A few years ago, I happened to be spending a long weekend in Donegal when I heard the story of ‘HMS Saldanha’. She was a 36-gun ‘Apollo-class’ frigate of the British Royal Navy, which was launched in 1809 and was commissioned in April 1810 and placed under the command of Captain John Stuart, who remained in command until his death on 19th March 1811. Captain Reuben Mangin took temporary command of the ship during the Spring of 1811. Finally, the ship was assigned to Captain William Pakenham’s and its short career came to an end when it was wrecked on the rocky west coast of Ireland in 1811.
Earlier, on 11th October 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ and ‘HMS Fortune’ combined to take the French privateer ‘Vice-Amiral Martin’. The French ship carried 18 guns and a crew of 140 men, and it was on its fourth day out of Bayonne and was yet to encounter a British merchantman. It was reported that the French privateer had superior sailing abilities to most ships of her size, which had in the past helped her to escape pursuing British cruisers. In a subsequent report it was stated that though each of the British ships was doing at least 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph), the enemy privateer would have escaped only for the fact that there were two British vessels involved.
Along the North-western coast of Ireland lies Lough Swilly, a glacial fjord that cuts into the Donegal coastline between the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula and the Fanad Peninsula. It is considered a safe harbour for ships and is famed far and wide for the beauty of its scenery. However, although once inside the lough itself, the anchorage is safe, the entrance to the Lough is considered by many to be a very difficult and dangerous passage. The coast being here is known as being “iron-bound”, with several treacherous reefs of rocks lying near the shore, or partially covered by the sea. The present-day entrance to Lough Swilly has two lighthouses to protect it, with one on Fanad Point, and the other on Dunree Head. The various reefs and shoals in the entrance are well-marked by buoys, which today make the entrance to the Lough a much safer passage than it had been during the days when ‘HMS Saldanha’ was moored there.
In the latter part of 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ under the command of Captain Packenham, was stationed in Lough Swilly as a naval guardship, alongside the sloop-of-war, ‘HMS Talbot’. Their usual anchorage was off the little village of Buncrana, and occasionally the ships would weigh anchor to undertake a short cruise around the coast of the County Donegal for a few days. Their crews had been stationed in the Lough for such a long time that several officers had brought their wives to reside in the village of Buncrana. There were, of course, one or two of the officers and several of the men who had married local ladies, and all of them had gained the friendship and regard of the local gentry and may of the inhabitants of the surrounding area.
Early on the morning of the 30th of November the ‘Saldanha’ and the ‘Talbot’ left their moorings off Buncrana for a three days’ cruise around the coast. However, although the morning was fine and bright, just afternoon the weather became dark and threatening. Before that short November day closed, a great storm had rolled in from the Atlantic Ocean spilling its anger over both sea and land. Local folklore still recalls that terrible storm as the ‘Saldanha Storm,’ and there are many sad stories recounted of hearts that raced with anxiety and strained eyes that tried to peer through blinding spray and rain for the lights of the returning ships.
It was nearer to the mouth of Lough Swilly, on the shore opposite Buncrana, close to Ballymastocker Bay that those lights were seen at last. Along that shoreline the Fanad people gathered in great numbers, knowing that the bay hid a very dangerous reef of rocks, and upon them, the ‘Saldanha’ was Shipwrecked on the night of 4th December 1811. There are no reports any effort was made to save the doomed vessel and, officially there were no survivors out of the estimated 253 crew aboard the ship, with approximately 200 bodies being subsequently washed up on the shoreline at Ballymastocker Bay.
There are stories saying that one of the crew did make it to the shore alive, but the stories also tell of the ‘wild people’ (local wreckers) placing him across a horse, after giving him a draught of whiskey. The stories are unclear as to whether this was done in ignorance or in order to ensure he would die. Many bodies came continued to come ashore from time to time and were buried with great reverence in the old churchyard of Rathmullan, where the grave and a monument can still be seen.
Initial reports on the events in Lough Swilly that stormy night suggested that ‘HMS Talbot’ had also been wrecked, but it transpired that these reports were mistaken. The winter storms that swept through the Lough caused parts of the sunken wreck of the ‘Saldanha’ to come to the surface and be forced on to the yellow sands of Ballymastocker Bay. In the August of the following year, it was said that a servant in a big house some twenty miles from the wreck site shot a bird, which turned out to be a parrot with a collar, on which was engraved “Captain Packenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha.” Then, as the years passed by, further storms would leave fragments of the ship’s planks and various personal items belonging to the crew strewn across the shoreline. On the night of the 6th-7th January 1839, there was another fierce and destructive storm, similar to that which the locals had called ‘The Saldanha Storm.’ On the morning of the 7th January, when the coastguards conducted their patrols of the bay’s shoreline, they recorded that the entire bay was strewn from end to end broken beams, timbers, and chests; All that remained of that doomed ship.
One interesting story from that time tells us that one of the coastguards searching the shore found a small worked case that ladies called a ‘thread-paper’, and he brought it to the wife of his commanding officer. The little case was beautifully made and still contained some loosely coiled and knotted lengths of silken yarn and a few rusty needles. On the back of the ‘thread-paper’ were embroidered three initials, lovingly created by the hand of the woman who had presented it to a member of the ‘Saldanha’ crew.
Over twenty years after the case had been found the lady to whom it had been given, now a widow returned to live in Scotland. While taking a few days holiday in the country-house of some friends in the south of the country, the lady began to converse with a young man who was also a guest at the same house. The lady and young man began to talk about Ireland, Donegal, and the wonderful scenery to be found there. At one stage of the conversation Lough Swilly was mentioned and this sparked the young man’s interest. He asked some questions about the area and then disclosed that his mother had lost a brother in the Lough many years before, having gone down with the wreck of the ‘Saldanha.’ The widow told all that she knew concerning the ‘Saldanha’ incident and revealed to the young man that she had a relic of the ship in her workbox. She took out the ‘thread-paper’ and, asking the name of the young man’s uncle, found that the name agreed with the three initials embroidered on the little case.
When the young gentleman told her that his uncle had been a midshipman on board the ill-fated ‘Saldanha’, and that he was his mother’s favourite brother, the widow woman put the small thread case into his hand. As she did this, the lady explained how she had come into possession of the case and told him, “Take that home to your mother, show it to her, and ask her if she had ever seen it before. If she should recognise it, she is very welcome to keep it. But if it did not belong to her brother you can return it to me.” The young man left the house the next morning and went home. A few days later, however, he wrote to the widowed lady and told her that his mother had immediately recognised the case as being her own work, which she had given to her beloved brother when he had last left home. It was a relic of a person loved and lost and he thanked the lady for restoring it to his mother after fifty long years. Although small and of no intrinsic value, this little case had been kept and returned to its original owner as though it had been some precious family jewel.
An Irish Highwayman
There had always been a long tradition of guerrilla warfare in Ireland since the time of the first Norman invasions in 12th Century. By the time of the Irish Confederate Wars of the 1640s, these native Irish foot soldiers were the mainstay of the rebel forces in Ireland and known to their enemies as ‘Tories’ (Tóraí or ‘Pursuers’). During the ‘Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland,’ they caused the English Parliamentarian forces a lot of problems by attacking isolated and vulnerable garrisons, tax-collectors, and supply columns. In a campaign of ‘hit and run’ tactics these guerrilla gangs would strike their enemies hard and then disappear into the countryside among the native people. Punitive expeditions were led against these groups of guerrillas that had now gained the name ‘Rapparees’, but these were less than successful at first. Parliamentarian forces did capture several strongholds, killing hundreds of guerrillas, and destroying food sources in a vain attempt to force the Rapparees into submission.
Native guerrilla forces were eventually defeated by forced eviction of all civilians from areas where they operated, and subsequently killing those civilians that were found within those areas. By April 1651, the Parliamentarians had designated many areas in the south of the country as ‘open areas’, in which any person found was open to being taken, killed, and destroyed as enemies, and their cattle and goods could be confiscated as being plunder from an enemy. In many of the large towns, including Dublin, the native Irish were expelled because it was feared that they were aiding their fellow Roman Catholic guerrillas in the countryside. Many of the captured ‘guerrillas’ were sold as indentured labour and sent to the West Indies and elsewhere. The last organised guerrilla bands eventually surrendered in 1653 and many of their number were permitted to leave Ireland to serve in the armies of France and Spain. Some refused to leave, however, and in smaller numbers continued their opposition to the new regime in more criminal ways. Moreover, their ranks were constantly filled by those native Irish whose land and property were confiscated under the ‘Cromwellian Plantation’.
These ‘Rapparees’ sought vengeance for being dispossessed of their property, which was then given over to the Protestant favourites of Parliament and the Crown. The dispossessed, like the guerrillas before them, were forced to take to the woods, hills and other remote areas, from where they could sweep down upon the new landlords with as many followers as they could gather. So, events would continue until the middle of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the ‘highwayman’. These criminal types came from among the native Irish and many of them had learned to use firearms and other weapons by serving time in the military or militia units. Some these highwaymen carried out raids and holdups of mail coaches singly, while others would operate with a small band that rarely exceeded half a dozen.
Born in Bonniconlon and reared by an aunt in Derryronane near Swinford, Captain Gallagher was one of the last of these infamous robber leaders in Ireland. In the West of Ireland, he was considered a hero and champion of the oppressed native Irish peasantry who had suffered serious injustice at the hands of the rich, Protestant landowners. They saw him as a romantic figure, like the legendary hero Robin Hood, and like Robin, when he took to his criminal career, Gallagher decided to pick three or four trustworthy companions to join him. Equipping themselves with fast horses and the firearms of the period, they rode all over east Mayo and parts of south Sligo, and west Roscommon. Reports of the state that Captain Gallagher and his small band were bold and utterly fearless, committing daring robberies on the public roads, in open daylight. The homes of the local gentry were plundered regularly, and there was no place that could be considered safe unless it was strongly guarded. Such was the notoriety of the man and his followers that their adventures are still recalled in the folk history of the region. Much is made within these accounts of his great generosity toward the poor peasantry and his amazing ability to evade and escape the ‘Redcoats’. Visitors to the region will find that some of Gallagher’s famous hideouts are still well known, such as ‘Leaba Rudaigh’ that lied in the Ox Mountains near Rooskey. Nearer to the town of Swinford people will tell you that he hid out in Ballylyra Wood, where his ‘Treasure’ is said to lie undiscovered, and close to the town of Pontoon, on Glass Island, he is said to have had another hiding place.
It was reported that on one occasion, Gallagher and his band raided the home of a landlord in Killasser, who was very much despised by his tenants. It is said that, in addition to seizing all his silver and other valuables, the gang forced him to eat and swallow several eviction notices that he prepared for his tenants. Another story tells of a shop in Foxford town that was being robbed on a regular basis and the shop owner could never discover the culprit at work, despite hiring a guard to protect his property. Captain Gallagher, we are informed, offered his services to the shop owner to capture the thief. Gallagher hid in a large chest in the corner of the shop and watched as the guard arrived and began to rob the store. Captain Gallagher leaped from his hiding place and captured the guard, who had been the thief all along.
Local folklore tells us that on another occasion a woman was coming home from the fair in Tubbercurry. The poor woman had sold her last cow so that she could pay her rent to the landlord and avoid eviction. But, as nightfall approached, the woman was passing through the ‘Windy Gap’ near Lough Talt when she spotted a strange shadow in the distance. As they met on the road, the stranger stopped and asked her where she was going in such a hurry. The woman told him that she was trying to get back to her own home before darkness fell because Captain Gallagher might rob her of what little she had. As the woman spoke the strange man smiled at her and proceeded to give her enough money with which she bought another cow, as well as pay her rent to the landlord. He then gently told her to go home and to tell all she met that Captain Gallagher was not the rogue that the authorities made him out to be.
Yet another tale speaks of an occasion when Gallagher, having been ‘set-up’ for capture, escaped through a window of a house just as a military troop, led by a local magistrate entered through the front door of the building. On reaching the ground, Captain Gallagher crept quietly around the house to where the magistrate’s horse was tied up, and, loosening it, he galloped off at full speed. The next day, however, Gallagher is said to have returned the horse, with his thanks, to the magistrate for allowing him the use of such a good beast when he most needed it.
It was precisely because of such escapades that a reward of 500 guineas was offered by the authorities for information leading to his capture. Not surprisingly, after some narrow escapes from the English soldiers, Captain Gallagher’s run of luck finally came to an end. His small of men band were arrested by the authorities near Westport in County Mayo, but Gallagher managed to escape on that occasion. Although he successfully evaded the English patrols for some time, he was finally apprehended by the authorities in the parish of Coolcarney or Attymass, which lie near the foothills of the Ox Mountains.
Local legend says that Captain Gallagher was spending a quiet Christmas in the house of an acquaintance, whom he had formerly helped, while he recovered from an illness. He was given a meal, which had been laced with something that caused him to fall asleep, and the family then got to work. They put him to bed in the ‘cailleach’ bed beside the fire, tying his ankles and wrists were with flax ropes. With Gallagher secured, a message was sent to the military stationed in Foxford, whose officer immediately sent messages to the military stationed in Ballina, Castlebar, and Swinford for assistance before attempting to capture the fugitive. With a force of almost two hundred men, the Redcoats surrounded the house and captured the infamous highwayman without resistance. Without much ado, Gallagher was rushed to Foxford where, after a hasty sham trial, he was sentenced to death by hanging and was taken to Castlebar for the sentence to be carried out.
Gallagher pleaded with his executioners to spare him and he promised them, in return, he would lead them to the hidden treasure that he had buried under a rock in Ballylyra Wood. His captors, however, did not fall for this ploy and the officer in charge quickly carried out the execution and then dashed towards the wood of Ballylyra with a hand-picked squad of cavalrymen. The vision of new-found wealth and rewards from the Crown helped them to hurry to the alleged hiding place of Gallagher’s treasure. But, when the soldiers reached Ballylyra Wood they found that there were not just a few rocks that they had envisioned, but countless thousands of rocks of all shapes and sizes. After searching for three days all they found was a jewel-hilted sword, but it is still thought that Gallagher’s buried gold is still buried in that wood, seven foot from the river beside a tree.
In 1818 Captain Gallagher’s execution was reputedly the last public hanging to take place on the famous hanging tree standing opposite Daly’s Hotel on the Mall in Castlebar. We are left with the following account of the execution taken from a late nineteenth-century author: “He died fearfully. He and his ‘Secretary’ (Walsh) having shaken hands and kissed on the gallows, were flung off together. Walsh died at once, but Gallagher’s rope broke, and he was precipitated to the ground; he got a glass of wine and was again shoved out on the trap-board by the executioner, seated like a tailor, his legs having been broken by the fall.”
Article by Brian Hoban; www.mayo-ireland.ie;
“Tales from the West of Ireland” by Sean Henry @ www.stand-and-deliver.org.uk
Of all Ireland’s ghosts, fairies, or demons, the Banshee (sometimes called locally the ‘Boheentha’) is, probably, the best known to those living outside the country. I am often amused by the number of visitors from across the Channel who think that they are as common as the pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and expect her to make an appearance on demand just like one of the many famous sights of our country. They ignore the fact that the Banshee is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree that no man can measure because its roots extend back into the dim and mysterious past of Ireland.
Without a doubt, the most famous Banshee of ancient times was that which attached itself to the royal house of O’Brien. She was called ‘Aibhill’, and she haunted the rock of Craglea that stands above Killaloe, near the old palace of Kincora. In 1014 A.D. the battle of Clontarf was fought against the Danes, and the aged king, Brian Boru, who led the Irish forces was fully aware that he would never come away alive. The night before the battle, ‘Aibhill’ had appeared to him and told him of his impending fate. The Banshee’s method of foretelling a person’s death in those olden times differed from that which she adopts in the present day. Now she, generally, wails and wrings her hands, but in the old Irish tales she is often found washing human heads and limbs, or blood-stained clothes, until the water is all dyed with human blood, and this would take place before a battle. So, it appears that over a course of centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.
Reports from eyewitnesses give very different descriptions about what she looks like. Sometimes, she is pictured as a young and beautiful woman, and at other times appears as an old and fearsome hag. One witness described her as “a tall, thin woman with uncovered head, and long hair that floated around her shoulders, attired in something which seemed either a loose white cloak or a sheet thrown hastily around her, uttering piercing cries.” Another witness, who saw the banshee one evening sitting on a stile in the yard, appeared as a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red cloak. There are numerous other descriptions available, but one surprising fact about the Banshee is that she does not seem to exclusively follow families of Irish descent. At least one incident refers to the death of a member of a County Galway family, who were English by name and origin.
At this point, we should relate one of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories, namely the story contained in ‘Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw’. The good lady states that in 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish clan, who resided in his ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight, she says, she was awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of the bed, she saw in the moonlight a female face and part of a form hovering at the bedroom window. The height of the window from the ground and the position of the moat around the castle convinced her ladyship that this was a creature of the spirit world. She did notice, however, that the pale face she saw was that of a young and rather beautiful woman, and her reddish coloured hair was loose and dishevelled. This ghostly form, Lady Fanshaw recollected, was dressed much in the style of ancient Ireland and continued to appear to her some considerable time before vanishing with two shrieks that sounded like those that first attracted attention.
In the morning, still shaking with fear, Lady Fanshaw told her what she had witnessed. Surprisingly, she found that not only was he able to confirm the existence of such a being, but he was ready to explain to account for its presence in his castle. He told her quite candidly, “A near relation of my family expired last night in this castle. But we decided not to tell you that we were expecting such a visitation, in case it would throw a cloud over the cheerful welcome we had prepared for you. However, before any event of this kind happens in this family or castle, the female spectre that you have seen always appears. We believe this spirit to be a woman from a lower class, with whom one of my ancestors degraded himself by marrying. In an effort expiate the dishonour done to his family, he subsequently drowned the poor woman in the moat.”
If one was strictly applying traditional terms to such a vision, then this woman would not normally be called a Banshee. The motive for the haunting is like other tales that are on a par with this one, in that the spirit of the murdered person haunts the family out of revenge, and always appears before a death.
There was nothing special about this ruined Church. It was a simple oblong building, with long side-walls and high gables, and an unenclosed graveyard that lay in open fields. As the group of people walked down the long dark lane, they suddenly heard a distant sound of wailing voices and clapping hands, like you would hear at a country wake where neighbours and friends lament the passing of one of their own. The group of young people hurried along the lane, and they came in sight of the church ruins, There, on the side wall, a little grey-haired old woman, who was clad in a dark cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and throwing up her arms like a crazy person. The girls now became very frightened, but the young men in the group ran forward and surrounded the ruin. Then, two of the young men went into the church and, as they did so, the apparition vanished from the wall. Nonetheless, they searched every nook, and found no one, nor did any one of them become unconscious. All the young people were now well scared, and they made their way home as fast as they possibly could.
When they finally reached their home, their mother opened the door, and immediately she began to explain that she had become terribly concerned about their father. Their mother told them that she had been looking out of the window in the moonlight when a huge raven with fiery eyes landed on the window-sill, and it tapped three times on the glass. When the young ones told her their story it only added the anxiety that they were all now beginning to feel. As they stood talking among themselves, taps came to the nearest window, and they all saw the bird again. A few days later news reached them that their Father had died.
For the most part, the eye-witnesses to these events were people of good character, including the sister of a former Roman Catholic Bishop related a story about an incident that occurred when she was a little girl. She said that she went out one evening with some other local children for a walk, and going down the road, they passed the gate of the parkland near the town. On a large rock that stood beside the road, they suddenly saw something very strange and moved nearer to get a better look. Before them, they saw that the strange object was a little dark, old woman, who began to cry and clap her hands noisily. Some of the girls tried to speak to the old woman, but they became very afraid, and all of them chose to run home as quickly as they could. Next day there came news that the gentleman near whose gate the Banshee had cried, was dead, and had apparently died at the very hour when the children had first seen the spectre.
A Certain, well-respected lady from County Cork stated that she had two experiences of a Banshee within her family. She said, “My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. Suddenly, she saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was clearly visible from the house. The figure waved its arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. The wailing lasted several seconds before the figure finally disappeared. But, the next morning, her grandfather was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He stumbled, fell, and hit his head against the kerb. The poor man would never recover consciousness.”
In her second story, she states, “… my mother was very ill, and one evening the nurse and I were with her arranging her bed. We suddenly heard the most extraordinary wailing, which seemed to come in waves around and under her bed. We naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause of the wailing but in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another but said nothing since it appeared that my mother did not hear it. My sister, who was downstairs sitting with my father, heard it and thought something terrible had happened to her little boy, who was in bed upstairs. When she rushed up to his bedroom, however, she found him sleeping quietly. While my father did not hear it, in the house next door they had heard it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to their servant. But the servant immediately called out to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Someone must be near death.’”
There is another story, handed down to us from the last years of the nineteenth century. This records a curious incident that occurred in a public school and includes the presence of the Banshee. When one of the boys became ill, he was immediately quarantined in one of the many bedrooms by himself, where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by the doctor, he suddenly jumped up from his seat, declaring that he had heard somebody crying. But the doctor had heard nothing and concluded that his illness had slightly affected the boy’s brain. Nonetheless, the boy, who appeared to be quite sensible, still insisted that he had heard someone crying, and said, “It is the Banshee, for I have heard it before.” The following morning the headmaster of the school received a telegram saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot dead.
There is a mistaken belief that the Banshee is confined to the geographical limits of Ireland. In fact, there are several incidents that show how the Banshee can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and there foretell their death. The following story clearly shows that such an event can occur. A party of visitors was gathered together on the deck of a private yacht that was sailing one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull, in the conversation, one of them asked the owner, “Count, who’s that queer-looking woman you have on board?”
The Count replied that there was only those invited ladies and the stewardesses present. nobody ladies present except those who had been invited and the stewardess. The speaker, however, protested that there was a strange woman present, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his hands before his eyes, and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, what a face!” For quite a while the man was shaking with fear and dared not remove his hands from his eyes. When he finally did so, he cried out “Thank Heavens, it’s gone!”
“What was it?” asked the Count.
“It was nothing human,” stammered the man. “It looked like a woman, but not one from this world. She had on a green hood, like those worn by the Irish peasantry, framing an oddly shaped face that gleamed unnaturally. She also had a mass of red hair, and eyes that were somewhat attractive but for their hellish expression.”
An American lady guest suggested that the description reminded her of what she had heard about the Banshee. The Count turned to her and told her, “I am an O’Neill. At least I am descended from one of them. As you know, my family name is Neilini, which, just over a century ago, was O’Neill. My great-grandfather had served in the ‘Irish Brigade’, and on its dissolution, at the time of the French Revolution, he had the good fortune to escape the general massacre of officers. In the company of an O’Brien and a Maguire, he fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. When he died, his son, who had been born in Italy, felt himself to be much more Italian than Irish. He changed his name to Neilini, and the family has been known by this name ever since. But for all that we are Irish.”
“The Banshee was yours, then! So, what exactly does it mean?”
“It means,” the Count replied solemnly, “the death of someone very close to me and I pray earnestly that it is not my wife or daughter.” The Count’s anxieties were soon removed when he himself was seized by a severe angina attack and died before morning.
As a last note to readers, the reports of encounters with Banshees tell us that this spirit never shows itself to the person whose death it is heralding. While other people are able to see or hear the banshee, the one fated to die never does. So, when everyone that is present, but one, is aware of the Banshee, the fate of that one person can be regarded as being certain.
A Tale of Ireland
Many years ago, in Port Oriel lived a handsome young man called Willie Furphy. He was a finely built man who worked upon the fishing boats that filled the small harbour and off-loaded their catches there, every day. Willie fell in love and proposed to a beautiful young local girl called Orla Hagan, swearing that he would be faithful to her for evermore. Orla had known Willie since childhood and she loved him very much, accepting the young man’s proposal willingly. With great excitement, Willie placed a small diamond ring on her lily-white finger and sealed their relationship with a warm and passionate kiss.
One beautiful Sunday evening in May, Willie took Orla out for a pleasant sail on the bright, sparkling waters of the Irish Sea. They were so much in love that, as they drifted on the waves, they vowed to that they would be true to each other until death. It was not to be, however, because before the following May came around heartless Willie broke-off the engagement with Orla, and subsequently became engaged to another whom he married. There were many in the district around Port Oriel who were disgusted by Willie’s behaviour and called him both a cruel and a heartless beast! “Sure, what luck can Willie ever expect to have after he has broken his sacred promise to such a sweet, virtuous Irish girl,” they said, “especially after she had put her love and trust into his? That man will have no luck at all.”
Poor Orla O’Hagan, she was the loveliest and most appreciated of all the young women living in that district. She was known to have a kind, loving, and tender heart, and many were distraught that such a heart had been torn apart by Willie Feeney’s disgraceful desertion of her. From that moment her life appeared to have no future and the beautiful bloom in her cheek vanished. She went downhill rapidly and like a frail garden flower that is broken by a great blast of wind, she withered away and eventually died.
Willie Furphy never experienced a moment’s peace of mind after that day. Now, when it was too late, he suddenly realised just how much of a wretch he was to treat that beautiful creature, Orla, in the manner he had. There was never to be any happiness in his life after this. The woman he had married instead of Orla brought him nothing but misery, drinking, and drinking, day after long day, until she finally disgraced herself with the people of the district with her manners, habits and tongue. Oh! what bitter regrets filled his conscience and gnawed at his heart. But it was all too late! Far too late for him! Willie had broken a woman, whose own heart was worth more than its weight in gold. Even he could not blame anyone, if the hand of justice should smite him.
His house was filled with so much discontent and misery that he could not spend much time in it. Then, one morning before the break of day, Willie left the house and was making his way towards the harbour with the intention of going out to fish. But he had only walked a few steps from the door when his eyes caught sight of a female figure, dressed in snowy white clothes, just a few yards in front of him. Willie stopped suddenly in his tracks and gazed in terror at the apparition before him. “Merciful heaven!” he exclaimed quietly to himself, “Can it be?” As he studied the vision closer, he soon came to recognise the pale, haggard face, the flowing golden tresses of hair, and the slender hand that was pointing a finger of scorn straight at his own careworn face.
“Orla Hagan,” Willie sighed, “Have you returned to denounce me, your heartless and faithless lover! As wretched as I already am, are you determined to add to my overflowing cup of misery!”
It was at this strange and frightening moment that Willie Furphy remembered his old friend, Paddy McNally, who had passed away five years previously. But he remembers most clearly, for some reason or other, that Paddy had promised to stand by him in life and in death! Willie wondered to himself if Paddy had truly realised what he was saying? Looking up to Heaven, Willie cried out, “Oh Paddy, whether you are above or below, come now and help me in my hour of need!”
In a flash Willie noticed there was a creature of some kind standing between himself, and the still threatening figure in white. Very quickly he noticed the creature was a black dog, a huge black dog that was wagging its tail. Astonished by what he was witnessing, Willie ran home as fast as he was able, with the dog following him. After this he never saw the white, ghostly figure again, but the dog came into the house and lay beside him at the fire. Only when the cock crew did the big black dog disappear. As for the unfortunate Willie Furphy, he was destined to live only one short month after that night. Broken-hearted, wretched and miserable, he died a lonely death.
The magic number of the Celts
The number nine was a favourite number with the Celts and was used more frequently in ‘cure ceremonials’ than any other number.
Say that last night you went to your bed and in perfect health. When you awoke this morning, you find there is a lump or tumour on your face, or on some other part of your body. You had not felt any pain until you awoke, but now there is some pain, or is at least somewhat troublesome. You know now that some spirit of evil has touched you, and would you like to know the cure? Of course, you want the cure and, here it is!
Get nine pieces of iron, any articles will do, just make certain that they are made of iron. Then, “measure” the swelling with these irons, namely you make the sign of the cross with each on the “blighted” spot and throw the ninth iron over your head. There now, you are cured! praise be to God!
You don’t believe me, but I heard this story from an old lady called Mary. She told me, “My wee Bridie went to bed one night as well as ever she was. But, in the morning she had a lump on her cheek the size of a hen’s egg. To be honest, I paid little attention to it and thought it would be alright again before night time. I was thinking to myself that it had come on her suddenly and would suddenly disappear again. But the lump got worse and old Sadie from Ballinacorr came into the house about twelve o’clock. ‘In the name of God,’ said she, ‘what’s wrong with the little girl? God bless her !‘
‘There’s none of us that knows,’ says I.
‘And did you do anything for it?‘ says she.
‘I did not,’ says I, ‘for I hadn’t a clue what to do with it.‘
‘Well get nine irons,‘ says she, ‘and though you should have done it long ago, measure her.’
Well, we did, and she was all right within a very short time, and now for you!
” For inflammation of the eyelid, an equally remarkable use is made of the number nine. The sore, which usually assumes the form of a small round lump, tapering towards the top, is called a sty. To ‘cure’ it, take nine gooseberry pricks, or “stabs ” as they are called, and in succession ‘point’ first towards the eye, next towards the ground, and the final one was thrown over the left shoulder. I know a friend that once ‘doctored’ herself in the way that I have told you, and she got immediate relief.
Why the gooseberry “stabs” are the only ones which are effective I don’t know. In the same way I cannot explain ‘The Soot o’ Nine Pots’ being a sure remedy for many kinds of illness that can effect cattle. The one thing that I do know is that any number other than nine will not do. At one time someone suggested that the number was selected in honour of the ‘Nine Muses’, (Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomeni, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope) but I believe this idea to be too fanciful to be seriously entertained. I believe it is sufficient for us to know that the directions for use are faithfully recorded and that we should use them in accordance with the precise directions that are contained in that great traditional and mystical list of medicines created by the Gaelic race since earliest times.
All over the island of Ireland there are ruins from past ages spread everywhere, which give us all a wonderful insight into the mysterious lives of our ancestors who built these monumental structures. There are few of these structures, however, that are more remarkable than the round towers that are found in almost every historically renowned locality. At one time there were a great number of these towers, but some were destroyed by the ravages of time, some of them were used as convenient sources of ready shaped stone, and some suffered from the intentional destruction carried out by intolerant or thoughtless people. Whatever the reason for their demise, these structures have gradually disappeared from the landscape until only about eighty remain, and out of these less than twenty-per-cent are in almost perfect condition. The remaining towers exist only in various stages of dilapidation.
The round towers stand at varying heights to each other. Those towers that remain in perfect, or near perfect, condition reach up to somewhere between seventy to two hundred feet in height, and their bases vary from eighty to thirty feet in diameter. The entrance into the towers themselves are usually twelve to eighteen feet from the ground, while inside the tower there are several stories, each averaging a height of about ten feet. Each of these stories illuminated by a single narrow window, with the highest level invariably having four slender pointed arched windows (Lancet Windows)which are open to the cardinal points of the compass. The roof of the tower is conical, made of overlapping stone slabs, and beneath the projecting cornice it is encircled by grotesquely carved heads and type of zig-zag ornamentation. The masonry is of granite stone, cut and chiselled into shape but, without the least regularity the size of the blocks. In one single round tower, some stones are very large, others small, and even more shaped into every geometrical shape known.
All the round towers that remain standing, as previously stated, occupy sites of special historical note. This could be considered as sufficient evidence to suggest that almost every historic spot in Ireland, at one time or another, could boast of being the site of one or more of these interesting structures. As further evidence of this can be added the fact that the existing towers are generally to be found close by the ruins of churches, abbeys, or other ecclesiastical buildings. The effect on the landscape of these massed ruins being surmounted by a single tall shaft is often picturesque, and almost a symbol of Ireland in tourist brochures. In fact, the proximity of the tower to the ecclesiastical ruin is so common, that many writers on Irish historical sites put forward the theory that the tower was built by the monks who had built the church. Many of those who advocate just such an origin of the round tower also put forward the theory that they were built, either as a place of safe-keeping for valuable property, as a belfry for the church, or for the purpose of providing accommodation for the monks. But, closer examination of these theories show that none are truly acceptable.
In all the troubled ages of Ireland, and, unfortunately they have not been few in number, the monasteries and ecclesiastical buildings of every description were generally spared. If this had not been the case, those monasteries, abbeys and Cathedrals that possessed valuable property, which they wanted to hide from the most ruthless marauders, would not have advertised their wealth by erecting a tower. They would have been far more likely to seek out an inconspicuous hiding place for their treasures rather than erect a tower that was the most conspicuous feature of the landscape.
These towers were not built to provide belfries, either. This is evident from the fact that, in almost every case, the nearby churches had been built with bell-towers, which formed a part of the sacred building. This would not have been the case if the round towers had been conceived and built as a place in which to locate bells.
Moreover, that these towers were not built for providing hermit-cells is apparent from the fact that hermit-caves and cells are abundant throughout Ireland, and, almost without exception, they are to be found in secluded spots. There is nothing to suggest that, on occasion, some of the round towers were not adapted to each of these uses. But, in every case, the monks and church builders’ only reason to change the use of an existing structure was to meet an urgent need. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that these round towers were not built by the monks at all. It is a well-known fact that Irish monks were fond of writing and they recorded, in detail, every action of their daily life and, to date, there is no passage in which they record the building of a round tower. Whenever church historians make a reference to these structures, even those who mention the raising of churches at the foot of a round tower, they demonstrate that quite clearly that the tower pre-dates the introduction of Christianity into Ireland.
Most historians in Ireland agree that the round towers were pagan constructions, and that they are so old that they even precede written history in this land. There is no doubt that the early people of Ireland worshipped fire and the sun, and this fact alone gives us many reasons to believe that the round towers were built by the Druids for purposes of religion. Every tower has an extensive view to the East, which gives the observer and excellent early sight of the rising sun, with the dawn being the favourite hour for celebrating sun-worship. Furthermore, every tower has, at its base, the remnants of an extraordinary quantity of ashes and embers that suggest that, in each of these towers, a sacred or perpetual fire was kept burning.
Adding to this evidence is, that in every locality where a round tower stands, there still exists among local folklore and traditions suggestions that these structures were for sacred use, but not Christian. Among these traditions are indications of their former use as places sacred to sun and fire-worship, namely the names by which they commonly known among the local people. The generic Irish name for the round tower is Colcagh, ‘Fire-God’, but the proper names designating individual towers are still more characteristic. E.g. Turaghan, the ‘Tower of Fire’; Aidhne, the ‘Circle of Fire’; Aghadoe, the ‘Field of Fire’; Teghadoe, the ‘Fire House’; Arddoe, the ‘Height of Fire’; Kennegh, the ‘Chief Fire’; Lusk, the ‘Flame’; Fertagh, the ‘Burial Fire Tower’; Fertagh na Guara, the ‘Burial Fire Tower of the Fire Worshippers’; Gall-Ti-mor, the ‘Flame of the Great Circle’; Gall-Baal, the ‘Flame of the Community’; Baal-Tinne, the ‘Fire of the Community’, and many similar names, retain the memory and worship of the Druids when no written records have been left to us.
In addition to such important information the names of the hills, mountains, or islands on which the towers are situated have designations that refer either to the circle, a favourite and sacred figure in Druidical holy places, or to the sun or fire worship. Yet another curious circumstance strengthening the round tower’s relationship to the rites of sun worship, can be found in the fact that wherever this form of religion held sway, it has been accompanied by well or spring worship, and, generally, by the veneration of the ox as a sacred animal. Close to most of the Irish round towers there are springs or wells, which are still regarded as being holy. Of these places many tales are told of miraculous cures, while in many places there remains in the same neighbourhoods legends concerning sacred cows that were usually the property of some famous local saint or hero.
The round towers of Ireland are, in fact, only a part of a vast system of towers of identical construction. If you follow the geographical locations of these structures, you will find the advance of fire worship from the East may be accurately tracked. If you travel from Ireland to Brittany, in France, you will see, in the mountainous or hilly districts, several towers that exactly like those of Ireland. In the north of Spain several remain, while in Portugal, there is one, and in the south of Spain there are numerous similar towers. Cross from Spain to north of Africa and you will discover that there are numerous towers, which are to be found in such places as Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli. Meanwhile, in Sardinia, several hundred are still standing; and written testimony as to their original purpose abundant among the Sardinian records and are readily available. In Minorca, among the Balearic Isles, is the famous Tower of Allaior, and the mountain districts of southern Italy, as well as Sicily’s hills, contain numbers of them. Malta has the Giant’s Tower, which in its appearance and construction is identical with the ‘Tower of Cashel’ in Ireland. Cyprus has several, and they remain on the coast of Asia Minor.
In Palestine none have yet been found, which might indicate just how the Hebrews of old destroyed every vestige of Canaanite idolatry. But it is probable that the “high places” broken down may have been towers of the sun, for the Canaanites were fire worshippers, and the name Baal is found in Palestine and in Ireland. In Armenia, and in the Caucasus, they are so numerous that they seem to crown almost every hill-top. But, returning to the Mediterranean shores, we mentioned their existence on the northern coast of Africa, while in Arabia and on the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea, they stand in considerable numbers. They are to be found in Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, and Sumatra, where, in some places they are apparently still used for fire worship.
Throughout this vast extent of territory there is no material difference in the shape, appearance, or construction of the round tower. In Sumatra and Java, as in Ireland, the door is elevated, and the building divided into stories. The walls are constructed of many-sided hewn stones, the upper story is lighted by four windows looking to the cardinal points, the cornice has the same kind of zigzag ornamentation, and the roof is constructed in the same manner, with overlapping stones. Even the names of these structures are nearly the same, for in India and Ireland these buildings are Fire-Towers, Fire-Circles, or Sun-Houses. Yet, another bit of circumstantial evidence that goes to prove that the round towers of Ireland were erected by a people who had the same religion, and similar religious observances, as the natives of India is apparent in the legends around Indian towers. In India, the local traditions tell how each of these towers was built in one night by some notable character who was afterwards buried in it. In Ireland, the same legend is also found, while the local folklore tells us the tower was built overnight. The ‘Tower Tulloherin’, for instance, was allegedly built in one night by a monk who came to the neighbourhood as a missionary. But, finding the local people inhospitable, and unwilling to give him lodging for the night, he decided he would remain since there was no place in Ireland that was in more need of his missionary work. So, on the evening he arrived, he began to build the tower, and by morning it was finished. In that place he the monk now set up his residence and began to preach to the crowds of people attracted by the wide-spread fame of the miracle. The story of the Tower of Aghagower is similar, except that the saint in this case was aided by angels. Kilmackduagh, on the other hand, was built in one night by angels without human assistance, the work being undertaken after the pleas of a saint, who watched and prayed while the angels toiled. Ballygaddy’s history is somewhat different in that the local folklore attributes its origin to a local “giant” who, having received a challenge from another “giant,” decided to take his stand on Ballygaddy hill to watch for the coming of his enemy, declaring that he was ready, “to beat the head off the bragging blackguard if he was to say as much as Boo.” It is said that he stood upon that hill for seven days and nights, at the end of which time, “his legs were that tired he thought they’d drop off him.” To rest those legs, the giant raised the tower as a means of support. The challenger finally came to the site and the story says that the tower-building giant “didn’t leave a whole bone in the blackguard’s ugly body.” When the battle was over, the winner began to dismantle the tower, but stopped and decided that he would put a roof on it and “leave it as a memorial to himself that those mortals who followed him would wonder at.
The Tower of Ardpatrick was, according to tradition, built under the auspices of Ireland’s great saint, while the high tower on the Rock of Cashel is attributed, by the same authority to Cormac Macarthy. He was the king and archbishop of Cashel, who, being at war with a neighbouring potentate, needed a watch-tower. The entire tribe was summoned and, working together, they managed to build the tower in a single, and, at sunrise, Cormac was able by its help to ascertain the whereabouts of the opposing army, allowing him to inflict an overwhelming defeat of the enemy. Meanwhile, the Glendalough Tower is reputed to have been built by a demon, at the command of Saint Kevin. In a previous encounter with the saint, Satan had been soundly defeated and from that moment he and all his well-informed subjects kept at a safe distance from Glendalough. Although all of Satan’s regular followers did not want to risk another encounter with Kevin, there was one cunning snake of a devil, who had come from foreign parts and had not heard anything about the saint. One evening he was caught by the blessed saint, who immediately set him to work in building that tower. So, under the watchful gaze of the saint, the rogue went to work as hard as he knew how and was as busy as an ant. He was certain that before sunrise he would have the tower built so high that it would collapse by itself. But, Kevin had beaten Satan himself, and was not about to be fooled by one of his underlings. He kept his two eyes on the devil every minute of the day, so when he felt that the devil had the tower built high enough, he threw his bishop’s cap at it, and it became stone to make a roof, so making a fool of the devil.
The round tower, however, is not without a touch of romance. One of the most notable of these structures, Monasterboice, is said to have been built by a woman under peculiar circumstances. According to the legend, this woman was young, beautiful, and good of heart. Although she should have been happy also, she was not, because she was persecuted by the attentions of a suitor chieftain. This suitor’s reputation must have been far from irreproachable, since he was said by the storytellers to be an outrageously disgraceful villain, or a smooth-talking deceiving, murdering villain. The young woman loved another chieftain who was of good character, and she was determined to escape from the attentions of the villainous one, having learned that he was determined to carry her off. She employed two men to help her escape, the night before the proposed abduction, and, before morning they had built the tower allowing her to take refuge in the uppermost chamber. As expected, the villainous chieftain came with his gang of thieves, but was disappointed in his efforts to seize the woman and steal away her virtue, and he was left to besiege the tower. But, having taken the precaution to provide herself with a good supply of heavy stones, the lady pelted her besiegers vigorously, cracking their thick skulls as if they were just egg-shells. Her bravery was quickly rewarded by her lover who, when he heard of her desperate situation, came to her relief and attacked the besiegers of the tower. With the lady throwing stones at the front of them, and her lover’s group attacking them from behind, the wicked chieftain became scared that they would be trapped, and so they scattered so quickly that you would have thought there was a thousand devils after them. So, the lady was saved and was able to descend the tower into the arms of her lover, and the young couple were married the next Sunday. This is the way that the tower came to be built and demonstrates that those who try to win a lady against her will always come off worse. For you can be sure if she cannot beat such people with her tongue, she will always find some other way to beat them. Be sure of one thing, a woman can always get what she’s after, and there’s many a man who has discovered the truth of that.
Nipping the Cake
It was always the tradition in many Irish homes that the cake of bread intended for the morning breakfast table should be ‘nipped’ before being put it away in the cupboard. In Irish, it is called “a bhara“, and the housewife or housekeeper was always particular about how she carried out the task. She would either break a piece off the cake herself as soon as she took it from the griddle, or else encouraged another family member to do it instead. It is said that when the cake of bread was broken in this manner then nothing ‘bad’ would happen to it through the night, and no hungry spectre or fairy folk would lay a hand or tooth upon it.
“Oh, Mary dear,” an old woman called out to her daughter one night when everyone had just gone to their beds, “sure, didn’t I forget to ‘nip’ the cake. Get up, darling girl, and do it, or else it might all be gone in the morning and your Da will have nothing to eat with his tea before he heads off to Belfast!”
“Ah, now, mother,” replied Mary, from the small back room in which she and her younger sister slept, “would you give my head peace with all your nonsense. Sure, nothing will touch it.”
“There’s no nonsense in it, I tell you,” replied the mother, “and if you don’t get up now then I’ll have to get out of bed myself, and me hardly able to move with the ‘roomytis’ (rheumatism). Oh, Sweet Jaysus, what come ever caused me to forget to do it!”
The mournful tone in which the old mother spoke about her suffering from rheumatism settled the matter, and Mary jumped out of her bed exclaiming, “For goodness sake mother you’re a nuisance with all your superstitions!” and, turning to her sister she added, “Come with me to the kitchen, Bridget, for I won’t go there by myself.”
“Would you ever get into bed and not be paying any attention to her,’ whispered Bridget quietly, hoping that her mother would not hear.
“But she will get up herself if I don’t go, and she would never let us hear the end of it.”
“Sure, she will never think about it again, Mary. So, just come into bed.”
Mary, of course, was willing enough to comply with her sister’s request, but just then her mother called out once again, “Mary, did you get up yet?”
“Aye, aye,” Mary cried out in an angry tone while, speaking quietly to her sister she said, “Do you see, now. She’s not going to forget it, so we might as well get up and do it, or we’ll get no sleep tonight.”
Neither Mary nor Bridget had much confidence in the seemingly ridiculous ritual of “nipping the cake”, to keep it safe from the hungry fairy folk that roamed the land. Nevertheless, they would do just the same themselves when they got married and took charge of household duties. They would, undoubtedly, recall that their own mother They will remember that their own dear mother did it, and what was right for her, could hardly be very wrong for them. It was in such ways that the traditions were handed down through the generations, even to the present day.
“the very scum that kept us in British bondage.”
If he had died today, and in the line of duty, Detective Sergeant John Barton of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) would probably be declared a national hero. At the time, ‘The Irish Times’ editorial for 1 December 1919 did proclaim him to be “one of the bravest, most vigilant, and most intelligent defenders of the city’s peace”. ‘The Irish Independent’, likewise stated that “Sergeant Barton seemed possessed of an instinct for tracking down criminals and his name alone was sufficient to inspire terror in the hearts of evil doers”.
Barton’s name, however, was not enough to stop the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins, from having him killed, and he assigned three separate groups of Volunteers to carry out the task. On 29 November 1919, all three of these groups converged on the Detective Sergeant when he was only yards from reaching the safety of the new Central Police Station on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street). He was shot at such close range, in fact, that there were scorch-marks on his clothes. The fatal shot, it appears, was fired from the gun of Seán Treacy, who had led the Soloheadbeg ambush upon a ‘Royal Irish Constabulary’ patrol, in which Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell were killed. This incident was the spark that set off Ireland’s ‘War of Independence’ the previous January. During the incident, however, Barton managed to draw his revolver and fire one round before he exclaimed, “Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?” and having spoken these last words he collapsed on the ground. As a Dublin Fire Brigade ambulance crew took him to Mercer’s Hospital, Barton weakly said, “They have done for me. God forgive me. What did I do?”
In order to answer his question, we should look at his life and career up to that point. John Barton was born into a Kerry farming family. When he reached the required age limit, John joined the ‘Dublin Metropolitan Police’ in February 1903 and standing at six feet four and a quarter inches he exceeded the minimum criteria of the force. He was a man with an impressive physique, although his posture was somewhat spoiled by a slight stoop. Not unsurprisingly, Barton became one of the best-known members of ‘B Division’, which was based in the south-east quarter of Dublin’s inner city. He didn’t transfer to the detective department (G Division) of the DMP until 10 October 1919, which was less than seven weeks before he was killed. At the time of his death, he was the fourth DMP member, and third ‘G’ Division detective, to be killed in the War of Independence.
John Barton was a man to be feared by those in the ranks of the Irish movement, as well as those revolutionaries within Republican circles. One member of the Irish Citizen Army, who knew Barton well, accused him of being willing to do more than his duty. During the ‘1913 Lockout’ Barton personally arrested over forty people, and after the Christmas Day confrontation on the City Quay, which saw DMP Sergeant James Kiernan thrown into the River Liffey, he assisted in the arrest of a dozen workers who were allegedly involved in the incident. Patrick Higgins, a member of the ‘Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union’ (ITGWU) was personally tracked down by Barton and was subsequently sentenced to ten years imprisonment for his role in the ‘City Quay Affair’. Naturally, such actions did not make him popular among the ordinary people of Dublin, and his infamy spread after he had arrested a group of children for stealing chocolate. One twelve-year-old boy was sentenced to five years detention, while an eleven-year-old boy was sentenced to a month. A boy aged thirteen, and one aged eleven, were each given £5 bail and eighteen months’ probation.
In 1916, during the ‘Easter Rising’ in Dublin and the subsequent actions against the rebels, Barton became notorious and his infamy spread throughout the city. When the Rising began Barton ignored all orders to remain in barracks and, undeterred by the fatal shootings of three policemen and the wounding of several others, he took to the streets of the city arresting rebels and looters wherever he found them. After the rebels surrendered, Barton went to Richmond Barracks and helped ‘G Division’ detectives to identify the leaders of the Rising. It was almost a voluntary post that Barton appeared to carry out alongside his day to day police duties. Perhaps, the most infamous report that we have of him during this time comes from IRB member Seán Murphy. At a later date, he testified that it was Barton who picked out Seán MacDermott from among the prisoners. Murphy stated that when he picked out MacDermott he said, “Sorry, Seán, but you can’t get away that easy. There will be six for you in the morning, I think”. This was, of course, a reference to the six soldiers who would make up the firing squad that would execute him.
There were other detectives who took part in the identification process that day, but it was Daniel Hoey and John Barton who left the most lasting impression on witnesses. They were remembered specifically for their cynical way that they walked down the line of prisoners with a sneer on their faces’. When identifying an important figure Barton would use his walking stick to point them out to the military authorities, while Hoey used an umbrella. His cruelty toward the republican prisoners and their families appeared to have no bounds. Barton is remembered particularly for the way he spoke to Joseph Connolly and told him that his brother Sean had been killed in the ‘Rising’. When Joseph expressed his pride in his brother’s sacrifice by saying, “He died for his country”; Barton answered that Sean was a disgrace to his country. It is also reported that he would badger particularly vulnerable prisoners to such an extent that they would attempt or commit suicide.
His work with the detective division after the rising did not, however, distract Constable Barton, (Constable 37B in the DMP) from his everyday police duties. During the ‘Rising’ most of the looting occurred north of the River Liffey, while most of those arrested for the crime resided south of the river. It is amazing to note that of the 425 people convicted of looting during Easter week, 296 of these were arrested by Barton. It is important at this time to point out that Barton had arrested the majority of the women who were subsequently sentenced by the police magistrates’ courts for looting offences.
On 18 June, the first public demonstration in support of the rebels took place in Dublin. It began when a group of 400 ‘girls’ carrying a ‘republican flag’ gathered outside Christ Church Cathedral following requiem Masses for the executed Tom Clarke and Eamonn Ceannt. The demonstration by the girls rapidly gathered a crowd of 2,000 people as they marched down Dame Street towards O’Connell Street. On the way, they booed the British sentries outside Dublin Castle and the Bank of Ireland in College Green, and then they came up against the DMP lined up outside the Ballast Office. The police had been ordered to prevent the demonstration from crossing the river and conflict erupted when the police tried to seize the ‘republican flag’. To combat the police batons the crowd used anything that came to hand, including tram destination boards, and the two policemen who were most badly injured in the fighting were Constables Barton and Henry Kells. Constable Kells would soon be acting as another voluntary detective in the hope that he would be promoted to ‘G Division’ but, unlike Barton, he did not achieve his ambition. Unfortunately for him, he was also shot dead by Republicans on 24 April 1920, while working in plain clothes. Unlike Barton, his last words were not recorded.
Seven young men and three women were arrested after the confrontation and charged with offences against ‘Defence of the Realm Act2”. The chief police magistrate, however, decided to deal with the cases under the ‘Public Order Acts’ rather than employ the more drastic penalties contained in the ‘Defence of the Realm Act’. Nevertheless, none of those charged was prepared to apologise for their behaviour, and at least two of the defendants, sixteen-year-old Denis Fitzpatrick and 22-year-old Christina Caffrey, had taken part in the Rising but had evaded arrest. But, the fact that Fitzpatrick and Caffrey were apparently ‘unknown to the police’ demonstrates the totally inadequate state of the police intelligence department and suggests that the ‘G Division’ was not as knowledgeable as it was supposed to be. The truth is that there were only a few members of the division involved in the detection of political crime as opposed to the number assigned to ordinary crime.
Barton’s work and devotion to duty during 1916 were recognised on 2 February 1917 when he was awarded the King’s Police Medal (KPM). This was the highest award a police officer could be given, and the newspapers of the day recognised it by describing Barton as being- “… instrumental in the detection and apprehension of a very large number of criminals. During the first night of the rebellion he arrested at great personal risk twenty-seven persons who were looting in the vicinity of O’Connell Bridge, which was dominated by rebel fire, and on the same night, with the assistance of another officer, he arrested two armed men who were carrying a large quantity of ammunition.”
On the same day he was awarded the KPM Barton was also promoted to sergeant, and on 10 October 1919 he was transferred to ‘G Division’. He was consistently dedicated to carrying out his duty to the full at a time when many policemen in Dublin were doing everything they could to avoid working on the city’s increasingly hostile streets. It was a time when some ‘G Division’ detectives, such as Eamon Broy and David Neligan, became double agents for Michael Collins’ organisation, and they were joined by members of the uniform branch such as Joe Kavanagh and Maurice Aherne. It is true that much of the information that led to the assassination of ‘G Division members’ came from their fellow officers. Barton, however, was a loyal member of the force and received a bar to his KPM in 1918, in recognition of his continuing excellent work, including the dramatic arrest of an armed Boer officer for desertion in 1917.
Being the only member of the DMP to receive two KPMs, Barton’s enemies quickly grew in number. Even defence lawyers had no time for Barton, who was always parading around like a peacock. One person who knew him particularly well was Charlie Dalton, a recruit to Michael Collins’ intelligence operation, where he had a somewhat chequered career of his own. Of Barton, Dalton said, “… he was held in the highest esteem by the publicans, pawnbrokers and other commercial men, due to the fact that he had established a unique method in the tracing of petty larceny and illegal pawning of stolen goods. In carrying out his routine police duties, he had many news vendors and minor thieves of the pick-pocket variety in his power, and he utilised this type of informer for checking on the movements of prominent wanted volunteers.”
Frank Henderson, who was a 1916 veteran and commandant of the 2nd Battalion in Dublin, described Barton as “an efficient criminal detective … who had only undertaken ‘political work’ after the Republican Government had begun to exact the death penalty on enemy intelligence personnel? Barton was warned when he commenced his spying but did not heed the notices sent to him.” Why would Barton choose to ignore Republican warnings when so many assassinations were being carried out, and blindly pursue a method of policing that would mean almost certain death? Perhaps, it was simply that he was a single man without obligations, and had no obvious interests outside the job. Whatever the reason, we know that he was single-minded in his pursuit of the enemy, and completely oblivious to the rapidly changing political climate in Ireland.
To some who remembered him in later years, Barton was simply, “the very scum that kept us in British bondage.” Although in some circles, he was seen as a hero, the decision to kill Barton was inevitable. The countdown began when he led a raid on the home of a young volunteer called Vinnie Byrne. Later, when asked by the head of Collins’ newly organised murder group, ‘The Squad’, if he would shoot a man, the young volunteer replied, “It’s according to who it is.” When he was told that the target would be John Barton, Byrne immediately replied that he would have no objection. Later that day, after finishing work, Byrne joined with others and cornered Barton on College Street at 6pm. During the ambush, however, Barton fired off one round from his own gun before he exclaimed, “Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?” and collapsed to the ground, where he was left for dead by his attackers.
Acknowlegement for this article should be given to Padraig Yeates, the author of A city in civil war: Dublin 1921–4 (Gill & Macmillan, 2015). First published in History Ireland 5th September 2016.
On 10th October 1918 the ‘M.V. Leinster’ was sunk by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat, causing a horrendous loss of life, a great proportion of whom were Irish men, women and children. The scale of this disaster became clearer over the days following the sinking. The identities of the victims were made available and much emphasis was placed on the fact that a large percentage of the casualties were civilians, and that many of the bodies had gone down with the ship and were never to be recovered. It became clear to the Irish people, through the British-controlled press, that the allies were struggling in their fight to the death with an enemy who would stop at nothing, not even the mass slaughter of innocent civilians, to ensure their victory.
The wartime British leadership consistently preached that the only means of overcoming German barbarity was total military victory over the Kaiser’s army and the complete cleansing of the German nation. British politicians made it clear that the only kind of language that the German nation understood was the language of brute force, and that only brute force could bring an end to such a murderous regime.
Using the large numbers of Irish lives that were lost aboard the ‘M.V. Leinster’ the British press suggested that it was up to the men of Ireland to brutally avenge those lost lives. The men of Ireland were told bluntly that it would only be by killing considerable numbers of Germans that the enemy would come to realise that terrible punishment would always be the price to be paid for the inhuman crimes they committed. At the same time, however, explicit attacks were launched against the republican cause in Ireland. They reminded the Irish people that the supporters of the republican cause had allied itself to Germany through those sentiments expressed in the 1916 Proclamation.
The British-controlled press had viewed the growing republican support in Ireland since the ‘Easter Rising of 1916’ with a mixture of alarm, contempt and disdain. In its reporting of the ‘M.V. Leinster’ tragedy the focus of the press was directed against the domestic enemy as much as the foreign enemy. The concern for the British administration at this time was that the end of the war was fast approaching, and they had promised Ireland would have its ‘Home Rule’ election agreed just prior to the outbreak of the war in 1914. In the background lay the growth of republican influence within Ireland since the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916 and they had to devise some method to combat this influence. The key to success, they believed, was to devise a positive programme for Ireland that the Irish Home Rule Party could champion to regain the support they had lost to ‘Sinn Fein’. By delivering ‘Home Rule’ they believed they could encourage the large number of first time Irish voters to ignore the programme of the republican movement in the country.
Within Catholic circles, however, there was a growing level of doubt about the fulfilment of British promises. Among the Irish there was an inherent lack of trust concerning any initiative the British government might suggest, created through previous experience. Moreover, the rise in republican popularity had been strengthened following the success of the ‘Russian Revolution’ in the previous year. As far as the majority of the Irish people were concerned, by 1918 no British promises or guarantees could be trusted and, therefore, the ‘Irish War of Independence’ was inevitable if true freedom was to be gained.