Reminiscences of the West

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER III...continued

Some folks accused Paddy of being a poacher; but this we stoutly deny. He would go any distance to destroy a net, or inform upon the owner of one; but wherever manual dexterity or adroitness were called in question, he had no qualms as to the means employed. Thus, if Paddy was sauntering by the river of a hot, bright, calm summer's day, when no trout in its senses would rise, and that he saw a good lump of a fish standing, or balancing itself in a still pool, or lying in the shade of a weed or rock, he at once set off after a neighbouring cow, which he soon inveigled into a ditch, or pinned in a corner, that he might pull a lock of hair from her tail, with which, fastened upon the end of a long switch, he soon formed a snare, slipped it adroitly over the gills of the unsuspecting fish, and in an instant lifted it out of its native element; or, if that was not attainable, he would walk into the stream, even to his middle, in the hope of tickling the trout under a stone.

Paddy's residence was on the banks of the Suck, in the gentle fords and long deep retches of which, between Ballymoe and Castlecoote, through the deep alluvial pastures of Roscommon, he plied his skilful angle between spring and summer, and in winter he shot great quantities of duck, teal, and widgeon. His house was approached by a deep narrow boreen, generally so wet and muddy that one had to walk on the top of the ditch on either side more frequently, than traverse the gully beneath. The mansion being placed on the side of a hill, required but three walls, the back being dug out of the bank. This, however, made but little difference in the material, for the remaining walls were formed of tempered yellow clay, generally called daub, mixed with chopped straw. It was comfortably thatched, and the ridge fastened down with a sort of backbone, about four inches thick and a foot broad, of the same material as the walls. Out of this rose the wicker framework of the chimney, well plastered, both within and without. Upon the hip of the roof, to the right of the doorway, grew a luxuriant plant of house-leek, to preserve the house from fire, and the inmates from sore eyes. Upon the threshold was nailed an ass's shoe, to keep off the fairies, and preserve the milk; and on the lintel was cut a double triangle, like what the freemasons have adopted for one of their mystic signs, in order to guard the children from the evil eye; for Paddy adhered with great pertinacity to the customs of the good old times, when it was difficult to say how much of our religion was Christian and how much Pagan.

Having crossed the causeway which led over the sink or dung-pit which stood in front, and entered the cabin, the visitor would find a much neater and more comfortable residence than outward appearance would lead him to expect. Out of the back wall was dug a small shallow excavation, crossed by shelves, which served for a dresser, in which some white-staved noggins, and divers jugs, bottles, and pieces of old-fashioned crockery were displayed. To the right of the door was the domicile of the pig, with above it the roost, and a couple of odd-looking mat-work bags, with apertures in the sides for the hens to lay in. The watling couples and rafters of the roof were of a varnished jet, from long exposure to the turf smoke, setting off to advantage the wheaten straw crosses of St. Bridget [18] stuck here and there throughout it.

"St. Bridget's cross hung over door,
Which did the house from fire secure."

Around the bed, which was a fixture, was hung from the roof a thick straw matting, with a small aperture in it to gain access to the interior, over which hung a phial of holy water, and a bit of blessed palm. This was Paddy's own couch, and within it was hung his gun, and the most valuable of his fishing gear. The room, which was separated by the chimney and a low partition from the rest of the house, we need not enter, for all was darkness there. Throughout the small but snug dwelling were to be seen various articles expressive of the owner's more especial calling—rods, landing-nets, fish-baskets, and night-lines stowed carefully away in the roof.

Besides the "man of the house," the inmates consisted of, first, his wife, a tall, dark, strapping, "two-handed" woman, pushing for forty, or, as some said, upon the wrong side of it; but having become a mother at eighteen, she showed the wear and tear of married life more, and took less pains to conceal it, than many a spinster of fifty. It was looked upon as an event fraught with benefit to the human race, and to their immediate neighbourhood in particular, when Paddy carried off his bride; for Peggy was a Welsh too, and as a family might fairly be expected, and everybody knows that the blood of the Welshes, as well as that of the Keoghs and Cahills, beats anything living, except that of a black cat's tail or his lug, for the cure of the wild-fire, the gossips hoped that a Welsh, by father and mother, would soon be able to eradicate the disease from the whole country side.[19]

The result of this marriage was a son and a daughter, the former of whom, partaking of the dark complexion, and tall, slight figure of the mother, was now a handsome youth, just stretching into manhood; the latter, who took after the father, was a year younger than her brother. As Paddy was not much at home, but lived chiefly by the river side, or among the houses of the neighbouring gentry, his son Michael—or Michauleen,[20] as he used to be called when a boy—generally looked after the affairs of the little farm, but occasionally accompanied the father upon his piscatorial excursions, particularly when the May-fly was out in early summer, and Paddy required an assistant at the cross-line.[21] The boy was of rather a romantic turn—quiet, taciturn, and thoughtful—much given to fairy lore, of which both father and mother possessed not only a plentiful stock, but peculiar powers of narration. There was not a rath nor forth in the whole country side but Michael knew the legend of it. He believed in the good people, and the leprehauns, and pookas, and banshees, and thivishes or fetches, with as unwavering a faith as he did in Father Crump's power to turn a man's hair grey, or twist his head on his shoulders, or old Friar Geoghegan's ability to wallop the devil out of a madman with a blackthorn.[22] Then, he knew the history of Ballintober Castle, and the story of the Well of Oran, and how, if a man lifted the sacred stone which stands beside it, all Ireland would be "drownded" in no time.

His father, though no great scholar himself, determined to have learning for his child; and many a half-crown, which Paddy got for a bodough trout at some of the neighbouring houses, went to Tim Dunlavy for a quarter's schooling for the little boy, who could soon not only read and write tolerably well, but had gone through the "coorse o' Voster" as far as "Tret and Tare;" and there is no knowing to what pitch of learning he might have arrived, nor for what sacred office he might have been prepared, had his mother had her will, and his father been more agriculturally inclined; but, as neither of these benign influences beamed upon him, he was soon obliged to relinquish such pursuits for the more profitable ones of setting potatoes and footing turf, Still his literary predilections remained, and these he indulged whenever he had an opportunity. It was one of the great inducements to young Welsh to accompany his father a-fishing, that during the dull hours of the day, from twelve till two, when "the rise" had gone off the trout, and Paddy was taking a smoke, or lying asleep on the grass till a "curl" would come on the calm waters, that he could learn off the "Battle of Aughrim, or the Fall of St. Ruth," or the "Battle of Ventry Harbour," out of one of his father's fly-books.

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[18] Upon St. Bridget's Night, 2d February, a small cross, made of wheaten or oaten straw, of a peculiar form, which it would be impossible to describe without some pictorial representation, is made by the peasantry, and stuck somewhere in the roof, particularly in the angles and over the door. These resemble somewhat the Maltese cross. As a new crussogue is set up every anniversary of St. Bridget, and as they are carefully preserved, they act as an almanac to tell the age of the house. The lines we have quoted are from the old poem of "Hesperi Neso-Graphia," printed in 1791.

[19] This is one of the most widely-spread superstitions in Ireland. Cutaneous erysipelas is known to the people under the various names of the rose, wildfire, St. Anthony's fire, tene fiadh, the sacred fire, or tinne Diadh, God's fire, the sacer ignis of ancient authors; and is believed to be cured by the means specified in the text, or by having the part rubbed with a wedding-ring, or even a gold ring of any description. There is another form of this malady, of a more fatal nature, which is believed to be the result of a blast, and is called the fiolun, or fellon, for the cure of which some extraordinary practices are still in vogue. These we shall describe on another occasion.

[20] Michel, Micheleen, or Michauleen, Mickey, Myke, and Michaul, are all synonyms for Michael.

[21] This method of fishing is used with a natural fly, the libellula, or green drake, with murderous effect, upon the flat, calm pools in the Suck. There are two rods employed, one on each bank, the wheel line joined in the centre; and from this depends one or more casting-lines, or droppers, about five feet long. To these are attached the flies, which, by the cross-line being kept taut, can be dropped with unerring precision wherever a trout is seen to rise.

[22] Friar Geoghegan, whose feats in necromancy, the laying of spirits, beating of devils, and casting of charms, and other mysteries of the black art, are still well remembered in the counties of Mayo and Roscommon, was a degraded Franciscan.