The Banshee attack at Coolbunnia

Halloween is upon us again. In the past it was a very different occasion and I’ve written about the Halloween of my childhood before. Now it wouldn’t be Halloween without a Ghost story and here’s one my Father told1. 
“There was a family called Walsh who lived above where your brother Robert now lives in Coolbunnia. The man of the house was a fisherman, renowned for mischief. He was returning home from fishing one night with his eldest son. They were coming up the lane off the strand when the heard the banshee howling and keening.  The son ran away up the lane, but his father stayed behind and crept up to see her.  She was sitting on a rock looking out on the river and was combing her hair with a beautiful comb. Now Walsh loved a bit of blackguarding.  So he watched the banshee carefully and at some point she dropped the comb to fix her hair and in that instant he ran up, snatched the comb and ran away home.
Meanwhile his son had arrived home and was relating what he had seen to his increasingly concerned mother. Suddenly the door crashed open and there her husband stood laughing and shouting, his eyes wild with the sport. But as he banged the door shut behind him the howls of the enraged banshee could be heard coming up the lane. His son and wife saw a strange eerie light shining under the door and the screaming raised to a furious pitch.
The wife ran to her husband and shook him, asking was he mad or what, how could he bring the banshee on their home and her children, that the demon would murder them all. Realising his mistake, her husband barred the door and they then ran to the windows, checking the latches, pulling the curtains across.  He urged his son to put what timber was in the house on the fire.  The banshee was rushing round the house, checking for a way in.  The windows were shook, the door banged and rattled, the light was seen coming down the chimney.  The fire was stoked till the flames rose higher.  But it was an open fireplace and they knew that sooner or later they would run out of fuel. 

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They went up into the bedroom where the younger children had been woken from their sleep and all huddled together and started to pray.  Outside the roars of the banshee were relentless, and many the home was woken, and in those homes prayers were said that she would be soon on her way.

Suddenly the son had an idea.  Could they not just give the comb back. But how. It couldn’t be thrown out, what if she didn’t see it.  Would they wait till she came down the chimney, but then the house would be cursed.  They considered the dilemma and finally they came up with an idea. The son would retrieve the fire tongs from the kitchen and hold the comb out to the enraged banshee.  Once done, his father placed the comb between the iron tongs and the window was opened a crack and the comb pushed out in clear view.  The eerie light appeared at the window and the screeching reached a crescendo of rage as the banshee spotted her stolen comb. She grabbed it and the tongs but the boy hung on and a fierce struggle ensued, she pulling with all her demonic strength while the boy hung on to the tongs, terrified it would force open the window, and entering she would kill them all.  All at once she relented and departing, she could be heard screeching her way up towards the Minaun, her returned comb firmly in her grasp.
Exhausted, the family slumped down on their bed or slept where they were huddled. Next day the neighbours called and asked after the noise of the banshee they had heard the following night. No one would believe the account, but on the fire tongs being produced, they had to relent with the sight of them in a twisted and mangled state.  For years afterwards people coming to the village called in to view the tongs and hear the story” 
The banshee, my father claimed, having been bested by the Walsh’s, was never heard in Coolbunnia afterwards!
1.  Jim Doherty in his book – The Next House has a similar story, but with different details. 

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Drifting for Herring, Winter 1983

It was about this time of year in 1983 that I got my first taste of fishing in the deeper waters of the harbour around Dunmore East and the Hook.  It was a strange and confusing place that was more dangerous and unpredictable than the fishing I had known heretofore.  Some nights were threatening, with dangerous seas and unpredictable conditions, others were magical, still, calm, star reflected seas and a gentle breeze.  Deep water also meant the dreaded seasickness, something I’d never known up to that point, and something I would never want to meet again.  But it was the fishing itself that was so different, boats, nets, fish, conditions and practices.

I’ve mentioned before how part of our entertainment in Cheekpoint was hanging around the quays helping out the fishermen.  In the autumn of 1983, the first since leaving secondary school, Jim (Dypse) Doherty approached me on the quay and asked would I like to come with him and Denis (Harvey) Doherty to drift for Herring.  I jumped at the chance.

That afternoon I was aboard the Reaper, a fully decked motor boat with an enclosed cabin.  She was the only one of her type in Cheekpoint at the time.  (Most of the boats were half deckers, with open decks and if you were lucky a small weather deck and cuddy)  When waves broke across the Reaper they swished round the deck, prior to escaping via the scuppers.  She still required bailing, but not at regularly.

The Reaper off Cheekpoint
Photo taken by Anthony Rogers

Jim and Denis were as different as chalk and cheese, but the one thing they shared was that you would never see either of them without a fag in their mouths,  Jim smoked away, lighting one after the other.  But occasionally he would remove the fag as he paused to consider a response to a question.  Denis on the other hand, never seemed to be without the fag in his mouth.  It hung from his lip, whatever the job, and I often marveled at his ability to chat away, with the fag hanging off his bottom lip, until it burned right down till there was almost nothing left, and yet he never seemed to notice.

All was different on the Herring boat.  Growing up with Salmon, I knew my way round nets and the boats.  But the Herring nets were deeper and the meshes smaller.  They still had a lead rope and a head rope, but the head rope had much smaller corks.  This was to allow the nets to sink down to the level the Herring were swimming at, and this depth could be moderated via gallon can’s on a few fathom of rope which could be lengthened or shortened as required, stationed at regular intervals along the head rope..

Instead of a bouy, a dan was used on either end of the nets.  A dan was a homemade marker.  It was usually a straight stick of hazel (although broom handles were coming into fashion then).  In the middle of the stick was either a buoy or a slab of builders aeroboard for flotation.  The dan was weighed down with bricks or lead.  At the other end, each boat had a set of colour flags atop made out of fertiliser bags or fabric, each boat had their own colour to distinguish each other.  At the top t
was a flashing winkie (light), so that you could see your nets in the dark.  One of my jobs was to go up to my Aunt Ellen’s shop in the village and get some batteries. The winkie only came on in the dark, to save batteries, so to see if it was working I had to cup my hands over it at see if the light came on.

The nets were ranged over and another difference was that each net was tied at the head and the lead rope, but the actual net meshes were not joined.  The herring drifted in shoals you see, and nets may need to be separated and left to other boats to haul if the catch was too big.

Instead of hauling the nets by hand, the Spenser Carter net and rope hauler was operated via hydraulic pipes and once the net was heaved over it and the motor engaged, you put your energy into hauling the ropes and dragging the catch to the deck to be stowed.  Another difference was that as you hauled the boat was kept on the nets via the engine and the mizen mast astern.  The last most significant difference was that you used a fish finder to identify the swimming shoals.  Of all the equipment aboard the Reaper, this was the one I found the most amazing.  I guess that up to then all the knowledge I had acquired about salmon was handed down and learned the hard way.  It was about the natural elements and a sense of how the salmon thought and swam.  It had been thus with Herring before, watching the surface for oil, looking at the actions of the diving birds, spotting foraging seals and what they emerged on the surface with. 

I felt like a real man, that first evening going down onto the quay with my grub bag, and stowing it on the Reaper.  Jim started the engine and I let go the ropes forward and aft and Denis took them aboard. Jim took her away from the quay while we bustled around with the last minute jobs. It was 3 O’clock in the afternoon and we needed to be on the herring grounds to set as dusk fell.

All around us the other Cheekpoint boats were leaving too.  My father was in the Boy Alan with Robert Ferguson (skipper) and Eamon Power.  The St Agnes was skipperd by Dick Mason and had Edward Ferguson aboard and I think Brendan Foley.  The Collen II was also there, Ned Power, John Joe and Matt (spogey) Doherty and the Maid of the West was also there, a much older and smaller boat, with the brothers; Mickey, Paddy and Jack Duffin.  I think it was the next year that Sean (hops) Doherty joined with a new boat with his father John and Jimmy O’Dea. John Ferguson would join later, I remember Tom Sullivan and Seamus Barry also crewing, when on their month off on the Bell boats.  At some point Michael Elliott joined in with a fine boat, the Glendine.

I was following in the footsteps of generations of Cheekpoint fishermen, who had departed to fish in the lower harbour.  I’d heard many stories, and knew that boats like the Maid of the West had been rowed down, nets set by oar, hauled by sheer strength and then rowed home again.  I knew that men had lost their lives at it, and that even with the modern conveniences it was no cake walk.  I would know the fear of watching a following sea breaking over the stern and washing over the decks, be totally lost in a clinging fog only to narrowly avoid the cliffs at Dunmore, and know how humbling and humiliating seasickness could be.  All that was to come, but that evening, standing on the forward deck of the Reaper I only knew excitement, and that I was starting a new journey on my relentless road towards adulthood.

In the coming weeks, I will try  to give a sense of the actual fishing methods, the clearing and selling of the fish and some of the historical evidence highlighting how ancient a practice it was.  

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whats a phone box?

As a child the village shop was owned by Molly Doherty, on the spot where Ben Power now trades.  There’s a photo hanging up there of Molly standing in front of it all those years back.  It was a much more modest building, but one feature of it was as you went in the door, there was a chocolate coloured box with a door and windows on the left hand side of the door.  In the box was a telephone.  I never had any call to use it, or can say I ever stepped inside, but I do remember it being used. 

Looking back on it, I guess the box was to afford some sense of privacy when it came to transacting your communication with the outside world of 1960’s Ireland.  However, the reason I can remember it was that very often, and I suppose it was particularly older users, they would shout so hard into the mouthpiece, that you could hear every word.  It sometimes made it hard to put in your order to Molly. 

Apparently the first phone box in the country was installed on Dawson Street in Dublin in 1925 and it proved so popular that they spread nationwide.  Some history here and more here.

It must have been sometime in the early 1970’s that the phone was moved outside the shop to a “modern” call box.  In a way that would make sense, it must have been hard if you needed to make a call when the shop was closed! There again, I’m sure Molly would have had many a call out in an emergency.

The new box was a concrete, wood and glass affair, with the P&T emblem for the Post and Telegraphs, and I can remember using it well.  In those days if you had a call to make you trudged to the cross roads with change in your fist.  There was a receiver and a coin box.  To make a call you lifted the receiver, put in the correct amount, then dialled the required number on a dial that had to be turned for each digit and awaited the response from the other side.  Once received you had to press a button, marked A, which allowed the coins to drop in and thus your were connected.  The call lasted as long as your money did.  If the call didn’t go through, or you wanted to cancel it, you had to press the button B.  failure to do so meant the loss of your cash.

A replica

 Of course that was also the era of ringing the operator if you had difficulties.  To ring the operator cost nothing, so of course as youngsters we often rang just for the craic.  “Hello Operator?”…”Yes, how can I help you”…”get off the line, there’s a train coming”. 

It was a great place to shelter on a wet night, being completely closed in, but terrible if you were waiting to make a call and someone was in there already.  As teenagers, you might have arranged to call someone at a particular time.  Alas on arrival, there was someone in there who you knew would be half the evening.  You would wait discreetly at first, but then trying to make sure you were seen, obviously waiting, and obviously needing the call box in a much more “urgent” way, but you just knew it was pointless.  Meanwhile, someone else, a girl perhaps, oblivious to your dilemma, was thinking you didn’t care, and you could go to hell for yourself. Those with a phone in their home, had no ideas of the tribulations faced by us non phone owning folk.

Another feature of the phone box was that people rang looking for someone in the village.  I was never sure if they thought it was a home number or if it was pre arranged and expected the other person to be there.  In any case, if you answered it, you could be asked to run anywhere.  Maybe it was a measure of our boredom or just some throwback to an earlier and more community like time, but you could never refuse to run a message.  It wasn’t too bad if it was to Veronica Duffin who lived next door but at times it was for the new houses, the back road or worse down the Mount.

I once took a call from a Londoner who asked if Johnny Murphy was around.  I said he lived in the village.  I was asked could I get him.  I ran down the road and into Johnny’s home.  Johnny wanted to know who it was.  I could only tell him he was ringing from London and he’s better run or the fella would be broke.

At some point the old box was removed and a newer fancier phone came in with the Eircom logo splashed across it.  I can’t remember now if it was cash operated or if you needed a phone card – a collectable of the 90’s.  The box was a waste, the ends were open, so if it was raining t’was useless to shelter in, and in a gale of NW wind, a common occurrence at the cross roads, you would be blown out of it. 

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There were other coin boxes in the village at the time.  Both pubs had them, and Jim Doherty (RIP) and Phil had one just inside their door in the village.  I remember William telling us about a neighbour knocking up the household one night to call an ambulance.  It reminded me of my grandmother running out of the house one night to call a neighbour to go for the phone, after her brother had a heart attack.

I don’t know who had the first domestic line in the village.  But I remember my uncle John (RIP) and Mickey Duffin (RIP) having ones for their jobs as pilot men.  Over the years the domestic phones have become more prevalent and the public phone boxes disappeared.  The one at the Corss roads went in the last ten years.  With the modern communication revolution, such things must seem like a historical throwback.  Indeed I heard a child asking her father “whats a phone box?” when one was exhibited at this years Spraoi weekend in Waterford.  There again, if anyone is thinking I’m one for nostalgia, take a look at this page dedicated to bringing back the old phone box

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Misadventures of a gravedigger

Regular readers may be surprised to learn that I have something in common with Abraham Lincoln, Joe Stummer and Rod Stewart.  Well As a fishermen in the 1980s Cheekpoint, and in the depressed economy of the time, you quickly learned to take a few pounds wherever you could make it.  Sometimes it was a few days on a building site, maybe a spell of farming, some painting and decorating.  But in common with the former I also did a stint at gravedigging.   

The life of a gravedigger never really appealed to me to be honest.  I was about ten when I first encountered grave digging in Faithlegg.  Our granduncle Christy Moran had died and I went with my Grandmother to the church.  Pat Moran had driven her up and I was accommodated by kneeling in the back of his ford escort van.  In the front she had a bag which looked heavy and jangled but I was uncertain what it was for.

When we walked into the churchyard she headed up towards the back.  It was a time when Faithlegg was an overgrown wilderness and making your way amongst the headstones was an adventure.  In the distance I could see a pile of earth and as we walked towards it, another shovel full of soil flew through the air and joined the yellow soiled pile.

In the hole, was Martin Nugent (RIP), beavering away on the shovel.  While squatting down nearby was my “Uncle Paddy” Paddy Moran (RIP) taking his ease with a Players Navy Cut cigarette in his mouth.  Martin Clambered out of the freshly dug grave on our appearance, and settled himself down beside Paddy, lit a fag and drew a great big phlegm from deep inside him and spat into the grass.  Then my grandmother took out a rectangular package of grease proof paper and the men set to eating ham sandwiches.  To quench the thirst a flask of tea was produced, it was already sweetened and milked.  Some large bottles of stout were presented and gratefully received.  These were set aside for later. 

We didn’t delay, once the flask was used she cleared it away and we turned towards the gate.  Martin wanted to know if I wanted to stay behind and learn the trade.  I shuddered at the thought.  I was happy to get out the gate and walk the few miles to home.

Gerry Boland offered my a start in the graveyard when I was about 19.  Gerry dealt with the negotiation with the undertaker and measuring out of the grave.  Once the grave was marked and the sod removed you had the basic shape and all you needed to do was stay in line with it. After that it was “head down and arse up” and just get on with it.

To dig you started with one side of the grave, dug with the pick, then your partner cleared it with the shovel, then you stepped down into the cleared side and worked on the other.  Over and back taking turns, it was easy enough at the start, but got harder the further you went.  And as you got deeper you also thought of the darker side of the job.  What would you find below, were you awakening the spirit of the deceased, would the sides cave in and trap you.  If these weren’t bad enough Gerry had a legion of stories, each one worse than the last, and the undertakers could always be relied upon too.  Gerry also had a legion of quips, quotes and sayings, such as”If you don’t go to other men’s funerals, they won’t go to yours”!  On my first grave we were about mid way down when I asked Gerry when would the tea and sandwiches arrive…”Did you bring any?” he asked.  For some reason the tradition had stopped sometime in the previous ten years.  Now it was payment from the undertaker, and you looked after yourself.

Sometimes it was easier than others.  Graves that had been dug before were generally easier.  Graves which hadn’t been opened in decades could take much longer.  Occasionally a grave was brand new, so then you just didn’t know what you would face.  I missed out on a job at one stage and Gerry had to get another chap from the village.  It was his first grave and as they got down into the hole, they struck a bit of rock.  Gerry had to pop off to do a message and explained that the chap should use the pick to loosen the soil around the rock, and that hopefully it would shift.  He got delayed and didn’t return for about an hour.  But as he walked in he could hear the chink chink of metal on rock.  Getting to the grave he was met with a very strange sight.  The chap was still in the grave but the entire floor of the grave was a solid sheet of rock.  In his hand was the pick, but the tine was now bent back, a withered and useless mess.  Gerry asked him why he hadn’t stopped…”you told me to keep digging” was his reply.  They later got in a rock breaker, but had to give up and dig an alternative.

My worst moment came one bright summers morning.  We were digging an old existing grave up the back.  Gerry had come early but had to head off to milk cows.  It was agreed that he would get a start on it and then leave, and I would finish it off.  When I got there the grave was already well down so I grabbed a spade and launched myself in.  I was expecting a solid surface but next thing I knew there was a crash of splintering wood and I sunk into an old coffin.  In that moment all the sum of my fears about working in the graveyard swirled up around me.  My two feet were stuck, I was five feet down and only my head was showing.  I thought of the body lying in the coffin, I thought of the sides closing in, but mostly I thought of the relatives arriving and what they would make of such a spectacle. 

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Although I wasn’t much for church or prayer at the time, I said a slow purposeful Hail Mary, concentrating on the words, in the hope that it would calm me and give me inspiration.  Before it was over I was already realising that I had the spade and could use it to reach the pick, and with the pick I could smash me way out.  Sheer relief spread over me as I started on the coffin.  I was petrified of what I might find staring up at me, a corpse, mortified by the disturbance, or a skeleton that would pounce on my throat and wrestle me to the earth.  However, despite all the fears, although the coffin was solid, the body that had lain within and long ago turned to dust.

On those occasions that we found bones etc in a grave, or even the parts of an old coffin, these were carefully removed to a bag, which was discreetly hidden and replaced into the grave before it was filled in. 

There would be many more, but less dramatic misadventures.  A grave dug in the wrong place (an error by the undertaker), a family dispute at a grave as the coffin came up the path, graves caving in, coffins getting stuck as they were lowered into the earth, or graves flooded during heavy rain, which had to be bailed out with buckets.

All in all, I have to say that since that time, I have had nothing but a sense of admiration for the gravediggers.  They are probably the least noticed at any funeral, yet their role is as crucial as any other. I mightn’t mention the connection with Rod Stewart again, but I was a big fan of Joe Stummer of the Clash!