Glendalough! thy gloomy wave
Soon was gentle Kathleen’s grave;
Soon the saint (yet, ah! too late)
Felt her love and mourned her fate.
When he said, “Heaven rest her soul!”
‘Round the lake light music stole;
And her ghost was seen to glide,
Smiling, o’er the fatal tide!
– Thomas Moore
To The English novelist, William, Makepiece Thackaray, the Wicklow Mountains seemed small compared to those in the Scottish Highlands or The Pennines, or the French Alps. He wrote of his visit to Glendalough in 1842: “I don’t know if there is any tune about this place, but if there be, it must be the most delicate, fantastic fairy melody that was ever played. Thomas Moore has written an awful description of it. It may have appeared big to him and to the fairies who inhabited the place in the old days. For who could be accommodated in it except the little people?”
When Rural Electrification arrived in Glendalough in the early 1950s, timber poles, that would carry the cables, sprung up along the roadside and the smell of Creosote pervaded our everyday existence. Soon, in the cold, unforgiving illumination of a single, lonely bulb in each room shadows disappeared; our muted, mellow warmth preserved only by glowing, flickering firelight from the kitchen range. Coming indoors after dark, our eyes had to make a radical adjustment to the harsh, unaccustomed brightness. Wooden conduit grew from the attic down along walls now adorned with bulky black switches and sockets, into which the two-pronged plugs of new electric equipment were inserted. Electric heaters warmed our rooms at bedtime in a fraction of the time taken by turf fires. Heavy black clothes-irons, heated in the fire, gave way to smooth, gleaming electric models. Twin-tub washing machines negated scrubbing at the tin bath and wash-board and in time, bare concrete and floorboards disappeared beneath wall-to-wall carpets in swirly, floral designs, and electric vacuum cleaners became the only means to extract dust buried in the pile.
But a whole culture was disappearing with the shadows. Hitherto, fairies, giants, ghosts and shape-shifters were not confined to literature. Phantom horses and riders, mysterious, mute strangers, church bells ringing of their own accord and milk turning sour overnight all featured in the mix and around many a fire where ordinary folk talked freely about inexplicable ‘encounters’; their authenticity sworn on their mothers’ graves.
Kathleen, temptress of St. Kevin of Glendalough, met an untimely death by being pushed by the saint, who ‘with one repulsive shock, hurled her from the beetling rock’ (the cave, known as St. Kevin’s Bed’) and in consequence found her way, via the pen of Thomas Moore (Moore’s Melodies), into music. More recently, she and the subject of her unrequited affections featured in a much livelier version of the tale as the song, ‘The Glendalough Saint’, written by Brendan Behan and sung by the late Ronnie Drew which became part of the repertoire of folk group, The Dubliners.
We had our very own in-house elder who knew a thing or two. One of two bachelor brothers, living on a small holding on the slopes of a windswept hillside in West Wicklow, ‘Uncle Miley’ had come to live with us, after his brother, Morgan died. Morgan had become arthritic in his early sixties and had lost his hearing. Miley believed that Morgan’s ailments had begun years beforehand, instigated by a strange event that happened while Morgan was on his way home from a card-game. “Something came over him,” Miley told us. Four or five miles from their homestead lay Poulaphouca Lake; the name meaning ‘Pool of the Pooka’, described in folklore as ‘a terrifying male demon’.
It was not unusual for the brothers to spend a night in neighbours’ houses, playing music, dancing or playing cards and like most of their neighbours, Miley and Morgan walked, at all hours, along the lanes, by-ways and high ground of West Wicklow. “He became disoriented, strayed from his path and fell into a deep bog and there was a fight with… ‘Something’, Miley told us. “Poor Morgan feared for his life.” Morgan somehow survived the encounter and arrived home, in broad daylight, soaked, ashen-faced and trembling like a leaf.
Morgan’s was not an isolated event; Miley mentioned others who had similar, if less dramatic, experiences. Nor was the ‘Pooka’ the only phenomenon abroad before rural electrification. The ‘Bean Sídhe’ was the most common, appearing on the eve of a death in the locality. The accounts of her appearances usually followed the standard description of a woman in white, combing her long hair and emitting a spine-chilling wail. Graveyards held other terrors; my maternal grandmother would warn her sons to avoid the graveyard after dark. However her third eldest, my Uncle Willie, derived sadistic pleasure from telling her that it was ‘all a load of pisheóg’, that he had come home that way on many occasions, whistling. My father told us of a care-free character who, with a ‘few taken’ was wont to walk home via the graveyard. One night, a couple of his friends concealed themselves in a newly-opened grave. Upon hearing his footsteps along the path, one of them began to moan, “Aaaagh, I’m not happy! I’m not happy!” The brave traveller approached the open grave. “I’m not happy,” wailed the voice from below. “Sure, how could you be happy, ye poor divil?” he called down to the grave-dweller. “You’re not covered yet!”
But by the mid-1960s, the younger folk had left the paranormal behind, loudly dismissing the old tales as ‘imagination working overtime’. One form of intangible imagery was replaced by another: snowy, black-and-white television screens that brought contemporary, more believable characters into our kitchens. Jack Lord became my ‘crush’, ‘Book ‘em, Danno’ became the latest catch-phrase among the ‘cool dudes’ at school and I wanted to be Joanna Lumley’s successor, as ‘Purdy’ in ‘The Avengers’.
This week, I was given a beautiful book, ‘Old Ways, Old Secrets’ by Jo Kerrigan and look forward to delving into – as the blurb describes – ‘the world of druids, pookas, legendary heroes and warrior queens’, that promises to ‘lift Ireland’s modern layers to reveal a hidden world beneath, connect us to our ancestors and unlock the mysteries of our beautiful landscape’. I might even read this one by candlelight – just for effect.