After the usual round of gossip and comments on the weather and the horse-racing, people on their ceilidhe in the old days invariably lapsed into stories about banshees, pookas, fairies and ghosts.
It seemed as if the whole country was haunted; there wasn’t a crossroads or an empty building, or a planting of trees that did not have its coterie of spooks of one sort or another. We were not supposed to hear this and were banished to bed but we would creep down to the bedroom door and listen. Gradually we would slip into the kitchen and sit on the floor beside the adults and keep quiet in the hope of being allowed to stay, as we were often permitted to do.
Most of the stories were personal experiences or folk memory, things their grandparents told them. Inevitably for me the supernatural world was an integral part of our own and contributed to my occasional nightmares. These were so vivid I can still remember in detail three recurring – and a single terrifying one, which can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck when I think of it, all in full colour. As I learned to read I was further affected by the choice of reading material – ghost stories in the
The narrow country road we lived on led from Creggan to Glassdrummond, where we went to school. Ballsmill, which was directly on the Armagh/Louth border, was a mile further on. Glassdrummond was a very small village as there were but two or three houses, two small shops and the chapel – St. Brigid’s, the school and a small parish hall. In fact there were two chapels, a de-consecrated one in the graveyard, where all my Boyle ancestors are buried, and the new one, completed in the 1930s, a short distance away.
For a short period in the mid 1950s Father Halfpenny, the Curate in Crossmaglen, arranged for the building to be electrified by a generator in an adjacent building and ran picture shows several nights a week. One of the shops was very dilapidated, with the slates caving in. The interior was dark with a high counter and rows of glass bottles filled with boiled sweets, liquorice, barley sugar sticks and other treats. Whatever else was sold there, my childish eye saw nothing but delights. The ancient owner, his name I remember was Willy Batterton (locally “Battern”), would tip the glass bottle over the pannier of the scales, carefully weigh out a pen’orth of sweets and tip them into a paper twist neatly folding over the top.
Only recently (2001) did I learn that Willy and I were related! He was a first cousin of my grandfather, John Boyle, his mother having been Boyle. Subsequently the property was completely renovated and became the home of the Kieran family, one of whom, Tony, was a contemporary at school and later became its headmaster.
Just across the road was Conlon’s shop where we used to buy cinnamon buns after mass on Sundays, when we had the money.
Glassdrummond chapel sits on a rise and commands a good view of the surrounding countryside. I remember that during mass, when I was about three, I used to crawl under the seats to Granda Boyle and he would give me a penny. Later, I remember particularly the Christmas midnight mass. The lateness of the hour, the deep darkness, the candle-lit church – this was before it was electrified – the colourful robes, the intoxicating smell of incense, the sense of hush and gladness, the singing, the long walk home along the dark tree lined road, the dim flickering glinting of candles in the windows of the sparse scattering of houses in the seemingly empty countryside; all of this enchanted me.
… more later …