The Toll – Man’s Tale

A Story of Old Dublin

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A Turnpike

Some of you may have heard about the ‘Turnpike Roads’ that ran through Ireland until the middle of the nineteenth and they were always accompanied by a toll-bar, something similar to the modern toll-bars on the various motorways that fan out over Ireland. At one toll-bar on the western side of Dublin there was a ‘Keeper’ who lifted the tolls and was known to all in the neighbourhood as ‘Posh Paddy’. The prefix was given to him because of his pure and polished dialect, which was unusual in a man social status. He had been, however, from childhood until his hair had turned grey,  in the service of an English family, who had inherited and constantly resided in a handsome estate in his native County in Meath. It was through their good offices that he had been appointed to this important office of trust, where Jimmy Hollis made his acquaintance and wrote this story.

“Posh Paddy was one of my earliest friends, though I never knew nor asked what the man’s surname was. His toll-house stood alone on the country road outside Dublin, which was expanding at great speed. But when I first met him there was no building in sight but the school, at which I, and some forty other local children were supposed to be educated in the ways of the world by the elder brother of our parish minister. Although he was a kind and conscientious teacher, the toll-house was much more attractive to our young minds than a strict church school. Paddy had proved himself to be a great friend and confidante to all the boys, settling disputes among us, made the best bats and balls for us, and taught us a wide variety of new tricks in how they could be used, occasionally bestowing upon us boys good advice that were soon forgotten. He told us that he had chosen not to marry, because he was convinced that all women were nothing but trouble to a man. But Posh Paddy was a man with a sense of rustic piety, and was both fearless and self-reliant, and he was a man who enjoyed solitude or company with equal measure. Never had I seen him look downhearted, or walk with his shoulders sagging, and he was never sick, or in any way out of sorts. Everyday he could be seen performing his own his own domestic duties with a thoroughness that was practiced by few  housekeepers, while still faithfully carrying out his duty as the guardian of the toll-bar, allowing no man to pass without paying his fee. I can recall the sadness I experienced when I had to leave that particular area and begin employment in my uncle’s law practice in the port of Waterford. It was only a few years later that I received the startling news that ‘Posh Paddy’ had resigned his office and had left, but no one knew where he had gone.
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Dublin Turnpike Toll Booth

Hard years of work had passed, which saw me successfully complete my own law studies, and I was requested to visit a gentleman landowner outside Wicklow to conduct some work on his behalf. This gentleman was well known for his kitchen-garden, and was famed for growing fine ‘Jerusalem Artichokes’ that I had a great desire to see for myself. It was while he was escorting me through this large kitchen-garden that I noticed an elderly gardener, who was at hard at work with rake and hoe, and as I looked closer I recognised the man to be my old friend ‘Posh Paddy’. The years since I had last seen him had caused his hair to grow quite grey and his face was much more grave in its expression. Undoubtedly, the years had altered my appearance, but Paddy immediately recognised me. It was clear from his expression, however, that he had no wish to be recognised in the presence of the gentleman landowner, who was one of those men who enjoyed supervising every area of his estate. It was while he was explaining everything about his famous artichokes that he was brought a message, which summoned him back to the house. Excusing himself politely he left me to admire the rest of the garden on my own and in my own time. He was scarcely out of sight, however, until I was by the gardener’s side. “Paddy, my old friend,” I said as I warmly grasped his hand, “I am glad to see you once again. How has the world been treating you these last years?”

“They have treated me pretty well, Master James,” said Paddy as he returned my handshake with equal warmth. “I am glad to see you once again, and salute your very good memory. On many occasions the other boys have passed me on the street without acknowledgement. I have often wondered how the others all turned out?” Paddy immediately began to ask about my schoolmates and old neighbours, and I was able to answer that some had gone to pastures new, that some had married and that, sadly, some had died.
Finally, I plucked up the courage to ask him the reason for his sudden resignation. “Paddy, now that you have exhausted all my news and we have had an opportunity to renew our friendship, will you tell me the reason for you leaving the toll-house? Surely, that was better paid and more comfortable employment than this?”
“Ah, sure, Master James, you know what the old proverb says – ‘A Change is as good as a rest.'”
I knew that he was just trying to put off having to explain his reasons to me, but I was not to be evaded. “Now, Paddy, that’s not an answer, and you are much more steady than to depart on a whim. Tell me the truth as a friend and be sure that if there is anything in your story that you wish to remain confidential it will remain so. You know that I am a person that can keep a secret. Was it a woman, Paddy? Are you married yet?”
“Not at all, Master James,” my old friend said with a sigh of relief. “But it is an odd story and one that I don’t really want to tell. It has, however, been pressing-in on me this last while, and I always found you to be a discreet person. Now, the master will be away for a while checking the food and the drink that has been chosen for the dinner, especially when there are several notables invited, as well as yourself. While he is gone, then, I will tell you why I chose to leave the toll-house, but never mention one word to anyone of what I am about to tell you.”
So, the following is Paddy’s story in his own words, or as well as I can remember them after all these years –
The family, in whose service I was raised, lived on their estate in County Meath, which had been inherited by the mistress of the place, Lady Catherine. She was a proud woman, whose line stretched down from a branch of Scottish nobility through her father, and from old French nobility through her mother, whose family had been refugees from the ‘Revolution’. When she first came to the estate Lady Catherine’s husband had been dead several years and she came with a boy about the same age as myself and two fine, grown-up daughters. The house was large, partly old and partly new, and it stood in parkland with tall trees, and red deer grazing in its grounds. The previous owner had been a miserly old bachelor, who had paid a little attention to the fabric of the building. But, after Lady Catherine came there were great changes, with a retinue of English servants and the continual arrival of company. It was about that time that my poor mother died. She had been a widow woman, living in a small cabin close to the wall of the parkland with only myself and a grey cat for company, and her old spinning wheel to keep us. Sadly, I was only a child when she died and, having no kin in the district, Lady Catherine took me in as a servant to run errands and help in the garden, eventually being promoted to footman. Her ladyship was admired by the country gentry because of her noble breeding, fashionable connections and her almost boundless hospitality. The tenants of the estate admired her also, for there was no better managed estate in the county and her agents were instructed not to mistreat or eject any of them.
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The Toll Gate

It was said that Lady Catherine was a well known beauty within London society, and the local people thought her to be very grand because of the beautiful dresses and rich jewels she wore. These things were, most likely, cast-offs from the previous season since, every spring she would take the family to London, where they owned a fine house and kept the best company. Lady Catherine was a large, stately woman with a dark complexion whose manners to her equals was graceful, and to her inferiors, gracious. Nevertheless, there was a look of pride in those dark grey eyes, and a stern resolution showed in her lips, and she struck a certain fear in me as a child. Her daughters, Florence and Agnes, were pure copies of their mother in both pride and beauty, and they were greatly admired as flowers of the county. Their inheritances were substantial, but they would have been co-heiresses but for their brother Arthur, who was the youngest and so much different from his mother and sisters that you wouldn’t have thought he was a member of the same family. His complexion was fair, and he had clear blue eyes, curly brown hair and a merry look about himself. Although he may not have resembled them, Arthur, carried himself and spoke in a very similar way, and at eighteen years there was no finer young man in the county. He was a frank man with a kindly nature, which made the tenants happy at the prospect of Arthur becoming their future landlord.

Not far from the mansion house stood a farmhouse, which was occupied by an old man whose great-grandfather had cultivated the same fields. Although he was not a rich man, he was much respected by his neighbours for being an honest and upright person. The old man’s wife was as old as he was, but they had always been an easy-living couple who had only the one child, a daughter called Marie, a delicately pretty girl, who was a little spoiled since both her father and mother made a queen of her in their home. They never allowed her to do any rough work, but was always well-dressed and kept in the better rooms of the house. Marie had many admirers among the young bachelors of the county, but her parents thought her too good for everybody and believed that she was destined to make a great match, becoming a lady in her own right. They appeared to be not too far from their notion,  for we servants on the estate began to see for ourselves the frequency with which young Arthur was seen coming and going from the farmhouse. We thought that the old farmer and his wife encouraged the young master, for they were themselves said to be descended from some great Irish chieftain and had proud cousins that still lived in the mountains in the west. So, the relationship continued between the prettiest girl in the parish and the most eligible young man in the county. But, just as Arthur turned nineteen years, there was a great row erupted that had never been heard before in that building when Lady Catherine discovered what was going on. I believe it was the minister who told her, believing that it was his duty to let her know what the servants and the rest of the Parish knew, but would not talk about in her presence. Maybe the disturbance his actions had caused were more than Arthur could stand, or maybe Lady Catherine had angrily said something derogatory about Marie, but something caused the young man to take the action that he did. The next morning Arthur was absent from the house and, later that afternoon, I brought a letter from the village post-office to Lady Catherine. The reading of this letter quickly sent the young ladies into hysterics and caused Lady Catherine to retire to her room, because it announced that her heir and the farmer’s daughter had left to get married in Dublin.
The young ladies quickly recovered, and when Lady Catherine reappeared she immediately began to prepare for a journey to Paris. The preparations were quickly completed and within twenty-four hours of receiving Arthur’s letter she and her daughters set off in the family carriage. The majority of servants were sent to live at the town house on reduced wages, all the good rooms in the house were locked up, and other than the gardener, a kitchen-girl, and myself there was no other person left at the estate. The next we heard was that the old farmer and his wife had sought out their daughter and new son-in-law, bringing them both home to live with them until the day arrived when the estate would finally be Arthur’s. It was this news that made Lady Catherine so bitter in later days, but the young Master and his bride came to the farmhouse where they were given use of the best bedroom and the parlour, and the poor old mother and father were happy to serve and entertain them.
They were a very young couple, for he was in his nineteenth year and she was in her seventeenth. They were, however, a handsome couple and more alike than you would have supposed from the difference of their birth. Marie had a quiet and genteel nature and looked every bit the lady in the church pew beside the young master, whom we seldom saw except from a distance, for he never came near the mansion house and any visit by us to the farmhouse could well have cost us our jobs.
It had been autumn when Lady Catherine left the estate and she spent all the following winter in Paris. When spring came we heard news that she was opening her London house with even more than the usual lavish preparations. It proved to be exceptionally good season for her ladyship as during its course she married one of her daughters to a baronet, and the other to a right honourable gentleman. But the newspapers had scarcely announced his sisters’ wedding breakfasts and honeymoon arrangements when Arthur was seized by a sudden illness. He had been fishing at a mountain-lake and had been drenched to the skin in the rain brought by a sudden thunderstorm. In his hurry to get home, Arthur overexerted himself and caught pleurisy. Over the following days, his condition worsened and many of the locals visited the farmhouse to ask about him, but within the week Marie was left a young widow. 
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Toll Gate

Meanwhile, at the close of the London season Lady Catherine had returned to Paris, while one of her married daughters was in Italy, and the other in Switzerland, leaving only some cousins of their father in England. As a result, Arthur was laid to rest in the family vault below the Parish Church before news of his untimely death reached them all. Lady Catherine returned to the mansion in deep mourning, but still very angry at her son for marrying beneath himself. She had been heard to say that it was better that her son was dead than disgraced by his marriage, and that the estate was now safe from being shared by peasants. On no occasion did she visit or even recognise her daughter-in-law, whose heart had been broken by her loss, for she had thought more of Arthur as a man than of his rank and property. 

Lady Catherine did not seem to enjoy staying at the mansion and stayed only to arrange things with the estate manager and then went back to London. But before she left there were reports that Marie’s deep mourning had led her into illness and that she was now very sick. The poor girl’s health continued to decline rapidly despite every effort made by her parents, the doctors, and the prayers of the local people. Marie died just a few days before Christmas, and many said she had simply wanted to die so she could rest by her husband’s side. The poor girl’s relations said that her last words had been this desire to be with Arthur, and they believed that she was entitled to a place in the family vault. Quietly, the local population, relations and friends laid the poor girl to rest beside her husband, and no one on the state cared to interfere. But, the estate manager felt it was his responsibility to inform Lady Catherine about events and, in response, her ladyship arrived on the estate one dark, wintry morning. Without stopping to change out of her travelling clothes she immediately sent for four strong labourers, whom she took to the church with her. There, her ladyship declared that her family’s burial vault was never intended to contain a peasant’s daughter and made the men take out Marie’s coffin, which was then taken to her parent’s door and left there. The poor old couple never recovered from that sight and, in her bitterness, the mother told everyone that the woman who had disturbed the remains of her poor dead child would never lie at peace in her own grave.
The news of her ladyship’s actions caused a great stir throughout the parish and popular feeling turned againsy her ladyship for the first time in her life. There was a great gathering of Marie’s close and distant relatives, and local parishioners, that attended the second funeral that saw Marie’s body laid among her humble predecessors in the church-yard. It was not very far away from the estate gates and I stood there and watched the crowd of people scatter in the frost of that wintry morning. Many of these sad and angry people looked in the direction of the mansion with hatred in their eyes, but my attention was drawn to an old man and two boys, who stood quietly gazing on the place. The man was seventy years old, while the boys were little more than children. I noticed, however, that all three had the same gaunt, yet powerful frames, dark-red hair, which in the old man was sprinkled with grey. All had swarthy complexions and on their faces were fierce, hard expressions. Later, I learned that these were the father and his two youngest sons, all of whom were cousins of the family and had travelled from the western mountains of Ireland. There were three older brothers, but they were married and settled, raising sheep, and the old man intended for his youngest sons to enter the learned professions.
Lady Catherine’s two married daughters were now co-heirs to the estate, but they never visited the place again while I was there. As for Lady Catherine, she would come regularly from London, but stayed no longer than she had to and her maid let it be known that she did not sleep well during her stay there. And in this way the years passed by and I rose in the service when, on one of her visits, ladyship decided that I would be an excellent choice for a footman. It was a position that she wanted filled and she sent to her house in London to be trained in my duties. In London I saw many great things, and Lady Catherine kept the best and most fashionable company in the city, and she was never at home an evening that the house was not full. There was money to be made in that place and plenty of whatever you wanted, but I did not like the place at all. I had saved a bit of money and one her ladyship’s sons-in-law helped by obtaining a place for me at the toll-house. Sure, you remember me there, Master James, and the great times that we had on Saturday afternoons.
You might remember the great number of people who came and went by the toll-house. When I had nothing better to do I would observe them and would come to know them. But among all those who passed by there were two young men who always walked arm-in-arm, and seemed to be brothers. After a while I began to think that I had seen their strong, hardy faces before, and it gradually came to me that they were none other than the old man’s two sons who had attended Marie’s last funeral. They were grown now and were studying for the medical profession at a college in the city. I remember thinking that their father appeared to be keeping them on a short allowance, for they were dressed in rough clothes and constantly munched on oatcakes, but I learned from others that they were attentive students and particularly clever in the anatomy class. Then, one dreary morning near Christmas, I found myself dreaming about Lady Catherine and her family all night, the great house in London, the joy of the gatherings she hosted, all mingling with the sad tale of Marie and Arthur. Later, I read the morning newspaper and discovered, to my utter astonishment, that her ladyship had died from a sudden apoplectic at the card-table and that her remains had been taken to the family vault in Meath. There was a lesson for me in this news, concerning the uncertainty of all our lives. But the continual passage of people through the toll, the gathering of the tolls, and your schoolmates soon put such thoughts out of my mind.
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Turnpike and Toll

Some weeks later, on a dark and foggy day, when there was little traffic through the toll I went to bed early. Then, between midnight and one, I was suddenly awakened by loud knocking and voices from the toll-house. The night was calm, with a mass of cloud covering the sky, which was broken up at times by a moaning west wind and revealed bright bursts of moonlight. I threw on my coat, lit a lantern and hurried outside where there was a large cart with three people on it, and an impatient horse pulling it. There was a delay in them getting out the money for the toll and I noticed that the two men sitting on each side were the two brothers studying medicine. Between them sat a woman dressed in a dingy cloak and bonnet, with a thick black veil. the woman did not speak or move, while the brothers prepared and paid the toll. I recall informing them that I had no change and they simply said, “We’ll call in the morning.” As soon as these words were spoken the horse gave a bound and the coins flew out of his hands and both brothers looked down to where they had dropped. All the while I watched their companion, and a short gust of wind blew back the veil and her face was shown clearly in the moonlight. It was the dead face of Lady Catherine. I only got a quick glance before the veil fell over it again. “Get those coins yourself and keep them all,” one of the men shouted as I opened the toll bar without saying a word. From that day until this I have never spoken to anyone about what I had seen. After that night the idea of the toll-bar did no longer appealed to me. The sound of wheels in the darkness held a fear for me, and I could never see a cart pass without a cold shiver running down my spine. I had to give the job up and I returned again to my old trade of gardening. The plants and flowers hold no fear for me, and I am at peace. But there’s the boss, and dinner will be ready by this time.”

  Paddy was right. Dinner was ready and a happy group had been gathered to enjoy it. I never saw my old friend after dinner, and I later heard he had emigrated to Canada the following spring, bringing his secret with him. After all these years, however, I don’t think that I will be breaching his trust by repeating his strange story.

An Irish Dance Master

An Old Tale of Ireland’s Past

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

The Lough Swilly Tragedy

A few years ago, I happened to be spending a long weekend in Donegal when I heard the story of ‘HMS Saldanha’. She was a 36-gun ‘Apollo-class’ frigate of the British Royal Navy, which was launched in 1809 and was commissioned in April 1810 and placed under the command of Captain John Stuart, who remained in command until his death on 19th March 1811. Captain Reuben Mangin took temporary command of the ship during the Spring of 1811. Finally, the ship was assigned to Captain William Pakenham’s and its short career came to an end when it was wrecked on the rocky west coast of Ireland in 1811.
Earlier, on 11th October 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ and ‘HMS Fortune’ combined to take the French privateer ‘Vice-Amiral Martin’. The French ship carried 18 guns and a crew of 140 men, and it was on its fourth day out of Bayonne and was yet to encounter a British merchantman. It was reported that the French privateer had superior sailing abilities to most ships of her size, which had in the past helped her to escape pursuing British cruisers. In a subsequent report it was stated that though each of the British ships was doing at least 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph), the enemy privateer would have escaped only for the fact that there were two British vessels involved.

Along the North-western coast of Ireland lies Lough Swilly, a glacial fjord that cuts into the Donegal coastline between the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula and the Fanad Peninsula. It is considered a safe harbour for ships and is famed far and wide for the beauty of its scenery. However, although once inside the lough itself, the anchorage is safe, the entrance to the Lough is considered by many to be a very difficult and dangerous passage. The coast being here is known as being “iron-bound”, with several treacherous reefs of rocks lying near the shore, or partially covered by the sea. The present-day entrance to Lough Swilly has two lighthouses to protect it, with one on Fanad Point, and the other on Dunree Head. The various reefs and shoals in the entrance are well-marked by buoys, which today make the entrance to the Lough a much safer passage than it had been during the days when ‘HMS Saldanha’ was moored there.

Lough Swiily bwIn the latter part of 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ under the command of Captain Packenham, was stationed in Lough Swilly as a naval guardship, alongside the sloop-of-war, ‘HMS Talbot’. Their usual anchorage was off the little village of Buncrana, and occasionally the ships would weigh anchor to undertake a short cruise around the coast of the County Donegal for a few days. Their crews had been stationed in the Lough for such a long time that several officers had brought their wives to reside in the village of Buncrana. There were, of course, one or two of the officers and several of the men who had married local ladies, and all of them had gained the friendship and regard of the local gentry and may of the inhabitants of the surrounding area.

Early on the morning of the 30th of November the ‘Saldanha’ and the ‘Talbot’ left their moorings off Buncrana for a three days’ cruise around the coast. However, although the morning was fine and bright, just afternoon the weather became dark and threatening. Before that short November day closed, a great storm had rolled in from the Atlantic Ocean spilling its anger over both sea and land. Local folklore still recalls that terrible storm as the ‘Saldanha Storm,’ and there are many sad stories recounted of hearts that raced with anxiety and strained eyes that tried to peer through blinding spray and rain for the lights of the returning ships.

It was nearer to the mouth of Lough Swilly, on the shore opposite Buncrana, close to Ballymastocker Bay that those lights were seen at last. Along that shoreline the Fanad people gathered in great numbers, knowing that the bay hid a very dangerous reef of rocks, and upon them, the ‘Saldanha’ was Shipwrecked on the night of 4th December 1811. There are no reports any effort was made to save the doomed vessel and, officially there were no survivors out of the estimated 253 crew aboard the ship, with approximately 200 bodies being subsequently washed up on the shoreline at Ballymastocker Bay.

There are stories saying that one of the crew did make it to the shore alive, but the stories also tell of the ‘wild people’ (local wreckers) placing him across a horse, after giving him a draught of whiskey. The stories are unclear as to whether this was done in ignorance or in order to ensure he would die. Many bodies came continued to come ashore from time to time and were buried with great reverence in the old churchyard of Rathmullan, where the grave and a monument can still be seen.

Saldanha 3Initial reports on the events in Lough Swilly that stormy night suggested that ‘HMS Talbot’ had also been wrecked, but it transpired that these reports were mistaken. The winter storms that swept through the Lough caused parts of the sunken wreck of the ‘Saldanha’ to come to the surface and be forced on to the yellow sands of Ballymastocker Bay. In the August of the following year, it was said that a servant in a big house some twenty miles from the wreck site shot a bird, which turned out to be a parrot with a collar, on which was engraved “Captain Packenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha.” Then, as the years passed by, further storms would leave fragments of the ship’s planks and various personal items belonging to the crew strewn across the shoreline. On the night of the 6th-7th January 1839, there was another fierce and destructive storm, similar to that which the locals had called ‘The Saldanha Storm.’ On the morning of the 7th January, when the coastguards conducted their patrols of the bay’s shoreline, they recorded that the entire bay was strewn from end to end broken beams, timbers, and chests; All that remained of that doomed ship.

One interesting story from that time tells us that one of the coastguards searching the shore found a small worked case that ladies called a ‘thread-paper’, and he brought it to the wife of his commanding officer. The little case was beautifully made and still contained some loosely coiled and knotted lengths of silken yarn and a few rusty needles. On the back of the ‘thread-paper’ were embroidered three initials, lovingly created by the hand of the woman who had presented it to a member of the ‘Saldanha’ crew.

Over twenty years after the case had been found the lady to whom it had been given, now a widow returned to live in Scotland. While taking a few days holiday in the country-house of some friends in the south of the country, the lady began to converse with a young man who was also a guest at the same house. The lady and young man began to talk about Ireland, Donegal, and the wonderful scenery to be found there. At one stage of the conversation Lough Swilly was mentioned and this sparked the young man’s interest. He asked some questions about the area and then disclosed that his mother had lost a brother in the Lough many years before, having gone down with the wreck of the ‘Saldanha.’ The widow told all that she knew concerning the ‘Saldanha’ incident and revealed to the young man that she had a relic of the ship in her workbox. She took out the ‘thread-paper’ and, asking the name of the young man’s uncle, found that the name agreed with the three initials embroidered on the little case.

When the young gentleman told her that his uncle had been a midshipman on board the ill-fated ‘Saldanha’, and that he was his mother’s favourite brother, the widow woman put the small thread case into his hand. As she did this, the lady explained how she had come into possession of the case and told him, “Take that home to your mother, show it to her, and ask her if she had ever seen it before. If she should recognise it, she is very welcome to keep it. But if it did not belong to her brother you can return it to me.” The young man left the house the next morning and went home. A few days later, however, he wrote to the widowed lady and told her that his mother had immediately recognised the case as being her own work, which she had given to her beloved brother when he had last left home. It was a relic of a person loved and lost and he thanked the lady for restoring it to his mother after fifty long years. Although small and of no intrinsic value, this little case had been kept and returned to its original owner as though it had been some precious family jewel.

Saldanha 2

Useful Notes for an Irish Wake

In my various readings and studies of Irish Traditions and Folklore I have picked up many useful notes on how best to behave. These notes refer to an ‘Irish Wake’, which is very solemn occasion, but also full of celebration that the soul of the dead person has gone to a much better place.

WakeConsider these points:

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

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

  1. A cock crowing at an unusual hour at night is a sign of trouble or death, while a hen crowing at any time is a much surer sign.
  2. A dog crying round a house is also a sign of death in that house.
  3. You should not look not in a looking-glass at night, and if you break a looking-glass, you’ll have no luck for seven years.
  4. You should never brush a floor in the direction of the door, because if you do you sweep away all the luck that’s in the house.
  5. Finally, other than something borrowed and something blue, a girl who is getting married should wear, on her wedding day, something that belongs to a married woman.

What other notes and tips have you heard about?

Banshees

An Opinion

Of all Ireland’s ghosts, fairies, or demons, the Banshee (sometimes called locally the ‘Boheentha’) is, probably, the best known to those living outside the country. I am often amused by the number of visitors from across the Channel who think that they are as common as the pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and expect her to make an appearance on demand just like one of the many famous sights of our country. They ignore the fact that the Banshee is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree that no man can measure because its roots extend back into the dim and mysterious past of Ireland.

Without a doubt, the most famous Banshee of ancient times was that which attached itself to the royal house of O’Brien. She was called ‘Aibhill’, and she haunted the rock of Craglea that stands above Killaloe, near the old palace of Kincora. In 1014 A.D. the battle of Clontarf was fought against the Danes, and the aged king, Brian Boru, who led the Irish forces was fully aware that he would never come away alive. The night before the battle, ‘Aibhill’ had appeared to him and told him of his impending fate. The Banshee’s method of foretelling a person’s death in those olden times differed from that which she adopts in the present day. Now she, generally, wails and wrings her hands, but in the old Irish tales she is often found washing human heads and limbs, or blood-stained clothes, until the water is all dyed with human blood, and this would take place before a battle. So, it appears that over a course of centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.

Banshee 2Reports from eyewitnesses give very different descriptions about what she looks like. Sometimes, she is pictured as a young and beautiful woman, and at other times appears as an old and fearsome hag. One witness described her as “a tall, thin woman with uncovered head, and long hair that floated around her shoulders, attired in something which seemed either a loose white cloak or a sheet thrown hastily around her, uttering piercing cries.” Another witness, who saw the banshee one evening sitting on a stile in the yard, appeared as a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red cloak. There are numerous other descriptions available, but one surprising fact about the Banshee is that she does not seem to exclusively follow families of Irish descent. At least one incident refers to the death of a member of a County Galway family, who were English by name and origin.

At this point, we should relate one of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories, namely the story contained in ‘Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw’. The good lady states that in 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish clan, who resided in his ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight, she says, she was awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of the bed, she saw in the moonlight a female face and part of a form hovering at the bedroom window. The height of the window from the ground and the position of the moat around the castle convinced her ladyship that this was a creature of the spirit world. She did notice, however, that the pale face she saw was that of a young and rather beautiful woman, and her reddish coloured hair was loose and dishevelled. This ghostly form, Lady Fanshaw recollected, was dressed much in the style of ancient Ireland and continued to appear to her some considerable time before vanishing with two shrieks that sounded like those that first attracted attention.

In the morning, still shaking with fear, Lady Fanshaw told her what she had witnessed. Surprisingly, she found that not only was he able to confirm the existence of such a being, but he was ready to explain to account for its presence in his castle. He told her quite candidly, “A near relation of my family expired last night in this castle. But we decided not to tell you that we were expecting such a visitation, in case it would throw a cloud over the cheerful welcome we had prepared for you. However, before any event of this kind happens in this family or castle, the female spectre that you have seen always appears. We believe this spirit to be a woman from a lower class, with whom one of my ancestors degraded himself by marrying. In an effort expiate the dishonour done to his family, he subsequently drowned the poor woman in the moat.”

If one was strictly applying traditional terms to such a vision, then this woman would not normally be called a Banshee. The motive for the haunting is like other tales that are on a par with this one, in that the spirit of the murdered person haunts the family out of revenge, and always appears before a death.

Banshee 1There was nothing special about this ruined Church. It was a simple oblong building, with long side-walls and high gables, and an unenclosed graveyard that lay in open fields. As the group of people walked down the long dark lane, they suddenly heard a distant sound of wailing voices and clapping hands, like you would hear at a country wake where neighbours and friends lament the passing of one of their own. The group of young people hurried along the lane, and they came in sight of the church ruins, There, on the side wall, a little grey-haired old woman, who was clad in a dark cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and throwing up her arms like a crazy person. The girls now became very frightened, but the young men in the group ran forward and surrounded the ruin. Then, two of the young men went into the church and, as they did so, the apparition vanished from the wall. Nonetheless, they searched every nook, and found no one, nor did any one of them become unconscious. All the young people were now well scared, and they made their way home as fast as they possibly could.

When they finally reached their home, their mother opened the door, and immediately she began to explain that she had become terribly concerned about their father. Their mother told them that she had been looking out of the window in the moonlight when a huge raven with fiery eyes landed on the window-sill, and it tapped three times on the glass. When the young ones told her their story it only added the anxiety that they were all now beginning to feel. As they stood talking among themselves, taps came to the nearest window, and they all saw the bird again. A few days later news reached them that their Father had died.

For the most part, the eye-witnesses to these events were people of good character, including the sister of a former Roman Catholic Bishop related a story about an incident that occurred when she was a little girl. She said that she went out one evening with some other local children for a walk, and going down the road, they passed the gate of the parkland near the town. On a large rock that stood beside the road, they suddenly saw something very strange and moved nearer to get a better look. Before them, they saw that the strange object was a little dark, old woman, who began to cry and clap her hands noisily. Some of the girls tried to speak to the old woman, but they became very afraid, and all of them chose to run home as quickly as they could. Next day there came news that the gentleman near whose gate the Banshee had cried, was dead, and had apparently died at the very hour when the children had first seen the spectre.

A Certain, well-respected lady from County Cork stated that she had two experiences of a Banshee within her family. She said, “My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. Suddenly, she saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was clearly visible from the house. The figure waved its arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. The wailing lasted several seconds before the figure finally disappeared. But, the next morning, her grandfather was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He stumbled, fell, and hit his head against the kerb. The poor man would never recover consciousness.”

In her second story, she states, “… my mother was very ill, and one evening the nurse and I were with her arranging her bed. We suddenly heard the most extraordinary wailing, which seemed to come in waves around and under her bed. We naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause of the wailing but in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another but said nothing since it appeared that my mother did not hear it. My sister, who was downstairs sitting with my father, heard it and thought something terrible had happened to her little boy, who was in bed upstairs. When she rushed up to his bedroom, however, she found him sleeping quietly. While my father did not hear it, in the house next door they had heard it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to their servant. But the servant immediately called out to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Someone must be near death.’

Banshee 3There is another story, handed down to us from the last years of the nineteenth century. This records a curious incident that occurred in a public school and includes the presence of the Banshee. When one of the boys became ill, he was immediately quarantined in one of the many bedrooms by himself, where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by the doctor, he suddenly jumped up from his seat, declaring that he had heard somebody crying. But the doctor had heard nothing and concluded that his illness had slightly affected the boy’s brain. Nonetheless, the boy, who appeared to be quite sensible, still insisted that he had heard someone crying, and said, “It is the Banshee, for I have heard it before.” The following morning the headmaster of the school received a telegram saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot dead.

There is a mistaken belief that the Banshee is confined to the geographical limits of Ireland. In fact, there are several incidents that show how the Banshee can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and there foretell their death. The following story clearly shows that such an event can occur. A party of visitors was gathered together on the deck of a private yacht that was sailing one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull, in the conversation, one of them asked the owner, “Count, who’s that queer-looking woman you have on board?

The Count replied that there was only those invited ladies and the stewardesses present. nobody ladies present except those who had been invited and the stewardess. The speaker, however, protested that there was a strange woman present, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his hands before his eyes, and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, what a face!” For quite a while the man was shaking with fear and dared not remove his hands from his eyes. When he finally did so, he cried out “Thank Heavens, it’s gone!

What was it?” asked the Count.

It was nothing human,” stammered the man. “It looked like a woman, but not one from this world. She had on a green hood, like those worn by the Irish peasantry, framing an oddly shaped face that gleamed unnaturally. She also had a mass of red hair, and eyes that were somewhat attractive but for their hellish expression.

An American lady guest suggested that the description reminded her of what she had heard about the Banshee. The Count turned to her and told her, “I am an O’Neill. At least I am descended from one of them. As you know, my family name is Neilini, which, just over a century ago, was O’Neill. My great-grandfather had served in the ‘Irish Brigade’, and on its dissolution, at the time of the French Revolution, he had the good fortune to escape the general massacre of officers. In the company of an O’Brien and a Maguire, he fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. When he died, his son, who had been born in Italy, felt himself to be much more Italian than Irish. He changed his name to Neilini, and the family has been known by this name ever since. But for all that we are Irish.

The Banshee was yours, then! So, what exactly does it mean?”

“It means,” the Count replied solemnly, “the death of someone very close to me and I pray earnestly that it is not my wife or daughter.” The Count’s anxieties were soon removed when he himself was seized by a severe angina attack and died before morning.

Banshee 2

As a last note to readers, the reports of encounters with Banshees tell us that this spirit never shows itself to the person whose death it is heralding. While other people are able to see or hear the banshee, the one fated to die never does. So, when everyone that is present, but one, is aware of the Banshee, the fate of that one person can be regarded as being certain.

The Wooden Leg…

A Holiday Letter

Beach 2Many years ago, when we were holidaying in a quiet seaside resort in the south of the country, we discovered that time went very slowly and hung heavy on our hands. There were few young people of our own age to converse with, no suitable books to read, and nothing of any particular interest in the locality to excite our curiosity. What was worse, before leaving home we had promised to write to an old invalid lady and her two daughters and tell them about anything that occurred during our stay at this seaside retreat, but there was nothing that we could write about. After some time, something turned up and we greedily seized upon it. This became the subject of a letter, which long after being forgotten, has come into our possession once again through the hands of the elder of the two daughters, to whom it was addressed. When returning it she added a note that the letter had been the one thing that kept her mother throughout her life, which had now come to an end. Naturally, we were saddened by the news but the note she had written consoled us, especially because we had thought the letter, we had sent, to be anything but a brilliant. But you can judge for yourself.

“Dear Mrs. M —

“Since we arrived at this place, I have noticed that there are two ladies with wooden legs. These ladies have to be described separately, however, because the legs differ considerably in their character and, I am certain, in their price. Perhaps, it would be better to speak of them legs Number 1 and 2, with leg 1 consisting of a rounded black pin, similar to that of the old genuine wooden-leg type, which is less common than it used to be. The leg itself is very well made and it does not pretend to be anything but what it is, a simple, nondescript wooden leg as that anyone would recognize. But it must be said, it does not form an entire leg, and it goes only as high as the lady’s knee. I suppose we should correctly call it a wooden half-leg. Anyway, this wooden half-leg belongs to a smart, well-dressed young lady, who stumps about the place with a certain degree of graceful beauty, although she must expend considerable exertion. The lady’s knee appears to rest on a form of a cushion, causing the lower part of the limb to project rearward a little, but not in a too obvious manner. Thanks to her long dress, the real leg and foot are to a certain extent hidden from view. But an observer can see a kind of jerking out of the foot, every time her red petticoat and tucked-up dress behind moved.

Beach 3‘While feeling some sympathy that a person so young and so beautiful is afflicted by what appears to be a terrible misfortune, it is quietly encouraging to see how she smartly goes about her daily tasks while wearing that wooden leg. She is always brightly dressed, usually wearing a stylish hat with a delicate feather, and with her dress tucked-up, she walks at a good pace, laughing, chatting, and as full of high spirits as if nothing was the matter with her. Alongside two young-lady companions, she walks daily on the coastal promenade that overlooks the shingly beach of the resort. Naturally, it is not good manners for anyone to openly notice another person’s infirmity, and because nobody pays any attention to it her life-affirming sprightliness is unhindered. From the bay window of our apartment, which gives a commanding view of the promenade from one end to the other. This has given me an excellent opportunity to observe how cleverly she manages her wooden limb. But before continuing, it might be best to say something about the other artificial leg.

“The best thing that can be said about ‘leg two’, as I have called it, is that it is an ‘ambitious’ leg. It is a false leg that makes a not very successful attempt to appear to be real. The person who owns this leg is a somewhat unfashionable lady. She is a very dull sort of person who has a permanently sad expression on her face. I’ve heard the remark that she has a face that looks like a smacked arse. But undoubtedly, this lady’s leg had been amputated above the knee, as a result of being seriously injured in some terrible accident. Watching her as she walks along with a halt in her step, I can almost feel the pain that this lady has experienced, her sufferings, of her unfulfilled hopes in life, and her constant discomfort. I can also imagine the trouble that this woman had in finding a good manufacturer of artificial legs and, when she found one, how she looked over an assortment to find one that might be suitable. Can you imagine how she felt when she had chosen a suitable pattern of leg and had to be measured for a leg of the same type? Imagine, also, the lady’s servant coming into the parlour, and announcing, “Excuse me, ma’am, but the man has come with the new leg you ordered.” Next, think of her taking the leg upstairs to her room and trying it on for size! How awkward did she feel when she first heard that stump, stump, as she walked across the floor. It must have taken weeks before the leg became familiar to her and she could wear it for prolonged periods every day.

“Now, I know that I said this artificial leg is to a certain extent a failure, but I have to say that it is more fit for purpose than if it had been an unyielding wooden pin. The opinion I formed, therefore, is that there is a deficiency in the way she walks. While the heel goes down, the forepart of the foot does not fall or take the ground neatly. I am informed that this all depends on the arrangement and easy working of the springs and other machinery of the false leg. You could have a five-pound leg or a ten-pound leg, or even a twenty or thirty-pound leg, according to the nature of the springs, pulleys, straps, and wheel-work it has. For all that I can tell, the leg in question was a five-pound leg, for it does not appear to be heavier.

“One thing is for certain in this matter, however, and that is that trying to get it all done on the cheap is not good. If you want an artificial leg that will look and act as much as is possible like a real leg, my advice would be to not go for the cheapest product and buy yourself the best article available. My father told me the story of a man who had lost his leg in battle. He bought an artificial leg, which appeared to be so real and worked perfectly through the placement and quality of springs, etc. That man was able to ride horses, dance, and do all the things he could do before he lost the leg.

“When you consider the two cases of these ladies with artificial legs that it must strike you, as it did me, that it is all very odd. Not so long ago it would have been no rare spectacle to see old soldiers and sailors with wooden or false legs, but seldom any other person. It was very rare for a civilian to get their leg so badly shattered that they needed amputation, but women in such difficulty almost never occurred. Except on rare occasions, civilians did not get their legs shattered, ladies almost never. The progress of transportation these days appears to have changed all that. Accidents, blunders and sheer carelessness have caused the number of people who need artificial legs, of one kind or another, to grow considerably. Travellers are now in the same bracket as military men when it comes to the likelihood of losing a limb, and it is fortunate that mechanical science continues to keep pace with these disasters. Lately, great improvements have been made in the design and construction not only of artificial legs, but of hands and arms and, with good care and a suitable expenditure, the horrors of mutilation are greatly reduced.

“The modern artificial leg-makers should be thought of as being public benefactors since such titles will not make us less inclined to sympathize with those young ladies who suddenly suffer some sort of calamity that necessitates amputation of the leg and its replacement with an artificial leg. All fashionable ladies take pride in the neatness of their and feet because these are usually the main areas to be criticized. Unfortunately, the acquisition of an artificial leg of any description ends all that. It’s sad to think that there will be no more dancing or flirting, or hooking up with parties of young gentlemen, or hopes of marriage. There is also the personal inconvenience to be thought about, the unbuckling of the leg at night when going to bed and having to hop about or use a crutch when the leg is off. Putting on the leg in the morning and, when you sit down, you always must consider how the leg is to be adjusted. Going up and down stairs, the real leg first at every step, and the artificial leg is brought up behind it. The unpleasantness of ordering boots and shoes, and the still greater unpleasantness of being generally pitied by people.

Beach 4“These were just some of the thoughts that passed through my mind. But, the one thing that puzzled me was, how did it happen that the young lady with leg number one was always so happy-looking? All my preconceived notions about losing a leg were turned upside down. I began to think how you and your sister would think it an utter calamity if you and your sister were left stumping down the street to church with an artificial leg, even a good ten-pound leg full of springs. But here, to my amazement, there is a sweet, happy young lady going about with a wooden leg of the simplest structure, and she appears not to be affected in any with her misfortune. So, I began to think, that this lady’s conduct is a fine example of philosophy and faithful resignation. She knows full well that she is destined to be lame all her life, and yet she submits to her fate with good grace, putting a pleasant face on the matter. Although deprived of certain hopes of happiness that most girls her age and position have, she has instead learned to overcome her misfortune by simply saying, “Thy will be done.”

“This is the conclusion that I have come to, regarding the young lady, and I will admit that the cheerful manner with which she endures her infirmity does my own spirit good. This poor young girl is a practical example of resignation. It appears that she is saying to me and others, “You pretend to have troubles and tribulations, but look at me! You have been spared all the discomfort of having a wooden leg.” That makes me feel happier than I might otherwise be. So, we learn that Providence, while sending us misfortunes, beneficently sends consolations, and in all the  circumstances we find ourselves we are not without reasons to be thankful.”

Willie’s Sorrow

A Tale of Ireland

Many years ago, in Port Oriel lived a handsome young man called Willie Furphy. He was a finely built man who worked upon the fishing boats that filled the small harbour and off-loaded their catches there, every day. Willie fell in love and proposed to a beautiful young local girl called Orla Hagan, swearing that he would be faithful to her for evermore. Orla had known Willie since childhood and she loved him very much, accepting the young man’s proposal willingly. With great excitement, Willie placed a small diamond ring on her lily-white finger and sealed their relationship with a warm and passionate kiss.
willies sorrowOne beautiful Sunday evening in May, Willie took Orla out for a pleasant sail on the bright, sparkling waters of the Irish Sea. They were so much in love that, as they drifted on the waves, they vowed to that they would be true to each other until death. It was not to be, however, because before the following May came around heartless Willie broke-off the engagement with Orla, and subsequently became engaged to another whom he married. There were many in the district around Port Oriel who were disgusted by Willie’s behaviour and called him both a cruel and a heartless beast! “Sure, what luck can Willie ever expect to have after he has broken his sacred promise to such a sweet, virtuous Irish girl,” they said, “especially after she had put her love and trust into his? That man will have no luck at all.”
Poor Orla O’Hagan, she was the loveliest and most appreciated of all the young women living in that district. She was known to have a kind, loving, and tender heart, and many were distraught that such a heart had been torn apart by Willie Feeney’s disgraceful desertion of her. From that moment her life appeared to have no future and the beautiful bloom in her cheek vanished. She went downhill rapidly and like a frail garden flower that is broken by a great blast of wind, she withered away and eventually died.
Willie Furphy never experienced a moment’s peace of mind after that day. Now, when it was too late, he suddenly realised just how much of a wretch he was to treat that beautiful creature, Orla, in the manner he had. There was never to be any happiness in his life after this. The woman he had married instead of Orla brought him nothing but misery, drinking, and drinking, day after long day, until she finally disgraced herself with the people of the district with her manners, habits and tongue. Oh! what bitter regrets filled his conscience and gnawed at his heart. But it was all too late! Far too late for him! Willie had broken a woman, whose own heart was worth more than its weight in gold. Even he could not blame anyone, if the hand of justice should smite him.
His house was filled with so much discontent and misery that he could not spend much time in it. Then, one morning before the break of day, Willie left the house and was making his way towards the harbour with the intention of going out to fish. But he had only walked a few steps from the door when his eyes caught sight of a female figure, dressed in snowy white clothes, just a few yards in front of him. Willie stopped suddenly in his tracks and gazed in terror at the apparition before him. “Merciful heaven!” he exclaimed quietly to himself, “Can it be?” As he studied the vision closer, he soon came to recognise the pale, haggard face, the flowing golden tresses of hair, and the slender hand that was pointing a finger of scorn straight at his own careworn face.
“Orla Hagan,” Willie sighed, “Have you returned to denounce me, your heartless and faithless lover! As wretched as I already am, are you determined to add to my overflowing cup of misery!”
It was at this strange and frightening moment that Willie Furphy remembered his old friend, Paddy McNally, who had passed away five years previously. But he remembers most clearly, for some reason or other, that Paddy had promised to stand by him in life and in death! Willie wondered to himself if Paddy had truly realised what he was saying? Looking up to Heaven, Willie cried out, “Oh Paddy, whether you are above or below, come now and help me in my hour of need!”
In a flash Willie noticed there was a creature of some kind standing between himself, and the still threatening figure in white. Very quickly he noticed the creature was a black dog, a huge black dog that was wagging its tail. Astonished by what he was witnessing, Willie ran home as fast as he was able, with the dog following him. After this he never saw the white, ghostly figure again, but the dog came into the house and lay beside him at the fire. Only when the cock crew did the big black dog disappear. As for the unfortunate Willie Furphy, he was destined to live only one short month after that night. Broken-hearted, wretched and miserable, he died a lonely death.willies sorrow 2