I remember certain things from childhood. Little incidents from the past that pop up every now and then in the mailbox of my mind. They re-awaken dormant memories that linger on in my subconscious. Just like postcards they provide a fleeting image and a message that remind me of other place, other times, maybe gone but not forgotten. Sometimes it is sounds or smells, tastes or feelings that remain here when all other traces appear to have disappeared. They can be amusing, but just as often, they summon up much darker images from the past. Some of my oldest memories are just fleeting glimpses of childhood. I remember being in the garden of our house in Devonish Road in Hull on a lovely summer’s day digging up clods of earth to make little houses for the worms. I remember that there were lots of red, yellow, white and pink flowers growing in the garden. I was chatting away to myself or the worms when my mother came up behind me unaware and I got a bit of a surprise when she spoke to me. I felt embarrassed because I had been talking to myself. I think I was probably four or five at the time. It is one of my earliest memories I remember falling from the roof of a shed at the back of the garden. The shed was called The Pidgeon House. An apple tree broke my fall and saved me from any serious injury. There were a few cuts and bruises. I remember falling into the fire in our livingroom. I still have the scar on my upper arm as a permanent reminder of that event. I was taken away to what was known as The Infirmary and they treated the wound. I was about five years old when I contracted a fever which back then, in post war Britain, was still quite a serious condition . The ambulance arrived and took me to a fever hospital. I screamed my head off all the way and nearly drove the ambulance crew completely mad. I was placed in the women’s ward because of my young age. They thought it was better for me there, but in reality, it was touch and go. Most of the women on the ward died. In those days pneumonia, fever and bronchial conditions took their toll and any pre-conditions such as smoking, working conditions or damp, smoke-filled homes just accelerated the inevitable. Many of those women were elderly. There was a woman in the bed next to me who had a big anchor tattoo on her forearm and she was always very kind to me. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it. She seemed to be there for quite a while and then, suddenly, she was gone. I got lots of toys from family and visitors who were only allowed to peer at me from behind a glass screen as visitors were prohibited from entering the ward. When I finally left, all the toys were confiscated as there was a danger of contamination. I had an enormous resentment against the whole world because of the loss of those toys. Somehow, I had managed to survive. Later on, I remember my Uncle Danny visiting from London with his family. My cousin Paul got a ladder and put it up against the side of the house so we could all climb up and get in the bedroom window. When uncle Danny found out what was happening he made all of us young ones go inside and as Paul was climbing out onto the ladder from the bedroom Danny pulled the ladder away. Poor Paul was left dangling there half in and half out of the window. Danny was really angry with Paul but we were standing there bursting our sides laughing. My mother was annoyed with Danny for leaving poor Paul dangling there. She always had a soft spot for Paul. I also have memories of looking out from the bedroom window on Summer evenings watching the slipstreams of training jets, from nearby Leconfield airfield, make patterns in the evening sky.
At that time we were living in Hull, Yorkshire. We were an Irish Catholic family living in a northern English city that had a golden statue of King Billy as a historic reminder of where their allegiance lay. We were raised to be proud of our Irish heritage and when a young Queen Elizabeth visited Hull in 1957 my mother, always the patriot, gave us each an Irish flag to wave as the she went past. We were probably typical Yorkshire children in most other aspects but we always wore shamrock on St Patrick’s day and heard our mother sing all the old Irish songs. I remember the very special magic of Summer holidays spent in Ireland . To get there we had to cross the Pennine mountains into Lancashire. There was one occasion when we did this by car and another when we went by train. We crossed the Pennines on a steam train with great clouds of smoke spewing out from the engine. There was always a big panic to get the windows closed when we entered the tunnels, to avoid the carriage filling up with smoke. The carriages consisted of finely upholstered seats facing each other with luggage racks made of netting, overhead. The window could be opened or closed using a big leather strap which pulled up and down. As far as I recall you had to put your hand outside the window if you wanted to open the door. There was no heating in the carriages and if the weather was cold you had to ensure you brought a couple of rugs to cover your legs. This was not a problem for us as we normally travelled during the Summer. My recollection of the towns we passed through is vague but I think that Doncaster and Huddersfield were on the list. Once we crossed into Lancashire the landscape changed drastically. We were now in the industrial heartland of Britain where everything appeared much darker and every building seemed to be black or grey. Huge chimneys pumped out vast clouds of toxic smoke that looked like mythical beasts lurching awkwardly over the horizon. The noxious smells of burning coal, anthracite and gas were ever present and storm clouds gathered to discharge their contents of acid rain on the poor, unfortunates who lived below. When we finally arrived in Liverpool we entered a very dismal and dark city. In those days the beauty and splendor of the magnificent Victorian buildings had been eradicated by constant contamination of smoke from the industrial age. It was not long after the second world war and many of the industrial cities had been bombed by the Luftwaffe which also left its mark. Today most of these cities have recovered and the stonework has been restored to its original state so that we now can appreciate the architecture as it was originally intended.
Once in Liverpool the next leg of the journey was to cross the Irish Sea on what was affectionately known as The Cattle Boat. We travelled with B&I, the Irish shipping line, which sailed from Liverpool to the North Wall in Dublin. The ship was decorated with emerald green paint, lots of shamrocks and harps everywhere and friendly smiling staff who spoke with irish accents. You knew immediately that we were heading off to a different land that was going to be very special. We were enchanted with stories of Leprechauns, the Little People and of course the Banshees who put the fear of god in us. I can remember eating chips on board the ship and thinking how good they tasted. We slept in bunk beds in cabins with portholes. Before we went to bed we were allowed out on deck and I remember a strong sea breeze blowing in my face while seagulls followed in the wake of the ship, as it sailed out of harbour. Our parents came to put us to bed and told us to go to sleep because “tomorrow you will wake up in Ireland.” The next morning I remember being out on deck as we approached land and my father pointing across the water and saying “Look there’s Ireland’s Eye”. I looked everywhere and all I could see was an island but no sign of an eye. I had half expected some big eye to be staring back at me out of the sea and was disappointed when I was told that the island was called Ireland’s Eye. We landed at The North Wall in Dublin and watched as the ship was steered into the harbour and thick, heavy ropes were thrown ashore and secured to the moorings. It seemed to take forever before all the unloading was finally done and we were allowed to go ashore. There were no roll on roll off ferries in those days and everything from the ship had to be unloaded using huge rope nets. I did not get sea sick on the crossing and, thankfully, it is something that I have not experienced to this day. I have witnessed others in absolute agony and hope that I never have to go through it. I do not remember much about Dublin as we stayed there only briefly while in transit to the West of Ireland. One thing that did stand out was the fact that the colour green was everywhere. The buses were green, the mailboxes were green and many of the buildings were either fully or partially painted green. There were lots of horse-drawn vehicles on the streets. Some carried barrels of Guinness and had huge harps painted on their sides. There was no mistaking it, we were definitely in Ireland.
The next thing to catch my attention was the trains. They were modern diesel trains and not the old steam engines that had carried us across the Pennines. We left Dublin and before long we were out in the countryside. We were on our way to Roscommon, the town my father came from. The countryside in Ireland was so much different to Yorkshire. The fields, the trees and everywhere you looked was such a lush green colour except were the grass had been mown and laid out like golden rows in the meadows waiting to be built into hay reeks. There were sheep and cattle grazing lazily in the hot sun and everything appeared much closer than it was back in Yorkshire. It felt like you were right in the middle of everything. We had breakfast on the train served on white tablecloths in the dining car. The breakfast was a full fry with eggs, bacon, sausage, black and white pudding and toast. The meal was accompanied by a large pot of tea and waiters ran back and forth to make sure everything was to our satisfaction. The trains were slower back then so there was plenty time to eat a meal at your leisure. The train bumped and clanked along and this made eating and drinking a more challenging prospect but took nothing away from the overall enjoyment. As with most families we probably had our disasters. Spilling tea or egg and sausage flying off the plate. It is likely that a row or argument broke out at some point. Strange thing is my memory is a big vague on this point. I think they call it selective amnesia. There was, of course, a huge difference in the way everyone in Ireland spoke. The sing song accents of the Irish, were different to the gruff, abrupt dialects we were used to in Yorkshire. I can certainly remember that my first impressions were that it was a warm, friendly, smiling, place. We passed first through Mullingar and then through Athlone where we were told to look out over the bridge when we crossed the river Shannon. Once we crossed the great river we had finally arrived in the West, which was the only part of Ireland that really mattered. There was a welcoming party for us at the train station in Roscommon. Uncle Finian, Aunty Aggie and our cousin Kitty Hogan all came to meet us and there was lots of smiling and hugging and fussing over us. We were loaded with our luggage into two cars and we drove to Main Street were, for the first time we saw The family name above the shopfront door. Our Granny had a business which was located in the centre of Roscommon town. She was there at the door to greet us with warm hugs saying “Ye are all heartily welcome.” This was probably the first time we heard the expression “Ye” but were soon to discover how commonplace it was. The next word that was to enter our newly discovered Irish vocabulary was “Gossoon” “Are the gossoons hungry? Are the gossoons tired? where are the gossoons” When I first heard it I thought they might be referring to an animal or a farmyard bird but soon realised that we were the gossoons. This was the local word for children which was used extensively, not just in the West, but in many other parts of Ireland. These days when I go back to Ireland I don’t hear this used at all. The other word, commonly used at the time was “Ara.” Ara this and Ara that which could often be accompanied by or replaced with “Musha.” “Begorrah” was also thrown around quite a bit. Our cousins, the O’Hara’s were there to greet us with Aunty Eileen and Uncle Chris. Rob, Cathy, Jinny and Tom. They were the first Irish cousins we had met and it opened up a whole new world for us. Rob and Cathy were older than me but my cousin Jinny and I were the same age. Of course I have to mention Mutt and Tan the two dogs who jumped all over us. Tan was a Golden Labrador with a great personality. He was a lovely, friendly dog. It was harder to determine Mutt’s lineage but he probably had a large number of breeds in his DNA . He was built low to the ground for speed and was to become quite a character in his own right around Roscommon town.
I remember that Summer was just so full of new experiences. We went out with Uncle Fin (as we called him) and his men to help with the hay. We were obviously more of a hindrance as we just wanted to dive into the haystacks, tear them apart or slide down the sides. My brother Con was in his element but I was completely devastated with hay fever and did not enjoy it with all the wheezing and sneezing. We went out to the bog, which was a strange and mysterious place with tales of Will O’ the Wisp and The Little People. We were held back from where the real work was happening because it was dangerous with sharp turf cutting implements being swung about. We made tea and ate home-made bread, scones and apple pie which tasted so much better out in the open air. The days seemed always to be long and sunny and everywhere we went we met friendly, smiling people. Our Aunt Aggie was the exception. She always seemed to be angry and we felt that she had taken an instant dislike to us. She praised our cousins all the time but never seemed to have a good word to say for us. She always seemed to find fault. Even when she was trying to be nice it was either condescending or insincere. She came across as a bitter person and perhaps she had her reasons. I understand now, as an adult, that these things are a lot more complicated and require understanding. However, as a child, it is not easy to be on the receiving end of an adult’s unresolved issues. Uncle Fin, on the other hand was gregarious, fun loving and always had a kind word. He was likely to treat you to an ice cream or give you money. He knew how to talk to children and liked to take us out to his farm. He occasionally worked in the business but was much happier out on the land with his cattle or whatever pet project he happened to be involved with. He argued with my Grandmother constantly because she wanted him to work in the shop, where she could keep an eye on him, while he tried everything possible to get away. Granny was a large lady and had problems getting around. She was a strong woman for those times. Her husband Peter had died at a fairly young age leaving her to raise a family of five. She had built up the business on her own, often working alone in the shop. There was no heating in those days and the shop would have been open to the elements. She once told me that her children had a difficult upbringing with their father who apparently drank a lot. He was barely ever mentioned which suggests that their memories of him were not that good. I don’t remember my father ever talking about him except maybe once or twice. Granny said that she tried to make life easier for her children because they had a tough time earlier on. Uncle Fin did not like the idea of being a shopkeeper. He liked to be able to roam free and wild. Being in the shop under the constant supervision of his mother was not his preferred option and besides he had a great love of farming.
For us it was all just one big adventure. There was a beautiful old ruined castle at the edge of town. It had been owned by the O’Connor family who had ruled these parts for many centuries. They were once the most powerful family in Ireland and ruled as High Kings. They were often at war. Down through the years they fought against the Normans and later against the English. But just as often they fought among themselves. There was always a dissident family member ready to raise an army and lay claim to the throne. The family eventually lost all their lands and titles because they refused to submit to English rule. Their descendants still live on in Clonalis House, Castlerea, in North Roscommon. Roscommon Castle was originally built by the Normans in 1269 and over the next few centuries it would regularly change hands between the Irish, Norman and English, until, in 1659 it was finally sacked and partially dismantled by the Cromwellian army. For young children it was an enchanting place. We could climb on the battlements and explore the ruins as we let our imaginations run wild. The fact that it was a ruin made it more special with ivy growing up the ancient walls and rooks flying overhead, their haunting cries echoing through the battlements. We imagined old battles, prisoners locked up in dungeons and the king holding court as his queen and knights feasted in their great halls. There were so many places to climb despite the many dangers that existed. We met a local lad one day who told us there was a tunnel that led all the way from the castle to the Abbey, almost a mile away. He knew this because he had been in it with a friend and they had seen a coffin with a sword lying on top of it. We thought this was amazing. When we went back that evening to Grandmother we told her what we had heard. Auntie Aggie was there and immediately began to interrogate us. “Who told you that. You shouldn’t talk to strangers. That’s just a load of nonsense. What were ye doing down there anyway.” Aggie was totally lacking in tact, awareness or subtlety and spoke to us as if we were an unwanted burden that had been foisted on her. She gave the impression that children had to be put in their place and it was her role in life to do so.. It seemed very clear to us that she did not like us and she did not care that we knew. She had a fairly volatile relationship with both my mother and father. My mother and Aggie did not get on well and had already crossed swords once or twice on this trip. She did not seem to be a very happy person and I’m sure there were reasons for this. As an adult, looking back, I have some sympathy for her but as a child it was very unpleasant to be on the receiving end. My grandmother, on the other hand was a fair-minded and tolerant woman and understood children in a way that Aggie never could. It felt, at the time, as though Aggie wanted to steal the magic from our childhood to compensate for the lack of it in her own life. When Granny was present she would intervene on our behalf but if no other adult were there Aggie turned on the unpleasant mode. She once made my sister sit on a chair without moving for over an hour. Many legends, fairytales and myths have a wicked relative who try to take the joy and happiness from those around them. For us Aggie certainly fulfilled this role.
We had not forgotten the story about the tunnel from the castle to the Abbey and we were determined to find this place and carry out our own investigations. We were intrigued by the possibility of finding treasure. A day came when our parents had gone off on a trip to Ballinrobe races and we were just hanging around the house trying to amuse ourselves. Aggie was floating about in her usual surly mood and eventually popped her head round the door and said “Why don’t ye go off and play somewhere. Ye should be out in the sun and not stuck in the house all day.” We didn’t need a second invitation. We were more than happy to get as far away from her as we possibly could. After playing around the yard for a while we got bored and Con suggested we should go and find the Abbey. My sister Tess was hesitant but after a while the excitement grew and we all agreed to go there. We had a general idea of where it was located but as we were not sure we asked a couple of people along the way. Roscommon is not a big town with a population of about five thousand people so the Abbey was not that difficult to find. Back in the nineteen fifties it was safe for children to wander around on their own or at least that was the perception at the time. Finally we came to an old iron gate that opened into a field where a stony pathway led to the Abbey some distance away in the field.
St Coman, who the town was named after founded an abbey on this site in the 6th Century. However, the remains of the abbey that survive today date from the 12th century. It was built by the O’Connor family initially for the Augustinians. Following a turbulent early history when it was, at various times, destroyed by fire, hit by lightning and sacked by William De Burgh it became a Dominican friary until it was dissolved by the reformation in 1578. While Roscommon castle seems unusually large for such a small town, the abbey is beautifully compact and elegant and fits into its surroundings as if it had just sprung up out of the earth. it epitomizes the uniquely romantic quality that old Irish ruins possess as testament to a troubled but enduring historical past. When we walked through the gate and onto the path that led up to the abbey we felt a sense of awe. Here it was, at last, the place that occupied our dreams and imaginations since we first heard about it that day at the castle. We were excited at the endless possibilities that lay before us. In those days it was covered in ivy with the ever-present rooks circling overhead and beckoning us to come closer. We did not need an invitation, we were in sight of our holy grail. As we climbed over the stile that led into the building we were soon aware that this place was a lot different to the castle. For a start there were tombs within the walls of the abbey, one of which had a full size effigy, in stone, of a knight lying in state, sword by his side, in full armour and a dog at his feet. We had heard about the High King, Rory O’Connor and we assumed this must be him. (The stone figure is, in fact, thought to be Felim O’Connor, who founded the abbey and was buried there. It is also possible, that it is one of his descendants as the tomb was constructed thirty five years after his death. There were many tombs in the abbey and we recognised some of the family names of people still living in the town. We were not the slightest bit scared because I don’t think we knew much about death, the dead or history so it was just fascinating to imagine that we were in the presence of an ancient king. We spent some time exploring on our own. The place was overgrown, full of nettles and weeds with tin cans and cigarette packets strewn around carelessly. In those days old monuments were not as well cared for as they are today. These days there is a lot more oversight of ancient ruins in Ireland. Today the hand of Heritage seems to be everywhere. Wherever you go in the world there is a certain familiarity about the Interpretive Centres, gift shops and restaurants that dominate the ancient sites. While they can, sometimes, be useful they can also take away the natural charm and romance of an old site. The long tentacles of consumerism seem to reach into the past as well as the present. However, I recognise that many of these old monuments might be beyond salvation if it were not for the intervention of national heritage. I do not know how we strike a proper balance but I believe it is important not to lose the essential spirit of the place.
As I was wandering around, daydreaming and probably hoping to discover some treasure I suddenly heard Con calling, “Quick, over here, look what I’ve found.” Tess and I rushed over just as Con was rooting up a piece of old corrugated iron that lay on the ground beside an old crumbling tomb. “What is it, what is it” we both shouted excitedly as we raced across to join him. Just as we reached him he kicked over the rusty old cover to reveal a hole in the ground. To our astonishment we could see below into a tomb that had two stone coffins, one on each side. Everything down there was dark and smelled damp and musty. That did not deter us. Con went in first. There was a drop of a few feet before we landed on the stone floor of the tomb. My sister Tess stayed above to keep watch and to help us climb out again. We were innocent and fearless, at the time, and just saw it as part of a big adventure that had begun at the castle with the local lad who first told us of the tunnel to the abbey. As far as we were concerned we had just found the abbey end of that same tunnel. It took a bit of time to get used to the darkness in the tomb but once we did we could see that there were just two large stone coffins. Next thing Con turned to me and said “Look what I found.” He showed me a wooden crucifix that had been lying on top of the coffin. The wood was very dark and the brass figure of Christ was worn down and covered in dirt. “Wow” I said, that’s amazing. Tess was listening from above and said “Show me, show me” so we handed the crucifix to her and started searching again. Before long Con had found something else. This time it was a bone. The bone was about a foot long and had been lying on the floor of the tomb. “Let’s take this back for the dogs” said Con. There were always a few bones lying around the yard and we never gave much thought as to where they came from. We were city kids and I was just six while Con was a year and three months older and Tess had the same age gap with Patrick. Had we been Irish children we would probably have had a much better understanding of the significance of what we were doing. But to be honest, we were pretty clueless. Tess gave us both a hand up out of the tomb and we examined our finds and wondered what to do with them. Tess didn’t want to have anything to do with the bone but she was quite taken with the old cross. Knowing that Granny was fond of her religion she suggested we bring the cross back to her as a present. con and I decided we would bring the bone home for the dog. I’m not sure what she thought of our plan for the bone but she didn’t seem to object. We couldn’t believe our luck. What an adventure it had been that day and now we had some treasure to bring back with us. It wasn’t a pot of gold or a sword or anything like that but we were sure that our presence would be warmly received. We trotted back across the fields, into town and up the main street with a spring in our step. When we reached Granny’s place we entered in triumph through the archway, into the yard, finally racing into the kitchen with our treasure.
There to our horror, standing in the middle of the kitchen was none other than Aggie. “Mother of God where have ye been all afternoon. I’ve been out looking for ye all over town. I was nearly going to call the police. What divilment have ye been up to.” This was not quite the welcome we had expected on our triumphal return. We had hoped to see Granny or our mother there so we could immediately win favour with our gifts. They were nowhere to be seen. We did not realise how long we had been gone and did not understand the fuss, after all, was it not Aggie herself that had banished us earlier that day. Tess bravely blurted out “We were at the abbey Auntie Aggie.” “What took ye down there” replied Aggie suddenly scenting there might be something in the air. Suddenly there was an ominous sense of foreboding in the air. It was just at this point that Tess, in her naivety, made what was, in retrospect, a great error of judgement. She lifted the crucifix high to show to Auntie Aggie. “We found this cross at the abbey and we brought it home as a present for Granny. At this point I suddenly realised that all was not going as it should be. Aggie’s face had begun to twist and contort in a strange and frightening manner. If we had any knowledge of Valkyries back then we would have recognised what was about to descend upon us from a great height. Ah! if only Con could have seen what I saw, but, unfortunately, he was oblivious to the purple rage that was circulating in Aggie’s veins and what I imagined as steam coming out of her ears. Somehow he thought that Aggie had responded positively to the crucifix. So, without a by your leave he produced the bone from behind his back, lifted it up, almost under Aggie’s nose, and proclaimed “Here’s a bone we found in the abbey and brought back for the dogs.” Aggie pounced on us like a wolf on the fold, pulling hair, pinching arms, grabbing and shaking us all at once and then individually. I remember having the novel experience of having both my hair and my ears pulled simultaneously. The cross had shot up in the air and was lying on the ground somewhere after the first assault and the bone had slithered across the kitchen floor and was lying in a corner. Meanwhile Aggie was roaring at the top of her voice “Graverobbers, ye’ve robbed the dead, Oh! Sacred Heart of Jesus the dead will come tonight to claim their bones. Oh! God, Oh! God what have ye done ye’ve defiled the graves of the dead. Ye’ve brought a curse down on us” We were trying to digest all this new information while, at the same time, trying to avoid the next onslaught. At this point Aggie stopped swinging because she realised her verbal attack was having a greater effect and she was struggling to keep both attacks going at once. It was mostly shaking, pinching and pulling so there’s only so much of that you can do before it loses its effect. The worst part for us was that we suddenly realised that instead of doing something good we had, in fact, committed a terrible deed, the enormity of which, we were just beginning to understand. We had not previously known much about the dead and we had certainly not considered that they could come back once they had died. We had heard about the resurrection but that was Jesus and he could do almost anything. The bone suddenly began to take on a new significance that we had previously not considered. It was now possibly the bone of a dead person and we had removed it from its happy home where it had lain for god knows how long. With this came a new-found fear that we had never felt before. Aggie had certainly done a great job alerting us to the possibility that the dead might return to claim what was theirs and not look too kindly on anyone who had stolen from them. Having expended most of her energy by this time and obviously aware that her message had hit home she addressed us once more. Her face was a strange mixture of dark purple, red and pink that carried an implied threat as she spoke “Ye’ll go back to the abbey and ye’ll take those things that ye stole from the dead and ye will put them back exactly where ye got them. When ye’ve done that ye will kneel by the tomb and pray and ask the dead to forgive ye.” “Will you come with us Auntie Aggie” asked Con more in hope than in expectation. “Get off with ye” she said “I didn’t steal from the dead. Don’t come back until ye’ve done everything I told ye or there’ll be all hell to pay.” As we retrieved our now unwanted gifts and headed out through the yard, heads bowed I turned one last time and said “Can we bring the dogs with us.” Aggie made a charge in my direction, which I took to be a no, and I scuttled off a bit faster out of the yard.
It is hard to describe what the walk back to the abbey was like now that we had images of the dead, ghosts, spirits and graverobbing indelibly carved on our young minds courtesy of Auntie Aggie. It was crystal clear to us now that we had committed a heinous act that could have the most serious repercussions. The offending objects had been placed in a bag and as we slowly made our way along we alternated between periods of silence and periods of animated discussion, mostly on what was likely to happen. All of the outcomes that we discussed seemed to have an unpleasant ending. From not really knowing anything about the dead we had suddenly been awakened to the possibility of ghoulish figures flying out of their graves and hauling us down to god knows where. The nearer we got to the abbey the more it began to look like a place of terror and despair and we were its unwilling victims. Aggie had done an excellent job of educating us on the unique world of Irish ghostlore in just a short space of time and we were about to go right to its very heart. As we opened the little iron gate into the field every part of it seemed to clank and creak in a way that it had not done on our previous visit. The skies were darker, casting ominous shadows over the abbey walls. We were passing the bag from one to another like pass the parcel but without the laughs. “You go First” “No you go.” All natural leadership had deserted us and we were bickering over who was it who got us in this mess in the first place. Tess finally volunteered to carry the bag and take the lead provided she did not have to go in the tomb. We accepted that as the best compromise on offer and trundled on into the abbey. Once there we went on tiptoes, forgetting for a moment, that if all those ghosts were flying around or they would see us anyway. By the time we got to the tomb we were pale and shivering but we did notice that the dead did not seem to be to be taking any interest. I kept glancing over at Felim O’Connor’s tomb to make sure he was still lying there. The thought of this old warrior coming at us, sword in hand gave cause for some concern. Thankfully, he was not paying attention to our shenanigans. We pulled the cover from the tomb. It seemed very dark down there with the added possibility of an unpleasant surprise for whoever entered. After lengthy discussions Con suddenly grabbed the bag and was gone from sight in one leap. Would we ever see him again? That question was answered in about ten seconds flat as he emerged like a little blond ferret shouting “Pull me up, pull me up quick, get me out of here” Tess and I grabbed an arm each and hauled him out of the tomb. “Did you put them back where you got them” said Tess. “No” said Con “I left them in the bag on the floor. “Oh no” said Tess, “Aggie said we had to do it properly.” We stood there looking at each other and I suddenly noticed both sets of eyes were on me. “No, no” I said “I won’t do it” “You’ve got to” they said, “Its your turn” In the world of children when it arrives at your turn there’s not a lot you can do. Refusing your turn is never an option. I made a final protest but to no avail. Slowly I was lowered down into the darkness by the other two. Every single part of me was shaking like a leaf. I was petrified. I was mumbling prayers “Oh Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in thee. Mother of god pray for me. All the Saints in heaven pray for me” as I went further and further in. I put my hand in the bag and took out the crucifix and placed it on top of the stone coffin, “Father forgive me for I know not what I do.” Next I took the bone out and placed it on the other coffin, “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” As I turned I felt something grab me from behind. I let out a piercing scream and ran. As I did so my tee shirt, which had got caught on a protruding piece of iron, stretched as I tried to escape. I thought the dead had come for me and were hauling me back into the tomb. I turned to face my worst nightmare and then I saw what had caused the problem. I let out an insane howl of relief, wrenched my teeshirt free and shot right up and out of that tomb as if it was resurrection day. I wanted to continue with my flight but Tess stopped me and said “No wait we still have to go on our knees and say the prayer.” We stopped for a moment, went as if to kneel, looked at one another and half in laughter half in fear said in unison “Let’s get the hell outta here.” We ran as fast as we could. I was the slowest so I was well behind the other two. I didn’t care as long as I was moving further away from the abbey with no sign of the dead in pursuit. “Maybe they’ve been dead so long” said Pat “They just can’t be bothered.” That seemed like a reasonable explanation but to be honest it didn’t really matter as long as we were well away from the scene.
It was only when we approached Main Street again that we realised our ordeal was not yet over. We had dealt with the threat from the dead but now we had to face the more daunting threat from the living. As we walked through the yard and into the kitchen our worse fears were realised. Aggie was there and now she was joined by Granny who was seated on her customary chair near the Aga. “Well what have ye to say for yeerselves” said Aggie her voice barely concealing her rage. “We put everything back like we found it” replied my sister. “They robbed the dead Mammy” said Aggie turning to Granny for approval. “We’ll be haunted and probably worse” she went on. Granny was clearly unhappy with the line Aggie was taking and said “Now, now Aggie leave them alone they’re just gossoons” “But Mammy did you not hear what they did. They’ve disgraced us. We’ll be the talk of Roscommon” “We will not” said Granny a tad more forcefully than Aggie was expecting. Granny then turned to us as we stood there together, heads bowed, trying to look as sad and sorry as we possibly could. My sister blurted out our version of events interspersed with occasional interventions from my brother and I. Aggie stood there like a cold, wet day in mid Winter unwilling to rise above zero. I got the impression that Granny seemed to understand the logic behind our ill-fated mission. Being a staunch Catholic she did not approve of our actions but there was definitely no outright hell and damnation. “Now tell me” she said “did ye put everything back where you found it.” “We did” con replied confident that we had completed the task. “And did ye pray at the tomb as I asked” Aggie enquired. “Oh we did, we did” we all said in unison with a knowing side glance at one another. Aggie then turned to Granny and said “I think they should be punished. Send them to their room without anything to eat and make them stay there ’till they’ve learned their lesson.. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with This. They’ve brought bad luck into our home and we’ll be cursed from this day on.” This put my Grandmother on the spot. While she accepted that a wrong had been done she also knew we were just children who’d made an honest mistake. The big question was whether to go for the severe punishment that Aggie was advocating or to find a softer option. We stood there frozen to the spot unable to look up, down or sideways. Aggie made one final effort to influence Granny’s decision. “Think of the shame, think of the bad luck it will bring.” She had barely got the last word out of her mouth when we heard the sound of laughter and great excitement coming from the front hallway. It was my mother and father, my uncle and a few other friends who had just arrived back from the races. There was a great commotion and as they entered the kitchen. All attention was directed away from us and onto them. Amid the laughter and merriment they held up bank notes and waved them around for all to see. My mother came over and hugged us while at the same time showing us the money. They had a big win on the last the race at Ballinrobe and it was all due to a tip they received from an old friend whose name I gathered was, (would you believe it), Felim O’Connor. There are many who will tell you that there is no such thing as co-incidence but who am I to say. Granny was happy with the news. While she did not approve of drinking or gambling she always liked to see people happy and the added bonus of a big win helped to smooth the way. Aggie still tried desperately to get back to the moral high ground she had so recently occupied, but to no avail. “But they robbed dead, they robbed the graves, they brought bad luck home with them.” This no longer carried the same weight as it had done previously. We made sure that we joined in the festive spirit to distract attention from ourselves. At this point I think Granny was relieved that this diversion had effectively resolved her dilemma. She asked for more detail of the big win. “What was the name of he horse” she enquired. My father turned and looked at us, with a little twinkle in the corner of his eye, as he replied “The horse that won the last race at Ballinrobe, God bless him, was called “Bone of Contention.”