The Darker Side of Life in Old Ireland III

Burke and Hare

In 1828 a bizarre proposal appeared in a London Newspaper suggesting a means to alleviate the shortage of corpses for dissection:

Let the body of every Irish pauper, who comes to this country uninvited, and dies here, be given to the anatomical schools. The plan would relieve us in a great measure from the influx of Paddies, as they would much rather deposit their bodies at home, than give at all events, a few additional subjects to our anatomists.

burke_and_hare 2It shows the attitudes held by the English for the Irish, but it was only one of a number of solutions being put forward at this time to increase the number of human bodies that could be made available for dissection, including the first ‘Anatomy Bill’ (1829). In the meantime, however, for several years two Irishmen living in Edinburgh had begun working on their own solution to the problem in that city. The names of Burke and Hare are well known to history as resurrectionists who decided it was more profitable for them to cut out the ‘middleman’, including the undertaker, in their corpse supply chain to the medical professionals. At the height of their activities they were considered ‘resurrectionists’, but they had moved on to secretly providing freshly murdered corpses to their customers. These crimes were not detected until November 1828, after they had sold seventeen bodies to the anatomist Robert Knox, sixteen of which they had suffocated to death. Part of the trouble for Burke and Hare was the fact that in 1828 Knox’s anatomy school required the huge number of four hundred bodies for its students, and the Edinburgh authorities had, in the meantime, made great advances to prevent grave robbing, which had caused Knox to import more and more bodies from Ireland.

William Burke was a native of Urney, Co Tyrone, and his companion, William Hare, was said to have come from the parish of Newry in County Armagh and was some years younger than Burke. Any real information concerning Hare is scarce, especially when looking into his birth, his life in Ireland, or the circumstances which had brought him to Scotland. Even more mysterious is that any information we may have about what happened to him is unreliable and from unofficial sources. By the time they were caught Burke and Hare had already been in Scotland for about ten years and were initially employed on the construction of the Union Canal. It appears that the men had met in Edinburgh in the mid- 1820s and immediately formed a friendship.

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William Burke’s Skeleton on Display

On Christmas Eve 1828 the trial of Burke and Hare began and, famously, the latter turned ‘King’s Evidence’ against Burke, who was found guilty the very next day. William Burke was publicly hanged on 28 January 1829, and duly dissected like many of those he had delivered up to the anatomy students. But such was the man’s fame that a procession of thousands, including seven women, filed past to view his corpse on display. In fact, Burke’s skeleton can still be viewed in the ‘Anatomy Museum of Edinburgh University’ and a book, allegedly made from William Burke’s skin’, is apparently held by the ‘Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’. William Hare’s wife, Margaret (née Laird), was released on 19 January and, taking their baby, went to Glasgow where she was mobbed, before she managed to board a steam ship going to Belfast. Subsequent court proceedings against Hare were unsuccessful and he was eventually released on 5 February 1829.

After being released from custody, a disguised William Hare was put on a coach for Dumfries, where, despite his disguise, he was soon recognized and forced to seek safety in a hotel by a large, shouting mob. He wanted to take the packet boat to Ireland that set sail from Portpatrick but was not permitted to board a coach to take him there. He was, however, given refuge in the town jail and, reluctantly leaving behind his cloak and bundle, was put on the road to England by the police who now washed their hands of him. Reports state that Hare was last seen about two miles beyond the border town of Carlisle’. The ‘Belfast Guardian’ reported that the mob had not beaten Hare while he was in Dumfries but suggested that wherever Hare went, he would carry the curses hatred of every human being.

‘The Northern Whig’at this time reported its belief that Hare would “take Belfast in the way of his return towards his native country” and would certainly to try to sail to Donaghadee. Stating – “A rumour having become prevalent in Donaghadee, … that Hare the murderer was on his was [sic] from Portpatrick to this town, the inhabitants flocked to the harbour to get a glimpse of the sanguinary ruffian. All were anxiety until the Steam Packet, in which Hare was said to have taken his passage, arrived. When she landed, the passengers were eyed attentively for a considerable time; at last, one was suspected, who is said to have the sullen mien of a murderer. He no sooner landed, than it was intimated to him that he was Hare; he replied that he was not Hare, but had been taken for him in Dumfries, where he had to fly from the fury of the populace. This was not satisfactory; and he had not proceeded many steps till he was in the centre of a circle, and the object of as much curiosity as the stranger with the long nose, in Strasbourg. At length, an acquaintance recognised, and asserted he was not Hare and the people quietly dispersed.”

On the 20 March 1829 the same newspaper that Hare had been arrested in Newcastle in England on suspicion of committing more murders. But there is no reliable information as to what happened to him, although there were rumours that he had returned to his family in Ireland. The truth of this rumour is said to have been demonstrated a few weeks later when Hare’s sister turned up in Dumfries to successfully recover his belongings.

Naturally the mystery surrounding Hare’s fate gave rise to many stories being told, including one that said he was blinded in a lime pit in Carlisle, or that he ended his days as a beggar on the Strand in London. There was one report from the ‘Northern Whig’ of 23 March 1829, less than seven weeks after Hare was released from jail, that told its readers:

burke_and_hare 5“On Friday evening last [20 March] , Hare the murderer called in a public-house in Scarva, accompanied by his wife and child, and having ordered a naggin of whiskey, he began to enquire for the welfare of every member of the family of the house, with well-affected solicitude.- However, as Hare is a native of this neighbourhood, he was very soon recognised, and ordered to leave the place immediately, with which he complied, after attempting to palliate his horrid crimes by describing them as having been the effects of intoxication. He took the road towards Loughbrickland, followed by a number of boys, yelling and threatening in such a manner as obliged him to take through the fields, with such speed that he soon disappeared, whilst his unfortunate wife remained on the road, imploring forgiveness, and denying, in the most solemn manner, any participation in the crimes of her wretched husband. They now reside at the house of an uncle of Hare’s, near Loughbrickland. Hare was born and bred about one half mile distant from Scarva, in the opposite County of Armagh; and shortly before his departure from this country, he lived in the service of Mr. Hall, the keeper of the eleventh lock, near Poyntzpass. He was chiefly engaged in driving the horses, which his master employed in hauling lighters on the Newry Canal. He was always remarkable for being of a ferocious and malignant disposition, an instance of which he gave in killing one of his master’s horses, which obliged him to fly to Scotland, where he perpetrated those unparalleled crimes that must always secure him a conspicuous place in the annals of murder.”

There are a number of issues raised in this report that have some truth in them e.g. Hare had been reunited with his wife and a ‘yellow-faced’ one-year-old child, of unknown gender, who is recorded as having suffered from whooping cough during the trial. The suggestion that Hare blames his crimes on the effects of alcohol, demonstrates the alcoholic’s talent for manipulating the truth. But the report states that Hare was born in Armagh, narrowing his place of birth down to two townlands in the parish of Ballymore. The Tithe Books of 1830 show that a John Hare did live in the townland of Monclone. At the same time, the report also states that a Mr Hall was the keeper of the eleventh lock on the Newry Canal and this is confirmed by the ‘Office of Public Works, Directors of Inland Navigation Records (1800-30)’. They establish that in 1801 a Walter Hall was keeper of the eleventh lock at the village of Poyntzpass, the residence only being demolished around 1980. Walter Hall died in January 1821 and was succeeded by Alexander Hall, probably a son, who was still held in the post when the canal was privatised in 1830.

There are reports that suggest that William Hare eventually died within the walls od the workhouse in Kilkeel, County Down. In the journal ‘The British Weekly’ of 14th July 1921 it was reported: “it is common knowledge in the little town of Kilkeel, Co. Down, that Hare died in the Union Workhouse there, and is buried in the grounds attached thereto. While there he made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide by cutting his throat and was then attended by the local doctor, who was a student at Edinburgh University at the time of the murders. This information was given to my father by the doctor himself. Some years ago there was, in the ‘Weekly Scotsman’ , a very graphic account of Hare’s adventures after his escape. There it was stated that Hare was a native of Carlingford, Co. Louth, which is only a short distance as the crow flies from Kilkeel, so it is easily understood that he would make for the district he knew on gaining his freedom. Kilkeel was for long an isolated town, so this may explain why these facts were not known long ago.”

The contents of this report have proved impossible to prove or disprove since the register of inmates for Kilkeel Union has not survived, and even if it had there is a case that Hare may well have used an alias. Moreover, if Hare had survived until 1864, his death may have been officially registered, but the question remains, ‘under what name?’ Besides, the extension of the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ to Ireland in 1838 brought with it a form of the English workhouse system, under which the workhouse managers could dispose of unclaimed bodies for dissection. Some would say that it would have been an ironic fate if William Hare did finish his days in the ‘Kilkeel Workhouse’ where, on his death, his body would have been given up for dissection.

There is an interesting footnote to the career of Burke and Hare that occurred in ‘The Belfast Guardian’ in March 1829. It was an observation made in a letter that chiefly concerned Burke, stating: “By his conduct the public mind has been excited, long gathering prejudices against anatomists have been increased and strengthened, and odium has been cast on the Medical profession inimical to the well-being of society. The excitation of public feeling thus occasioned, if rightly improved, however, instead of proving unfriendly or injurious to the Medical Profession should, and, we trust, ultimately tend to its advantage; yes, and to prevent, too, the recurrence of such tragic scenes of murder and exhumation as have lately so often disgraced the columns of the public prints, have ranked us lower than the very savage, and have caused the warm blood of humanity to flow back in the arteries and freeze in the heart, whilst it is thrilled with horror. For it should be the means of causing those whose province it is to devise and effect an anatomical reform, then Burke was a useful member of society.”

Although we have no clues as to the writer’s identity, the letter certainly came across as a statement of common sense at a time when most criticism was the result of hysterical, albeit totally justifiable, public outrage which had been aroused by the ‘Burke and Hare Scandal.’ The letter’s author strongly recommended the importance of the authorities having full control of the licensing of anatomy schools and their licensing to teach anatomy to the student doctors. However, any idea that the scandal had brought about the introduction of ‘The Anatomy Act 1832’ is wrong, although it may have contributed to it some small way.

burke_and_hare 3.jpgIn fact, six months prior to the crimes of Burke and Hare being made public, a select committee had been established to draft an ‘Anatomy Bill’, which was first introduced in 1828. It was, however, thrown out by the House of Lords in 1829 to make way for the ‘Reform Bill.’ But the growth in the copycat crime of ‘burking’ (called after William Burke and recalling his actions.) that caused the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ to be introduced to Parliament in 1831. In January that year there was a case of ‘burking’, which took place in Ballylesson, Co.Down in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, Charles and Agnes Clarke of Drumbo were tried for the murder of an ‘unknown person’ and Daniel M’Connell, whom they had entrapped with ‘the pretence of hospitality.’ Agnes Clarke then tried to sell M’Connell’s body to a surgeon at Antrim Infirmary who raised the alarm. Quite how she proposed to market a body with multiple hatchet wounds to the head is unclear, but she claimed that the death was the result of ‘a stone quarry falling’. Partly on the testimony of their own daughter, the couple were found guilty of M’Connell’s murder and hanged on 5 August. Their bodies remained hanging for a long time because they could not convince to give or hire a car for the removal of their bodies. Eventually, a few men were got to carry them on their shoulders’ to Down Infirmary, where their bodies were dissected.

There is evidence to suggest that at this time a ‘Burker’ dispatched his victims by offering them snuff laced with arsenic, while another grisly incidents of ‘burking’ happened in London, committed by John Head (alias Thomas Williams), John Bishop and James May. It was stated that they murdered their victims by first drugging them and then suspending them head-first down a well. Their killing spree had begun in the summer of 1830, but it was the murder of a fourteen-year-old Italian boy, Carlo Ferrari, which led to their arrest in November 1831. Carlo used to carry a revolving squirrel cage containing two white mice and a tortoise, and his death was considered particularly nasty because the boy’s teeth were removed using hardened steel awl, known as a bradawl. Bishop and Williams confessed to three murders, and the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ was introduced in December 1831, just ten days after they were hanged. Parliament passed the Act in 1832 and came into force for the entire United Kingdom on 1st August.

From this point onward it was at the discretion of the ‘Secretary for Ireland’ to grant the licenses necessary to practice anatomy. The Act also made provision for an inspectorate to be established and the first ‘Inspector of Anatomy’ for Dublin was Sir James Murray, who had strong Belfast connections. Murray was to hold this important post for almost forty years and is known as the inventor milk of magnesia. He was also employed as the resident physician to the marquis of Angelsey, who sponsored him for a knighthood because of his services. The ‘resurrectionist’ trade was ended through this ‘Anatomy Act’ although the legislation itself was never perfect. Nevertheless, it was to remain in place until the inception of the ‘National Health Service in 1948’ and the introduction of the 1984 Anatomy Act. In Northern Ireland it was finally replaced by the ‘Anatomy (NI) Order of 1992’.

Finally, the rise of the anatomy schools and their ghastly relationship with the resurrectionists was a squalid affair and did nothing to improve the public perception of the ethics of the medical profession of the day and reflects the modern day’s growing international trade in organs for transplantation.

Dublin, the Irish capital, became an important centre for the export of bodies to other parts of the United Kingdom because of its thriving resurrection trade. Market forces and better transportation drove the traffic to new levels, which were detrimental to the supply of bodies to the local anatomy schools. Belfast and its hinterland, on the other hand, lacked a resurrection trade because there was no local, large scale anatomy school to create one. Dublin’s trade in bodies was carried out on an industrial scale while in Belfast it appeared the trade never amounted to much more than a cottage industry, but the true prevalence of resurrectionist activity in Ulster will never be known. From the frequency of contemporary newspaper reports, and even though the practice often went undetected, it is unlikely that the average annual total amounted to more than a few dozen. Indeed, even at its height in the late 1820s, it is probable that the total did not stray much into triple figures. This trade from Ulster seems to have been sustained by just a few individuals, sporadic visits by gangs of resurrectionists from Scotland and some opportunistic freelancers. The coming of regular steamships travelling the Belfast to Glasgow route from 1818 and the burgeoning demand in the Scottish medical schools did vastly improve the trade until the 1832 Anatomy Act finally put an end to it. It was, in fact, the act’s stifling of a free market, by legalizing the supply of bodies but not increasing it, which contributed to the decline in the trade, which coincided with an upsurge in the popularity and influence of the medical schools of Paris and Dublin.

St. Bridget’s Mantle

St Bridget 4
St. Bridget’s Well

The First of February is the feast of St. Bridget and on Eve of the feast the usual Irish dinner consisted of ‘bruitins’(mashed potatoes)in a wooden dish placed on a table, or in earlier days the “bare floor”. A hole for the butter was made in the centre of the ‘bruitins’, and, the butter placed there, with the hole being covered over with the hot ‘bruitins’ scooped out in making the hole.

St Bridget 2
‘Bruitins’ (Champ)

All the family members were seated around the dish on the floor, or on stools if seated at the table. In more modern days some luxury came into the homes of the peasant Irish, which included “creepies” and chairs. In those days the majority would simply seat themselves on the broad chair from which they had risen. Indeed, in many an Irish home there was ‘Mammy’s’ seat and ‘Daddy’s seat’ upon which none but mammy and daddy would sit.

“While the butter was melting in the potatoes, the oldest woman in the house would go outside to “fetch in the brat Bhrighde”,(St. Bridget’s mantle), which is a rag of some kind of cloth that was placed on a bush outside the home several days previously. The old woman, having taken possession of the ‘brat’, comes to the door and, in Irish, says three times, “Get on your knees, and close your eyes, and let Blessed Bridget come in.” Those within the house would do what they were asked, and on the third repetition they would cry out simultaneously, “Come in, come in, and welcome.
St Bridget 3
St. Brigid’s Mantle

The old woman then carries the ‘brat’ into the house triumphantly and a piece of it is given to each family member. This piece of cloth is believed to be a protection from all kinds of misfortune or “ill-luck” for the next twelve months, and they reverently keep it close to them. This done, ‘Grace’ is said and followed by the opening of the hole in the potatoes.

This ritual is not just hearsay, for my Great-Uncle John had the good luck to attend one of these dinners many years ago when in the West of Ireland. Although I have never been personally present at such a ritual, John’s story told to me when just a small boy made a great impression because it was still fresh and vivid in John’ memory.
St Bridget 1
St. Bridget’s Cross

The Darker Side of Life in Old Ireland II

Battling the Resurrectionists

To have a relative, no matter how distant, exhumed from their place of rest and taken away after death to be cut into pieces was as repugnant then as it would be today. Anyone who designated themselves to be Christian had a strong belief that the complete body of a person was needed to be reunited with the divine soul on the Final Day of Judgement and, as a result of this strong fundamental religious view, there was great popular opposition toward the dissection of human corpses because of the fear that victims will not be able to enjoy resurrection in the afterlife. This opposition was said to be particularly strong among the Irish population and elaborate steps were, therefore, taken to prevent the continued trade of the resurrectionists.

Mort Safe
Mort Safes

In many places lamp-standards, watch-houses, and corpse-houses were established as an attempt to deter the resurrectionists from robbing fresh graves. The strategy was simply to deter the grave robbers until decomposition made the corpse useless for dissection and medical experiment. The authorities were very much aware that the fresher the corpse was, the greater was its value to the surgeons and it was to the advantage of the grave robbers to exhume a body as soon as possible after its burial. Those assigned to watch these fresh graves were usually close relatives or friends of the departed person and, therefore, this ‘watch’ period coincided with the height of their mourning. The average duration of a ‘watch’ was usually two weeks, but in times of cold weather it was often necessary to stay a while longer. Those unable to maintain an around-the-clock watch of the grave would often place a flower, shell or other object on the freshly- dug grave, as a means of detecting if the earth had been disturbed by resurrectionists. The body snatchers, however, were always careful to replace such items.

In some areas a ‘watch’ of up to six weeks was common, while estimations showed that it could take a body two or three weeks to reach far-off destinations such as Edinburgh or London. As a result, those bodies would, on arrival in Edinburgh and London, more suitable for the grave than for the study of anatomy’. So, the nearer the source of the bodies to the anatomical study students, the more valuable the bodies became and any efforts to prevent grave robbing needed to be overcome. Violence against watchers was, as a result, not a rare event and there are records describing how watchers who fortified themselves with whiskey often woke up in the morning to find the body they were watching, and the whiskey, gone. Unfortunately, after the body had been taken all that could be done was to offer a reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible.

In some areas armed professional watchers would be hired to constantly patrol the burying ground with guard-dogs constantly by their side, a task for which they were paid a pittance. In quite a few places heavy stone slabs, mort safes and iron frames were put in place to ensure that the resurrectionists would be deterred from their tasks. These devices took too much effort to remove and helped to protect the coffins and their contents until decomposition of the body was well advanced. Other equipment employed by the burial grounds were ‘spring guns’ with trip wires and loose stones placed on the cemetery walls to render them harder to climb. Another strange device to be used was the ‘mort collar’, which was a loop of iron placed around the corpse’s neck and bolted from below through the base of the coffin. Such was the demand for devices like the ‘mort safes’ that many of them were mass produced in Scottish iron foundries, one of which was “Shotts Iron Company.” As early as 1818 a patent was obtained for a coffin that had been designed to prevent resurrectionists from stealing the body buried within. It was manufactured in metal and had contained special spring-loaded devices that would prevent opening and were accompanied by various other forms of reinforcement. It is hard for us today to imagine that such contraptions could have been produced for use by those who could afford them. But once the threat of grave robbers had passed, such underground devices would have simply been left in place, while those on the surface would be dismantled or recycled to rid burial grounds of memories from an unhappy era in history. Some people took such measures to the extreme, as explained by a report from one Scottish newspaper that stated the father of a dead child was in such fear of the resurrection men taking the body that he buried the body in a small box that also enclosed some other apparatus that included wires from the four corners going to the top of the coffin. Immediately before the body was lowered into the earth, a large quantity of gunpowder was poured into the box, and the hidden mechanism made ready for activation. It was believed that this machinery would cause the box to explode if anyone attempted to raise the body. It was said that the sexton appeared to fear an explosion, for he jumped back immediately after throwing in the first shovel of earth.

This paper has already mentioned just how the poorest people bore the brunt of the resurrectionist’s activity, while the wealthier people could protect their remains with better quality coffins. In fact, some of the leading anatomists of the day went to great pains to ensure they were buried in such a way that none of his former employees or students could resurrect him and make money from their bodies. A noted Dublin anatomist, Sir Philip Crampton, established a private dissecting room and lecture theatre at the rear of his house in the city in 1804. He was said to hold his lectures with open doors and gave anatomy demonstrations to the poor people, who, once he had gained their interest, would bring him bodies to dissect. In accordance with his last wishes Crampton was entombed in Roman cement. Unfortunately for him the cement specified was not truly ‘Roman’ but a less durable type patented by James Parker in 1796.

THE IRISH ANATOMY SCHOOLS

Past records show that by the time that Queen’s College, Dublin, was built in 1845 there had been six anatomy schools in Cork city, some of which had as many as ninety pupils. Keeping these places stocked with fresh bodies demonstrates that there was a plentiful supply being provided by the resurrectionists were active. One story told of this period relates how one grave robber had attempted to lift a body by tying a rope to it and passing it over the branch of a tree. But the rope slipped over the resurrectionist’s neck and the next morning he was found hanged from the tree branch.

Old Dublin Harbour
Dublin Quays

Meanwhile, in Dublin fifteen private medical schools were established between 1804 and 1832, brought about by an increasing interest in pathological anatomy, which had been imported from France in the early part of the nineteenth century. In the summer of 1816 “The Association of Members of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland” was established in Dublin. The thrust of the association being the improvement of Pathological science’ and, as elsewhere, the demand for bodies to meet the swelling ranks of anatomy students continued to grow. It was the inclusion of two key professors of anatomy that made Dublin the favourite centre for medical students during the 1820s and 1830s.

Abraham Colles, at the College of Surgeons, had an innovative way of teaching anatomy in that he pursued a topographical approach as opposed to a systematic one, namely not requiring students to dissect a system, e.g. blood vessels, one at a time, as previously required and which caused students to fail to grasp the interrelationships between systems. James Macartney meanwhile had built a fine reputation for himself in London before bringing his expertise to Trinity College. Macartney’s major contribution here was to encourage the voluntary bequest of bodies for dissection and the furtherance of medical science. With the increase in the number of anatomy students in Dublin the need for bodies to dissect had grown correspondingly, the major source of these being an area called ‘Bully’s Acre’, which was named for the large number of rowdies or ‘bullies’ that were buried there. It lay close to the Royal Hospital and there were so many people buried there because no charge was made for the graves, and Body snatching by resurrectionists and students was so rife there that quite often there was violence between the two groups.

Peter Harkan, a notorious resurrectionist engaged by the noted anatomist Sir Philip Crampton, was discovered there with some students by ‘watchers’ and forced to flee. The ‘watchers’ began to chase and while the students easily cleared the perimeter wall, the less agile Harkan got stuck, and the students began pulling him one way and the ‘watchers’ the opposite direction. Harkan, it is said, was never quite the same again after the experience with the ‘Watchers’. The rewards of the trade, however, were worth the setbacks when a corpse could be bought for a guinea in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and before the export traffic in bodies drove prices up.

In Belfast the first anatomy school was established at ‘The Academical Institution’ (‘Inst’) in 1818, when James Lawson Drummond was appointed to the chair of anatomy and physiology, which was an isolated medical professorship in the faculty of arts. At this time, it was common for students for ministry in the Presbyterian Church to obtain some medical knowledge alongside their studies in divinity and, when the classes began in 1819, they involved some anatomical demonstrations. The small number of dissections involved would have created only a modest demand for fresh corpses, but the Resurrectionists certainly very busy in Belfast and surrounding areas from the earliest years of the nineteenth century and this must have been nearly all due to supporting the export trade.

In Belfast, dissection was carried out as a matter of form since a large number of the doctors based there were trained in Edinburgh medical schools. In fact, records suggest that almost one-third of Edinburgh’s medical graduates during the last quarter of the eighteenth century came from among the Ulster-Scots tradition and were exposed to the Scottish emphasis on dissection. Among these was Samuel Black, a physician from Newry, whose book, “Clinical and Pathological Reports” was published in 1819 and describes eighteen dissections that he carried out between 1792 and 1819. It is clear that some of these took place with the full consent of the family of the deceased, who were invariably of the Protestant tradition. There is little doubt that Samuel Black did make a valuable contribution to medical knowledge, particularly in the field of heart disease. His activities, however, were not without opposition and after suffering a severe accident in 1804, he almost always managed to find others to carry out the dissections on his behalf.

EXPORTING BODIES FROM IRELAND

Old Belfast QuayWhen it comes to medical examination the fresher the corpse was, the better research sample it would be, and decomposition rendered the body’s presence unbearable and its anatomy useless. This was a time when the use of preserving fluids in dissection was not yet known. Freshness of the sample, therefore, was dependent upon rapid delivery and ambient temperature, which meant the grave robbers have much more leeway on delivery during the winter. There were two major factors, however, that assisted the growth of the export of corpses from Ireland to the more distant markets in Scotland and England – the short sea crossing and the use of the more rapid steamships. The escalation in demand for bodies in the anatomical centres in London and Edinburgh had forced the resurrectionists to spread their nets ever wider in search of a good source. New sources of fresh corpses was also made necessary for resurrectionists as vigilance by the relatives of the dead and the authorities increased in those burial places close to the main centres.

It is unlikely that there was a large trade in exporting bodies from Cork because the sea crossing to Wales would have taken too long to complete. The export trade from Dublin, however, began in the late eighteenth century, and rapidly accelerated after 1820 when steamships were introduced to the main sea routes, particularly to Glasgow, just as demand there was approaching its height. Although the advantage of speed provided by steamships was offset to some extent by the warmer ship’s holds in which the bodies were transported, the disadvantages were far outweighed by the advantages and the openness of the trade even caused one doctor to recommend that ‘casks’ should be left on deck, on the lee side of the vessel, during the journey to help keep the cadavers cool. That ‘Casks’ were employed for transporting bodies is confirmed from a report concerning Dublin in 1829.[1]

Yesterday a large hogshead was brought by a carman to a sailing vessel here (we believe the Mary), bound for Glasgow, to be shipped for that port, as containing hams. A strong smell, however, which proceeded from the cask, excited the suspicion of the Captain as to the contents – examination followed, when it was discovered, that instead of hams, the hogshead contained the bodies of no less than seven individuals – four males, two females, and a small boy.

In fact, for most of the 1820s a company of corpse exporters turned the anatomy school of the ‘College of Surgeons’ a form of storage place for their trade goods. On one occasion, in early 1828, a body that was ready for export was discovered and caused a mob of people to attack the place and a porter in the college, Luke Redmond, was murdered. But when a motion was submitted to award his widowed wife ten pounds in compensation for his tragic death the motion was defeated.

Prior to the arrival of a gentleman called Rae and his fellow resurrectionists the trade in grave robbing in Dublin had been conducted with a certain decency and secrecy. But because of the free market forces in Dublin, the export trade in corpses resulted in a very deep shortage of bodies for dissection in the Dublin anatomy schools. The introduction of various efforts to restrain the activities of the resurrectionists had also helped to increase this shortage. It was widely regarded that the trade generated by Rae, who had often been openly seen in the College bargaining for bodies when there were plenty, had gone now gone beyond control. The impact that this ghastly trade had on the population had grown to such a point that the ‘Humane Society of St John’ was formed to provide men to watch over the newly interred remains of the city’s citizens’. Nevertheless, records show that in December 1831 three Irish bodies were sold in London for thirty-eight pounds, demonstrating that the trade had become so profitable that many unscrupulous persons, even professional criminals, were now involved. At its height it is estimated that there were over fifty professional resurrection men who were engaged in the body export trade in Dublin alone.

sailing ships in dockMeanwhile, from the situation north of Ireland bodies had been exported to Glasgow and Edinburgh for at least the previous thirty or forty years. Usually these bodies were smuggled, being landed from boats on lonely parts of the Scottish coast, particularly that of Ayrshire. Sometimes, captains of these vessels would conceal the bodies in holds laden with limestone that was imported from Belfast and other Irish ports. Since there was not much of a demand for bodies from local medical schools before the first was established at Inst., the bulk of cadavers taken by the resurrectionists in the north of Ireland supplied those schools established in Scotland. The routes along which the bodies were taken generally followed those same short sea crossings taken by Scottish settlers during the ‘Plantation of Ulster’ by King James I. The most well used routes were those from the small port of Donaghadee to Mull of Galloway, and the crossing from Ballycastle/Fairhead to the Mull of Kintyre. In fact details suggest that the trade in bodies from Northern Ireland may actually have started a little earlier than further south because of its proximity to Scotland. But another factor that may have stimulated the trade in corpses was the older tradition of smuggling stolen linen, since the similarity between the smuggling of both commodities was very close. In both cases the theft usually took place predominantly at night, and both enterprises caused the establishment of nocturnal vigils and the building of watch houses, and both involved the transport of bulky commodities. While in the case of linen it was the bleach-green that was kept under surveillance, in the case of bodies it was the cemetery.

With linen being the chief item produced in the north of Ireland, the theft of linen from bleach-greens became such a serious problem that watch houses were built to accommodate the watchmen who guarded the cloth at night. To deter thefts the stealing from bleach-greens was made a capital offence in 1763 but the severity of the punishment defeated its purpose since those who stole only trivial amounts were often dealt with more leniently. Finally, this law was repealed in 1811 and substituted with transportation for life was substituted. But none of these penalties had much effect on theft from the bleach-greens because there was a deep sense of justice among the people in the North, and there was a great reluctance to prosecute anyone for a crime for which the punishment was severe when compared to the offence committed. Sadly, the theft from bleach greens had a much more severe punishment than the theft of human bodies from their graves.

By 1817 regular cross-channel traffic in stolen linen was being carried on and Belfast was a major centre for this trade. The ships that entered and left these Irish ports exchanged the stolen goods of Ireland for the stolen goods of Scotland and elsewhere. The stolen Irish linen would be made into shirts and sold at low prices on both sides of the Irish Sea. The same criminals involved in developing the routes and techniques smuggling stolen linen across the Irish Sea also led the trade in the export of stolen human cadavers to Scotland within a few years. Although the first steamship to sail from Glasgow to Belfast did not do so until 1816, and regular sailings did not start until 1818, the sea crossing under sail was short. The only drawback to the trade, however, was that the journey on land through Scotland to their destination was slow.

Steam sailing shipThere are frequent references in the local Northern press to the activities of resurrectionists, but at least half of these accounts refer to events in Dublin, and they appeared with increasing frequency throughout the 1820s. It is reported that in a burial ground not too far from Carrickfergus in County Antrim, a party of resurrectionists was arrested in 1823. They had been suspected for some time of carrying out an organised export of bodies from Irish graveyards to Edinburgh. It was discovered that the resurrectionists had attempted to ship a barrel containing the bodies of a woman and child to Scotland. Their arrest encouraged a torrent of stories including tales of frightful murders having been committed. Then, a few days later, customs officers at the port of Greenock in Scotland had their suspicions aroused by another cask that was of ‘questionable shape’. This cask, it turned out, contained the bodies of another woman and child in very poor condition which were being sent from Belfast to Edinburgh.

For resurrectionists in Belfast the most favoured places to obtain bodies appear to have been Friar’s Bush, Old Clifton Street and Shankill graveyards. In fact, in September 1829 the ‘Northern Whig’ newspaper that a gun battle of sorts occurred between a group of twenty men and two men ‘corpse watchers’ in the Shankill graveyard. Quite startlingly the same newspaper, in a later edition, the same newspaper commented that ‘there are Resurrectionists walking our streets every day, and we could point them out’. This suggests that the trade in selling bodies was of a limited scale at this time.

In the rural districts outside of Belfast there were plenty of incidents reported, such as that of two medical students being arrested in Dromara for trying to export two bodies to Scotland. Even those people employed by the Church could not resist the temptation of easy money and several sextons of various rural churches were dismissed after being found guilty of having knowledge about grave robbing. The trade had grown to such a level that corpse houses and mort safes were being used in Irish graveyards, and the revelations of the actions of Burke and Hare led to heightened fears and demands for greater vigilance. It is the actions of these two famed grave-robbers that we will consider in the next instalment….

[1] John F Fleetwood, “Dublin Body Snatchers”; Dublin Historical Record, Vol.42, No. 1; Dec., 1988

The Darker Side of life in Ireland of Old

Part I

Recently I had the opportunity to read a book called ‘The Peeler’s Notebook’, concerning the work of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) from its formation until the establishment of the ‘Garda Siochana’. To my surprise I read a snippet about the activities of men involved in the ‘Sack ‘em up’ trade, more commonly known as ‘Grave Robbing’, or ‘Resurrectionism.’ Looking further into such activities I was surprised to discover that ‘Resurrectionism’ had been a long-established practice within Ireland, which appeared to reach its peak in the early decades of the nineteenth century. There was, at this time, a growing demand for reasonably fresh cadavers to the anatomy schools that had been established in Dublin and Belfast, the surplus supporting the burgeoning export trade to those supplying the anatomy schools in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere within Britain. In the northern part of Ireland, the gruesome trade was not as widespread as that in the south and was largely carried out for export purposes. However, it was the criminal actions of two men from Northern Ireland, Burke and Hare, that brought the practice into the light and hastened the demise of the trade.

Grave Robbing 2The methods employed by the ‘Resurrectionists’ in obtaining the cadavers were greatly facilitated by the common practice of the shallow interment of the dead, and the marking of their last place of rest marked by a mound of earth. To combat the practice various efforts were employed, such as putting lamp posts in graveyards, establishing corpse-houses, constructing iron frames to guard the coffins, watch-house, and the building of ‘mort-safes’. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh’s old graveyards there were rows of iron cages standing like so many animal enclosures to prevent newly buried bodies from being stolen.

Researchers have pointed out that it was the early years of the nineteenth century that saw the ‘Resurrectionist’ movement peak, and finally began to decline after the revelation of the murders committed by Burke and Hare, both of whom were originally from Ireland. This blog has been written to outline what I have discovered about this dark era of ‘Resurrectionism’, with the emphasis being on the Irish experience and the events that led to the passing of ‘The Anatomy Act’ in 1832.

BEGINNINGS

We who live in a modern Ireland can see that anatomy is an essential medical subject that is, in many cases, studied by the dissecting dead bodies. For many hundreds of years, however, superstitious beliefs, religious objections, and completely blind acceptance of existing medical teaching combined to erect a huge obstacle to practical studies by anatomists that would give us new understanding on how the human body functioned. It is also a sad reflection on humanity that from the days when men first took to burying their dead, graves have been robbed of anything of value that had been buried with the corpse. In fact, I can recall that some thirty years ago there was a widely reported case of thieves being disturbed in an old churchyard as they attempted to steal the heavy lead that had been placed around some corpses almost two centuries previously to prevent those bodies from being taken by body-snatchers.

Andreas Versalius, Flemish anatomist, physician was born in Brussels in 1514, and is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy, authoring ‘De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body)’. He was professor at the University of Padua, and later became Imperial Physician at the court of Emperor Charles V. At this time most anatomical studies were carried out upon the bodies of animals, but Versalius would change this practice. It could also be said that Versalius, who was the man who established the foundations of modern anatomy, was the first grave-robber to use his talents to expand human understanding anatomical science. There are many stories about Vesalius and his activities, one of which describes how he smuggled the body of a hanged criminal into his lodgings, with the help of a friend. Such stories, concerning the development of anatomy in Europe, are many and a considerable number of pages could be filled with them. We shall not do that but will simply state that the trade in supplying fresh cadavers for dissection flourished widely throughout Ireland and the British Isles from the mid-eighteenth century until The British Parliament passed the ‘Anatomy Act’ in 1832.

Grave Robbing 4In the middle of the sixteenth century, while all students of medicine were required to be thoroughly familiar with the anatomy of the human body, the Crown authorities provided surgeons with a totally inadequate number of corpses for anatomical study that had been obtained from executed criminals. The considerable gap between supply and demand was filled by entrepreneurial individuals in a variety of ways. The most common method, however, saw men going out after dark and digging up recently interred bodies from the many graveyards. It appears that this task was usually undertaken by medical students, doctors, or by professional grave robbers who were commonly known as ‘body-snatchers’, ‘resurrection men’ or ‘sack-’em-ups’. In fact, the practice became so common that there were occasions when rival grave robbers, mourning relatives, watchmen, and others would become involved in fighting over the possession of corpses. One such occasion was recorded as happening in Edinburgh, which had become a major medical teaching centre. As was their habit, the students of the famous anatomist Alexander Munro, attended the public hanging of a woman, intending to secure the female criminal’s body for their studies. The students, however, were noticed by members of the gathered crowd and, in moments, a ferocious public battle erupted. Unfortunately for both sides, they were a bit too quick off the mark, and soon after the public uproar had broken out the poor woman’s life was revived by the students, and she was to live for many more years after the incident, albeit with the nick-name of “Half-hangit Maggie Dickson.

The great demand for corpses was met, for the most part, by the industriousness of the Irish resurrection men who were able to export their surplus trade to Edinburgh and other major medical training centres. But as the years passed, this source of corpses was proven to be totally inadequate to fill the constantly increasing demand. Then, in 1829, the entire dark world of grave robbers and the medical establishment was blown wide open when the career of a well-known surgeon called Knox was suddenly brought to ruin because of his dealings with an infamous duo of ‘resurrectionists’ called Burke and Hare. These two men had tried to overcome the shortage of fresh bodies for anatomical research by murdering anyone whom they believed would not be missed. These unfortunate victims were tramps, orphans, street women, and poor people. Even today the name of Burke and Hare is enough to send a shiver down a person’s spine and their infamy was recorded in song e.g.

“Up the close and down the stair

But and ben with Burke and Hare

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,

Knox the boy who buys the beef.”

 

Grave Robbing 3In the twenty-first century it is almost impossible for us to comprehend the mindset of those men that involved themselves in such a trade. One story, however, might just help enlighten us, and it concerns a certain labouring man from a town on the south coast of England whose wife died in 1800. When a close friend went to the man’s house to offer his condolences, being taken into the kitchen he saw that the coffin was empty and had been left upside down. Curious as to what had happened to the body of the man’s wife, the visitor asked his friend where it was, and he was stunned by the reply he received. The widowed husband told his visitor that, when he and his wife had first been married, she had been brought to him with a horse’s halter around her neck. At the time, the husband took this to be a sign that he would have absolute control over her and that she would be obedient to him in all matters. So convinced was he of his ‘rights’ as a husband that he had sold his wife’s body to local ‘body snatchers’ and had decided that he should keep the coffin to use as a sideboard.

A similar record of the period demonstrates just how the activities of the ‘grave robbers’ had caused the moral standards of the ordinary citizens to change. One news report gave details of a man whose son had died seventeen years previously and, when he went to the graveyard to ensure the corpse was safe, he discovered the corpse had been stolen by ‘resurrectionists’. All that was left in the young man’s grave was his coffin, which the father took home with him and used for his own burial seventeen years later.

Similar tales were all too familiar in Dublin and Belfast at the time and, sadly, a casual approach toward the bodies of dead loved ones appeared to become widespread among people. In February 1830 a city paper reported the following story:

“A few nights ago a corpulent midwife named Magennis rather aged died on the north side of the city and on the night of her burial it was discovered that the leader of those who attempted to disinter the poor woman and deliver her body up for dissection was one of her own sons. On the fellow being accused of the crime he said, ‘Sure even if I did so a tenderer hand couldn’t go over her.’”

It is evident from such records that in and around Dublin at that time family mourning was very much in short supply. The reason behind this change in attitudes was due in part, if not in full, to the spread of ‘Resurrectionism’ to almost epidemic proportions by the 1820s. The lack of human bodies for scientific study because of various religious and traditional taboos had already impeded developments in anatomy study for centuries. In previous times monkeys and pigs had been dissected by students because they were thought to be broadly similar anatomically to humans. But when these studies were extended to the actual treatment of humans there were gaps in knowledge and understanding. It was William Harvey (1578 – 1657) was the first physician who described in complete detail the systematic circulation of blood being pumped to the brain and body by the heart.[1] The accuracy of his work was due entirely to the fact that he had studied the dissected bodies of his sister and father.

In the first half of the sixteenth century a very limited number of bodies from executed criminals had been made available, by royal enactment, to surgeons in Scotland and Wales. These proved to be too few to satisfy a growing demand, and ‘The Murder Act’ of 1752 included the substitution of dissection for gibbeting in chains for the guilty. In fact, there are records that tell us that in Dublin there were many occasions when the corpse of a publicly executed murderer would be followed to the gates of the College of Surgeons by a disaffected mob of people, which included the executed person’s relatives.

It was, of course a period of great scientific exploration of all sorts including the generation and possible uses of electricity like ‘Galvanism’. This involved passing a ‘Galvanic’ current through the muscles of a dissected body causing them to jump and move as if alive, leading some to believe that such experiments were the inspiration for stories like ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. Meanwhile, as anatomical research continued to gain momentum in medical circles the demand for bodies of the deceased grew and certain ‘entrepreneurs’ took to stealing the bodies of those who had been newly interred. These men saw no legal problem in this activity since the bodies of the deceased had no value in British law, although they did have some value in Common Law. In Scotland medical students traditionally had to source their own bodies, while in Dublin the trade in ‘Body Snatching’ had been continuous since the beginnings of the 1730s. The early nineteenth century, however, witnessed a great growth in the number of surgical students, which was due in most part to the increase in population between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1830s, as well as the increase in demand for surgeons during the wars with Napoleon.

Grave Robbing 6The wars with France and Spain caused a great downturn in foreign trade at this time and caused the sons of the middle-class to seek careers in medicine rather than commerce. At the same time, the government wanted to bring some regulation to the business of dispensing medicines and within the terms of ‘The Apothecaries Act of 1815’ instruction in anatomy was made compulsory for the training of all recognised apothecaries. It was also a time of discovery, with voyages of exploration to all the far-flung parts of the world revealing new peoples, new foods, strange, animals, and new, extremely deadly diseases. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this was also a time when medical scientists increased their exploration into the inner workings of the human body.

This period in the history of medical science was encouraged by a new spirit of investigation into diseases, developed in France and involving new clinical-pathological measures. The Napoleonic Wars and a new law gave anatomical students an ample number of corpses for research and their work demonstrated that a limited number of dissections might increase knowledge of human anatomy, but the dissection of many bodies with diseases at different stages gave greater knowledge of the causes of death and led to methods to prevent many of those causes. As one commentator of the time stated, “the examination of a single body of one who has died of Tabes or consumption … is of more service to medicine than the dissection of the bodies of ten men who have been hanged.” Nevertheless, when it came to the study of pathology, Ireland and the rest of the British Isles lagged far behind the advances made in France. In fact, powers in England called the exportation of corpses from Ireland as being an abominable and shameful trade, likening it to the shipping of dead or live cattle or any other cargo. One noted Irishman, Dr Peter Hennis Greene from Cork, who served on the staff of the ‘Lancet’ for years, had taken part in grave robbing expeditions as a medical student at Trinity College Dublin, and he wrote of ‘his shillelagh red with the blood of the Charleys’ (night watchmen).[2] The anatomy schools, however, were totally dependent upon the support of the ‘resurrectionists,’ whose trade by had begun to reach its peak in the second decade of nineteenth century. If compared to a modern-day illegal trade it would be like today’s drug trade, for it too was wholly consumer-driven, although in this case the purchasers, the heads of the anatomy schools, escaped prosecution criminalization. But, like drugs, human bodies represented the money that underwrote their wealth and professional influence for, by the late 1820s, bodies could command a price of between £16 and £22. Unfortunately, as it always seems to be, it was the poor who bore the brunt of the activity, because they were buried in the flimsiest of coffins in shallow, mass graves. In commercial terms, the poor had come to be worth more dead than alive.

It was estimated that in 1826, the trade in corpses for anatomical research probably exceeded several thousand bodies annually in Great Britain. Moreover, the growth was greatly assisted in that year when dissection was made compulsory in surgical studies, and all students were required to dissect one or more cadavers. One of the largest classes of students studying anatomy was under the direction of Robert Knox in Edinburgh and numbered over five hundred pupils. Such large classes were not unusual in any of the anatomical schools and many other medical researchers complained that surgeons in London, particularly, created massive competition between private schools and hospitals. There were also increasing criticism of the ‘College of Surgeons’ for its emphasis on dissection and had, therefore, caused the acute shortage of bodies and the high prices that were being charged for them. More damaging, however, was the growing attacks against the relationship between resurrectionists and anatomist as being totally dishonourable to the reputation of the medical profession. Meanwhile, in Dublin at this time, it was estimated that the number of ‘dissecting pupils’ exceeded five hundred, and the number of bodies used for dissection as being numbered between fifteen-hundred and two thousand. But Dublin was a major centre for ‘resurrectionists’ activities in the British Isles at this time and, as we shall discover, also had a flourishing export trade in bodies.

METHODS EMPLOYED

The methods employed by the body snatchers were many and varied but were made less difficult by the fact that the lid to a coffin did not lie very deep below the surface of the ground. The grave robbers often worked with short- handled, wooden spades that deadened the noise of their excavations. In some places the body snatchers used a canvas sheet to hold the excavated earth and, once the coffin lid was exposed, two hooks were inserted under the lid and pulled upwards with a rope. This would cause the coffin lid to shatter enough to allow them to drag out the corpse with sacking heaped over everything to assist in deadening any noise that might have been caused. Thereafter, the body was stripped of any shroud covering it, and this was scrupulously re-buried, because to steal it was a misdemeanour. The body itself, however, was put in a sack, which led these grave robbers to be known commonly a ‘sack-em-up men’, and the whole scene would be carefully restored to its original appearance. The entire procedure could easily be completed in an hour, even when the coffin had been buried deep.

With grave robbing having become a major commercial enterprise, its members developed their own words to describe their ‘goods’. Bodies, for example, were referred to as ‘things’, while the bodies of children and tiny infants were often referred to as ‘large smalls’ and ‘foetuses’. Other enterprising resurrectionists specialized in hair for wigs, and teeth for dentures and transplantation, as a profitable side-lines. In fact, for many resurrectionists, the greater profit from their activities could be obtained from teeth alone, which were used to fulfil the demand for transplanting teeth and the manufacture of dentures.

There were stories that some acts of resurrectionism had been carried out to harvest the fat from the corpses to supply the ready market for candle making. It was said that candles made from ‘human lard’ caused a lot of smoke and this, perhaps, led to the rumour that when used with a so-called ‘Hand of Glory,’ they were believed to put people into a trance, which made them popular with burglars. This so-called ‘Hand of Glory’ was a candleholder created from the severed hand of a murderer and used to burn candles made from the same source. One story concerns a certain Ralph Westropp, a former sheriff of Limerick, who died in March 1858 at the age of sixty years. He was buried at Drumcliff outside Ennis but, in early May, his grave was violated by unknown persons, which resulted in his body being cut open and the Stomach and some of the body fat being taken away. Initially it was thought that insurance companies were to blame the man had been heavily insured and poison might have been involved in causing his death. Suspicion, however, quickly fell on certain groups that were carrying out an evil, superstitious act i.e. the manufacture of a candle from human lard that would allow them to enter a house unseen and rob it with impunity.

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed), 2019

[2] Fleetwood, John F. “The Dublin Body Snatchers: Part Two.” Dublin Historical Record, vol. 42, no. 2, 1989, pp. 42–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30087188. Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.

The Well of Derrydownan

An old Story from Ireland

 
In a time, long before the coming of Saint Patrick, there was an old king in Connacht, who had been blessed with three sons. The old king had been bothered by a sore foot for many years, and he could get nothing to cure it. One day he sent for blind ‘Wise-man’ and said to him, “I’m giving you wages this twenty-years and you can’t even tell me what will cure my foot.”
“You’ve never asked me that question before,” said the ‘Wiseman’, “but I’ll tell you now that there is nothing in this world that will cure you but a bottle of water from the Well of Derrydowan. “
The next morning, the king called his three sons to him and told them, “My foot will never be better until I get a bottle of water from the Well of Derrydowan, and whichever of you brings me that, will inherit my kingdom.”
“We will go in search of it to-morrow,” the sons replied. The names of the three young men were Art, Nart, and Cart, and the next morning the king gave to each one of them a purse of gold as he sent them on their way.
When they came as far as the cross-roads Art spoke, “Each one of us ought to take a road for himself, and if one of us is back before a year and a day is past, let him wait until the other two come, or else let him set up a stone as a sign that he has come back safe.”
They parted company after that, with Art and Nart going to an inn, where they began drinking. But Cart went on by himself, walking all that day without knowing with any certainty where he was going. Then, as the darkness of night fell, he entered a great wood, and he pressed on until he came to a large house. Cart went into the building and looked around, but he saw nobody, except for a large white cat sitting beside the turf-fire. When the cat saw him, she rose up and went into another room, while a very tired Cart sat himself beside the fire. But it was not long until the door of the room opened, and out came an old hag and declared, “One hundred-thousand welcomes to you, son of the king of Connacht.”
Celtic King 3“How did you know me?” asked the king’s son.
“Oh, many a good day I spent in your father’s castle, and I have known you since you were born,” said the old hag. Then she prepared a fine supper and gave it to him and, when he had eaten and drunk enough, she said to him, “You made a long journey to-day, now come with me ‘til I show you a bed.” She brought him to a fine room, showed him a bed, and the king’s son quickly fell asleep.
Cart did not awake until the sun was coming in through the windows the next morning. Then he rose up, dressed himself, and was going out of the house, when the hag asked him where he was going. “I don’t know,” replied the king’s son. “I left home to find out the Well of Derrydowan.”
”I’ve walked in many a place,” said the hag, “but I never heard tell of the Well of Derrydowan before.”
The king’s son left the house and travelled on until he came to a crossroads between two woods. He did not know which road to take but he noticed a seat under the trunk of a great tree. When he went up to the seat found a notice, saying, “This is the seat of travellers.” The king’s son now sat down, and after a minute he saw the most beautiful woman in the world approaching him. She was dressed in red silk, and she spoke quietly to him, saying “I have often heard it said that it is better to go forward than back.” Then she vanished from his sight, as though the ground had suddenly swallowed her up.
The king’s son rose up from the seat and went forward, walking all that day until the darkness of the night began to come on, and he began to wonder where he would get lodgings. He saw a light coming from the wood, and he moved towards it. The light was coming from a little house where there was not as much as the end of a feather jutting up on the outside, nor jutting down on the inside, but only one single feather that was keeping the house up. He knocked at the door, and an old hag opened it to him. “God save all here,” said the king’s son.
“A hundred welcomes before you, son of the king,” said the hag.
“How did you know me?” asked the king’s son.
“It was my sister that nursed you,” said the hag, ” and sit yourself down a while until I get your supper ready.”
When he had eaten and drank enough, she gave him a comfortable bed, where he slept until morning. Then, rising the next morning, he prayed to God to direct him on the road to find his goal. “How far will you go to-day?” asked the hag.
“I don’t know,” said the king’s son, “I’m in search of the Well of Derrydowan.”
“Well, I’m three hundred years here,” said the hag, “and I have never heard of such a place before. But I have a sister, who is older than myself, and, perhaps, she may know of it. Here is a ball of silver for you, and when you go out on the road just throw it up before you and follow it ‘til you come to the house of my sister.”
When he went out on the road, he threw down the ball, and he followed it until the sun began to go under the shadow of the hills. Then he went into a wood and came to the door of a little house. When he knocked on the door, a hag opened it to him, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes before you, son of the king, who was at my sister’s house last night. You have made a long journey today, so sit yourself down for I have a supper ready for you.” When the king’s son had eaten and drank his fill, the hag put him to bed, where slept until the next morning. Then the hag asked him, “Where are you going to ?”.
“I don’t really know,” said the king’s son. “I left home to find the Well of Derrydowan.”
“Well, I am over five hundred years of age,” said the hag, “and I have never heard anyone talk of that place before. But I have a brother, and if there is any such place in the world, he will certainly know of it. He lives seven hundred miles from here.”
“It’s a long journey,” said the king’s son.
“You’ll be there to-night,” said the hag as she gave him a little horse about the size of a goat.
“Sure, that wee beast will never be able to carry me,” said the kings’ son.
“Wait ‘til you start riding it,” said the hag, and the king’s son got on the wee horse and together they moved as fast as lightning. When the sun was going down that evening, Cart came to a little house in a wood.
Celtic King 4He dismounted from his small mount, went up to the house, and it was not long until an old grey man came out, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, son of the king. You’re searching for the Well of Derrydowan.”
“I am, indeed,” said the king’s son.
“Many a good man went that way before you, but not a man of them came back alive,” said the old man. “However, I’ll do my best for you. Stop here tonight and we’ll have some sport to-morrow.” Then he prepared a supper and gave it to the king’s son, and when he had eaten and drank sufficiently, the old man put gave him a bed to sleep on. The next morning, the old man told Cart, “I found out where the Well of Derrydowan is, but it is difficult to get there. We must find out if you are any good at using the bow.” Then he brought the king’s son out into the wood, gave him a bow and arrow, and put a mark on a tree forty yards away from him, and told him to strike it. He drew the bow and struck the mark, causing the old man to say, “You’ll do the business.”
They then returned to the house, where they spent the day telling stories until the darkness of night fell over the wood. When the night came, the old man gave him a bow and a quiver of arrows, saying “Come with me now.”
They went on until they came to a great river, and the old man said, “Get on my back, and I’ll swim across the river with you. But, if you see a great bird coming, kill him, or we shall both be lost.”
Then the king’s son climbed on the old man’s back, and the old man began swimming. When they reached the middle of the river the king’s son saw a great eagle coming towards them with its beak wide open. The king’s son drew the bow and wounded the eagle. “Did you strike him?” said the old man.
“I struck him,” said the king’s son; “but here he comes again.”
He drew the bow for a second time and the eagle fell, dead and when they came to the riverbank the old man declared, “We are on the island of the Well of Derrydowan. The queen is sleeping, and she will not awaken for a day and a year. She only goes to sleep once every seven years. There is usually a lion and a monstrous beast watching at the gate to the well, but they go to sleep at the same time as the queen, and you will have no difficulty in going to the well. Here are two bottles for you. Fill one of them for yourself, and the other for me, and it will make me a young man again.”
The king’s son went off, and when he came as far as the castle, he saw the lion and the monster sleeping on each side of the gate. Then he saw a great wheel throwing up water out of the well, and he went and filled the two bottles he had been given, and while he was coming back, he saw a shining light from the castle. He looked in through the window and saw a great table, upon which sat a loaf of bread, with a knife, a bottle, and a glass. He filled the glass, but he did not empty the bottle. He observed that there was a writing on the bottle and on the loaf; and he read on the bottle, “Water For the World,” and on the loaf, “Bread For the World.” He cut a piece off the loaf, but it only grew bigger. “My God! It’s a pity we haven’t that loaf and that bottle at home,” said the king’s son, “and there would be neither hunger nor thirst on the poor people.” Then he went into a great chamber, and he saw the queen and eleven waiting-maids asleep, and a sword of light was hanging above the head of the queen. It was the sword that was giving light to the whole castle and when he saw the queen, he said to himself, “It’s a pity to leave that pretty mouth without kissing it.” He kissed the queen, and she never awoke, and after that he did the same to the eleven maidens. Then he took the sword, the bottle, and the loaf, and came back to the old man, but he never told him that he had those things. “How did you get on?” said the old man.
“I got the thing I was in search of,” said the king’s son.
“Did you see any marvel since you left me?” asked the old man, and the king’s son told him that he had seen a wonderful loaf, a bottle, and a sword.
“You did not touch them?” asked the old man, warily. “Shun them, for they would bring trouble on you. Come on my back now ‘til I bring you back across the river.”
When they went to the house of the old man, he poured water out of the bottle on himself, and made himself a young man again. Then he said to the king’s son, “My sisters and myself are now free from enchantment, and they are young women again.”
The king’s son remained there until the most part of the year and day were gone. Then he began his journey home, but he did not have the little horse with him. He walked the first day until the darkness of the night came down. He saw a large house, went to the door, knocked on it, and the man of the house came out to him. “Can you give me lodgings ?” he asked.
“I can,” said the man of the house, “only I have no light to light your way.”
“I have a light myself,” said the king’s son. He went into the house, drew the sword, and gave a fine light to them all, and to everybody that was on the island. They then gave him a good supper, and he fell asleep. When he was going away in the morning, the man of the house asked him for the honour of God, to leave the sword with them. “Since you have asked for it in the honour of God, you must have it,” said the king’s son and he walked that second day until darkness began to fall. He went to another great house, knocked the door, and it was not long until the woman of the house came out to him, and he asked her for lodgings.
The man of the house came and told him, “I can give you that, but I have not a drop of water to make any food for you.”
“Sure, I have plenty of water myself,” said the king’s son. He went in, took out the bottle, and there was not a vessel in the house he did not fill, and still the bottle remained full. Then a supper was prepared for him, and when he had eaten and drank enough, he went to sleep. In the morning, when he was going, the woman asked him, in the honour of God, to leave them the bottle. “Since you have asked it for the honour of God,” said the king’s son, “I cannot refuse you, for my mother made me promise her, before she died, never, if I could, refuse anything that a person would ask of me for the honour of God.” Then he left the bottle to them.
He walked the third day until darkness was came, and he reached a great house on the side of the road. He knocked on the door and when the man of the house came out, he asked if he could have lodgings there. “I can give you that, and welcome,” said the man, “But I’m sorry that I have not a morsel of bread for you to eat.”
“I have plenty of bread myself,” said the king’s son as he went in, got a knife, and began cutting the loaf, until the table was filled with pieces of bread. Yet, the loaf was as big as it was when he began. Then they prepared a supper for him, and when he had eaten enough, he went to sleep. Then, when he was leaving the next morning, they asked him, for the honour of God, to leave the loaf with them, and he left it with them. The three things were now gone from him and he walked the fourth day until he came to a great river, and he had no way to get across it. He went down on his knees, and he asked God to send him help. After half a minute, he saw the beautiful woman he had seen the day he had left the house of the first hag and, as she came near him, she asked him, “Son of the king, has it succeeded with you?”
Celtic King 1“I got the thing I went in search of,” said the king’s son; “but I don’t know how I shall get over this river.”
She drew out a thimble and said, “It would be a bad day that I would see your father’s son without a boat.” Then she threw the thimble into the river and made a splendid boat from it. “Get into that boat now,” said she, “and when you come to the other side, there will be a horse there ready to bring you as far as the cross-road, where you left your brothers.”
The king’s son stepped into the boat, and it was not long until he was at the other side of the river, and there he found a white horse standing before him. He mounted it, and it went off as swiftly as the wind, bringing him to the cross-roads at about twelve o’clock that day. The king’s son looked around him, and he did not see his brothers, nor any stone set up, and he said to himself, “Perhaps they are at the inn.” When he went there, he found Art and Nart, and both were two-thirds drunk. They asked him how he gotten on since he had left them. “I have found the Well of Derrydowan, and I have the bottle of water,” said Cart.
Nart and Art were filled with jealousy, and they said to one another, “It’s a great shame that the youngest son should have the kingdom. We’ll kill him, and bring the bottle of water to our father,” said Nart, “and we’ll say that it was us that went to the Well of Derrydowan.”
“I’m not with you there,” said Art, “but we’ll get him drunk, and we’ll take the bottle from him. My father will believe me and you, before he’ll believe our brother, because he has an idea that there’s nothing in him but a half-wit.” Then, he said to Cart, “Since it has happened that we have all come home safe and sound we’ll have a drink before we go home.” They called for a quart of whiskey, and they made Cart drink the most of it, causing him to fall drunk. Then, they took the bottle of water from him, went home themselves, and gave it to the king, who put a drop of the  water on his foot, and it made him as well as ever he had been. Then they told him that they had great trouble to get the bottle of water. That they had to fight giants and overcome great dangers.
“Did you see Cart on your road?” asked the king.
“He never went farther than the inn, since he left us,” they told him, “and he’s in it now, blind drunk.”
“Sure, there never was any good in him,” said the king, “but I cannot leave him there.” So, he sent six men to the inn, and they carried Cart home and, when he recovered from his drunkenness, the king reduced him to a servant and was to do all the dirty jobs about the castle.
When a year and a day had gone by, the queen of the Well of Derrydowan and her maids-in-waiting woke up, and the queen and her eleven maidens found a young son by her sides. The queen was extremely angry, and she sent for the lion and the monster, to ask them what had become of the eagle that she had left in charge of the castle. “He must be dead, or he’d be here when you awakened,” they said.
“I’m destroyed! Myself, and the maids-in-waiting,” said the queen angrily, ”and I won’t stop until I discover who is the father of my son!” Then she called for her enchanted coach to be made ready, with two fawns to pull it, and she hurried off until she came to the first house where the king’s son had been given lodging. There she asked if there had been any stranger there lately, and the man of the house said that there had.
“Yes!” said the queen, “And he left the sword of light behind him! It is mine, and if you do not give it back to me quickly, I will turn your house upside down.” They immediately gave her the sword, and she went on until she came to the second house, in which he had been given lodging, and she asked if there had been any strangers there lately. They said that there had been. “Yes!” said she, “And he left a bottle after him. Give it back to me immediately, or I’ll bring this house down upon you!” They quickly returned the bottle to her, and she went off again until she came to the third house, where she asked if there had been any strangers there lately. They said there was. “Yes!” said she, “And he left the loaf of lasting bread after him. That belongs to me, and if you don’t return it to me quickly, I will kill you all!” She got the loaf, and she set off once more, and never stopped until she came to the old king’s castle, where she pulled the challenge bell outside the gate. When the king came out, she asked him, “Have you a son?”
“I have,” said the king.
“Send him out here ‘til I see him,” said she and in response the king sent out Art. The queen asked him, “Were you at the Well of Derrydowan?”
“I was,” said Art.
“And are you the father of my son?” she asked.
“I believe I am,” said Art.
“I will know that soon enough,” she said, and she drew two hairs out of her head, flung them against the wall, and they were made into a ladder that went up to the top of the castle. Then she said to Art, “If you were at the Well of Derrydowan, you can go up to the top of that ladder.” Art went up half-way before he fell and broke his thigh. “You were never at the Well of Derrydowan,”said the queen and she asked the king, “Have you any other son?”
“I have,” replied the king.
“Bring him out,” said the queen. When Nart came out, she asked him, “Were you ever at the Well of Derrydowan?”
“I was,” said Nart.
“If you were, go up to the top of that ladder,” said the queen, and he began going up. But he had not gone very far until he fell and broke his foot. “You were not at the Well of Derrydowan,” said the queen and again she asked the king if he had any other son. When the king said he had, he added, “But it’s a half-wit he is, that has never left home.”
“Bring him here,” said the queen, and when Cart came, she asked him, “Were you at the Well of Derrydowan ?”.
“I was,” said Cart, “and I saw you there.”
“Go up to the top of that ladder,” said the queen, and she watched as Cart went up the ladder like a cat. When he came down, she said told  him, “Yes, you are the man who was at the Well of Derrydowan, and you are the father of my son.” Then Cart explained the trick that his brothers played on him, and the queen was about to slay them both, until Cart asked her to pardon them. The king then declared that Cart must inherit the kingdom, and he dressed him in robes and put a chain of gold around his neck. Then, Cart got into the coach beside the queen, and they departed the castle for the Well of Derrydowan. The maids-in-waiting gave Cart a great welcome, and they all came to him, with each one asking him to marry them. He stayed in that place twenty-one years, until the queen died, and then he brought back with him to Galway his twelve sons Galway. Each of the sons married a wife, and it is from them that the twelve tribes of Galway are descended.

The World’s Changes

By an unknown Irish Poet.

The Solemn Shadow that bears in his hands
 The conquering Scythe and the Glass of Sands, 
 Paused once on his flight where the sunrise shone 
 On a warlike city’s towers of stone; 
And he asked of a panoplied soldier near,
 “How long has this fortressed city been here?” 
And the man looked up, Man’s pride on his brow—
“The city stands here from the ages of old 
And as it was then, and as it is now, 
So will it endure till the funeral knell 
Of the world be knolled, 
As Eternity’s annals shall tell.
And after a thousand years were o’er, 
The Shadow paused over the spot once more. 
And vestige was none of a city there, 
But lakes lay blue, and plains lay bare, 
And the marshalled corn stood high and pale, 
And a Shepherd piped of love in a vale. 
“How!” spake the Shadow, “can temple and tower 
Thus fleet, like mist, from the morning hour?” 
But the Shepherd shook the long locks from his brow—
“The world is filled with sheep and corn; 
Thus was it of old, thus is it now, 
Thus, too, will it be while moon and sun 
Rule night and morn, 
For Nature and Life are one.” 
And after a thousand years were o’er, 
The Shadow paused over the spot once more. 
And lo! in the room of the meadow-lands 
A sea foamed far over saffron sands, 
And flashed in the noontide bright and dark, 
And a fisher was casting his nets from a bark; 
How marvelled the Shadow! 
“Where then is the plain? 
And where be the acres of golden grain?” 
But the fisher dashed off the salt spray from his brow—
“The waters begirdle the earth always, 
The sea ever rolled as it rolleth now: 
What babblest thou about grain and fields? 
By night and day Man looks for what Ocean yields.” 
And after a thousand years were o’er, 
The Shadow paused over the spot once more. 
And the ruddy rays of the eventide 
Were gilding the skirts of a forest wide; 
The moss of the trees looked old, so old! 
And valley and hill, the ancient mould 
Was robed in sward, an evergreen cloak; 
And a woodman sang as he felled an oak. 
Him asked the Shadow—“Rememberest thou 
Any trace of a Sea where wave those trees?” 
But the woodman laughed: Said he, “I trow, 
If oaks and pines do flourish and fall, 
It is not amid seas;—The earth is one forest all.” 
And after a thousand years were o’er, 
The Shadow paused over the spot once more. 
And what saw the Shadow? A city agen, 
But peopled by pale mechanical men, 
With workhouses filled, and prisons, and marts, 
And faces that spake exanimate hearts. 
Strange picture and sad! was the Shadow’s thought; 
And, turning to one of the Ghastly, he sought 
For a clue in words to the When and the How 
Of the ominous Change he now beheld; 
But the man uplifted his care-worn brow—“Change? 
What was Life ever but Conflict and Change? 
From the ages of eld 
Hath affliction been widening its range.” 
Enough! said the Shadow, and passed from the spot 
At last it is vanished, the beautiful youth 
Of the earth, to return with no To-morrow; 
All changes have checquered Mortality’s lot; 
But this is the darkest—for Knowledge and Truth 
Are but golden gates to the Temple of Sorrow!

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 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.