Friday, August 26, 2011

The Death Coach. Cóiste Bodhar

The Death Coach.

In Irish Folklore the Death Coach is known as Cóiste Bodhar (Koe-shta-bower), meaning death or silent coach and if you see or even hear it then either you or a close relative will die in the very near future. The belief is that once the coach has come to the land of the living it cannot return empty. Once death has come to collect there is nothing on earth you can do to prevent it. The headless horseman that drives the coach is known as the Dullahan. The Dullahan is also known in Irish as Gan Ceann, meaning without head and it is usually seen either driving the coach that is pulled by six black horses or riding alongside on a black stallion. The eyes of the Dullahan are massive and are always darting around and the mouth is constantly grinning and showing a nasty row of sharp teeth. The flesh of the head has been described as smelling, looking, and having the feel of rotten cheese.

The Dullahan carries a whip and this is said to be the spinal column of a human corpse, the coach is also decorated with the remains of corpses, skulls take the place of candle holders, the cover of the coach is usually made from the shroud off a coffin. When the coach reaches the abode of the person picked by death the Dullahan calls out their name and they immediately die. There is no point trying to block the road against the horseman for as he approaches all locks and gates open and if you look upon him he will throw blood at you and this is said to mark you for death. They have even been said to snatch your eyes out with the whip. One way of protecting yourself is through the use of gold. Carry a gold pin or coin for they are said to be frightened of the yellow metal.

The Banshee, also known as Bean Sidhe in Irish sometimes accompanies the death coach flying alongside wailing and screeching out a warning to certain families that one of their members is about to die.

This story is based in folklore throughout Europe but especially in Ireland and it is a legend that is both widely known and feared. In every country where it is recorded in folklore it is treated with fear and respect for it always represents death. It seems that the one thing that unites all people is the fear of the unknown, especially when it comes to death. Why do we still believe in these old tales of superstition and signs of ill omen? Maybe it’s because it is still the one thing we have no control over, yes we may put it off for a time, but in the end it is inevitable. It is the one journey that we will all take for as the old saying goes “There are only two things we can say are certain in this life, death and taxes”.

The Cóiste Bodhar is mentioned by W. B. Yeats in his collection Folk tales of Ireland

The Death Coach.

The sound of the church bell can be heard in the distance. It is midnight on a cold winters evening. The streets of Westport are silent and most people are tucked up safely in their beds after a hard day’s work. The night is dark, clouds blocking out the moonlight, the wind sounds mournful as it rattles the window pane.

In one of the houses a man sits by the window waiting patiently for a sign that the doctor approaches. In the bed his dear wife lies silent. By the flickering light of the fire he can see her face, older now but still as beautiful as she was the first day he saw her at the village dance all those years ago. She looks drawn and every so often her face wrinkles as if in pain, the drugs don’t seem to work as they used to and it upsets him to see her so. He walks over to the bedside and strokes her brow, she holds his hand tightly and he can feel the coldness of her skin. She is barely breathing now, shallow and quickly and he knows in his heart and soul that she is slowly drifting away. In one way he is happy for her as it means she will be free from pain but for this he feels guilty, he cannot bear to see her in so much pain, sometimes she looks as if she wants to scream out in desperation “Don’t leave me” and yet he knows he must for he cannot go with her on this journey. Not tonight, not yet.

He hears the sound of horse’s hoofs and the clatter of wheels rolling over the cobbles. He gently frees his hand and walks over to the window expecting to see the doctor arriving. It’s not the doctor’s carriage he sees outside, it’s a black coach that has no horses for the shafts are empty, and yet he can still hear the sounds of hoofs and heavy breathing. The doors of the coach are closed; there are black holes where there should be windows. Slowly the coach approaches.

He breathes out a heavy sigh and is filled with deep sorrow for he knows it is the Death Coach. His wife knew that it would come for her tonight but he had told her not to be silly, she would soon be up and about, wasn’t the doctor coming and he’d give her some medicine. He didn’t believe in such nonsense, he didn’t want to believe. However, his eyes told him what his heart knew to be true for now it stopped outside and the door slowly opened. His heart was thumping in his chest as he looked upon the terrible sight and he walked over to the bed, he clutches his wife’s hand once again, she opens her eyes and smiles, that gentle smile he knows so well, she tries to squeeze his hand in return but is now too weak.

“Is it here?” she asks, her voice a bare whisper, he nods.

“I love you so much,” he says to his wife as he leans down and kisses her, as he does so he can feel her last breath on his lips, it is as if her very soul has passed through him. Her grip loosens and her hand gently falls away, she has gone from this world and he knows she has died. He stands up straight and looks upon her face with great tenderness and love, the tears flow silently down his cheeks.

“Goodbye my love.”

As he stands there knowing not what to do he sees a movement out of the corner of his eye. He looks over and sees his wife standing by the door. he looks back to the bed and sees the body of his wife lay there looking for the entire world as though she is asleep. He looks back at what he now believes to be his wife’s spirit; she smiles at him, turns and walks through the door. He hurries over to the window and looks out, hoping to see her just once more. He sees her walk over to the open door of the coach, pausing just for a second she looks towards the window; it’s as if she knows he is stood there. She raises her hand and gives one last gentle wave; he waves back, his heart breaking, tears streaming down his face. She turns back and steps into the coach and the door closes behind her. The horseman raises his whip and the coach slowly moves away and then is gone.

“Goodbye my love,” he gently calls. In a way he knows her pain is over but for him it has just begun and with a heavy heart he turns away. Hearing a knock at the door he opens it and standing there is the doctor. “Hello, doctor, she’s dead” he says, and the tears flowed once again.

Hope you enjoyed the story.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The House of Mystery.

The House of Mystery.

There is a lovely rustic house on the banks of the River Shannon in Baile An Taibhse a small rural village in County Clare. It is shown on records as far back as 1715. It was previously owned by the McDermott family until 1975 and was said to have had a tragic and sordid history whilst under their ownership. Was it this history that some say caused it to have been possessed by evil forces?

In the year 1975 a good, gentle man called John Murphy killed his entire family and then in desperation killed himself. Was it murder-suicide or was there some other darker force at work?

John Murphy was not a local man but those who knew him did not believe him capable of such horrific crimes. When the last remaining member of the McDermott family had died the house had been placed on the market but due to its dark history there was no local interest. However, it was seen by John Murphy who yearned for a simpler life and bought by him in 1975. He was at the time living in England and as soon as the papers were signed he, his wife and three children relocated. As a painter he was able to work from home, setting up a studio in one of the out buildings. May of 1975 was for the time being a happy time.

They say John had an interest in the supernatural and that he began to research the history of the house. Was it this interest that set the wheels in motion? His mental health began to suffer, he began to hear voices and he became paranoid suffering from feelings of persecution. His family became withdrawn and isolated; they refused to talk with their neighbours deciding instead to remain indoors as much as possible.

It was round the middle of November when it happened. John had a huge row with some of the locals, the reasons are lost in time. He stormed off and went home, later that night and for the next two nights passerby’s said they heard raised voices, yelling, angry voices, and then....

The police called at the house, receiving no answer they forced an entry, what they found caused some of the officers to become violently sick....It was a terrible sight. Dressed only in their nightclothes, Yvonne (the wife) and the three children (Claire, age 8; Anne, age 5; and Sabrina; age 4) were brutally murdered. Yvonne’s throat had been slit; a later autopsy indicated that this had been done after death. All the children had knife wounds. To make matters worse all four bodies had been propped up against the wall in a sitting position, eyes wide open, staring up at the ceiling where John Murphy was hanging from an electrical cord tied to a wooden beam. He was covered in blood.

Yvonne and the children had been murdered in their own bedrooms and their bodies moved to the room in which they were found by the police. Above each of these four victims was a message, written in their own blood. The murder weapon turned out to belong to John Murphy and the police decided that it was an open and shut case. One of murder and suicide. Case closed.

However, unless John had superhuman powers how did he get up to the ceiling? No ladder was present, no chair, no way he could have possibly have lifted himself up never mind tie the cord round his neck. Even so, he was a quiet man, non-violent. Had he become mentally ill and finally cracked? Had evil forces made him mentally ill? Was he under some demonic possession from the house? How did he end up hanging from the beam? Did some evil force kill him once he had carried out the murders? So many unanswered questions. None of the locals will talk about the house even now. It is known that John had argued with some of the locals just before the murders, were they the victims of some horrific crime and cover-up. The house and its reputation conveniently perpetuating folklore and keeping the truth hidden.

Some years later, the mystery of the house and the tragic events were still generating a lot of interest, in fact it had become quite infamous, so much so that a group of young people decided they would carry out their own investigation. They planned to break into the now boarded up house and spend a few nights there to see what they could discover. At first all went well, they set up the equipment they had bought in order to assist them in their endeavours and they settled down for the night. Some locals reported hearing angry voices, raised voices quarrelling, just like before. Of course no one realised that there was anyone in the house, they just thought it was the sounds of the house and its history and hurried pass.

Eventually, worried that no communication had been received from any of the young people their families decided to gain access to the house. The equipment was still running and there was even music playing on the radio. The young people, however, were nowhere to be found. They had simply vanished without trace.

Had the house claimed more victims? Did the evil forces within the walls of the house drive them away, if so where were they? Had they been murdered because they had discovered the secret of the previous killings? Again so many unanswered questions.

We may never know the truth, the truth lies buried within the walls of the house and the house remains silent. Some say as you walk past on a lonely winters evening you can hear moaning coming from the house. Or is it just the wind. I’ll let you decide. Sleep well.

Hope you enjoyed this ficticious story (or is it?).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Celts.

The Celts.

The Celts tribal system was very sophisticated. Chieftains and leaders were elected and women had an equality of rights. Women could inherit and own their own property; they could be elected to office and could lead a tribe even in times of war. The word “Celt” was introduced by Greek and Roman writers who used it to refer to the tribes that occupied Europe to the north and west of them. When the Greeks encountered these peoples they called them “Keltoi” or “Galatai”. Keltoi meaning either “the hidden people” or “those who are strange”. There are many theories as to the origin of the names, the Indo-European word “Quel” means elevated or raised, and it has been suggested that the word “Celt” is derived from this as some people believed that the Celts had a higher spiritual belief. The word “Gala” is a Greek word meaning “milk” and this may have referred to our white complexion. Who can really know the truth of these things?

The Celts flourished as a civilization until they were subjugated by the Roman Empire. Maybe this was because they were fiercely independent of each other. They were lovers of freedom and equality and so were not bound by a central authority. The Celts were not united in the conventional way that would be understood today, what united the tribes were not borders but a culture and spiritual belief system. With the coming of an organised military and the new religion of Christianity the way of life for the Celts was doomed.

The degree to which any people can be judged to be civilized can be measured by how it treats its women, children and weaker more vulnerable members of its society. The level of respect, care and honour it bestows on its members reflects this and in this the Celts were truly civilized. The Romans and the Christians on the other hand viewed women as objects of pleasure and child-bearers and certainly not as equals.

Our religion was based on ethics, nature and knowledge and the belief in transmigration of the spirit (reincarnation). The Celts believed in the cyclical nature of existence and were initially worshippers of the goddess (The Creative Principal). The woodlands, rivers and lakes were our churches, a grove of trees rather than the confines of a man-made structure.

In many ways the Celts and the North American Indian tribal systems were similar, they both lived in scattered tribal units joining together at certain times for specific reasons such as trade or ritual ceremonies. Both cultures practiced an indigenous earth-centred spirituality that had many animalistic beliefs, both had a deep respect for the land and nature, the ancestors and the spirits of the land, and both cultures were to suffer at the hands of an organised military invader and the enforced views of an alien religion. Eventually the Celts were defeated, absorbed into the invading forces or pushed westwards again mirroring the Native American.

Barry Fell (deceased) a former Harvard professor suggested a link between the Celts and the North American Indian, his research into ancient inscriptions found on stones discovered in an archaeological dig in New England identified them as Ogham, a system used by the Celts thousands of years ago. Over 200 hundred stone chambers have been discovered and pottery, tools and artefacts together with a study of local place names and Indian words suggest Celtic roots.

David H. Kelley, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary who is credited with a major breakthrough in the decipherment of Mayan glyphs, complained about Fell in a 1990 essay: Referring to Fell's work, he stated that there were many inadequacies. However, in the same essay he went on to say "I have no personal doubts that some of the inscriptions which have been reported are genuine Celtic ogham." His conclusion stated "Despite my occasional harsh criticism of Fell's treatment of individual inscriptions, it should be recognized that without Fell's work there would be no (North American) ogham problem to perplex us. We need to ask not only what Fell has done wrong in his epigraphy, but also where we have gone wrong as archaeologists in not recognizing such an extensive European presence in the New World."

I have often considered the question “How did two proud cultures end up on their knees” so to speak. I think of the ‘Trail of Tears’ and ‘The Famine Walk’ and how both were forced to conform to the invader, I think of the slaughter and enslavement of two proud nations, the starvation and theft of land and I see many comparisons. I see the W.A.S.P.s and I see the Clan of The Round Collar.

The flag is a collage of the flags of the six Celtic nations (clockwise from upper left): Brittany, Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall

Bender Tents and Bow Top Wagons.

Bender Tents and Bow Tops.

It was the right of the wife that the husband should provide the living quarters and this was normally a bell shaped tent that had a hole in the top for a chimney. These types of dwellings were traditionally known as 'Benders'. A bender tent is a simple shelter used by the Irish Travellers before the travelling wagons and then alongside the wagons when they were introduced in the 1850s. A bender is made using flexible branches or withies, such as those of hazel or willow. These are lodged in the ground, then bent and woven together to form a strong dome-shape. The dome is then covered using any tarpaulin available. The older and younger members of the family would sleep in the wagon and the others in the Bender Tent.

These tents can be heated during the winter using a wood burning stove, and they are easily capable of withstanding very strong winds so long as the covers are well weighed down. Most couples had their own pony and cart. These travellers also took pride in their colour schemes, and bright yellows, reds and blues were painted on their wagons, and a belief among them was that black is unlucky for a caravan and normally meant that somebody in the family would die before the next new moon.

There was also a Romnichel winter double-bender. This large tent has a yurt-like chimney. It was secure against the elements. See Romany Life by Frank Cuttriss (1915) for details. His is probably the best book on bender tents and many other topics related to Romany Life in England. A must read.

Economic pressure and the coming of the petrol engine gradually crept in and took over from the horse drawn transport of old and today the travellers (or Pavee) now use large trailers, trucks and modern caravans together with all the modern conveniences available. A true Bow Top is now a rare sight and due to the speed that some people insist on driving it can be dangerous for a traveller when a car comes around a bend in the road only to see a caravan in front of them and no time to stop.

The travellers were nomadic and hence gathered food and hunted for small game, and became experts in the ways of animals and also herbal medicine. The settled people found their language mysterious and the fact that they used herbs and plants for medicine considered them magicians. Their dress was also considered strange, the women like bright colours and wore heavy jewellery and gold-hooped ear-rings which contrasted against their jet black hair, the men also wore ear-rings and had gaudy neckerchiefs. Above all the settled people were awed by the nomadic life of the travellers and the extravagant taboos and rituals that were observed at births, marriages and death in particular, as the travelling people would smash their tents and wagons into small pieces and set fire to them.

The traditional bow-top wagon was the most simple and common wagon type in Ireland. It provided both accommodation and a means of transport for Travellers. It is thought to have been brought here early in the 20th century by English gypsies then travelling in Ireland. By the 1930s it had become very popular and remained so until the 1960s when it began to lose out to the motor-drawn caravan. The wagons were built to be lightweight as they were pulled by one horse. They allowed people to travel in family groups and to stay on the road all year. The interior was compact and thoughtfully designed. Irish caravans were usually colourfully painted rather than decorated with intricate carving which was more typical of English examples.

A reconstructed bow-top wagon can be viewed at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Evolution of the Vardo. (originating from the Iranian word vurdon for cart). Vardo is a Romani word. Vardos can be categorized into six main styles and their history is as complex as their decoration so here is a very simple description of the six types and their features.

Reading: The “Rolls-Royce ” of Gypsy wagons, they were built in the town of Reading, England. With a narrow interior floor and outward sloping walls, the Reading was typically highly carved and painted. The rear wheels were larger for extra stability, and the wagon featured windows as well as built-in front and back porches, plus a hayrack at the rear.

Ledge: Similar in design to the Reading, the Ledge had the same raised centre roof with windows, called a “mollicraft.” An even narrower interior floor resulted in a “ledge” jutting over the wheels on either side, allowing for more room inside above knee-level.

Bow Top: Resembling a gaily-painted covered wagon from the American West, the Bowtop had a rounded wooden frame tightly fitted with a felted wool pad and canvas cover, along with a front door and back window. Wheels extended beyond the wagon’s frame, with a larger wheel at the rear.

Open lot: A more basic version of a Bow Top, the Open lot’s front doorframe is covered only by canvas, without the wooden door of the other wagon types.

Brush: The only wagon to have a door at the rear, this type was an emporium-on-wheels, with racks and display cases built onto the exterior to hold the brushes, mats, and other items that were for sale. Having the door at the rear allowed the proprietor to sell items out the back without unhitching the horse.

Burton: Similar to a circus wagon, the Burton was favoured by wealthy showmen travelling between fairs. Wheels were placed underneath a wider wagon floor, making more room for the luxurious fittings inside.

There has been a further step in the evolution of the Bow Top. You can, if you so desire, purchase a handmade traditional towable bow top wagon. These wagons are built onto a standard caravan chassis, this allows for towing by a motorised vehicle. I think they are brilliant. They can be viewed at:

Upper image: Wagon and Bender Tent next to it.

Middle image: Towable Bow Top wagon (courtesy of

Lower image: Traditional Bow Top with Horse.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Irish Travellers.

Irish Travellers.

The name "Travellers" refers to a roaming Irish ethnic group. Irish Travellers are a group of people with a separate identity, culture and history, although they are as fully Irish as the rest of us. They have their own language known as ‘cant’ or ‘gammon’ and academics sometimes refer to it as ‘shelta’ and travellers will use this language to speak to each other. Irish travellers are native to Ireland and have been part of Irish society for hundreds of years and while their history is largely unrecorded they are recorded before the 12th century.

Occupations within the travellers traditionally include tinsmithing, seasonal farm work, selling door-to-door and scrap metal recycling. Some of these jobs are becoming rarer within the community such as tinsmithing and many travellers today have diversified into other areas such as market trading and antique dealing. Some travellers have their own business such as shops and garages and others are employed in community enterprises, voluntary organisations and training centres. However, just as in the settled community there are some travellers who are unskilled and dependent on social welfare in order to survive.

As stated earlier, there is not a great deal of historical research on the Traveller way of life although there are references to various nomadic groups dating back to the 12th and even the 5th century. Travellers were craftsmen, entertainers, message carriers, horse traders, and provided a variety of skills. They were involved in specific economic activity throughout history that can be associated with a nomadic way of life. As industrialisation brought new methods of communication and cheap plastic, Travellers as with other groups in Ireland began to experience a change in their role in Irish society and had to adapt their lifestyle to accommodate these changes. Under many pressures to adopt a sedentary or settled lifestyle Travellers have resisted and have proved their ability to survive and maintain their cultural identity. This identity has a number of common features, history and experiences; it has an oral tradition, and value system that sets it apart from the settled community. Travellers also have a history of having to protect that identity from the attempts made to assimilate them into the majority population.

Travellers have been largely ignored in the literature of the “Great Tradition”. Not all families originated at the same time or in the same way. Some Traveller families date back centuries while others have adopted a travelling lifestyle in relatively recent times. “Tinker” and “Tynkere” first appear as trade surnames during the 12th century. This word comes from the word “Tinceard” which means tincraft and it suggests that at this time there was clearly a group of Travelling crafts people who made and mended pots and pans and who played an important role in Irish history. The itinerant tinsmith or “white-smith” as well as tanners, musicians, bards and artisans travelled throughout Ireland fashioning jewellery, weapons and horse trappings out of bronze, silver and gold in exchange for food and lodging. Today, Travellers are characterized by a growing solidarity and Political activism based on their own increased sense of ethnic or group identification as Travelling People.

In order to preserve their unique identity, Travellers operate within a type of social separation Interaction between Travellers and other Irish people is typically limited to economic exchanges and brief instrumental encounters with bureaucrats or institutional representatives such as the police, welfare, and hospital personnel. Practices of some Travellers (e.g., keeping unsightly campsites, drinking in public, aggressive selling tactics) reinforce social distance between members of the two groups. However, prejudice and discrimination have played a larger role in segregating the two communities. Government proposals to build official campsites for Travellers are invariably rejected by the local Community. Most people avoid any interaction with Travellers; very few would consider marrying a Traveller. Since the mid-1960s, the Irish government has attempted to solve what it labeled "the itinerant problem," that is, the existence of Traveller families living on the roadside in tents and wagons without basic amenities such as running water, toilets, and electric lights. The solution was believed to lie in settlement, in placing families on serviced government campsites and in houses from which they could send their children to school, get wage-labour jobs, and learn to live a settled life. Assimilation was the goal. Since then, however, Travellers have become more vocal and politicized. Political action groups have been organized in some cities. Travellers now consider themselves to be an ethnic group with the rights to maintain their own identity and life-style while enjoying the privileges of other citizens.

Travellers used to travel in horse drawn wagons that were called barrel top or vardo wagons and before that with donkeys and tents. Now most Travellers have trailers ( caravans) and motor vehicles if they are still on the road. Traditionally Travellers burned the wagon that the person died in. In modern times many may not wish to continue to live in the trailer, the home that some nomadic families now live in, if a person dies there.

Many Travellers now live on sites, both council and private, some have moved into houses and many still have nowhere to camp and live on unauthorised sites constantly being moved on. Travellers have a common ancestry and one is born a Traveller. Their contribution to music and story-telling has been of great importance to these traditions. Travellers were the link between isolated communities in a rural society. They carried the music, stories and news from village to village. They also kept these traditions alive during the oppression of the British, who tried to destroy Irish Culture. Travellers were more difficult to restrict as they were moving from place to place. They have been subject to oppression and discrimination and have often hidden their identity to avoid discrimination, especially if they have moved into housing. Travellers have the same rights as the majority population and now have protection under the Race Relations Act in Ireland as a recognised ethnic minority community.

Top image: Bow top caravan “Esmeralda”.

Middle image: A Vardo caravan.

Bottom image: A Bow top caravan and a Vardo caravan.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011



Lughnasadh is the beginning of the harvest season, also known as The harvest of the first fruits’ (Anglo-Saxon), and the time of the funeral games of the Celtic goddess Tailtiu. Tailtiu died clearing a forest so that the land could be cultivated. As she lay on her death bed she spoke to those that had gathered around her. She asked that funeral games be instituted in her honour and that her foster son Lugh should lead the games.

Tailtiu prophesied that as long as the games were held Ireland would be known for its song. Tailtiu gave her name to Teltown, County Meath, and it was there that the festival of Lughnasadh was traditionally held, eventually evolving into a huge tribal gathering. It was here that the High King presided over legal agreements, disputes and political problems of the day. It was also here that athletes competed against each other, artists and entertainers showed off their talents and traders gathered to sell their wares. Another important ritual that was to take place was that of ‘Handfasting’ where couples would be joined together for a year and a day, if all went well then it would become a permanent arrangement and if not they would return the following year to separate.

Throughout the centuries we have celebrated the harvest and we still continue to do so. Lughnasadh has been given additional names over the years, here in our corner of County Mayo it is also known as Reek Sunday or Garland Sunday and people climb our local mountain Croagh Patrick (known locally as the ‘Reek’). In some areas it is known as ‘Bilberry Sunday’ again celebrations include climbing a local hill or mountain. Some will call it Lammas (Anglo-Saxon).

In some parts of Ireland the nearest Sunday to Lughnasadh was known as Cally Sunday. It was the traditional day to lift the first new potatoes. The man of the house would dig the first stalk while the woman of the house would wear a new white apron and cook them, covering the kitchen floor with green rushes in their honour. The family would give thanks that the 'Hungry Month' of July was over and the harvest had begun. Though initially the custom of first fruits usually applied to grain, in later days, when grain crops were the province of large landowners, common people had no grain of their own to offer. The first fruits custom was then transferred to potatoes, an offering available to everyone with a patch of ground, and widely grown as a subsistence crop. Cally is a mixture of potato mashed together with butter, milk and sliced onion.

Lughnasadh was also a time when people would visit sacred/holy wells and leave offerings and by visiting the hilltops and the wells you were celebrating both the summit and the depths of the earth. Another name that is used for Lughnasadh gatherings is ‘Wake Fairs’, in Ireland a wake is the time spent keeping the body of someone that has died company until it has been buried. It is a time to celebrate the person’s life and we have food, drink and tobacco. We tell stories of their life and some may be very funny. One way we celebrate Lughnasadh is by having a wake for the corn god and we place a symbol of the corn god in the field after harvest. The offering/symbol is usually in the shape of a corn dolly. Before Christianity took hold in Ireland (and even afterwards) within the traditional pagan agricultural culture it was believed that the spirit of the corn lived amongst the crop, and that when the crop was harvested it was made effectively homeless. The people believed a spirit lived in the field and as they cut the harvest the spirit retreated before them. The last bunch of corn was kept and given to the oldest man to plait and keep it on the wall until the following year's crop was sewn when the spirit would be returned to the field by being shaken from last year’s corn bunch.

Corn Dolly making is an ancient craft going back thousands of years, when as previously stated, it was thought that a spirit lived in the cornfields. To preserve this spirit at harvest time, and ensure the success of next year's harvest, a corn dolly was made for it to rest in. Ivy was a symbol of rebirth, and so it wasn't uncommon to dress the corn doll with a headdress of ivy. The Corn Dolly was originally made to appease the corn spirit with the hope of a good harvest the following year. Traces of corn dolly shapes have been found dating back to 2000 B.C. and it has always been the tradition to plough the previous year’s dolly back into the field the following year.

We will celebrate Lughnasadh by holding our ritual followed by feasting on the foods of the harvest and a few drinks. We will have music, song and maybe a story or two. However you choose to celebrate your Lughnasadh, may your harvest be a fruitful one, may the sun shine for you and may you reap the rewards you deserve for all your hard work.

Keep smiling and blessings of Lugh to you all.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Barnes Mystery

I’m putting this post up because it concerns an Irish woman in Victorian England, I found it to be quite interesting.

The Barnes Mystery.

A skull identified as that of a murder victim from sometime in the late 19th century has been unearthed by workmen in the backyard of naturalist David Attenborough’s south west London home. It has been suggested that it is the skull of Julia Martha Thomas, age 55, who died in 1855. However, it is the circumstances of her death rather than the discovery of her skull that is of interest to this blog as it concerns an Irish woman whose name was Kate Webster.

The Bowl of Lard.

On the 13th January 1879 Julia Martha Thomas of No. 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond Hill. The number thirteen has long been considered unlucky by some and for Mrs Thomas it certainly appeared so for it was on this day she would make a mistake that would ultimately cost her life. She took into her employ a maid, but unknown to her this maid was a convicted thief, fraudster and all round nasty piece of work by the name of Kate Walker. An ex con just released and on the lookout for easy pickings. Unluckily for Mrs Thomas, Kate Walker had turned down a job because; as she said later “There weren’t anything worth nicking”

Now, at first, the two women got on rather well but this did not last for Kate Walker had no intention of working hard and her sloppiness annoyed Mrs Thomas. Walker was a heavy drinker and threatening, intimidating Mrs Thomas by her aggressive manner and on the 28th February Mrs Thomas plucked up her courage and sacked her. Unfortunately Mrs Thomas was a kind old soul and Kate Walker preyed on this, she asked would she be allowed to stay on for a couple of days to give her some chance of finding other employment elsewhere. Sadly for Mrs Thomas, she agreed.

On the evening of Sunday the 2nd of March 1879, Mrs Thomas went to church as usual but was seen to leave the service early in an agitated state. This was to be the last time that Julia Martha Thomas was seen alive. The following Tuesday afternoon Kate Webster went to see some friends; she was seen wearing a very smart silk dress of some value, and carrying a heavy looking Gladstone bag. She mentioned to her friends that she had come into some property, her aunt, having died had left her a house complete with contents and she asked them if they had any contacts that could help with its disposal. Her friends (called Porter), asked Kate if they could have a private talk as they considered her request and so Kate went for a walk, taking the Gladstone bag with her. After a time she returned but without the Gladstone bag and later that evening the Porter’s son, Robert, was to help Kate carry a heavy box down to Richmond Bridge, she explained to Robert that someone was meeting her there and taking the box from her but later on when questioned he was to say”as I walked away I heard a loud splash as if something heavy had hit the water”

The following day, a coalman recovered the box from the Thames and thinking himself lucky imagine his horror when breaking it open he found bits of what was later identified as ‘parts of a female body’, apparently boiled. Unfortunately, the head was missing so it was impossible for the police of the time to take the case any further (Pre D.N.A.). It became know by both the police and the press as ‘The Barnes Mystery’.

Kate Webster was now walking around the streets of south west London wearing the late Mrs Thomas’s clothes and jewellery and was even calling herself “Mrs Thomas” and it was under this name that she persuaded a general dealer to buy the contents of No 2 Vine Cottages. Now she had some money in her pocket she went on a cruise up the river, enjoying her new found wealth, unaware that the noose was beginning to tighten around her neck.

Remember Robert Porter, the young man who helped Kate Walker carry the box down to the bridge? Well he was also an avid reader of gruesome murder stories in the newspapers. He mentioned to his father Henry Potter, (No, not Harry), that the box described in the “Barnes Mystery” was the same box that he had helped Kate Webster with, the one he heard drop into the Thames. At the same time the general dealer that had bought the contents of No 2 Vine Cottages was looking through said contents and came across a dress that had inside one of the pockets a letter addressed to a Mr Menhennick, an acquaintance of the real Mrs Thomas. The dealer became suspicious and so he and Mr Potter paid Mr Menhennick a visit. After discussing the various coincidences they came to the conclusion that the body in the box may well be Mrs Thomas.

They went to the police and after explaining their suspicions the police came to the same conclusion, enough to convince them to carry out a search of No 2 Vine Cottages. They were to find an axe and a large copper tub that contained fatty acids that suggested Mrs Thomas had been battered to death, chopped into pieces and then boiled down, anything that was left went into the box and the Gladstone bag. An arrest warrant was issued and before long Kate Webster was apprehended, taken to Richmond Police Station and charged with murder. Of course she denied it, she even went as far as accusing Henry Porter and the General Dealer (Mr John Church) of the crime but it carried no weight.

She was tried at the Old Bailey and on the 8th July 1879. The police officer in charge of the case, Detective Inspector David Bolton outlined the events as he found them to the coroner, “Realizing she had injured her she proceeded to strangle her to stop her from screaming and getting her in trouble. Webster decided to do away with the body and used a razor to chop off the head. Having decapitated her she used a razor, a meat saw and a carving knife to cut the body up, the dismembered body was put into a copper laundry vessel and she proceeded to boil up the body parts of Thomas,” he said.

Kate Walker was found guilty of the murder of Julia Martha Thomas. She was hanged by William Marwood on the 29th July 1879 at Wandsworth Prison; she was the only woman to ever hang there. It is reported that her last words were “Lord, have mercy upon me”

There is one last twist to the story, after the execution the Victorian commentator Mr Henry Mayhew met a boy who knew Kate Webster. A few days after she had murdered Mrs Thomas she had offered the boy and some of his friends a free meal with these words:

“Ear you lot, I’ve some lovely pig’s lard ‘ere, you kids can have it free of charge, don’t go saying that Kate Webster never gives you nothing.

He said she then gave them two big bowls of lard and hunks of bread.

“Eat it all up now me dears its awful good for you, and when you’ve finished lick the bowls and sell them, you’ll get a copper or two for them.

Now I’m not suggesting what was in the bowls but I’ll bet it was full of body.

More than a century after the murder the West London Coroner, Alison Thompson formally acknowledged the skull found as that of Julia Martha Thomas. Police were able to provide conclusive evidence proving that the skull was that off the victim. Julia Martha Thomas and the “Barnes Mystery” case can now be laid to rest.

For those born in the month of August.

Hazel - The Knower

August 5 – September 1

For those of you born under the energy of this tree you are extremely intelligent. You are organised and efficient and you are a gifted academic that will shine in the classroom. You have an amazing memory and are able to retain facts and information that will really impress other people in your life. You have a very sharp eye for detail and you like things to be ‘just right’. Sometimes you may appear to be obsessively compulsive and you may need to watch out for this in the future. You are very good with numbers, science and analysing problems. You like to make the rules but not necessarily playing by them. You are very good at mediating between people and are trusted to know the truth of a situation when you see it. Sometimes you may be guilty of over analysing things and you may be a little too critical of those around you and you should not pry into the affairs of others. You can also be paranoid at times and this can lead you to feelings of low esteem and a lack of self worth. You are very energetic although there are times when this could just be nervous energy so either channel it into something useful or slow down or you may develop a migraine or severe headache. Those born under the sign of the Hazel are artistic and practical; they are creators of things of beauty that can be used for practical purposes. They tend to dislike waste of any kind, rational and logical with a clear understanding of life. You are honest, caring and trustworthy. You will make someone a great partner and when the time comes a loving parent but try not to over indulge those you love as they may take advantage.

Remember this is just for a bit of craic and enjoyment.