Relics of Popular Superstitions
The Patron’s Feast
We strolling antiquarians gathered still closer round the hearth of the village-inn, though its store was of faded furze-blossoms, not blazing peat; while the president of our divan stretched himself on the wooden sofa, or long-settle, and expanding his eye-balls till they shone like a mountain-roe’s, began the wonders of his promised narrative.
“Ireland has not yet forgotten her saints and her “good green people,” whose power was feared and expected even during the horrors of the year 1797. The eve consecrated to the Patron-saint of a village is still distinguished by the attendance of numerous pilgrims who prostrate themselves in the church-yard, and embrace the crosses made more potent by his mediation. The minute-bell, which gives such melancholy speech to the hour of a dying man’s departure, was tolling in a ruined tower near Balmawhistle on the eve thus dear to harmless superstition; but all the inhabitants of the huts clustered round and within the solitary valley, had forsaken it to celebrate the Patron’s feast, with their usual strange mixture of devotion and frolic. Ferocity and ignorance made their devotion extravagant; poverty and desperation in Irishmen are never unmixed with merriment. I said all the people of Balmawhistle were busied with their Patron-saint; but one remained, a rosy, large, and bold damsel, who strode over the mud heap and wood-ashes which encumbered her husband’s threshold to receive his last breath and close his eyes, while his children were paying homage to the stone-cross of St. Kevin. A grey friar having availed himself of the general jubilee to steal from his hiding-place and toll the passing bell in a forsaken chapel, came, when he had given this passport to the departing spirit, and opened the hut door, little expecting to find any living attendant on his humble parishioner. Hannah Howragohn, the dead man’s wife, rose from his bed of heath-straw, but without lifting her thick purple fingers from his throat.—“What is it you do, Hannah?” said her ghostly father.—“Only helping the Lord awa’ with him,” replied the good wife, with great simplicity: and immediately began to compose the head and features which death, whose pangs she had shortened in pure benevolence, had distorted very little. The soi-disant priest looked gravely and silently on till she began to seek a plate of salt and a black ribbon to complete the equipment of the deceased for his wake. Then quietly untying the silk bag which contained an amulet from his neck, her visitor put it on his own, and moving away the slate which covered the broken window, asked what she would do for the living. The Irishwoman gazed on him an instant, threw the green-striped handkerchief from her head to her feet, and clasped his neck. “Ohone, Father Carrol! it is not your own face, but my jewell King Condy’s”—He, putting her gently aside, laid his pistol on the table, and charged its companion deliberately. “Look you, my own woman,” said he, “there is neither time nor place for kindness—I am a dead man if the king’s soldiers find me, and I have not a tester in my purse nor meat for my mouth.”—Hannah’s round face changed from the red of a corn-poppy to the blue of a convolvolus, while her foster-brother added, “Your husband, there, is not much unlike me in the face, and his clothes will fit me—Let us lay him in this green coat, where the red villains may find him, and pass me for your husband, old Croudy Howragohn, when they come here.”—Honest Hannah put her green hood over her matted locks, and answered, “Troth, there’s niver a thread of King Condy should be kilt in my cabin after he was dead, let alone when he was alive; and I’ll save you, joy, if there was never meat or tester in the world for ye’z. But as for trundling my poor owld husband into the fields for them soldiers to shoot at, it would be no convenience to me at all at all now, seeing he’s dead outright, and please the fairies, I mean to give him a decent wake.”—“What harm would it be now.” argued King Condy—“if you laid me under the sheet there instead of him, and passed me for dead”—“None in the world, jewel; only that niver a sowl would believe it, for poor old Croudy was given to begging for his own funeral and when he could get no more that way, he made me make the death-wail, and burn the straw at my door, so that all the neighbours brought pipes and ale and cakes to wake him, and then he jumped up among them all, and helped to eat them. Rest his sowl!—I doubt he may be meaning to do so again!—”—“Then as you said, Hannah,” interrupted King Condy—“I’ll help heaven away with him”—and seizing the throat of poor old Croudy, he probably might have given it no gentle grasp, if the supposed dead man had not made a sudden leap, which overset the single rushlight, and threw King Condy himself on the ground. His wife, strangely surprised at this incident, seized a poker from the fire, and intending, no doubt, to punish her visitor for the mischief he designed her husband, levelled a blow so vigorous, that the head which received it could rise no more. King Condy benefited by the darkness and the confusion of his hostess, dropped the green uniform he had concealed in a bundle under his priestly attire, and forced himself through the slated window, from whence he fled like a roe into the depths of the valley.
These depths were sheltered on one side by an old and thick wood; on the other by a park wall of great elevation, which the fugitive eyed with anxious hope that some chasm or inequality might enable him to scale it, and take shelter within the privileged grounds. He ran a long time hoping and fearing, till the dim moonlight revealed two extraordinary objects. They resembled two immense flamingoes perched in various attitudes on the top of the wall; but King Condy, never wanting courage, crept near enough through the thicket to examine them. The moon shewed him a slim, young ensign in a scarlet uniform, seated on a three-legged stool, which he had placed adroitly on the spikes of the wall, in an attitude very secure, though rather ungraceful: a portly gentleman in the same kind of apparel had shewn superior ingenuity by placing his saddle across; and poising himself in his stirrups, exhibited the bows and gestures of a lover more at his ease. The farce was well understood by Condy. These Irish cavaliers, in the true spirit of their frank country, had agreed to refer their rival pretensions to their lady’s taste, and submit to a fair comparison. Our adventurer took the hint, and also the ladder by which these military Romeos had ascended, determining to trust the hospitality and good judgment of their Juliet. The ladder served his purpose well; and hiding it carefully among some trees on the other side of the wall when he had passed it, he made his way direct to the mansion, guided by a light which burned in a corner-casement. He leaped in, and found himself in the stone chamber of an old portal, transformed into a lumber-room, and filled with shreds of taffeta, torn books, and withered flowers. These were indications of a lady’s neighbourhood, and he was not surprised to hear female voices through the chinks; but when he looked through one, he was indeed surprised at the spectacle it discovered. A young creature of the slenderest shape, with eyes that shone like wild-fire through the long black hair that streamed over her, sat on a low stool before a tall woman clothed in a scarlet vest and petticoat richly seamed with gold, and bearing on her head a turban or diadem of embroidered silk. When this singular head turned towards him, it discovered a face black as the hair her companion was combing, and enlightened by eyes of the size and fierceness of a leopard’s, rolling in sockets of ivory whiteness, powerfully contrasted by the jetty arches which overshadowed them. She knelt on a rich cushion, holding on one hand a basket containing a tuft of grass and a few winter-leaves, which she dropped one by one into a vase of black marble filled with earth; and while she rocked herself slowly to and fro, the listener heard her utter these strange words—“Pa la, la, suma nootka gunza!” They were rather sung than said, in a hollow yet melodious cadence, and presently the singer spoke as if continuing a narrative.
“Then he died, and your father came to dwell among us; and he did not forget that my father was a prince in the land where the gold and the ivory grow, and he would say when his children sat in my lap, that they were happier than princesses, for a queen gave them milk. But there came a dark night, and a stranger sat in a lonely place. No one knew from whence she sprung, and the people of this land said she was the Banshee that comes to tell when men or women shall go home to their fathers. And in my own dear country I had often seen such spirits that came to call away ny uncles and my brothers to the island where hunters are happy. Therefore I had no fear, and I went to the lonely place among the rocks, and saw the Banshee sitting. It was a dismal place, where they say the land was once green and rich, but those who lived on it would not feed a stranger; and the waters gushed over it, and the men were turned to rocks. There was no star, and the moon was sick, but I asked the Banshee-woman why she came, and she made answer—“Where my hand touches, the corn shall grow; grass shall be green under my foot: where my head leans, there shall be tobacco: and rice shall spring up where I sit.” Then I knew it was no evil spirit, but the good one, that once sat on the Allegany mountains, and promised riches to America. And she held out her hand to me, and said, “Give me bread;” but I answered—“I have eaten Obi, and I can give thee nothing good; but there is a young innocent within the door, and what she gives will be fit for a White Spirit.” But when I came back to seek for my master’s daughter, she was hidden; and the green robbers had left nothing under our roof but a few grains of wheat in my bowl of cocoanut-shell. Them I carried to the Spirit of the dark valley, and she ate them all; and she took from under her feet three blades of grass, and from behind her head these three oak-leaves. And she said, “let the hands that sent the grains of wheat twist one lock of hair with this trefoil and these leaves. The head from whence that hair is plucked shall be blessed, and the hand shall receive gold for the grain it gave.”
“And are those the leaves, Momacula,” said the lovely comber, “that I am to twist with one lock of my hair ”
“These leaves must be holy now.” replied the black nurse, “for I have dropped them one by one into this earth, which the Master of Life taught his preachers to bless. Twist them tight, my heart’s child, and sing with me, or the charm will not be pure.” Juliet bent her head, and sang in a stifled voice the six African words which formed the spell; while Momacula combed back her long bright hair, and gathered it in a silken net wreathed with flowers. It was imposssible to imagine a lovelier picture than these two figures formed, while the aged negro covered her foster child’s cherub head with a white veil, and received on her own dark forehead the kiss which repaid her. Then sitting on her nurse’s lap, the beautiful brown Juliet began to sing a wild West-Indian ditty, putting between every pause a few of the gold beads she had loosened from her neck among the folds of Momacula’s turban. Both suddenly raised their eyes, and beheld the Banshee standing before them. This mysterious spirit, so well known to every ancient Irish mansion, had now condescended to assume her best shape. She was tall, of noble and gentle aspect, with buskins, and a loose mantle of grass-green. Momacula uttered a dismal shriek, and fell on the floor in a swoon. Juliet, more strong in the spirits of youth, and full of the volatile energy peculiar to natives of the Indies, looked steadily and even sternly on King Condy, who hastily dropped his mantle, and falling on his knees, implored mercy and protection in the language best suited to a young girl’s ear. He talked of his misfortunes, of his persecutors, and the justice of his cause, entreating an asylum only for one night. His auditress, mingling the superstition of her native island with the simplicity of her Irish education, knew not whether to believe the fatal Banshee had assumed this form to beguile her; or to believe the young hero of a generous cause was almost a divinity himself. King Condy would have had little difficulty in fixing the most pleasant idea of the two, if steps at the door, and a masculine voice heard at no great distance, had not broken the conference. The young Irishman pleaded for his life, and Juliet, having no better means of saving it, put him in a large old trunk, in which all the mortgages and remnants of the Balmawhistle-pedigree were preserved.
While these things happened at the castle, great consternation prevailed in Hannah Howragohn’s hut. Whether she or King Condy had killed her husband, was a point she could no way settle to her own satisfaction, except in the certainty that he was absolutely dead. To call the neighbours in the usual way, by shrieking the Keenah, could be of little use, as there was great reason to believe none would venture to bring either cakes or ale after the many impositions the deceased had practised. Besides, this kind of neighbourly inquest, established by venerable custom, might have dangerous consequences, if she set forth the body without covering. The true Father Carrol, whose name and garment had been so artfully assumed to deceive ber, lived in a little cabin or hermitage near the ruined chapel of St. Kevan, in which he usually collected his thin flock, and celebrated his own religion. Thither went honest Hannah for advice and absolution, and marvellous was her surprise to find the grey long coat and priestly vestments which usually distinguished her confessor, rolled in a bundle near his altar-stone. But they supplied her with a thought worthy a woman’s wit, and concluding with true Irish reason, that a dead man found in another man’s clothes, is no longer the same man, she armed herself with courage, conveyed the remains of poor Croudy in a wheel barrow to the chapel, equipped him in the priest’s attire, and departed with a clear couscience.
Carrol O’Shane, titular priest of this parish, and teacher of eleven white-headed gossoons, whose Latin was much better than their English, had about this time made a vow to St. Kevan, that he would neither drink in nor out of his own house for one month. But having much consolation to administer, and many fears for the safety of his flock, he had on this night compromised his vow, by taking half a pint of raspberry whiskey with one foot in and the other foot outside of his door. This half must be understood, according to Hibernian measure, as the upper half of the pint; and the good ecclesiastic’s spirits were so rarefied, that he came from the feast of the patron-saint to his midnight orisons in the chapel, chanting all the way. When he entered, and beheld his place at the shrine occupied by a man in a kneeling posture, with his head reposed on the altar-stone, he stood awhile to consider what this apparition of himself might bode. But as the moon shone brightly, and discovered the profile of the reposing stranger’s features, he thought he recognized the face of Father Anthony Peter Macgowl, rival schoolmaster in the next parish, and of extreme ill-odour in his opinion, because he had been heard to say, that his favourite orator’s name ought to be pronounced Kickero. Now, for this unlicensed and ignorant novice in the holy church, to come to his very seat and house of prayer, was an affront beond toleration. Thrice he summoned him from his place, reproaching him for his illiterate pretences; and finding the intruder gave no sign of attention or removal, he exclaimed, in a climax of rage, “If thy Greek orator’s name is Kickero, I appeal to his name as the fittest part of eloquence,” and a forcible application of his foot followed this apostrophe. The stranger fell at his feet, with his forehead towards the rugged pavement, and remained motionless. No man, that is, no angry scholar, could have a heart more milky than Father Carrol; and lifting up his enemy’s face, when he beheld it lifeless and dolefully bruised, he beat his own in despair. He sprinkled the fractured head with water gathered in St. Kevan’s skull, and rubbed it with moss found in the hollow of his tomb, but no symptom of life returned, notwithstanding the eminence of these expedients. A prayer to St. Kevan himself was followed by a thought that promised benefit. He knew that Croudy Howragohn had departed this life in the evening, and determined to avail himself of the widow’s absence at a Shebean-house, to make a convenient removal. Taking the dead man on his shoulders, and choosing the most sheltered and obscure road, he deposited him upright at Hannah’s door, not doubting that when he should be discovered there, his death would be ascribed to the profane and revengeful soldiery. Confiding all to chance, and the bountiful mediation of St. Kevan, he returned to his cabin and slept. Day dawned, and with it came his recollection and remorse, and also some distrust of the stratagem he had practised. An inlet of the sea was near, and he might cross in a few hours to the safer shore of Scotland. Fear has wings in poetry, but it wants a horse in plain fact. Carrol O’Shane remembered a sturdy grey mare belonging to the exciseman of Balmawhistle, who, for manifold reasons, owed him great obligations. He took the ancient privilege of a churchman, and deeming all moveables subject to the Pope or his missionaries, he mounted the stolen mare, and urged her to her best speed. Hardly had she passed the slough or bog of the parish, before the neigh of another animal alarmed him, and looking back, he beheld a priest, with glazed eyes and a ghastly visage, pursuing him on the back of a white horse. His roused imagination saw all the features of his murdered enemy in this spectre, and invoking St. Kevan a thousand times, he redoubled his speed. The pale horse and his death-like rider followed with increased swiftness, till the exciseman’s mare, acquainted by long habit with certain resting-places, turned her head stubbornly towards a Shebean or hedge-house, where a crowd of people, full of libations to the patron-saint, were still assembled. Father Carroll plunged his mare and himself into the midst, exclaiming, “Save me from death!—Yonder is Peter coming to seize me!”—In an instant the outcry—“Peter is coming from the other world”—spread into the Shebean, and honest Hannah, whose widowhood had required comfort, ran out to see him. The sight of her husband, seated upright on a skeleton horse, spoke such daggers to her conscience, that in a loud voice she confessed her guilt, while the pour friar, bewailing his hard fate, accused himself bitterly of Father Peter’s death. The multitude unbound the dead man from the saddle, on which he had been firmly fixed, and the Lord of Balmawhistle, with a posse of soldiers, boys, and tattered women, conveyed the two self-accused culprits into Hannah Howragohn’s cottage, till the matter could be better understood. Great, indeed, was their astonishment, when they beheld the real Friar Peter, in his own official garments, kneeling in pious duty beside the door, which, taken from its hinges, supported a corpse, dressed decently, in a cap, with black ribbons, and covered with poor Croudy’s shroud. “Woe is me!” said the Irish wife, beginning her Gol or Ullaloo with true energy—“I shall never know whether my husband is dead or no!” and leaping on the body, would have given it an embrace sufficiently expressive of her zeal to help heaven away with him, had not the dead man risen a third time, and laughed heartily in the face of all the spectators. The Lord of Balmawhistle laughed too, when he recognised his nephew, Sir Conully Fitzpatrick, better known in Munster by the title of King Condy, representative of their first sovereign’s family; and heard him explain how he had taken refuge, after his first adventure in Howragohn’s cabin, under his uncle’s roof, or to speak more properly, in his daughter’s chest, from whence he made his escape in a few minutes. Then passing through the valley again, he saw poor Croudy stiffening at his own door, and yielding to a sudden love of mischief, bound him on the white horse which he had left grazing, and sent both abroad together. By this expedient, he hoped to mislead suspicion, if that horse, which he had ridden on a dangerous occasion, should be recognised by the wandering soldiers. He next entered the cabin to seek a few potatoes, and to provide himself with a new disguise; but had hardly fastened one of the absent wife’s caps on his head, before the schoolmaster and priest of the next parish entered to offer aid. Not an instant remained for choice of stratagems, and the best seemed to extend himself on the prepared board, and put on the habit and attitude of death. Honest Friar Peter was deceived without difficulty, for of the four squares which formed the cabin-window, three were filled with slate, and the open space left for the door was sufficiently clouded with departing volumes of smoke. His brother priest’s delight when he beheld him living, and felt assured that no man’s death rested on his head, was expressed by shouts, antics, and tears in abundance. The two rivals embraced each other, vowing to dispute no more: and the good wife, being well convinced that her husband would be permitted to repose in peace without too much inquiry, made a vow of eternal gratitude to her patron-saint. The Lord of Balmawhistle’s eloquence, or his sister’s beauty, converted young Sir Condy from the fever of the green republicans, and a marriage ended his long list of transformations. The Irish imitator of the Ephesian matron received from him a dowry, consisting of a cabbage garden, and a better grey mare, which won the heart of Thady Cowpsticks, the shrewd exciseman; and her third husband will probabiy be the Lord of Balmawhistle himself, president of this merry company, and historian of the Patron’s day.”
“And now,” said the Provost’s clerk, bowing humbly at the eonclusion of his patron’s tale, “What remains for us after listening to the vagaries of superstition in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire, Saxony, and Bombay, but to conclude, that such chimeras are still bound together by some link connected with human-nature’s most vital part, as the grass and the yellow leaves which the disguised lover sent to his mistress, were twined with a lock of her hair?—Or let us agree that these follies are like the strongest parts of the human skeleton—variously constructed, perhaps, but in their use and texture always the same.”
“Let us also take a hint from nature,” said the good Scotch priest, “and as nature never exhibits a living skeleton, let us throw over our follies and foibles a veil as soft and elegant as she has provided for the veins and tendons that support our frame. These superstitions, the business of fond hearts, are not less needful to nourish and circulate love, than the veins whose use remained so long undiscovered. We will respect those whose use is past, and keep them as the anatomist keeps his ancient relics, to assist modern wisdom.”
“That is well said!” added the joyous Provost; “and why should not tales of to-day follow those of Auld Lang Syne? They would be found as rich in absurdity, romance, and superstition of another kind. We are only five in number; but the Eve of our party gave us two legends: let us balance this feminine usurpation by five modern appendixes to the ancient memoirs we male narrators have made public.”
The lady of our groupe resisted this proposal, except on one condition. We acceded to it, and opening a volume of old English portraits, each selected one, promising to furnish a counterpart from modern life. Sir Christopher Hatton fell to the lady’s lot; and laughing as she viewed this celebrated beau of Queen Elizabeth’s days, she said, “I once heard an auctioneer prove to the satisfaction of a Yorkshire audience, that Noah was born at Kettlewell, in Craven.—Wait till after supper, and I will convince you that Sir Christopher Hatton, the very macaroni of our old queen’s court, was in London in 1815.”