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was the weapon
was the weapon
The missionaries came with touring caravans towed by big black Ford motor
cars, straining and puffing black fumes from their exhausts; a rare sight
indeed in 1950's rural Inishowen. They set up camp in a bare green field
a mile or so from the village. They were charismatic characters, who went
from house to house with their 'good news' message, aimed at the young they
said. The venue was the village hall, they promised refreshments afterwards,
and a choir. And so we set off through the quiet lanes on an early autumn
evening to hear the 'good news' and avail of the refreshments.
The hall was almost full of children and teenagers when we arrived. A
table at the rear was set with jugs of orange juice, small dainty sandwiches
and biscuits. The choir began to sing sweetly, accompanied by a portable
Then the preacher began to address us. To begin with his tone was low,
his voice seductive, with an accent that crossed between the American
deep south and south of the Bann. The subject was sin, punishment and
the works of the devil. The devil awaited us at every turning point in
our lives; he was luring us with rock 'n' roll, he was lurking in the
TV screens that unwary people were installing in their homes. The work
of the devil was everywhere; dancing was yet another pursuit where the
devil frequented. Sin was everywhere. Then his voice rose to a higher
pitch that vibrated the very building, "you know the pain of burning
your small finger. Can you imagine your whole body burning forever throughout
all eternity?" A mass shudder seemed to shake the wooden benches
as the sheer terror of his words vibrated amongst the assembled youth,
like the audience in a cinema watching unspeakable horrors on a screen.
If the love and compassion of God was mentioned, none of us remembered
it. And, when it was over we had lost our appetite for the refreshments.
We silently filed out into the darkness and walked home with our fearful
thoughts on a vengeful God waiting to trip us up at every turn of the
road. Was hell and damnation the price we would have to pay for watching
'Rawhide' through a snow-
his way through 'rave on' on the old wireless? And with the showband era
getting into full swing, promising an image of jiving in winkle-
shoes with sugar-
a gloom such as I had never known before. And so it seemed that avoiding
the horrors of hell would mean forgoing every little pleasure that this
life had to offer.
Time and reason allayed most of the terrors and showed God in a truer
light, which enabled most of us to enjoy our childhood and youth. But,
sometimes departed childhood awakes and we reach into that special cupboard
of the mind, where we thought we safely stored our fears, only to find
their dark echoes still there.
All religions were guilty, to a greater or lesser extent, of using the
tactics of fear and guilt as weapons of control. This left many of us
with deeply buried fears and guilt. By taking these skeletons out of the
cupboard we can recognise them for what they are, and so lay them to rest.
Winter Tale and a Summer Ghost
walked up the steep hill and along a narrow lane to reach Jimmy's house.
The house was tucked neatly under a hill, and was sheltered by six pine
He was seated by a roaring fire made up of turf and bog fir; one end of
which stretched a considerable length down the floor.
"Welcome to you all. It's a raw cold night," he greeted us, pushing
the bog fir a bit further into the fire.
"Try as I might I couldn't get this fir block split up and in the finish,
I broke the shaft of my hatchet," he said sitting down again. The dancing
flames leaped and danced around the big log of fir, lighting up the weather
beaten creases in his face, and deep set blue eyes framed by dark bushy
Jimmy was the best storyteller in the neighborhood, and we were regular
visitors. We loved to listen to his stories about ghosts and banshees.
"I'm just about to make my cocoa, would you all like a cup?"
"Aye, thanks," we all chanted.
With our cups of hot cocoa in our hands we were ready for a good frightening
"Have you any new ghost stories to tell us?" Joe asked.
"Well now, let me see if I can think of any I haven't told you before.
MM. .... mmm," he muttered, staring into the fire in deep concentration.
Then he lit his pipe, lifting his eyebrows with a frown to keep them safe
from the flames that leapt from the thin fold of newspaper that he used
instead of matches.
As the story progressed we could feel the goose pimples rising on the backs
of our necks. His bright blue eyes moved from one wide eyed scared face
to the other as he told the story.
"I had just reached the top of the brae beside O'Neill's derelict house,
when I saw the black cloaked figure of a woman walk right through the stone
ditch, not an inch from me. As I stood there in the moonlight I knew that
I had witnessed a being, not of this world."Walking home through the
darkness we linked arms for safety, and when we reached O'Neill's brae we
shuffled along in a huddled fearful mass, with eyes and ears on red alert
for the cloaked figure of a supernatural woman; but she was nowhere to be
"My father says there is no such things as ghosts. He says Jimmy just
makes up his stories as he goes along," Sara said in a shaky wee voice,
as her shaking fingertips dug into my upper arm.
"Well I believe in ghosts no matter what your father says. And besides
a world without ghosts would be no fun," Joe's voice came back from
the blackness. Much to our disappointment we reached home without a ghost
or ghoul to be seen.In the early spring a builder from the nearby town started
to renovate O'Neill's old house. Rotting windows and doors were replaced,
the roof was repaired, and finally the walls were whitewashed.
One day in late June as we made our way to the shore, we saw that the house
"Holiday makers from Scotland have rented the place out," Pat
informed us while we stood in the door of the byre as he milked the cows.
"It must be thirty years or more since anybody slept under that roof,"
he added as he headed for the house carrying two buckets of milk.July began
wet and windy, but soon gave way to warm sunshine. One morning on our way
to the shore two young girls with red hair sat on the stone ditch outside
"We are going down to the shore for a dip. Do you want to come with
us?" I asked them a little shyly.
"I'll go and ask my Ma," the bigger of the girls said as she hurried
off into the house.
"What's your name?" Sara asked the girl sitting on the wall.
"I'm Edith, and she's Fiona," she answered nodding in the direction
of her sister who had just reappeared.
Before the day was out we had formed a bond of friendship. They came from
Glasgow, and lived next door to the man who owned O'Neill's old house.
The following morning we set off with our newfound friends on a tour of
the neighborhood. As we rounded a comer in the lane Johnny Mc Laughlin was
putting his cows out. Fiona stood in the middle of the lane and let out
a piercing yell, while the astonished cows turned around and bolted back
towards the farmyard.
"God in heaven what possessed you to roar like that?" Johnny spat
throwing his stick to the ground in anger.
From the ditch sandwiched between two hawthorn bushes Edith said in her
"She is terrified of cows, and so am I."
"If I'm any judge, the cows were more terrified of you wailing like
a banshee than you were of them. But you are city wains I suppose,"
he added graciously.
To our amusement their fear of animals extended to anything on four legs,
and that included Neddy. However, a ride in the cart was irresistible, and
facing backwards they giggled with glee as they bumped noisily along the
lane. But when Neddy in one of his stubborn moods sat down between the shafts
of the cart, they hightailed it to a safe distance, while we tried in vain
to persuade him to get up again.
On the last day of July we all sat on the beach reluctant to say goodbye
to our Glasgow friends.
"I wish we could stay longer, but we will come back next summer."
Fiona said a little sadly.
"We all want to come back next year except my mother," Edith said,
as she absently made holes in the sand with a stick.
"Why does your mother not want to come back?" Sara asked.
"Because she thought she saw the ghost of a woman in a black clock
at the head of the stairs.
Next To Godliness
is the second eldest of the family. She made herself responsible for keeping
the younger members of the brood clean. On bath nights she would descend
on us unawares, leaving us no escape route from her clutches.
In a small tin basin, the shampoo powder would have been mixed with warm
water, and then our torture would begin. She would scrub us, one at a
time from head to toe, while we yelled in useless protest. When the torturous
procedure was finished, we each emerged from the water like lobsters,
rubbing our stinging eyes, that the dreaded shampoo had seeped into.
During school terms she was our driver, and protector all in one. Because
the distance to school was too far to walk, our uncle gave us his pony
Jackie the pony was a black gelding, with a white star on his head. We
were as proud as peacocks arriving at school in the trap, with Jackie
stepping smartly into the school yard.We would all make our way into the
school, while big sister unharressed Jackie and gave him his hay and oats.Reverend
Jones came into school each morning, for morning prayer. But the prayers
were almost always delayed until Elizabeth had attended to the pony's
He would march up and down the floor looking at his watch impatiently.
"How much longer is that girl going to be?" he would ask, looking
from one of us to the other in some bewilderment while we related the
long list of Jackie's morning requirements.
"At long last, you have decided to honour us with your presence,"
he would say somewhat sarcastically, when she would finally make an appearance.
On one fine September afternoon mother had given us instructions
to collect a roll of linoleum from the village shop on our way home. With
the aid of the shopkeeper we got the linoleum into the trap, then we all
piled in around it, and headed for home.
A short distance from the village, Elizabeth gave Jackie his head as usual.
Suddenly he caught sight of the long roll looming above his head. And
like all the demons in hell were in pursuit, he bolted down the road at
speed. Clinging tightly to the sides of the trap, we hung on for dear
Above the noise of the fleeing hooves and clanking wheels, she shouted.
"Throw the damned lino over the ditch,when I say. One, two, three,
HEAVE." The roll went over the ditch in haste, and landed in a field.
Then with relief we reached the big brae. The upwards pull finally slowed
the terrified animal down to a trot, then finally to a walk.
"We'll go back for the lino. And for heavens sake don't go dramatizing
anything when we get home, or you might end up walking to school tomorrow,"
she warned the three white, terrified faces, that stared back at her nodding
With a struggle we managed to get the linoleum back into the trap. But
this time horizontally across. Then we all held it carefully in position,
while big sister kept a tight rein on Jackie.
Many years later, I found myself helping my mother to get the kitchen
floor stripped and ready for new floor covering. The rust colored linoleum
that had been hidden under a second layer brought the memory of Jackie
"I'll never forget the day we took this stuff home in the trap,"
"I heard all about it from Johnnie Healey.The poor man could
have lost his head.
"What do you mean?" I asked a little bewildered.
"Well, he told me he was draining a ditch, in the field when suddenly,
this long roll flew past his head. It just missed him by inches,"
she said, shaking her head reprovingly.
weak wintry sun had just crept over the horizon as Joe and Hanna made
their way up the hill to visit the returned 'Yankee'.
"First time home in twenty-
"They say she has a whole suitcase full of candy." This piece of news
clinched it for Hanna. They would go the following morning and welcome
the 'Yankee' back home.
"Yanks in the movies drink coffee and Martinis," Joe announced as they
neared the top of the hill. "What is Martini like?"
"Poteen … well, a bit like Poteen," Joe replied, his breath coming like
bursts of mist in the frosty air. "Hope she doesn't offer us any then.
Daddy says Poteen's only for sick cows that's why he keeps it."
The hall door was open when they reached the house. They
knocked and went in. When we were introduced she stood up to greet us.
She was tall and was elegantly dressed in a fawn suit; she wore red lipstick
and red nail varnish. Bending down she gave each in turn a big slobbery
'YUK!' Joe said inwardly, then made to wipe his cheek. He thought of the
candy and decided to wait in case he upset her.
As Anna watched her sip black coffee and listened to her strange sounding
accent she wondered if she really was a movie star after all.
Then came the moment they had been waiting for. The 'Yankee' left the
room and returned with the candy, lots of it in brightly coloured packets.
As they were leaving she handed each of them a small package. "Just a
couple of trinkets to remember me by," she drooled, planting another kiss
on each of their cheeks. This time Joe hastily wiped his sloppy kiss away
on his sleeve when they were out of sight. Tearing open her small parcel
Hanna uncovered a green necklace and bracelet, "Emeralds" she cried out
in glee. That her emeralds were made of plastic mattered not a whit. "What
did you get Joe?"
"A gun with bullets. Paper ones," he said, holding out the roll of paper
They had munched their way though a pound of the 'Yankee'
candy by the time they reached the home straight. Willy, their nearest
neighbour was leading a red cow into the byre as they neared his farmyard.
His wife Sara appeared from the back door of the cottage. "Andy's just
bought another cow," she announced. They followed her into the byre, dimly
lit by a hurricane lamp. "She looks a grand animal" she said, with pride.
"I must bless her." She reached up to a shelf at the far corner and took
down a bottle.
"Where did you buy her?" Joe inquired, as he put the last candy into his
"From Robert Johns. No, she wouldn't have had a drop of holy water on
her before with that background," she added, as she liberally shook the
liquid over the cow's back. Suddenly the cow began to jump, flinging her
hind legs in the air.
"Hold her Willy, the Presbyterian is very strong in her," she shouted
above the commotion. Retreating out of the flinging animal's way, John
grabbed the bottle from his wife and headed for the open door.
"Stupid woman," he shouted, "it's caustic soda you blessed her with."
The snow came
silently while we slept, and we awoke to find a white, snow-
The snow was still falling thick and fast by school time, and it was decided
that we should have the day off.
At eleven o'clock Aunt Bea moved over to her window seat to wait for the
postman as usual.
"Poor Eddy will have a struggle this morning," she said, her eyes glued
to the distant road. Her white hair was pinned up in a neat bun, and perched
sedately on top, her black beret with the little tassel on it. She
had reached the grand old age of eighty, and could still walk the two miles
to the village for her pension each Friday. With unfailing eyesight she
was able to knit our sweaters without the aid of spectacles. Reading and
letter writing were her other pass times.
"I should have had a letter from Mary before now. It must be all of six
weeks since I wrote to her. And I was sure that my cuckoo clock would have
come weeks ago," she said, dropping her eyes to her knitting again.
"Oh Lord! Eddy's down, and the letters are scattered everywhere," she suddenly
shrieked. "Run, quick, one of you, and help him. Poor Eddy, he's too old
to be out delivering mail on a day like this." John
and I scrambled into our coats, and made off down the lane at speed, to
rescue Eddy. As we neared the spot where the unfortunate Eddy came a cropper,
he suddenly sprang to his young and sprightly feet.
"We should have known it was you up to your tricks again," John said, as
William came towards us with a broad grin. Behind him lay a trail of old
newspaper squares scattered in the snow.
"Was she watching? Did she think it was Eddy?" he asked us still grinning.
"Aye, she thought it was Eddy all right. I wouldn't show my nose for a while
if I were you," John warned, as the three of us walked back up the lane
through the snow.
"You are a right bad rascal, playing a trick like that on me," she scolded
when he came in, "And there was me thinking poor Eddy might have broken
a leg." "I just couldn't resist it. I knew you would be watching," he said
with a chuckle. An hour or so later, Eddy made his
appearance. "It's a day neither fit for man nor beast," he announced shaking
the snow from his coat as he came into the kitchen carrying a parcel.
As my mother busied herself making him hot tea, we set about the parcel.
Out of the wood shavings and cardboard emerged Aunt Bea's cuckoo clock.
"It's all in one piece anyway, nothing broken," she commented with a broad
smile of pleasure.
After the instructions were carefully read, and understood, the clock was
carefully hung on the wall. We waited patiently as the hour of one came
closer. Then on the dot, the little wooden doors sprang open, and out popped
the bird, "cuckoo! cuckoo!" it chanted loud and clear. Aunt Bea beamed with
pleasure. "Isn't the cuckoo a wee dote," she exclaimed. We all nodded in
The snow didn't let up that afternoon, and we became bored and restless.
We finally went outside to play in the shed. John began target practice
with his treasured air gun. "Another bulls eye," he shouted triumphantly
"I'm sick of that flipping gun, that's all you seem to want to do anymore,"
I complained as I headed for the house again. In the kitchen the hour was
approaching three, and Aunt Bea's eyes were held firmly on the clock. "Cuckoo,
cuckoo, cuckoo," rang out again much to her delight.
As the weeks passed the clock was beginning to grate on the nerves of everyone
apart from its proud owner. The "wee dote" became "that damned cuckoo,"
especially as the hours grew to high niunbers. Ten cuckoos became just too
much for the nerves to bear.
One night in February, the family sat around the
fire. Only the soothing sounds of knitting nee ' dles clicking and newspaper
rustling disturbed the silence. None of us were aware of the impending disaster,
as the hour of ten o'clock drew near.
The wooden doors on the clock opened, "Cuc....... and then BANG! All eyes
were suddenly on John, where he sat on the sofa; the air gun still poised
in mid air. The cuckoo hung limply from its perch, suddenly silent. "You
young rascal, you shot my poor wee cuckoo," Bea cried out in anguish. John
dived for the door, my father grabbing the gun before he disappeared outside.
"I'm hiding this gun, where you won't get your hands on it again," he called
after him. William set to work at once on the repair of "the wee dote" When
the intricate operation was finished, we waited again as the hour drew near.
The doors opened, and out popped a lopsided cuckoo, sitting precariously
on his perch, " ook, ...ook, ...ook, ...ook," he crooked miserably. "Good
lad, you fixed it," Aunt Bea said in obvious delight.
"This is one occasion when loss of hearing seems to be a blessing," my father
Feast Of food and Light
We slowly made our way home from school, feasting on nature's autumn goodies along the lanes in the warm sunshine.
Haws from the hawthorn bushes, blackberries, hazel nuts and wild sloes were devoured as we went. The hedge rows were red with fuchsia. We plucked off the flowers and sucked the sweet juices for dessert.
"I am going to dig the potatoes at the port tomorrow, my father announced at supper time.
"Will you be needing us?" I asked, hopefully, as a day of freedom from school loomed invitingly before me.
"Aye, I'll be needing all the help I can get."
With that, I quickly put the school homework to one side to seek a more entertaining pursuit.
Bright and early the following morning we set off for the port, and the potato harvest.
As the day progressed, and our backs ached with the constant bending, school didn't seem so bad after all.
"I'm hungry. Could you get a couple of crabs? We could light a fire and cook them?" John asked my father.
He shook his head ruefully, but went off in the direction of the rocks where the crabs hung out. Ten minutes later he emerged from behind a rock, holding two large wriggling crabs. When the fire was lit, and the bucket of spring water had reached boiling point, we immersed the poor unfortunate crabs into the bubbling water, while we turned our heads the other way. While the crabs and winkles cooled, we washed the potatoes in the sea and boiled them in the same water. When the feast was prepared, we invited the workers to dine.
But when the feast was over, and our stomachs full, we had no further excuse to avoid the potato gathering.
As dusk fell, we made our weary way home, stopping occasionally to rub our aching backs. When we reached the top of the brae, we saw the big van with, ESB written on the side in large, bold letters.
"The electric is going to be connected,"John shouted excitedly, suddenly bolting on ahead, his tiredness forgotten.
I trudged on up the hill slowly, unable to contain my excitement. An electric radio of my very own was the object of my heart's desire, as I remembered my mother's promise;
"When we get the electricity, I will buy you a radio of your own," she had said, as she praised my housekeeping efforts, on her return from visiting a sick relative.
"My stomach will never be the same again. Not even the dog would risk the bread she made," my father complained.
"But I suppose she did her best, for a ten year old," he added graciously. But, bad stomach or not, I was anticipating the radio with mounting glee.
We all stood watching the ceiling, as the light was switched on. As the bright light lit up the kitchen, we stared in wonder at the sheer magic of it. During the course of the evening, the light switches were in constant use. Where there was darkness; at the flick of a switch we revelled in the instant electric light, that was until the novelty wore off.
On Saturday evening we called in to see Sally, on our way from the village shop as usual. The only light in her kitchen came from her turf fire.
"Have you not switched on your electric light yet," John asked.
"I suppose it's time light it," she said with a sigh. In the dim light we watched her get a broom handle from the comer, and aim it in the direction of the switch. The target was missed a few times, before she eventually managed to engage the switch with the broom handle, and the kitchen glowed with light. A long low sigh escaped from her throat, before she spoke.
"You have to be careful with the electric you know," she said, while we stifled a giggle. Then she went over to a shelf, and came back with a can of oil. We watched her fill the oil lamp carefully with the oil, and as she sat down again, she said, "Just in case."