An Irish Dance Master

An Old Tale of Ireland’s Past

There was a time in Ireland when the speech and manners of the Irish man were simple, rural, and kindly. They did not, in the least resemble the manners and speech that fill the lives of modern-day Irishmen. But, in those old times, dancing was cultivated as one of life’s chief amusements and the ‘dancing-master’ was a vital part of a community, if it was to enjoy this recreation activity to its full.
Irish Dancing 1Storytelling, dancing and singing are popular among the Irish people. But it was dancing that was by far the most important recreation, although much less so now in these modern times. Nevertheless, Irish traditional dancing is an indication of the spirit and character of the Irish people, who may not have experienced the best things in life but are apparently filled with a joyous hope for their future. Being Irish, it is not surprising that I believe that no people dance as well as us and enjoy it as much as us. Dancing, most will agree, is a delightful amusement for the people, but Irish dancing is not a simple recreational activity. It is, instead, a very distinct form of dance that belongs to the people of our nation, providing its people with a happy and agreeable way of enjoying Irish music. In the dance the person feels the music in their heart and move their body and limbs in time with its rhythm. Not only Ireland, however, but every nation has a feeling for music and, through it, a love of dance. Music and dance, therefore, dependent on each other, and I am confident in my opinion that the Irish nation excels at both.
It is my contention that, unless you have seen it and taken part in it, you cannot truly know the fantastic exhilaration that Irish dancing gives to the people of Ireland. This exhilaration was caused by an emotion much deeper than enthusiasm and to properly understand you should put yourself in the place of a person among those who are gathered at a house-dance, or Ceilidh, and feel the change which occurs in the temperament of an Irish man. When the dance was called, he would lazily get to his feet, select  a girl for whom he may have some romantic attachment, and would then place himself and his partner on the dance floor with both facing the fiddle player as he begins his tune. The dance would begin, quietly at first, and gradually the man’s steps would become even more lively. Then, his right hand would rise a little and his fingers would crack, to be followed a short time later with the raising of both hands and the sound of two cracks. His eyes would brighten as his enjoyment of the moment increased, and he tried hard to keep pace with the tempo of the music and the others on the floor. His eyes would be lovingly fixed on his partner who, in her modesty, would not return his gaze. She would, however, give her partner a quick glance which encourages him to dance more enthusiastically, aided by a little kindness, love, pride in his own ability, and whiskey. Encouraged by this he would begin dancing at a constantly increasing pace, flinging himself about, cracking his fingers, cutting and trebling his feet, heel and toe, right and left. You would see him fling the right heel up to the buttock, up again the left, the whole face reddening as if in a blast-furnace fed with the ecstasy of delight. “Yo! Ho! Ye boy ye! Move your elbow a little quicker, Mickey!” he would call to the fiddle player. “Quicker! Quicker! man dear, or you’ll have me ahead of you! That’s it, Jenny! That’s my girl! move your feet, my darling. That’s it, sweetheart! Keep up with me! Yahoo for us! Irish Dancing 6And in this manner, he would proceed with renewed vigour, and an agility, that incredibly keeps in time with the music, especially when we consider the great burst of excitement that he would have to direct through his body. Meanwhile, his partner’s face would be lit up with enthusiasm to a modest blush. Who could resist her partner’s great joy, though she demonstrates her own with great natural grace, that is combined with a delicate liveliness? Her movements are equally gentle and animated, which is precisely the way in which ladies ought to dance i.e. with a blend of healthful exercise and innocent enjoyment.
It is not that long ago that I witnessed a dance by a very talented young man, and it was good, except for the performance of his female partner. The entire programme of the dance was, sadly, made to look amateurish by her actions, to say the least. She did not dance with the modesty that is expected of the female Irish dancers but performed some of the unseemly movements of a drunken hellcat, or one of those unfortunate women from the red-light areas of the city. Her face had a maliciously desirous expression on it that would remind you of posters you may find outside places of ill-repute. Such things cannot be allowed, and we must always endeavour to portray in our dances the most chaste and modest females.
There are a considerable variety of dances in Ireland, from the simple “reel of two”, to the team dance, and the step dance, all of which are filled with fun. But there are, however, other dances of a more serious note, which could be considered to have had their origins in the sad times that are a great part of our small country’s history. It is a sad fact that the difficulty of communications in previous times and the remoteness of many areas has led to the loss of many of these less joyful dances, some of which may only have been danced on mournful occasions. With the state-sponsored efforts of the English overlords to suppress Gaelic culture and language it was only at wakes and other funereal rites held in the remote parts of the country where these old dances were stubbornly clung to. At the present time, I believe, that the only remnant of these old dances can be seen in some of the Slip-jigs and hornpipes that are danced. These dances of ancient days may not have been performed to music but depended upon the steps of the dancer to tap out the rhythm, and were symbolic dances used in various pre-Christian rites.  But, having said this, I must make it clear that this is just a thought on my part without real evidence to support it. But, the old dancing masters of past years would probably have more knowledge about such things. Unfortunately, like the old dances, none of these old masters remain.
Irish Dancing 9The old dancing-masters of past generations were itinerants, having no settled home or family, but lived from place to place within a specified area, beyond which he would seldom or never go. The farming community were his patrons, and when he visited their houses the old bachelor brought with him a holiday spirit that brightened the lives of all. When he arrived at a farm you could be sure that there would be a dance that night, after the working day came to an end. The crowd would be gathered, and the old dancing-master would good-naturedly supply the music and, in return for this, they would have a little underhand collection for him. This collection would amount to no more than a couple of shillings or half-a-crown which, under some pretence or other, would be ingeniously and delicately slipped into his pocket. The covert action was so that the dancing-master would know that his patron thought him to be on a higher level than a mere fiddle player. To show his own kindness and generosity, at the end of the dance, he would ask for a door, or other hard surface to be laid down on the floor, on which he would dance several popular hornpipes accompanied by his own fiddle. This would demonstrate to his audience just how great a dance-master he was and further build up his reputation within his chosen area.
The dancing-master was a peculiar character who stood out in the community within which he lived. His dress was peculiar to him and, because it made him stand out in the crowd, he always had an air of self-pride about him. He almost always wore a ‘fedora’-style or ‘bobble’-type hat, whether it made him look good or bad. He also appeared in public carrying an ornamental staff, made from ebony, hickory, mahogany, or some other rare type of cane, which almost always had a silver head and a silk tassel, or other adornment. This staff or cane was seen by the dancing-master, and others, as a type of baton or staff of office, without which he would never be seen in public. Yet another necessary adornment that was so much a part of the dancing-master’s dress code was a gold, or gold-plated, ornately decorated pocket watch which he was always ready to produce when asked for the time of day by anyone. But of all the items of dress that he chose to wear, and which made him stand-out from a fiddler or piper, were the dancing-master’s pumps and stockings, for the man seldom wore shoes. They would always keep themselves in a neat and tidy condition, and constantly able to demonstrate his lightness of foot that their customers would expect of them. In those far off days among the ordinary rural people of Ireland the man wearing the finest of stockings, and the lightest shoe, upon the most symmetrical legs usually denoted the most accomplished of dance teachers.
Irish Dancing 5Though dancing was the main business of the dancing-master he would also have a side-line in the business of matchmaking. Indeed, it was not uncommon for a dance-master to be employed as a negotiator between families, as well as individual lovers. He had practised the use of his eyes to detect the slight mistakes in a dancer’s feet,  and this talent would serve him well at the dances. After all, during a dance, there is always opportunities for a keen observer to notice any signs of passion between the assembled dancers. Even in today’s dancing clubs and parties you can witness the blushing, admiring glances, squeezes of the hand, and stealthy whisperings between couples that would signal a strong affection between the two. It is no wonder, therefore, that a knowledgeable observer, such as the dancing-master, could offer his experience as a go-between for a price. He would soon become a necessary part of the marriage of the two people in a time when arranged marriages, dowries, and matchmakers were common. More strangely, there are earlier reports that the dancing-master would also advertise himself to be a skilled teacher in the art of fencing. In a time when duelling was common, fencing-schools of this class were almost as numerous as dancing-schools and, therefore, it was not unusual for one man to teach both.
While, for the most part, dancing-masters were bachelors there were exceptions to the rule. My grandfather recalled having been taught Irish dancing by an old, married dancing-master who had to face a heart-breaking tragedy in his life. Tuberculosis (TB) was a deadly disease and it had been rife during the during the spring of the year when this tragedy occurred and had brought death to many. Grandfather told me that this poor man’s only daughter was taken from him by this terrible disease and he was forced to close his dancing school to mourn her passing. This period lasted for a month before he felt able to call all his pupils together again one evening, and my grandfather also returned to the class. The dancing-master’s daughter, a beautiful and intelligent young girl of sixteen years, was also a pupil at her father’s school until that terrible sickness cut her down like a blooming flower. The dancing classes began again much the same way that they had ended, until a certain young man who had been the dancing partner of the young girl came to the floor to dance. The old dancing-master tried to play as he had for the others, but his music was unsteady and erratic. He paused for a moment or two so that he could gather himself, and the dancing ceased as he wiped away a few hot tears from his eyes. The man tried to resume the class, but all he could see was the partner of his beloved daughter now standing with the hand of another girl in his. “I’m sorry,” said the old man as he lay aside his fiddle and burst into tears. “She was all that I had, and I loved her deep in my heart and now you are all here but her. Please, just go home, boys and girls. Go home and say a prayer for me, for you all know what she was to me. Allow me another two weeks to mourn her, for Our Lady’s sake! I am her heart-broken father and, as I see you all here, I know I will never, ever see her again on this floor. I miss the light sound of her foot, the sweetness of her voice, and the smile of those bright eyes that spoke to me, saying how much she loved me as her father and her teacher. Just two more weeks and we shall all meet again in less sorrowful circumstances”  There was a wave of sympathy that filled the room, leaving few dry eyes among those who were present, and not a heart that did not feel deeply and sincerely for his sense of terrible loss.
Irish Dancing 8In the local communities the dancing-master, despite his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, bore, in his habits and manners similar level of respect as that given to the fiddler. It was this struggle of superiority among these two characters that was the cause of there being no good feeling existing between them. One looked up at the other as someone a man who was unnecessarily and unjustly placed above him, while the other looked down upon him as being no more than a servant, who provided the music for those whom he taught practise  their skills. It was a very petty rivalry, which was very amusing to neutral observers and neither of them did anything that might put an end to competition. While the fiddler had the best of the argument being the more loved, the dancing-master had the advantage of a higher professional position and being more respected. It was particularly amusing to watch the great skill employed by the dancing-master, when travelling, to carry his fiddle in a manner that it would not be seen and, therefore, he would not be mistaken for a fiddler. To be regarded as such would have been the greatest insult that his vanity could have received and would be a source of endless anger. In our modern times, however,  things are different and neither the fiddler nor the dancing-master have the same influences in society.
My grandfather told me that one of the most amusing dancing-masters was a man who had started as a fiddler and travelled under the nickname of ‘Dodger’. This man had started life as an army musician, where he had also learned to play the fiddle. But, typical of many Irishmen, life in the British Army did not suit a free-thinking, free-drinking man, and he chose to leave without thought of informing anyone. Some, including the army authorities, would consider him to be a deserter, but he preferred to be known as a person who was ‘dodging’ the crown forces, which endeared him to many in the country and earned him his nickname.
Irish Dancing 4‘Dodger’ was stylishly dressed, small, thin, man with a rich Southern brogue, whose language could be described as being ‘rich’ with words and phrases undoubtedly learned while he was in the army. His dress, though stylish, were as tight as they could be without splitting and appeared to be second-hand. His creased thin face appeared to be just as second-hand as creased, closely fitting black coat. On his feet he wore his little pumps, with little white stockings, his neatly attended breeches, his hat,  and his tight coloured gloves. It was said that he was the jauntiest wee man that ever lived. He stood ready to fight any man and was a great defender of the female sex, whom he always addressed in a flattering manner that was very agreeable to most of them. He was also a man who enjoyed the public spotlight and was involved in almost everything. He could be seen at every fair, where he would only have time to give you a wink of recognition as he passed, because he was engaged in some deep discussion with another person. At races and cockfights, he was a very busy, and very angry, gambler waging whatever he had on the result. At these competitions he was always appeared to be a knowing fellow, shaking hands with the winning owner or jockey, and then looked about the crowd to ensure that people saw him in the company of those who were in the know.
The house where ‘Dodger’ kept his school, which was only open after working hours, was an uninhabited cabin, the roof of which was supported by a post that stood upright from the floor. This cabin was built upon a small hill that gave a fine view of the whole countryside for miles about it. My grandfather recalled how pleasant it was to see the modest and pretty girls, dressed in their best frocks and ribbons, coming in little groups from all directions. Often, they would be accompanied by their partners or boyfriends as they made their way through the fragrant summer fields of a calm cloudless evening, toward this place of happy and innocent amusement. But such scenes were also a picture of the general life in the community that was filled with passions, jealousies, plots, lies, and disagreements! Among those pretty girls could be found the shrew, the slovenly, the flirt, and the excessively modest, just as sharply obvious within their community as they would appear in the wider world with all its temptations to bring out such characteristics. Among the crowd, too, was the bully, the promiscuous, the liar, the pretentious, and the coward, each as perfect and distinct in his type as if he had spent a fortune in acquiring his particular character.
Irish Dancing 2‘Dodger’s’ system, in originality of design, in comic conception, and in the ease with which it could be taught was something that would have been difficult to equal, much less surpass. Had the impudent little rascal restricted himself to dancing as it was usually taught, there would have been nothing uncommon about it. But ‘Dodger’ always insisted in teaching by example, and he would not entertain any other manner of instruction. Moreover, dancing was only one of the things that ‘Dodger’ taught or professed to teach. At one time he undertook to teach everyone in his school how they should enter a room in the most correct and fashionable way. He also insisted that he was the only man who could teach a gentleman how he should greet a lady in the most agreeable and socially acceptable style. The man insisted that he had already taught this important lesson to many others and with great success, as he had the art of the curtsy or bow. He professed to be able to teach every lady and gentleman how to make the most beautiful bow or curtsey, by imitating him. So confident was he of this boast that he said if there was a great crowd present each would think it had been intended for them! In fact, according to ‘Dodger’, he could teach the entire art of courtship with all the grace and success of any Frenchman or Italian. He could teach how love-letters and valentine cards should be written, containing every compliment ever invented by that great lover ‘Casanova’. But he insisted that only he could teach a person a magical dance which would allow a gentleman to lead a lady to wherever he wished, and for a lady to feel free to go wherever she was being led.
With such instruction on offer and delivered in a most agreeable, his school quickly became the most popular in the county. The truth of his system was that he had contrived to make sure every gentleman would salute his lady as often as possible, and to ensure this he invented dances, in which every gentleman saluted every lady but, at the same time, every lady would return the compliment, by saluting every gentleman. But he did not allow his male pupils to have all the saluting to themselves, for the amorous little blackguard always started first and ended last. This, ‘Dodger’ said, was so that they might all catch the method from himself. “Ladies and gentlemen, I do this as an example for you, and because it forms an important part of system!” Then he produce a meagre attempt at a smile before twirling over the floor in a way that he thought was totally irresistible.
The one thing ‘Dodger’s’ system did not affect was the honour of our Irish women. My grandfather could not recall one single occasion when the system was shown to be incompatible with virtue to our countrywomen. This, of course, was a great advantage to the respect he had within the community, and a woman’s virtue was much prized the country. Several weddings, that might otherwise not have taken place, were unquestionably a result of ‘Dodger’s’ system, but in not one instance have we heard that such a union was brought about because a woman had suffered shame or misfortune. According to my grandfather ‘Dodger’s’ way of teaching was conducted in the following way:-
 Now, Paddy Curran, walk you out and enter the parlour, and Jenny Horan can go out with you and come in as Mrs. Curran.” ‘Dodger’ would direct.
Ah, sure, Master, I’m afraid that I’ll make an awful mess of it, but at least I will Jenny here to help me through it,” Paddy replied.
Is that supposed to be a compliment, Paddy?” asked the Master. “For Mr. Curran, you should always speak to a lady in a smooth tone.
Paddy and Judy left as instructed and the ‘Dodger’ turned to Micky Scullion, directing him, Micky Scullion, come up here, now that we’re breathing a little, and you, Grainne Mulholland, come up along with him. Miss Mulholland, you can master your five positions and your fifteen attitudes, I believe?
Yes, sir.”
Very well, Miss. Now, Micky Scullion—ahem!—Mister Scullion, can you perform the positions also, Mickey?
Yes, sir! But you remember I got stuck at the eleventh attitude.”
 Don’t worry about that. But, Mister Scullion, do you know how to salute a lady, Micky?
Sure, it’s hard to say, sir, ‘til we try. But I’m very willin’ to learn it. I’ll do my best, and, sure, I can do no more.” Replied Micky
Alright! Now mark me and what I do, Mister Scullion. You approach your lady in this style, bowing politely, as I do. Miss Mulholland, will you allow me the honour of a heavenly salute? Don’t bow, ma’am, you’re to curtsy, you know. Just a little lower if you please. Now you say, ‘With the greatest pleasure in life, sir, and many thanks for the favour.’ There, now, you are to make another polite curtsy, and say, ‘Thank you, kind sir, I owe you one.’ Now, Mister Scanlan, proceed.”
I’m to imitate you, master, as well as I can, sir, I believe?
Yes, sir, you are to imitate me. But hold on a minute, sir! Did you see me lick my lips or pull up my trousers? By God, but that’s shockingly unromantic. First make a curtsy, a bow I mean, to Miss Grainne. Stop again, sir! Are you going to strangle the poor lady? Why, one would think that you were about to take leave of her for ever! Gently, Mister Scullion! Jaysus, gently, Micky! There now, that’s an improvement. Practice, Mister Scullion, practice will do all. But don’t smack so loud, though. Hello, gentlemen! where’s our parlour-room folk? Go out, one of you, for Mister an’ Mrs Paddy Curran.
Curran’s face peeped in at the door, lit up with a comic expression, from whatever had cause it. “Easy, Mister Corcoran, and where’s Mrs Curran, sir?
Are we both to come in together, master?
Certainly. Turn out both your toes—turn them out, I say.”
Sure, sir, that’s easier said than done with some of us.
Irish Dancing 7I know that, Mister Curran, but practice is everything. The bowed-legs are against you, Mister Curran. Sure, if your toes were where your heels are, you’d be exactly in the first position, Paddy. Well, both of you turn out your toes, look straight forward, clasp your beret, put it under your arm, and walk into the middle of the floor, with your head up. Stop! Take up your post. Now, take your beret, in your right hand, and give it a flourish. Easy, Mrs Horan, I mean Curran, it’s not you that is to flourish. Well, flourish your hat, Paddy, and then make a graceful bow to the company. Ladies and gentlemen.
Ladies and gentlemen.”
I’m your most obedient servant.”
I’m your most obedient servant.”
Jaysus, man alive! that’s not a bow. Look at this – there’s a bow for you. Why, instead of making a bow, you appear as if you were going to sit down with lumbago in your back. Well, practice is everything, for there’s only luck in leisure. Now, Dick Doran, will you come up, and try if you can make anything of that trebling step. You’re a pretty lad, Dick! Yes, a pretty lad, Mister Doran, with a pair of left legs, and you expect to learn to dance. But, don’t despair, man. I’m not afraid and I’ll make a graceful slip of a boy out you yet. Now, Can you make a curtsy?
Not right, now. I doubt.”
Well, sir, I know that. But, Mister Doran, you ought to know how to make both a bow and a curtsy. When you marry a wife, Misther Doran, it mightn’t be a bad thing if you could teach her a curtsy. Have you the ‘gutty’ and ‘pump’ with you?
Yes, sir.”
Very well, on with them! The ‘pump’ on the right foot, or what ought to be the right foot, and the ‘gutty’ upon what ought to be the left. Are you ready?
Yes, sir.”
Come on, then, do as I bid you. Rise up on the ‘pump’ and sink on the ‘gutty’; rise up on the ‘pump’ and sink on the ‘gutty’; rise up on – Hold on, sir! You’re sinking on ‘pump’ and rising up on the ‘gutty’, the very thing you ought not to do. But God help you! sure you’re left-legged! Ah, Mister Doran.it would be a long time before you’d be able to dance a Jig or a Hornpipe. However, don’t despair, Mister Doran. If I could only get you to know your right leg, but God help you! Sure, you haven’t such a thing! From your left, I’ll make something of you yet, Dick.”
Competition between the Dancing-masters was rife and, although they seldom met each other, they still abused each other albeit from a distance. But distance did not lessen the virulence and disparagement that was spread. Now, ‘Dodger’ had just such a rival, who proved to be a constant thorn in his side. His name was Harry Fitzpatrick who, at one-time had been a jockey, but he gave up horse-racing and took the less injurious course of being a dancing-master. ‘Dodger’ once sent Harry a message, which said that, “if he could not dance ‘The Humours of Ballymanus’ (Slip Jig) on the head of a drum, then he would be better holding his tongue for ever.” To this insult Harry replied, by asking if he was a man able to dance the ‘Jockey to the Fair’ upon the saddle of a racing horse, with it travelling at a three-quarter gallop.
As the insults thickened, friends on each side prevailed upon them to settle their claims in a competition. The idea was for each master, with twelve of his pupils, to dance against his rival with twelve of his. The competition was to take place on top of ‘Kilberry Hill’, which had a commanding view of the entire parish. As previously mentioned, in ‘Dodger’s’ school there stood near the middle of the floor a post. In a new manoeuvre developed by ‘Dodger’ this post was convenient as a guide to the dancers when going through the figure in their dance. At the spot where this post stood it was necessary for the dancers to make a curve, in order to form part of the figure of eight, which they were to follow. But, as many of them couldn’t quite get it into their heads what he wanted, he forced them to turn around the post rather than make an acute angle of it, which several of them managed to achieve.
At last, the time came for the competition and it was, everyone agreed, a matter of great difficulty to decide who was best, for each was as good as the other. When ‘Dodger’s’ pupils came to perform their dance, however, they found that the absence of the post was an insurmountable problem. They had carried out all their training with the post in place and were accustomed to it. With the post they could dance, but without the post they pranced about like so many ships at sea without rudders or compasses. It fast became a scene of hilarious confusion, which caused some laughter. ‘Dodger’ stood, looking on, like he was about to explode with shame and anger. But, in fact, the man was in agony. “Gentlemen turn the post!” he shouted, stamping on the ground, and clenching his little hands in fury. “Ladies remember the post! Oh, for the honour of the school don’t let them beat you. The post! Gentlemen, ladies, the post if you love me! In the name of God, the post!
By Jaysus, master, that jockey will out distance us,” replied Bob Megarity, “it’s likely he’ll be winning!
Any money,” shouted the ‘Dodger’, “any money for long Sam Callaghan, for he’s be able to stand-in for the post. Mind it, boys dear Jaysus, mind it or we’re lost. The Devil a bit do they heed me! They’re more like a swarm of bees or a flock of sheep. Sam Callaghan, where are the hell are you? The post, you blackguards!
Oh, master, if we only we had a fishing-rod, or a crow-bar, or a poker, we might yet get it done. But, sure, we would be better giving in, for we’re only getting worse at it.”
At this stage of the proceedings Harry came over to ‘Dodger’, and making a low bow, asked him, “Ah, now, how do you feel, Mister Doherty?” which was ‘Dodger’s true name.
Sir,” ‘Dodger replied, “I’ll take the shine out of you yet. Can you salute a lady with me?—that’s the game! Come, gentlemen, show them what’s better than fifty posts, salute your partners like proper Irishmen!
My grandfather described the calamitous scene that now followed. ‘Dodger’ had his people trained to kiss in platoons, and those watching the spectacle were literally convulsed with laughter. No one could quite believe that ‘Dodger’ would introduce such ludicrous ceremony in an attempt to stem the defeat he faced. But he turned the laughter completely against his rival, and swaggered off the ground in high spirits, exclaiming loudly, “He doesn’t know how to salute a lady! Sure, that poor eejit never kissed any woman but his mother, and that only when the poor woman was dying!
Such, friend, is the manner in which my grandfather, God rest his soul, described the character of an Irish dancing-master. There few if any of these men left in Ireland and yet the competition between the current crop of Irish dancing-teachers is the same, though they try very hard not to show it. Whether your child does ‘Traditional’ or ‘Feis’ dancing just watch the next competition that they attend and you will be able to see for yourselves just how close the characters described by my grandfather still carry on the customs.

Irish Traditional Cures

The Wisdom of the Ancestors

 

Throughout the world, there are tales of Shamans; Medicine Men; Witch Doctors; Faith Healers; Quacks; Bone-Setters who are known to the people of their district for having cures for a wide variety of ailments, hurts, and diseases. t was no different in the Ireland of bygone years, when the majority of the population were poor, peasantry who could not afford proper medical assistance and depended on such people as these to aid them in their need. There were certain women, often called ‘Wise Women’ who had no education but were able to work their charms to help those who were ill. By some means, natural or mysterious, they had discovered the healing power contained within certain plants. In an island of green fields, woodlands, mountains, and lakes they knew the plants and herbs that gave some relief to every part of the body, both internally and externally.
Trad 4
Ribwort

There were tales that these healers had lived among the fairy folk or other strange unearthly people from whom they had learned their magic charms. Some even specialised in their area of expertise and became known as Fairy Doctors, Cow Doctors, and Horse Doctors, each one being educated by the unseen spirits in their own Irish language. Their success in the different districts in which they worked made some famous all over the whole island as their reputations grew and people sought them out in their desperation. Not all of these healers could cure all the ailments that people had, but there were a few who could almost do the impossible and became famous for their cures, especially those who succeeded in healing a patient whom the medical doctors had failed. Some healers were acclaimed by a superstitious people to be able to bring back the dead with the ‘Slanlus’ and the ‘Garblus’ which were the same herbs that revived the Lord after his death on the Cross.

‘Slanlus’, a ‘Ribwort Plantain’, which is a perennial weed with almost worldwide distribution and grow aggressively. The leaves would be plucked fresh, cut, chewed up and applied to the sore. Apparently, it was known to prevent blood poisoning and encourage healing. ‘Garblus’, better known to us as the ‘Dandelion’ was considered as being able to cure the world … “and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that were with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not one could be got to pierce His heart till a dark man came and said, “Give me the spear, and I’ll do it,” and the blood that sprang out, touched his eyes and they got their sight.
And it was after that, His Mother and Mary and Joseph gathered their herbs and cured His wounds. These are the best of the herbs, but they are all good, and there isn’t one among them but would cure seven diseases. I’m all the days of my life gathering them, and I know them all, but it isn’t easy to make them out. Sunday evening is the best time to get them, and I was never interfered with. Seven “Hail Marys,” I say when I’m gathering them, and I pray to our Lord and to St. Joseph and St. Colman. And there may be some watching me, but they never meddled with me at all.”Lady Augusta Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920).
There were also healers who were known to have cures for cattle and other animals, as well as cures for human being diseases and injuries. There were those, like many today, who claimed that they have the cure for a bald-head and can make hair grow on any skin irrespective of age. Below is a shortlist of ailments and some of the cures suggested for them, quite a few of which are still in use today.
Jaundice – “Jaundice” itself is not a disease, but a medical term that describes yellowing of the skin and eyes. Although it isn’t a disease, Jaundice is a symptom of several possible underlying illnesses, many of which are serious and can lead to death if untreated. It is formed there is too much bilirubin in a person’s system, Bilirubin being a yellow pigment created by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. In normal circumstances the liver would rid the body bilirubin along with old red blood cells, exhibiting Jaundice may indicate a serious problem with the function of your red blood cells, liver, gallbladder, or pancreas, caused by such things as Hepatitis; Cancer; Anaemia; Liver Failure; etc.
Trad Cure 2Modern medical advances have helped make Jaundice less severe than it used to be in times when it was not known what it indicated. There were several holistic cures practiced by the Healers in Ireland, one of which was made from a weed (Chickweed), the seedless plant and not the female variety. The weed was pounded into a pulp to extract the juice, which was then boiled in stout and sweetened with sugar. The resulting mixture was then squeezed, strained and given to the patient, and was said to be a sure remedy. It doesn’t sound to be a particularly pleasant concoction for a person to drink but, maybe, not as much as some other remedies that were used. One other remedy required ten snails to be boiled in a cup of water until they disappeared, and the cup was then strained and given to the affected person to drink. Some patients were even encouraged to drink their own urine, which was made sweet with sugar and lemon juice and was said to cure the sufferer when other remedies failed them.
Whooping Cough –  We all know the dangers to children who suffer from whooping cough, or ‘Chin-cough’ as it was once know in Ireland. Before vaccination and modern medicines helped reduce the instance of this terrible child disease, it was a major cause of infant mortality and was not unknown to visit the older people of a community. The Healers in Ireland used a small white flower shaped like a chalice, which was known as ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Chalice’, or ‘Lady of the Valley’, which was boiled in milk. Another cure employed to relieve the suffering of the infected was heated asses milk, given to the patient to drink in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In some cases, the milk that a ferret leaves behind after it has eaten is heated and given to the patient to drink. A more strange cure for ‘Chin-cough’ was a hair from the tail of a white horse being boiled in milk, which is then given to the patient to drink. One tale spoke of a person in the house. where the sick person is, would see a man driving or riding a white horse  and going to him would say, “Man with the white horse give me a cure, for the chin-cough” The man on the horse would then give the hair from the horse’s tail to be boiled in milk, or Poitin.
Trad Cure 3Warts – Warts are one of those things that can plague both humans and animals. I have heard of one remedy for warts in animals that was said never to fail, and the truth of that statement is in the story that the ‘Wise-Woman’ was visited by ailing animals being brought to her from all parts. The remedy that she is said to have used for curing warts in animals was said to contain the following ingredients i.e. 1 oz Tincture of Spanish Fly; 3.5 ozs Compounded Camphor Liniment;  3.5 ozs Soap Liniment; and a bit of soot which was said to thicken the mixture. The accuracy of this prescription cannot be vouched for and this may have been only some of the ingredients required.
Warts on human beings is a widespread ailment which, I would say 90% of us have suffered, and used modern treatments to have them removed or medically burned off. In the days of the healers, when these modern medicines were unknown, people were told to acquire a black snail and stick it on a thorn from the Whitethorn Bush (‘Fairy Tree’) and the wart subsequently rubbed against the same snail each morning, for nine mornings, before breaking their fast. It was said that as a result, the wart would fade away as the snail withered on the thorns. A less gruesome remedy, however, called for warts to have ‘fasting spit’ rubbed upon them each morning for nine mornings and this would cure them.
Some patients were told to carry a bag of stones, one for each wart, which was then thrown one by one over the shoulder in the hope that the warts would be passed on to the finder of the stones and removed from the sufferer. Another stone, known as ‘Bluestone’ is considered to be a cure. “Bluestone” is a cultural name often given to a number of building stone varieties, including limestone, which is quarried in Counties Carlow, Galway, and Kilkenny. This was also considered a cure for ‘wildfire’ on the lips.
Some of the other old prescriptions for warts included the patient carrying dampened Washing Soda in a pocket and then, rubbed on the wart several times a daily. There was also the scrapings from the inside of an Oyster Shell mixed into a paste and applied to warts. In the same way, the juice from the stems of a ‘Dandelion’ should be smeared on the wart daily. It was also said that if you were journeying someplace and, by chance, came across a small hollow in a limestone block that is filled with water then the wart should be bathed in that water at least three times, and it will fall away. There was also the tradition of rubbing a piece of bacon on the wart, which is then taken from the house and placed under a stone. In a few days, the patient would do the same thing, followed a few days after that by a similar action, then the wart was said to vanish when the bacon had gone.
‘The Spool of the Breast’ – The spool is a bone which is found under the middle – rib of a person’s chest, and it can be displaced by overexerting yourself or straining yourself by lifting heavy weights at the front of the body, causing the spool to fall down on the stomach.  It was said that the raising of the spool of the breast was a cure peculiar to the local bonesetter. People become very weak and unable to work when their spool falls, and the bone-setter is immediately called. It was a complaint that affected people both young and old, and the ‘Bonesetter’ raises the spool of the breast by using his fingers in a specific manner, which took at least five minutes to complete. During the ‘operation’ the patient would sit in a chair and would often faint during the procedure. On occasion, the ‘Bone-setter’ would raise the spool of the breast using a lighted candle or cup, although I am personally unsure of how this procedure was carried out. Although these operations were continuing in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical fraternity gave no credit to the cure much as they do today with holistic medicine. There have been, incidents when sufferers were sent to the hospital and x-rayed, and doctors could not cure it. But, the local ‘Bone-setter’ was successful where the doctor failed.
Chilblains and Corns – Chilblains are small, but itchy swellings on the skin which arise as a reaction to cold temperatures, and they most commonly affect the extremities of the body e.g. toes. One common cure prescribed by the local healers was to rub in the affected areas a mixture made from salt and lemon juice, or rubbing in Paraffin Oil. Other remedies used included measures of whiskey or Poiteen briskly rubbed into the areas affected. Also, at this time, it was widely held that unsalted butter was good for both chilblains and rashes of the body. Local tradition, in fact. said that unsalted butter was a great cure for anything, even on the outside of the body, while a drop of good, hot poiteen was a cure for the flu or any ailment of the body’s interior.
Trad Cure 5
Camphor

Corns, much as they are today, were a regular and common ailment among people, on all areas of their feet. For Corns that appeared on the soles of the feet, people were told that they should wear insoles with holes cut in them where the corns are. But a common remedy for Corns that was employed in these days was the use of ‘Comfry’, which is a weed-like ‘Docken.’ This plant was cut fresh and the root was washed in clean water. The plant would then be pulped into a paste and, when cold, applied to the area in a cloth bandage and prevents them from becoming inflamed. As a first resort, however, some would be told that they should walk in their bare feet through the bog, assured that this would cause the corns to fall out.

Sore Back, Sore Head, and Sore Throat – It was common for the healers to make an embrocation that could be used on a sore-back. I have heard that the following is a recipe for just such an embrocation, but I cannot guarantee that this is complete – Mix one noggin of Whiskey/Poitin; One noggin of Turpentine; One noggin of Vinegar; The white of two eggs; one pound of ‘Castile’ Soap;  60 grains of Sulphur Zinc; 120 grains of ‘Sugar Lead’. I have also read that some people would go to a local (monastic) graveyard and entered through a hole in the wall and went out again through another hole in the wall to cure the pain in their back. In fact, it is told that certain men came to rob the monastery at one time and they were immediately struck dead and turned to stones. it is said that these stones are still to be seen, standing up in the field, just outside the graveyard wall at ‘Tempaill Mologga’ near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
For those who suffered a sore head or headache, the remedy was to use a ribbon around the head. This was no ordinary ribbon, but one that was put out on a window sill, or in the open air, on Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast day. The faithful believed that the ribbon grew in length during the night and was empowered by the Irish Saint. However, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the best cure for a headache was known to be the melting of  ‘Aspirin’ tablets in a cup of water, which would be subsequently used as a  and gargle it in your throat.
Of course, there were occasions when people developed a sore throat, and the recommended cure was the wrapping of your stocking around the throat at night time.  In extreme cases, however, it was recommended by healers that a piece of fat bacon be roasted on a fork and then placed in a flannel that would be held against the throat as hot as it possibly could be. Another cure that was widely recommended for curing a sore throat was to put some bread soda into a cup of water, stir it and drink. Now, Mumps in those days was much more serious than it is today and healers often recommended putting warmed salt into a stocking, which would be tied around the patient’s neck. It was also used as a means of relieving the pain of Neuralgia.
One particularly odd cure was used occasionally to cure a child’s sore mouth, which was to permit an old man, who was fasting, to blow into the affected mouth.
St. Anthony’s Fire and Ringworm – ‘Erysipelas’ is a bacterial infection of the skin that typically involves the lymphatic system. It is, however, also known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, which accurately describes the very real fiery intensity felt by sufferers of the rash. To cure the affliction healers were told that blood should be drawn from an old man’s finger and rubbed it into the sore. Another clue was said to be to write the afflicted person’s name around the spot on the face. This was also known to be a cure for ‘Ringworm’, a disease which grows in the form of a ring and usually appears on the head of an infected person, causing that patient’s hair to fall off and the skin rots away. It was traditionally known that the ‘Seventh Son’ had a cure for this nasty ailment, and there is a story in Mayo about a man from Newport who had the cure for ringworm. It is reported that he cured a boy in the district after the young man had spent a while in Castlebar hospital, and was sent home because the doctors could not cure him. Those who have seen the cure in practice tell that the seventh son simply rubs his hand on the earth before placing his hands over the ring-worm. there is testimony that states the ring-worm gradually disappears, but the hair will rarely ever grow on that spot afterward.  The mysterious thing about this all is that tradition tells us that when the seventh son is born a worm must be put into his hand, and if he possesses the cure then the worm dies.
Stomach Complaints and the Fear a Gorta – Everyone of us has suffered from a stomach complaint of one kind or another and have taken antacids, Epsom Salts, laxatives, and even warm milk with sugar to help us get some relief. Prior to the outbreak of World War One, however, ‘Flummery’ was an article of food that was in common use in Ireland. When a farmer used to take his crop of oats to be ground in the mill, he also brought home with him the bran and pollen of the oat grains. It was from these that he would make a drink, which was called ‘Shearings’. This was said to be a cool thirst-quenching drink, which when boiled became ‘Flummery’, a thick, jelly-like food that was brownish in colour. It was said to be a  little sour to taste and some people would add sugar to sweeten it. However, this was considered a good cure for indigestion and provided a great pick-me-up for those who took it. Others swore by the curative properties of Buttermilk with regard to the stomach, and hot buttermilk was often taken by those suffering from a cold. Wild garlic was picked by healers and boiled in milk, or eaten raw to cure colic.
But when it came to stomach complaints the superstitious peasants also feared the approach of the ‘Fear a Gorta’, the sudden and terrible feeling of hunger that was said to overcome a person who passed over a place where some poor person who had died during the famine was buried. The traditional remedy for this was a handful of oaten meal, and a farl of the oaten-meal cake was carried by many people in those days when they went on a journey, to cure the ‘fear a gorta’ if they were unfortunate enough to get it.
Trad Cure 6
Ringworm

Minor Hurts – People are always vulnerable to picking up a variety of minor injuries and complaints. For skin complaints like pimples, people were often prescribed oatmeal powder to be put in the water the person washed with, while for a scratch on the skin-bone the cure was said to be the person’s own ‘fasting spit’ spread upon it. If someone was suffering from a sore ear they would be advised to take a piece of cotton with some home-made ointment put on it and placed into the ear for a cure. Other more odd-sounding cures were those like a ‘Dog’s Lick’ is a cure for a running sore or the sting of a nettle being used to cure rheumatism, and the pumping of a cow’s udder to help cure a fever. When it came to cows, should they take ‘the staggers’ the farmer would cut the cow’s ear and bleed it as a cure to make the ‘staggers’ leave.

Stranger still was the cure for toothache recommended to some sufferers that called on them to visit a graveyard at night to acquire a skull in which to collect water that the sufferer would then drink. A more common cure for a toothache, however, was to put a bottle of hot water under the jaw and go to bed. Similarly, warm water and salt were supposed to be good for styes in a person’s eyes, or they might be recommended to look through a widow’s golden wedding ring three times.
Many people, including myself, have suffered from in-growing nails and found it to be very painful. in my case, I was told that I should finely pare the middle of the nail and then cut straight across the top. It worked for me, but I didn’t realise that this was a cure that was also given to sufferers by the wise women and healers in bygone days. In the same way, I have been told that whiskey can be applied to an open wound since it acts just like iodine or another disinfectant, but did you know that scraped raw potato could be used on a burn to ease the pain, and a paste of bread-soda could be put to a scald? From my childhood, I always knew that a nose bleed could be stopped by using the age-old remedy of putting a cold object, such as a key or ice pack to the nape of the neck. As for a wound that is bleeding, in bygone days a clean cobweb would be applied to the wound to stop the bleeding, or the heart of a dock leaf was also used for the same purpose.
For Muscular Cramp, called ‘Taulagh’, the cure given was to tie a piece of dried eel skin tightly around the affected wrist. On occasion, an ordinary leather strap could be used on the wrist as a preventative measure, while another recommended cure was to tie a silk thread around the wrist that was affected. As for a sprained wrist or ankle, it was recommended the patient hold the injured part in a rushing stream of cold water and, afterward, tie it up in a spraining web got from a weaver.
An age-old remedy for boils, which I still recommend to people, is a poultice made from bread and salt, wrapped in a cloth or bandage and applied to the boil as hot as possible to draw out the contents. In a similar way, as in the treatment of Corns and Chilblains above, a plaster made from ‘comfrey’ roots was another method used for drawing and healing boils.
Those who suffer from weak, tired or sore eyes the recommended cure was to wash them in cold, clear water before going to bed while bathing with cold tea was said to be particularly good for relieving weak eyes, and honey was a popular remedy for sore eyes. On occasion, however, our eyes become scratchy or gravelly and the old cure for this condition was said to be the juice, or sap, from the Dandelion, which was commonly known as the ‘Pissy-Bed’. The use of water from a ‘Holy Well’ was also said to cure many things, including any eye trouble a person might have. there is a story told of a man whose trouble was threatening him with total blindness and was cured by washing his eyes in the water of the well. It is also said that a person who sees a trout in the well is guaranteed a cure, whatever the affliction they suffer may be.
Unfortunately, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘Rickets’ was the curse of the poorer and undernourished people, and in particular the children of the peasantry or urban poor. To cure them, the children would often have been sent to the local blacksmith for a cure, which involved holding the child over the anvil and, while drawing some blood, speaking some mysterious words.
Trad Cure 1Some of you might recognise old cures that are still used in the family, and others might write them all off as nonsense. let me say, however, the ones that I have used have invariably worked. There is one cure that I have not tried because I have only heard about it recently. The old cure for those people who had a weak heart was said to be Water-Cress, which is said to put a new heart in people. Suffering from congenital ischemic heart disease I have decided to start eating the posh Water-Cress sandwiches that always seem to make an appearance in the afternoon teas taken by the ‘quality’. I will certainly let you know how I progress with the recommended cure…..

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.

Witches of Islandmagee 3During 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.

Witches of Islandmagee 2We 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.

Witches of Islandmagee 4There 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.

Witches of Islandmagee 5As 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.

 

 

The Lough Swilly Tragedy

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.

Lough Swiily bwIn 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.

Saldanha 3Initial 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.

Saldanha 2

The Priest’s Ghost

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 –

St John Eve 2“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?”

St John Eve“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.

St John Eve 3.jpg“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.” 

O’Carroll’s Banshee

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.

Terryglass 1The 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.

Terryglass 2The 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.

The Legend of Captain Gallagher

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.

rapparee-randalNative 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.

HighwaymanIt 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.

References:

Article by Brian Hoban; www.mayo-ireland.ie;

“Tales from the West of Ireland” by Sean Henry @ www.stand-and-deliver.org.uk

Useful Notes for an Irish Wake

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.

WakeConsider these points:

  1. Never use a short cut to bring a body home to the house of the church.
  2. Stop the clocks in the ‘wake house’.
  3. When fires go out, do not remove any ashes from the ‘wake house’.
  4. 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.
  5. Refuse no person a smoke at a wake, let them take at least a couple of draws.
  6. Refuse no person a drink or a bite to eat but give out both liberally.
  7. Don’t silence laughter, because it may be caused by humorous stories concerning the actions of the deceased.
  8. Put a cloth over all mirrors in the house.

Wake 2Besides the above there are several useful helpful tips and warnings about things that might just happen –

  1. 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.
  2. A dog crying round a house is also a sign of death in that house.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

The Bad Old Days

A Tale of Old Ireland

Mournes 2 (2)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.

Mournes 3Well, 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.

The Well Known Spot

A Poem

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