Saturday, August 25, 2012

Inishkea and Inishglora.

Inishkea and Inishglora.

Off the County Mayo coast, caressed by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean we have a number of beautiful Islands.  The little Island of Inishkea was named after a woman called Kea or Gedia who founded a small community of nuns on the Island.  On this Island there is an inhabitant that is of a different kind, a lonely crane.  From the beginning of time he has been there, perched high on a rock looking out over the sea, he ignores all of the other sea birds and is never visited by any of his own kind.  All life passes him by as if it is but a shadow and still he remains, standing there in solitude and there he will remain, keeping vigil until the end of time.  It was here after flying along the west coast that the Children of Lír met the lonely crane and he asked them “What sort of birds are you that speak with human voices?”, and they told him of the long sad story regarding their enchantment and exile by the wicked witch.  The local people cannot explain the legend, they just accept it.
Nearby is the small Island of Inishglora, it is steeped in legend and superstition.  Folklore suggests that it is upon this Island that the Children of Lír are buried It is said that the end of their enchantment coincided with the arrival of Saint Brendan on Inishglora.  St Brendan had a church built on the Island and every Sunday the swans attended Mass there, sitting on the roof of Teampall na bhFear (Church of the men) and every time the communion host was raised the swans drooped their wings and bent their necks.  It was said that Saint Brendan rewarded their devotion by baptising them whereupon they immediately regained their human form, but only for a few moments before they were to crumble into dust (they were over 900 years old). However, before they turned to dust one of the Children of Lír called Fionnuala gave instructions for their burial.  She asked for a wide grave to be dug near the little church; and the Children of Lír were buried together, as Fionnuala had directed-Conn at her right hand, Ficra at her left, and Aed standing before her face. Saint Brendan raised a grave-mound over them, placing a tombstone on it, with their names engraved in Ogham; after which he uttered a lament for them, and their funeral rites were performed.  Tradition tells us that while the Gaughan family lived on the Island they kept the grave covered with white stones, it is still tended to this day by one of the locals who travels across from the mainland.

There is another great legend that concerns the Island of Inishglora which states that bodies buried there do not corrupt because it is believed that its air and soil had a special power, it preserved the bodies of the dead from decay.  Instead of being buried, the corpses were brought to the island, where they were left lying above ground in the open air. They retained their ordinary looks unchanged, and their nails and hair grew quite naturally; so that a person was able to recognise not only his father and grandfather, but even his ancestors. This is mentioned in the Book of Ballymote as one of the wonders of Ireland and O'Flaherty says of it in his Ogyia ;-

"At Inisglóire in view of lrrus shore,
Should we the bodies of our sires explore,
We'd find them blooming, both nails and hair,
No human-flesh can fade or perish there."13

Gerald of Wales, writing in 1146, went even further :-

"ln this island human corpses are not buried and do not putrefy, but are placed in the open and remain without corruption. Here men see with some wonder and recognise their grandfathers, great grandfathers, and great great grandfathers and a long line of ancestors''.

Of course if you visited the Island today you will not see piles of unburied bodies littering up the place. May be their descendents returned to the Island and buried them but this could have been a missed tourist opportunity (no offence intended).  However, local people claim that the story was true until the monks left the island.
It is also claimed that rats or mice cannot live there and that sand or clay from the island would banish these pests even on the mainland. Gerald of Wales had no doubt about it. He wrote :-

''There is another remarkable thing about this island.While the whole of Ireland is infested with mice, there is not a single mouse here. For no mouse is bred here, nor does one live if it be brought in. if by any chance it is brought in, it makes straight for the nearest point of the sea and throws itself in; if it be prevented, it dies on the spot. ''
There is a less well-known tradition that infertile couples who did a station there were blessed with a family. Having done the station they repaired to a special bed on the island - Leaba na h-Athchuinge. One of the earliest fertility clinics! We are also told that Inishglora is frequented by a curious blackbird, whose only other habitation in Ireland is Sceilg Mhicíl.

No one lives on the Island today but there you will find the ruins of old buildings, there are fragments of two churches Teampall na bhFear (Church of the men) and Teampall na mBan (Church of the women). There are some beehive huts where the monks would have lived although these may predate Christianity and may just have been recycled by the monks?  There is a well,, known as Saint Brendan’s well with steps leading down to it.  This well has its own superstition, it states that if a woman takes water from the well it will turn to blood and it will be full of worms, this has been put to the test and has been found to be untrue.  Could this superstition be based on some practical reasons?  It may have something to do with lonely monks going down the steps into a lonely dark place and meeting a lonely nun fetching water, of course we all know what can happen then don’t we, IT WAS THE WATERS FAULT. So there you have it, the women had to be kept away from the well. You will still find garden herbs introduced by the monks and nuns hundreds of years ago growing wild all over the Island, locals say that the herbs will grow until the end of time. May be they will, who can say.
One last interesting point, it is claimed that in the past all ships sailing by the Island lowered their top-sails to honour Saint Brendan the Navigator who founded the settlement there. So next time you see one of the local boats lowering their sails or sounding their horns you’ll know why.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Arney Woman.

The Arney Woman.

Here in Ireland we have an old saying-“A man who dies owing money or a woman who leaves a newborn baby will never lie quiet in the grave” Talk about making people feel guilty when they are at their most vulnerable?

The dead were considered to be very possessive and would return from the grave to claim what was rightfully theirs.  This was especially true regarding a mother and her child and it was widely believed within rural areas that if a mother died during childbirth she would return to care for the baby.  However there was a more macabre side to this belief for sometimes the dead mother missed the child so much that she would return to carry the baby back to her grave. One way to prevent this was to lay the clothes of the father across the foot of the baby’s cot/cradle, this would act as a protection against the fairies and the dead until the child could be baptised. If a child were to be taken before baptism it would be lost to the world of the living forever.  Isn’t it wonderful what stories the church made up in order to control the populace?

The story that follows concerns one of these poor unfortunate women, once well known it is a tale that is rich in folklore. However, like so many of the old stories it is becoming little more than a fading memory.  It is our job to make sure that the stories that make up such a rich tapestry are retold and in this way they will continue to be passed down to the next generation.

The Arney Woman.

Roughly three miles from Gilleese’s public house at the Arney crossroads a man called Peter Maguire and his wife set up home. Peter was a local carpenter, known by everyone as a kind decent man, quiet but friendly and always ready to help his neighbours. He never had a bad word to say about anyone and could always be relied upon; his wife however was a horse of a different colour.  Mrs Maguire was described by the locals as surly, sullen, miserable, and bad tempered; of course it may have had something to do with the fact that she wasn’t a local girl?

Peter’s wife was from the far side of Bellanaleck which was the next village up the road; no one knew anything about her or her people.  The locals considered her to be unfriendly and it was even said that she would sooner issue a curse than a blessing.  As a ‘Blow in’ she had strange ways about her, she had vibrant red hair, very pale skin, and a physical deformity as one of her legs was shorter than the other resulting in a very pronounced limp. Around the Arney area these attributes marked her out to be a witch; she never attended mass in the local church so the locals decided that she was in league with the faeries, the devil and any number of evil demons. Well what do you expect from a blow in?

Despite all of this, Peter Maguire was very happy and totally unaware of what his good neighbours were saying behind his back. His wife was a good cook, she kept a neat house, she was a quiet woman, at least when she appeared in public with him, The locals however believed that this was all an act and that she must have led Peter a dog’s life with her controlling ways and her foreign habits (blow in), they decided she had put Peter under an evil spell. People began to avoid looking at her and local farmers kept their animals away from her during market day as it was feared that she would put the evil eye on them.

A year after they were married some of the local women began to notice that Mrs Maguire was putting on a little weight around the middle and soon Peter announced the good news, he was going to be a father, of course his wife said nothing and she was as bad tempered as usual.  Some of the local women attempted to make friends with her, they called to the Maguire’s cottage to wish her well and offer advice but they found Peter’s wife to be very cold and unfriendly and they soon left.  However, the women noticed that the pregnancy was taking an awful toll on her, they said she seemed to be wasting away and soon the rumours began to spread for it was well known that those who had fairy connections have great trouble carrying and delivering their children.  Soon the time arrived for the baby to be born but even then Peter’s wife wanted nothing to do with the local women, even though many of them were ‘wise women’ experienced in the ways of the midwife. 

On the night of the birth Peter ran to a neighbour’s cottage and battered on the door, the baby was coming but his wife was very ill, if she didn’t get help he feared she may not survive.  The neighbours ran to Peter’s cottage, they managed to save the baby, a little boy, but they could do nothing for her and by morning she was dead. Of course some said it was no more than she deserved and that it was no bad thing that she had died.  There was no funeral in Arney graveyard, Peter was struggling to look after his baby and trying to come to terms with his grief so the locals took it upon themselves to send the body back to Bellanaleck where she came from, let them bury her because she wasn’t an Arney woman.

Time passed and the baby was in good health, Peter employed a young local woman to act as a wet nurse and to look after his son during the day and at night the baby slept at the foot of Peter’s bed in a cot that he had made for him and here the story should have ended. However, it was not to be.

One dark night, a few weeks after his wife’s death, Peter was woken from his sleep by the sound of scratching from outside his bedroom window, he got out of bed and looked out into the darkness but saw nothing, he checked on his son who was sleeping peacefully and went back to his bed. No sooner had he got under the blankets than he heard scratching again, he got out of bed once more muttering under his breath and once again looked out of the window into the darkness.  He staggered backwards, his heart clutched by the ice cold fingers of fear for standing there looking in was his dead wife.  Her face as deathly pale, her eyes lifeless and her once vibrant red hair hung matted and listless.  Peter felt a chill so cold that it felt as though his blood was freezing in his veins, it was her eyes that chilled him most of all for they appeared to be looking right past him and into the room.

 He turned to see what it was that she was looking at, her eyes were fixed upon the cot where Peter’s son lay sleeping and in that awful moment he knew why she had returned, she’d come for the baby.  He stared at her in terror, suddenly she vanished and he heard rattling at the door cottage, his heart missed a beat but then he remembered that he had bolted the door before going to bed, he sighed in relief.  His relief was short lived for suddenly he heard the sound of wood splintering and the outside door creaked open, she was in the cottage.

Peter was shocked into action; he placed himself between the bedroom door and his son’s cot.  There was a crack in one of the panels of the bedroom door and he saw her looking through it, a shaft of moonlight shone onto her hard stare but instead of coming into the room she moved away and into the kitchen area.  Peter held his breath, suddenly he heard the sound of movement and cupboards opening and closing, he peered through the crack of the door. The moonlight lit up the kitchen and he saw his dead wife devouring some cheese he had left in one of the cupboards, having satisfied her hunger she turned, went through the broken door and disappeared into the darkness.  Peter collapsed onto his knees, shocked, confused, and shivering in fright he began to imagine what could have happened. He prayed to god that his dead wife return to her grave and leave him and his son in peace.  Peter then remembered the old story about the walking dead and how to protect his child; he placed his clothes on the end of the cot and hoped that his god would answer his prayers.  If only it were that simple.

This sequence of events happened night after night, Peter’s wife returning only to search for food and leave.  Every night Peter cowered in his room, terrified of confronting the thing that used to be his wife, he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work and spending his waking daytime hours in terror. It couldn’t go on; if she came again he would have to seek outside help, but what of his neighbours?

One night just as darkness fell, one of Maguire’s neighbours, a man called William Nixon was walking to Gilleese’s public house when to his horror he saw Peter’s dead wife walking the road between the pub and Maguire’s cottage.  She was dragging her bad leg behind her and keeping close to the hedge, her matted red hair had grown longer and was covered in lice and graveyard dirt; her filthy fingernails had grown and looked like the claws of a wild animal.  William ran to the pub and it was to take several shots of whiskey before he stopped shaking and was able to talk about what he had seen.

Back at Maguire’s cottage, Peter heard scratching at the window, he had brought his son into bed with him in order to protect him and he pulled the blankets over their heads.  He began to say his prayers, begging god for help, but it was to no avail.  The baby started crying and the sound of scratching began to intensify, becoming more frantic, then all went quiet.  Peter lowered the blankets and peeked out, he heard the bolts on the cottage door rattle but he had strengthened them and the corpse found the door barred against her. To Peter’s horror the baby started crying again and the sound seemed to incense the corpse, with a loud tearing noise the bolts gave way and she came crashing into the kitchen.

Peter shouted “In the Name of God go back to your grave and leave us in peace” It did no good, not even the name of god made any difference for as he held his son tight to his chest he saw his bedroom door slowly creak open.  Peter’s heart nearly stopped, she was in the room, standing at the foot of his bed looking into the empty cot she drew her dirt encrusted fingernails across the little white pillow where the baby had left an imprint of his head. Peter heard a low growl coming from her throat as she moved back through the door and back into the kitchen, from there she went out through the cottage door into the darkness. If something wasn’t done now then next time it may be too late.

Later that day Peter went to see his parish priest. The priest was from a rural background and was scared stiff when he heard Peter’s story, he had already heard his parishioners whispering about the strange things happening up at the Maguire cottage and even though Peter begged him in the name of god to help him he refused.  He did however offer to pray for him and he sent Peter away with a crucifix blessed by the bishop saying this would solve all his problems and don’t forget to put a few bob in the collection box.  Peter sadly walked away, disappointed and feeling abandoned, needless to say he kept his money in his pocket.

That night as dusk began to fall Peter took up a position by the window looking towards Arney crossroads; it was from this direction that his dead wife would come. Once again he threw his clothes over his son’s cot in order to protect him from evil and harm then he waited. As the sun slowly sank in the sky and twilight settled in Peter saw his dead wife walking slowly up the road, she was dragging her leg and keeping well in to the hedge. Peter gripped his crucifix tightly and as she dragged her finger nails across the glass of the window he thrust the cross against the pane but it only seemed to annoy her.  Her face was a mask of hatred, her mouth working as if cursing him although there was no sound. She turned and was gone from the window only to once more throw herself against the cottage door. Peter heard the door splinter and she was into the cottage again.

Peter raised the crucifix, keeping one hand on the coat that lay protectively across the foot of the cot where his son was sleeping, “Get back to your grave, you’ll never have my child, leave us alone”, the corpse turned and left the way she had come and Peter watched her limp away knowing that she would return, only now Peter had a plan forming in his mind.

Near the Bars of Boho lived Ellen Mohan, she was known locally as Grey Ellen and it was widely believed that her lonely and isolated cottage was frequented by ‘The Gentry’ (the faerie folk).  She was aid to be very wise in the ‘old ways’ and had been given special powers by the fairies, it was Grey Ellen that Peter went to for advice.  He left his son with his sister and was anxious to return home before nightfall so even though he was scared he approached Grey Ellen’s cottage, knocked on the door and entered.  Peter told her his tale and it was only then that she spoke. “The walking dead is it? And ye’ve been to the priest, for all the good that will do ye for it’s well known that for all their big books and fancy learning the church knows nothing about the old ways”. Leaning towards Peter she gripped his arm with her bony hand, “The church is only any good if its backed up by the older powers of the earth and the land, now tell me does your wife wear any boots when she visits you?”, Peter thought for a moment, “No” he said, “She always comes barefoot and dressed for the grave”.  Grey Ellen asked him if he knew why this was and Peter shook his head, “It’s because of the iron nails in them” said Ellen, “Iron was always a magic metal from the old times, more powerful than the cross the priest gave you. Faeries and the walking dead can’t stand it anywhere near them”

Grey Ellen went to a small box and took out a handful of iron nails, handing them to Peter she told him to wear one on a string around his neck and to place another around his son’s neck.  When the corpse comes again she told him to throw a handful at her and that this would drive her away.  Peter took the nails, thanked her and left.  When he arrived at his sister’s cottage he took the cross from around his son’s neck and replaced it with a nail much to his sister’s amazement and set off for home.

By the time he arrived back at the cottage it was getting dark, Peter lit a lamp and put his son into his cot, placed his coat over him for protection and decided to go to bed and wait to see what the night would bring. As he turned he saw his reflection in a little mirror hanging on a nail by his bed, he looked old and weary, a lot older than his years.  As he stood gazing at himself he saw reflected in the glass the old wardrobe containing his wife’s clothes, suddenly he froze and his mouth went dry, the wardrobe door was opening slowly, long dirt encrusted fingernails curled around the edge of the door. Peter watched in horror as his dead wife’s head appeared, her eyes full of hatred, her long red hair dropping graveyard dirt and crawling insects onto the bedroom floor.  She sprang towards the cot with hands outstretched, Peter tried to stop her but she moved with supernatural speed. Suddenly she stopped and let out a terrible scream; she raised her head and looked at Peter, her eyes ablaze with hatred for she had seen the nail around the child’s neck. She spat and hissed making desperate snatching motions over the cot.
Peter cowered in terror but he realised it was the power of the iron nails that had prevented her from taking his son. Suddenly he remembered the nails he carried in his pocket and he flung a handful at her, she screamed and jumped back in fear, “Get back to your grave ye old witch” he roared. Seeing a single nail that had fallen to the side of the cot he picked it up and threw it at her, it caught her on her pale waxy cheek and the dead skin began to sizzle and burn. Once again she let out a blood curdling scream and ran out the cottage door into the darkness.  That horrific night was to be the last time Peter Maguire was to see his dead wife. Peter’s son eventually grew into a strong and sturdy young man who looked after his father in his old age, he married a local girl and his descendents still live in the area.

If ever you’re in the Arney area and fancy a quiet pint in Gilleese’s pub you may have to walk past the crossroads where Peter Maguire’s cottage used to stand my advice is walk fast and don’t stop, for the walking dead cast a long shadow.

Keep smiling.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Radiant Boy.

The Radiant Boy.

Within Irish folklore the ghosts of children are a common phenomenon that can be found in every part of the country.  The ghosts known as ‘Radiant Children’ have a supernatural appearance and are surrounded by a brilliant flickering glow.  They are considered warning ghosts (similar to the Banshee) and if you see one of them it means you may not have long to live.  The following story concerns one of these unusual phantoms.

In the mid 1700s Captain Robert Stewart, a British army officer stationed in Belfast was enjoying a few days hunting in County Derry.  It was a lovely day that had started off sunny but without warning the weather turned ugly and a fierce storm began.  Captain Stewart saw a light in the distance and needing shelter he rode towards it.  As he got nearer there appeared out of the gloom an old mansion, the light he had seen came from one of the windows and from within he heard the sound of merriment and laughter.

Captain Stewart dismounted and called for help, several man servants came to his assistance, they informed him that there was a party in progress and the house was full of guests.  However, the Captain was made very welcome by the master and mistress of the house who also invited him to attend the party.  After the party many of the guests went to their beds, outside the weather had worsened, by now the rain and wind was battering the walls of the old house so Stewart’s hosts insisted that he stay the night, have a good breakfast in the morning by which time the storm should have died out.  The master of the house called one of the old servants who was standing nearby and said to Captain Stewart

“Hamilton here will show you to your room”

Gratefully Captain Stewart accepted the offer, the room he was shown was sparsely furnished but the servants had set a large peat fire in the grate that threw out  both a great deal of heat and a sweet smell yet despite this the room had a distinct chill. Stewart lay on the bed and was soon asleep.  He had only been asleep a short time when he was woken by the sound of a child crying in the darkness, he lit the bedside candle and looked around the room but saw nothing and the sound slowly faded away.  Thinking that it must have been a trick of the wind he blew out his candle and was soon fast asleep.  However it wasn’t long before his sleep was disturbed once more, this time it was not the sound of crying but a grey light that flooded the room.  Half asleep Stewart jumped from his bed believing the house to be on fire, looking across the room he gasped at what he saw.  Crouched in a far corner was a naked boy, he was crying bitterly although the sounds he made seemed to come from far away.  Stewart approached the boy and asked him why he was weeping but the boy made no reply, he reached out to touch the boy on the shoulder and as he did so the boy vanished and the room was plunged into darkness.

The following morning Captain Stewart confronted his host complaining that he was the victim of some practical joke that was in extremely bad taste.  However, none of the guests knew anything about it and the whole thing seemed to be a mystery.  Summoning the old servant the master of the house asked him which room he had given to Captain Stewart, the servant replied. “Well, sir, the house was so full with all the other guests so I had a fire made up in one of the back rooms that we never use”.

The master’s face went pale, “You don’t mean the Boy’s Room?”

“Yes sir” the servant whispered, “I didn’t mean anything wrong, I mean it’s just an old story isn’t it?”

Captain Stewart asked “To what are you referring, are you saying that what I saw last night was more than just a child?”

His host nodded “Some things are beyond our understanding”

The Captain laughed for he was a military man and didn’t believe such nonsense, “You don’t mean a ghost, you can’t be serious?”

His host shook his head slowly, “Not exactly a ghost, more a vision. In our family there is an old tradition that the boy, we call him the Radiant Boy, appears only to those destined for great power. However, the person chosen is also destined to die a violent death”.

Captain Stewart laughed once more declaring that he had never heard the like, he then went on to spend the rest of the morning enjoying the hospitality of his hosts.  After lunch he made his farewells mounted his horse and headed back to Belfast.  He was never to see the old mansion again.

Years passed and Stewart rose did indeed rise to power eventually gaining a seat in the House of Lords with the title Lord Castlereagh. He was also a member of the British government under William Pitt serving first as Minister for War then as Foreign Secretary during the Napoleonic Wars.  He was extremely unpopular with the Irish people especially in regard to the part he played in the 1801 Act of Union.  He became ill and just one year after becoming the Marquis of Londonderry his mind collapsed.  At the age of 53 he committed suicide by slashing his own throat with a razor.  The prophecy had at last been fulfilled, he had risen to power, he had died a violent death filled with deep despair.

No one knows if the Radiant Boy ever existed as a real person so it is a matter of historical and folklore conjecture. The origin is lost in time although they seem to appear in the folklore of many different countries, is he a ghost, a spiritual remnant of a departed life, or is he a spirit emissary delivering a warning from the spirit world to those living that are destined to be touched by the far reaching hand of fate? It has even been suggested that the Radiant Boy is comparable to the Banshee in many ways and may only appear to certain families. Once again I will leave it to you the reader to decide.

Keep smiling.

The above image is of Captain Robert Stewart. 

A story by Mrs. Crow included in Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888)