In the past the Irish peasantry never thought, even for one moment, that a child abducted from its home would have been killed and buried in the cold earth somewhere. In their minds they imagined that the missing child was living among the fairies, although this belief did not lessen the heartbreak felt by the parents. They were convinced that their child was now condemned to endure, if not enjoy, all the changes in circumstances they would experience in a life that was constrained by their exile from heaven and earth. When the child was not restored again to its parents, it was assumed by the entire community that the child’s life was being prolonged to an indefinite period while it lived among the fairy-folk.
The idea that the fairy-folk practiced human abduction was held as being true among the Irish peasantry of days long passed. Today, when a child goes missing, or is abducted, all sorts of alarm bells begin to ring in our society. Some are returned unharmed, but most are found alive or dead, but all suffered at the hands of evil people. But, there are still some of whom no trace has been found. In many cases within Irish peasant homes those children who suddenly became sickly, or acted strangely, were often called changelings. It was said that the original child had been abducted from their home by the fairy-folk and replaced with an old, decrepit, sickly, emaciated ugly fairy child. The human parents almost expected such a thing to happen, especially when they knew that the fairy-folk prized young and lovely mortal children.
To guard against such things happening to children the midwives were accustomed to giving newly-born children a small spoonful of whisky, mixed with earth, as its first food. This was a charm intended to preserve the child from any extraordinary spell that may be cast upon them by the fairies. Special care was taken to watch over all new-born babies and to guard them until after they had been christened. Only then would they be considered free from the threat of abduction, or changed for a deformed, evil fairy child.
Although the peasant woman feared for her newborn child, especially if it was a handsome, fit, and pleasing child. But, it was not only children that were subjected to abduction and forced exile from their homes. Records speak of mortal women, who had recently been confined in childbirth, were also subject to abduction by the fairy-folk, who took them to the fairy realm where they would be forced to suckle and nurse fairy-born infants.
In Irish folklore, Changelings are said to have an inclination for carrying out certain grotesque pranks. They were known to mysteriously obtain a set of pipes, which they would carry under their arm, and they would often sit up in their cradle to perform a variety of airs with great flourish, as well as some strange grimaces. When the Changeling plays lively jigs, reels and hornpipes on that instrument, the people living in the cottage immediately began to dance wildly despite their reservations. Though they might be ready to drop with exhaustion the dancers are unable to stop their dancing until the Changeling stops playing.
Despite all the hilarious whims and oddities that a changeling might possess, it was still regarded as a very unwelcome family intruder. It was not unknown for the fairy child to be thrown across the fire’s hearth to attempt to eject him from the household. He would then suddenly vanish up through the open chimney, all the while calling on vengeance and shouting curses, as well as all kinds of terrible names, against the family that had sheltered him for so long.
The other method of removing the changeling froma cabin was to use a clean shovel to pick it up and place it on the centre of a dung-hill. In the meantime, the parents still believed that their own children would be returned to them no matter how long they had been absent. Men and women with special knowledge of the fairy-folk, called ‘fairy-doctors’ were called upon to direct certain prayers that would ensure the true child would return. The verses of these prayers were usually chanted in Irish. The following are the lines of a prayer that was once used for this reason and is translated into English and recorded Rev. John O’Hanlon (1870) :-
“Fairy-men and women all,
List! – it is your baby’s call;
For on the dung-hill’s top he lies,
Beneath the wide, inclement skies,
Then come with coach and sumptuous train,
And take him to your mote again.
For if ye stay till cocks shall crow,
You’ll find him like a thing of snow, –
A pallid limp, a child of scorn,
A monstrous brat of fairies born.
But ere you bear the boy away,
Restore the child you took instead;
When, like a thief, the other day,
You robbed my infant’s cradle bed,
But, give me back my only son,
And I’ll forgive the harm you done;
And nightly, for your gamboling crew,
I’ll sweep the hearth and kitchen too;
And leave you free your tricks to play,
Whene’er you choose to pass this way.
Then, like good people, do incline
To take your child and give back mine.”
When these words, or words like them, had been recited the Fairy-Doctors would retire to an adjoining cottage, closing the door carefully behind them and await whatever might happen, while they repeated some additional prayers and incantations. Any noise, whether caused by the elements or a passing vehicle, was quickly put down as due to the approach or departure of a fairy troop. When the door was opened sometime afterwards these so-called ‘Doctors’ would confidently declare that the true child had been returned. The poor emaciated being atop of the dung-hill was then brought into the cabin, and its deluded parents were told that their child would not long survive. The subsequent death of the child through mistreatment and malnourishment appeared to confirm the prediction made by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’. Each occasion added to the reputation already established by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’ among the Irish peasantry.
Children, however, were not the only occupants of the Raths who had been abducted. The fairy-folk would take a fancy to the pipes used by accomplished pipers, as well as the instruments used by other famous musicians. These people would often be abducted and brought to the underground and underwater habitations of the fair-folk. Unfortunately for these musicians, they had to play their music for the finely dressed, frisky little gentlemen and ladies. While the fairies danced the musicians played, until they were almost dead with fatigue. One saving grace, however, was that the fairy-folk were very conscientious about giving out good servings of refreshments and, usually before morning, those whom they had abducted would be freed. Sometimes, however, the musician was invited to stay with the fairy-folk but, if he preferred to return home to the land of mortals, he was allowed to go freely. But, the fairies will take away the musician’s instrument and replace it with one that is much more perfect and sweeter toned. Moreover, the fame of having been abducted to the land of the fairy-folk and having been given such a gift will establish the musician’s place in society, and his future financial prospects.
Likewise, midwives were said to be abducted to the fairy raths as pillion passengers on fairy horses that conducted them into the invisible abodes of the fairy-folk. Should these women take any food or drink while they are with the fairy-folk they cannot return home. But, these women are constantly pressed to eat and drink by the fairies, who constantly presented luxurious meals and drinks to them, upon which are placed the spell of detention.
We constantly hear stories about the gifts that the fairies can and have bestowed upon mortals like us. The fairies, however, were known to be less free in bestowing the riches of gold and silver to humans as a reward. Even when such riches were offered, those people so rewarded still found it very difficult to get their hands on it. There are many stories told about ‘crocks of gold’ and other treasures given by the fairy-folk that usually turn into stones, dry leaves, old bones, or something equally as worthless.
The Irish ‘fairy-man’, or ‘Fairy-women’, sometimes called ‘Fairy-Doctors’, were supposed to hold some mysterious sort of communication and influence with the fairies that lived in the motes and raths of the country. There were, of course, many rumours that these ‘fairy-doctors’ were impostors, who were originally changelings themselves. Such was the wariness of such people by the peasantry that they were generally relegated to living an almost hermit existence and a deep veil of mystery shrouded everything that they did.
They said that they were very well acquainted with all the secret things of the past, present and future. It was, allegedly, within their power to cure all illnesses and diseases that affect both man and beast. They said they could assist in the discovery and restoration of lost property, as well as give descriptions that would assist in the detection of the thief and their prosecution. People would go to them to have their fortunes told, because it was believed that they had knowledge of all matters that were of concern to the person. It was said that the fairies could cause cream to produce great amounts of cheese and the ‘fairy-doctors’ would take great care to impress on the minds of the ignorant that it would be desirable to make friends with the fairy-folk. This would prevent any evil effects caused by fairy resentment which could sometimes be regarded as fatal to the individual against whom it is directed.
The ‘fairy-doctors’ would often collect herbs and plants over which they would mumble certain spells and then use them as charms and cures for various troubles. These plants and herbs were considered to have been specially impregnated by some mysterious fairy influence that is efficacious for the healing arts. Sometimes, ‘Knowledgeable Old Women’, also called ‘Fairy-women’, were often known to exercise charms that did not encourage people to have confidence in their success. For example, an herb, or a bit of burnt sod taken from a the bonfire on St. John’s night in midsummer was often sewn into the clothes of women. It was a charm that was supposed to protect the wearer from any fairy plots, or abductions.
It was also said that there was an ointment that midwives used to smear on the fairy-children that, if rubbed on the eye of a mortal, would enable the mortal to see the spiritless skeleton of fairy illusions in the underground halls and palaces. Old friends and neighbours would often be discovered among the fairy followers in this manner. The fairies themselves, during their dancing and singing, also became visible to the eye that was rubbed with this ointment. Should a mortal make any sign to show that they could see the, the fairies would ask, “Do you see me?”
If answered in the positive they would be asked, “Which eye?”
Once informed the fairy will thrust his finger, or even puff his breath into that eye, and blind the incautious person, causing the charm to be removed.
As a final point of interest, the ‘Fairy-man’ was also called a ‘Charmer’ or ‘Cow-Doctor’ because he undertook to remove any fairy charms from sick cattle by preparing herbs and potions by spring well. So secretive was this process that he would not allow anyone to approach the site while he was creating his various concoctions. In some cases, particularly in the West of Ireland, cows were often driven into certain natural springs or loughs that were designated as being holy. This was done, usually, to restore the normal supply of dairy milk and butter, if the owner believed it had been reduced by some supernatural means. Considered to be a necessary part of the charm a bit of fresh butter was thrown into the water while certain incantations were sung.
Throughout the world, there are tales of Shamans; Medicine Men; Witch Doctors; Faith Healers; Quacks; Bone-Setters who are known to the people of their district for having cures for a wide variety of ailments, hurts, and diseases. t was no different in the Ireland of bygone years, when the majority of the population were poor, peasantry who could not afford proper medical assistance and depended on such people as these to aid them in their need. There were certain women, often called ‘Wise Women’ who had no education but were able to work their charms to help those who were ill. By some means, natural or mysterious, they had discovered the healing power contained within certain plants. In an island of green fields, woodlands, mountains, and lakes they knew the plants and herbs that gave some relief to every part of the body, both internally and externally.
There were tales that these healers had lived among the fairy folk or other strange unearthly people from whom they had learned their magic charms. Some even specialised in their area of expertise and became known as Fairy Doctors, Cow Doctors, and Horse Doctors, each one being educated by the unseen spirits in their own Irish language. Their success in the different districts in which they worked made some famous all over the whole island as their reputations grew and people sought them out in their desperation. Not all of these healers could cure all the ailments that people had, but there were a few who could almost do the impossible and became famous for their cures, especially those who succeeded in healing a patient whom the medical doctors had failed. Some healers were acclaimed by a superstitious people to be able to bring back the dead with the ‘Slanlus’ and the ‘Garblus’ which were the same herbs that revived the Lord after his death on the Cross.
‘Slanlus’, a ‘Ribwort Plantain’, which is a perennial weed with almost worldwide distribution and grow aggressively. The leaves would be plucked fresh, cut, chewed up and applied to the sore. Apparently, it was known to prevent blood poisoning and encourage healing. ‘Garblus’, better known to us as the ‘Dandelion’ was considered as being able to cure the world … “and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that were with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not one could be got to pierce His heart till a dark man came and said, “Give me the spear, and I’ll do it,” and the blood that sprang out, touched his eyes and they got their sight.
And it was after that, His Mother and Mary and Joseph gathered their herbs and cured His wounds. These are the best of the herbs, but they are all good, and there isn’t one among them but would cure seven diseases. I’m all the days of my life gathering them, and I know them all, but it isn’t easy to make them out. Sunday evening is the best time to get them, and I was never interfered with. Seven “Hail Marys,” I say when I’m gathering them, and I pray to our Lord and to St. Joseph and St. Colman. And there may be some watching me, but they never meddled with me at all.”Lady Augusta Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920).
There were also healers who were known to have cures for cattle and other animals, as well as cures for human being diseases and injuries. There were those, like many today, who claimed that they have the cure for a bald-head and can make hair grow on any skin irrespective of age. Below is a shortlist of ailments and some of the cures suggested for them, quite a few of which are still in use today.
Jaundice – “Jaundice” itself is not a disease, but a medical term that describes yellowing of the skin and eyes. Although it isn’t a disease, Jaundice is a symptom of several possible underlying illnesses, many of which are serious and can lead to death if untreated. It is formed there is too much bilirubin in a person’s system, Bilirubin being a yellow pigment created by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. In normal circumstances the liver would rid the body bilirubin along with old red blood cells, exhibiting Jaundice may indicate a serious problem with the function of your red blood cells, liver, gallbladder, or pancreas, caused by such things as Hepatitis; Cancer; Anaemia; Liver Failure; etc.
Modern medical advances have helped make Jaundice less severe than it used to be in times when it was not known what it indicated. There were several holistic cures practiced by the Healers in Ireland, one of which was made from a weed (Chickweed), the seedless plant and not the female variety. The weed was pounded into a pulp to extract the juice, which was then boiled in stout and sweetened with sugar. The resulting mixture was then squeezed, strained and given to the patient, and was said to be a sure remedy. It doesn’t sound to be a particularly pleasant concoction for a person to drink but, maybe, not as much as some other remedies that were used. One other remedy required ten snails to be boiled in a cup of water until they disappeared, and the cup was then strained and given to the affected person to drink. Some patients were even encouraged to drink their own urine, which was made sweet with sugar and lemon juice and was said to cure the sufferer when other remedies failed them.
Whooping Cough – We all know the dangers to children who suffer from whooping cough, or ‘Chin-cough’ as it was once know in Ireland. Before vaccination and modern medicines helped reduce the instance of this terrible child disease, it was a major cause of infant mortality and was not unknown to visit the older people of a community. The Healers in Ireland used a small white flower shaped like a chalice, which was known as ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Chalice’, or ‘Lady of the Valley’, which was boiled in milk. Another cure employed to relieve the suffering of the infected was heated asses milk, given to the patient to drink in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In some cases, the milk that a ferret leaves behind after it has eaten is heated and given to the patient to drink. A more strange cure for ‘Chin-cough’ was a hair from the tail of a white horse being boiled in milk, which is then given to the patient to drink. One tale spoke of a person in the house. where the sick person is, would see a man driving or riding a white horse and going to him would say, “Man with the white horse give me a cure, for the chin-cough” The man on the horse would then give the hair from the horse’s tail to be boiled in milk, or Poitin.
Warts – Warts are one of those things that can plague both humans and animals. I have heard of one remedy for warts in animals that was said never to fail, and the truth of that statement is in the story that the ‘Wise-Woman’ was visited by ailing animals being brought to her from all parts. The remedy that she is said to have used for curing warts in animals was said to contain the following ingredients i.e. 1 oz Tincture of Spanish Fly; 3.5 ozs Compounded Camphor Liniment; 3.5 ozs Soap Liniment; and a bit of soot which was said to thicken the mixture. The accuracy of this prescription cannot be vouched for and this may have been only some of the ingredients required.
Warts on human beings is a widespread ailment which, I would say 90% of us have suffered, and used modern treatments to have them removed or medically burned off. In the days of the healers, when these modern medicines were unknown, people were told to acquire a black snail and stick it on a thorn from the Whitethorn Bush (‘Fairy Tree’) and the wart subsequently rubbed against the same snail each morning, for nine mornings, before breaking their fast. It was said that as a result, the wart would fade away as the snail withered on the thorns. A less gruesome remedy, however, called for warts to have ‘fasting spit’ rubbed upon them each morning for nine mornings and this would cure them.
Some patients were told to carry a bag of stones, one for each wart, which was then thrown one by one over the shoulder in the hope that the warts would be passed on to the finder of the stones and removed from the sufferer. Another stone, known as ‘Bluestone’ is considered to be a cure. “Bluestone” is a cultural name often given to a number of building stone varieties, including limestone, which is quarried in Counties Carlow, Galway, and Kilkenny. This was also considered a cure for ‘wildfire’ on the lips.
Some of the other old prescriptions for warts included the patient carrying dampened Washing Soda in a pocket and then, rubbed on the wart several times a daily. There was also the scrapings from the inside of an Oyster Shell mixed into a paste and applied to warts. In the same way, the juice from the stems of a ‘Dandelion’ should be smeared on the wart daily. It was also said that if you were journeying someplace and, by chance, came across a small hollow in a limestone block that is filled with water then the wart should be bathed in that water at least three times, and it will fall away. There was also the tradition of rubbing a piece of bacon on the wart, which is then taken from the house and placed under a stone. In a few days, the patient would do the same thing, followed a few days after that by a similar action, then the wart was said to vanish when the bacon had gone.
‘The Spool of the Breast’ – The spool is a bone which is found under the middle – rib of a person’s chest, and it can be displaced by overexerting yourself or straining yourself by lifting heavy weights at the front of the body, causing the spool to fall down on the stomach. It was said that the raising of the spool of the breast was a cure peculiar to the local bonesetter. People become very weak and unable to work when their spool falls, and the bone-setter is immediately called. It was a complaint that affected people both young and old, and the ‘Bonesetter’ raises the spool of the breast by using his fingers in a specific manner, which took at least five minutes to complete. During the ‘operation’ the patient would sit in a chair and would often faint during the procedure. On occasion, the ‘Bone-setter’ would raise the spool of the breast using a lighted candle or cup, although I am personally unsure of how this procedure was carried out. Although these operations were continuing in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical fraternity gave no credit to the cure much as they do today with holistic medicine. There have been, incidents when sufferers were sent to the hospital and x-rayed, and doctors could not cure it. But, the local ‘Bone-setter’ was successful where the doctor failed.
Chilblains and Corns – Chilblains are small, but itchy swellings on the skin which arise as a reaction to cold temperatures, and they most commonly affect the extremities of the body e.g. toes. One common cure prescribed by the local healers was to rub in the affected areas a mixture made from salt and lemon juice, or rubbing in Paraffin Oil. Other remedies used included measures of whiskey or Poiteen briskly rubbed into the areas affected. Also, at this time, it was widely held that unsalted butter was good for both chilblains and rashes of the body. Local tradition, in fact. said that unsalted butter was a great cure for anything, even on the outside of the body, while a drop of good, hot poiteen was a cure for the flu or any ailment of the body’s interior.
Corns, much as they are today, were a regular and common ailment among people, on all areas of their feet. For Corns that appeared on the soles of the feet, people were told that they should wear insoles with holes cut in them where the corns are. But a common remedy for Corns that was employed in these days was the use of ‘Comfry’, which is a weed-like ‘Docken.’ This plant was cut fresh and the root was washed in clean water. The plant would then be pulped into a paste and, when cold, applied to the area in a cloth bandage and prevents them from becoming inflamed. As a first resort, however, some would be told that they should walk in their bare feet through the bog, assured that this would cause the corns to fall out.
Sore Back, Sore Head, and Sore Throat – It was common for the healers to make an embrocation that could be used on a sore-back. I have heard that the following is a recipe for just such an embrocation, but I cannot guarantee that this is complete – Mix one noggin of Whiskey/Poitin; One noggin of Turpentine; One noggin of Vinegar; The white of two eggs; one pound of ‘Castile’ Soap; 60 grains of Sulphur Zinc; 120 grains of ‘Sugar Lead’. I have also read that some people would go to a local (monastic) graveyard and entered through a hole in the wall and went out again through another hole in the wall to cure the pain in their back. In fact, it is told that certain men came to rob the monastery at one time and they were immediately struck dead and turned to stones. it is said that these stones are still to be seen, standing up in the field, just outside the graveyard wall at ‘Tempaill Mologga’ near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
For those who suffered a sore head or headache, the remedy was to use a ribbon around the head. This was no ordinary ribbon, but one that was put out on a window sill, or in the open air, on Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast day. The faithful believed that the ribbon grew in length during the night and was empowered by the Irish Saint. However, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the best cure for a headache was known to be the melting of ‘Aspirin’ tablets in a cup of water, which would be subsequently used as a and gargle it in your throat.
Of course, there were occasions when people developed a sore throat, and the recommended cure was the wrapping of your stocking around the throat at night time. In extreme cases, however, it was recommended by healers that a piece of fat bacon be roasted on a fork and then placed in a flannel that would be held against the throat as hot as it possibly could be. Another cure that was widely recommended for curing a sore throat was to put some bread soda into a cup of water, stir it and drink. Now, Mumps in those days was much more serious than it is today and healers often recommended putting warmed salt into a stocking, which would be tied around the patient’s neck. It was also used as a means of relieving the pain of Neuralgia.
One particularly odd cure was used occasionally to cure a child’s sore mouth, which was to permit an old man, who was fasting, to blow into the affected mouth.
St. Anthony’s Fire and Ringworm – ‘Erysipelas’ is a bacterial infection of the skin that typically involves the lymphatic system. It is, however, also known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, which accurately describes the very real fiery intensity felt by sufferers of the rash. To cure the affliction healers were told that blood should be drawn from an old man’s finger and rubbed it into the sore. Another clue was said to be to write the afflicted person’s name around the spot on the face. This was also known to be a cure for ‘Ringworm’, a disease which grows in the form of a ring and usually appears on the head of an infected person, causing that patient’s hair to fall off and the skin rots away. It was traditionally known that the ‘Seventh Son’ had a cure for this nasty ailment, and there is a story in Mayo about a man from Newport who had the cure for ringworm. It is reported that he cured a boy in the district after the young man had spent a while in Castlebar hospital, and was sent home because the doctors could not cure him. Those who have seen the cure in practice tell that the seventh son simply rubs his hand on the earth before placing his hands over the ring-worm. there is testimony that states the ring-worm gradually disappears, but the hair will rarely ever grow on that spot afterward. The mysterious thing about this all is that tradition tells us that when the seventh son is born a worm must be put into his hand, and if he possesses the cure then the worm dies.
Stomach Complaints and the Fear a Gorta – Everyone of us has suffered from a stomach complaint of one kind or another and have taken antacids, Epsom Salts, laxatives, and even warm milk with sugar to help us get some relief. Prior to the outbreak of World War One, however, ‘Flummery’ was an article of food that was in common use in Ireland. When a farmer used to take his crop of oats to be ground in the mill, he also brought home with him the bran and pollen of the oat grains. It was from these that he would make a drink, which was called ‘Shearings’. This was said to be a cool thirst-quenching drink, which when boiled became ‘Flummery’, a thick, jelly-like food that was brownish in colour. It was said to be a little sour to taste and some people would add sugar to sweeten it. However, this was considered a good cure for indigestion and provided a great pick-me-up for those who took it. Others swore by the curative properties of Buttermilk with regard to the stomach, and hot buttermilk was often taken by those suffering from a cold. Wild garlic was picked by healers and boiled in milk, or eaten raw to cure colic.
But when it came to stomach complaints the superstitious peasants also feared the approach of the ‘Fear a Gorta’, the sudden and terrible feeling of hunger that was said to overcome a person who passed over a place where some poor person who had died during the famine was buried. The traditional remedy for this was a handful of oaten meal, and a farl of the oaten-meal cake was carried by many people in those days when they went on a journey, to cure the ‘fear a gorta’ if they were unfortunate enough to get it.
Minor Hurts – People are always vulnerable to picking up a variety of minor injuries and complaints. For skin complaints like pimples, people were often prescribed oatmeal powder to be put in the water the person washed with, while for a scratch on the skin-bone the cure was said to be the person’s own ‘fasting spit’ spread upon it. If someone was suffering from a sore ear they would be advised to take a piece of cotton with some home-made ointment put on it and placed into the ear for a cure. Other more odd-sounding cures were those like a ‘Dog’s Lick’ is a cure for a running sore or the sting of a nettle being used to cure rheumatism, and the pumping of a cow’s udder to help cure a fever. When it came to cows, should they take ‘the staggers’ the farmer would cut the cow’s ear and bleed it as a cure to make the ‘staggers’ leave.
Stranger still was the cure for toothache recommended to some sufferers that called on them to visit a graveyard at night to acquire a skull in which to collect water that the sufferer would then drink. A more common cure for a toothache, however, was to put a bottle of hot water under the jaw and go to bed. Similarly, warm water and salt were supposed to be good for styes in a person’s eyes, or they might be recommended to look through a widow’s golden wedding ring three times.
Many people, including myself, have suffered from in-growing nails and found it to be very painful. in my case, I was told that I should finely pare the middle of the nail and then cut straight across the top. It worked for me, but I didn’t realise that this was a cure that was also given to sufferers by the wise women and healers in bygone days. In the same way, I have been told that whiskey can be applied to an open wound since it acts just like iodine or another disinfectant, but did you know that scraped raw potato could be used on a burn to ease the pain, and a paste of bread-soda could be put to a scald? From my childhood, I always knew that a nose bleed could be stopped by using the age-old remedy of putting a cold object, such as a key or ice pack to the nape of the neck. As for a wound that is bleeding, in bygone days a clean cobweb would be applied to the wound to stop the bleeding, or the heart of a dock leaf was also used for the same purpose.
For Muscular Cramp, called ‘Taulagh’, the cure given was to tie a piece of dried eel skin tightly around the affected wrist. On occasion, an ordinary leather strap could be used on the wrist as a preventative measure, while another recommended cure was to tie a silk thread around the wrist that was affected. As for a sprained wrist or ankle, it was recommended the patient hold the injured part in a rushing stream of cold water and, afterward, tie it up in a spraining web got from a weaver.
An age-old remedy for boils, which I still recommend to people, is a poultice made from bread and salt, wrapped in a cloth or bandage and applied to the boil as hot as possible to draw out the contents. In a similar way, as in the treatment of Corns and Chilblains above, a plaster made from ‘comfrey’ roots was another method used for drawing and healing boils.
Those who suffer from weak, tired or sore eyes the recommended cure was to wash them in cold, clear water before going to bed while bathing with cold tea was said to be particularly good for relieving weak eyes, and honey was a popular remedy for sore eyes. On occasion, however, our eyes become scratchy or gravelly and the old cure for this condition was said to be the juice, or sap, from the Dandelion, which was commonly known as the ‘Pissy-Bed’. The use of water from a ‘Holy Well’ was also said to cure many things, including any eye trouble a person might have. there is a story told of a man whose trouble was threatening him with total blindness and was cured by washing his eyes in the water of the well. It is also said that a person who sees a trout in the well is guaranteed a cure, whatever the affliction they suffer may be.
Unfortunately, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘Rickets’ was the curse of the poorer and undernourished people, and in particular the children of the peasantry or urban poor. To cure them, the children would often have been sent to the local blacksmith for a cure, which involved holding the child over the anvil and, while drawing some blood, speaking some mysterious words.
Some of you might recognise old cures that are still used in the family, and others might write them all off as nonsense. let me say, however, the ones that I have used have invariably worked. There is one cure that I have not tried because I have only heard about it recently. The old cure for those people who had a weak heart was said to be Water-Cress, which is said to put a new heart in people. Suffering from congenital ischemic heart disease I have decided to start eating the posh Water-Cress sandwiches that always seem to make an appearance in the afternoon teas taken by the ‘quality’. I will certainly let you know how I progress with the recommended cure…..
On the afternoon of 22nd April 1874 a lady called Biddy Early died in her small, two-roomed, mud-walled cottage that overlooked Lake Kilbarron, in Feakle, County Clare. Outside of Ireland she remains a virtual unknown, but in Ireland she was famous in her own lifetime, especially since her life story was first published in 1903. Since that time her reputation has grown, embellished with dark tales of witchcraft that continue to be associated with her. Such was the woman’s fame that in the 1970s attempts were made to secure funding for a newly renovated cottage on the site. These efforts, however, failed because no government agency would undertake its financial upkeep. Unfortunately, the old cottage fell into a state of ruin, in which it remains, while its former owner was buried in an unmarked grave.
Biddy’s fame for cures made the woman a household name throughout her long-life and, at some point in that long-life, she acquired a bottle made with dark glass, which contained an even darker, healing liquid. There are numerous tales from a wide variety of sources that attempt to tell the story of how she came into possession of that ‘magic bottle. They all agree, however, that its origin was with the ‘Good People’, for it was frequently used for the purposes of divining future events (Scrying). At the same time Biddy was famed for her mixing of herbal cures in this and other bottles that appeared to cure illness in animals as well as in people.
She would gather herbs and plants before sunrise, with the morning dew still shining upon them. It was widely believed by such curing women that the dew was a secretin of the light of dawn, which was a key element in the idea of eternal life. As she progressed through her later years it is claimed that Biddy became a cranky and absent-minded old woman. This attitude and the success of her potions led many to believe that she was practicing witchcraft from her small cottage. In fact, Biddy was a relatively generous woman who rarely accepted payment for her services, unless it was a gift of food. She did not, however, accept those who scorned her craft and did not believe in the ‘Good People.’
Biddy’s home became known as a place of great merriment and neighbours would frequently come to the house for a drink, in the knowledge that she always had a plentiful supply of donated poteen and other spirits. But these merry social gatherings also fell foul of the local quality folk, including the Catholic clergy, the medical profession, landlords, the police and the judiciary. They were already annoyed by the fact that Feakle already had a reputation for being the most superstitious places in Ireland, which was being strengthened every day by Biddy’s presence. At this time too, ‘Pishogues’ (Sorcerers) of various types were often employed to bring bad luck to a rival or enemy, and even today the practice still exists in parts of this island. In fact, ‘wise-women’ (Spéirbhean) such as Biddy, were often sought to help lift curses and bad-luck from the poor. These women would also be employed as special mediators to act in any disagreements that may arise with the fairies over the violation of their ancient land rights. It was a task for which Biddy was well qualified for it was said that she had spent some of her youth living among the fairies, or good people (Sidhe). In fact, there were some neighbours who insisted that Biddy, her brother and her only son, Paddy, were actually ‘Changelings’ or ‘Away with the Fairies.’
Biddy and her practices also came into conflict with the Catholic Church and the members of the medical profession. The powerful Catholic Church in Ireland was totally and vehemently opposed to many of the traditional arts because they believed them to be dangerous remnants of a pagan Ireland. The ability of the Church to oppose wise women like Biddy Early were severely restricted during the Penal times. But, after the introduction of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the church slowly began to re-emerge as a political power in the land. In many of the folktales that surround the person of Biddy Early there are many examples of confrontations with various clergymen. One story tells of a fiery young curate from County Tipperary who made his way to Biddy’s cottage to chastise her, only to find himself frozen in his saddle near Annasala Bridge. Only after he had taken back all the oaths that he had sworn to her and apologised the curate was released by using three blades of dry grass to strike the right shoulder of the curate’s horse with the trinitarian blessing – “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” In fact, it was said that Biddy always invoked the ‘Holy Trinity’ before handing over her remedies to the sick people. Furthermore, despite her difficulties with the clergy, she always advised those who visited her to listen to the advice of the priests and clergy.
One famous visitor to Biddy’s cottage was the ‘Great Emancipator’, Daniel O’Connell, who was the Member of Parliament for Clare. But, despite her popularity among the people, she found herself in conflict with medical people, which formed the basis for several stories associated with Biddy Early. It was said, for example, that she rented a cottage from a certain Doctor Murphy from Limerick, who wanted to evict her for non-payment of rent though it seems more likely that professional jealousy was the real reason. The policemen and Sheriff that were sent to evict her from the small cottage near Kilbarron Lake, were ordered by her to ‘Stay where you are.’ Rumour had it that the words were given to her in an apparition by her dead husband Pat. The men were rooted to the spot and it was two hours before she released them. But another version of the same story says that Biddy warned the men sent to evict her with the words, “Whoever is the first to put a bar to this house, he will remember it.” When one of the men put a crowbar between two stones in the wall he fell awkwardly and broke his thigh. Taking hold of their wounded colleague the men ran off in terror.
Doctor Murphy, however, would not be denied and he ensured that Biddy was forced into the Ennis Workhouse. Soon after this, Murphy’s own house in Limerick mysteriously caught fire and only a charred foot was recovered from the ruins in which the Doctor himself was trapped. It is said that Biddy warned him beforehand what his fate would be, and he refused to listen. But this was not Biddy’s last encounter with the medical profession. There was a Doctor Folan from Ennis who came to argue with Biddy but found that he could not find his way home although he knew that road well. Yet, in fairness to Biddy Early, she did not seek conflict and neither did she guarantee anyone a cure. In fact, it was not unknown for Biddy to refuse to see some patients if she felt that they were destined to die. In some cases, Biddy would give a potion to calm an anxious relative that, it is said, would break if death was inevitable. The whole idea of looking into the future was an integral part of the legend surrounding Biddy, and it wasn’t unknown for her to advise the local farmers about those stealing their or sheep and resolving family disputes.
From the historical record we know that the nineteenth century was a period of bitter agrarian violence in the County Clare. It was a time when gangs of desperate men roamed the land under the names of ‘White Boys’, ‘Ribbonmen’ and ‘Moonlighters’, seeking brutal revenge against the landlords for the large number of evictions that were happening. In 1816, Biddy was in service on the Carheen Estate, which belonged to a landlord called Sheehy. It appears that she was a participant in the raising of a petition against the raising of rents and she was given a court order to prepare for eviction from her home. In response, Biddy warned Sheehy that his bones would never lie in hallowed ground. Later, three of Sheehy’s tenants led by a man called Touhy killed the landlord and burned his house to the ground. Biddy, however, was able to advise the men that a potential witness for the Crown, a woman called Nell Canny, should not be harmed, as she might prove herself useful to them. Subsequently, Nell, who was a maid on the estate, spoke in court and told them it was her and not the accused men who had dropped hot coals on the grass the cottage. Later, in a case that involved the shooting to death of Alderman William Sheehy, brother of the same man killed by the Touhy gang, Biddy was able to advise the assassin to take a suitable escape route to America through Liscannor and Kilrush, which would avoid the ‘Peelers’ (Police). Biddy’s current husband at the time, Tom Flannery, was before the courts in 1860 for conspiracy in the same murder and lodged in Ennis gaol. The local press of the day named him and described him as being the husband of ‘The Witch’, Biddy Early. Because the chief culprits in the case had vanished the case against Tom Flannery was dropped.
There are rumours that in 1865 Biddy was tried for witchcraft, under an old law enacted in 1586. But this story has never been proved and Betty was certainly not convicted of any offence. Another surprise that she would play upon her neighbours was that before she died, in April 1874, she asked a neighbour man, Patrick Loughnane, to fetch a priest to her bedside who would give her the last rites. It is said that she asked the priest who attended her, Father Andrew Connellan, to throw her ‘magic bottle’ into a body of water that would later become known as ‘Biddy’s lake’.
Rumour has it that when this larger-than-life character died, twenty-seven priests attended her funeral. Furthermore, the next Sunday, the parish priest asked that all his parishioners should pray for the happy repose of the soul of Biddy Early and described her as a saintly woman. We wonder just what Biddy would have said if she had heard such a tribute.
For Further information you could consult the following:
E. Lenihan, “In search of Biddy Early”; Cork, 1987.
M. Ryan, “Biddy Early—wise woman of Clare”; Cork, 1978.
D. Stewart, “Biddy Early—famous ‘witch’ of Clare”, Parts I & II; Limerick Chronicle, 3rd and 10th October 1953.
“Wait ’til I tell you, Mickey Brennan, it’s not that I don’t have a great regard for you as a man. Indeed, it’s true that you are a decent sort of boy, and that you come from a decent family. But I have to say that, the long and short of it is, I just don’t want you to be running about after my wee girl anymore.” Such was the concluding portion of a very long and unfriendly speech that had been undertaken by old Brian Moran of Loughcroy. Old Brian’s sole purpose for giving such a speech was, simply, to persuade his daughter’s sweetheart to cease paying her any further attention. It is a difficult task that parents occasionally need to take upon themselves and it is a task that is never very easy to carry out. Indeed, the entire affair become even more difficult when the couple in question are unceremoniously separated from each other, having very much believed that they had been born for each other.
Everyone who knew Michael Brennan, knew him to be a quiet, unassuming young man who was always respectful to his elders. On this occasion, however, he was not very successful in holding either his patience, or his temper, on this occasion. “Why? Dear God, Brian Moran!” he exclaimed angrily, “I beg, in the name of all that is holy, just give me one good reason why I should be separated from her? Whether the reason be good, bad, or indifferent, and I’ll be satisfied!”
“Och, what am I to say to you, you unfortunate eejit of a boy. Now don’t be questioning me on this bloody decision anymore,” responded Brian in a way that suggested to Michael that he wasn’t entirely happy with the decision himself.
“And why shouldn’t I?” asked Michael. “Do you think that I should just give up so easily, and we playing together since she could walk. Has that girl not been the very light of my eyes and the pulse of my heart, these six long years since we reached a proper age to know how things were between us. Now, you tell me when, in all of that time, did either you or your good wife ever say, or even hint, until this damned minute that I was to cease from courting her? Will you just tell me that.”
“Would you give my head a bit of peace, Michael!” Brian groaned at the young man. He put his hands to his ears to keep himself from hearing the questions, especially when he did not have the ability to give the boy a straight answer to them.
“That’s true enough,” he finally conceded. “This whole mess is all down to Peggy, God forgive her, and I wish she she had told you herself. I knew how you would be when you were told this, and don’t blame you in any way for being angry. When she hears it all, it will kill young Mary completely.”
“Has this all come about because you feel that I am not wealthy enough to be keeping her in a proper manner?” Michael asked him with all the impatience of a teenager.
“Not at all, Michael,” Brian replied, “it’s nothing like that at all. But, if you want to be sure, can’t you wait an’ ask Peggy, herself?”
Michael chose to totally ignore any mention of Peggy’s name and asked ‘Old Brian”, “Is it because there’s something against me?”.
When Brian didn’t answer immediately, Michael asked him again, “Is it because there is something against me, I asked you? Is there a warrant, or a summons, or has somebody spoken against me?”
“Jaysus Christ! Did I not just say, no more questions?” sighed Brian, feeling overwhelmed by the young man’s questions. “Just wait a wee while and you can ask all you want to know off Peggy, Michael!”
“No, Michael!” insisted Brian, “There was never a word said against you. My God, sure you have never done anything wrong that would cause a person to speak out against you. In all honesty, my lad, it is that which is breaking my heart. Total damnation to that bloody woman of mine, but this is all Peggy’s fault.”
“What?” exclaimed Mickey in disbelief. “I bet you that Peggy has had a bad dream about Mary and I. Come on, Brian! Out with it! Tell us what Peggy the Pishogue (Prophetess) has to say for herself. Come on, out with it, man dear!. My whole life is being tossed upside down for something your Peggy has dreamed up!”
“Oh Michael, for Jaysus’, be at peace, and don’t be talking that way about Peggy,” Brian told him. Mickey had offended him by talking in such a manner about his wife, whose previous visions had always come to pass. “Whatever she says, doesn’t it always come true?” Brian reminded him. “Didn’t it rain on last Saturday, even though the day looked fine at first? Sure didn’t Tommy Higgins’s cow die on him? Wasn’t Annie Creaney married to Jimmy Knox after all? And wait ’til I tell you, that as sure as your name is Mickey Brennan, what she says about you will also come to pass. In fact, God forbid that it should happen to anyone else of your decent family!”
“In the name of God, Brian, tell me what’s going to happen to me?” Mickey asked in a trembling voice, despite his efforts to adopt an uncaring attitude, especially after he had commented quite contemptuously upon Peggy’s reputation of being the wisest of women. In fact, Peggy’s reputation stood very high among the people of the district, and Mickey should not have tried to sound too unconcerned about being seen in unfavourable circumstances in any of her visions of the future.
“Ah Jaysus, Michael, don’t ask me such things. Please don’t ask me,” was Brian’s pitiful answer, “Maybe you should just get all your things together now, as quickly as you can, and go straight toFather Corry.The priest might be able to give you some sort of blessing that will give you a chance to escape all the bad luck that’s in front of you.”
“It’s all crap! Total bullshit! And, by the way, Brian Moran, you should be ashamed of yourself for spreading such rubbish.”
“There’s not one word of a lie in it, I’m telling ye,” Brian insisted. “Peggy seen it all last night, and, in all honesty, the poor woman is as troubled about it, almost as if you were her own flesh and blood. Look, sure isn’t that a mole you have there under your ear?”
“Well, and what if it is?” Michael replied in a quite uncaring tone. But, in reality, he was very disturbed by the concern that his future was causing both Brian and Peggy. “What if I have a mole? Sure there are many men who have a mole in the same place as myself!”
“That’s very true,” Brian replied. “But, Mickey, my friend, didn’t they have the same bad luck come to them as well. Now listen to me, you poor, ignorant wee crature, you would not want me to give my blessing to have my poor wee darlin’ girl marry a man who will sooner or later end his days swinging at the end of a rope on the gallows!”
“The gallows!” screamed Mickey Brennan,slowly, “Jaysus Christ and his Holy Mother! Is that what Peggy says is going to happen to me?” He tried desperately to laugh derisively and defiantly at what he thought was preposterous idea. But, Mickey could not do it. Deep down he was truly shocked by what Brian had told him. He knew that this was not a matter to be laughed at, and he had to finally give in to those fears he had tried so hard to resist. Almost as a sign of his surrender to the inevitable, Mickey buried his face in his hands as he threw himself violently to the ground.
Meanwhile, Brian was equally, deeply moved by the revelation he had made to Michael. Though it was his wife’s, Peggy, vision that he had revealed he sat down beside young Brennan and tried to console him as best as he could. Before all this talk of visions had gotten in his way, Old Brian had nothing but a good deal of admiration for young Michael. He was among the more well-to-do people of the district, and had gathered a small amount of wealth about him. Mickey owned a good, fertile piece of land and his farm produced a good harvest of crops, pigs, cows and sheep. The fact that he owned all these things in his own name made him the most eligible bachelor among all the young men of the district. Mary Moran, however, was more interested in Mickey’s handsome good looks and muscular physique.
Mickey’s family were all very well off and highly respected in the area, but both his mother and his father were dead and his only sister had gotten herself married just before Lent had began. Naturally, having all the advantages of wealth and freedom, you would think that Mickey could have selected any girl in the parish to be his bride. But, Mickey had made his choice of a wife many years ago. His eye had fallen upon Mary Moran and they had both given each other their hearts. Both Brian and Peggy were happy with their daughter’s choice and had never thought about disputing it. Brian didn’t even have second thoughts after he came to the decision that he would could give his daughter a money gift, which, at the time, amounted to double what Michael Brennan was worth. There was not, perhaps, the same certainty about the money gift when it came to Peggy. A mother always worries about her daughter and, being such careful creatures, they always want to see that any future son-in-law is financially independent. This is always true when it comes to an Irish mother who has a daughter of marriageable age.
Peggy Moran was as good an Irish mother as any other and she was somewhat concerned about the amount of money that Brian was about to shower on Mary. She argued strongly with Brian about the agreement he had made and she tried everything possible to change his mind. But, Peggy’s efforts were all in vain, however, because as much as Brian usually submitted to her advice, he loved his pretty daughter Mary. This great love that he held for his daughter strengthened his resolve in this matter. Every time Mary cried at her mother’s insinuations,, Brian always words to comfort her. On those occasions when Brian’s words of comfort were not enough, he always got Mickey and Mary together, and left them to settle the matter in their own way.
Peggy was not the type of woman who gave up easily, and she was determined that she would have her way in this matter. Such was her reputation as a seer, after all, that one word from her could break up any match that had been made in the district, and that included her very own daughter’s match whether Brian liked it or not. To this end Peggy now applied all her tricks, and every ounce of her cunning to the task. Firstly, she could not allow Brian to shower the young couple with all that money. And so, Peggy talked about the dreams that she had been given about the match between Michael and Mary. She read the tea leaves and consulted the burning embers of the fire in which she saw all sorts of strange signs concerning her daughter’s relationship with Michael Brennan. Calling upon her entire knowledge of magic and the world of spirits, she was rewarded with a vision that revealed Michael Brennan was destined to end his days on the gallows.
There were some parishioners, who thought themselves older and wiser than most, that considered the very idea of Peggy Moran being something of a prophetess as an ugly sort of joke. There were many more in the Parish who believed she had become so devoted to the dark spirits that her knowledge and skill in supernatural matters was very strong. They called her ‘The Pishogue‘, a name that implied she had a knowledge of more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed about. It was a title that was certainly not misplaced in Peggy’s case. There was not a university professor more deeply read in science and medicine than was Peggy when it came to all the signs and omens whereby the affairs of this world are foretold.
There seemed to be nothing too great or too small for Peggy to not get involved. She was expert in every form of fortune telling, from reading tea-leaves to magic. She could read a person’s future in the mystical dregs from a tea-cup, which assumed a variety of shapes that would puzzle any learned person. By just taking a glance at some symbol, or other, she could immediately detect its true meaning, and foretell deaths, births, and marriages, with the same infallibility as a newspaper. Even those dreams that would mystify the wisest of men would be quickly unravelled by Peggy. At the same time, there was not a ghost, or other spirit, in the entire country with whose haunts and habits she was not familiar with, almost as if she one of their number. There wasn’t a single fairy that could put its nose outside without being detected by Peggy. Meanwhile, there were many property owners in the district that employed Peggy to use her skills and charms against all manner of theft and loss. When news of these ‘Spirit Blessings’ became known the properties concerned increased a great deal in their value.
We could spend an entire lifetime describing every mystical talent that Peggy possessed, and to relate every one of the successes she had. But, it would a certainty that there would still be those among you who would still not believe in all the things that Peggy had said and done. Yet, the people of the parish were very much aware of Peggy’s achievements and had great confidence in all she said and did neighbours. Not only her friends and neighbours had trust and confidence in her, but also her closest family, Brian and Mary. With such a status within the community around her, it is no wonder why so many people believed her when she foretold the coming disaster that would befall Mickey Brennan.
It should come as no surprise to you then that Peggy’s revelation created a great sensation, especially after several old gossips, to whom she had imparted her discovery, were put on oath not to say one word about it. Instead they were told that they should hush up the entire matter for the young fool’s peace of mind. Those people who had a close friendship with Michael also worried about his fate, because not even the most sceptical among them would dare to question the truth and certainty of Peggy Moran revelation. Rather than scrutinising the sources of her information they preferred to view the entire matter as being one that required their sympathy for their friend. Everyone viewed Peggy’s warnings as being certain, and some of Michael’s friends even declared, “that since the thing cannot be avoided, and Mickey, poor fellow, must be hanged, we can only hope it is for something worthwhile, decent, and not thieving, or cheating, or anything like that.”
You can appreciate that in all of this the hardest task in this story is to describe the feelings that poor Michael Brennan, himself, felt about the situation. He did everything he possibly could to make Peggy’s revelations appear to be the foolish superstions of a very weird woman. Unfortunately, Michael had grown to believe in the apparitions just as much as any other person in the district. Though he tried very hard to ignore the revelations made about him, his efforts were fruitless and a dark sense of despair quickly overcame him.
Now it’s all very well and good for you to preach long and hard about the advantages of education, and its ability to overcome old superstitions. But, take my word for it, that it will take a very long period of time to root out the centuries held superstitions from the hearts of the Irish people. Be assured that, until that bright day dawns, Ireland’s many country villages will still have their ‘Wise Women’, and what they say will be regarded as gospel truth by the vast majority of their neighbours. Of course, there will always be a number of people who will pour scorn on such things, but there will be many more who will very respectfully beg leave to doubt them. There will always be, however, those who believe wholeheartedly in the words and visions of the ‘Wise Women’. If truth be told, in the more remote inland villages that dot the hillsides and mountains of Ireland, there are events occurring almost every day that are far more strange than anything that you are being told in this story.
Michael Brennan found it increasingly difficult to keep calm in the face of the denunciation that had been made. Sadly, only comfort that he could get from those people around him was, “The gallows is a good death for an Irishman.” In those days the majority of Irishmen who were sent to the gallows were considered martyrs for the cause of Ireland’s freedom from the British Crown and they were, therefore, considered by most to be good men and women. This, of course, was the last thing on Michael’s mind. Peggy’s revelation had caused him to begin losing any hope he had of becoming a husband to his beloved Mary. No longer having this hope filling his heart with joy, Michael began to wish that death, instant and immediate, would come quickly and carry him off. As his anxiety and depression grew, death, it seemed to him, would be a great relief and it would also show that Peggy’s prophecies could not always be relied upon to come true.
It will, therefore, come as no surprise to you to learn that, in the depth of the depression brought about by his mental suffering and fear for the future, Mickey made a failed attempt upon his own life. When he was sure, in his own mind, that there was no one close enough to stop him, Mickey plunged himself into a nearby lake. He quickly discovered, however, that he was not alone at that moment. A local man, who was looking after sheep, saw Michael plunge into the lake and went to rescue him. The shepherd, however, was quite a distance away and, by the time he had reached the lake, Mickey’s body was to all appearances lifeless. His discovery was quickly spread about the parish, causing shock to all who heard the news. It was like the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ that went the rounds and finally declared Mickey’s death, but the description of that death was different each time it was described. Some said that Mickey Brennan had lain in the cold, dark water for at least ten minutes, while others said a half an hour, half the day, and even since the previous night. There was only one point that was consistent in each story told, and that was the agreement saying that Mickey Brennan was as dead as a door-nail.
Only Peggy Moran didn’t believe the news that she was given. “Would you all stop your bleetin’,for God’s sake, sure the man’s not dead,” she told the crowd that had gathered.
“If you would all be quiet for a few minutes, the man might just come to! When have you ever known a man who is born to be hanged was drowned. So, just wait a wee while and hold your tongues, for this is all nonsense, I tell you. Mickey Brennan will live long enough to spoil somebody’s day, and more’s the pity.”
Her words seemed to fall on deaf ears, however, Many began to shake their heads, some even suggesting that Peggy had mistaken rope for water in her dream about Brennan. All their doubts soon vanished, nonetheless. Slowly and quite mysteriously, Mickey began to recover from his rash effort at suicide. By recovering, unfortunately, he fulfilled much of the destiny that Peggy had for him. At the same time, Mickey raised Peggy Moran’s reputation to an even higher point beyond than it had been previously.
During the days that followed Peggy’s fame rose even higher. She discovered six cases of stolen goods, twice discovered that the fairies had interfered with the milk churns on nearby farms belonging to their neighbours, and she was invited by a large number of people to tell them their fortunes. In the meantime, poor Mickey Brennan finally realised that his destiny could not be avoided so easily, and he resigned himself to what his fate would be. But, if he was to die on the gallows, he decided that he would seek out the best possible opportunity to face the gallows without any disgrace to his people, or family name. Mary Moran, however, was deeply heartbroken with grief at her beloved’s declared fate and she just could not imagine anything that could be worse for her to bear, though she would soon discover that there was .
In a very short period of time there began a new whisper that began to creep through the parish. This new whisper promised death and disaster on some very unlucky unknown person. Rumours said, “Peggy Moran has something on her mind,” and this alone made the people impatiently wonder as to what that ‘something’ could be. When anyone gathered enough courage to question her on the mystery, Peggy remained silent and slipped into a mysterious with a shake of her head. Constantly in her mouth was a lit ‘Sweet Afton’ cigarette, which she never removed unless she lay on her bed to sleep, or sat down at the table to her meals. The more people that now asked her questions, the angrier Peggy became, which was not usual for the woman. She began to avoid all sorts of conversation, which was very definitely not her way either. These actions, naturally, served to arouse interest and curiosity of her neighbours to an agonising pitch. Peggy now had every one trembling that the result of the new prophecy would be some terrible revelation that might affect any single one of them.
For every person in the district the question of who was the subject of Peggy’s new prophecy became the first question asked each morning, and the last question at night. Every word that Peggy spoke became a matter of the greatest speculation to every person who heard her. Such was the tension among the people of the district that there was a danger that the people themselves would go absolutely mad with fright if they were kept in the dark much longer. Eventually the secret was discovered, but at some cost the the discoverer.
One night Brian and Peggy were sitting together in front of the fire for a while before they went to bed. As he sat there with his wife, Brian head that he should try and discover the source of Peggy’s sorrow. After asking her many questions, and getting no straight answers, Peggy told him, “Brian darlin’ it is very good of you to ask and to show your concern. But, my darlin’ old man, there is no use in hiding it anymore. It is all about you.”
“Jaysus, Peggy, Lord bless us and keep us.”
“Indeed, Brian,” replied Peggy gently as she exhaled a large cloud of tobacco smoke from her mouth and nostrils. “ These last couple of days I’ve noticed that you just have not been at yourself.”
“Christ, Peggy! You could be right and maybe I am not at myself,” said Brian anxiously.
“Do you not feel something different about yourself, Brian. Maybe your heart darlin‘?”
“By God,I do. You’re right enough, Peggy. I do feel something different,” Brian told her, willing to believe almost anything she said about him.
“ It’s something like a pleurisy, isn’t it?” she suggested in a mournful tone of voice.
“Ay, right enough, Peggy. It’s just like a pleurisy and may the good God keep me safe from harm!”moaned Brian.
“And I’m sure you feel the cold these night, Brian?” continued Peggy.
“Oh! Holy God, Peggy! Sure I’m foundered! My body is as cold as ice,”answered Brian, and his teeth suddenly began to chatter as if he had fallen into an icy cold pond.
“And your appetite must be completely gone, darlin’?” Peggy continued with her questions.
“Isn’t that the truth of it?” he answered. Brain now believed completely that he had been struck down by some great illness. He had totally forgotten that less than an hour previously he had finished off a pot of potatoes, cabbage and bacon, washed down with a pint of buttermilk.
“Just look at that old black cat, taking a good look at you now, after it has licked her paw,” said Peggy.
“As sure as there’s an eye in a goat, there’s a divil in that cat! I wouldn’t put it past her that she is waiting for me to breathe my last,” said Brian sadly.
Peggy moved a little closer to her husband. “Let me feel your pulse, darlin’,” she said and Brian weakly submitted his trembling wrist for her inspection. As she checked for a pulse, Brian anxiously stared at her face to see if there was any indication as to what his fate would be. At length, a long, deep sigh broke from her lips, accompanied by another huge cloud of cigarette smoke, and she let go of Brian’s arm. Then, to Brian’s surprise, Peggy began to rock herself to and fro, muttering some words or other in a low, moaning voice. Brian was certain that this was an ominous sign of what his fate would be.
“Ah, Jaysus, Peggy, surely to God I am not going to die am I?” he asked his wife anxiously.
“Dear, Oh dear, my darlin’ man!” roared Peggy in anguish, “Never did I ever think that when I married you, Brian my love, that I would ever see the sorrowful day when I would cry the widow’s wail over you. God knows, Brian, but you were the best of a man to me, young and old!”
“Oh Peggy!” Brian sighed loudly as his wife continued her lamentations.
“Ah don’t talk, my darlin’ man, don’t talk to me. Sure I’ll never be able to hold my head up again in this district, so I won’t!” Peggy continued to lament loudly and her wailing quickly brought everyone in the house around her, and finally all the neighbours gathered.
As all these people gathered together there was a great uproar, with people giving mixed ideas with noisy explanations about the cause for Peggy’s lamenting. But, despite their best efforts, there were none who could provide consolation to either Brian or Peggy. Young Mary clung to her father in total despair and grief, while Old Brian mouthed over his prayers as fast and as correctly as his dismay would allow him.
As the morning dawned of the next day, Brian could just not gather the will-power to get up and out of his bed. He refused all that was offered him to eat, and he demanded that the priest should be sent for without delay. Every hour that passed seemed to be worse than the previous hour, as Brian moved from one period of unconsciousness to another. Those at his bedside received a running commentary on the symptoms he was feeling, which seemed to encompass every complaint that ever troubled mankind. He complained bitterly that he was crippled by pain in every part of his body, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. The doctor who attended him could make neither head nor tail of the illness, which had struck down Old Brian Moran. Totally mystified, this man of science declared that the complaint was the greatest oddity complication that he had ever heard of. In fact, he was so annoyed that he believed Brian was making the entire illness up and needed a good kick in the arse to pull himself out of his self pity. At the same time, the Doctor suggested that the best treatment for Peggy was to throw her into the nearest river to help calm her down.
When he arrived on the scene the Parish Priest was equally puzzled by what was happening. “ Brian, what in the name of God, Brian is wrong with you, man dear?” he asked.
“My body is being killed all-over the place with some sort of illness or other,“ replied Brian pitifully. The priest looked at the old man and had to admit to himself that he was bothered by the fact that a man like Brian could not rise from his bed.
Despite every urging of the priest to rise, Old Brian remained where he was and moaned, “What use is there in a man getting up from his bed, and him going to die anyway? Is it not far easier and more decent for me just to die in bed like a good Christian?”
“Ah now, Brian, sure God’s good and maybe this is not yet your time to die,” said the priest.
“Now, don’t be talking your old nonsense, Father. Sure doesn’t my Peggy know best?” Brian told him and with this he closed his ears to all words of consolation that people spoke to him. Even the tearful words spoken by his heart-broken daughter, Mary. Referring to traditional remedies the doctor decided he would try and apply a herbal poultice to the man. He made up a poultice, much stronger than was normal and assured everyone that it would have Brian up from his bed and walking by the next morning.
By this time there were a good many people gathered into the small cottage, hoping to witness Old Brian being cured. The doctor, however, was so distracted by their presence that he felt they could have all been done without. But, these people were a godsend for Peggy, and she turned to them moaning and weeping, and declaring her total lack of faith in any of these modern remedies. She kept on insisting that she had no other expectation than that she would be a sad widow by Sunday. Then, quite unexpectedly, Old Brian was roused a little by the application of the poultice and, with a weak voice, asked be heard.
“Peggy, my darlin’,” said Brian, “there’s no denying that you’re a wonderful woman and, since I’m going from you, it would be a great kindness if you would tell us all how you found out that I was do sick, even before I knew it myself. I’m only curious, darlin’ woman. I just don’t want to die and not know why, or for what reason. Wouldn’t I look the quare fool if someone above was to ask me what I died of, and I couldn’t tell them.”
Peggy looked sorrowfully at her husband, while she told him that she was willing to do him this last favour. In a sobbing voice, Peggy began to explain, “It was Thursday night week,” she began, “sure it’s a night I’ll never forget, Brian, should I live to be a hundred years old. It was just after my first sleep that I began to dream, and I dreamed that I went down to Danny Kelly’s butcher shop to buy a bit of beef. Surely, you remember, it was that day that he had slaughtered a young bull for the butcher’s block. I was sure that when I would go into his house I would see a fine carcase hanging of beef hanging but, all that I saw hanging up was an ugly looking carcase that did not smell too fresh. Says Danny Kelly to me, with a mighty grim look on his face, “Well, woman, what do you want? Is it some of this meat you’re wanting?” ‘Yes, says I, but none of that old rubbish! That’s not the type of meat we’re used to.’ “Ah sure, who cares?” says he to me, “I’ll cut you out a rib.” ‘Oh, no thank you all the same,’ says I and put out my hand to stop him, and what do you think he did? He raised the hatchet and brought it down upon my hand, cutting the ring on my finger into two.”
There were murmurs heard among the gathered crowd as her story came to its end. The meaning of the dream had suddenly been revealed to Old Brian and he unmoved for a while. Everyone in the room looked to Brian to see how he had taken the explanation as to his imminent death when, suddenly, he sat bolt upright in the bed, with his mouth and eyes wide open. “In the name of God, Peggy,” Brian slowly exclaimed, when he had recovered a little from the surprise, “do you mean to tell me that’s all that’s wrong with me?”
Startled by Old Brian’s extraordinary question, Peggy and her crowd of supporters stared at him. For a moment it appeared to them that he was about to leap out of the bed, and forcibly display his indignation to his wife. Although he was known as a quiet man, his temper was just well known. His bodily strength, however, failed him as he attempted to get out of the bed and, roaring with pain, he returned to is lying down position on the bed. Nonetheless, Peggy’s infallibility among the local people was now at an end. The doctor’s poultice had done the trick and in a few short days Brian was able to stump about as usual, threatening everyone with extreme violence if they dared to laugh at him. Laughter, however, is something that is not so easily controlled, and Brian’s foul temper was worsened to such a degree by the ridicule he had encountered, that he now became determined to seek a reconciliation with young Mickey Brennan. He decided that all of Peggy’s gloomy prophesies could go to the devil, and he would give the Parish Priest a job to do for the young couple. Mary and Mickey, as a result, were married and, thanks be to God, Mickey did not end his days on the gallows as Peggy had prophesied.