The Wisdom of the Ancestors
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few years ago, I happened to be spending a long weekend in Donegal when I heard the story of ‘HMS Saldanha’. She was a 36-gun ‘Apollo-class’ frigate of the British Royal Navy, which was launched in 1809 and was commissioned in April 1810 and placed under the command of Captain John Stuart, who remained in command until his death on 19th March 1811. Captain Reuben Mangin took temporary command of the ship during the Spring of 1811. Finally, the ship was assigned to Captain William Pakenham’s and its short career came to an end when it was wrecked on the rocky west coast of Ireland in 1811.
Earlier, on 11th October 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ and ‘HMS Fortune’ combined to take the French privateer ‘Vice-Amiral Martin’. The French ship carried 18 guns and a crew of 140 men, and it was on its fourth day out of Bayonne and was yet to encounter a British merchantman. It was reported that the French privateer had superior sailing abilities to most ships of her size, which had in the past helped her to escape pursuing British cruisers. In a subsequent report it was stated that though each of the British ships was doing at least 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph), the enemy privateer would have escaped only for the fact that there were two British vessels involved.
Along the North-western coast of Ireland lies Lough Swilly, a glacial fjord that cuts into the Donegal coastline between the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula and the Fanad Peninsula. It is considered a safe harbour for ships and is famed far and wide for the beauty of its scenery. However, although once inside the lough itself, the anchorage is safe, the entrance to the Lough is considered by many to be a very difficult and dangerous passage. The coast being here is known as being “iron-bound”, with several treacherous reefs of rocks lying near the shore, or partially covered by the sea. The present-day entrance to Lough Swilly has two lighthouses to protect it, with one on Fanad Point, and the other on Dunree Head. The various reefs and shoals in the entrance are well-marked by buoys, which today make the entrance to the Lough a much safer passage than it had been during the days when ‘HMS Saldanha’ was moored there.
In the latter part of 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ under the command of Captain Packenham, was stationed in Lough Swilly as a naval guardship, alongside the sloop-of-war, ‘HMS Talbot’. Their usual anchorage was off the little village of Buncrana, and occasionally the ships would weigh anchor to undertake a short cruise around the coast of the County Donegal for a few days. Their crews had been stationed in the Lough for such a long time that several officers had brought their wives to reside in the village of Buncrana. There were, of course, one or two of the officers and several of the men who had married local ladies, and all of them had gained the friendship and regard of the local gentry and may of the inhabitants of the surrounding area.
Early on the morning of the 30th of November the ‘Saldanha’ and the ‘Talbot’ left their moorings off Buncrana for a three days’ cruise around the coast. However, although the morning was fine and bright, just afternoon the weather became dark and threatening. Before that short November day closed, a great storm had rolled in from the Atlantic Ocean spilling its anger over both sea and land. Local folklore still recalls that terrible storm as the ‘Saldanha Storm,’ and there are many sad stories recounted of hearts that raced with anxiety and strained eyes that tried to peer through blinding spray and rain for the lights of the returning ships.
It was nearer to the mouth of Lough Swilly, on the shore opposite Buncrana, close to Ballymastocker Bay that those lights were seen at last. Along that shoreline the Fanad people gathered in great numbers, knowing that the bay hid a very dangerous reef of rocks, and upon them, the ‘Saldanha’ was Shipwrecked on the night of 4th December 1811. There are no reports any effort was made to save the doomed vessel and, officially there were no survivors out of the estimated 253 crew aboard the ship, with approximately 200 bodies being subsequently washed up on the shoreline at Ballymastocker Bay.
There are stories saying that one of the crew did make it to the shore alive, but the stories also tell of the ‘wild people’ (local wreckers) placing him across a horse, after giving him a draught of whiskey. The stories are unclear as to whether this was done in ignorance or in order to ensure he would die. Many bodies came continued to come ashore from time to time and were buried with great reverence in the old churchyard of Rathmullan, where the grave and a monument can still be seen.
Initial reports on the events in Lough Swilly that stormy night suggested that ‘HMS Talbot’ had also been wrecked, but it transpired that these reports were mistaken. The winter storms that swept through the Lough caused parts of the sunken wreck of the ‘Saldanha’ to come to the surface and be forced on to the yellow sands of Ballymastocker Bay. In the August of the following year, it was said that a servant in a big house some twenty miles from the wreck site shot a bird, which turned out to be a parrot with a collar, on which was engraved “Captain Packenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha.” Then, as the years passed by, further storms would leave fragments of the ship’s planks and various personal items belonging to the crew strewn across the shoreline. On the night of the 6th-7th January 1839, there was another fierce and destructive storm, similar to that which the locals had called ‘The Saldanha Storm.’ On the morning of the 7th January, when the coastguards conducted their patrols of the bay’s shoreline, they recorded that the entire bay was strewn from end to end broken beams, timbers, and chests; All that remained of that doomed ship.
One interesting story from that time tells us that one of the coastguards searching the shore found a small worked case that ladies called a ‘thread-paper’, and he brought it to the wife of his commanding officer. The little case was beautifully made and still contained some loosely coiled and knotted lengths of silken yarn and a few rusty needles. On the back of the ‘thread-paper’ were embroidered three initials, lovingly created by the hand of the woman who had presented it to a member of the ‘Saldanha’ crew.
Over twenty years after the case had been found the lady to whom it had been given, now a widow returned to live in Scotland. While taking a few days holiday in the country-house of some friends in the south of the country, the lady began to converse with a young man who was also a guest at the same house. The lady and young man began to talk about Ireland, Donegal, and the wonderful scenery to be found there. At one stage of the conversation Lough Swilly was mentioned and this sparked the young man’s interest. He asked some questions about the area and then disclosed that his mother had lost a brother in the Lough many years before, having gone down with the wreck of the ‘Saldanha.’ The widow told all that she knew concerning the ‘Saldanha’ incident and revealed to the young man that she had a relic of the ship in her workbox. She took out the ‘thread-paper’ and, asking the name of the young man’s uncle, found that the name agreed with the three initials embroidered on the little case.
When the young gentleman told her that his uncle had been a midshipman on board the ill-fated ‘Saldanha’, and that he was his mother’s favourite brother, the widow woman put the small thread case into his hand. As she did this, the lady explained how she had come into possession of the case and told him, “Take that home to your mother, show it to her, and ask her if she had ever seen it before. If she should recognise it, she is very welcome to keep it. But if it did not belong to her brother you can return it to me.” The young man left the house the next morning and went home. A few days later, however, he wrote to the widowed lady and told her that his mother had immediately recognised the case as being her own work, which she had given to her beloved brother when he had last left home. It was a relic of a person loved and lost and he thanked the lady for restoring it to his mother after fifty long years. Although small and of no intrinsic value, this little case had been kept and returned to its original owner as though it had been some precious family jewel.
An Old Irish Tale
It is often said that a sad tale is best told in winter, and one winter’s evening as I sat by the hearth of a blazing turf fire, I heard the following ghostly tale. But there was certain credibility about this story because of the way it was told to us with an air of reverence from the creaking voice of a withered old woman. Earlier there had been some talk about the need for Masses to be said for the souls of the dead and the importance that this held within the Roman Catholic faith in Ireland. In fact, the tale was told as a means of proving how sacred a duty it was for a Mass for the soul of the faithful departed to be said as they stood before the judgment seat in Heaven.
Saint John’s Eve starts at sunset on 23rd June and is the eve of celebration before the feast day of Saint John the Baptist. It was on a recent Saint John’s Eve that the old woman said the following supernatural event occurred –
“Wasn’t it Mary Molloy, a great friend of my mother’s, God rest her soul, that told me the entire story? She happened to be in the chapel at the evening service for ‘Eve of Saint John’ at the time. Now, whether she was tired and feeling drowsy after a hard day’s work gathering and tying up the new-cut grass, or whether it was something caused by the glory of the good Lord for the happy repose of a troubled soul, I don’t know. But somehow Mary fell asleep in the chapel, and she slept so soundly that she never opened an eye until every man, woman, and child had left the chapel, and the doors were locked. Well, when she awoke, poor Mary Molloy was frightened and trembled from head to foot as if she would die right there on the spot. Mind you, it’s no wonder she was so frightened when you consider that she was locked in a chapel all alone, and in the dark, and no one to help her.
“Well, being a hardy sort of woman, she recovered after a little while and concluded that there was no use in her making a whole fuss, trying to make herself heard, for she knew well enough that there was no living soul was within hearing. After a little consideration, now that she had gotten over the first fright at being left alone, some better thoughts came into her head and comforted her. Sure, she knew she was in God’s own house, and that there was no bad spirit that would ever dare come there. Comforted, Mary knelt again, and repeated her ‘Lord’s Prayer’, ‘Creed’ and ‘Hail Marys’, over and over, until she felt quite safe in Heaven’s protection. Wrapping herself up in her cloak, Mary thought that she would lie down and try to sleep until the morning. But she now called out loudly “May the good Lord keep us!” Then, the old woman, devoutly crossed herself when a sudden, very bright light shone into the chapel as bright as the sun, and with that poor Mary, looking up, saw the light shining out of the door to the Sacristy. At that very same moment, from out of the Sacristy walked a priest, dressed in black vestments, and making his way slowly up to the altar. He turned and asked, “Is there anyone here to answer this mass?”
“Well, when she heard the apparition speaking these words Mary’s heart began to race and she thought it ready to explode inside her breast, for she certain that the priest was some form of a ghostly spirit. When the priestly figure asked three times if there was no one there to answer the mass, and received no reply, he walked slowly back to the sacristy, the door closed, and all became dark again. But before he went into the sacristy, Mary was sure that he looked towards her, and she said that she would never forget the melancholy light that was in his eyes. He gave her such a pitiful look as he passed, and she said that she had never heard before or since such a wonderfully deep voice.
“Well, the minute that the spirit was gone, the poor woman dropped in a dead faint, and she could recall nothing more about the entire event until she regained consciousness in her mother’s cabin, and her senses returned. When the sacristan had opened the chapel the next morning for mass, he found Mary unconscious and calling for help brought her home to her mother’s cabin. But she had been so badly frightened by the event that it took a week before she could leave her bed. When Mary told all that she had seen and heard to her priest, his reverence then came to understand the meaning of the whole experience. On hearing about the priest appearing in black vestments he realized that it was to say a mass for the dead that he comes to the chapel. He concluded that the ‘Spirit Priest’ had, during his lifetime, forgotten to say a mass for the dead that he was bound to say, and that his poor soul wouldn’t have any rest until that mass was said. In the meantime, however, the ghostly priest must walk the earth until his duty was done.
“The Parish priest told Mary that, because all of this was made known through her, she had been chosen by the priestly spirit. He asked her if she would return once again to the chapel and keep another vigil there for the happy repose of a soul. Mary had always been a brave woman, kindly, and always ready to do what she thought was her duty in the eyes of God. She immediately replied that she would watch another night, but she hoped that she wouldn’t be asked to stay in the chapel by herself for any length of time. The Parish priest told her that it would do if she stayed there until shortly after twelve o’clock at night, knowing that spirits do not appear until after twelve, and from then until cockcrow. As requested, Mary went on her vigil, and before twelve she knelt to pray in the chapel. She began to count her beads on the rosary, and the poor woman felt that every minute was like an hour until she would be able to leave. Thankfully, Mary wasn’t kept very long before the dazzling light burst from out of the sacristy door, and the same ghostly priest came out that had appeared to her before. He walked slowly to the altar and once there he asked, in the same melancholy voice, ‘Is there anyone here to answer this mass?’
“Poor Mary tried to answer, but she felt as if her heart was up in her mouth, and she could not utter a single word. Once again, the question came from the altar, and she still couldn’t say a word in answer. But the sweat ran down her forehead as thick as drops of rain, and she suddenly felt less anxious. There was no longer any pressure on her heart, and so, when for the apparition asked for the third and last time, ‘Is there no one here to answer this mass?’ poor Mary muttered ’Yes’ as clearly as she could.
“She told me on many occasions afterward that it was a truly beautiful sight to see the lovely smile upon the spirit priest’s face as he turned around and looked kindly upon her. In a gentle voice he told her, ‘It’s twenty years that I have been ‘asking that question, and no one answered until this blessed night. A blessing be on her that answered, and now my business here on earth is finished,’ and with those words, he vanished in an instant. So, I tell you, never say that it’s no good praying for the dead, for you have heard that even the soul of a priest couldn’t have peace after forgetting to perform such a holy a thing as a mass for the soul of the faithful departed.”
A Story of the Shannon
The Banshee or ‘The White Woman’, famed in Irish folklore is sometimes called the ‘Shee Frogh’, ‘House-Fairy’. She is usually represented as a small, shriveled, old woman. Occasionally, however, she is pictured as being a young, beautiful woman with long, flaxen hair, and it is this long hair that she is often depicted as combing, while she freezes the observer’s blood with her wild and startling wail that sounds every bit a soul-piercing melody.
A Banshee is reputed to herald the immediate death of members of a particular ‘Old Irish’ family. But, she is always to be seen alone at these times, in a melancholy mood, when she is found near the home-place of the doomed person, which may be familiar to her. Some folklorists will inform us that the Banshee is most likely to be the spirit of some person who had suffered a violent death at the hands of an ancestor of the doomed family. Frighteningly unrelenting, the Banshee repeats her vengeful wails from a single place, fulfilling her designated role as the herald announcing the imminent death of at least one of the guilty ancestor’s descendants. In many cases, her cry appears to be coming from a water source, a spring, a river, or a lake, with which the Banshee’s name is connected. In most stories that concern her visitation, it appears to matter little if she is a friendly spirit or an enemy of the people to whom her wails are directed.
The famed, but now ruined, castle of Terryglass and its four circular bastions, which stood proud on the four corners of its once massive walls, overlooks the upper waters of Lough Derg that lies along the course of the River Shanon. The remnants of those walls are still immensely thick, although they are not even one-third of their original height. On a fine and breezy autumn day, the rough waters of the Lough roll along with every sweep of the cool winds, and the wavelets that are created break upon the shore, a short distance from the stout foundations of this once massive fort.
The people who live in this area call the runs ‘Old Court’. The gateway to the castle opens toward the wide Shannon and, near it, one of the corner bastions is open to all who wish to enter. Inside, a broken and winding, but quite wide, circular stone stairway leads the visitor to the upper level of the Terryglass Castle’s walls. Those adventurous visitors who have strong nerves could, possibly, walk above the remaining grass covered tops, especially if no strong winds are blowing. Then, from this height, the visitor can look down upon the ground-plan of the ruined building and see that it is almost quadrangular. They will also see that a thick dividing wall separates the interior of the castle into two almost equal parts. Then, as the visitor makes their way, they will reach each angle of the fortress and may see, in the ruin’s interior, the circular bastions beneath him. These remain ina tolerable condition even after all these years, with old elder or thorny shrubs growing in the lower soil, while the narrow, looped windows on the outside are splayed inward, dimly lighting various compartments.
The entire structure rests upon a limestone rock foundation, around which rich meadow pastures, corn-fields, and tangled thorn fences stretch, or slope gently down to the bright waters of the lough. Around the castle, the lower walls spread near the foundations, and incline inwardly to a certain height, which helps to strengthen their superstructure in what, at one time, must have been an accepted military structural technique. Weather-beaten and worn are these old ruins, and they are choked with briars and shrubs. But traces of their former grandeur and vastness remain, leaving the visitor with enough evidence to show that this was once a lordly fortress in former times, with its parapets raised high in the air and proudly looming over the lough and its surroundings.
In those remote, historical days the halls of the ‘Old Court’ were inhabited by an Irish Chieftain called O’Carroll and his armed retainers. Within those, many centuries before, an evening’s entertainment ended with singing and dancing. But, when the old Harper drew his last tones from the strings of his ‘Clairseach’ (Harp), everyone retired to their beds and the guards went to take up their posts on the highest tower, where they kept watch through the night.
O’Carroll had ordered his men to make his private lake-boat ready for the next morning, along with his forester, Huntsman, and two strong soldiers. After breakfast, he had proposed to have his men row the boat over to the lower shore of Thomond, where he could visit one of the O’Briens. That morning the sun rose bright over the lough and the day was perfectly calm as the boat and its passengers sliced gracefully through the glistening surface of the wide lake. Very quickly the boat became just a speck to those who were watching its departure from the castle, and with the strong, regular strokes of the oarsmen, the boat eventually landed on a distant foreland.
The chieftain was not expected to return until the evening of the next day. But, while the night-watch prepared for their duty on the tower, and before the people in the ‘Old Court’ had gone to bed, a loud, piercing and unearthly wail was heard, and it sounded as if it was coming from the nearby lough. The hearts of those who heard it felt their hearts stop in terror, while the castle’s servants rushed to every loop-hole window in the upper storey and even onto the roof, to determine who was making this frightful lamentation and from where was it coming. In the night sky, the moon had just appeared, spreading its mellow light over the surrounding landscape and illuminated every object of any significance. It did not take the look-outs long to see a beautiful female figure, clad in white, with long flowing locks streaming over her shoulders. She glided slowly over the clear surface of the lake, while the piercing mournful dirge became momentarily more feint until, at last, it died away in the distance.
The shimmering figure finally dissolved as if it too was just one of the passing shadows of the night. These people, who had heard and watched the strange apparition for some time, now looked at one another in silent astonishment or made exclamations of wonder and foreboding. “There is no doubt, it’s O’Carroll’s Banshee,” cried out one of the watchers, “and I am afraid that some sad accident will soon bring an end to our chieftain!”
The next morning everyone’s eyes were anxiously directed across the lake toward the far-off shores of Thomond. A boat had already been sent toward Thomond earlier that morning with news of the strange warning to be taken to the chieftain. Since just before midnight the previous evening an unfortunate misunderstanding had arisen between O’Carroll and men from the O’Brien clan. An insult was alleged to have been directed toward the O’Briens and nothing would satisfy them but to settle the matter by force of arms. Although mutual friends made every effort to persuade the two sides of the argument to put down their arms, it was in vain. Both combatants insisted that their difference could only be decided on the lawn at the front of O’Brien’s castle before the morning dawned. For quite a while the talented and gallant swordsmen wielded their sharp, trusty swords against each other with great vigour. The duel went constantly back and forward, defence and attacks, cut and thrust, with neither man giving any quarter. But, the wary O’Brien seized upon an unguarded moment by his opponent and, without hesitation, he ran his sword through the heart of his adversary. O’Carroll, the Lord of Terryglass Castle fell dead upon the ground which was dampened by the morning dew.
With sorrowful tears in their eyes, O’Carroll’s men carried their chieftain’s remains towards the boat and with deep sadness, in their hearts, they pulled on their oars and rowed back across the lake to their home. Almost as soon as the boat was seen upon the lake many people rushed to line the Terryglass shore and welcome home their chieftain, but they did not know then that he was dead. Their grief and lamentation were loudly and angrily wailed when they saw the lifeless body of O’Carroll and heard the cause of his untimely fate.
The body was taken into the castle, where mourners and the funeral ceremonies were arranged. Finally, the chieftain’s remains were taken with all honours to the neighbouring churchyard of St. Columba MacCruinthannan, where they were consigned to the earth with all honours that were due to him. All the while, an immense crowd of weeping relatives and servants surrounded the grave as the final rites were completed.
An Irish Highwayman
There had always been a long tradition of guerrilla warfare in Ireland since the time of the first Norman invasions in 12th Century. By the time of the Irish Confederate Wars of the 1640s, these native Irish foot soldiers were the mainstay of the rebel forces in Ireland and known to their enemies as ‘Tories’ (Tóraí or ‘Pursuers’). During the ‘Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland,’ they caused the English Parliamentarian forces a lot of problems by attacking isolated and vulnerable garrisons, tax-collectors, and supply columns. In a campaign of ‘hit and run’ tactics these guerrilla gangs would strike their enemies hard and then disappear into the countryside among the native people. Punitive expeditions were led against these groups of guerrillas that had now gained the name ‘Rapparees’, but these were less than successful at first. Parliamentarian forces did capture several strongholds, killing hundreds of guerrillas, and destroying food sources in a vain attempt to force the Rapparees into submission.
Native guerrilla forces were eventually defeated by forced eviction of all civilians from areas where they operated, and subsequently killing those civilians that were found within those areas. By April 1651, the Parliamentarians had designated many areas in the south of the country as ‘open areas’, in which any person found was open to being taken, killed, and destroyed as enemies, and their cattle and goods could be confiscated as being plunder from an enemy. In many of the large towns, including Dublin, the native Irish were expelled because it was feared that they were aiding their fellow Roman Catholic guerrillas in the countryside. Many of the captured ‘guerrillas’ were sold as indentured labour and sent to the West Indies and elsewhere. The last organised guerrilla bands eventually surrendered in 1653 and many of their number were permitted to leave Ireland to serve in the armies of France and Spain. Some refused to leave, however, and in smaller numbers continued their opposition to the new regime in more criminal ways. Moreover, their ranks were constantly filled by those native Irish whose land and property were confiscated under the ‘Cromwellian Plantation’.
These ‘Rapparees’ sought vengeance for being dispossessed of their property, which was then given over to the Protestant favourites of Parliament and the Crown. The dispossessed, like the guerrillas before them, were forced to take to the woods, hills and other remote areas, from where they could sweep down upon the new landlords with as many followers as they could gather. So, events would continue until the middle of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the ‘highwayman’. These criminal types came from among the native Irish and many of them had learned to use firearms and other weapons by serving time in the military or militia units. Some these highwaymen carried out raids and holdups of mail coaches singly, while others would operate with a small band that rarely exceeded half a dozen.
Born in Bonniconlon and reared by an aunt in Derryronane near Swinford, Captain Gallagher was one of the last of these infamous robber leaders in Ireland. In the West of Ireland, he was considered a hero and champion of the oppressed native Irish peasantry who had suffered serious injustice at the hands of the rich, Protestant landowners. They saw him as a romantic figure, like the legendary hero Robin Hood, and like Robin, when he took to his criminal career, Gallagher decided to pick three or four trustworthy companions to join him. Equipping themselves with fast horses and the firearms of the period, they rode all over east Mayo and parts of south Sligo, and west Roscommon. Reports of the state that Captain Gallagher and his small band were bold and utterly fearless, committing daring robberies on the public roads, in open daylight. The homes of the local gentry were plundered regularly, and there was no place that could be considered safe unless it was strongly guarded. Such was the notoriety of the man and his followers that their adventures are still recalled in the folk history of the region. Much is made within these accounts of his great generosity toward the poor peasantry and his amazing ability to evade and escape the ‘Redcoats’. Visitors to the region will find that some of Gallagher’s famous hideouts are still well known, such as ‘Leaba Rudaigh’ that lied in the Ox Mountains near Rooskey. Nearer to the town of Swinford people will tell you that he hid out in Ballylyra Wood, where his ‘Treasure’ is said to lie undiscovered, and close to the town of Pontoon, on Glass Island, he is said to have had another hiding place.
It was reported that on one occasion, Gallagher and his band raided the home of a landlord in Killasser, who was very much despised by his tenants. It is said that, in addition to seizing all his silver and other valuables, the gang forced him to eat and swallow several eviction notices that he prepared for his tenants. Another story tells of a shop in Foxford town that was being robbed on a regular basis and the shop owner could never discover the culprit at work, despite hiring a guard to protect his property. Captain Gallagher, we are informed, offered his services to the shop owner to capture the thief. Gallagher hid in a large chest in the corner of the shop and watched as the guard arrived and began to rob the store. Captain Gallagher leaped from his hiding place and captured the guard, who had been the thief all along.
Local folklore tells us that on another occasion a woman was coming home from the fair in Tubbercurry. The poor woman had sold her last cow so that she could pay her rent to the landlord and avoid eviction. But, as nightfall approached, the woman was passing through the ‘Windy Gap’ near Lough Talt when she spotted a strange shadow in the distance. As they met on the road, the stranger stopped and asked her where she was going in such a hurry. The woman told him that she was trying to get back to her own home before darkness fell because Captain Gallagher might rob her of what little she had. As the woman spoke the strange man smiled at her and proceeded to give her enough money with which she bought another cow, as well as pay her rent to the landlord. He then gently told her to go home and to tell all she met that Captain Gallagher was not the rogue that the authorities made him out to be.
Yet another tale speaks of an occasion when Gallagher, having been ‘set-up’ for capture, escaped through a window of a house just as a military troop, led by a local magistrate entered through the front door of the building. On reaching the ground, Captain Gallagher crept quietly around the house to where the magistrate’s horse was tied up, and, loosening it, he galloped off at full speed. The next day, however, Gallagher is said to have returned the horse, with his thanks, to the magistrate for allowing him the use of such a good beast when he most needed it.
It was precisely because of such escapades that a reward of 500 guineas was offered by the authorities for information leading to his capture. Not surprisingly, after some narrow escapes from the English soldiers, Captain Gallagher’s run of luck finally came to an end. His small of men band were arrested by the authorities near Westport in County Mayo, but Gallagher managed to escape on that occasion. Although he successfully evaded the English patrols for some time, he was finally apprehended by the authorities in the parish of Coolcarney or Attymass, which lie near the foothills of the Ox Mountains.
Local legend says that Captain Gallagher was spending a quiet Christmas in the house of an acquaintance, whom he had formerly helped, while he recovered from an illness. He was given a meal, which had been laced with something that caused him to fall asleep, and the family then got to work. They put him to bed in the ‘cailleach’ bed beside the fire, tying his ankles and wrists were with flax ropes. With Gallagher secured, a message was sent to the military stationed in Foxford, whose officer immediately sent messages to the military stationed in Ballina, Castlebar, and Swinford for assistance before attempting to capture the fugitive. With a force of almost two hundred men, the Redcoats surrounded the house and captured the infamous highwayman without resistance. Without much ado, Gallagher was rushed to Foxford where, after a hasty sham trial, he was sentenced to death by hanging and was taken to Castlebar for the sentence to be carried out.
Gallagher pleaded with his executioners to spare him and he promised them, in return, he would lead them to the hidden treasure that he had buried under a rock in Ballylyra Wood. His captors, however, did not fall for this ploy and the officer in charge quickly carried out the execution and then dashed towards the wood of Ballylyra with a hand-picked squad of cavalrymen. The vision of new-found wealth and rewards from the Crown helped them to hurry to the alleged hiding place of Gallagher’s treasure. But, when the soldiers reached Ballylyra Wood they found that there were not just a few rocks that they had envisioned, but countless thousands of rocks of all shapes and sizes. After searching for three days all they found was a jewel-hilted sword, but it is still thought that Gallagher’s buried gold is still buried in that wood, seven foot from the river beside a tree.
In 1818 Captain Gallagher’s execution was reputedly the last public hanging to take place on the famous hanging tree standing opposite Daly’s Hotel on the Mall in Castlebar. We are left with the following account of the execution taken from a late nineteenth-century author: “He died fearfully. He and his ‘Secretary’ (Walsh) having shaken hands and kissed on the gallows, were flung off together. Walsh died at once, but Gallagher’s rope broke, and he was precipitated to the ground; he got a glass of wine and was again shoved out on the trap-board by the executioner, seated like a tailor, his legs having been broken by the fall.”
Article by Brian Hoban; www.mayo-ireland.ie;
“Tales from the West of Ireland” by Sean Henry @ www.stand-and-deliver.org.uk
In my various readings and studies of Irish Traditions and Folklore I have picked up many useful notes on how best to behave. These notes refer to an ‘Irish Wake’, which is very solemn occasion, but also full of celebration that the soul of the dead person has gone to a much better place.
Consider these points:
- Never use a short cut to bring a body home to the house of the church.
- Stop the clocks in the ‘wake house’.
- When fires go out, do not remove any ashes from the ‘wake house’.
- Do not light a candle from the flame of another at a wake. If you cannot find a match or lighter, then light it at the fire.
- Refuse no person a smoke at a wake, let them take at least a couple of draws.
- Refuse no person a drink or a bite to eat but give out both liberally.
- Don’t silence laughter, because it may be caused by humorous stories concerning the actions of the deceased.
- Put a cloth over all mirrors in the house.
Besides the above there are several useful helpful tips and warnings about things that might just happen –
- A cock crowing at an unusual hour at night is a sign of trouble or death, while a hen crowing at any time is a much surer sign.
- A dog crying round a house is also a sign of death in that house.
- You should not look not in a looking-glass at night, and if you break a looking-glass, you’ll have no luck for seven years.
- You should never brush a floor in the direction of the door, because if you do you sweep away all the luck that’s in the house.
- Finally, other than something borrowed and something blue, a girl who is getting married should wear, on her wedding day, something that belongs to a married woman.
What other notes and tips have you heard about?
A Tale of Old Ireland
“Aye, it was in the bad old days,” said Johnny Rogan, who was one of a group of young men who were sitting around a neighbour’s fireside one cold winter’s night, in the Mournes. “It was in the days when the sheep rustlers were plundering and stealing anything that was not nailed down. My grandfather and my grandmother were staying up late one Sunday night, sitting by the fireside, on a cold night like this and about this time of the year. At their feet was ‘Spot’, a fine, big lump of a dog, which was as strong as a bull and as clever as a bag full of monkeys. Sure, there was no other dog the likes of him to be found anywhere else in the country, and there he was, as large as life, lying sleeping in a corner of the kitchen. Then, quite suddenly ‘Spot’ stirred himself, lifted up his head and gave a couple of growls.”
“‘Lie down, ye dirty hound,’ said my grandmother, ‘what are you growling at, at all?‘ But it did no good. ‘Spot’ jumped up on his feet and let a couple of loud barks out of him that you could’ve heard miles away.
‘Here,’ said my grandfather as he reached her the length of broken stick that they used as tongs for the fire, ‘Hit that brute a thump with this and that’ll soon make him lie down and be quiet.‘
‘Would you whisht for a minute?‘ my grandmother asked in a soft whisper. ‘If I’m not losing my hearing altogether, I’ll swear that there are people tramping around outside, around the house, by God.‘
Well, by God, the old woman had hardly the words out of her mouth before the dog went tearing mad to the door, barking and jumping and scraping, trying its best to get out. ‘Jaysus almighty!’ swore my grandfather, ‘It’s those damned thieving blackguards that are coming here to steal and rob me of my herd of sheep. Open that bloody door and let ‘Spot’ at them, until I get to my feet and into my shoes.‘
Well, my grandmother went to the door and lifted the bars to let ‘Spot’ out. Now, in those days they weren’t the same kind of doors in those days as we have now. The doors were not on hinges then but were only standing up with bars of wood across on the inside to keep them locked and straight. But, somehow, my grandmother got her hand in between the door and the jamb, and was lifting back the door, when to her horror someone or something outside got a hold of her hand. She roared and screeched out in her terror for my grandfather to help her, and without taking time to lace-up his boots, he went to help his wife. He immediately took a tight hold of her and pulled her back. At the same time, the door fell in, allowing the dog to jump out, and run barking madly around the house. Out went my grandfather, and he ran away after the dog.
It would have been hard to tell which of them was the craziest, the dog or my grandfather. The night was as black as ink, and the only guide my grandfather had was the barking of the dog, and wherever he went my grandfather followed him down the boreen, into the gardens, up and down, back and forward, until he was completely tired out. But, every now and then, the dog would stand and howl, and snarl wickedly as if he was fighting with something for his life. Then, as if he was gaining a victory over his adversaries, the dog would run on a bit further. My grandfather could hardly see a thing although he was often so near the dog that he should have been able to see whatever was there, that is if they could be seen at all.
Well, after he was fully exhausted, his clothes torn in rags, his hands, face and feet, for he had lost his boots in the race, cut and bruised going through the briar bushes, and falling over walls, he had to give up and come back to the house. The dog, however, didn’t come back home for three days, and they were beginning to think that they’d never see him again, until one day at about dinner time ‘Spot’ staggered in lame and covered with blood. ‘Och, my poor Spot,’ said my grandfather, welcoming him back, ‘Sure, didn’t we think that you were killed.‘
The poor dog was just as glad to see the old couple as they were to see him. ‘It was a hard fight you had my good little puppy,‘ said my grandmother as she rubbed the dirt and blood off him. ‘But I’m thinking it will be a long time until those villains come troubling us again, for I’m sure you left them many a sore spot that are ready to blister. Aye, and I hope that they may never get better until they die! That’s my heartfelt prayer.‘
You see my grandmother and my grandfather thought that it was the sheep stealers that caused the noise, but they would soon find out different when they heard another story, and that was not long in coming. One night, just about ten days after that night that I was talking about, my grandfather was ceilidhing with old Nancy Mellon, in the village hall. They used to call her the old ‘She-Witch’, for she could tell you everything that was to come, and everything that was past. That night my grandfather noticed, by the way she was looking at him, and sneaking about so creepily, that she had something very important to say to him. There was a young fellow in the house that went in along with my grandfather, and she didn’t like to speak in front of him. The excuse to get rid of him was to send him to the shop for half-an-ounce of tobacco for her. No sooner had he pulled the door of the hall after him than she sat down beside my grandfather, and she began to speak, saying, ‘Dear God, Stephen, I thought I’d never get the chance to get speaking to you about what happened ten nights ago.‘
Well, my grandfather was taken completely by surprise, for not a word did he or my grandmother speak about that night to anyone. But the old witch started to tell him the ins and outs of everything that had taken place, every wall he crossed, every fall he had, every garden he went into, and all things that had happened. And then she whispered in his ear, and she said, ‘Stephen, you know I’d give you good advice, and its sorry I was that you were left so in need of advice that night. But I tell you now, that only for your dog, and one other thing, you would never have got back home as ye come out of it. There were those there that night that you put your dog after that didn’t like to harm you, and that’s the one other thing I that saved you. Indeed, only for them your dog could not have stood between you and harm. The blessing of God with the souls of those that are gone! Sure, it’s not often they troubled you, and it was too bad, entirely, that you should have hunted with your dog those that were born and reared, and that died, in your house. If I told you their names, it would break yer heart to think of what you did. Sure, I know well enough that you wouldn’t have done it if you had known what they were let alone who they were. You thought it was robbers, but Stephen, you were far from the mark, and if you look at your dog’s neck when you go home maybe you’ll see something, but I’ll say no more now. Only take me advice and never do the like of what you did that night again. There were some, too, who were there that never cared much about you, and you needn’t thank them for getting back home safe, and maybe if you don’t take warning from what I’ve told you, then you’ll be sorry, that’s all.‘
Well, by God, when my grandfather went home, he looked at the dog’s neck, and what he saw made him sit down and cry. He wouldn’t tell me what he saw. All he said was that he took it off, and he was crying when he was telling me the story, and he warned me never to repeat it to anyone living until he died, and I didn’t.
Again, with joy I view the waking shore,
Where mem’ries live for ever in their green,
And from the solemn graveyard’s checkered floor
Gaze fondly o’er the all-enchanting scene.
The same sad rooks awake their mocking cries,
And drooping willows weep the early grave,
As o’er the dead the restless spirit flies,
Tries vainly yet yon broken heart to save.
But, hush! sad soul, nor leave this hallowed spot,
Where peaceful slumber seals the closèd eye.
The lonely sleeper now awaken not
By the rude raving, or the deep-drawn sigh.
Oh, let me mourn (the fainting heart replies),
These new-made graves, which take my wond’ring sight;
Say, who beneath this little tombstone lies,
Or who this Angel guards through the long night.
When last I saw, no mounds lay heaving there,
No sexton rude had turned the resting sod.
Alas, how changed! The holy and the fair
Have sunk in death and triumphed in their God.
Then let me pause, if here my Maker stays,
And guards his saints from the inhuman foe.
His word is true; my trembling heart obeys;
Bless’d are the dead who to the Saviour go.
Now new refulgence breathes o’er all the scene;
Yon lark’s sweet warble now is sweeter still;
Yon blady grass stands out in purer green;
And softer music tinkles from the rill.
For why? O mark! The cause is written here;
The pale-faced marble tells the softened tale,
That sweeteneth the sigh, arrests the starting tear,
And lulls to silence the untimely wail.
Unknown late 19th Century Irish Poet