Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Spiders and Tinsel.

Spiders and Tinsel.

There was a time when animals were allowed into the house at Christmas, even the milk cow and the family pig, this was said to be because Jesus was born in a stable amongst the animals.  However, housewife’s kept the spiders out because as everyone knows spiders are a bit messy leaving cobwebs all over the place.  It appears no one noticed the cow pats, pig droppings etc. 

When Santa arrived on Christmas Eve the spiders were very upset at being excluded and appealed to him for his help. Santa let them in so they could see the Christmas tree and they became so excited that they began to spin webs all over it.  Santa decided that the webs looked so pretty as they glistened in the moonlight he turned them into tinsel, the housewife’s were delighted and from that day onwards spiders have lived with humans.

And that is the story of how we came to have tinsel upon the Christmas tree.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Noreen the Ghost Doll.

This is a story that I’ve adapted from the many stories written concerning possessed dolls. Simply called:


A few years ago a woman that I’ll call Mary, bought an old doll that she saw in a charity shop window, it was worn and a little sorry looking but it seemed to have a certain attraction that she couldn’t explain...at the time.

When Mary returned home she put the doll on a chair in her bedroom and went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea.  All went well for a couple of weeks but one night Mary had difficulty sleeping, she kept waking up from a nightmare, this was to happen night after night.  Mary said that in her dream she was starving and her clothes hung loose and ragged from her thin body.

“I remember looking out through a small window into the yard and seeing other people, they had the appearance of skeletons covered with yellow looking skin. They didn’t walk it was more of a shuffle. It was then that I would wake up with a terrible thirst”.

Mary started to leave a sandwich and a drink on her bedside table so that she could eat if she woke up in the middle of the night but even though she ate a big meal before bedtime and even consumed the sandwich and drink when she woke through the night it didn’t seem to work. She still woke up in the morning starving hungry.

A visit to her doctor didn’t help either; she was given sleeping pills and told that she was suffering from anxiety brought about by some as yet unknown cause. The doctor told her to try to think of any changes that she may have made in her life recently, any new people she may have met or new foods that she may have eaten but Mary couldn’t think of any reason that would account for her strange dreams.  She began to look very drawn, dark shadows appeared under her red bloodshot and tired looking eyes. She became nervous and was afraid to sleep and soon people who knew her began to comment on her appearance, some even began to suspect that she was suffering from some illness. 

Her best friend eventually decided to question Mary to see if she could offer her any help. They sat at the kitchen table and one of the questions she asked her was about anything new or different that Mary may have brought into the home recently. The only thing Mary could think of was her purchase from the charity shop, the old doll. Her friend asked Mary if she could see the doll, of course Mary thought that her friend had lost her mind but nevertheless she went to her bedroom and brought the doll into the kitchen.

As soon as she saw the doll her friends face changed, she began to cry and she looked incredibly sad. She told Mary that the doll was extremely sad and didn’t know where she was. She desperately wanted love and missed her mammy.  Over the next couple of weeks things got worse, cold air, unexplained noises, and the sound of a young child crying. Mary called her friend.

Her friend suggested that they call on the services of a local woman who had a reputation for being sensitive to those who have gone before; some suggested that she had psychic abilities.  Mary didn’t really believe in that sort of thing but to be honest at this stage she was willing to try anything so she agreed. 

When she arrived she instantly knew there was a spirit in the house. She decided to conduct a séance and found that the spirit was willing and eager to communicate.  The spirit was within the body of the doll, it said that her name was Noreen and that she was only six years old when she died. Her father had left her and her mammy to find work on the roads scheme but didn’t come home so after a week or two her mammy had gone to look for him. She was left with what little food they had and her mammy promised to be back shortly and told her to be a good girl. But even though she had been very good her mammy and daddy didn’t come home.  Eventually Noreen decided to go and look for her parents as she had no food left, no water, and was very hungry. She walked for days but the only people she saw were also starving, there was a very bad smell in the air and it made her feel sick.

Eventually she reached a small town and there she saw a big stone building. She thought it was bigger than the Landlords house and was not surprised when she saw some nuns outside. They were handing out bowls of something hot as Noreen could see smoke rising from the bowls so she joined the long line. She said she was afraid that it would all be gone by the time she got to the front but eventually she was given a bowl of thin soup. The nun asked her where her parents were, Noreen didn’t know so she said the nun took her into the building and there she remained. She couldn’t get out, she said that shortly afterwards she began to feel very cold and everything was dark.

Mary couldn’t understand this until the medium explained that Noreen was describing her death. After some research Mary and her friends discovered the place that Noreen described, the stone building turned out to be a workhouse long gone now. The people who died there were buried in a mass grave, men, women, and children all thrown in together with no proper burial service. No record was kept of the children who died and were buried there so nothing could be done for Noreen’s spirit.

 She still sits on her little chair in Mary’s bedroom but now she appears to be a little happier. Mary talks to her every night and Noreen feels loved at last. Sometimes Mary can hear singing at night, it is the sound of a child’s voice and Noreen no longer feels lonely and afraid.
Happy Halloween.

Island of the Dolls.

The Island of the Dolls.

Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without a good ghost story.   In the 1950s a man by the name of Don Julian Santana Barrera left his wife and family and went to live on a small Island on a lake just outside of Mexico City. The Island is known as The Island of the Dolls.  The Island has a legend connected to it that began in the 1920s, three young girls were playing on the island when one of them fell into the deep dark waters and drowned.  The locals believed that the young girl’s spirit was trapped on the island and it soon gained a reputation of being haunted, the local people even refused to go near the island at night.  Why Santana began to believe that he was connected to this legend in some way is unknown. Perhaps he was suffering from some delusion or is it possible that the spirit of the dead child reached out to him in his dreams.  We will never know.

One story suggests that Santana found the girl’s body but was unable to save her.  Shortly after this event it is said that he found a doll floating just off the island, it most likely belonged to the little girl.  Santana picked the doll from the water and hung it upon the branch of a nearby tree as a way of showing his respect for her spirit. It is said that he began to dream of the girl and that she began to haunt his sleep and that he then began hanging more dolls in an attempt to please her spirit.  However, he soon realised that the dolls themselves were possessed by the spirits of other dead children and he started to place dolls on trees all around the island.

Another story tells us that Santana claimed that shortly after he made his home on the island the spirit of the little girl began to talk to him.  She told him of her tragic death and asked him to get some dolls for her to play with.  She told him that the dolls would ward off evil spirits that roamed the wetlands of the island.  Santana agreed and he began to acquire dolls for her which he hung from the branches of the trees.  He fished some old dolls out of the waters that ran past the island, he returned to the populated areas on the mainland where he visited rubbish dumps for discarded dolls and he even began to swap fruit and vegetables which he grew on the island with local people for old dolls they no longer wanted. 

Santana never cleaned or fixed the dolls, he left them as he found them, covered in dirt or missing limbs or eyes.  Even when the dolls were in good condition they soon succumbed to the effects of the weather and began to crack and distort as if suffering the stages of decomposition.  He kept his cabin filled with dolls which he dressed in clothes and sunglasses and although visitors to the island found it a little frightening he would offer to show them round and take their photographs. A service for which he charged a small fee.

As the years passed Santana lived a hermit like existence. However, in 1990 the Mexican government invested over a million dollars to clean up the area around the island. This brought more traffic onto the water way and as people travelled past the island they couldn’t help noticing thousands of mutilated dolls hanging from the trees upon the island.  Some people thought Santana had gone mad living as he did all alone on the island but most people just thought he was a harmless odd old man.  It was at this time that the island gained the name ‘The Island of Dolls’

If anyone asked about the dolls, Santana would explain about the young girl’s spirit and how no amount of dolls seemed to satisfy her need.  In April 2001, Santana told his nephew that it was becoming harder to resist the voices that called to him.  He told his nephew that the voices told him that he must join them in their watery grave.  That same day as his nephew was returning from doing some shopping for Santana he found him floating face down in the water.  His body was in the same spot near the pier where the little girl had drowned seventy years previously.  Santana’s family believe that he never got over finding the little girl’s body and his inability to save her life.  It was if he was driven by some unseen force that completely changed him.

Some people who visit the island today hear the dolls whisper to them; others will tell you that the soulless eyes of the dolls glare at you as though they resent your presence. Local people will tell you not to go near the island after the sun goes down.
Happy Halloween.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Mayo Folk Tales.

Those magic words “Once upon a time” have been spoken around the flickering flame of the turf fire by storytellers for thousands of years.  Within these pages you will find gathered together tales of County Mayo to ignite your imagination. Tales of Highway men and ghostly figures that roam the woods. Monsters that inhabit the deep waters of Lough Mask and creatures of the night that suck the life from those they visit. Stories that are part of the rich tapestry that makes up the folklore, myth and legend of Count Mayo.

You will be taken on a journey through the rugged landscape of the west coast of Ireland, to its holy mountain Croagh Patrick known locally as The Reek and across the waters of Clew Bay. Here you will read of Gráinne Uialle the Pirate Queen, the spectre known as the Fír Gorta who roamed the famine villages of west Mayo, and the Matchstalk man of Straide.

Within theses covers you will find the story of The Love Flower and two young lovers, the land of eternal youth known as Tír na Nog and the Night of the Big Wind and many more. So why not pull up a chair and sit awhile, you know you’re never too old for a story.
Mayo Folk Tales. To be released on the 3rd November 2014. Perfect Xmas present for those of you who enjoy folklore.  Signed copies can be purchased from me by sending an email to lockefamily@live.com  Also available in all good bookshops .
Keep smiling,

Monday, July 28, 2014

Ross Castle, County Meath.

Ross Castle, County Meath.

Ross Castle, County Meath is located overlooking Lough Sheelin.  It was built in the early 16th century by Richard Nugent, the 12th Baron Delvin.  He had a sinister reputation and was said to be ill tempered and cruel, possibly giving rise to his nickname, the Black Baron.  One story that illustrates his evil nature concerns the nearby village of Ross.  It all started when a local woman having baked a loaf of bread placed it upon the window sill of her cottage to cool.  A passing dog saw this as an opportunity to avail himself of a free meal and promptly grabbed the loaf and ran off with it.  The woman, seeing what had happened yelled out of the open window “Stop thief”, the dog dropped the loaf and headed for safety.

A beggar was passing through the village as this was going on, it was a warm day and as he felt a little tired he decided to rest under the shade of a tree.  The Baron and his entourage were out hunting along the shores of the lake, when he heard the story about the bread thief, he became angry as he felt any crime reflected upon his position as a Lord of the realm.  Unfortunately for the beggar, the Baron rode into the village to question the woman as to the theft when he saw the beggar sleeping under the tree.  The Baron demanded to know what he had done with the loaf and the beggar, knowing he had done nothing wrong, denied any knowledge of the crime.  The Baron flew into a rage and accused him of being a thief and a liar, the beggar begged him to believe him but the Baron refused to listen. As the local Lord he had the right to pass judgement as he saw fit and he immediately ordered the locals to provide a strong rope.  He hanged the poor beggar from the branch of the tree that shortly before had provided him with protection from the sun. Shortly afterwards the locals found the missing loaf.  They placed a cross at the place where the beggar was hanged and hundreds of years later the black deeds of that day are still remembered.

The Black Baron went on to have a daughter who they named Sabina. Although a sickly child she grew to be a beautiful young woman.  It is said that she loved walking along the shores of Lough Sheelin and that these walks brought her into contact with many of the local villagers.  Although she was the daughter of the cruel and evil Black Baron the locals knew her to be kind and she was well liked by all who knew her.  One fine day, as she was walking towards the bridge that crosses the River Inny she met a handsome young man and they began to exchange pleasantries.   His name was Orwin and he was the son of an O’Reilly chieftain, there was an immediate attraction and before parting company they agreed to meet again.  Their meetings had to be kept secret for she was the daughter of an English Lord and he was the son of an Irish chieftain and in those days any relationship between them would not have been looked upon favourably.  It wasn’t long before love blossomed.

As time passed they realised that they could never be together, they wanted to marry but knew their families would oppose such a union as the two sides were constantly at war with each other. Orwin and Sabina longed to be together and the only way this could become a reality was for them to run away together.  They knew that if they stayed there could be no future for them, one night they met in secrecy.  They had arranged a boat down by the lakeside and planned to row across the lake and into freedom; they climbed aboard and began their ill fated journey.  As they crossed the Lough a sudden storm began, these storms were well known in the area but this one caught them by surprise, a strong wind caused a swell that engulfed their boat and capsized it.  Sabina was rescued but lay in a coma for three days, Orwin was not so lucky, his body was eventually found, washed up on the shore.  Sabina, upon being told of her lover’s fate fell into a deep depression, she locked herself in the castle tower and refused to eat or drink. Eventually she fell into a deep sleep from which she never woke.

Locals believe that her ghost haunts the castle walls; it is as if she walks the battlements looking out over Lough Sheelin searching for her lost love, hoping in vain to be reunited with him.  Some people suggest that it is her revenge upon her father and his cruelty, he is cursed to wander through eternity by the victims of his cruelty, his evil deeds, and for the grief he suffers for the loss of his only daughter.

The Legend of Carrickaphouka Castle.

The Legend of Carrickaphouka Castle.

Cormac Tadgh McCarthy.

After the battle of Kinsale In 1601, Cormac Tadgh McCarthy, Lord of Muskery, was made High Sheriff of Cork County.  The new ruling English were having problems with the defeated Irish Lords who refused to obey their new masters and McCarthy was given the


job of rounding up troublemakers.  Carrickaphouka Castle had a sinister reputation; its name means’ Rock of the pooka’, which is one of the most feared creatures of the fairie realm.  The Pooka was a shape shifter and could take many different forms; sometimes a horse, a goat with large horns, or a black dog.  McCarthy’s Castle stood upon this rock and the Pooka was said to inhabit the castle and its evil spread through the veins of Cormac Tadgh McCarthy.

One of the most troublesome rebel Lords was James Fitzgerald who was extremely popular and had a large following among the displaced nobility.  McCarthy invited Fitzgerald to Carrickaphouka Castle under the pretence of broaching a peace agreement between the Irish rebels and the English.  The meal that was served to Fitzgerald was poisoned but McCarthy wasn’t satisfied with just killing Fitzgerald, he wanted to impress the English Lords who were present. 

McCarthy ordered that the body be drained of blood and then cooked. He then started to eat the flesh and wash it down with goblets of Fitzgerald’s blood, the English were horrified.  When news of the night’s proceedings was spread throughout the countryside all of Ireland was horrified and outraged by his behaviour. In order to remove themselves from association with these gruesome deeds McCarthy’s clansmen tried to say that he was possessed by the evil spirit of the pooka but to no avail. Cormac McCarthy had to flee to France where he disappeared into obscurity.

However, after his death, Cormac McCarthy’s spirit was drawn back to the castle. It has been suggested that due to his depravity and cannibalistic tendency’s he has returned as a vampire like demon. Today, the Castle lies in ruins, locals will tell you that the sounds of wailing and painful screams can be heard at night coming from the ruins.  Anyone unlucky enough to have to walk past the castle at night will be attacked by unseen claws that rip the skin badly enough to draw blood, which is then lapped up by some invisible tongue.  There have even been reports of fresh blood seen on the castle gates.



The ancient Celts believed that when they died their spirits travelled to the Otherworld, a place where the supernatural reigned, home of the dead and kingdom of the fairies.  This was a place of beauty or dread, hope or despair depending on how you had lived your life or even how you died.  At certain times the dead could return to the world of the living in order to influence decisions taken and even to interact with the living, they did not however return in spirit form but in a solid shape, in fact they might look just the same as when they were alive.  They would eat, drink, and make merry and join in with those activities which they enjoyed in life, in fact, here in Ireland it was a common custom to set an extra place at the table for the returning entity at certain times of the year such as Beltaine or Samhain.  It was at these times when the veil that separated the two worlds was at its thinnest, the barriers were down, and the dead could cross over. The dead didn’t just come back to enjoy earthly pleasures though, they could return in order to warn you of some impending disaster, to offer advice, to complete some unfinished business or to take revenge on those still living.

The coming of Christianity to Ireland changed the way death was viewed.  The pagan belief in the Otherworld did not really fit in with heaven and hell so a very clever compromise was reached. Purgatory, a place where the soul could wait before it was to receive its final reward or punishment, and of course it was to prove to be a lucrative compromise.  While the soul waited in purgatory its time there could be ended and the soul could carry on its journey to heaven and its final reward.  However there was a catch, in order to gain freedom from purgatory the soul required prayers to be said and a mass celebrated in its name, and the only one who could perform this function was the priest, who had to be paid for his service.  The church decided to set up a special day for the purpose of saying mass for the souls of the departed and this day was called All Souls Day and of course it just coincided with the Celtic festival of Samhain, now there’s a coincidence.  The church even taught the people that the dead could return for one night only and this was to remind the living of their obligation to them, and woe betide those who failed to pay, for the dead would have their revenge.  The Clergy also told their parishioners that this obligation to the dead included making sure that they had a proper Christian burial, of course the only one who could perform the ceremony was the priest, and of course he had to be paid.

This notion of the vengeful dead soon caught on, and people began to fear the returning spirits. They even thought that the dead would punish them by harming, their livestock or making them weak by drinking the blood of the cattle or other animals that they depended on for their livelihood.  It was just a short step from domestic beast of the field to their own families, if the animals could be attacked then why not the members of the family.  The myth of the vampire was born.  Years later we have our own Irish contribution to the vampire stories Carmilla, written by Sheridan Le Fanu and of course the most famous of all, Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Séan na Sagart.

Here is a story that has a connection to County Mayo. It’s about one of the vilest men County Mayo ever produced and his name was:


Séan na Sagart.

Who was Séan na Sagart?

He was born in 1690 in Derrew, near Ballyheane, County Mayo and his real name was John Mullowney.  Mullowney was a notorious horse thief and drunkard, a violent man who had absolutely no morals whatsoever, a truly despicable character.  He was arrested for horse stealing and sentenced to death by the Grand Jury in Castlebar. The case came to the attention of Bingham, another man of low character and high station, the High Sheriff of County Mayo and realising just how low this man would stoop he saw in him the potential to offer him a deal. If Mullowney agreed to join the ranks of the priest hunters then he would be spared the hangman’s noose. There was one condition; he would have his freedom provided he paid a certain rent each year-a priest’s head”. Mullowney agreed and before long he had gained a new name, that of Séan na Sagart or John of the priests.

The Penal Act of 1709 demanded that Catholic priests take an Oath of Abjuration recognising the right of the protestant crown of England and today it would be the same as swearing allegiance to the crown. In effect it denied the rights of James II and the Stuarts or other Catholic claimants to the crown of England. All clergy had to recognise the Protestant Queen Anne as Supreme Head of the Church of England and Ireland, any cleric that refused was sentenced to death or transportation for life by the Protestant controlled judicial system.  Out of an estimated two thousand Catholic priests in Ireland only thirty three took the oath. The law hoped to eradicate Catholicism in Ireland within two generations and bishops and clergy were banished and no new priests were permitted to enter the country, in this way the protestant ruling class believed they would gain complete control over the political, economic and social systems of Ireland

Mullowney was to prove to be extremely efficient in his new role and received £100 for the capture of an Archbishop or Bishop, £20 for a priest and £10 for a monk, a Jesuit, or a hedge school teacher an extraordinary amount of money at that time and money that Mullowney used to fund his habits of drinking, womanising, and newly found expensive tastes.  In common with today, wealth was the key that opened the doors to society and it wasn’t long before he became a welcome visitor to the homes of certain members of the Protestant gentry.  In fact he was a regular visitor to Newbrook House near Hollymount, Claremorriss then the residence of the Lord Clanmorriss of the Bingham family, a close relative and neighbour of another Bingham, Lord Lucan. The Bingham’s hated the Catholics and the peasant class who they regarded as one in the same and supported the actions of Mullowney and his like.  It has been suggested that Bingham was Mullowney’s paymaster and that the heads of his priest victims were kept in the cellar of Newbrook House.  It has also been suggested that some of the heads were thrown into a little lake in the parish of Ballintubber; it now bears the name Lake of the heads.

There is an interesting story concerning Mrs Bingham, she is said to have employed a priest as a butler and footman. One day the Bingham’s had urgent business in Castlebar but when they got into their carriage one of the horses refused to move. Mrs Bingham must have been feeling a certain amount of guilt because she insisted it was because of the murders carried out by Séan na Sagart that the horse wouldn’t move. She made her husband promise that Mullowney would not be allowed to murder any more priest. As soon Bingham promised the curse was lifted and the horse is reported as happily trotting all the way to Castlebar. However, I don’t think the promise of the Bingham’s amounted to much as Mullowney carried on his wicked trade.

He truly was an evil man and he even used this as a way of catching those unfortunate priests who felt that there is a little good in everyone. One technique was to pretend to be sick, bedridden and close to death, Mullowney would call for a priest to confess his terrible sins and when the priest arrived Mullowney would grab a hidden knife from under the blankets and attempt to stab and kill the priest.  This technique was to eventually lead to his demise.

 Mullowney wanted to catch a particular priest in Ballintubber, It is said that he convinced his sister Nancy Loughnan who was a widow and a devout Catholic that he was gravely ill and desperately needed to confess his sins before he went to face his maker. The priest, Father Kilger was quickly sent for and he arrived dressed in disguise. As he knelt by the bed of Séan na Sagart in order to hear his confession the priest hunter jumped up and stabbed the priest in the neck killing him. 

Everyone in County Mayo hear of this and there was widespread anger and revulsion and everyone knew that Father Kilger’s nephew Friar Bourke would be at the funeral, exactly what Séan na Sagart wanted. The friar turned up as expected and took his place as a pallbearer; he wasn’t stupid though because he had brought two bodyguards with him for protection, John McCann and Fergus McCormick.  As the funeral procession arrived at Ballintubber a bunch of Redcoats blocked their way and from out of the bushes jumped Séan na Sagart.  He grabbed the friar roaring “My rent is paid” probably referring to the money he would collect for the friar’s head. The friar broke free and ran off towards the Partry Mountains hotly pursued by the priest hunter. 

It was said that the chase lasted most of that day and eventually came to an end in a wood near Partry.  The friar who was exhausted at this stage fought with Séan na Sagart and in the struggle the friar stabbed Séan with his own knife. McCann who by now had reached the pair grabbed the knife and finished the job so ending the career of Séan na Sagart, priest hunter. The year was 1726.

Mullowney was hated with a vengeance by the people of County Mayo, it is said that his body was tossed into Lough Carra. However, the parish priest ordered the body to be retrieved and it was buried in un-consecrated ground near Ballintubber Abbey. The locals had the last word though because they buried the corpse facing north where the sun never rises.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Poteen. The Pot of Gold at the end of a rainbow.

It has been said that poteen has been produced in Ireland ever since the first potato was plucked from the ground. The name Poteen means little pot and is supposed to reflect its small scale production. You know maybe it’s that pot of gold that you may find at the end of a rainbow.


According to legend St. Patrick was said to have been responsible for introducing poteen to Ireland in the fifth century A.D.  Having run out of mass wine he brewed up the first batch of poteen. However, I would suggest that this is a complete fabrication and has more to do with the fact that Christian monks recorded the practice of poteen making in written form and as with a lot of other urban myths concerning St Patrick it has become part of Irish folklore.

In fact one of the earliest records of distilling aqua vitae or the water of life also has a religious connection. In the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 it was recorded that eight bolls of malt were delivered to Friar John Cor to make whiskey. Distilled spirits were commonly made in monasteries for medical purposes and were often prescribed for the preservation of good health and as a general cure all.

 There were monastic distilleries recorded in Ireland in the late 12th century.  The medical benefits were formally endorsed in 1505 when the Guild of Surgeon Barbers was granted a monopoly over the manufacture of aqua vitae which they used when carrying out surgical procedures.

Of course there have been many in the medical profession who have condemned poteen as highly dangerous and warn of the very real threat of alcoholic poisoning and they also claim that it was responsible for a huge problem with alcoholism in rural Ireland.

 They also pointed out the increase in mental illness and it was suggested at one time that more than half the people in the mental asylum in County Mayo were there from the effects of poteen drinking.  However, in 1730, one doctor claimed that drinking poteen to the point of intoxication held off old-age, aided digestion, enlightened the heart, and quickened the mind.  I would not recommend this advice folks.

In Ireland we hold a wake for someone who has died and one suggestion for this was said to be because of the after effects of poteen. It was said that people didn’t know if those who were lay as if dead were just unconscious or were actually dead so they used to wait up at night for them to wake up, hence the name.  A more recent story which is probably a myth is that it was called a wake because of the frequent lead poisoning suffered by people drinking from pewter tankards.  One of the symptoms of lead poisoning is that of a catatonic state that resembles death from which you would hopefully recover in anything from a few hours to a couple of days.  It was for this reason that a burial was delayed to give the poor unfortunate a chance to wake up.  I’d make your own mind up about that one.

It was in1661 that King Charles II, attempting to re-build the post-war treasury, decided to introduce a charge on spirits. In Ireland private stills were outlawed and a large section of the Irish population became criminals at the stroke of a pen.  The Irish promptly ignored the tax and the making of poteen was forced to go underground.  In 1770, the English tried to clamp down on the trade once again but it did very little to slow down production and poteen making took off as a thriving cottage industry.

The stills were moved from cottage to barn then to small shacks in the hills and mountains.  Some enterprising individuals set up stills in ancient burial chambers (I wonder if that’s why they are called spirits), some set up on small islands in the middle of lakes, so they could see the gards coming and one fellow even had his still set up on a small boat on a Lough. It was said that for many years he was able to out row the local Gardaí.

There is a wealth of folklore regarding poteen.

Leprechauns are frequently found in a drunken state caused by poteen.

Poteen made in fairy mounds is seen as magical and it was used for curing painful rheumatic joints, half a cup given morning and night was said to be a cure for all ailments.

It is said to be especially potent if a housewife left fresh cream and bread by a fairy mound at night and asked the fairies for a cure for illness. The fairies would then leave a cup of poteen outside the cottage door to heal the sick.

Poteen made from the water of a fairy spring or sacred well also gave it healing properties and it was used by wise women like Biddy Early in medicinal cures.

Drinking poteen on a fairy hill at night will call the fairies to you and in exchange for a drink they are said to grant you a wish in return. However, give them too much and you may end up as their permanent guest.  Drinking poteen is also said to be responsible for hallucinations. I’m saying nothing.

The Achill Islanders once referred to poteen simply as Inishkea because of its superior quality and flavour.  In fact they suggested that the Islanders of Inishkea should be declared Saints because of their skill.  The reasons given for the quality of this illegal produce included the remote location of Inishkea which enabled the still owners to take their time in distilling the alcohol without fear of interruption by the Custom’s man or the Gardái, well you should never hurry a good thing.  The Island is located off the Mayo coast, because of the changes in the weather the law enforcers may have a calm trip out but then be stuck there for a week due to heavy seas and wind conditions.

Another reason for superior poteen was that it was distilled in copper stills which were far better than the tin stills used on the mainland. These stills were often hidden in the caves on the western side of the Island well away from the prying eyes of unwelcome visitors and they were so valuable they were handed down from father to son.

Inishkea Islanders had a very limited source of income, fishing and poteen provided them with products that could be sold or traded on the mainland and once again the sale of poteen found willing buyers within the clergy (both Catholic and Protestant), and Gardái.  There were always customers on Achill Island who eagerly awaited a new batch of poteen unfortunately this was to lead to a great tragedy in 1898 when an Inishkea Islander and his daughter were lost at sea when rowing to Achill with a cargo of poteen. This led to three members of the R.I.C. (Royal Irish Constabulary) to be stationed on the Island.

Eventually the church declared the drinking of poteen a sin, the Bishop of Clogher , Most Rev. Dr. O’Callaghan declared it to be a product that led to smuggling and blamed all the troubles of Ireland on its consumption.  One man arrested for its production said “The devil drove me to it yer Honour”, he was convicted and fined a total of £33.  On another occasion a shocked priest said to a parishioner “I am told you sold it for £2, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” To which the answer came “Sure Father it was all I could get”.  Or was that for selling his vote to the Landlord?  There’s an old saying in Ireland “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”.  There I will leave the Islands of Inishkea.

The Godstone of Inishkea.

In 1851, Robert Jocelyn, the third Earl of Rodan and a prominent protestant Tory wrote about the Stone Idol of Inishkea also known as the Naomhóg. He referred to the Islanders as a bunch of heathens linking their use of the Irish language and Celtic traditions with ignorance and popery and in effect setting the seeds for the Great Famine of 1845.  Well its always easy to blame someone else.

The God Stone of Inishkea.

The Naomhóg.

In the mid nineteenth century the population of Inishkea numbered around four hundred, they supported themselves by fishing, potato crops, shell fish and seaweed.  Ruled over by their own King they were to all intents and purpose self sufficient and lived by their own self imposed laws. Occasionally visited by clergy off the mainland they had been baptised into the Church, they made rare visits to worship in the King’s house, and the Holy Well which they called ‘Derivla’ but still practised their traditional religion.

The people of the Islands worshipped a stone idol which was dressed in flannel and cared for by a priestess, the origin of this idol and its early history has long been forgotten but it is said to have immense power.  The Islanders pray to it in times of sickness, and its power is invoked in order to manipulate the weather. When they see a ship in the distance it is alleged that they would pray for a storm and that this resulted in heavy seas that would smash the helpless ship against the rocks, they would then plunder the contents and dispose of survivors. Conversely, the Islanders would pray to the stone idol when the seas were choppy in order to calm the waves so they could go fishing or visit the mainland.

There are a number of different stories told about the power of the stone idol. One stormy day an Island man was so sick his wife believed he was not long for this world and although she had prayed to the idol to restore him to health it was to no avail.  She decided to send for the priest from the mainland to see if he could help him and if not at least administer the last rites.  Unfortunately, there was an incredible storm brewing and the Islanders were scared of putting to sea without the stone idol to protect them on their voyage. They placed the idol in the boat and set off for the mainland, they successfully made the voyage and declared to the astonished priest that it was the presence of the idol that ensured their safety.  The sick man recovered and this was also attributed to the power of the Naomhóg.

Another story relates how a number of pirates landed upon the south Island and finding very little plunder they decided to set fire to all the cottages.  They burned very easily as they were mainly constructed of timber and straw, all except one.  This would not burn no matter what they did to it, every time they lit a fire it promptly went out.  The leader of the pirates was incensed by this and suspecting witchcraft he ordered the cottage to be searched.  He had heard rumours about the power of a stone idol that was in the possession of the Islanders and his men appeared carrying the Naomhóg, he gave orders that it should be smashed.  This would put an end to the raising of storms and the destruction of ships that he considered his own; it would also prevent the Islanders from seeking their revenge upon him for his actions that day.

The Pirates returned to their ship and with the sound of laughter sailed away never to return. The Islanders collected all the broken pieces of the stone idol and tied them together with strips of leather and in order to keep the idol warm they dressed it in a suit of flannel.  This flannel is replaced every New Year.  No one is sure whether the treatment by the pirates had any long lasting effect upon the idol but the Islanders still held it in great regard.  

I wonder if Naomhóg means little Niamh.  She was the daughter of the King of the sea Manannán Mac Lír who took Oisin to Tír na nÓg. Her father had power over the sea so it might not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that his daughter would have the same powers to command the waves and storms.  Could it be that the red flannel suit was in fact a red dress? 

There is also a story that was told to an English traveller in 1959. The Godstone was associated with potato fertility during the famine of 1845-50.  It was said that the Islanders from South Inishkea stole the idol from the Islanders of North Island.  It was supposedly thrown into the sea by a catholic priest called Father O’Reilly in the 1890s.  He died shortly afterwards and the Islanders swear it was a direct result of his attempted destruction of the idol.

However, on the night of the 28th October 1927 the power of the sea was to prove deadly. It is said that even the oldest fisherman can be surprised at the sudden anger shown by the sea and it was on this night that thirty currachs set out on a fishing expedition. Each was manned by two men, it was a dark night but the sea had been calm all that day and even though the barometers showed low pressure they decided to take a chance. Ten of those young men would pay the ultimate price, in just over an hour of setting out, eight men from South Island and two from North Island were swept to their death.

Like a screaming banshee the hurricane came out of the night tossing their boats as if they were made of nothing more than paper.  It was said afterwards that many more would have died had it not been for their uncanny ability to read the weather.  They sensed a change in the air and turned their boats for home, shouting to others to do the same; those who reacted quickly were saved, their boats thrown up onto the shore by the power of the waves. The others were not so lucky; the storm was so bad that nothing could be done to save them.  Six currachs didn’t manage to reach land and of the twelve young men only two were saved, brothers John and Anthony Meenaghan.  The people of Inishkea waited upon the shore all night hoping beyond hope that the other ten young men would return home but when the following morning dawned their hopes were dashed. They found the broken remains of four currachs and one unbroken, one body was found that day, John Reilly who had been accompanied by his younger brother, fourteen year old Terry.  As the days progressed more bodies were found, one by one washed up on the shores of the mainland, sometimes only identifiable by their clothing or their boots.
The storm was so bad that the families of the deceased were unable to get to Falmore cemetery to attend the funerals of their loved ones.  Michael Keanes body was never found.  If that wasn’t bad enough five years later two more fishermen from North Island were drowned.  One of these, Michael Lavelle was never found.  There is a monument with their twelve names on it erected in Falmore.  In the 1930s the families of both Islands left for the mainland, they still retain the right to their properties on the Islands and some of those families are still fishermen. 

The Islands now lie empty except for the birds, seals, and the odd donkey.  Tourists visit when the weather allows and they wander the Islands and look at the abandoned cottages and the ruins of the old church and schoolhouse.  I have been there myself and felt an eerie silence as the wind kissed my cheek. The sound of the gulls and the gentle grazing of the few animals, it was a very moving and emotional experience and I couldn’t help but feel a lump in my throat as I read the names of those poor young men who fought the sea that dark October night and lost.  May they and all those brave sea farers Rest In Peace.