Reminiscences of the West

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER III...continued

The night fell dark and windy; the stars were but transitorily revealed as the dark masses of clouds passed under them; and by ten or eleven o'clock the whole country seemed locked in deep repose—the dogs being carefully housed, and the lights extinguished in every homestead. To suppose, however, from this that tranquillity prevailed, would be a great mistake.

So long as the peace of the country rested with the magistrates, barony constables, and local civil corps, there was no general rising of the ribbonmen; but the new police, or Peelers, had just entered Connaught, and a party of six and a sergeant having been then located in the village of Ballintober, it was considered an aggression on the liberty of the subject, with which the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act could bear no comparison. It was accordingly arranged, in ribbon conclave, that the police-barrack should be attacked upon this very night, and its inmates put to the pike or the fire. For this purpose, reinforcements from the ribbonmen of distant parts of the neighbouring counties were to meet those of the vicinity in a field called the Stone Park, not far from the old castle. One of these parties—that from the county Galway—passing over the ford of the Suck, just opposite Welsh's cabin, and not being influenced by any feelings of sympathy towards the widow and her melancholy son, knocked at the door, arid awaking up the inmates, not only took possession of the old fusee, but peremptorily demanded the attendance of Michael upon their midnight excursion.

As we advance towards the climax and catastrophe of this tale, the simple truth presses stronger upon us than any imaginative description we could give, although "founded upon fact." We have, therefore, no desire to linger at this part of our narrative for the purpose of describing the mother's entreaties and the sister's agony, as this poor young man was hurried from his quiet home by lawless ruffians, with whose faces none of the inmates of that sequestered spot were acquainted. It is unnecessary to recite the deep blasphemous execrations, the harsh menace, the rough usage, or coarse ribald jokes with which the females were assailed, as Michael Welsh was forcibly decorated with the insignia of a ribbonman on his own floor.

Upon the spot specified were collected several hundred ribbonmen, armed with every, description of missile or weapon that was possible to procure—old rusty fire-arms, several of which would not go off, and if they did, it would be with greater danger to the person who held them than to those against whom they were pointed—bayonets on the tops of poles, scythe-blades fastened into stout sticks, pitchforks, a few old swords and halberts, and a trifle of pikes remaining over since '98. Even those who could not procure such weapons had armed themselves with stout alpeens, and all bore more or less about them the badges of that lawless society. Some oaths were administered to the hitherto uninitiated; but the direct purpose of their assembling was known only to the leaders. The wavering, the young, and the timid—and among these Michael Welsh—were placed in the centre; and the party moved on silently towards the neighbouring village.

The police, as is generally the case on all such occasions, had timely intimation of their intended visit. The barrack was a thatched cabin, and, consequently, not tenable for a moment after it was set on fire. The police-serjeant, an old Waterloo man, named Greenfield, who was afterwards an officer in the London police, was not long in coming to a decision as to the course he should pursue for the safety of himself and his men. To remain where he was, was death—to retreat into some of the neighbouring towns he thought dishonourable: so he at once evacuated his barrack, and, during the darkness of the night, retreated into the neighbouring ruin—the old bawne of Ballintober. Here he distributed his six men in two of the apertures which we have described in the south-western wall of the old castle.

The night was particularly dark, and the great depth of the wall, as well as the surrounding ivy, would have completely concealed them, even had the night been one of bright moonlight. The road leading toward the barrack lay along this wall, but separated from it by the castle moat, a deep trench with water at least four feet deep. When they had remained here about two hours, their attention was attracted to the irregular tread of the approaching multitude. On they came in silence; their white shirts and ribboned hats visible even through the darkness. When about a third of the party had passed, the police fired into the throng from their place of concealment. It was unnecessary to repeat the volley: a panic seized the multitude, who, throwing aside their arms, rushed in tumultuous terror wherever a means of escape opened. In a very few minutes the road was as quiet and as unoccupied as it had been half-an-hour before. Several groans were heard from the wounded or the dying, who were carried off by their friends. The police remained still within their entrenched fort; and two of the party were sent off across the fields into the neighbouring town of Castlerea, for the large police force stationed there at that time.

The grey of the morning gave sufficient light to distinguish the surrounding objects, as the magistrates and a large body of police arrived on the spot. Upon the road lay on its back the dead body of a young man, cold and stiff; the upturned face calm as that of those whose death has been sudden and immediate; the white shirt, which was worn outside the clothes, dabbled with blood, and soiled with the heavy footmarks of the mob who must have passed over the body in their flight. Upon examination it was found that two balls had entered the chest. The body was that of Michael Welsh. Around it lay, scattered on all sides, the weapons which had been thrown down. More than a dozen decorated hats, and several shoes, also lay about; and traces of blood were discernible in several places besides that occupied by the corpse. A low wall, which formed the road boundary on the side opposite to the moat, was levelled for about twenty yards, such was the impetuosity with which the multitude had rushed headlong on every side, in escaping from the deadly fire.[33]

During the day the body of the unfortunate man was placed in a cart, along with the ribbon insignia found upon the road, and carried to the county town, where a meeting of magistrates was immediately held, under the direction of the malitia major to whom we have already alluded, and who then commanded the district.

There was but a small gathering at the chapel of Ballintober upon that Sunday; the great majority of the peasantry had either fled or were in concealment. A panic and a gloom seemed to have entered into the hearts of all; and good old Father Crump's exhortation from the altar, after mass, upon the virtues of peace and quietness—for he was too mild and too good to denounce any one—was addressed to women and the few old people from the immediate vicinity.

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[33] More persons than Michael Welsh were shot that night; two died of their wounds subsequently. A medical man, a near relative of the writer's, attended some of the wounded; they were not natives of the vicinity, but had come from a great distance in the County Galway.