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 Wake

From outside the cottage the muffled conversation from the people in the kitchen sounded more like the humming of a swarm of bees. When it became more agitated and voices tried to talk over each other, it sounded more like the annoying cackling of geese in the farmyard. There would, of course, be the occasional pause and it would re-start with whispers, lowered voices that would be interspersed with choruses of dry laughter. 
Occasionally the bedroom door would open and a visitor would pass the old man as he sat huddled in his chair, without throwing even a glance in his direction, and go directly to the side of the bed on which the body lay to kneel down and pray. They usually prayed for two or three minutes before they got up and lightly walked away to the kitchen, where they joined the rest of the company. 
Sometimes these visitors came in pairs, occasionally in groups of three, but they all followed the same ritual. They prayed for precisely the same time, and then left the room on tiptoe, making the same noises that would sound so loud in the silence of that room. Meanwhile, the old man simply wished that they would all just stay away, for he had been sitting in his chair for hours, revisiting old memories, until his head was in a total whirl. He wanted to concentrate his mind on these good memories and felt that the visitors to the house were preventing him from doing so.
irish-wake 1The flickering light of the five candles at the head of the bed distracted him, and he was glad when one of the mourners would stand in a way that shut off the glare for a few minutes. The old man was also distracted by the five chairs standing around the room like sentries, and the little table over by the window upon which had been placed the crucifix and the holy-water font. He only wanted to concentrate his mind on “herself,” as he called her, who now looked so lost in the immensity of that large oaken bed. Since early morning, the old man had been looking at her small, pinched face with its faint suspicion of blue. He was very much taken by the nun’s hood that concealed the back of the head, the stiffly posed arms, and the small hands that had been placed in white-cotton gloves. The scene before him made him feel a very deep pity for what had happened. Then, somebody touched him on the shoulder saying, “Michael James.
It was big Danny Murphy, a tall, thin red-haired farmer who, a long time previously, had been best man at his wedding. “Michael James,” he said again.
What is it?
I hear young Kelly’s in the village.”
What about it?
I just thought that you should know,” Danny told him and waited a moment before he went out again on tiptoe, walking like a robot in low gear. Meanwhile, down the drive Michael heard steps coming, then a struggle and a shrill giggle. There appeared to be some young people coming to the wake, and he knew, instinctively, a boy had tried to kiss a girl in the dark, and he felt a surge of resentment fill his body. She was only nineteen when he married her, and he was sixty-three. She had married him because he had over two hundred acres of land and many head of milk and grazing cattle, and a huge house that rambled like a barrack. It was her father that had arranged the marriage, and young Kennedy, who had worked on her father’s farm for years, had been saving to buy a house for her, when he was suddenly thrown over like a bale of mildewed hay.
Young Kennedy had made created several violent scenes in the past. Michael James could remember the morning of the wedding, when a drunken Kennedy waylaid the bridal-party coming out of the church. “Mark me,” he said in an unusually quiet tone for a drunk man—“mark me. If anything ever happens to that girl at your side, Michael James, I’ll murder you. I’ll murder you in cold blood. Do you understand?
Michael James, however, was in a very forgiving mood that morning and told him, “Run away and sober up, boy, and then come up to the house and have a dance.
But Kennedy had taken to roaming the countryside for weeks, getting himself drunk every night, and making terrible threats of vengeance against the old farmer. Shortly after this, a wily recruiting sergeant of the ‘Connaught Rangers’ had tricked him into joining the ranks and took him away to barracks in Aldershot. Now he was home again, on furlough, and something had happened to her. 
Young Kelly was now coming up to the house make good his threat, even though Michael James himself didn’t quite understand what had happened to her. He had given her everything he could to make her happy, and she had taken everything from him with a modest thank you. But he had never had been given anything by her except her total lack of interest. She had never shown any interest or concern for the house, and every day she grew a little thinner  and weaker until, a few days ago she had lain down and, last and last night she had died, quite indifferently. Nevertheless, he knew that young Kennedy was coming up to the house that night for an accounting with Michael James, and the old man had said to himself, “Well, let him come!”
irish-wake 2A sudden silence fell over the company in the kitchen, followed by a loud scraping as they stood up, and then harsher grating noise as chairs were pushed back. The door of the bedroom opened and the red flare from the fire and the lamps in the kitchen blended into the sickly yellow candle-light of the bedroom. The parish priest walked into the room. His closely cropped white hair, strong, ruddy face, and erect back gave him more the appearance of a soldier than a clergyman. He first looked at the bed for a moment, and then turned to Michael James. Oh, you mustn’t take it like that, man,” he said. “You mustn’t take it like that. You must bear up.” 
He was the only one who spoke in his natural voice, and he turned to a portly farmer’s wife who had followed him in, and asked her about the hour that had been scheduled for the funeral. In hoarse whisper, she told him and respectfully gave him a curtsy. The priest then turned to Michael James and told him, You ought to go out and take a walk. You oughtn’t to stay in here all the time.” And then, he left the room again. But Michael James paid no attention to him, for his mind was wandering to strange fantasies that he just could not keep out of his head. Pictures crept in and out of his head, joined together as if by some thin web, and somehow he began to think about her soul, wondering just what a soul was like. He began to think of it being like a dove, and then like a bat that was fluttering through the dark, and finally, like a bird lost at twilight. He thought of it as being some kind of lonely flying thing with a long journey ahead of it and no place to rest. In his mind he could almost hear it making the vibrant and plaintive cry of a peewit. Then, it struck him with a great sense of pity that the night was very cold.
In the kitchen they were having tea, and the rattle of the crockery was loud and very distinct. Michael James could clearly distinguish the sharp, staccato ring of a cup being placed on a saucer, from the nervous rattle heard when a cup and saucer were being passed from one hand to the other, while spoons struck the china with a faint metallic tinkle. But to Michael James it felt as if all the sounds were being made at the back of his neck, and the crash seemed to burst loudly in his head. Then, Dan Murray creaked into the room. “Michael James,” he whispered, “you ought to take something. Have a bite to eat. Take a cup of tea. I’ll bring it in to you.
Oh, let me alone, Daniel,” he answered and, at the same time, felt like kicking and cursing him. 
But you must take something, Michael James,” Murray’s voice rose from a whisper to a low, argumentative tone. “You know this is not natural. You’ve got to eat.
No, thank you, Daniel,” he answered, as if he was talking to a good-natured boy who was also very tiresome. “I don’t feel like eating now, but maybe I will afterwards.
Michael James,” Murray continued.
Well, what is it, Daniel?
Don’t you think it would be better to go down and see young Kennedy and tell him just how foolish he would be to come up here and start fighting? You know it isn’t right and so, should I not go down, for he’s at home now?
Leave it alone, Daniel, I tell you.” The thought of Murray interfering in a matter that was between himself and the young man filled Michael James with a sense of injured pride.
I know he’s going to make trouble for you.
Just allow me to handle that, like a good fellow, and leave me alone, if you don’t mind.
irish-wake 4Ah well, sure, You know best.” said Murray and he crept out of the room and, as the door opened, Michael could hear someone singing in a subdued voice and many feet tapping on the floor, like drums beating in time with the music. They had to pass the night outside, and it was the custom, but the singing irritated him. He could imagine all the heads nodding and bodies swaying from side to side with the rhythm of the tune. Michael recognized the tune, and it began to run through his head, and he could not get rid of it. The lilt of the tune took a hold of him, and he suddenly began about the wonderful brain that musicians must have to be able to compose music. Then his thoughts turned to a picture that he had once seen of a man in a garret with a fiddle beneath his chin.
Michael straightened himself up a little, for sitting crouched forward was causing his back to be strained, and he unconsciously sat upright to ease the discomfort he was feeling. As he sat up, however, he caught a glimpse of the cotton gloves on the bed, and he suddenly recalled that the first time he had seen her she had been walking along the road, hand in hand with young Kennedy, one Sunday afternoon. When they saw him they quickly let go of each other’s hand, grew very red, and began giggling in a halfhearted way to hide their embarrassment. Michael remembered that he had passed them by without saying a word, but with a good-humoured, sly smile on his face. He felt a good feeling within himself, and had thought wisely to himself that young people will be young people, and what harm was there in a little bit of courting on a Sunday afternoon after a long week’s work was finished? He also recalled other days on which he had met her and Kennedy, and how he became convinced that here was a girl for him to marry. Then his memory returned to how, quietly and decidedly, he had gone about getting her and marrying her, just as he would have gone about buying a team of horses, or making arrangements for cutting the hay.
Until the day he married her Michael felt like the driver of a coach who has his team of horses under perfect control, and who knows every bend and curve of the road upon which he is travelling. But since the wedding day he had been thinking about her, worrying and wondering where he stood in her life. Everyday just appeared to be a day filled with puzzlement, much more like a coach driver with a restive pair of horses who only knew his way to the next bend in the road, but he knew that she was the biggest thing in his life. He had reached this conclusion with some difficulty, for Michael was not a thinking sort of man, being more used to considering the price of harvest machinery and the best time of the year for buying and selling. But here this dead young girl now lay, whom he had married when she should have married another man, who was nearer to her age and who was coming sometime tonight to kill him. So, at sometime this evening his world would stop and, as he thought about it, he no longer felt like a person. Instead, he felt he was simply part of a situation, like a chess piece in a game which might be moved at any moment and bring the game to an end. His min was in such a flux that the reality around him had taken on a dim, unearthly quality. Occasionally a sound from the kitchen would strike him like an unexpected note in a harmony, and the crisp, whiteness of the bed would glare at him like a spot of colour in a subdued painting.
From the kitchen there was a shuffling noise and the sound of feet moving toward the door and with a loud click the door latch lifted. Michael could also hear the hoarse, deep tones of a few boys, and the high-pitched sing-song intonations of girls, and he knew they were going for a few miles’ walk along the roads. Going over to the window, he raised the blind and, overhead, the moon shone like a disc of bright saffron. There was a sort of misty haze that appeared to cling around the bushes and trees, causing the out-houses to stand out white, like buildings in a mysterious city. From somewhere nearby, there was the metallic whir of a grasshopper, and in the distance a loon boomed again and again. The little company of young people passed on down the yard followed by the sound of a smothered titter, then a playful resounding slap, and a gurgling laugh from one of the boys. As he stood by the window Michael heard someone open the door and stand on the threshold, asking Are you coming, Alice?” 
Michael James listened for the answer, for he was eagerly taking in all outside activity. He needed something to help him pass the time of waiting, just as a traveler in a railway station reads trivial notices carefully while waiting for a train that may take him to the ends of the earth. Then, once again he heard, Alice, are you coming?” But there was no answer.
Well, you needn’t if you don’t want to,” he heard in an irritated voice say, and the person speaking tramped down toward the road in an angry mood. Michael recognized the figure of Flanagan, the young football-player, who was always having little arguments with the girl he said that he was going to marry, and Michael was shocked to find that he was slightly amused at this incident. Then, from the road there came the shrill scream of one of the girls who had gone out, followed by a chorus of laughter. It was then that he began to wonder at the relationship between man and woman and he could not find a word for it. “Love” was a term that Michael thought should be kept to the story-books, for it was a word that he was suspicious of, and one that most people scoffed at. Nevertheless, he had a vague understanding of such a relationship, liking it to a crisscross of threads binding one person to the other, or as a web which might be light and easily broken, or which might have the strength of steel cables that might work into knots here and there, and become a tangle that could crush those caught in it. But it did puzzle him how a thing of indefinable grace, of soft words on June nights, of vague stirrings under moonlight, of embarrassing hand-clasps and fearful glances, might become, as it had become in his case, Kennedy, and his dead young wife, a thing of blind, malevolent force, of sinister silence, like a dark shadow that crushed. And then it struck him with a sense of guilt that he had allowed mind to wander from her, and he immediately turned away from the window. Michael thought to himself, how much more peaceful it would be for a body to lie out in the moonlight than on a somber oak bedstead in a shadowy room with yellow, guttering candle-light and five solemn-looking chairs. Then, Michael thought again how strange it was that on a night like this Kennedy should come as an avenger seeking to kill, rather than as a lover with high hopes in his breast.
irish-wake 3Murray slipped into the room again with a frown on his face and an aggressive tone to his voice. I tell you, Michael James, we’ll have to do something about it.” There was a hostile note in his whisper, and the farmer did not answer. Will you let me go down for the police? A few words to the sergeant will keep him quiet.” Although Michael James felt some pity for Murray, the idea of pitting a sergeant of police against the tragedy that was about to unfold seemed ludicrous to him. It was like pitting a school-boy against a hurricane.
Listen to me, Dan,” replied Michael. “How do you know Kennedy is coming up at all?
Flanagan, the football-player, met him and talked to him, and he said that Kennedy was clean mad.”
Do they know about it in the kitchen?
Not a word,” and there was a pause for a moment.
Right, now go you right back there and don’t say a word about it, at all. Wouldn’t you be the quare fool if you were to go down to the police and Kennedy didn’t come at all? And, even if he does come I can manage him. And if I can’t manage, then I’ll call you. How does that sound?” 
With that, Murray went out, grumbling beneath his breath. As the door closed, Michael began to feel that his last place of safety had gone, and he was to face his destiny alone. Although he did not doubt that Kennedy would make good on his vow, Michael still he felt a certain sense of curiosity about how Kennedy would do it. Would he simply use his fists, or use a gun, or some other weapon he may have at hand? Michael hoped it would be the gun, for the idea of coming to hand-to-hand fighting with Kennedy filled him with a strange fear. It appeared that the thought that he would be dead within ten minutes or a half-hour did not mean anything to him, and it was only the physical act itself that was frightening. Nevertheless, Michael felt as if he were very much on his own, and the cold wind was blowing around him, penetrating every pore of his body and causing a a shiver in his shoulders.
Michael’s idea of death was that he would fall headlong, as from a high tower, into a dark bottomless space, and he went over to the window again to look out toward the barn. From a tiny chink in one of the shutters there was a thin thread of yellow candle-light, and he knew for certain that there was a group of men there, playing cards to help pass the time. It was then that the terror came upon him. The noise from the kitchen was now subdued, for most of the mourners had gone home, and those who were staying the night were drowsy and were dozing over the fire. Michael suddenly felt the need to rush among them and to cry out to them for protection, cowering behind them and getting them to close around him in a solid defensive circle. He felt that all eyes were now upon him, looking at his back, and this caused him to fear turning around in case he might have to look into their eyes.
He knew that the girl had always respected him, but he did not want to lose her respect at this moment. It was the fear that he could lose it that caused him pull his shoulders back and plant his feet firmly upon the floor. Into his confused mind came thoughts of people who like to kill, of massed lines of soldiers who rushed headlong against well-defended trenches, of a cowering man who stealthily slips through a jail door at dawn, and of a sinister figure dressed in a red cloak, wielding an axe. Then, as he looked down the yard, Michael saw a figure turn in the gate and come toward the house. He knew immediately that it was Kennedy, but he seemed to be walking slowly and heavily, as if he was exhausted
Michael opened the kitchen door and slipped outside, and the figure making its way up the pathway seemed to be swimming toward him. Occasionally the figure would blur and disappear and then vaguely appear again, causing his heart to beat heavily and regularly like the ticking of a clock. Space between the two men narrowed until he began to feel that he could not breathe, and he then went forward a few paces. The light from the bedroom window of the cottage streamed out into the darkness in a broad, yellow beam, and Michael stepped into it as if into a river. She’s dead,” he heard himself saying. “She’s dead.” And then he realised that Kennedy was standing in front of him.
The flap of the boy’s hat threw a heavy shadow over Michael’s face, his shoulders were braced, and his right hand was thrust deeply into his coat pocket. Aye, she’s dead,” Michael James repeated. “You knew that, didn’t you?” It was all he could think of saying in the moment, before he asked, “You’ll come in and see her, won’t you?” He had quite forgotten the purpose of Kennedy’s visit for a moment, for his mind was distracted and he didn’t know what more he should say.
Kennedy moved a little, and the light streaming from the window struck him full in the face. It was a shock to Michael James, as he suddenly realised that it was as grim and thin-lipped as he had pictured it in his mind. As a prayer rose in his throat the fear he had been feeling appeared to leave Michael all at once. As he raised his head he noticed that Kennedy’s right hand had left the pocket, and he saw that Kennedy was looking into the room. Michael knew that Kennedy could see the huge bedstead and the body on it, as he peered through the little panes of glass. Suddenly, he felt a desire to throw himself between Kennedy and the window just as he might jump between a child and a threatening danger. But he turned his head away, as he instinctively felt that he should not look directly at Kennedy’s face.
Suddenly, over in the barn voices rose as the group of men playing cards began to dispute with each other. One person was complaining feverishly about something, while another person was arguing pugnaciously, and another voice could be heard striving to make peace between the two. Then, as the voices died away to a dull background hum, Michael James heard the boy sobbing bitterly. You mustn’t do that,” he said softly, patting him comfortingly on the shoulders. At that moment he felt as if an unspeakable tension had dissipated and life was about to swing-back into balance. Continuing to pat the shoulders,  Michael spoke softly with a shaking voice and told the boy, as he took him under the arm, Come in now, and I’ll leave you alone there.” He felt the pity that he had for the body on the bed overcome Kennedy, too, and there was a sense of peace came over him. It was as though a son of his had been hurt and had come to him for comfort, and he was going to comfort him. 
In some vague way he thought of Easter, and he stopped at the door for a moment. “It’s all right, laddie,” he said. “It’s all right,” and he lifted the latch. As they went in he felt somehow as if high walls had crumbled and the three of them had stepped into the light of day
 

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.”