Stories of Seamus No 16

Paddy Kelly’s Riches

Many years ago, I am told, there was a man by the name of Paddy Kelly, who lived quite near to the market town of Lurgan in the beautiful, ‘Orchard County’ of Armagh. One bright morning, as was his custom, he rose up from his bed when the sun was not much above the horizon. He had no watch on his arm and he was unsure about what time of day it was. A confusion not at all helped by the fact that the fine light coming through his window originated from a watery early morning sun. But, Paddy did know what day of the week it was, and that he had wanted to rise early so that he could go to the fair in town. There he had high hopes of being able to sell his young, healthy donkey, which he had raised from birth.

 Paddy washed and dressed before taking his breakfast of porridge and toast, Then, as he finished his white enamel mug filled with strong tea, Paddy gathered his coat before he set out on his journey to the fair. He had not gone more than three miles along the road from his home that morning when a great dark cloud dimmed the light of the early morning sun, and a heavy shower of rain began to fall. Paddy looked about him and, about five hundred yards from the road, slightly obscured by some trees, he caught sight of a large house. Without a second thought he decided that he would make his way, as quickly as possible, to the house and shelter there until the rain came to an end. In his rush he was a little out of breath when he finally reached the house, and he was very surprised to see that the door before him was already opened wide. Thinking that maybe the owner had seen him rushing to the house in the rain, and opened the door for him, Paddy went into the house unannounced. As he entered he saw a large room to his left, with a grand, welcoming fire already burning in the grate. Paddy decided to sit himself down upon a small stool that stood beside the wall to await the house owner’s arrival. But, the warmth from the fire soon filled the room and rapidly began to make Paddy sleepy.

Then, just as his eyes started closing in sleep, he noticed a big weasel coming to the fire place and it had something very bright and yellow in its mouth, which it dropped on the hearth-stone before hurrying away again. Within a few moments the weasel returned with a similar object held tightly in her mouth, dropping it on the hearthstone before again disappearing. The weasel soon came back again with the same object in her mouth, and Paddy realised that it was a bright gold sovereign that she had. Once again, the weasel dropped the coin on the hearth-stone and scampered from his sight. But, she kept coming and going until, at last, she had piled a great heap of shining sovereigns on the hearth. When Paddy was sure that she was finally gone from the room he quickly rose up from the stool and walked over to the fireplace. Then, using both hands he rapidly bundled all the gold coins, that the weasel had piled up on the hearth, into his jacket pockets and, as quietly as possible, he hurried out of the house.

Despite his best efforts, Paddy was not as fast on his feet as the weasel, and he had not gotten very far before he heard the noise of the angry animal coming after him. The irate weasel was screeching and screaming loudly at Paddy, like a set of Uileann-pipes that were being played very badly. Filled with wrath the weasel quickly overtook Paddy on the road, where she jumped and twisted herself in the air, making every possible effort to get a hold of his throat, so she could tear it out. But, Paddy carried a good thick stick of oak and he used it to keep the snapping weasel from him. Then two men, who were travelling along the same road as Paddy, and in the same direction, came up to him. With one of these men was a large, sturdy dog that began snarling at the angry weasel and chased it into a hole in the wall.

Paddy continued along the road to the fair in the company of the two men and arrived there without any more interruption. Earlier that morning Paddy had headed off to the fair with the sole aim of selling his donkey and returning home immediately with the money he earned from the sale. By the afternoon things had changed and instead of coming straight home with the money he got for the donkey, Paddy went to a trader and bought himself a horse with some of the money he had taken from the weasel. He felt like a wealthy man and he wanted to come home just as a wealthy man should, proudly riding a horse. As they trotted along Paddy reached the place where the dog had chased the weasel away from him. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, the angry weasel came scrambling of a narrow hole in the wall. With great athleticism the weasel leaped up from the ground, catching Paddy’s horse by the throat and causing the terrified animal to bolt.

Tormented by the pain of the weasel’s bite the horse rushed off and Paddy could only keep his tight grip on the animal’s mane with the greatest of difficulty. Finally, blinded with agony, the poor horse took a huge leap that brought his rider and he into a big, wide drain that was filled with brackish water and black mud. Both horse and rider were out of their depth, choking and drowning very rapidly, until a small group of men, coming along the road from Portadown, saw the difficulty they were in and they managed to chase the weasel away from the scene. They also helped Paddy and his mount to exit the drain and put them back on their way along the road.  Paddy, now in a very dishevelled condition, finally brought the horse home with him and put him into the byre, while he went to his bed and fell fast asleep.

It was very early, the next morning, when Paddy rose up from his bed and prepared himself to go out to the byre and give his new horse some fresh hay and oats. But, when he finally reached the byre door, Paddy saw the weasel scampering out of the byre with her fur completely soaked with a large patch of thick red blood. “Christ almighty! A thousand curses on you and may each one be worse than the one before,” screamed Paddy, “Satan’s polecat and killer of the innocent, what have you done now?”

Paddy hurried into the byre wondering what he would find. There, lying on the hay covered floor, he found the horse, two of his dairy cows, and two newly born calves lying dead in pools of blood. Shocked, upset and angry, Paddy came out of the byre cursing and swearing loudly, and he went immediately to his large farm dog, which was already fighting in its chains, barking and snarling at the weasel as it glared menacingly at Paddy. He now took hold of the chains, loosened them and set the massive dog at the evil killer. The dog snapped at the weasel, taking a tight grip of the struggling creature which, at the same time, took a strong hold of the huge mastiff. Although Paddy’s dog was an excellent farm guard-dog, and despite his size, he was quickly forced to loosen his hold of the weasel before Paddy could reach the battle site.

As the vicious weasel scampered off to make good her escape, Paddy kept his eyes on her movements. He followed her every twist and turn, through grass and bush, until he saw her slink into a small, disused and badly dilapidated cottage that stood at the edge of a shallow lake. Paddy, with the dog at his side, now ran rapidly to catch up with their fleeing enemy. When, at last, he reached the front of the small cottage Paddy took a tight hold of the dog, shook it violently to make the animal very angry and prepare him for the vicious fight ahead.

With his hound well prepared, Paddy sent him into the cottage before he would enter it himself. As the dog moved into the hovel it began to bark loudly and growl threateningly, which encouraged Paddy to go into the building after him. But, as his eyes became accustomed to the dark of the building, he noticed an old hag of a woman lurking in a corner of one room. Taken completely by surprise with the presence of the old woman, Paddy nervously asked her if she had seen a weasel running through the building.

I saw nothing,” said she quietly. “Sure, isn’t it myself that is all destroyed with a terrible sickness that’s upon me. You must get out of this place as quickly as you can before you catch it and are destroyed yourself.

As Paddy and the old woman were talking, the large dog quietly kept

creeping up closer to them. Unnoticed by Paddy the dog came to a point from which it suddenly gave a big leap upward and caught the old woman by the throat. With a piercing and terrified scream of pain the old woman cried out, “Paddy Kelly get your dog off me, and I’ll make you a very rich man.”

Paddy taking a tight hold of his dog once again, forced it to loosen its hold on the old woman. He shouted at her, “Tell me who you are, you old witch, and tell me why did you kill my horse and my cows?

“First tell me why you stole away my gold that I had been gathering, throughout the hills and hollows of the world, for five hundred years or more?

I thought you were a weasel,” Paddy said, “or I wouldn’t have touched your gold.

And, another thing,” said Paddy, “if you have been living in this world for five hundred years already, is it not about time that you went to your eternal rest now.

I would if it were not for the fact that I committed a great sin when I was very young,” explained the old woman, “and now I can only be released from my terrible sufferings if you can pay the cost of one hundred and fifty masses for my soul’s salvation.”

Where would I get all the money to pay for them? ” asked Paddy.

If you would go and dig under a bush that stands over a little well in the corner of that field over there,” she pointed, “you’ll find a pot filled with gold. Just you pay the money for the masses, and you can keep whatever is left of the gold to yourself. But, I will tell you that there is a great stone that covers the pot and, when you lift the stone off, you will find a big black dog rushing out. This hound might look fierce to you, but don’t be afraid of him, because he is a son of mine. As soon as you retrieve the gold from the pot, buy the house in which you saw me for the first time. There is no doubt that you will get it at a cheap price, for it is well known that the house has a ghost haunting it. Then, look and you will discover my son down in the cellar of the house. He will not do you any harm, but he shall be a good friend to you. Then, in a month from this day, I will be dead and, when I am dead, I want you to put a fire under this little hut and burn it down so there is nothing left. Be assured that if you never tell any living soul a thing about me, you will have a great amount of good luck in your life.”

Just tell me one thing before I leave, old woman; What is your name? ” asked Paddy.

Maura Keown,” she told him.

Silently, turning away from the old woman, Paddy left her standing alone in the hut and went home. But, when the first dark shadows of night fell across the country, Paddy grabbed hold of a spade and took it with him as he went to seek the bush that was in the corner of the field, which the old woman had indicated to him. As soon as he had come upon the bush, Paddy immediately began digging with the spade, and it did not take him very long to uncover the pot. As he had been told, when he removed the large stone off the pot, a big black dog sprang out of the hole and ran off, with Paddy’s dog in close pursuit. Meanwhile, Paddy worked quickly to collect up the gold and brought it back to his home, where he hid it in the cow-house.

It was about a month after this episode that Paddy went up to the fair at Dromore. While he was there he bought a pair of cows, a horse, and a dozen sheep for his farm, much to the surprise of his neighbours. These people were very taken aback at Paddy’s new spending power and they wondered and discussed among themselves the source of the man’s new-found wealth. Of course, there were rumours circulating that Paddy had been granted a wish from the fairy folk, while others speculated that he had captured a Leprechaun and received his crock of gold as the ransom. Paddy, however, paid little attention to the rumours and speculations of his neighbours. Then, one day, Paddy dressed himself in his best clothes and set off toward town. He had decided to pay a call on the man who owned the large house where he had first seen the weasel, and he asked the owner if he could buy the house from him, as well as all the land that was round about it.

You can have the house without paying any rent at all” said the owner, “but there is a ghost in it, and I wouldn’t like you to go to live in it without my telling you. However, if you wish to purchase it I must tell you that I cannot part with the land unless I can get at least a thousand pounds more than you have offered me.

Perhaps I have as much money as you require,” replied Paddy. “I can be here to-morrow with the money, but only if you are ready to give me immediate possession.

I’ll be ready,” the gentleman assured Paddy, who immediately went home to tell his wife that he had just bought a large house and a considerable holding of land.

Where did you get the money?” asked the wife anxiously.

Never you mind,” Paddy told her. “It isn’t any of your business where I got it?

The very next day Paddy went to meet the gentleman again, gave him the money, and got possession of the house and land. Alongside this, the gentleman left him the furniture and everything that was in the house, as part of the bargain. Then, to confirm his possession, Paddy stayed in the house that night. After darkness fell he made his way carefully down to the cellar, as he had been instructed to by the old woman. In the cellar, to his surprise, he saw a little man with his two legs spread out upon a barrel. “God be good to you for an honest man,” said the wee man to Paddy.

May God be good to you to,” replied Paddy, nervously.

Don’t be afraid of me at all,” says the little man. “I will be a constant friend to you, if you are able to keep a secret.

I can be assured that I am able to do that. Sure, didn’t I keep your mother’s secret, and be confident that I’ll keep yours as well.

Maybe you’re thirsty?” asked the little man.

I am indeed,” said Paddy, “just a little.”

The small man put his hand into the pocket of the coat he was wearing and took out a finely made goblet of gold material. He gave the goblet to Paddy, and told him, ”Draw some wine out of that barrel under me.

Paddy took the goblet and filled it wine from the barrel, and he handed it to the little man. “You have the first drink,” the man said.

Paddy drank the wine and then drew another full goblet from the barrel, which he handed to the little man, who drank it.

Fill up and have another drink,” said the little man. “I feel like having a good session tonight.”

The pair of them sat there drinking until they were both half drunk. Then the little man leaped down to the floor, and asked Paddy, “Do you like music?’

Of course I do, ” said Paddy, “and I’m a good dancer, too.”

Lift up the big flag-stone over there in the corner, and you’ll get my pipes under it.

Paddy lifted the flag-stone, got the pipes, and gave them to the little man. He squeezed the pipes on the bag and began playing a fine melody. Paddy began dancing in time to the music until he had tired himself out. Then they had another drink together, and the little man spoke to him softly, “Do as my mother told you, and I’ll show you great riches. You can bring your wife in here, if you wish, but don’t tell her that I’m there, and she won’t see me. If you need a drink of ale or wine at any time, feel free to come here and help yourself. Goodbye for now. Go to your bed and sleep, then come again to me to-morrow night.

Paddy went to his bed, and it wasn’t long before he fell fast asleep. Early the next morning Paddy went home, and he brought his wife and children to the big house, where they made themselves comfortable. That night Paddy made his way down to the cellar, where the little man welcomed him and asked him if he wanted to dance.

Not until I get a drink,” said Paddy.

Drink your fill,” said the little man, “that barrel will never be empty as long as you live.

Paddy drank the full of the goblet, and then gave a drink to the little man. The small companion accepted the drink from him and told him, “I am going to the fairy castle tonight, to play music for the good-people, and if you come along with me you’ll see some great fun. I’ll give you a horse, for the journey, the likes of which you have never seen before.

I’ll go with you, of course,” replied Paddy, ” but what sort of excuse will I make to my wife.

There is no need for you to worry about that. I will bring you away from her side without her knowing it, when you are both asleep together, and then I will bring you back to her in the same manner,” explained the little man.

That sounds like a good plan,” smiled Paddy, “but we will have another drink before I leave you.” Paddy drank goblet after goblet until he was half drunk, and then he went to bed with his wife. When Paddy awoke, however, he found himself riding on a huge horse near to the legendary fairy castle, and the little man was riding on another horse by his side. When they came as far as the green hill of the castle, the little man said a couple of words that Paddy did not understand. At that moment the green hill opened, and the two men went rode into what was a fine chamber.

Paddy had never saw such a gathering of people like of that which was in the castle. The entire place was filled with little people, men and women, young and old, and they all welcomed the little man they knew as ‘Donal the Piper’, into their midst with Paddy Kelly. From among the crowd the king and queen of the fairies stepped forward and said to them, “We are all going on a visit to-night to Knockmore, to the high king and queen of our people.”

At the king’s signal they all got up from where they were seated and went out of the chamber. There were horses ready for each one of them and a coach prepared for the king and the queen to travel in. The king and queen got into their coach, while each man leaped on his own horse, and Paddy followed close behind them. The wee piper had gone ahead of them all and began to play music for them as they rapidly rode off into the night. With the magic of the good people it did not take them long until they came, at last to the hill of Knockmore. As they arrived at the hill it opened, and the king passed in with the rest of his followers.

Awaiting them all were Finvara and Nuala, the High-king and Queen of the fairy host of Uladh, surrounded by thousands of their little people. Finvara came up to them and told them, “We are going to play a hurling match tonight against the fairy host of Munster, and unless we beat them our fame and magic will be gone forever. Our match is to be fought out on the ‘field of gold’ that lies beneath Slieve Gullion”.

The host of Uladh cried out in unison, “We are all ready for the fight, and we know that we shall beat them all.”

“Let us all get out there then,” cried the high king, “or the men from the hills of Munster will be on the ground before us.

They all went out of the hill, with little Donal and twelve more pipers moving ahead of them, playing music they could march to. When they came to ‘The Field of Gold’ the fairy host of Munster had gathered in great numbers before them. For those who don’t know fairy lore, it is a requirement at such events, whether they are for fighting or playing hurling, that the fairy host have two live men beside them. This was the reason that little Donal took Paddy Kelly with him and, meanwhile, there was a man they called the “Rory Geary”, from Cork, who stood with the fairy host of Munster.

In moments the two fairy hosts had lined up their teams and the ball was thrown up between them. From that moment the real fun began in earnest. They were hurling away, and the pipers playing music, until Paddy Kelly saw the host of Munster was starting to get the upper-hand, and he began to help the fairy host of Uladh. The man ‘Geary’ came up and he made a move toward Paddy Kelly, but Paddy was the quicker of the two and turned him head over heels. It didn’t take long for the two opposing groups of fairies to abandon hurling and begin fighting. But, in a very short period of time the host of Uladh had gained victory by beating those from Munster. Defeated and deflated, the host of Munster turned themselves into flying beetles and, in revenge, began to eat every green thing that they came across. They were destroying the entire country before them until they came as far as the place where the Bann River flows into Lough Neagh. At that place there rose up thousands of doves from out of the trees, and they began to swallow down the beetles and, since that time, this place has been known to all folklorists as ‘The Sanctuary of the Doves’.

When the fairy host of Uladh had won their battle, they came back to the hill of Knockmore filled with a great joy. Finvara, the High King of the fairies, gave Paddy Kelly a purse of gold and, after the presentation, the little piper brought him back home, putting him into the bed beside his wife, and leaving him sleeping there.

Another month passed by, but without much happening. Until, one evening, Paddy went down to the cellar. When he reached the cellar the little man, Donal, said to him sadly, “My mother is dead, and it is time to burn the house over her.

I should have remembered,” said Paddy. “She told me that she had only a month of life left in this world, and that month was up yesterday.

The next morning Paddy went to the hut and he found that the old woman was indeed dead. Just as he had promised, Paddy put a lighted coal under the hut and set it on fire. When he returned home, Paddy visited the little man and told him that the hut was burned according to his mother’s request. In return, the little man gave him a leather purse and said to him, “This purse will never be empty as long as you are alive. From now, you will never see me again, but in your heart always hold a loving remembrance of the weasel, because it was she who was the beginning and the prime cause of your prosperity.” Then Donal went away from view and Paddy never saw him again.

Thereafter, Paddy Kelly and his wife lived for many years in the large house and, when he died, he left a great wealth behind him, and a large family to enjoy it.

The Witches of Islandmagee

A Story of County Antrim

The story of the ‘The Witches of Islandmagee’ is a strange tale, which has become very famous in the history and folklore of Ireland. It’s a story is located on the small Islandmagee peninsula, that lies along the east coast of County Antrim, and it is famed for being the last recorded witch trial held in Ireland. Although a witchcraft statute had been passed in Ireland in 1586, the record shows that not too many actual witch trials were conducted in any areas of the land. In fact, the record shows that only three witch trials were held, in which eleven individuals were accused of the crime of witchcraft. It is, however, the Islandmagee witch trial that stands out among them all because of the intensity of feeling it caused in a small, tightly knit community that numbered some three-hundred people of Scots-Presbyterian descent.

During the time of the ‘Tudor Plantation’ in Ireland Scottish Protestants, mostly from the Scottish Lowlands were encouraged to take up land that the crown had confiscated from Irish lords that had risen in rebellion. Among these new Scots-Presbyterian settlers there was a widely held belief in the existence of witchcraft, and they brought their superstitious ideas with them to Ireland. In Scotland, the hunting and destruction of witches was far more widespread than that carried out in England. In fact, Scotland was widely recognised as being one of the most vicious anti-witch countries in Europe. There was a total of approximately 3,800 people prosecuted in the Scottish courts, and more than three-quarters of these were put to death by strangling and/or burning. In England, and so by extension in Ireland, however, there was ‘Common Law’, which meant that those convicted in those courts of witchcraft could only be hanged. In Ireland, such trials were few in number, but there is an account of a trial that was held among the English ‘Planter’ community that lived in the Youghal area of County Cork, during 1661. Fifty years later, in March 1711, eight women were taken into custody and brought before the court at Carrickfergus, Co.Antrim. The subsequent trial was a major sensation at the time, shocking everyone when all eight women were found guilty of the demonic possession of the body, mind, and spirit of a local teenage girl. The judgment levied on them was that they were put in the stocks, where the public could throw stones and rotten fruit at them, prior to them being taken to serve a year in jail.

Witches and witchcraft had always been an integral part of Irish folklore, but the image portrayed by the folklore tales was that of a witch that was non-threatening to ordinary mortals. We have all heard the stories that tell us about witches stealing the ability for churning milk into butter, or other tales saying that they had the power to turn themselves into hares and steal the butter that had already been made. It was, however, the Scottish ‘Planters’ who brought their beliefs about witches to Ireland, introducing the witch as a malicious, expert in magic that was extremely dangerous to ordinary mortals. Thankfully, the ‘Trial of the Islandmagee Witches’ was well recorded by the authorities and the media of the day, which has provided modern researchers with ample primary historical resources to aid their studies. These include statements from the trial of the main characters, copies of newspaper articles at the time, pamphlets that were produced, letters, correspondence and legal depositions from witnesses. From all these documents it has been discovered that the origins of the case can be traced back to the previous year, 1710.

We are told that it was in 1710, that a young 18-year-old girl called Mary Dunbar arrived in Islandmagee from her home in Castlereagh, which lay at the edge of Belfast. It is suggested that the young girl had come to stay and help in the home of her cousin, Mrs. James Haltridge, whose mother-in-law had recently died. At the time of the woman’s death, it was alleged that her passing had been brought about through the black arts of witchcraft. Witnesses further alleged that Mary soon began to show signs that she, herself, had been possessed by an evil demon. These signs included Mary issuing threats to people, shouting, swearing, blaspheming, and throwing Bibles everywhere. On those occasions when a clergyman approached her to help, Mary would suddenly be overcome by violent fits, accompanied by vomiting various household articles, such as pins, buttons, nails, glass, and wool. In her statement to the court, Mary Dunbar claimed to have seen eight women appearing to her in spectral form, and this evidence alone would prove to very important at the trial. ‘Spectral evidence’ was a tactic used by the prosecution lawyers in cases, where the possessed person claims to have seen and been attacked by the witches, which then caused his or her possession in spectral form.  This sort of evidence had been common in England in earlier trials but, by the time of the Islandmagee case, this type of evidence was rarely used because it had become less and less convincing in witch trials. ‘Spectral Evidence’ would, nevertheless, become one of the main proofs of guilt that were brought against the eight women in the trial of 1711. The main problem about such proof was that Mary would have been the only person to have seen this spectral possession occur. But Mary Dunbar was a relative stranger to this area, and she would never have seen any of these women before. However, this evidence was sworn to be true by her, and the trial jury in Carrickfergus chose to believe her. There were other types of ‘proof’ offered by the prosecution, of course, including their apparent inability to say, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. And the authorities went even further to prove their case against the women by setting up a form of the identity parade, in which Mary Dunbar was blindfolded while a line of women came in to touch her. It was believed that the demoniac would go into terrible fits if he or she was touched by a witch, and Dunbar apparently succeeded in picking out the eight women that she had claimed to have bewitched and attacked her in spectral form.

Alongside the witness testimony, the character of the accused women themselves was also important in them being convicted. These women were all from the margins of society in the small community and were suffering from an impoverished life. It is said that some of them claimed to possess some form of witches’ craft. But, in Irish folklore, there was the character of “The Wise Woman”, who knew about love potions, healing plants, and various natural remedies that the people of their community sought. They were not witches in the true sense of the word but would have been readily accused of witchcraft by some. This was especially true in an age when the widespread belief was that a witch looked like a wizened old crone, much like the image we have of witches today, and these eight women apparently fitted that description.

In small villages and towns, the reputation of a person, or a family, is always well known. If a person had a less than perfect reputation and some act of misfortune happened within the community, then that person and his family would be suspected and even accused of being the guilty party. In this case, the misfortune that had occurred was the bewitching of Mary Dunbar, and some of these women already had the reputation of using witchcraft. Moreover, these women appeared to fall short of the ideals of womanhood espoused by others, which helped to fuel the suspicions of them being witches. Several of the women, for instance, were accused of drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and swearing, none of which met the expected requirements for being considered a lady. On the other hand, Mary Dunbar was an intelligent, attractive young lady from a good family.

There is no record of what happened to Mary Dunbar or the eight women after the trial in Carrickfergus. Unfortunately, the public records office that held many Church of Ireland records was burned down during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923). According to the Act of 1586, the eight women would have been put in prison for a year and pilloried four times on market days for a first offense. However, we have no knowledge what happened to any of them after their sentence was served, for they simply disappeared from the historical records. As for Mary Dunbar, it is widely considered that she had made the entire thing up, for some reason or another. After all, she was not the first demoniac in England and Scotland to do such a thing and, being an intelligent young woman, such precedents would have provided her with an excellent example to follow.

Prime examples of misleading evidence were seen during the witch hunts and trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and in Scotland in 1697, where an eleven-year-old girl called Christian Shaw, who was the daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, complained that she was being tormented by a group of local witches. She said that these witches included one of her family’s servants, Catherine Campbell, whom she had reported to her mother after witnessing her steal a drink of milk. As a result of Christian’s statements Seven people (Margaret Lang, John Lindsay, James Lindsay, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Fulton, and Agnes Naismith) were found guilty of having bewitched the child and were subsequently condemned to death. One of this group went on to hang himself in his prison cell. It is also believed that Agnes Naismith may also have died while she was imprisoned. The remaining five accused were hanged, and their bodies burned on the ‘Gallow Green’ in Paisley on 10th June 1697. This proved to be the last mass execution of ‘witches’ in western Europe.

It is very likely that Mary Dunbar had learned the part of a demoniac from accounts she had heard or read about events in Salem or, more likely, Scotland, from where people were pouring into the ‘Ulster Plantation’ at this time. Maybe she sought fame or was simply doing the same thing that she is accusing others of doing. But, because it would not be considered her fault, there would be no moral responsibility attached to her actions. And, because she claims that it is someone else who is doing these things to her, she can comfortably break the type of behavioural constraints that were placed upon her as a female at the time.

As far as seeking fame is concerned, Mary Dunbar was a stranger in that community and may have felt that she was invisible and undervalued. She may have seen her accusations as being an opportunity to make herself visible in that community and her cousin’s family, as well as being able to act in ways that would normally be socially unacceptable. Whatever Dunbar’s reasons, it seems incredible to modern society that she should have succeeded. While it is easy to dismiss the people of that time as being blatantly ignorant, or disastrously superstitious, we must understand how things were in those days. Dunbar’s accusations made complete sense to the people, especially when they are supported by members of the clergy and the medical professions. In fact, doctors were called in to examine Mary Dunbar’s condition and concluded that her condition did not have physical causes but was due to supernatural influences.

Although the ‘Islandmagee Case’ was the last witch trial to be held in Ireland, there continues to be a belief in witches and witchcraft. There may have been no further prosecutions in Ireland for witchcraft since 1711, the Act of 1586 continued to be on the statute books until 1821, when it was finally repealed. There is little doubt that some cases did make it to the court, but the judges of the day would reject them because they were better educated and did not believe in such superstitions. There remains some belief in such things, with ‘Fairy Doctors’ and ‘Wise Women’ being asked to cure ‘fairy attacks’, and to perform traditional rites to remove curses and bewitchments. Such people are very small in number, compared to many years ago, but they are a sign that belief in witchcraft is not yet dead in Ireland.

Biddy Early

The Wise Woman of Clare

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 Early’s Cottage

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.

Biddy Early

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:

  1. E. Lenihan, “In search of Biddy Early”; Cork, 1987.
  2. M. Ryan, “Biddy Early—wise woman of Clare”; Cork, 1978.
  3. D. Stewart, “Biddy Early—famous ‘witch’ of Clare”, Parts I & II; Limerick Chronicle, 3rd and 10th October 1953.

Cailleach

In Gaelic mythology ‘Cailleach is’ Irish for “hag”. A divine hag, a creator deity and weather deity, and an ancestor deity. In Irish lore, she goes under many names, including Digde, Milucra, Birog, Buach, etc. The word itself is found as a component in many Terms, such as cailleach-dhubh (“nun”); cailleach-oidhche (“owl”); cailleach feasa (“wise woman, fortune-teller”); and cailleach phiseogach (“sorceress, charm-worker”).

The Cailleach displays several traits that would be typical of winter, herding deer, she fights spring, and her staff freezes the ground. Alongside and in partnership with the goddess Brighde, the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between Samhain (1 November or the first day of winter) and Bealtainn (1 May or the first day of summer), while Brìghde rules the summer months between Bealltainn and Samhainn. It is said that the Cailleach turns to stone on Bealltainn and takes human form again on Samhainn, just in time to rule over the winter months.

Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brìghde (1 February) at the earliest, Latha na Cailliche (25 March), or Bealltainn (1 May) at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìghde.  Là Fhèill Brìghde is also said to be the day when the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure that the weather on 1 February is bright and sunny so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if Là Fhèill Brìghde is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over.

Traditionally, in Ireland, the first farmer to finish the grain harvest made a ‘Corn Dolly’, representing the Cailleach, from the last sheaf of the crop. The figure would then be tossed into the field of a neighbour who had not yet finished bringing in their grain. The last farmer to finish had the responsibility to take in and care for the corn dolly for the next year, with the implication that they would have to feed and house the hag all winter, so the competition was fierce to avoid having to take in the Old Woman.

There are some who believe the Old Irish poem, ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beara’ speaks of Cailleach. It was said that she had fifty foster-children in Beare. She was said to have had seven periods of youth one after another so that every man who had lived with her came to die of old age, and her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races.

Fairy Lore

“Fairy Preventions”

One old remedy for protecting a home against the ‘Good People’ is, immediately after sunset, to lock every door and window in the house and light a great turf fire in the hearth, into which you place nine irons. As these irons become heated a great noise will be heard from outside the house that are the cries of a witch trying to gain entry, begging and shrieking in pain to remove the irons from the fire, for they were burning her. When the witch finds that all her entreaties are useless, she will return to her home, shrieking, and bring back all the butter that she had previously taken. It is only then that the irons should be removed from the fire and thereby cease her torment. From that moment the farmer shall be able to enjoy the quality of his butter production and relish its undiminished quality.

It has been a long-held tradition in Ireland that a good and careful housewife should always leave a large container full of good drinking water in the kitchen before going to bed for the night. Folklore tells that one night a woman was suddenly awakened during the night by a great noise coming from the kitchen. When she went into her kitchen the woman found a crowd of the ‘fairy folk’ busying themselves cooking food on the fire or preparing the food for a feast. When they saw the woman of the house, ‘the good people’ warned her to go back to bed and she very wisely obeyed their command. When she arose the next morning the woman found that everything in the kitchen appeared to be undisturbed, except the large container that she had used for holding drinking water. The container was now full of blood, which was a hint to the woman that she should leave plenty of pure spring water for the self-invited guests.

Another story tells us that one night, in a remote cabin that sat in a wild and mountainous district of the country, many years ago, two hard-working women busied themselves spinning flax. In the silence of the night their work was suddenly disturbed by a loud knocking at the cabin door. Frightened by the unexpected noise the two women kept quiet until they heard a shrill voice ask, in Irish, “Are you within, feet-water?

I am,” a voice replied from within a pot that stood in the corner of the kitchen in which the family washed their feet before going to bed. There was a sound of splashing water, and an eel-like shaped creature rose up from the pot and, stretching forward, the door was unlocked door. From the night several small women of extraordinary appearance, and dressed in strange clothes, entered the cabin, and immediately began to use the spinning-wheel.

One of the women of the house, saying that she needed to fetch turf for the fire, went outside but immediately rushed back into the cabin shouting, “The mountain is on fire!

Shrieking loudly, the uninvited strangers immediately ran out of the house exclaiming, ” My husband and my children are burnt.” Seeing that their trick had succeeded the women of the house lost not a moment in resorting to the usual precautions against fairy influence. When they closed the door, they made it more secure with iron tongs, laid a broom against the door, threw a glowing ember from the hearth into the “feet water,” plucked a quill from the wing of a speckled hen, removed the band from the spinning-wheel, placed the carded flax under a weight, and made up the fire. They had scarcely returned to their bed when the mysterious visitors were heard outside again calling in Irish as before, ” Let me in, feet-water.” But this time, the pot answered them, “No, I cannot, for there is a spark in me.” The fairy women then called upon all the other objects in the cabin, one after another, “Let me in, tongs;” “Let me in, broom;” “Let me in, speckled hen;” “Let me in, wheel-band;” “Let me in, carded flax.” Each object replied that it was powerless to obey, owing to the precautions which had been taken. The fairies thereupon raised an angry yell of disappointed, and left, uttering the curse, “May your tutor meet her reward.” Once again, we see iron used as a charm against fairy-influence and fairy-assaults. But this folk legend also gives a description of the old custom of throwing a piece of burning peat into any vessel in which the feet have been washed. In some parts of Ireland, to this day, the hissing of an ember in a pot of water is a comfort to the residents of a remote cabin, for it assures them that their home is totally secure against the assaults of the “Good People.”

In some places a horseshoe is often seen nailed over the door of a house, a dairy, or a stable, or to the mast of a fishing boat. This is said to prevent the fairies from entering the house and doing mischief to those who reside there. At the same time, it is thought to prevent fairy mischief against a farmer’s milking the cows, or from taking the horses out of the stable and riding them over hill and dale the long night through, and leaving them to be discovered in the morning trembling in every limb exhausted and bathed in sweat. In another way the horseshoe works as a charm against fairies, who are supposed to be fond of lurking in fishing boats drawn up on the seashore and take great delight in hindering fishermen in their work. It is also traditional for a small piece of iron to be sewn into an infant’s clothes and kept there until it is baptised. Yet another prevention of Fairy interference with an infant is to put salt on the cradle.

Legend tells us that the fairies were conquered by a race of beings that used iron weapons, and it is because of this that they dread that metal, or steel. It is recommended to the friends of a person who has been carried off by the ‘Good People’ that, if they should venture into the underground retreat of the fairies to bring back the captive, they should arm themselves with a ‘Missal’, or a prayer-book, and an iron knife. This latter object was to be laid on the threshold of the entrance into the ‘Rath’ so it will prevent the fairies from pursuing the rescue-party when they have found the prisoner, and are in the act of carrying him off. Another practice recommended to persons wishing to recover a spell-bound friend from the fairies is to stand at a cross-roads on ‘All Hallow Eve’, or in a ‘Rath’, or at such a place that may be pointed out by a ‘Wise Woman’ or a ‘Fairy Doctor’. Having rubbed a special ointment on the eyelids, the fairies would become visible as the troop swept past the spot indicated, and the waiting person was able to recognise the prisoner by some peculiarity of their dress, or by some other means. A sudden gust of wind would indicate the nearby approach of the fairies, and those watching would stoop to gather up dust from under their feet, which they would throw at the procession. This action would compel the troop of fairies to surrender any human being that they might have in their custody.

Folklore tells that young mothers are supposedly carried off to nurse fairy children, and that well-known pipers or fiddlers were also taken and transported to underground dwellings, where, if they ate and drank of the good things offered to them by ‘the Good People’, they would never be allowed to return to their earthly homes. Meanwhile, for a girl to dream that she sees a fairy is a sign that she will soon be married. While it is a favourable omen for a woman to dream of fairies, it is considered to be an unfavourable sign for men, and no man should undertake any important matter for several days after such a dream, or it will surely end in disappointment.

In remote parts of the country some people still believe that the fairies change children in the cradle, and if an infant begins to pine or become peevish, it is believed to be a sign that such an exchange has been affected. Indeed, there are many detailed reports concerning the removal or substitution of a child are not uncommon. In his epic poem ‘The Faerie Queene’, Edmund Spenser describes one such incident –

“. . . A fairy thee unweeting reft,

There as thou slept in tender swaddling band,

And her base elfin brood there for thee left,

Such, men do changelings call, so changed by fairies’ theft.”

It was such tales that encouraged people to carefully watch their babies until they were christened, in case they were carried off or changed by ‘The Good People’.

It was said by people that until a woman had gone through the ceremony of ‘Churching’, after the birth of her child, she remained the most dangerous being on earth. No one should eat food from her hand, and myriads of demons are always around her trying to do harm, until the priest comes and sprinkles holy water over her. It was claimed that even if she went to the river to wash, the fish would all swim away from her in fear, for fishes are a very pious race, and cannot bear to be touched by unholy hands ever since the mark of Christ’s fingers was on them. Legend informs us that they were once, by accident, the overheard an argument against transubstantiation, which was held by a heretic, and they were so shocked at his language that they all left the river. The disappointed angler could not help regretting that the fish were so very particular as to the teachings of tenets of Mother Church.

If a man leaves the house after his wife’s confinement, tradition holds that some of his clothes should be spread over the mother and infant, or the fairies will carry them both off, for the fairy queen desires, above all things, a mortal woman to nurse her fairy offspring. And if her own child happens to be an ugly little sprite, she will gladly exchange it for the beautiful human babe, who henceforth will live entirely in fairyland, and never more see his kindred or home.

Fairy changelings are recognised by their tricky nature, and by constantly complaining and crying for food. One method, which at immediately demonstrates the nature of the child, is to place it over the fire on an iron shovel until, with wild shrieks, the fairy vanishes up the chimney, screaming all sorts of curses on the household that has it this way. But while waiting for the solution of the enigma, the unfortunate child is often so dreadfully burned that it dies in great agony, its cries being heard with callous indifference by its parents, who imagine that it is the fairy child, not their own offspring, that is tortured. The fairy changeling often produces a set of tiny bagpipes, sits up in the cradle, and plays jigs, reels, and lively dance music. The inmates of the cottage are forced, greatly against their will, to commence dancing, and this enforced amusement continues until they sink from exhaustion. When the infant is thus known to be undoubtedly a changeling, it is removed on an iron shovel from the cabin, and placed on the centre of the dunghill while rhymes are recited by the fairy doctor, the director of the operations, along with some verses in Irish, such as the following:

” Fairy men and women all,

List ! it is your baby’s call;

For on the dunghill’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 lump, 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.

Then give me back my only son,

And I’ll forgive the harm you’ve done;

And nightly for your sportive 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.”

(Recorded and translated by – Rev. John O’Hanlon)

When the ceremony is completed, all retire into the cottage, the door is carefully closed, and additional incantations are recited. Any sound made by the wind, or the noise made by a passing vehicle, is regarded as a signal of the fairy host arriving or departing. Then, the cabin door is opened carefully and the assembled party walk to the manure heap. The Fairy Doctor then hands the poor emaciated baby to the deluded parents, who declares that the ‘true child’ has been returned by the “Good People.”