Now it still goes on, you can catch them telling stories. They love to talk. They draw their tales from the figures that flame up and fade in the big open fire under the black crane.
They bring you back under thatch, sitting on the edge of a hard hob with the wind whistling into you from the chimney corners. These tales really happened to them or were told to them by someone who knew who it happened to. So this section begins with a collection of open-fire tales told in the very words of the people from whom they were taken and put down on paper.
Bean Sí, heard but not seen
Many people tell or have heard stories about the Bean Sí. Johnny Casserley, Cahergowan, remembers her. She frequently featured in stories told to him in childhood. Micheál Ó Heidhin, from Carnmore, tells us:
“There was a lot of people very much afraid of her. I heard that she combed her hair. She had long black hair and wore a white gown. It was said that there were certain families she would appear to.
The O’Brien’s were one such family. Nora O’Brien (nee Egan, Casla) shares with us her experience of the Bean Sí:
“I did not see the Bean Sí. I heard her. I heard my grandmother saying long ago that she would be washing clothes, and that she used to spread the clothes out on a sloe bush, and that she had a lace cap on.”
“This night (there was an outing to Connemara) for the altar servers and the choir. And they were to be home at nine o’clock Sunday evening. And I had hay and a box of matches so we would have a fire for the bus. It was a summer’s evening and I was out there. It went on to the stroke of twelve, and when I say twelve I really mean one o’clock. I heard this terrible cry. I heard the cry coming up on top, along the wall, up towards me. And when Daniel (a neighbour) heard the crying he ran into his mother and asked if she was trying to frighten Nora by crying like the Bean Sí.
So the crying was coming up, up all along ’til it was within ten yards of me. And a car pulled up. And I went into the house. And I called ‘Daddy’, my husband, and he came. ‘Do you hear that crying?’ He said ‘I do’. I said ‘What is it?’ ‘Ah! I do not know’ he said, ‘it must be someone, a child.’ But no, it was the Bean Sí. When the car pulled off and wasn’t theBean Sí gone. But the bus did not come until four o’clock in the morning. I heard the Bean Sí in Barnaby. It was over forty years ago anyway.”
Should you wish to meet the Bean Sí, Michael Walsh, Gortatleva, gives us direction on where to find her:
“The people of this parish used to go to a village called Crusheen over there. There was a well there. It was there they saw the Bean Sí. They say the banshee was a woman that wasn’t churched. That she was after giving birth to a child She was young because she had a child. There she was anyway washing herself in this well. This fella said something to her. And she followed him. And she nearly got him at the door. I heard talk of that now, that she nearly grabbed him by the head.”
As well as stories about the Bean Sí, stories are told about other strange encounters. Frequently encountered in the Cregboy area, up the hill from the Community Centre, was a large horse drawn coach. Michael Walsh, Gortatleva, heard of this ghostly Cóiste Bodhair in Cregboy:
“It was a kind of hearse drawn by horses and bells.”
The name Cóiste Bodhair suggests either a deafening sound or silence accompanying this coach. There is no doubt in Michael’s mind that it exists:
“The only thing I will ever know and never forget ’til the day I die is the story I’m going to tell you now. My father was going to the fair one morning. He said ‘come with me’. I would say now that it would be anything up ’til six o’clock. It was down there before you. Come down the hill to the Centre. The damnedest thing came down the road. I heard the bells and the horses coming. And I could see nothing. I’m not saying that it was that now or not.”
And if you have any remaining doubt, Tom Flaherty, Cahergowan tells a collaborating story:
“Well, there was an evening I was cycling up by Ballymurphy, this car supposed to have been seen at the back of this house. I was coming along one night at four o’clock in the morning. There is two bends there. And I thought I would have that bend taken before he came down, whoever he was. When I came to the second bend, it went out of mind altogether; until I came below Gortatleva where I thought the car was. I got afraid all right. At the corner there is two gates. And in it on that side of the road and one the other. And that is where the fairies used to call. Geata na gCeann, they used to call it. That is halfway between Gillespie’s house and Gortatleva.
Being had by the fairies
Some happenings are strange. They are difficult to explain. We are told of strange happenings that cannot be explained. Maybe we can put such happenings down to the fairies. In these days of the X-Files on television, it is less easy to imagine that a story is true. In the open-fire days, many people truly imagined that what they heard about the fairies was true. These are some of the stories about the fairies that everyone told in the open-fire days.
Micheál Ó Heidhin tells of an encounter with the fairies at the turn of the last century:
“Well, it was a moonlight night and the two men were coming home. They were very fond of the dancing. They stood in the middle of the road and the man began to dance. And it happened to be opposite a fairy fort. He was only dancing a short while when music started to play inside. And, he continued dancing and dancing. And after a while, Seán, who heard the music as well, was afraid he was doing too much. So he caught him and the man was nearly dead. He was jaded out, so he had to be helped to walk. When he recovered a bit, he said ‘You saved my life—only for you stopped me, the fairies would have had me’.”
Tom Flaherty, Cahergowan retells a story he heard about a man from Clogher who met the fairies:
“There was a man from Clogher and he was card playing in Montiagh and used to bring his own cards with him. One time he was coming back across Páirc na Reithe and a table was left down in front of him. He was mad for card playing, it was about two o’clock in the morning and he was coming and the table was left out in the middle of the field for him to play. Yeah, that is what he said anyway. I do not know. A man from Clogher. He was totally convinced it was fairies. That is what he said anyway. A lot of it could be lies.”
People seem to frequently come under such spells. Micheál Ó Heidhin gives us several accounts of this happening, the Fóidin Mearbhaill:
“I heard that people used to take short cuts. They could come under the spell at day or night. It can happen day or night. At that time, they would cross fields a lot. People got confused and even places they knew all the time would look different when this would come upon them. Everything was opposite. It happened to a friend of mine. He was near the railway in Oranmore. He went to go home, he lost his direction, but he was lucky because he was not on his own. He had friends who brought him home.
Micheál tells of a second such happening:
“I heard my father saying that it happened him in town in Galway one day. When he was a young man, he could not know one street or direction from the other. He met a shopkeeper that he dealt with and he told him what was on him. So, the shopkeeper put the horse under the cart, sat my father up in the cart and told my father that the horse knew its way home. And only when he was a few miles from home, the spell left him. There is no explanation for that.
In case you doubt such spells, Micheál heard of a third similar happening:
“I heard of another man, when we were children, that it happened to him at night time. Outside our place was an awkward place with shrubs and a sink of water and hen house and so on. Didn’t my mother open the back door. And she heard this man talking, complaining and wailing. There was someone outside. My father went out of course. There was no electricity at that time. He called out asking who was there. The man outside turned out to be a good friend of my fathers. He told my father that he went astray but he could not make out our house, nothing. He did not know the road when my father went with him to bring him home. They were as far as Ballymurphy when the man said he knew where he was. It comes back all of a sudden. To cure it, I heard that you turn your coat inside out.
James Hession, Cahergowan, remembers a similar enchantment:
“A man went down to his farm in Lakeview and into the field to feed the cattle. Then when he was ready to make his way home, he could not find the big stile. He had to wait ’til morning as he didn’t know how to break the spell.”
Indeed, James experienced it first hand:
“Sure it happened to my sister and I. We went visiting friends and going home we decided to take a short cut. Well we were in this field and we could not get out. I noticed after a while that how I got out was due to the wind being at my side and back. If I kept the wind back I would have been there to this day.”
There were also strange sightings. A red light was often seen moving slowly over the bog. Sometimes it was accompanied by a voice. Though called Jack the Lantern, generally Claregalway people did not imagine it to be a person. Sarah Moran, Lakeview, offers her explanation of Jack the Lantern:
“Well, he was a bird that used to be in the bog at Summertime and he had a shiny tail and we used to think it was a person but we found out it wasn’t that—it was a bird.”
John Casserley, Cahergowan heard a different explanation:
“What I was told of Jack the Lantern is that at night you could see a kind of a red light crossing over the bog and one could hear him saying Mah, Mah and Mah.”
While explanations might differ, there are many stories of strange happenings. So it is no surprise that some elaborate schemes and practices were devised to avoid such frightful happenings.
To avoid mishap or cure mishaps in life, there are manypisreoga offered in advice. As you would expect, there is plenty of advice given on the weather. If a cock crew then it was a sign that the rain was clearing. A lot more signs were given for rain coming:
- Soot falling down the chimney.
- Hens picking their feathers.
- Birds flying low.
- Clouds looking low.
- Cormorants coming in from the sea shore.
- Black snails creeping on the grass.
- Seeing a red sky in the morning is a shepherd’s warning of rain or poor weather.
- Seeing a red-haired woman first thing in the morning is a warning of mishap or bad luck. There is a story told about an ex-policeman living in Claregalway who met three girls one morning, one of whom had red-hair. Instead of going home, he went about his business for the day. On his return home that evening, the heavy rain had wet the floor and he slipped, putting out his shoulder. Most people who met a red-haired woman on the way to a mart would immediately turn believing that they would have no luck.
Of Death, wakes and burials
Death, wakes and burials involved a lot of ritual practises andpisreoga. Michéal Ó Heidhin gives a detailed account:
“In the past, coffins were carried a lot on men’s shoulders unless the journey would be very long, as there were few hearses then. I understand that there would be six men carrying the coffin. All the dead person’s relatives and sometimes near neighbours would want to carry it in turn. The rule was that two fresh men would go under it in front and the others would fall back a step and the two at the back would fall out. That would happen frequently all the way to the graveyard.”
Where the pisreog came in was that those that went under the coffin once, felt they had to go under it three times in order to avoid bad luck, sickness or maybe death. And if their left shoulder was under it first it had to be the right shoulder next time. All this meant that often when nearing the cemetery that they would have to stop and change every few yards in order to give everyone his three turns.
I heard that you had to open the windows to let the soul out and up until recently, they turned off the clock the moment the person died in a house and it would not be put on again until the person was buried. I heard that it was bad luck to put ashes out on a Monday, but I do not know why and up until recently, they never dug a grave on a Monday and no one would get a haircut on a Monday. They called it Lomadh luain ort.”
Wakes allowed for a mix of emotions. From the crying induced by the keening women to the fun and games. Luke, Séan and Pádraic Concannon, Montiagh recall a story about a wake:
“A man died. And they had to tie him down with a rope to the bed, because he died in a sitting up way. Anyway at the wake everybody was there. Some were crying and more were laughing. And whatever way the coffin was moved, the rope around the corpse came free. And the corpse sat up in the coffin. He was all stiff that when the rope was loosened the body rose up so fast that the people at the wake nearly lost their lives.”
While we are told this happened in Claregalway, similar tales are told in other parts of Ireland. Generally the coffin was taken for burial on a horse cart. Three keening women would sit up on the coffin, two married and one single, facing in different directions. Micheál Ó Heidhin describes the funeral practice:
“There was another story; the horse that would be bringing the coffin to the graveyard. They did not go to the chapel that time. Instead of the night in the chapel, there was a wake in the house. The horse would be taken out three times from under the cart and brought around the cart. They would put the horse under the shafts of the cast twice the left and once from the right or vice versa. I remember when they would be burying a child, they would not dig the grave until the coffin arrived at the graveyard.”
Also the coffin had to be brought in feet foremost. There were also signs for ill health and death. If a hen crowed in or near a house, then sickness would fall on someone in that house. If a bird strayed into a house, then death would fall on someone in that house. Also if you were unfortunate enough to be deservedly cursed by a widow, then you knew that the curse would come true.
There were pisreoga for other occasions too. Micheál Ó Heidhin tells us a pisreog about cows after calving:
“The cow would not be let out after calving without performing a certain ritual. There would be a red rag put on her tail and inside that red rag would be a few stumps of horse shoe nails and some hens dirt and Holy Water. This would be tied on to her tail, so she would be lucky.”
Another pisreog applies to milking a cow. You were not to milk a cow on the first of May. Also if you entered a house where somebody was making butter, you had to put your hand on the churn or dasher for luck.
To restore health, home remedies and old cures were used. Micheál Ó Heidhin explains how people were cured using charms when he was young:
“Well, they were too poor. The doctors would be too dear. They did not really believe in doctors. I remember them using charms. A person had a large boil. I remember them bringing in an old woman and she had a number of irons, old irons, some of them would be horse shoes and all those kind of things and she would say some prayers in Irish, making crosses with the irons and signs and so on. It was only once I ever saw that and I was quite small. The people of the house knelt on their knees and prayed.”
Also there were people who had a cure or special gifts of healing. Micheál Ó Heidhin tells us:
“They cured boils and ringworm. Another used to cure Craos Galar, which is Thrush. He used blow into the mouth. It used to work. There used to be herb cures. There used to be a herb called splineworth for kidney trouble. It used to be boiled in water and drunk.”
For minor illnesses or flu, a person would take a hot drink and stay in bed to fight it off. Such hot drinks would be made up of pepper, onions, buttermilk, sugar, vinegar, and honey. Some cures were quite strange. If you had a sore throat, you had to put a stocking worn by you that day around your throat.
Of life, matchmaking and marriages
Life, matchmaking and marriage also involved a lot of ritual practises and pisreoga. Matchmaking was a popular practise in open-fire days. There was more than one Matchmaker in the Claregalway area. The Matchmaker acted as a negotiator on behalf of the man who was seeking a wife. Stories are most often told about a middle-aged man who is seeking a younger woman to provide him with an heir.
One ingredient in the negotiation was a ‘dowry’. The dowry was a settlement of money, stock, possessions or land to be given by the woman’s family to the prospective husband. It was generally expected that the dowry would be substantial enough to convince the man that this woman should be his wife. The Matchmaker met with both the prospective husband and his potential parents-in-law. More often than not the woman was told nothing about the arrangement. When the deal had been done, the girl was told. The woman was expected to marry the man chosen by her parents.
Generally, another ingredient in matchmaking was whiskey. Whiskey was often used by the interested man to get on “the good side” of the woman’s father. There is a story told by a man about how his sister was matched and how whiskey was involved. To him the matching of his sister, who was only eighteen years, seemed like the buying of a cow. The parents met the suitor over potatoes, ham and of course the drink and bargained away. The young man received one hundred pounds as the dowry, which was a fortune in those times.
Another story is told about a match that fell through, because the girl had no money. The husband-to-be wanted the money to help in the settling down. Later on the girl overheard this man tell someone else why he wouldn’t marry her. He said, it was because, “she had spent the last ten years feeding pigs and she hadn’t a copper”. A lot more matches survived into marriage. The marriage day itself brought with it other superstitious practices or pisreoga.
Marriages generally took place in the evenings, unlike today. When the bride-to-be was going to the church, an odd number of girls accompanied her. If necessary one girl would be sent home. Candles were lit in neighbouring houses, though not in her parents’ house.
When the couple left the church after the ceremony, people used to push the girl out first as superstition said that “first out the door would die first”. The new bride also was not allowed back to her parents’ house for a whole month after the wedding. The couple went to live with the husband’s family, often passing bonfires on the way. A similar tradition of lighting bonfires at times of celebration has survived in the Claregalway area up to today. When the couple arrived in the house, an oatmeal cake was broken over their heads to bring good luck.
These are some of the pisreoga and open-fire tales of Claregalway people. They flame up in this section, and fade again. They are the conversations in memory of storytellers. They rekindle the hearth of story telling in Claregalway at its enchanting best. If you have any pisreoga to add, please do so below.