But let me first explain to you how I went on to grow my business, if I may call it a business. At the end of the first year, as I have said, I had thirty customers. Year by year this number of clients began to increase until, by the end of five years, I had upwards of eighty houses to go to. What is more, for the thirty years that I followed knocking-up after that, thirty-five years to be precise, I never fell below that number. Sometimes I had as many as ninety-five houses. Now, you are wondering what did they pay me for my services? All prices! When I managed to get a few more, early customers, in addition to my first one, I knocked him a shilling a week off because I didn’t think it was right to be still taking a half-a-crown. So, all those clients who were knocked up before four o’clock in the morning paid me eighteenpence a week, and those who had to be awakened soon after four were charged a shilling a week. Those clients who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid me from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance that I had to go. Of course, the greater number of customers were in the threepenny class.
“You might have a little trouble in seeing how I managed to get through so large a number of houses in so short a time, but I can assure you that I did. I also found out that a workable system was very much a needed thing to have, you may be sure of that. Then I discovered short-cuts to different neighbourhoods and streets, and I took care not to let the grass grow under my feet in keeping my business going. Another helpful talent that I had, of course, was an innate ability of rousing my employers quite quickly. Perhaps it was that my knock or ring or way of tapping windows was more effective than that of other ‘knockers-up’. Irrespective of all that, I managed to get through my engagements morning by morning. Now, of course, you are eager to find out what my weekly earnings were. Well, I’ll not keep you in suspense any longer, young man. For thirty years I never earned less than thirty shillings a week, though it was mostly thirty-five shillings and, when I had a good lot of far-away or very early customers, I could pick up as much as forty shillings in a week. You look unconvinced, but I assure you that what I am telling you is the truth. Two pounds a week for calling folks to their work, in the morning.
“Now, I’ll admit that I am not very strong or healthy as I once was, but how can a woman of seventy years be expected not to have some aches or pain after the life I have lived? But, in all those thirty-five years that I worked at the ‘knocking-up’, I never had what may be called a sick day. Dear God, sure I hadn’t got time to be laid up in a sick bed! I totally believe my early rising, and the exercise in the open air, kept me healthy. At those times when bits of cold did get hold of me, my spirit and attitude did much towards helping ward them off. Let me tell you, Spirit is everything! Did I go to bed during the day? Never! I could not afford the time for such luxury because I had my shop to take care of. You look a little surprised, but I have already told you that I kept a shop. At the time I didn’t know how long my husband might linger, and then I became so wrapped up in my poor lad’s future, for I was determined that he should be a doctor or a lawyer, or something smarter than a tradesman. Because I had such a good long day before me after my ‘knocking-up’, I decided that I would open a shop of some kind.
‘It took me quite a long time to decide upon what I should deal in. I had a natural dislike of giving credit, and as there are some things which women are not in the habit of buying on tick. In fact, when they need these items they never seem to think of asking for them on credit, and it was in such items that I decided to deal in. That is how I hit upon the idea of selling black-lead, blacking, brushes of various kinds, and even pots and pans. Surprisingly, I noticed that when a woman sent for such items she automatically sent the money to buy them. Furthermore, I realised that it would only take about ten pounds or so to get me started in this type of shop, and I saw that there would be little perishable stock or articles that would go out of fashion. An added advantage was the fact that the business did not need much learning or knowledge to manage it, and these were things which I did not have. So, it was in this way that I became a shopkeeper.
“In the beginning I was able to make my cottage do for my shop, using the bedroom and cellar as the warehouse. But, as the trade increased, I had to take the house next to the one I had, and made I made it into a shop and warehouse. Rent and taxes, you know, were not too heavy then. You know, I began this business after I had spent five years ‘knocking-up’ and only stopped about six years ago.
“I didn’t give up because I was tired of work. But, I saw that I had enough to live upon, and I now had no one belonging me to live for. My husband had been a long-time dead, and my poor son had also been taken from me. Did I sell my business? No, I did not sell either business. There was a poor man, a neighbour of mine, who was laid off his work and, as he had a large family, and his own shop was running from bad to worse every week, I just handed over the knocking-up to him. It has been a good thing for him, thank God. As for the other business, I just allowed my customers to spread themselves among other shops as they thought fit.
“You might wonder if I had made any bad debts the knocking-up business? Well, I will tell you there were not too many and, perhaps, less than you might expect. For one thing, I took pretty good care of my money, though it did take gathering in. I usually got paid on a Saturday afternoon and night. Some called and paid me as they passed my house and others left it with those appointed by me to receive it. One way or another, I got most the greater part of my money week by week. To those who began to be a bit forgetful in paying me, I just gave them the slightest hint that if they did not pay up that week-end I might forget to knock them up and let them overlie themselves now and again. This soon put the forgetfulness out of them, for they knew they would lose a deal more by being fined at the mill than they had to pay me for a whole week’s knocking-up. So, in all honesty, I had very few customers who did not pay up old scores. Of course, I am ignoring those whom I did not care to press for payment. These were often men with large families, or men who had had a fit of sickness or the like, or a poor delicate woman. But, let us pay no attention to that for they might have done the same by me.
“Aye, now there is a good chance that a knocker-up will find out what sort of tempers their customers have. God knows that I soon came to know who the surly ones were, and who were pleasant folks, or who were short-tempered and who had good patience. You know, when knocking-up began to be a regular trade we used to rap or ring at the doors of our customers. But there soon arose two objections to this way of rousing them. One objection came from the public, and the other came from the knockers-up. The public complained of being disturbed, especially if sickness was in a house, by our loud rapping or ringing; and the knocker-up soon found out that while he knocked up one who paid him, he knocked up several on each side who did not pay. It did not take us long to invent the fishing-rod-like wands which are now in use. Aye indeed, the knocker-up has a wand of office, and I was among the first who adopted these rods. With these wands we would give a few taps on the bedroom window, which no one hears but those who should.
“I will tell you that a surly, or hot-tempered customer, would growl or knock things about as he came to the window to reply, and his responding rap would sound as peevish as possible. But a good-tempered man was always quite pleasant and cheering to get out of bed, for you could almost hear from his very footstep that he was grateful, and his reply-tap sounded quite musical. Moreover, when he spoke to you and bade you a good-morning, it was truly encouraging. I have even had occasions when I knocked some men up for nothing, just because it was pleasant to hear them, especially after you had had two or three of the other kind to deal with. There were others that I had given up knocking, for no other reason than that they were sulky or angry at being disturbed and generally unpleasant. I can recall one particular man on my rounds. He was a little, slender, ill-featured man, who always reminded me of a weasel, and he had to be up at five o’clock. But, the same man was fond of the drink, so he was not only difficult to awaken, but he never came to the window without indulging in angry mutterings, which were not always the sort of things you needed to hear at that time in the morning. He was one of my shilling-a-week customers and paid regularly. But I was so pissed-off by his lousy temper and insulting ways, that at I finally gave him the elbow as a bad job.
“Surely, you would agree that a ‘knocker-up’ really deserves the gratitude of his customers and should not think that we are well compensated when we get his money. They should not forget that we have to be out of our warm beds in all sorts of weather and cannot allow a bit of a sniff or a tooth-ache to keep us at home. But, the customer can sleep on the whole night through, in peace and contentment, because they know that they will hear the wakening taps on their window at the right time. Surely, there is no person that can think that a ‘knocker-up’ is a selfish man, or even a selfish woman. No money is so well spent as that which is paid to the ‘knocker-up’ and I believe most who pay the money think the same.
“For several years I ‘knocked-up’ two young women who were sisters. They had been left orphans when they were very young, but the poor things stuck together, went to the mill, saved their wages, and finally were able to take and furnish a room. They got me to knock them up, for they kept their own little spot clean and tidy, mended their own things at night, and they went to bed tired and often late, which caused them to sleep heavily. Well, as I’ve said, I knocked them up for years and they would not let me do it for nothing. No, not even now and again. One or the other of them always had a “Good-morning,” or “How are you this morning, Mrs McNamee?” in a low kind tone for me. And about once a quarter they would invite me to spend a Sunday evening with them and take a cup of tea. Let me tell you, if any people were grateful for what I did for them, it was these girls.
“Now, I suppose you want to know how and when did I get my sleep? Well, I’ll tell you. I always went to bed at nine o’clock every night, except Saturdays. Of course, because I had an exhausted body and a contented mind, it didn’t take me very long in dropping off to sleep. And I was up again at half-past two exactly, for my first customer lived a good twenty minutes’ walk from my house, and you know he had to be awakened at three o’clock. Well, for some time I had no one else to arouse until four o’clock, so I used to come home again. Before I went out in winter I would build the fire up with ‘slack’ and get myself a cup of tea. But, in summer I would let the fire go out, and would not light it again until I came back from the early customer. Then I always made my poor husband a cup of tea, after which he slept better than he had in the earlier part of the night. You see it was he who had to awaken me, because being young and very active during the day, I slept soundly. What between him and the alarm, I never over-slept. No, not even once. But after I had been about six or seven years at the job, I got to awaken quite naturally. Indeed, it was well that I did, for when my husband died, I no longer had him to depend on.
“I can tell you also that the worst weather for any knocker-up is wet weather. Oh, it was try one’s patience, to say nothing of one’s health, to be pelted with rain and wind. Then when the streets were filled with snow and slush it was anything but pleasant. But, I always tried to think of the good I was doing for others and thinking that way proved to be a wonderful help. In fact, even a chimney-sweep or a street-sweeper could be happy in his calling if he only took such a similar view of his work. Why, we are all helping one another as well as earning our livings when we follow our vocation in life. But, I have to admit that it was an extra nice job to be doing on a fine spring or summer morning. I used to be happy all over on such mornings.
“Maybe you would like me to tell you something about my son. To tell the truth, I seldom feel like I want to talk about him because when I do talk about my dear boy, it has taken me many a day to get his image out of my mind.”
At this point I respectfully asked Mrs McNamee not to go on with the story, but she did. It was interesting and touching in some of its details, but since it is not relevant to this particular story I have decided not to include here.

Biddy

At the end of the nineteenth century the only good and reliable washerwomen that existed in England were women from our own ‘Emerald Isle’. It was often said that laundresses were “two a penny”, while real washerwomen were thin on the ground and all of them were Irish. What made them so valuable was that when an Irish Washerwoman promised to wash the muslin curtains as white as “a hound’s tooth”, and as sweet as “new mown hay;” she told the truth. But when she promised to “get them up like new” she usually fell short of her promise. In the vast majority of cases, the Irish Washerwoman often marred her own admirable washing abilities by a carelessness in the final process. She often made her starch in a hurry, though it required great patience in its blending. It had to be stirred incessantly, almost constant boiling, and in the cleanest of all large metal pots. Unfortunately, tradition and lack of education appeared to prevent her from accepting the superiority of powder over ‘laundry blue’, which was a household product that was used to improve the appearance of textiles, especially white fabrics. She would simply snatch the blue-bag, usually made from the “toe” of a stocking, from its storage place beside a shapeless lump of yellow soap, left over since the last wash. She would squeeze the bag into the starch, which she may have stirred with a dirty spoon. From that moment there could be no possibility of clear curtains, or clear anything.
“Biddy, these curtains were as white as snow before you starched them.”
“That’s true, ma’am dear.”
“They have now turned blue, Biddy.”
“Not all over, ma’am.”
“No, Biddy, not all over. But, here and there.”
“Ah, get away with ye, ma’am, will ye? Sure, it’s not that I mean. There’s a hole that’s worked in the blue-bag, bad luck to it, and more blue than I wanted got out. Sure, didn’t the starch get lumpy and became all bollocksed up?”
“It would not have got ‘lumpy’, Biddy, if it had been well blended.”
“Sure, didn’t I blend it like butter; but I just left off stirring for a minute to look at the parade.”
“Ah now, Biddy, an English laundress would not have stopped to look at a parade!”
This remark by her mistress offended Biddy’s scruples and she went off in a “huff,” muttering to herself that if they didn’t “look after a parade, they’d follow behind it. English laundresses indeed! Sure, they haven’t the power in their elbow to wash white.”
Biddy said all this, and more, for she was proud of being an Irishwoman, and wondered why anyone would prefer anything English to everything Irish. But, she knew that the fact remained that the actual labour necessary at the wash-tub is far better performed by the Irish than the English. But the order, neatness, and exactness required in “finishing off,” is better accomplished by the English than the Irish. This state of affairs, she accepted, was perfectly consistent with the national character of both nations.
Biddy Mahony was said by many to be the most useful person that they knew, and she was fully aware of that fact. But, she knew it, and yet she never allowed herself to be presumptuous. It was not only as a washerwoman that her talent shone out, and she got through as much hard work as any other two women. Nevertheless, as she says herself often said, “the mistress always finds fault with my finishing touches.” But, although she was not young, she was still a fine-looking woman with a large mouth that was always ready with a smile. She had the features of a person filled shrewd good humour, her keen grey eyes were alive to everything around her, not resting for a moment, and filled with female cunning. The borders of her cap were always twice as deep as they needed to be and flapped untidily about her face. She wore a coloured handkerchief inside a dark blue spotted cotton gown, which wrapped loosely in front, where it was held in place the string of her apron. Biddy’s hands and wrists had the appearance of being half-boiled, which looked more painful than it really was. She did not use as much soda as an English laundress would, but she did not spare her personal exertions, and rubbed most unmercifully. Then, one bitter frosty winter’s day, Biddy was seen standing near the laundry window, stitching away with busily.
“What are you doing, Biddy?”
“Oh, never heed me, ma’am.”
“Why, Biddy, what a state your left wrist is in! It is positively bleeding. In fact, it looks as if you have rubbed all the skin off.”
“And aren’t I going to put a skin on it?” she said, smiling through the tears which had been drawn from her eyes by the pain she was suffering, in spite of her efforts to conceal them. In her hands she was holding a double piece of wash leather which she was sewing together so as to cover her torn flesh. Now, that was heroism, and Biddy was a heroine, without even knowing it.
Biddy The Washerwoman 2Like many others of her sex and country, her heroism is that of being a patient, self-denying character and does not show her true thoughts to others. She was an extraordinary patient person, who could bear a great quantity of abuse and unkindness and knew quite well that to a certain degree she was living in an enemy’s country. Half the bad opinion of the “low Irish,” as the English often insultingly termed them, arose from old national prejudices, while the other half was created by themselves, by often presenting themselves as being provokingly uproarious, and altogether heedless of the manners and opinions of those people among whom they live. This, however, was not the case with Biddy. She had a great deal of cunning and tact. While you thought she was only pulling out the strings of her apron, she was always alert, listening, and understanding, like a stalking cat. If she decided to make some kind of quiet joke about the peculiarities of her employers, there was nothing particularly vicious in it. After all Biddy’s betters often did the same and called it “teasing”. Unfortunately, however, the poor are not always judged on the same level as the rich.
Among all the young servants in the house the Irish Washerwoman was always a favourite. She was cheerful, turned a cup to read someone’s fortune and usually, I am sorry to say, had half of a dirty and torn pack of cards in her pocket for the very same purpose. She would sing at her work, and through the wreath of curling steam that wound from the upraised skylight of the laundry, could be heard some old time-honoured melody, that in an instant brings the scenes and sounds of Ireland to the listener. She will soften the hearts of her listeners with “Danny Boy,” or “Noreen Bawn,” and then strike into “Galway Bay” or “St Patrick’s Day,” with the feeling and heart that only an Irish person can bring to the songs of the old country. The Old English servants regarded the Irish Washerwoman with deep suspicion. They thought she did too much work for the money she received, which reflected on attitude the “Missus” had toward their wages, and yet they were always ready enough to put their own “clothes” into the month’s wash, and expect Biddy to “pass them through the tub;” a favour she was always too wise to refuse.
The upper classes were happy that the management of their households did not bring any temptation to thievery, which they believed existed in the homes of the Dublin gentry. They believed that servants in Ireland were allowed what was termed “breakfast money,” which meant that they were not to eat their employers’ food but were to ‘look out’ for themselves. Not surprisingly, such a restriction was considered to be the greatest possible inducement to picking and stealing. English gentry were happy to believe that their English servants had no need to steal the necessaries of life, because they were fed, and they were treated as human beings. As a consequence, they thought that there was not a fraction of the extravagance, the waste, and the pilfering that took place in Irish kitchens. They were too blind to see that it was the system rather than the servant that was the true problem. Meanwhile, washerwomen like Biddy continue to adjust to every modification of system in every house she goes to. The only thing she cannot bear to hear is her country and its people being abused, even when such abuse takes the form of a joke. In such circumstances the blood would rise and her cheeks flush with anger, and some years ago there was an occasion when Biddy answered in an appropriate way. One thing about the Irish that lifts them above others is their earnest love for their country when they are absent from it. Your polite, diplomatic Irishman might look a little disconcerted when you question his country, and with an oily, easy, musical swing of his voice asks innocently just how you knew he was Irish. They might even suggest, “that people cannot help their misfortunes.” The working-class Irish, however, will not be so pleasant, just as Biddy did when she was challenged as to her nationality.
“Aren’t you the clever one, madam? I am Irish, sure, and my people before me, God be praised for it! I’d be a long and sorry to disgrace my country if I denied it, my lady. Fine men and women live in it as well as those who come out of it. Sure, it’s an awful pity that so many need to leave. It’s well enough for the likes of me to leave it, for I could do it no good. But, as to the gentry, the sod keeps them, and sure they might keep on the sod! Ye needn’t be afraid of me, my lady; I would do nothing to disgrace my country. I am not afraid of my character, or the work I do, for it’s all I have to be proud of in this wide world.”
How much more respect does this attitude deserve in every right-thinking mind, than any mean attempt to conceal a fact of which we all, as well as poor Biddy, have a right to be proud! Biddy’s reply to someone of her own social stature might have received a much different reply such as – “Am I Irish? I am to be sure! Do ye think I’m going to deny my country, God bless it?! Truly I am proud to be born Irish and to be called Irish! I cannot think of anything else that I would want to be!”
You should have a great deal of sympathy for poor Biddy, because her life has been one long-drawn scene of incessant, almost heart-rending labour. From the time she became eight years old, Biddy earned her own bread and it is a wonder that having endured such a hard life that Biddy retained her habitual cheerfulness. Every evening her hearty laughter could be heard echoing through the house, while she would treat the servants at every kitchen Christmas party with a lively Irish jig. But, one Christmas, Biddy was not as happy as she usually was. One of the pretty housemaids had, for the past two or three years, made it a regular request that Biddy should put her own wedding ring in the kitchen pudding. No one knew why Jenny continually made such a request because she never had the luck to find it in her slice of the pudding. But, she did.
Christmas eve was always a merry night in the homes of ‘the Quality’. The cook, in herBiddy The Washerwoman 3 kitchen, was puffed-up with her own importance and weighed her ingredients according to her recipe for “a one-pound or two-pound pudding.” She would inspect her larded turkey and pronounce her opinions upon the relative merits of the sirloin which was to be the “roast for the parlour,” and “the ribs” that were destined for the kitchen. Although she had a great deal of work to do, like all English cooks, she maintained a most sweet mood, because there was a great deal to eat. She looked proudly over the dozens of mince pies, the soup, the savoury fish, the huge bundles of celery, and the rotund barrel of oysters, in a manner that had to be seen to be believed. At the same time, the housemaid is equally busy in her department, while the groom smuggled in the mistletoe and the old butler slyly suspended from one of the bacon hooks in the ceiling before he kissed the cook beneath. The green-grocer’s boy would have been scolded for not bringing “red berries on all the holly.” Then the evening would be wound up with drinks, a half-gallon, of ale and hot elderberry wine, and a loud cheer would echo through the house when the clock struck twelve. In those times a family would be considered to be very poor if they had no meat, a few loaves of bread, and a few shillings, to distribute amongst some old pensioners on a Christmas Eve.
In that particular household, Biddy had been a positive necessity for many Christmas days, and just as many Christmas eves. She was never told to come, because it was an understood thing. Biddy would ring the gate bell every twenty-fourth of December, at six o’clock, and even the English cook would return her national salutation of “God save all here,” with cordiality. Jenny, as I have said, was her great ally and had been found at least sixty husbands, in the tea cups, in as many months. One Christmas Eve morning, however, Biddy didn’t come to the house. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, and still the maids were not up and at their work. They didn’t know what time it was because Biddy had not rung the bell and the entire house was collapsing into a state of commotion. The cook, in her panic, declared, “How will it all end? Isn’t it always the way with those Irish. The dirty and ungrateful woman. Who is going to heat the water, boil the ham, look after the celery, butter the tins or hold the pudding cloth?
“Or drop the ring in the kitchen pudding!” whimpered Jenny
Instead of the usual clattering domestic bustle of old Christmas, everyone looked sulky, and, as usual when a household is not fully awake in the early morning, everything went wrong. The lady of the house was not at all pleased with what was happening, but she had promised herself that she would never speak to a servant when she was angry. Instead, she put on her fur coat, and set out to see what had become of the poor industrious Irish woman. She went to the place where Biddy lived on Gore Lane and made her way into the small cottage that the washerwoman rented. Although it was not a tidy house it was, nevertheless, clean. She found Biddy sitting over the embers of a dying fire and, instead of being greeted with the usual beaming smile, the washerwoman turned away from her and burst into tears. This was not what she had expected and the anger she had felt back at the house now disappeared entirely.
Biddy had happily rid herself from the burden of a drunken husband several years ago, and she worked hard to support three little children without ever having thought once about sending them to a workhouse. She had people for whom she washed at their own houses, and even took in work at her small cottage. To help her in this task she employed a young girl called Lisa, whom she had taken in from the streets and saved her from ‘a fate worse than death’. Biddy had found Lisa starving on the streets and she brought fever amongst her children. At the same time Biddy lost much work through her charitable act but she nursed the young girl through her sickness, and never regretted having befriended a motherless child. People who demonstrate such charity to others deserve any praise they might receive, and Biddy acted like a mother to the girl.
Turning to her employer Biddy began to explain her absence, and the cause of her tears, “I came home last night, as usual, more dead than alive, until I got sitting down with the children. As usual I put two or three potatoes on to heat on the stove and then, tired as I was, I thought I would iron out the few small items that Lisa had put in to wash. These included a clean cap and handkerchief, and the aprons for to-day, because you like to see me nice and presentable. My boy got a prize at school, where I took care to send him that he would get the education that makes the poor rich. Well, I noticed that Lisa’s hair was hanging in ringlets down her face, and I says to her, ‘My honey, if Annie was you, and she’s my own, I’d make her put up her hair plain. It’s the way the quality wears and I think it would be good enough for you Lisa.’ Then says she to me, ‘It might do for Annie, but for me it’s different because my mother was a tradeswoman.’ I tell you, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from hurting her feelings by telling her exactly what her mother was and bringing the blush of shame to the girl’s cheeks.
“But I waited until our work was finished over, and, picking her out the two potatoes, and sharing, as I always did, my half pint of beer with her, I tried to reason with her. Then I looked across to where my three sleeping children were lying, little Jimmy’s cheek was blooming like a rose, on his prize book, which he had taken into bed with him, and I promised God that although my heart was drawn more to my own flesh and blood, I would look after her as I would them.
“She didn’t answer me, but put the potatoes aside, and said, ‘Mother, go to bed.’ I let her call me mother,” continued Biddy, “it’s such a sweet sound, and doesn’t do any harm. Saying might have helped her not feel so alone in the world. The word can be a comfort to many a breaking heart, and can calm down many a wild one. As old as I am, I still miss my mother still! ‘Lisa,’ says I, ‘I’ve heard my own children’s prayers, why not kneel down dear and say your own?’
“‘My throat’s so sore,’ said she, ‘I can’t say them out aloud. Don’t you see I could not eat the potatoes?’ This was about half past twelve, and I had spoken to the police to give me a call at five. But when I awoke, the grey of the morning filled the room. I knew where I should be, and I quickly got dressed in my clothes. Then, hearing a policeman below the window, I said to him, ‘Please, could you tell me what time it is and why you didn’t call me?’ ‘It’s half past seven,’ says he, ‘and sure the girl, when she went out at half past five, said you were already up.’
‘My God! What girl?’ I asked him, turning all over like a corpse, and then I missed my bonnet and shawl, and saw my box empty. Lisa had even taken the book from under the child’s cheek. But that wasn’t all. I’d have forgiven her for the loss of the clothes, and the bitter tears she caused my innocent child to cry. I’d even forgive her for making my heart grow older in half an hour, than it had grown in its whole life before, but my wedding ring, ma’am? That girl’s head often had this shoulder for its pillow, and I would throw this arm over her, so. Oh, ma’am, could you believe it? The girl stole my wedding ring off my hand, the very hand that had saved and slaved for her! The ring! Oh, there is many a tear I have shed on it, and many a time, when I’ve been next to starving, and it has glittered in my eyes, that I’ve been tempted to part with it, but I couldn’t. It had grown thin, like myself, with the hardship of the world, and yet when I’d look at it twisting on my poor wrinkled finger, I’d think of the times gone by, of him who had put it on, and would have kept his promise but for the temptation of drink, and what it leads to. In those times, when trouble would be crushing me into the earth, I’d think of what I once heard that a ring was a thing like eternity, having no beginning nor end. I would turn it, and turn it, and turn it and find comfort in believing that the little penance here was nothing in comparison to that without a beginning or an end that we were to go to hereafter. It might be in heaven, or it might, God forbid, be in the other place; and,” said poor Biddy, “I drew a great deal of consolation from that, and she knew it, the serpent. She that I shared my children’s food with, knew it, and, while I slept the heavy sleep of hard-work, she had the poison in her to rob me! She robbed me of the only treasure, barring the children, that I had in this world! I’m a great sinner; for I can’t say, God forgive her, nor I can I bring myself to work. The entire thing has driven me away from my duty and Jessie, the craythur, always laid ever so much store by that ring, on account of the little innocent charms. Altogether, this has been the worst Christmas day that ever came to me. Oh, sure, I wouldn’t have that girl’s heart in my breast for a golden crown, her ingratitude of beats the world!”
Lisa’s actions were truly the most callous case of ingratitude that I have ever known. What a wretch she was to rob the only friend she ever had, while she slept in the very bed where she had been attended to, and cared for, so unceasingly. “She could have taken all that I had in the world, if only she had left me that ring” Biddy repeated continually, while she rocked herself backwards and forwards over the fire. “The little bit of money, the rags, and the child’s book. She could have had them all and I would not have cared a bit. I could have forgiven her from my heart, but I can’t forgive her for taking my ring. Not for taking my wedding ring!”
This was not the end of it. The girl was soon traced and taken into custody by the police and, that same day Biddy was told she must go to the police station to identify the prisoner. “Me,” she exclaimed, “Sure, I never was in a police station before and don’t know what to say other than she took it.”
In an English police court of the period an Irish case always created a bit of jollity. The magistrates would smile at each other, while the court reporter cut his pencil and arranged his note-book, and the clerk of the court would cover the lower part of his face with his hand, to conceal the smile that grew around his mouth. They watched, amused, as Biddy attempted an awkward curtsey before she began to speak. She began by wishing their honours a merry Christmas and plenty of them, before expressing her hope that they might continue to use the power of their office to do good until the end of their days. Then, when Biddy saw the creature whom she had cared for so long, in the custody of the police, she was completely overcome and mixed her evidence with so many pleas that the girl be shown mercy, that the magistrates were sensibly affected. Though there had only been a short time between Lisa’s running away and her capture, she had pawned the ring and spent all the money. There were, however, at least twenty people who extended their helping hand to the Irish Washerwoman with money to redeem the pledge.
Poor Biddy had never been so rich before in all her life, but that did not help console her for the sadness she felt at the sentence that was passed upon Lisa and it was a long time before she was able to regain her usual spirits. She weakened, and she grieved, and when the spring began to advance a little, and the sun began to shine, her misery became quite troublesome. Biddy’s continual cry was, “for the poor sinful creature who was shut up among stone walls and would be sure to come out worse than she went in!”
The old English cook lived to become thoroughly ashamed of the things she had both thought and said about Biddy, and Jenny held her up on every possible occasion as a being the ideal image of an Irish Washerwoman.

Beggars

This is a tale of Famine Ireland in a time when a Viceroy of the British crown ruled in Dublin and the peasant Irish were dying because they could not afford to eat. They called it a famine but there was plenty of food under British control and they refused to release it to feed the millions that starved throughout Ireland. There were beggars in the towns trying to get enough to feed themselves and their children, but they were not wanted and great efforts were made to remove them. As far as the authorities were concerned it was better to have those starving people out of sight and out of mind.

In the towns the authorities used the offices of the ‘Poor-House’ and the police force to considerably reduce the presence of the Irish peasant beggars. But, in the countryside and remote mountain areas ‘the beggar’ had become and still remained an institution. The peasant beggars abhorred the very idea of the ‘Workhouse’ because of its slave conditions and lack of hygiene, brutal discipline, and backbreaking work. The British put such abhorrence by the peasantry as their inherent stubbornness. It was said they preferred any amount of suffering to confinement, enforced hygiene, and the discipline involved. But, what free man does not prefer the fresh air and freedom to choose, rather than the bars of a jail and being beaten into submission. The following gives a view of the Irish Catholic Peasantry of famine times as seen by those paid allegiance to the British Crown.

It is often reported in commentaries of the time that the Irish poor are indifferent to the basic comforts of life, preferring a more barbaric way of life. It was said that they love freedom, sleeping under a hedge or under the sky eating what and where they can. They were said to be like the dog that preferred freedom and getting the odd scrap of food, to the good feeding and luxurious living conditions of his tied-up friend.

A wretched old beggar woman, decrepit and barefoot, appeared on the front-door stepsbeggars 2 of a house that she was in the habit of visiting. Those who would give her money would try to convince her to enter the poorhouse for her own good, but however delicately they approached the subject the old woman would reject any suggestion of entering such a place.

“Now, Biddy, it is all very well to go about the place in summer, but in this bitter wintry weather, would you not be better to go where you would have a good bed and shelter, be warm, fed, and comfortably clothed. It can’t be good for you to be shivering with the cold in ragged clothes, and always hungry. Sure, why not try it only for a wee while, you know, until summer comes back? Go on, Biddy, why not try the poorhouse?”

“The poor house!” she cried out angrily. “Sure I’d rather die than go there! I’d rather lie down under the snow at the side of the road and die! But sure the neighbours will help me. There isn’t one that will refuse me a seat by their fireside, or a bed for the night, or maybe a bite and sup of an odd time. And you’re going to give me something yourself, my lady, darling, you are! Don’t I see it in your face? You’re going to bring out the dust of dry tea and the grain of sugar, and the couple of coppers to the poor old granny. Ah yes! And maybe the maids will have an old cast-off petticoat to throw to her, for to keep the life in her old carcase this perishing day.”

It must be said that before the famine of 1845, which brought about a change in the food of the Irish peasant, systematic begging was an annual custom. Potatoes were then the sole food of the peasant classes, and the farmers paid their labourers by allowances of potato-ground measuring a half or quarter acre, and with seed to till it. Money, therefore, was not very often circulated among the peasantry. There was usually and interval of some six weeks between the eating of the last of the old potatoes and the coming in of the new potatoes. This was known as “The Bitter Time” and there was always some privation and distress to be suffered. In such times entire families might leave their cabin, locking the door behind them, and be seen walking the country roads, while the father would go ‘harvesting’ or getting work where he could. As the family went along the roads, stopping at every cabin on their route, a few potatoes would be handed to them, depending upon the stock the donors held. Often, by nightfall, the bag carried on the mother’s back would have enough potatoes to provide a good meal for the family. By such means they continued to survive until the new potatoes were fit to dig. At that time the cabin-door would be unlocked, and plenty of food to eat was once again the order of the day.

In those days, as well as the present, the charity of the poor to the poor in Ireland is widespread and very touching. The people of our country are famed for their good-natured ways and kindly impulses. Moreover, they attach a superstitious, almost religious value to the blessing of the poor, with an equal dread of their curse. There is a story concerning a fatal instance of the latter feeling, which occurred many years ago near the city of Limerick.

A young man fell in love with a girl, but she did not return his affection, and plainly told him that it would be useless to persevere in his pursuit, because she could never care for him. He was broken-hearted by his failure and, fleeing the country, he went to America. The young man’s mother had lost her only son, her pride and joy, and her only support. Being a widow she was maddened with rage and despair at what had happened. The bereaved mother gathered her things and went straight from the ship to the young woman’s house. There she knelt down upon the threshold and, stretching her arms skyward, she called down Heaven’s vengeance on the young girl. With frantic movements she called down terrible curses upon the girl’s head.

By the broken heart of her son; by the widow’s hearth made desolate; by the days and nights of lonely misery before her, she cursed the girl! The young girl was totally appalled by the widow’s bitter words and was superstitiously convinced that her terrible curses would grievously affect her life. She never recovered from the terror and the shock to her nerves of this vindictive assault upon her. The young woman’s health went into a rapid decline, haunted by the old woman’s dreadful curses, and her death confirmed the popular belief in such things.

We can now return to our subject of beggars. Although the use of Indian-corn meal and griddle-bread as articles of food in place of the exclusive potato helped reduce annual begging migrations. The other factors brought into play were an increased wage and the payment of labour in cash instead of kind. The annual scene of beggars moving along the roads soon disappeared, but beggars were still to be found, especially in the tourist season when they would once again be as numerous as flies in summer, and equally troublesome.

Once there was a party of English clergymen visiting Killarney’s beautiful Lake District where they were pestered by beggars, as most travellers usually were. These reverend gentlemen had, for greater convenience, decided to wear less formal clothing, except for one who preferred to wear his clerical outfit, with all its adornments. But, his choice caused him to be mistaken by the local peasants as a Roman Catholic priest wherever he went. He was very startled in the town of Tralee, when a girl threw herself down on her knees before him in the muddy street to ask for his blessing. The abject obeisance of the people to their priests in those days was not a sight to which an English clergyman was accustomed. He did, however, soon become accustomed to the position and even used it for the benefit of the entire group. They were tormented on one occasion the crush and cries of a crowd of beggars who followed them, and the English clergyman stopped quite suddenly. Drawing a line across the road with his walking stick, the clergyman told the followers, “Pass that mark, and the curse of the priest will be upon you!” In an instant the entire crowd of beggars had fled.

On another occasion this same clergyman used what he had learned in the cause of humanity. The party were travelling by jaunting car and, as they travelled up a steep hill, the driver began flogging the horse unmercifully.

“My friend,” said the clergyman, addressing the driver, “Do you know what will happen to you, if you do that, when you go to the next world?”

“O no, your Reverence. And sure how could I know that? What is it now?” pulling off his hat and looking very frightened.

“You will be turned into a horse, and devils will be employed to flog you, just as you’re now flogging that poor beast of yours.”

“Ah, don’t, yer Reverence! Don’t say that now! For the love of God, sir, don’t! And I’ll promise on my two knees to give him the best of treatment from this onward, and never to lay the whip into him that way again.”

For those of you who have witnessed the beggars in towns, you will undoubtedly agree that their remarks are often very caustic. They also indulge in personalities in a way more witty than polite, when they are unsuccessful in their demands. A late but very well-known Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, was remarkable for having a peculiarly shaped and very ugly nose. On one occasion while resisting the pleas of a woman for “a ha’penny for the honour of the blessed Virgin,” she turned upon him. “May the Lord forgive you! And may He may preserve your eyesight, for truly you have a terrible bad nose for spectacles.”

Another spiteful old hag of a woman came at a well known member of the aristocracy for alms, after following him down the entire length of what is now O’Connell Street. The baronet had tender feet, which with several other infirmities caused him to walk not to gracefully. “You won’t give it, won’t you?’ the woman cried out in an angry whine. “Well then, God help the poor! And look now, if your heart was as soft as your feet, it wouldn’t be in vain we’d be asking for your charity this day.”

“That the ‘grace of God’ may never enter into your house but on parchment!” was the terse and bitter curse in which another old woman gave vent to her wrathful disappointment. She knew that all writs were written on parchment, and had probably learned the formula with which they commence from cruel experience, “Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen, &c.”

There is, of course, the story of Captain Chevely and his meeting with beggars in Mullingar. When he was about to be quartered with his troop of men in the town, he was told by a friend that the place was infested with beggars. He was also told that his predecessor, the commanding of the previous troop, had been greatly annoyed by them. Chevely listened attentively and resolved to take measures to deal with the problem. On the night of his arrival at the hotel he summoned the waiter and said, “I am reliably informed that you have a great many beggars in this town.”

“Yes sir! We certainly have,” replied the waiter.

“I wish to see them all of them, collected together under the windows of this hotel. Do you think that could be managed?”

“Yes, if you wish, sir,” said the man, with the usual waiter-like readiness to promise everything under the sun, albeit he was a little taken aback by so unusual a request.

“Very well, let them be all here to-morrow at twelve o’clock precisely.”

It was a motley assembly of rags and wretchedness that was presented beneath the hotel windows the next day. The news had spread like wild-fire, and from every lane and alley of the town they came crowding in. There was the blind, the lame, the maimed, the aged beggars, deformed, idiots, and the idle in all their varieties. Curiosity and greed were equally on their minds, and the excitement of the eager crowd may be imagined. Then, when the captain appeared on the hotel balcony, a breathless silence came over the crowd.

“Are you all here?” he asked, “every one?”

“Every mother’s son of us, if it pleases your honour, except for Blind Bess with her crippled son, and the General.”

“Then call Blind Bess and the General,” instructed the captain. “I want you all here.”

“Sure enough, here’s Bess,” cried a voice, as a large fat beggar in the shape of a blind woman, with a sturdy cripple strapped on her shoulders, came in a hurry.

“And here’s the ‘General’ driving like a mad man up the street. But sure your honour won’t give him anything—a gentleman that keeps his carriage!” shouted a joker in the crowd. Coming along the street was a dilapidated old hand-cart, being dragged by a girl. It was covered at top with a piece of tattered oil-cloth, and from a hole cut in the middle of this protruded the head of ‘the General’, on which sat what remained of an old cocked-hat. The shrivelled face of the old cripple was half covered with a grizzly beard, and his rheumy eyes peered helplessly about in a feeble stare.

“Now,” said the captain, “ladies and gentlemen”. At this there was a murmur in the crowd, especially among the females.

“Ah then, bless his darling face, it is him that has the civil tongue in him, and knows how to speak to the poor!”

There’s not a bit of pride in him. No more than in an unborn baby!

“Sure anyone would know he was good man, you just have to look at him! Isn’t it written upon his features?”

“He’s no old misery like the one that was here before him, that old bastard never gave a poor man as much as a dog would keep in his fist.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are, I am told, all assembled here. I have requested your attendance in order to state that I have given, for your benefit, one pound to the parson, and one pound to the priest of the parish. And I further inform you that during my stay in Mullingar, not a single farthing beyond these sums will I bestow on any one of you!”

A howl of disappointment arose from the assembly, but the captain did not wait to note the effect of his words. He disappeared into his room in time to be out of reach of the chorus of abuse, which his enraged audience hurled at him after they got over their first surprise over—his speech.

Illustrations by Alicia Gale

I found this wonderful lady through my blog and her work is so good I had to recommend it to you… Have a look at this stuff and see for yourself. Thanks to Alicia for her permission to reproduce these on my site

Jim Woods

It was brought to my attention that I never shared my finished series of fairy tale illustrations based on the months of the year. This was a huge project, much bigger than I ever thought it would be, but I’m so pleased and proud to be able to say I did it. January: A Fresh […]

via Finished Fairy Tale Calendar — Alicia Gaile

Curious Coincidences

Superstition is, and will probably remain, one of the major characteristics of the Irish people. One of the greatest sources of superstition, however, and one which has been the most productive of what are styled “well-founded and authenticated stories of supernatural occurrences,” is that ever changing ‘monster’ that is known in all its forms by the title of “Remarkable or Curious Coincidences.”

When events, which are precisely similar in detail, occur, they are considered coincidental. Some may consider them to be remarkable, given that these events are usually simple and ordinary. But, if these precisely similar events were repeated then they were considered to be a wonder. Quite recently, I was given an excellent example of this when I heard mention of a particularly curious coincidence having occurred not far from my home. It was the story of three men having been found drowned at various times during one winter season. Each body was found in the same river, at virtually the same place, and each wore two shirts. From that time it became a very strong belief among the locals that wearing two shirts was very unlucky.

Some people would suggest, however, that those people who would allow themselves to be guided by such beliefs would find their lives very burdensome. To be guided in their actions by these observations would require them to be in a state of constant alertness for the rest of their lives. The following story will, for instance, demonstrate the necessity of a person getting to know the names of fellow travellers, in case anyone with the name of Paddy Murphy be among them.

There was a time when the children in a large inland town rarely if ever saw the sea, unless they went on a day excursion organised by a local church group. In many of these seaside resorts enterprising persons often organise boat trips for fishing, sight-seeing, or simply for the experience of being on the open water. This was such in a resort that was, at one time, reachable by train from our home town. On one September morning a small pleasure boat with forty-one persons on board set out to travel down the Lough to the sea. It was a windy day, but not stormy enough to give any concern. When the boat reached the middle of the Lough the boat was overturned and only one man was saved. This fortunate man was called Paddy Murphy, a passenger on an excursion from m home town. Less than ten years after this incident a similar fate befell the twenty-five passengers aboard a small excursion craft. Again, only one man survived the incident, and he was called Paddy Murphy.

There are people who put a lot of credence in such coincidences, while others have belief in such things at all. Some people who have heard this story actually fear to trust their lives on any kind of boat with any man called Paddy Murphy. A little local knowledge and calm reflection, however, would go quite a way to removing such apprehensions. There are very few, if any, events in this life that cannot be traced back to natural causes.

The name of Murphy is very common in my home town, and Patrick, shortened to Paddy, is of course a favourite Christian name throughout all Ireland. There is every possibility, therefore, that persons with the name of Murphy, and very possibly even Paddy Murphy, were lost amongst the passengers on each of those occasions. But, the fact that people from the same town were on the excursions on each of those days appears to have been overlooked, while the coincidence of the individual saved on each occasion being of the same name was recorded. The events could have been simply accounted for by the ordinary rules of calculating odds or chances. Where the name of Paddy Murphy was common, there was certainly a greater chance of a person of that name being saved than one of any other, and, as has been remarked previously, no notice was taken of just how many Paddy Murphys had perished in these events.

© Jim Woods Nov. 2017 (www.irelandloreandtales.wordpress.com)