Reminiscences of the West

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER III...continued

The ruins of Ballintober Castle are amongst the most magnificent in Connaught, and are memorable as the last stronghold of the O'Conors. The castle, which stands on an elevated ridge by the road-side, above the little village of Ballintober, four miles from the town of Castlebar, consists of a quadrangular inclosure, 270 feet in length, and 230 feet in breadth,[27] with four flanking towers, and one upon each side of the great entrance, the whole surrounded by a deep fosse, portions of which still retain water. Mr. Weld has remarked upon the strong resemblance which the towers of this castle bear to some of those in Wales. "No one tower, it is true," he says, "is comparable to the Eagle Tower at Caernarvon. Nevertheless, the south-west tower at Ballintober is a superb piece of architecture, and, for its general effect, amongst the most imposing remains of antiquity that I can call to recollection in Ireland."

There are two localities of this name in Connaught—Baile-an-tobhair-Phaidraig, the town of the Well of St. Patrick, in Mayo, and Baile-an-tobhair-Brighde, that of St. Bridget, now under consideration. This place is, among other things, memorable as the birth-place of the celebrated Cathal Crovederg, or "Charles the Red-Handed," the illegitimate son of Turlough-More O'Conor, the brother of Roderick, and last of the Irish monarchs. About this prince, who was born in the latter end of the twelfth century,—and who, says the Ulster Annals, was "the best Irishman, from the time of Brien Boroma, for gentility and honour; the upholder, mighty and puissant, of the country; keeper of peace; rich and excellent,"—there are many romantic tales and superstitious legends, still lingering with the people in the vicinity, which, were they woven into a novel, would far surpass most modern works of fiction.

When we have a novelist not only acquainted with Irish history and antiquities, but possessing the power of fusing the ancient legend with the drama of modern life and impulse; making the feelings that influence the lover or the hero subservient to the chronicle; picturing the past, through the knowledge of the human heart at the present—then, and then only will Irish history be known and appreciated. Cathal of the Red Hand was the son of a beautiful girl of very small stature, named Gearrog Ny-Moran, of the Muhall territory. When the queen heard what had occurred, she, like Sarah of old, commenced a bitter persecution against the king's mistress, and had, as was customary at the time, recourse to witchcraft and sorcery to prolong the sufferings of the unhappy maiden. Like Juno, before the birth of Hercules, she, with the assistance of a noted witch, set a charm, consisting of a bundle of elder rods, tied with a magic string, knotted with nine knots. This she hung up in her chamber, and watched with great care. Stratagem, however, achieved what humanity could not induce. The queen, while walking on the terrace, was accosted by a female (the midwife disguised), who entreated alms for a poor woman who had just been confined in the neighbouring village. On hearing who it was, she was so enraged, that she instantly rushed to her apartment, and cut the charm into pieces. The spell was broken, and the bond-woman's child was born.

For several years after, Gearrog and her son were protected from the jealous fury of the queen by the people; and both were long harboured in the monasteries of Connaught. As time wore on, however, the Church was insufficient against the wrath of the offended queen, and Cathal [28] was obliged to fly to a distant province, where, in the garb of a peasant, he supported himself by manual labour. At length the King of Connaught died; and the people declared they would have no monarch but his son, Cathal Crovederg, if he could be found. Heralds were sent forth, and proclamations issued, according to the fashion of the times, yet still no tidings of the elected king. One day, as harvest was drawing to its close, a Bollscaire, or herald, from the Court of Ballintober, entered a field in Leinster, where some of the peasantry were at work reaping rye, and told the oft-repeated tale of the missing monarch of Connaught. Cathal, who was among the reapers, heard the story, and stood for some minutes lost in reverie. He then, removing the cover with which he always concealed the mark, held up the red hand, and throwing down the reaping-hook, exclaimed—"Slan leath a corrain anois do'n cloideam"—i.e., Farewell, sickle; now for the sword! The Bollscaire recognizing him, both he, and the men who were along with him in the field, prostrated themselves before him, and proclaimed him King of Connaught. He was afterwards crowned at Carnfree, near Tulsk, by the chieftains and the coorbs of Sil-Murray, and "Cathal's Farewell to the Rye" is a proverb and an air still well known in Roscommon and Galway.[29]

In the southern wall, which is only divided by a moat from the adjoining road, there are a number of large oval apertures, which from their being nearly closed with ivy of immense growth, look, at first view, like windows. Such, however, they were not. Their history is well known to a few of the old people in the neighbourhood, and is connected with a circumstance so little known that we cannot forbear relating it here.

About the end of last century, the family of O'Conor Donn, or Dun, the lineal descendants of the Connaught monarchs, consisted of Dominick O'Conor, of Clonalis, who lived in princely style, and his brothers Thomas and Alexander, besides some females. In the year 1786, a will, said to have been made by Hugh O'Connor, an ancestor of this line, was discovered accidentally between the leaves of a card-table, which had been screwed together for a great number of years, and had lain among the effects of the late Lord Athenry. This document, from which it appeared that the castle and estate of Ballintober, which had long before passed from the O'Conor family, had not been included in the original confiscation of their estates, by some means found its way into the hands of Alexander O'Conor, a man of very eccentric habits, and not over-strong mental capacity, who resided in a poor cabin at a village called Creglaghan, who was till the day of his death, which took place at a very advanced age, called by the people "Masther Sandy."

This man, though dressed little better than a peasant, and living in the fashion which we have described, was looked up to by the people as a prince of the royal line of Roderick, the last monarch of Ireland, and he was certainly descended from Cathal Crovederg, his son. Sandy determined to profit by the circumstance of the will; and taking advantage of the lawless and disturbed condition of the country at the time, and his remote position from the seat of government and power, collected in a few days an army—if such a term can be applied to an undisciplined armed mob—and took possession of Ballintober Castle, which he commenced to fortify, and even procured one or two cannon, which he placed at the entrance. They drove the neighbouring cattle within the inclosure, set up a still-house, gave the "hoight of good living" to all the pipers and fiddlers that came to them, and ate, drank, danced, and caroused, for some weeks, until the attention of the government was directed to the circumstance by the matter being discussed in the Irish House of Commons, when troops and a park of artillery were sent down to dislodge the insurgent chief. Upon the news of their approach, O'Conor and his followers immediately fled; but the army having arrived within cannon shot of the castle, and seeing it deserted, fired some shots at it from the neighbouring eminence of Ballyfinnegan hill. It was these shots which made the apertures to which we have alluded.[30]

The spring of 1823 had passed by, and with the early summer appeared a partial outbreak of the Irish fever, which annually bursts into a flame about May or June. Paddy Welsh was one of its first victims. He went out, as usual, to wet his rod in one of the neighbouring brooks, then swollen with a recent night's rain; but he soon had to return, with a shivering and a pain in his back, which he well knew foreboded "the sickness." For a few days he endeavoured to shake it off; but without effect. Cures of various kinds were had recourse to, to avert the impending fever. One of his neighbours, a mighty knowledgable woman, scraped some clay from the floor just within the threshold, because it was hallowed by the frequently repeated "Go mannee Dia in Sho," "God save all here," pronounced over it, as the foot of the stranger trod it on entering the house; and heating it in a skillet, she put it into the leg of a coarse worsted stocking, and applied it to the small of his back. It was of no avail: he had to take to his bed, from which he never arose. The fifteenth day saw him a corpse—his wife a widow—his children orphans. He was waked and buried with all due honour and solemnity; and more than that, he was lamented by ourselves and others many a long day. Peace to his ashes! He was one of the quaintest companions, and the most astute fisherman that frequented the banks of the Suck for many a long year; and should any of our angling friends ever visit the locality we have described, and inquire after Paudeen Brannagh, they will hear a recital of fishing wonders and exploits such as modern scepticism might be unwilling to receive.

During our own boyhood, when watching his practised hand throwing a red-tackle, or a black-and-orange, over the very nose of a trout, under an impending bank on the opposite brink of the river, with his light whip-rod springing from the very wheel, and at least five-and-thirty yards of line out—or listening with gaping avidity to the doctrines he enunciated, as he stood upon his longer leg, supporting himself with the handle of the landing-net, complacently viewing our efforts to imitate his casting—or when leaning over the back of the chair whereon he sat, with his feathers and silks, and various-coloured dubbings, and bits of skins, and the numerous materiel for manufacturing his flies, on the little table before him, in the door-way of his snug cabin, and heard him descant upon their several virtues, and how each was obtained, we regarded him with reverence approaching to awe. As he took up each bit of dressing he descanted on its virtues, and told how he scaled a high demesne-wall, at the risk of his neck, to get the topping of that golden pheasant, and took a hackling excursion all the ways to Carlow, to get that jay's wing—robbed a church-steeple of its community of starlings for their feathers—how he stole that bit of macau out of the tail of a showman's bird while he kept him engaged in conversation—how he learned the secret of dying pig's-down from a travelling tinker, and of tempering hooks, by shaking them in a leather bag over the fire, like the Limerick O'Shaughnessy—all this we say, together with the inexhaustible fund of legend, song, and superstition, which he possessed, made us, from a very early period, look up to him with admiration; and we greatly fear that the remembrance of these days would induce us to linger in the company of our old friend and preceptor longer than our readers—if not brothers of the gentle craft—might be willing to listen to us.

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[27] See an account of this castle in "Weld's Statistical Survey of the County Roscommon;" also views of it in the book styled "Grose's Antiquities;" consult "The Annals of the Four Masters," A.D. 1312, et seq. It is said to have been erected in the time of King John. The north-western tower was repaired or rebuilt in 1684. The south-western tower, that alluded to in the text, is in a state of great dilapidation; but the present proprietor, H. Packenham Mahon Esq., is, at the instance of the author, about to have it repaired.

[28] For the cause of his cognomen of Red Hand, see "The Annals of the Four Masters," A.D. 1224.

[29] Among the curious memorabilia of Connaught is a hook styled "Recollections of Skifflngton Gibbon, from 1796 to the present year, 1829," in which most of the scandal and gossip of the county Roscommon is set forth. This man was originally a "shop boy" in Castlerea, and afterwards traversed the country and levied black mail on all the nobility and gentry around; threatening to expose to light the skeleton in each family who did not contribute to his support. The tale of "Garnege Nevoran" is therein repeated as we often heard it when a boy at Ballintober Castle.

[30] The writer of this article remembers, when a child, hearing Alexander O'Conor give an account of his seizure of Ballintober, and has often conversed with persons who witnessed the progress of the rebel army from Creglaghan to the old castle. See the Gentleman's Magazine for February 1786, and the Journals of the Irish House of Commons of that date. See also an account of the transaction in the Dublin University Magazine for July 1840, p. 9.