Timeless Irish Tales

These are stories that have not found a place in my other collections, with the exception of a few which are expanded and/or updated here. The written versions are longer and more detailed than the way I tell them, for which I follow the tellers’ rule: cut to the chase and stay there. The stories on this page (and book-to-be) are copyrighted @ by me in the form in which you see them here, but you are free to tell the traditional tales in your own words. Those tales are in the public domain, part of international intangible heritage, which means that they belong to no one and everyone. I’m posting the chapters higgledy-piggledy on the blog as I add them, so while you see the Under Construction note at the bottom, you can start there and work your way up until you come to a story you’ve already read.

Lord Norbury and the Devil

In a short story by Brendan Behan, “A Turn for a Neighbour”, it’s Christmas time, and someone has died. A neighbour offers as a favour to collect and deliver a coffin. Between collection and delivery, he comes to a pub and decides to stop for refreshment. It being Christmas, “getting in was easier than getting out.” Several drinks later, he emerges to find his cart empty, the coffin “gone, like Lord Norbury with the divil.” This is the story and background behind that expression.

John Toler (1745-1831) as Lord Norbury the “Hanging Judge” was Lord Chief Justice from 1800 to 1827. He lived at Cabragh House in the inner suburb of Cabra, Dublin, on the corner of Faussagh Avenue and Ratoath Road at The Bogie’s Roundabout. “Bogie” – like “bogeyman” – is a generic term for a phantom, hellhound, demon, or other frightening entity. He also owned a townhouse at No 3 Great Denmark Street in Dublin city centre off Parnell Square, now part of the Castle Hotel complex. (See note below.)

The story goes that one day Norbury asked his coachman to take him from the townhouse to his home in Cabra. On arrival, the coachman stepped down and opened the door. The coach was empty. He said later that he felt the coach suddenly riding lighter halfway through the journey, and that was when he reckoned the devil took Lord Norbury.

Contemporary image of Lord Norbury

Local people of ripe age have told me that when they were children their parents said that when Norbury died a black dog dragging a chain haunted his house until it was demolished in 1939, and it is still seen on the streets of Cabra and neighbouring Phibsborough, where I live.

Toler was appointed Solicitor-General in 1789 and promoted to Attorney-General in 1798 with responsibility for prosecuting rebels – or suspected rebels – in the 1798 Rebellion. He could be soft on torture.

Lieutenant Edward Lambert Hepenstal, “The Walking Gallows”, was a 7-foot tall lieutenant in the County Wicklow militia. He admitted during a trial that a prisoner had “been pricked with a bayonet, to induce him to confess: a rope had been put around his neck, which was thrown over his (Hepenstal’s) shoulder, he then pulled the rope, and drew the prisoner up, and he was hung in this way for a short time, but continued sulky, and confessed nothing.” (Hanging a prisoner or witness until he loses consciousness, and repeatedly reviving and hanging him again to persuade him to confess or implicate others is called half-hanging. Waterboarding is the modern equivalent.)

The defence attorney put it to Hepenstal:

“Then you acted the executioner, and played the part of a gallows?”

“Yes, please your honour” was the reply of Lieutenant Hepenstal.

The Solicitor-General, Mr. Toler, who tried the case, in his charge to the jury regretted the treatment of the prisoner, “but it was an error such as a young and gallant officer might fall into, warmed by resentment.” … The prisoner was found guilty. (Madden)

Hepenstal, known in Wicklow oral tradition as “Hempenstall”, is said to have been killed in a fight with rebels about 1798 in Aghavannagh, where his grave is marked with flagstones at his head and feet to show his size.

Here lie the bones of Hepenstal,
Judge, jury, gallows, rope, and all.

Locals say that he hanged his last man at the gate to the Aghavannagh youth hostel, and his gigantic ghost has been seen there during the day by non-local people who had never heard the story before.

“Hepenstal the Walking Gallows” from The Irish Magazine, January 1810

When Toler was elevated to the top judicial post in Ireland as Lord Norbury, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Clare, protested: “Make him a bishop, or even an archbishop, but not a chief justice.”

A Compendium of Irish Biography (1878) states: “Lord Norbury was a fitting instrument to carry out the severe policy of the Irish government at the period of the Union, and the assizes at which he was present were invariably followed by wholesale executions.”

(The 1801 Act of Union joined Ireland to Great Britain to form the United Kingdom.)

A 20th-century writer commented: “His knowledge of law was negligible and his style of administration was ludicrous.” (Lysaght) The author of a book about his contemporary, John Philpot Curran, called Norbury “one of the most blackhearted and sadistic scoundrels who ever wore scarlet and ermine”. (Hale)

(Norbury and prominent lawyer Curran, inveterate courtroom enemies, were seated next to each other at a dinner. A dish was being passed around. Norbury looked at it and asked, “Is that hung beef?” Curran responded, “Try it, my lord, the it is sure to be.”)

For Daniel O’Connell he was “an especial object of abhorrence”.

According to The Dictionary of National Biography, “his indifference to human suffering … disgusted even those who thought the occasion called for firmness on the part of government. … his scanty knowledge of the law, his gross partiality, his callousness, and his buffoonery, completely disqualified him for the position. His court was in constant uproar owing to his noisy merriment. He joked even when the life of a human being was hanging in the balance.”

But at least once the joke was on him. He fell asleep during a trial about horse-stealing. When he woke up, he could recall nothing of the proceedings but the alleged crime and the name of the defendant.

“You, Darby Casey, are convicted of horse-stealing, than which a more detestable crime does not exist, and I sentence you …”

“Ah, my lord,” Darby interrupted. “You may leave out the rest, if your lordship pleases. The jury – God bless ’em – acquitted me just before your lordship awoke.” (Kennedy)

Norbury was the judge who ordered the hanging of failed revolutionary Robert Emmet in 1803. Dublin Corporation built the Canon Burke Senior Citizens Flats complex on the site of Norbury’s Cabra home in 2003 in commemoration – with a hint of revenge or at least irony.

The most effective curses are said to be those made by priests, poets and widows. Norbury condemned an innocent man to death by hanging, and the man’s widow on her deathbed cursed Norbury that he would never have a peaceful night’s sleep. (Byrne) He was known to be an insomniac, and perhaps the power of the curse is why his wakeful spirit continues to roam the neighbourhood in the form of a black dog. Some say his ghost rides his horse up and down Faussagh Avenue at midnight on the anniversary of his death, 27 July.

This rare positive anecdote suggests a Jekyll-Hyde character.

He was riding his horse on the way to a courthouse where he was scheduled to adjudicate on a case taken against a peasant by a landlord. He came upon a man walking in the same direction and greeted him cordially. Unbeknownst to Norbury, the man was that defendant heading to the courthouse. The man did not recognise Norbury, and, with his mind on the forthcoming trial, poured his heart out to the friendly stranger.

He had been wronged and harshly treated by a little magnate in his neighbourhood, and, taking the law in his own hands in a fit of passion, he had been imprisoned, and now, being out on bail, he was proceeding to the court where Lord Norbury was to preside. He had no counsel employed, and had no confidence in the leniency of the judge, and was altogether in a depressed state of mind.

They parted company before arriving at the courthouse, and the judge, sending for a favourite counsellor, instructed him in the case, and handed him a fee for the defence. (Kennedy)

The defendant was acquitted after the counsellor’s impassioned attack on the landlord’s conduct. The peasant soon figured out how the judge had come to his aid, and “he would be a bold man who would afterwards speak ill of Lord Norbury in his presence.”

A solicitor had died penniless, and Norbury was approached to contribute a shilling for the funeral. “A shilling to bury one solicitor?” he replied. “Here’s a guinea. Bury twenty-one of them.” (Kennedy) Ironically, it was reported that Norbury died a pauper four years after he was dismissed from the judiciary for falling asleep during a murder trial, and a collection was taken up to provide candles for his funeral.

Norbury was interred in the graveyard next to the Church of Saint Mary at Mary Street and Jervis Street on Dublin’s north side. In 2005, the deconsecrated church was converted into a garish modern pub now called The Church after the bodies were removed.

Cabra frequently turns up in the news in connection with a shooting or stabbing or arms or drugs find. After a full day of storytelling in a boys’ school just off Faussagh Avenue, I was thirsting for a restorative cup of tea and popped in to the nearest hostelry, which happened to be The Cabra House pub on Faussagh Avenue, a stone’s throw from Norbury’s former residence, Cabragh House.

It would be awkward for a public house to refuse service to a member of the public, but my “reception” was distinctly unwelcoming, hostile, intimidating. I gulped down my tea and left quickly. In a survey a few years later, doughty Dublin taxi drivers voted The Cabra House as the most dangerous pub in the city.


“Norbury (The Right Hon. Earl of) 3, gt. Denmark-st. and Cabra” appears under Nobility and Gentry in Wilson’s Dublin Directory for the Year 1830. This part of Dublin was countryside when Gardiner’s Row, running from Parnell Square to Temple Street, was laid out in 1768 and named for the family that owned 25% of Dublin at the time. Just off Parnell Square, Number 3 has been incorporated into the Castle Hotel (“set within nine elegantly restored Georgian townhouses”), and the street is now properly called Gardiner Row and is so labelled on maps and street signs. Eastwards from Rutland Place to Temple Street is now Great Denmark Street, honouring Prince George of Denmark, husband of Queen Anne, and then it becomes Gardiner’s Place the rest of the way to Mountjoy Square, named for Luke Gardiner, Viscount Mountjoy. To reduce confusion for arriving guests, the Castle Hotel gives its address as “Gardiner Row/Great Denmark St.” with no number.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


Behan, Brendan, After the Wake, O’Brien Press, Dublin, 1981.

Byrne, Patrick, Irish Ghost Stories, Mercier, 1999.

Clerkin, Paul, Dublin Street Names, Gill & Macmillan, 2001.

Hale, Leslie, John Philpot Curran: His Life and Times, Cape, London, 1958.

Kennedy, Patrick, The Book of Modern Irish Anecdotes: Humour, Wit and Wisdom, M. H. Gill and Son, Dublin, 1872.

Lysaght, Moira, “Norbury, “The Hanging Judge”, Dublin Historical Record, Vol 30 No 2 Mar 1977.

M‘Cready, C. T., Dublin Street Names, dated and explained, Hodges Figgis, 1892.

Madden, R. R., The United Irishmen: Their Lives and Times, Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia, 1842.

Webb, Alfred, A Compendium of Irish Biography, M. H. Gill and Son, 1878.

Wilson’s Dublin Directory for the Year 1830.


John Philpot Curran, “the Irish Cicero”

One of the great American political proverbs is “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Often attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry, it was used in an address in 1852 by American activist Wendell Phillips, a defender of Black, Native American and women’s rights. As a public speaker, Phillips would have thoroughly digested the many collections then in print of speeches by the great orators of recent times. It would be surprising if he had not come across examples by Irish MP John Philpot Curran (1750-1817), a devastatingly effective orator acclaimed as “the most popular advocate of his time”. Daniel O’Connell dubbed him “the Irish Cicero”. He is barely remembered today except as the father of Sarah, whose suitor was the failed revolutionary Robert Emmet.

In a speech in Dublin in 1790, Curran said, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” By 1808, he had refined it to “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” the exact phrasing used by Wendell Phillips 44 years later.

Curran said in an earlier speech, “It is the right of the people to keep an eternal watch upon the conduct of their rulers.” Expanding on that idea, Phillips warned that this vigilance was to be focussed within the state rather than on a foreign enemy: “Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

As a student at Trinity College in Dublin, Curran was nicknamed “Stuttering Jack” and “Orator Mum” for his disastrous attempt at a maiden speech before the debating society, when he became completely tongue-tied.

“I took courage, and had actually proceeded as far as ‘Mr Chairman’, when to my astonishment and terror, I perceived that every eye was riveted upon me. I became dismayed and dumb. My friends cried ‘Hear him,’ but there was nothing to hear.”

On his first appearance in court, he froze and dropped his brief, and a friend had to read it out for him. It was possibly that same friend who advised him: “Nature never intended you for an orator.”

His mother was disappointed that he didn’t go into the Church: “John was fit for anything; and had he but followed our advice it might hereafter be written upon my tomb that I had died the mother of a bishop.”

The Life of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, published by his son William Henry Curran in 1819, and several other books mix biography and legend to produce a well-rounded portrait of a slim and sickly champion of the downtrodden who had no respect for incompetence, corruption and pomposity in office regardless of the status of the individual. His diminutive stature was frequently commented on. His son described him as “short, slender and ungraceful, resembling rather the form of a youth not yet fully developed, than the compact stature of a man”.

Most of the following anecdotes have been presented as factual.

When he was a student at Trinity College, Curran unwisely criticised a piece of writing by the college Censor, Doctor Patrick Duigenan, as “the unrolling of a mummy – nothing but old bones and rags”. For a breach of college regulations, Duigenan gave him his choice of punishment: pay a fine of five shillings or translate an issue of The Spectator into Latin. He chose the latter but didn’t finish it on time and gave an unsatisfactory excuse. For this offence Doctor Duigenan told him to compose and recite an oration in laudem decori (in praise of propriety) in Latin from the pulpit in the chapel. He did this, but it was an obvious satire on Duigenan, who sent Curran to the Provost. The Provost didn’t like Duigenan and was amused by the stunt and Curran’s defence of it, so he let him off with a mild rebuke. When his friends learned of this, they convinced him that his future lay in the law, not the church. (Hale)

Curran was accused by college authorities of keeping idle women in his lodgings. He protested that he never kept them idle. (Life 1882)

When the Irish parliament was dissolved with the Act of Union in 1801, a member of the House of Lords who had got his title as a bribe to vote in favour was walking with Curran past the idle parliament building on College Green, now a branch of the Bank of Ireland.

“I can’t tell you, Curran,” he said, “how frightful our old House of Commons appears to me.”

“I do not wonder at it,” replied Curran. “I never knew a man who had committed murder, who was not haunted by the ghost of the murdered whenever he came to the spot at which the foul deed was done.” (Life 1882)

A judge whose wig had gone awry asked Curran, “Do you see anything ridiculous in this wig?”

“Nothing but the head, my lord.”

Curran and Lord Chancellor Clare were long established enemies. Clare was on the bench, fondling a dog while listening to the legal presentations. Curran stopped in the middle of a sentence. Clare looked up inquiringly.

“I beg pardon. I thought your lordships had been in consultation.”

Curran and Lord Chief Justice Norbury, known as the “Hanging Judge” (see chapter “Lord Norbury and the Devil”), had a fractious relationship. Norbury was presiding in a new courthouse in Carlow with poor acoustics and reverberations. A donkey braying outside interrupted him, and he asked what it was.

“Merely the echo of the court,” said Curran.

As a patriot and a defender of rebels and underdogs, Curran gave and received a good deal of abuse, which led to heated exchanges in Parliament and courtrooms and in turn resulted in a number of duels. One was with corpulent Judge John “Bully” Egan, so nicknamed for his “huge ungainly figure and blustering manner”. Bully complained:

“He may hit me as easily as he would a haystack, and I might as well be aiming at the edge of a knife as at his thin carcass.”

Curran: “Well, let the gentlemen chalk the size of my body on your side, and let every ball hitting outside of that go for nothing.”

They then exchanged shots deliberately wide of the mark and shook hands. (Hale) Phillips notes: “A duel in these days was often the prelude to intimacy.”

A physically imposing barrister – some say it was Egan – took exception to Curran’s witty jibes and threatened him: “If you go on so, I’ll put you in my pocket.”

Curran: “If you do, you’ll have more law in your pocket than ever you had in your head.”

In 1780, early in his career, Curran courageously represented a Catholic priest who had been assaulted by Lord Doneraile and was suing for damages, a case refused by other attorneys. Before he called as a witness Mister St. Leger, Doneraile’s brother, he advised the jury, without giving St. Leger’s name, that they were going to hear testimony from “a renegado soldier, a drummed-out dragoon” who had fled from enemies on the battlefield but was prepared to testify against “an unoffending minister of religion”.

When St. Leger picked up the Bible to swear to tell the truth, Curran said to him in an affected tone of respect, “Oh, Mr. St. Leger, the jury will, I am sure, believe you without the ceremony of swearing you.”

Neatly falling into the trap, St. Leger said, “I am happy, sir, to see that you have changed the opinion you entertained of me when you were describing me a moment ago.”

Curran pounced.

“What, sir, then you confess it was a description of yourself! Gentlemen [of the jury], act as you please, but I leave it to you to say whether a thousand oaths could bind the conscience of such a man as I have just described.”

He won the case and got compensation for his client. But a duel ensued.

When each had taken his ground, Mr. St. Leger called out to his adversary to fire.

“No, sir,” replied he, “I am here by your invitation, and you must open the ball.”

A little after, Mr. Curran, observing the other’s pistol to be aimed wide of the mark, called out in a loud voice, “Fire!”

St. Leger, who was a nervous man, started, and fired.

He declined returning Mr. St. Leger’s fire; so that the affair, after a single shot, was terminated. (William Curran, Vol. I)

In 1813 his health, never robust, declined. A medical attendant commented one morning that “he coughed with more difficulty than on the preceding evening.”

“That’s very surprising,” said the patient, “for I have been practising all night.” (William Curran)

Curran wrote many poems, the most lasting of which is “Cushla ma Chree” (Anglicised Irish for cuisle mo chroí: “pulse of my heart”). Here are the first two stanzas.

Dear Erin, how sweetly thy green bosom rises,

An emerald set in the ring of the sea;

Each blade of thy meadows my faithful heart prizes,

Thou queen of the West, the world’s Cushlamachree.

Thy gates open wide to the poor and the stranger,

There smiles hospitality hearty and free;

Thy friendship is seen in the moment of danger,

And the wanderer is welcomed with Cushlamachree.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


Cenn Fáelad’s Brain of Forgetfulness

The 7th-century Toomregan University near Ballyconnell, County Cavan, had three faculties: law, Irish studies, and the classics. Irish studies were taught orally only, and it is said that the lecturers would not allow students to take notes, perhaps fearing they would write books and put the teachers out of business. Students learned to read and write, and the classics were available in Latin. New and traditional methods of teaching – in effect, a mixed oral and literate society – seem to have existed peacefully side by side.

Cenn Fáelad, a young nobleman theoretically about tenth in line for kingship, received a serious head wound in the Battle of Moira in 637 and was taken to Toomregan. The university also had a teaching hospital, which, under the leading brain specialist at the time, Saint Bricin, specialised in head wounds. A healing centre had been there from pre-Christian times under the patronage of the goddess of healing, Brigit.

While he convalesced, Cenn Fáelad attended lectures. As he explained later, his “brain of forgetfulness” had seeped out of his head through the wound, and he found that he could remember the lectures word for word. One of the two books he wrote as a result is the Auraicept na n-Éces, a grammar for poets similar to Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, and he became known as the foremost scholar of his time: Cenn Fáelad the Learned.

Toomregan law was used into the 20th century to settle boundary disputes in the area, apparently having been passed on orally.

In 1986, a Ballyconnell friend told me about the Toomregan (locally pronounced and alternatively spelled “Tomregan”) Stone at the Tomregan Church of Ireland church in the town. I found it leaning against a wall, unsecured, weather-worn and exposed to the elements. Concerned that it could be stolen or at least further degraded by weather, I informed the National Museum of Ireland, and they took it into protective custody. It was then loaned to the Cavan County Museum, and since then it has been returned to the church, where it is kept indoors after being cleaned up.

Experts differ about the identity of the image. Some classify it as a sheila-na-gig: a female exhibitionist figure. It is said to have the face of a pig – a form the goddess Brigit frequently took – with a foreshortened perspective showing fore and hind legs. One forehoof holds a cadaver and the other a living person, a metaphor for the mother goddess as the giver and taker of life. Others see the face as a man with a beard, and they somehow discern testicles descending between the hind legs. The Stone is dated to c. AD 1150 and is likely to have served as a lintel in a church, where sheila-na-gigs are often found. It was discovered in 1961 near the monastic site of Tuaim Drecon near Ballyconnell, which suggests that the spelling and pronunciation should be “Toomregan”.

My photo below was taken on site in 1986. You can see the Stone cleaned up at – http://www.swanlinbar-kildallon.kilmore.anglican.org/ballyconnell/pages/Tomregan-stone.htm

The Toomregan Stone

© text and photo 2023 Richard Marsh



The Thinning of the People

The 17th-century Annals of the Four Masters record:

“AD 664. A great mortality prevailed in Ireland this year, which was called the Buidhe Connail [the Yellow Plague of Conall], and the following number of the saints of Ireland died of it: St. Feichin, Abbot of Fobhar, on the 14th of February; St. Ronan, son of Bearach; St. Aileran the Wise; St. Cronan, son of Silne; St. Manchan, of Liath; St. Ultan Mac hUi Cunga, Abbot of Cluain Iraird Clonard; Colman Cas, Abbot of Cluain Mic Nois; and Cummine, Abbot of Cluain Mic Nois.

“After Diarmaid and Blathmac, the two sons of Aedh Slaine, had been eight years in the sovereignty of Ireland, they died of the same plague. There died also Maelbreasail, son of Maelduin, and Cu Gan Mathair, King of Munster; Aenghus Uladh. There died very many ecclesiastics and laics in Ireland of this mortality besides these.”

(When the high king died, Diarmaid and Bláthmac, sons of a previous high king, Áedh Sláine, reigned as co-kings.)

The plague laid waste to all of Ireland, and two-thirds of the people died. Why did it remove so many prominent figures in the same year? Backfired prayers.

Ireland was overpopulated, and so food was scarce, and landowners had their properties reduced in size. The nobles and Kings Diarmaid and Bláthmac asked the saints to pray that God would cause a “thinning of the people” – by which they meant eliminating a lot of the poor – so the upper classes could continue to live in luxury. Many of the saints complied. God answers all prayers (often with a No, but in this case a qualified Yes), and so He sent a plague, but it killed those who wanted Him to kill the lower classes.

Saint Gerald of Mayo survived because he refused the immoral request.

“[The plague] brought an end not only to the golden age of saints but also to the generations of kings mighty enough to become heroes of saga.” (Byrne p. 105)

© 2023 Richard Marsh


Byrne, Francis J., Irish Kings and High Kings, Four Courts Press, 1973, 2001.

O’Donovan, John, trans., Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland from the Earliest Times to the Year 1616, (Annals of the Four Masters), Hodges & Smith, Dublin, 1856; De Búrca Rare Books, Dublin, 1990.


The Cross of Corrin

I was hitchhiking from Cork to Dublin, and a man giving me a lift into Fermoy pointed to a large white cross on top of a hill to our left.

“Do you know the significance of that cross?” he asked me.

“No,” I said. “I’ve never been in this part of the country before.”

“I’ve just come back home after working for twenty years in America. If this was America, somebody would build a souvenir shop and a hot dog stand and a parking lot next to that cross and charge admission. It’s called the Cross of Corrin, and it’s a memorial to a young boy, the only son and heir of Lord Fermoy, who died as a result of a widow’s curse.”

This is the story he told me. It probably occurred in the Penal Times of the 17th century, when the properties of Catholic landowners were confiscated by the English, and peasant tenants were evicted from their homes, though such evictions continued into the 19th century.

A widow whose only son had been executed by the English for a minor crime was evicted from her cottage by Lord Fermoy. She put this curse on Fermoy’s son:

Infant son of proud Fermoy,

Fear not fields of slaughter.

Stone nor fire fear not, my boy,

But shun the fateful water.

Knowing that a widow’s curse is one of the most powerful, Lord Fermoy drained the pond and fenced off the river and made sure that there were no standing pools of water deep enough to drown the boy. But one day builders were repairing a wall, and they filled a barrel with water to mix the mortar. When they took their lunch break, curiosity drove the boy to investigate the barrel, and he climbed up and peered over the edge. He had never seen his reflection in water before, and when he leaned closer in fascination, he fell in and was drowned.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


The Irish Sport of After-hours Drinking

In spite of the heartfelt plea of a weary barman who wants to go to bed after a long day of pulling pints – “Right up now, lads. Have yez no homes to go to?” – some clients begin to sip their final orders pint, sweetly savouring the extra pleasure in continuing their merry-making after the legal closing hour. Although I’m a near-teetotaler now, I can sympathise. I never enjoyed drinking much once I reached the pub-legal age after a few years of successfully getting served in pubs illicitly.

At a wedding reception in a Wicklow pub, the potboy was clearing away empty glasses after closing time.

“Another Guinness, please,” said one man.

“Sorry,” said the lad. “Final orders were a half hour ago.”

“Just one more. Please? It’s a special occasion.”

“I’ll ask the boss.”

And off he trotted. He came back shortly.

“The boss says ye can have one more.”

The man looked around at his companions.

“Who wants another drink?”

“Not me,” they all agreed.

The original inquirer decided that he didn’t really want one after all. The potboy looked confused. He didn’t understand that drinking after hours is more a sport than a sign of alcoholism.

Another pub in Wicklow ran Poker Nights on Fridays, and the local garda (policeman) sergeant was a regular attendee. As I lived on the homeward-bound route of many of the players bellowing the likes of “The Fields of Athenry”, I could tell when the sergeant decided he’d had enough and the pub was allowed to close. It was usually around 2.30 am. After the sergeant was transferred, the pub closed at the normal time.

The daughter of a pub owner in County Longford celebrated her 21st birthday in the family pub. At closing time, the shutters were pulled down and the lights in the bar section in front were turned off. But the party continued in full swing in the back lounge, though with the sound somewhat muted. At 4 o’clock in the morning, a garda in uniform was drinking at the bar, while another garda, on medical leave with a leg in a cast, sat in a booth with his injured leg propped up on the tilted table and reciting the maudlin ballad of “Morrissey”. (An Irishman in London decides to visit his aged mother for the first time in 20 years. Just after he leaves his flat for Ireland, a black-bordered telegram drops through the mail slot.) You could have heard a pin drop.

The mother of the pub family shooed us all out at 7, so she could clean up and get to 9 o’clock Mass.

I asked the pub owner how he got away with after-hours service. He explained that the town was traditionally a market town – you could tell by the broad main street – and part of that tradition was leniency in interpreting closing time. A few years previously, a new sergeant arrived unaware of local drinking culture, and he strictly enforced the law, to the perplexity and annoyance of publicans and clientele alike.

Irish native Dermot Traynor at Finnegan’s Pub, Plaza de las Salesas, Madrid, told me this story in January 1998 after I related the above incidents.

A 64-year-old judge was drinking after hours in congenial company. There was a knock on the door: “Gardaí. Open up.” The judge nipped out the back door, sprinted down the passageway and was over the wall and safely out of sight before the guard entered the pub. The other miscreants came before him in court the following day, and he imposed the maximum fine of £50 each. The next time they met in the pub, the drinkers confronted the judge: “Why did you fine us, when you were there drinking as well?” The judge said, “If I could hop over the wall at my age, you could have done the same.”

Some local men knocked on the door of the pub in Kilmainhamwood, County Meath, at 7.20 one morning looking for drink and woke up the barman, George McCormack, who was sleeping upstairs. He told them he wouldn’t open the pub until he heard the Angelus bell ring. That normally occurred at noon, but one of the men, Bill Cruise, rose to the challenge. He managed to get the key to the church and went in and rang the bell. True to his word, George came down and opened up.

(Story from Jack McKenna in Kilmainham of the Woody Hollow by Danny Cusack, 1998.)

The following two stories were told to me in Galway as true incidents.

When a man was arrested for after-hours drinking, the garda asked him his name.

“James Phelan.”

It was not his real name, but the garda didn’t know that. A few nights later he was tagged by the same garda after hours in a different pub and asked for his name.

“James Nolan” was the reply, also not his real name.

The garda leafed back through his notebook and said, “But aren’t you the same James Phelan I arrested just a few nights ago?”

“Ah, no. That was me brother.”

Joe X and Dave Y (not their real names; you’ll see why) were arrested for drinking in a pub after closing time. The garda quizzed them.


“Joe X.”

“Place of residence?”

“No fixed abode.”


“Dave Y.”

“Place of residence?”

“Sure I live with Joe.”

The names are changed because shortly after that story was published in an Irish magazine under my byline in the 1980s, the editor received a letter from a solicitor representing a [Joseph X]. In it he states that his client is a well-known entertainer “who has been jeered and held up to derision and ridicule on foot of this article.” He demanded “an immediate apology and retraction” in the next issue of the magazine, or else he would demand payment of damages “in the order of, say, £20 together with my costs herein, which to date amount to £12.60p”.

The editor printed the letter in the next issue, along with an entertaining mock-grovelling apology and retraction twice the length of the letter, which he extended to everyone in Ireland who bore a name similar to Joe X. He assured the solicitor and his client: “All these [Joe Xs], we declare, are legends in their own lifetimes and their law-abiding proclivities and abstemious natures are spoken about with awe.”

This one is more aftermath than after hours.

My “local” in Dublin on Suffolk Street was called the Suffolk House two or three names and ownerships ago in 1978. One evening a regular client was sipping an orange quash.

“Why aren’t you drinking the black stuff [Guinness] as usual?” asked a friend.

“The last time I drank the black stuff I found myself in the confessional in the church up the street.”

(This was Saint Andrews Presbyterian church, since deconsecrated and converted into a tourist information centre, currently [2023] vacant.)

“What’s wrong with that? Some of us still go to confession.”

“I was in the priest’s compartment, hearing confessions.”

“What did you do when you found yourself hearing confessions?”

“What else could I do? I gave out penances.”

© 2023 Richard Marsh


La Doncella Guerrera – The Warrior Damsel

War was about to break out, and the king issued an edict: every father with sons had to give one to the army, and any man who had no sons had to go himself. A nobleman said, “Maldito sea yo – damn me. All my seven children are girls. I have no sons, so I’ll have to join the army.”

His youngest daughter heard this and said to her father, “Give me your horse and weapons, and I’ll go to the war for you.”

“There are several problems,” said her father. “For one thing, your hair is too long to pass as a man.”

“That’s not a problem,” she said. “I’ll cut it short with my golden scissors.”

“And your face is too pale for a man.”

“No problem. I’ll rub charcoal on it.”

“Your legs are too slender.”

“I’ll wear double stockings and trousers.”

And off she went, calling herself Don Carlos Campeador, referencing Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the famous 11th-century warrior El Cid Campeador. She spent seven years fighting in the war, and no one recognised her as a woman – until the king’s son fell in love with her.

He went to his mother and said, “I’m dying of love, because the eyes of Don Carlos are those of a woman, not a man.”

“Invite him into the garden,” said his mother. “If he’s a woman she’ll head straight to the flowers.”

Don Carlos was no fool. In the garden she noticed a stick.

“I lost my riding crop,” she said, “and this will be a perfect substitute, if you don’t mind.”

The king’s son went back to his mother: “I’m dying …”

“Invite him to go swimming,” said his mother. “If he’s a woman she’ll refuse to take her clothes off.”

He did that, and Don Carlos came up with this lame excuse: “I have stomach cramps, and I can’t go swimming now.”

As Don Carlos mounted her horse, her sword fell to the ground.

[Mini Spanish lesson at no extra charge. The Spanish for “damn it” is maldito sea or maldita sea, literally “may a masculine or feminine it be damned.” Remember her father said maldito sea yo – damn (masculine) me.]

When she dropped her sword, instead of saying maldita sea, referring to the feminine espada, Don Carlos said accidentally (or possibly on purpose), “Maldita sea yo” – “damn (feminine) me,” revealing herself to be female.

Ballads tend to be contracted and enigmatic, so the listener often has to fill the gaps in the narrative. This one ends there and leaves it to your imagination whether they got married and lived happily ever after.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


The Justice of Pedro the Cruel

Pedro, King of Castile and León 1350-1369, fully warranted the epithet “the Cruel”, and not only for his many assassinations. One modern historian describes him as a psychopath. He had a running dispute with the nobles, who wanted a greater share of political power, and his cruelty was mostly aimed at them and other personages of high rank and the upper class, not sparing the clergy – he was excommunicated for his “sins” against them – and the common people had another description for him: the Just.

A poor man died, and the family went to the priest and asked him to officiate at the funeral. They couldn’t pay, so the priest told them to dig a hole in a field and bury him themselves. Pedro heard about this dereliction of clerical duty and rejection of one of the Corporal Works of Mercy, and he ordered the priest to be buried alive.

A deacon killed a shoemaker without provocation. The Church punished him by forbidding him to say Mass for one year. In those days priests and deacons made their living from payments for saying Mass, so it was not an inconsiderable sentence, but much too lenient for a deliberate murder. The shoemaker’s son protested to Pedro. Pedro asked him if he thought he could kill the man who had killed his father. The young man said he could. “So do it,” said the king. The lad did. He was arrested and sentenced to be hanged, as Pedro must have anticipated. He intervened and changed the sentence to one year without making shoes, in mockery of the Church’s light punishment of the deacon.

A prolific thief was sentenced to be hanged. On the gallows he shouted so all officials and spectators could hear, “You can’t hang me. The King has pardoned me. The King has pardoned me.” Perhaps wary of Pedro’s sense of justice and not wishing to incur his wrath, the officials went to the Alcázar to ask if it was true that he had pardoned the thief. He had no knowledge of the case and said No. They left, but having second thoughts he called them back. He realised that the people would think he had granted and then retracted the pardon, and they would be angry with him. He pardoned the thief, who was then released.

A judge died, and nobles from the leading families made an appointment with Pedro to apply for the post. Pedro knew that whoever he chose, the losers would be unhappy, and that could lead to serious trouble. Pedro met them in the garden of the Alcázar and asked the first man to explain why he thought he was qualified. While he was speaking, Pedro interrupted him and asked him what was floating in the pool. The man looked and said, “Some oranges.” He did the same to the next man, who said, “There are six oranges that have fallen from the tree overhead.”

Pedro: “I don’t understand how you can claim to be suitable for this post. Do you think people will obey you? Even I, the king, am not always obeyed. I tell my servants that I want the garden to be kept neat and clean, and you can see for yourself how untidy and uncared for it is. What do you see in this pool?”

“Some oranges, sire.”

The nobles were surprised at the questions and a bit annoyed. They thought the king was mocking them – which he was – and no one else offered to speak.

“So,” said Pedro. “No more applicants for the post? Then I’ll send a constable to the market and ask him to bring the manager, Señor Peneda, because he’s the one who keeps the peace among the traders when they complain about the placing of their stalls.”

The manager arrived. He was of the minor nobility and not as rich as the others.

“Señor Peneda,” Pedro said, “I have sent for you because I am drowning in a sea of indecision. These men have come to apply for the vacant post of judge, and I would like you to advise me as to which to choose.”

“Señor,” said Peneda, “how can I dare to advise you when they are all above my station? But I’ll do my loyal best according to my knowledge and understanding.”

“Now you know that the judge has to make everyone obey him in a city where even the king is not always obeyed,” Pedro repeated for Peneda. “For example, I tell my servants that I want the garden to be kept neat and clean, and look – what do you see floating in the pool?”

“I don’t know what’s floating in the pool, sir. I’ll have to investigate.”

Peneda took off his shoes and jacket and jumped into the pool, which was deeper that he was tall. But he was a good swimmer, and he gathered up the floating objects.

“There are six half-oranges, sir,” he announced, “and two times six halves makes three, so there are three oranges altogether.”

“Correct,” said Pedro. “Those are the three oranges that I carefully cut in half and placed in the pool this morning so that there would seem to be six oranges. You are the only one who investigated, because you are cautious and diligent and not willing to judge by appearances.”

He turned to the other nobles and said, “You may leave now. I have found the right man for the post.”

The ”Cruel” stories about Pedro are in my book Spanish and Basque Legends.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


© 2023 Richard Marsh


Raftery the Poet

Mise Raifteirí an file,

Lán dóchais ’s grá,

Le súile gan solas,

Le ciúnas gan chrá.

Ag dul siar ar m’aistear

Le solas mo chroí

Fann agus tuirseach,

Go deireadh mo shlí.

Féach anois orm

’S mo chúl le balla

Ag seinm cheoil

Do phócaí folamh.

I am Raftery the poet,

Full of hope and love.

With eyes without light

With calm without complaint.

Going my way

By the light of my heart,

Weak and weary

To the end of my journey.

Look at me now

With my back against a wall,

Playing music

To empty pockets.

The blind poet Antoine Raftery (1784-1835) was a poor man who lived in the poorest part of Ireland, in the west, in County Galway. He made his living as a busker, playing the fiddle in the streets and selling his poems, and as a renowned hedgerow teacher. His songs are still heard in pubs, on radio, and in the streets of Ireland. The first stanza of “Mise Raifteirí” appeared on the blackboard of a schoolroom on the back of the old Irish £5 note in tribute. This is a traditional story from Donegal, in the northwest.

Dinny and Mary were young and in love, but they were very poor. Their friends and families gave them good advice – marry for money, not for love. If you marry for love, you will always be poor; if you marry for money, perhaps the love will come eventually.

When you’re young and in love, you don’t listen to that sort of advice, no matter how good it is, so they got married. But their friends and families didn’t approve, and they boycotted the wedding. Dinny and Mary were married with only the priest and two witnesses, and after the wedding they went home alone to their little cottage for the wedding feast.

Without the help of their friends and families, there was no money for a wedding reception – the “afters” – so all they had to eat was a loaf of bread, a piece of cheese, and milk. But Mary and Dinny were so much in love it was like a fine banquet to them.

There was a knock on the door. Dinny opened it, and there he saw an old man wearing a long travelling coat and a big travelling hat and carrying a small box under his arm. Dinny could tell the man was blind by the way he moved his head as if to see with his ears.

“I’m looking for the home of Dinny and Mary,” the man said.

“You’ve come to the right place,” said Dinny. “Come in and make yourself comfortable.”

“I mean the Dinny and Mary who were just married.”

“That’s us,” said Dinny. “I’m Dinny, and there’s Mary inside. Come in and join us for a meal. It isn’t much, but you’re welcome to what we have.”

The man walked in slowly, turning his head one way and the other.

“Have I missed the afters?”

“There’s no afters,” said Dinny, and he explained about the boycott and why there was no wedding reception, no food, no drink, no music, no wedding gifts. When the man finished eating, he opened the box he was carrying and took out a fiddle and started to tune it.

“Have you ever heard tell of Raftery?” he said.

“Well, there’s no one around here by that name,” said Dinny. “But when you say ‘Raftery’ like that, with no first name, you must be talking about Blind Raftery the poet and fiddler, and sure even the babe in the cradle knows who Raftery is.”

Then Dinny looked at the fiddle and the blind eyes of the old man.

“Are you …?”

“Go out and tell your neighbours, and tell them to tell their neighbours, that Raftery is here to play for the afters of Dinny and Mary.”

Mary went out and told the neighbours, and they told their neighbours, and soon all the friends and relations of Dinny and Mary arrived. They looked a bit sheepish and ashamed, but they didn’t arrive with one arm as long as the other. They brought food and drink and pots and pans and all sorts of things a newly married couple would need. It was the best party anyone could remember, and years later, the people still talked about the only time Raftery was ever in Donegal, when he came to play for Dinny and Mary’s afters.

Eventually, with the instinct of an experienced entertainer, Raftery stopped playing just before the people began to think of leaving, and he did something he had never done before. Instead of setting a hat on the floor for people to drop in a few pennies for the musician, he picked up his big travelling hat and went round from one to another. Those who were going to give a penny put in tuppence, and those who planned to give tuppence put in five, and those who would have given a shilling gave a pound. When Raftery finished collecting, the big travelling hat was full and overflowing. He set it on a table.

When everyone had left, Raftery packed up his fiddle and said, “Well, I’ll be going along now myself.”

“Not at all,” said Mary. “You’ll stay with us tonight. It’s the least we can do for all you’ve done for us.”

“Thank you,” said Raftery. “But I have to leave. I have other arrangements.”

“Ah, well, then,” said Dinny, with a knowing wink at Mary. “We don’t want to interfere with ‘other arrangements’, do we?”

And when Raftery had gone out the door, Mary and Dinny stood and gazed around at all the wedding gifts and leftover food and drink and … Raftery’s big travelling hat on the table with all the money in it.

“Mary,” said Dinny. “The poor man has left without his hat and his money. Put the money in a bag so he can carry it and wear his hat so he doesn’t catch cold, while I run and catch him.”

Dinny opened the door, and who was standing there but Pat the Peddler.

“Congratulations, Dinny and Mary,” said Pat. “I just heard about the wedding. Have I missed the afters?”

“They’re just over,” said Dinny. “And do you know who was playing the fiddle for the dancing, only Raftery himself. In fact, he’s just gone. You must have passed him in the lane. He left his hat and money. Run quick and see if you can catch him before he reaches the road.”

Pat didn’t move, and he had a strange look on his face.

“I passed no one in the lane,” he said.

“But you must have. He left not two minutes ago. You must have seen him.”

Contemporary sketch of Raftery

Pat shook his head. “I tell you, I saw no one in the lane. And if it’s Raftery the Poet you’re talking about, sure I helped bury him three weeks ago in Killeeneen churchyard in Craughwell down in Galway. He died on Christmas Day, and that shows the Lord had a hand in him.”

It is reported that the day of the funeral was wet and windy, but the six candles around the grave burned steadily, and they said that also showed that the Lord had a hand in him. The officiating priest said, “Any man can be a priest, but there will never be another Raftery.”

Before he became the first president of an independent Ireland, Douglas Hyde was a folklore and folk song collector. He was finding scraps of songs whose author many of the singers could not name, but a few mentioned Raftery. Hyde managed to assemble the scraps into complete songs that he confidently attributed to Raftery. The meagre information he gathered about the poet resulted in a play by Lady Gregory in Irish, An Posadh (The Wedding), about Raftery visiting the couple and performing for the afters. The first production was in 1902. When the actor in the lead role backed out, Hyde stepped in and was highly praised for his portrayal.

Scholars disagree about the authorship of “Mise Raifteirí”: the poet himself or a contemporary fan called Seán Ó Ceallaigh, who had it published in an Irish newspaper in the United States in 1882.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


Myles “Slasher” O’Reilly

Finnea, County Westmeath, is a small village (2022 pop. 317) on the River Inny on the border with County Cavan, between Lough Sheelin and Kinale. The bridge over the Inny, on a strategically important route, was the site of the famous Battle of Finnea in 1644 (more likely than 1646 and 1649 given elsewhere).

A British army numbering 17,000 was approaching from Cavan on the way to Leinster. The nearest Irish force, under Owen Roe O’Neill, was 57km (35 miles) away in Trim, County Meath, a two-day march, and not prepared for battle. So it was left to a local elite battalion of 600 infantry and 100 cavalry to halt the British advance at Finnea. They were in position a day before the British arrived.

The battle was fast and ferocious, with much heavier losses on the British side relative to the Irish. The Irish force was almost completely wiped out, but the British retreated, knowing that O’Neill was in the vicinity and fearing that he could attack at any time.

A monument in the town “In memory of Myles O’Reilly (The Slasher)” includes the stanza:

He fought till the red lines before him

Heaped high as the battlement lay.

He fell but the foot of a foeman

Pressed not on the Bridge of Finea.

Another inscription reads:

“Finally he was encountered by a gigantic Scotchman who trust the point of his sword through the Slasher’s cheek. The latter closed his jaw on the blade and held it as if in an iron vice while he slew his antagonist cutting him through steel helmet down to his chin with one blow, both falling together.”

Tradition states that O’Reilly died in the battle, but modern historians have uncovered evidence that he survived, married, and had five children born between 1646 and 1650.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


Geoffrey de Marisco: A Rotten Branch on the Family Tree

The Murder of The Knight of the Curragh

Richard Marsh, my namesake, was one of Strongbow’s lord councillors who came to Ireland with him at the beginning of the Norman occupation in 1170.

“The earl [Strongbow] then summoned

All the lord councillors

*  *  *

And Richard de Marreis came there …”

(from The Song of Dermot and the Earl, a 14th-century French poem)

The Marsh family held land in the marshes of Somerset – whence the name – and were known in England at the time as “de Marisco”, Latin for “of the marsh”. “Marris”, “Morris”, “Morrissey”, etc. are variants.

Richard’s nephew, Geoffrey de Marisco (1170-1245), was a first-rate scoundrel among those Anglo-Norman robber-barons who came ostensibly to help Dermot MacMurragh regain his Leinster kingdom. Geoffrey built the motte, or fortified hill, in Hollywood, County Wicklow, to defend his first holdings in Ireland.

Also the nephew of the Archbishop of Dublin, and related to King Henry II, Geoffrey was Justiciar (Chief Governor) of Ireland for eight years between 1215 and 1228, dismissed and reinstated twice. He was thus well placed to grab a good bit of Leinster and Munster for himself, snatching equally from Irish chiefs and fellow Normans. He tried to confiscate Terryglass in County Tipperary on the flimsy excuse that the Norman owner had not fortified it strongly enough, having built a stone house instead of a castle.

The fact that a child-king – Henry III, age nine – was on the throne did not exactly give Geoffrey a free hand in managing the affairs of Ireland, but he took it anyway. One of his tricks was to keep the taxes he collected in the king’s name, and spend the money, as one chronicler put it tactfully, “more at his own free will than according to the king’s commands”. He was eventually sacked. Later, he got caught with his hand in the Church’s till in Limerick and was excommunicated.

Geoffrey, his son William, and three of his nephews were implicated in a nasty assassination on the Curragh, amidst plots and counterplots and treachery at the highest and lowest levels swirling as thick as Kildare fog. The “incomparable” military leader William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, married Strongbow’s daughter. When he died in 1219, his son William took on the post of Marshal. When he died in 1231, his brother Richard demanded to be appointed Marshal.

On 1 July 1231, “Richard Marshal presented himself to the king [Henry III] as the heir of his brother William Marshal [buried 15 April 1231] … The king in reply, by the advice of the [then] justiciary [Justiciar] Hubert [de Burgh], told him he had heard that his deceased brother’s wife was pregnant, on which account he could not listen to his demand till the truth of this matter was discovered.”

Richard Marshal was then exiled, accused of associating with the king’s enemies in France.

In 1234, advisers of the king misled him (in their own best interests) into ordering Geoffrey de Marisco “to seize him [Richard Marshal] if he should happen to come to Ireland, and bring him, dead or alive, before the king.” Marshal’s Irish properties were promised as a reward.

On 1 April 1234, Marshal and a handful of men loyal to him, along with his supposed friend and ally Geoffrey de Marisco and his own soldiers, were surrounded and outnumbered ten to one by the infamous Hugh de Lacy and a large number of knights on the Curragh. Marshal was called on to surrender. Geoffrey advised him against it, and Marshal refused to surrender.

When the fighting started, Geoffrey withdrew with his men, announcing to Marshal, “My wife is the sister of the noble Hugh de Lacy [some historians doubt this], and I cannot fight on your side against him with whom I am allied by marriage.”

Marshal said he would “seem a man of a wavering Mind” if he surrendered then. “I am well aware that I am doomed to die this day, but it is better for me to die with honour in the cause of justice, than to fly from the field and to endure the reproaches of my fellow knights for ever.” (Roger)

Then seeing his brother Walter, a fine young man, he said to his followers, “Take my brother to my castle near, and do not let the whole of my family perish in this battle, for I trust in his bravery, if he attain the age of maturity, to show himself a brave knight.” The Irish nobles, fearing the prowess and daring of the marshal, gave their own armour to the knights whom they had collected for the purpose of slaying this innocent man, so that, although they wished to slay him, they might not appear to be participators in the deed.” (Roger)

The battle continued. Marshal killed six of the knights, and the others feared to approach him. They persuaded foot soldiers to maim his horse with lances, pitchforks, axes and halberds. He fell with his horse. As he lay helpless on the ground in his armour, one of his enemies lifted up his armour and stabbed him in the back. He had fought for ten hours.

Marshal was taken to a supposed friend’s castle for medical treatment. He recovered enough to walk about and play at dice, but after further ”treatment” by a doctor who probed his wounds with a red-hot poker, he died 16 April.

Afterwards, Richard Marshal was proclaimed “The Knight of the Curragh” for his heroic stand. Roger of Wendover says of him, “Amongst the sons of men his person was so beautiful that nature seemed to have striven with the virtues in its composition.”

Geoffrey and his son William were accused of involvement in the assassination and also fined for siding with the murdered knight against the king. Afterwards, William avenged Marshal by killing the chief assassin.

The de Mariscos were outlawed and became pirates on the Irish Sea. They concentrated their depredations on shipping to Dublin and Drogheda, which prompted Dublin to beef up its city walls. Isolde’s Tower, excavated in 1993 and now built on, was part of this improvement in the city’s defensive works.

William was accused, probably falsely, of instigating an attempt on the king’s life. In 1242, he was captured, undoubtedly through treachery, tried and condemned. He was then “dragged from Westminster to the Tower of London, and from thence to that instrument of punishment called a gibbet, suspended on which he breathed forth his miserable life. After he had grown stiff in death, his body was let down and disembowelled; his entrails were immediately burnt on the spot, and his wretched body divided into four parts, which were sent to the four principal cities of the kingdom, that the sight of them might strike terror into all beholders. His sixteen accomplices were all dragged through London at the horse’s tail, and hung on gibbets. … And thus, as before mentioned, horrible to relate, he endured not one, but several dreadful deaths.”

Matthew Paris composed this obituary:

“About this time [1245], Geoffrey Marsh, a man who had been formerly a noble, and not the least one amongst the magnates of Ireland, who had incurred an indelible stain by the treacherous murder of Earl Richard Marshal, and who was now an exile, and a wretched and proscribed man, having been expelled from Scotland, banished from England, and disinherited in Ireland, after the ignominious death of his son and the loss of all his friends, was himself taken from amongst us; thus finally ending so many deaths by his own.”

Uncle Geoffrey’s line of male descent died out in the 14th century, and so fell a rotten – though

colourful – branch from my family tree.

Most of the quotes and much of the information in the above are from two 13th-century historians:

Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History (Chronica) from the descent of the Saxons to 1235 (formerly ascribed to Matthew Paris).

Matthew Paris’s Chronicles (Matthew Paris’s English History 1235-73).

© 2023 Richard Marsh


Geoffrey de Marisco

Another Murder?

Hugh O’Connor, son of Cathal Crobderg, was King of Connacht for four years until he was ousted by the Connachtmen. Then in January 1228 he was killed “almost accidentally” in the house of Geoffrey de Marisco, the Justiciar of Ireland, according to the History of Medieval Ireland by Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, published in 1968. Dr Otway-Ruthven declined to go into the circumstances of the incident, but knowing Uncle Geoffrey, I was suspicious about both the “almost” and the “accidentally”. In Geoffrey’s disreputable career, the sort of accident that befell the former king of Connacht was more likely to have been caused.

Geoffrey’s son William had been embarrassingly captured the previous year by Hugh O’Connor in a series of complicated political moves that would take acres of flip-charts to explain. How, I wondered, could anyone, especially Hugh O’Connor, who was an impediment to Anglo-Norman ambitions in Connacht, be killed “almost accidentally” in Uncle Geoffrey’s house? After piecing together the sordid details from ancient annals, I now understand why Dr Otway-Ruthven skimmed so quickly over this scandalous titbit of history. Having begun her illustrious career at Trinity College in 1938, she was writing from and in an altogether more conservative era.

All the annals agree that Hugh was killed with one blow of an axe by a carpenter. One names him as Seon Dundunach or John Dundon. Some identify the carpenter as a Foreigner, that is, an Anglo-Norman.

The Annals of Loch Cé simply state that Hugh was slain by the Foreigners in an ugly treachery. The Annals of the Four Masters say he was treacherously killed by the Foreigners at the instigation of the Foreigners. The Annals of Connacht, with their understandable vested interest, carry the most comprehensive account:

“[Hugh] was killed with one blow of a carpenter’s axe in the court of Geoffrey de Mareys while the carpenter’s wife was bathing him; and the man who struck him down was hanged by Geoffrey the next day. This deed of treachery was done on this righteous, excellent prince at the instigation of Hugo de Lacy’s sons and of William son of the Justiciar [Geoffrey]. And it was said that the carpenter struck him in jealousy, for there was not in Ireland a man of fairer mould or livelier courage than he.” (Hugo de Lacy was one of the Anglo-Norman lords, ie, a Foreigner.)

The Annals of Clonmacnoise add: “After the wife of that carpenter had washed Hugh’s head and body with sweet balls and other things, he, to gratifie her for her service, kissed her, which the carpenter seeing, for mere jealousie, and for none other cause, killed O’Connor presently at unawares.” The Annals of Inisfallen also take pains to exonerate Geoffrey: “Aed [Hugh], son of Cathal Crobderg, was slain in Geoffrey Marisco’s house at Buaile Mór in Laigin [Leinster], without the latter’s consent, for he straightway hanged the slayer with wisps.”

It all smells to me like a cover-up. The pieces that are missing from the scenario undoubtedly include William setting up the bath-tub scene, possibly at Geoffrey’s instigation, and then dropping a friendly word of advice into the carpenter’s ear. Remember in the account of Richard Marshal above that the nobles stood off and let the knights do the dirty work. Far from exonerating the de Mariscos, the fact that Geoffrey was in a rush to hang the carpenter is highly suspicious. Dead patsies tell no tales. It may be significant that Geoffrey was relieved of his position as Justiciar a few weeks later.

And what part did the carpenter’s wife play in all this? My speculation is that she was William’s secret lover.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


Another “Almost Accidental Death”

I was rambling through Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven’s History of Medieval Ireland when I came across a tantalizing reference to the “almost accidental death” of Cathal Carragh in a battle against Hugh O’Connor’s father, Cathal Crovderg (Red-hand), in 1202. Dr Otway-Ruthven did not enlarge on the circumstances of this “almost accidental death”, which conveniently allowed Cathal Crovderg to remain king of Connacht virtually uncontested for another 22 years until his death in 1224, when Hugh became king. So I consulted the fairly reliable Annals of the Four Masters.

Here I learned that there had been a week-long series of skirmishes between the forces of Cathal Carragh and Cathal Crovderg, when, during a sudden flurry of action Cathal Carragh decided to pop down to the front lines to see for himself what was going on. Unfortunately, what was happening was that his warriors were being routed, and in their haste to escape they accidentally trampled their leader to death. I could find no reason for Dr Otway-Ruthven’s use of the word “almost”. “Bizarrely” would seem more fitting.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


“That Beats Banagher”

There are two towns in Ireland named Banagher, one in County Offaly and the other in County Derry, and several with variations on the name. It is generally agreed that the reference is to the Offaly town, according to one edition of The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and many other sources.

There is a plethora of explanations for the origin and meaning of the expression, the most serious and likely of which is that the town was notorious for political corruption in the 17th century and used as comparison with other scandals. Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) guesses: “He beats Banaghan [sic]; an Irish saying of one who tells wonderful stories. Perhaps Banaghan was a minstrel famous for dealing in the marvellous.”

The full saying is “That beats Banagher, and Banagher bet [past tense of ‘beat’] the Devil.” Anthony Trollope, who lived for a time in Banagher, attributed it to the town “having once been conquered, though it had heretofore conquered everything, including the Devil.” An apparently local tale of a blacksmith beating the Devil in a card game appears in M.F. Kenny’s 2003 book about his parents, Marathon Marriage, which is centred on the town.

In the short story “The Pudding Bewitched” by William Carlson, a Presbyterian man and a Catholic woman  are married. A relative of the woman disapproves of the match and puts a dancing spell on a pudding to be served at the wedding. Eating just a morsel of it makes the Presbyterian, Catholic and Methodist clergymen and everyone else dance. The landlord arrives, is amazed at the clergy and all dancing madly, and takes a bite at the urging of the bride’s father “so the young couple may boast that you ate at their wedding.” The landlord says, “Well, to gratify them I will. So just a morsel. But Jack, this beats Bannagher.” And off he goes to join the dancers.

The online freedictionary curiously calls “beat Banagher” obsolete under that entry, but at “outdoing” has “beat Banagher: To outdo, excel, or surpass in absurdity, incredibility, or preposterousness. … [or] from a hypothetical storyteller of that name, but no authenticating anecdote or evidence for either theory has been proffered.”

“That beats Banagher” is far from obsolete. It comes from an international folk tale with at least 59 variants with that or a similar title and motif in Ireland (Ó Súilleabháin), so it’s strange that I could find no mention of the tale among popular media in my print and online research. Here is the version of the story that I tell: “That beats Banagher, and Banagher bet the Devil”.

A middle-aged couple with no children had been happily married for 20 years. As we all know, the Devil can’t stand people being happy, so he spent seven years trying to bring conflict between them with no success. He asked a local gossip named Mary Banagher if she could help him.

“Certainly. What will you give me as a reward?”

“What would you like?”

“A pair of gold shoes.”


Banagher went to the woman and told her that if she shaved her husband’s beard she would have children. Then she told the husband that his wife was going to kill him by slitting his throat with a razor. The woman waited one night until her husband appeared to be asleep. He was only pretending to sleep, and when he heard her approach he opened his eyes and saw the razor in her hand and believed that she was going to slit his throat, as Banagher had warned him. He grabbed her hand and took the razor and slit her throat. Horrified by what he had done, then then killed himself with the razor.

When Banagher went to the Devil to demand her reward, he tied a pair of gold shoes to the end of a 10-foot pole and held it out to her, because he was afraid to get too close.

“You did something that even I couldn’t do,” said the Devil. “When you die, you will join me in Hell as my mother, because you’re more evil than I am.”

And that’s how Banagher bet the Devil.

Details of Irish variants in:

O Laoire, Lillis, “That Be’t Banagher and Banagher Be’t the Devil: An International Devil Tale in Irish Tradition”, Béaloideas, Iml. 62/63. 1994-1995. Béaloideas is the journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society.

Ó Súilleabháin, Seán, and Reidar Th. Christiansen, The Types of the Irish Folktale, 1963.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


Echtra Nerai – Nera’s Adventure

Queen Maeve and her consort, Ailill, ruled the province of Connacht from the royal centre of Cruachan Aí (Rathcroghan) near Tulsk, County Roscommon, in the early first century AD. Nearby is Uaimh na gCat, the Cave of the Cat, anglicised as Oweynagat and also known as the Cave of Cruachan. It is an entrance to the Otherworld – a sídh or mound of the Fair Folk – from which demon birds, pigs, cats and other animals frequently emanated.

The doors between this world and the Otherworld are especially open on Samhain Eve (Halloween) and May Eve, the two hinges of the Celtic year, and traffic can move in both directions.

A hobble is a rope or a leather strap secured to the pasterns (ankles) of a horse’s forelegs to prevent it from running off or ambling too far from where you left it, like leg chains on a prisoner. Historically, as in this story, executed criminals were often hobbled with a similar device called a spancel so they could not return after death to exact revenge.

Maeve and Ailill were keeping all-night vigil at Cruachan Aí one Samhain Eve, along with their household and warriors, against a possible incursion from the Otherworld. They were sitting around a fire that may have been slightly larger than necessary to cook their evening meal – to keep their spirits up and malevolent entities out. They had hanged two captives the previous day and left their bodies on the gallows a short distance away.

“Whoever puts a spancel on one of those hanged men will get a reward from me,” said Ailill.

Several valiant warriors set off but quickly returned with sheepish faces for fear of the unknown.

“I might try,” said young Nera. “What reward are you offering?”

“My gold-hilted sword is yours if you succeed.”

Nera took up his weapons and a twisted rope for a spancel and plunged into the dark surroundings of the fire until he could no longer hear the voices of his companions, trusting his feet to keep him on the path to the gallows. When he bumped into one of the uprights, he felt for a leg and wrapped one end of the spancel around the ankle. It sprang open. He tried again twice, but the spancel wouldn’t stay.

“You’ll be at the job all night,” came a voice from above him, “if you don’t fix it with a peg.”

It was the hanged man. Nera groped on the ground until he found a stout stick for a peg, and the spancel stayed closed. He wrapped and pegged the other leg.

“A manly job, Nera,” said the voice. “But without my advice about the spancel you wouldn’t get Ailill’s gold-hilted sword, so you owe me a favour.”

“What favour might that be?”

“I was very thirsty when I was hanged. Take me on your back till we find a drink of water.”

Nera took down the cold corpse from the gallows and set it on his back.

“Where to?”

“The nearest house.”

A lake of fire surrounded the first house they came to.

“Not here,” said the man. “They always bank the fire at night.”

A lake of water surrounded the next house.

“Not here,” said the man. “They throw out the wash water and slops at night.”

There were no lakes of fire or water around the next house, and the man said, “My drink is here.”

When Nera set him down, he walked into the house. There were tubs of wash water and bath water and slops lying around, and the fire was not banked. The man took a mouthful of slops and spewed it over the people who were sleeping, and they died. That is why you should never leave wash water or bath water or slops in the house or the fire unbanked when you go to bed.

Nera took the man back to the gallows and hung him up. Then he returned to Cruachan Aí.

To his horror, he saw that the fort had been burned. Strange warriors were carrying away the severed heads of his people into the Cave of Cruachan, so he followed at the tail of the line. He heard the man in front of him say to the next man, “There’s a man on the track behind us.” And that man passed the message to the man in front of him, and so it was repeated along to the head of the line. When they were inside the mound the warriors showed the heads to the king of the sídh.

“What shall we do with the man who came with us?” one of the men asked the king.

“Let him approach so I can speak with him.”

Nera stepped forward, and the king said, “Why are you here?”

“I just followed your warriors.”

The king pointed to a house.

“Go to that house over there, where you will find an unmarried woman who will treat you kindly. Tell her that I sent you. Every day you will bring a bundle of firewood to me.”

When he went to the house, the woman said, “You are welcome because the king sent you.”

Every day, when Nera took a load of firewood to the king, he saw a blind man with a lame man on his back come out of the king’s fort and stop at a well. The lame man peered inside.

“Is it there?” said the blind man.

“It is indeed,” said the lame man.

“Then we’ll leave.”

After a few days of this, Nera asked the woman what that was all about.

“The king’s gold crown is kept in that well for security. It is the duty of those men to check every day to see that it is still there. To make sure that they don’t steal it, the king blinded one man and crippled the other.”

“Perhaps you can explain something else to me. On a dare from Ailill and the promise of his gold-hilted sword I went to put a spancel on the legs of a man who had been hanged. I was only gone from the camp for a few minutes, and when I returned I found that everything had been burned and the sídh warriors were carrying my companions’ heads into this mound, and I followed them here.”

“That didn’t really happen,” she said. “But it will happen unless you warn your people.”

“How can I do that?”

“Go to them now. Time and seasons are not the same here as in the world you came from. They haven’t eaten their dinner yet. The meal is still cooking. Tell them that if they don’t destroy the mound what you saw will happen next Samhain Eve, for there is a prophecy that Maeve and Ailill will destroy the mound and take the Crown of Brion.”

(There were three treasures in the mound: Brion’s Crown, Lóegaire’s Mantle and Dúnlaing’s Shirt.)

“How can I convince them that I was inside the mound?”

“It’s summer here while it’s autumn in your world. Take summer plants with you.”

Nera gathered wild garlic, primroses and buttercups. Before he left, the woman said, “I am pregnant with your son. Before Maeve and Ailill come to destroy the mound, send me a warning so we can escape and bring our cattle with us.”

Nera left the sídh and came to Cruachan Aí, where he found Maeve and Ailill and the company still sitting around the cauldron. He showed them the summer plants and told them what had happened and what the woman said. Ailill gave him the gold-hilted sword, and Nera stayed with them until the end of the year.

Then Ailill said to Nera, “It’s time for the invasion. Go now and bring your family and cattle out of the sídh so we can destroy it.”

Nera sent into the sídh, and his wife welcomed him and proudly showed him their son, Aingene.

“Go now to the king’s house with a bundle of firewood,” she said. “For the past year I have been delivering the firewood to the king every day, saying that you were sick.”

Nera took the firewood.

“I’m glad to see that you have recovered from your illness,” said the king.

From here to the end is a confusing and disjointed tangent that does not advance the story of Nera but seems to be intended as a pre-telling of the Irish national epic, Táin Bó Cuailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, featuring Ulster hero Cúchulainn and the Brown Bull of Cooley. One of Aingene’s cows has been impregnated by the Brown Bull, and the resulting bullock fights and is defeated by the Brown Bull and foretells that the Brown Bull and the White-horned Bull will fight. Nera returns to Cruachan Aí again and repeats his story and warning. Maeve and Ailill tell him again to return to the sídh and evacuate his family. He returns to the sídh. The Connachtmen destroy the sídh and bring out the three treasures: Brion’s Crown, Lóegaire’s Mantle and Dúnlaing’s Shirt. The story ends: “Nera stayed in the sídh with his family and won’t come out until the day of the Last Judgement.”

My retelling is based on Kuno Meyer’s edition of the early 16th-century vellum manuscript Egerton MS1782 and a translation by members of the Old Irish email list. The story is mentioned in a tale-list in the 12th-century Book of Leinster. Apparently based on the fact that the Middle Irish text contains some Old Irish words, the authors of Celtic Heritage (Rees, p. 298) suggest that it may have been written as early as the 8th century.

The composition falls far short of the high standards set by the gems of Early Irish Literature, such as the Táin Bó Cuailnge, Bricriu’s Feast, Midir and Étaín, and the mythological history the Book of Occupations. Nera’s encounter with the spectre may have been ultimately inspired by the 11th-century Indian collection of tales Baital Pachisi (“Twenty-five (tales) of Baital”), also known as Vikram-Betaal, which was adapted for a series on Indian television in 1985. Written in Sanskrit, it is a frame story in which King Vikram removes a demon hanging from a tree and carries it on his back to a sorcerer. Along the road, the demon tells him 24 cautionary stories, many of which have turned up in various cultures as international folk tales.

The variant that I tell, “Mary Culhaine”, comes from American teller the late Chuck Larkin, who said he had it from an Irish source. The creature in “The Porridge Púca” collected in Irish from Cork storyteller Amhlaoidh Í Luínse in the 1940s does not fit the usual description of a púca – an elemental in the form of a dog or horse – but closely resembles the entity in “Mary Culhaine” and Vikram-Betaal. My version of “The Porridge Púca” is in Hellhounds and Hero Horses: Beasts of Myth and Legend.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


Guaire Aidne, the Open-handed King

Guaire and Diarmait

Colmán was King of Connacht near Galway in the 7th century. Everyone expected that his son, Guaire Aidne, would be king after him, but there was a problem. One of the most important marks of a true king was generosity, and Guaire was selfish. The people went to Saint Colmcille and asked him to have a word with the young lad. This is what he said.

Like mist in the hand is the wealth that you hold.

You entered the world with nothing of worth.

All you get during life comes from almighty God.

When you die, your home is a hole in the earth.

Share what you have so it goes back to Heaven.

Riches are fleeting, but fame lasts forever.

Guaire took the lesson to heart, and, the 17th-century historian Geoffrey Keating says, “If the tale be true, the hand with which he made gifts to the poor was longer than that with which he made gifts to the bards.” He was asked one time what he would wish for. “Gold and wealth to bestow” was his answer.

In his younger days, Guaire engaged in the popular sport of carrying off a crech, that is, stealing a neighbour’s cattle and holding them until the owner paid ransom. He even dared to rustle cattle from the high king, Diarmait, not just once or twice, but three times.

Diarmait declared war and marched his army to the River Shannon. When Guaire saw that, he quickly came to his senses. He didn’t want people to be killed because of his foolishness, so he went to Diarmait and surrendered.

Diarmait decided to teach him a lesson he would remember. He made Guaire kneel in front of him with the tip of Diarmait’s sword between his teeth and swear allegiance to him and promise that he would never again steal cattle from him. Guaire did so.

While he had the young man in his power, Diarmait wanted to find out if Guaire was as generous as everyone said. He ordered a beggar to ask Guaire to give him something that he could sell to provide his starving family with food. Guaire gave him his dagger, which was decorated with gold and jewels. The beggar thanked him, but when he went away Diarmait’s men took the dagger from him. He came back and told Guaire what had happened. Guaire gave him his jewelled belt. That was taken away. Guaire gave him the silver buckles from his shoes. They were taken away. When the beggar told him that, a tear rolled down Guaire’s cheek, because he had no more to give.

“Guaire,” said Diarmait, “is it because you are at my mercy that you weep?”

“It is not. It is my distress at leaving one of God’s poor with nothing.”

Diarmait understood that Guaire’s reputation for generosity was well deserved, and he said, “Arise, Guaire, and from now on give your allegiance only to God.”

Bóthar na Mias – The Road of the Dishes

Guaire’s castle was next to the present Dunguaire, a 16th-century tower house just outside the village of Kinvara in County Galway. One year during Lent, his cousin Saint Mochua was staying next to a holy well near Burren, five miles (8km) west of Kinvara in County Clare, with a student to serve Mass for him. They ate only one full meal a day that consisted of barley bread and spring water. This was not a problem for the older man, who was used to fasting, but the young student was always hungry. When Easter came, the student told Mochua that he was going to Guaire’s castle to get a full meal for the first time in forty days.

“Don’t go,” said Mochua. “I’ll have it delivered. My cousin is so generous that I’m sure he won’t mind.”

Mochua prayed, and perhaps he overdid it. The servants at the castle were just serving dinner, and the dishes flew out of their hands and off the table, out the window and down the road. Guaire and his men were astounded. They quickly saddled their horses and set off in pursuit of the dishes.

The food arrived on the table in front of the student.

“There you are, thanks be to God,” said Mochua. “Eat your fill.”

Just then, Guaire and his men came galloping in.

“But look at all the people I have to share it with,” complained the student.

“Don’t worry. I’ll stick them.”

Mochua prayed, and the horses were stuck. They couldn’t move, and their riders were unable to dismount. When the student had satisfied his hunger, Mochua released the men and horses. Guaire came to Mochua and knelt down in thanks and homage to him and God.

That stretch of road between Kinvara and Burren is still locally called Bóthar na Mias – the Road of the Dishes – and that name appears on some of the older maps.

“Mochua” was a pet name for as many as 58 Irish saints. Here it is short for (Saint) Colman mac Duagh. The standard version of this story says that Mochua’s cell or hermitage was near the village of Carran, south of Burren, where its ruins can be seen. Mochua and Guaire founded the monastery of Kilmacduagh near Gort.

Tromdámh Guaire: The Burdensome Visitation on Guaire

and The Finding of the Táin Bó Cuailnge

Senchán Torpéist, whose name means “Lore-holder of the Great Monster”, was the Chief Ollamh of Ireland, also described as rigfilí: King of the Poets. He “profited” from two meetings with the Spirit of Poetry in the form of a monster which increased his wisdom. The previous Chief Ollamh had died as a result of imposing an unjust curse on a king. The arrogant Senchán decided to test the famed generosity of Guaire by forcing him to insult poets by refusing their demands for food, and so technically meriting a curse. “A seventh part of the ‘eric’ fine for [an ollamh’s] death is paid for denying him food.” (O’Donovan, Ancient Laws)

He organised a visitation on the king with an entourage of 150 each of poets, students, hounds, male attendants, and female relatives, and 27 of each type of craftsperson. He said that was only two-thirds of the company he could have taken, but he didn’t want to impose on Guaire’s hospitality too much. Custom entitled him to a maximum retinue of 30 in total. Guaire spent a year building accommodation and installing other facilities in preparation.

The trouble started as soon as the Poetic Assembly arrived. The daughter of the widow of the previous Chief Ollamh claimed that she couldn’t live unless she had a pet cuckoo in an ivy tree during the Christmas season, a roan horse with a red mane and four white legs, a multi-coloured cloak made of spider silk, and a full load of the fat of a white pig to be carried on her back.

Guaire was suicidal: he would rather be dead than to have his reputation for generosity ruined. He confided in his half-brother, Saint Marban, Chief Prophet of Heaven and Earth, who was a swineherd. Holy men often were swineherds as their day job, because in Celtic tradition swine come from the Otherworld, and these men were effective cursers. Marban owned a special white pig. This animal was not a mere pet. As Marban explained to Guaire, it was a herdsman, a physician, a messenger and a musician. It managed the other pigs like a sheep dog, licked his sore feet and healed them, and it lay on its back and hummed him to sleep with a sound more melodious than that of a blackbird. With his exceptional powers, and by killing his white pig, Marban was able to fulfil the woman’s demands and preserve Guaire’s reputation. Marban cursed her and prayed to God that her whims would not benefit her. While she was riding the horse, it fell, breaking her leg, arm and neck, and killed her.

Then Senchán’s daughter Bridget demanded blackberries in January and that Guaire’s people would all fall sick. Marban managed that by magically gathering the berries and praying that the people would fall sick and instantly recover. Senchán himself came up with a number of bizarre requirements that were satisfied by the arts of Marban, who was still seething over the loss of his white pig. He vowed revenge on the Poetic Assembly.

Senchán went on hunger strike for three days, and Guaire sent a man to him with a special treat of a goose. Senchán insulted the servant, saying that he knew the man’s grandfather had chipped fingernails, and so he refused to take food from him. Guaire sent a young woman.

“I knew your grandmother,” Senchán said, “who one day used her hand to point the way for a group of lepers, so how could I take food from your hands?”

When Guaire heard this, he said, “My curse on the mouth that said that,” and he prayed to God that Senchán would one day kiss a leper.

Bridget offered her father an egg, but he found that it had been nibbled by mice, so he cursed the mice, and ten of them died. He had second thoughts: it was the cats’ fault because they had not killed the mice, so he cursed the cats starting with Írusán mac Arasáin, King of the Cats, and naming specific members of his family.

 In his cave at Cnóbha, the passage tomb of Knowth in County Meath, Írusán felt the curse, and he said to his daughter Reng Sharptooth, “Senchán has cursed me, and I’m going to get revenge.”

“We would prefer,” said Reng, “that you bring Seanchán here alive so we ourselves can take revenge on him for the curse.”

“I’m on my way,” said Írusán, and he set off like a fire in full blaze.

Senchán got word that Írusán was coming to kill him, and he asked Guaire to call on the nobles of Connacht to protect him against the cat. They surrounded Senchán, but when the beast the size of a bullock arrived – bare-nosed, vigorous, snorting, powerful, crop-eared, broad-framed, impetuous, sharp-clawed, sleek, long-fanged, wide-mouthed, quick, violent, foul, wrathful, demented, avenging – he passed easily through them and grabbed Senchán by the arm, flung him onto his back, and started back the way he had come.

Now, instead of cursing Írusán, Senchán began to praise him – how skilful his leaps, how powerful his running – and begged him for God’s sake to set him down, which Írusán refused to do. As they were passing through Clonmacnoise, Saint Ciarán happened to glance out of the forge where he was working a rod of red-hot iron.

“What a story!” said Ciarán: “the chief poet of Ireland on the back of a cat in violation of the hospitality of Guaire.”

He flung the glowing rod at the cat, and it went into his side and through him and out the other side and killed him.

Was Senchán grateful for the rescue? Not at all. He cursed Ciarán.

“Why?” said Ciarán.

“If I had been eaten by Írusán, the whole Poetic Assembly would be justified in cursing Guaire, and I would rather be dead and Guaire be cursed than that I be rescued by you.”

Marban decided it was time for vengeance. The mansion that Guaire had built for the Poetic Assembly had several entrances so that whichever way the wind was blowing, a door on the opposite side of the building could be left open for ventilation so that the wind did not come in. Marban deliberately entered through a door on the windy side, and the wind came in with him. This was an obvious offence, and it got the immediate attention of the poets.

“Is it contention that you seek?” asked Senchán.

“It is, if I can get any to contend with me.”

“What do you want?”

“To hear as much crónán as I desire.”

(Crónán is a musical chanting or humming.)

“Nothing could be easier,” said Senchán, and he called up the 27 crónán experts in his retinue. They started with the regular crónán, but Marban stopped them and said that what he wanted was the crónán snagach, which is a staccato, gasping style like hiccupping. The reason he chose that was so they would quickly become exhausted. As one performer after another dropped out, Marban kept insisting, “I said I want to hear as much as I desire.”

When the crónán group were unable to continue, another man volunteered to perform an art.

“What is your art?” said Marban.

“Riddles. Tell me this: what did Adam have that God didn’t.”

“That’s easy,” said Marban. “A master. Now give me as much crónán as I desire.”

Another man stood up and said, “I will perform an art for you.”

“What art is that?”

“Playing the harp.”

“Tell me this, harper: who made the first harp?”

“I don’t know.”

“It was like this,” said Marban. “Macuel and his wife, Cana, had a quarrel, and Cana ran away. Macuel followed her through woods and wilderness to a strand, where she found a dead whale. The wind blew through the sinews of the body, making a sweet sound. Cana lay down next to the whale and fell asleep. That gave Macuel an idea. He went into the woods and found a curved branch and strung the sinews of the whale on it. He played music for Cana when she awoke, and it calmed her and made her happy, and so they lived in harmony and contentment ever after. That was the first harp in the world.

“Now I still want to hear as much crónán as I desire.”

Senchán was so embarrassed that none of the Poetic Assembly could satisfy Marban’s request that he offered to perform the crónán himself. He was elderly, and it was more difficult for him than for the others, but Marban, whose heart was hardened by the loss of his pig, insisted that he continue to perform. Senchán did so until he strained so much that one of his eyes fell out of its socket onto his cheek. Marban was worried that Guaire would blame him, so he said a prayer and put the eye back into the socket.

Then he said to the company, “Perform for me a sufficiency of crónán.”

A man stood up and said, “I will perform an art for you.”

“What art is that?”

“I’m the best storyteller in Ireland.”

“So you know all the principal tales of Ireland, do you?”

“I do.”

“Then tell me the story of the Táin Bó Cuailgne – the Cattle Raid of Cooley.”

The man was silent.

“What are you waiting for?” said Senchán. “Tell him the story.”

“I don’t know it.”

“Then one of you other poets tell it.”

But no one could tell it, not even Senchán. This was what Marban had been leading up to, because he knew that the poets of Ireland had lost the great national epic. Now he could humiliate them in revenge for his pig and relieve Guaire of their burdensome presence.

“I put geasa on all of ye lazy, ignorant poets,” said Marban, “not to stay two nights in one house until ye are able to recite the great Táin. And I hereby deprive ye of your poetic ability, that by the will of God ye shall not be able to compose any verse until ye find the Táin.”

(Geasa are injunctions or prohibitions, enforced by honour and sometimes magic, to make a person do or not do something.)

Since they had stayed the previous night in the mansion provided by Guaire, they were bound by the geasa to leave immediately and find other accommodation, which they would normally pay for by composing poems in honour of their host. Now they would be no better than beggars. When Guaire found out what happened, he allowed the women, children and servants, who were not affected by the geasa, to stay with him.

The poets set off for Naas in hopes of receiving hospitality from the king of Leinster, Connra Caech. They met a leper on the road who asked who they were, where they had come from and where they were going.

“Senchán Torpéist and his Poetic Assembly, coming from Guaire Aidne and planning to stay with Connra Caech in Naas and ask him for a ship to take us to Scotland,” one of them answered.

“Guaire is the better for your leaving and Connra is the worse for your arriving,” said the leper. “But you have no right to request hospitality from Connra since you have no power to compose a poem.”

“How do you know that?”

“Never mind. If you can compose a poem, prove it.”

They tried, but all that came from their mouths was the “blub-blub-blub” of their tongues dancing between their upper and lower lips.

“If you grant me a favour,” said the leper, “I will compose a poem on your behalf for Connra, so that he will accommodate you for the night and supply a ship.”

They all agreed to grant him a favour.

“Swear to it,” he insisted. They swore to it.

“The favour I ask is for Senchán to kiss me on the mouth.”

Senchán refused. The poets threatened to go back to Guaire and leave him alone to find the Táin. So he reluctantly kissed him, which fulfilled Guaire’s curse that Senchán would one day kiss a leper.

They arrived at Connra’s fort, and the doorkeeper asked who they were.

“Senchán and his band of poets,” answered the leper.

“Do they have a poem for the King of Leinster?”

“They have, and I’m the reciter.”

 Connra welcomed them, the leper recited his poem of praise, and they were given a ship in the morning. The leper asked if he could go with them, and Senchán said that if the leper went he would not go, so they left the leper on the land. On their way to Scotland, they came to the Isle of Man near Castletown, where they saw a person standing above them on a rock at Gansey Point, and at the same time they noticed the leper at the prow of the ship humming a crónán snagach.

“Who is that on the ship?” said the person on the rock.

“Senchán and his band,” said the leper.

“I put ye under geasa that not one of ye shall set foot on this land unless ye cap my half stanza with a half stanza.”

(Verse-capping survives today among Irish speakers, usually to comic effect. My rendering of the obscure poetic language is very loose.)

“Recite it,” said the leper.

The person above said:

Cach re murrech fairgi fuirenn fai

Every captain needs a team.

The leper replied:

Turnfuidh sneachta, eirgid tuirenn gairbhidh acaill cairill cai

The eagle’s shriek applies to ye.

“That is the correct capping,” said the person above. “No one on the ship could do it better than yourself.”

Noting the blank looks on the faces of the Poetic Assembly, the leper said, “I’ll explain. The sea eagle is a captain of the sea. All other sea birds are under it. Ye may recall that Tuan mac Cairill was reincarnated in the form of various animals through the ages since the time of the Great Deluge until he was reborn to the wife of Cairill. One of those forms was an eagle – acail – so ‘acaill cairill’, that is ‘the eagle of Cairill’, which is a play on the word aiccill. Ye poets should recognise aiccill as an end-word rhyme of one line with a word in the next line – ‘team’ rhymes with ‘eagle’s’ and ‘shriek’ – as well as the end-words rhyming. Also, it was Saint Cairill who brought Christianity to Connacht in the past century, so the eagle’s shriek is the preaching of Cairill.”

“Now I have another for you,” said the person above.

“Recite it,” said the leper.

Giarsat eolach a mbi h’adbhuidh

giarsat taman bolgaig bunn.

A wise girl is true to good.

A foolish girl is fond of food.


Ar bru chairrgi mhara Manann

dorínes mor salann sunn

On the rocky shore of Man

A store of salt is where you stand.

“That is again correct. Here’s another.”

Air mo losgadh ar mo mheasgadh

ar mo theasgadh for an tuinn

For my burning, for my turning

for my spurning of the sea,


A bainnliaigh doni in cerd choimsi,

Is mor do thoirrsi ar an tuinn

The woman doctor hides her healing,

Greatly wearied of the sea.

“The person I have been speaking with,” said the leper, “alternates between being a doctor for a year and a salt-maker for a year. She has a treasure of sixty gold marks, which she will share with ye tonight, and that will support ye while ye travel around Scotland, since ye are unable to practise versifying. And it is not her that ye should thank, but me.”

With that, the leper disappeared, and no one saw where he went.

The Poetic Assembly travelled for a year in Scotland, from north to south and east to west, without finding the Táin, so they returned to Ireland. When they landed at Dublin, they were welcomed by Senchán’s half-brother Saint Caillín. Senchán told him that they had found no trace of the Táin.

“Which is as it should be,” said Caillín. “For you greatly offended Guaire and abused his hospitality, so he prayed to God that you would kiss a leper. Do you know who that leper was?”

“I don’t.”

“It was myself.”

“Well, brother dear, can you advise me where I can find the Táin?”

“Marban should know. We’ll go to Guaire’s castle and ask Marban to join us there from his home in Gleann an Scáil.”

They did so, and when Marban arrived, Senchán asked him about the Táin.

“There is no one alive in Ireland who knows the Táin, and nobody who is dead except one.”

“Who is that?” asked Senchán.

“Fergus mac Róich. He was involved in that war and knows all about it.”

“How can we contact him?”

“Fast on his grave until he appears.”

The problem was that no one knew where Fergus was buried. So Senchán and his band set off for Brittany on the basis of a rumour that a poet had taken the ogam staves on which the outline of the Táin was inscribed and exchanged them for a copy of the Etymologiae by Saint Isadore of Seville, a collection of all the knowledge of the world. This was an example of oral Irish traditional knowledge being replaced by written classical learning.

When the Poetic Assembly stopped to rest along the way, Senchán’s son, Mairgen, happened to be sitting with his back against an ogam stone.

He wondered whose grave it was, and he read the inscription, which said: “Here lies Fergus mac Róich.”

The company fasted on Fergus for three days until a mist formed around the stone and the great warrior, former King of Ulster and mentor of Cúchulainn, appeared and began to speak. But he was so tall that the poets couldn’t hear him, so they asked him to please sit. He spent three days reciting the events of the Táin. Some say that Senchán wrote down the story, but others say, with poetic licence, that Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise was there and wrote it on the hide of his deceased dun cow, which is why one of the 12th-century manuscripts that include the tale is called The Book of the Dun Cow (Lebor na hUidre). A cow’s hide is not large enough to contain the full Táin, but the book’s cover is believed to be made of the Dun Cow’s hide, whence its name.

They returned to Guaire’s castle and recited the Táin. Then Marban said, “I put this judgement on ye: that ye go back to your territories and never again impose a burdensome visitation on any king again.”

And so it was done.

Parts of the Táin had long been in circulation, but it wasn’t until the 7th century that all the isolated segments were assembled by a professional writer into the epic as we now know it. So it is possible that Senchán himself was the composer and that the satirical Tromdámh Guaire is a fictional reflection of a factual incident.

The purpose of fasting on a person, like a modern hunger strike, was to persuade the person to do something, or else the fasters would embarrassingly die on the person’s doorstep. In one version of the story, the site of the grave was known, and the saints of Ireland gathered there and prayed until Fergus appeared.

© 2023 Richard Marsh


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