Reminiscences of the West

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER III...concluded

The old gaol of Roscommon stood, and, although now converted to other purposes, still stands, in the market-place, in the centre of the town. It is an exceedingly high, dark, gloomy-looking building, with a castellated top, like one of the ancient fortresses that tower above the houses in many of the continental cities. It can he discerned at a great distance; and, taken in connexion with the extensive ruins of O'Conor's Castle, in the suburbs, and the beautiful abbey upon the other side of the town, seems to partake of the character of the middle-age architecture. The fatal drop was, perhaps, the highest in Ireland. It consisted of a small doorway in the front of the third story, with a simple iron beam and pulley above, and the lapboard merely a horizontal door hinged to the wall beneath, and raised or let fall by means of a sliding-bolt, which shot from the wall when there was occasion to put the apparatus of death in requisition.

Fearful as this elevated gallows appeared, and unique in its character, it was not more so than the finisher of the law who then generally officiated upon it. No decrepid wretch, no crime-hardened ruffian, no secret and mysterious personage, who was produced occasionally disguised and masked, plied his dreadful trade here. Who, think you, gentle reader—who now, perhaps, recoils from these unpleasant but truthful minutiae—officiated upon this gallows high?—a female!—a middle-aged, stout-made, dark-eyed, swarthy-complexioned, but by no means forbidding-looking woman—the celebrated Lady Betty—the finisheress of the law—the unflinching priestess of the executive for the Connaught circuit, and Roscommon in particular, for many years. Few children, born or reared in that county thirty, or even five-and-twenty, years ago, who were not occasionally frightened into "being good," and going to sleep, and not crying when left alone in the dark, by huggath a' Pooka, or, "here's Lady Betty."

The only fragment of her history which we have been able to collect is, that she was a person of violent temper, though in manners rather above the common, and possessing some education. It was said that she was a native of the County Kerry, and that by her harsh usage she drove her only son from her at an early age, He enlisted; but, in course of years, returned with some money in his pocket, the result of his campaigning. He knocked at his father's door, and asked a night's lodging determined to see for himself whether the brutal mother he had left had in any way repented, or was softened in her disposition before he would reveal himself. He was admitted, but not recognized. The mother, discovering that he possessed some money, murdered him during the night. The crime was discovered, and the wretched woman sentenced to be hanged, along with the usual dockful of sheep-stealers, whiteboys, shop-lifters, and cattle-houghers, who, to the amount of seven or eight at a time, were invariably "turned off" within four-and-twenty hours after their sentences at each assizes. No executioner being at hand, time pressing, and the sheriff and his deputy being men of refinement, education, humanity, and sensibility, who could not be expected to fulfil the office which they had undertaken,—and for which one of them, at least, was paid,—this wretched woman, being the only person in the gaol who could be found to perform the office, consented; and under the name of Lady Betty, officiated, unmasked and undisguised, as hangwoman for a great number of years after; and she used also to flog publicly in the streets, as a part of her trade.[34] Numerous are the tales related of her exploits, which we have now no desire to dwell upon. We may, however, mention one extraordinary trait of her character. She was in the habit of drawing, with a burnt stick, upon the walls of her apartment, portraits of all the persons she executed.

Before daybreak, upon the Monday morning after Michael Welsh was shot, several labourers, surrounded by a guard of police, might be seen erecting two tall scaffolding poles in the market-square, opposite the gaol. When this was completed, the cart containing the body of the fisherman's son, with the redoubted Lady Betty sitting in it, emerged from the back entrance of the gaol; and, having reached the gibbet, the body, with the assistance of some of the gaol officials, was hoisted by her ladyship to the top of the poles, which stood about six or eight feet apart; and from these the body was suspended by the hands, in that attitude which nations are accustomed to adore!! Upon the head was tied one of the decorated hats, on which was pasted a placard with the word "RIBBONMAN" written upon it. The breast was bare—the wounds exposed. When the day broke, the inhabitants of Roscommon had this horrid spectacle before their eyes, placed there by order of the governor of the district.

The rain soon came down in torrents, and continued to pour all day. Every spout and eave-course gave forth its rill; the dirty streets ran seas of mud which flashed in long undulations over the flag-way or pavement when set in motion by the passing vehicle; several of the shops remained closed, and few of the respectable classes were to be seen in the streets; old ladies took to their beds, and young ones made preparations for a hasty departure to the metropolis; reports of the most exaggerated description were circulated upon all sides, and large bodies of military arriving from Athlone and Galway, strengthened the apprehensions of the timid, and confirmed the reports of the alarmists. The magistrates met in conclave all day, and it was expected that something wonderful was to take place next morning.

Around the gibbet stood a guard of military and police, and upon one of the kerb-stones of the adjoining street sat two females, who occasionally uttered the wildest strains of grief that the Irish cry, particularly when uttered by those in the position of the mother and sister of the gibbeted corpse, is capable of expressing.

During the night the rain cleared off; towards morning a smart frost set in, and after it, the sun rose large, red, and blushing through the misty air; but soon the fog cleared off, and the same brightness which shines equally on the just and the unjust lit up the old castles, and gaols, and abbeys, and houses, and threw its slanting rays through the open doorways of the long, low cabins, and evoked a reeking steam from all the dunghills in the dirty lanes of Roscommon. Hundreds of the peasantry might he seen approaching the town from all directions. Magistrates and country gentlemen, armed to the teeth, with the light frost hanging in whitish spray upon their hair and whiskers, and clouds of vapour steaming from every mouth and nostril, arrived in gigs and tax-carts. Some great spectacle, of which a rumour had gone abroad, was evidently expected. Towards noon the town was thronged with people; every window was occupied; many climbed to the house-tops; wherever footing or elevation was to be obtained, thither crowded some of the anxious throng. There was no ribald jesting—even neighbours scarcely exchanged a greeting; sullen anger, fierce determination, savage revenge, brooded over the mass, and was fearfully depicted in every face. If we said that from twenty to thirty thousand people filled the streets of Roscommon that day we should not exaggerate. That beautiful regiment of dragoons, "The Green Horse," with their bright helmets and flourishing horsetails, paraded the streets, and parties of foot soldiers and police took up positions in different parts of the town, the sun glancing brightly from their polished firelocks.

About noon, the gibbeted body was taken down, placed in a sitting position in a cart, the arms extended, and tied to pitchforks, the back supported by a plank; around the body were arranged, as in an arm-trophy, the various guns, and pikes, and scythes, and other weapons, which had been taken from the ribbonmen for some time past; and on several of those were placed the hats picked up on the battle-field of Ballintober. This sad spectacle led the procession; after it, advanced slowly three horses and cars, and to the tail-board of each cart was bound a man, naked to the waist, who had been sentenced to be flogged three times through the towns of Roscommon, Strokes-town, and Castlerea, but the execution of whose sentence had, until then, been deferred, in the hope that the country would have remained quiet. Lady Betty, for some reason, did not officiate upon this occasion. One of the men was flogged by a Sicilian boy—the others, by drummers belonging to regiments then in the province.

The military lined the streets; the procession moved through the long straggling town. The rere was brought up by a cavalcade of magistrates, chiefly on horseback; in the centre of this part of the procession rolled slowly on, to "flogging pace," an open chariot, in which sat the Major, who ordered and directed the proceedings—we have no desire to describe him—and by his side lolled a large, unwieldy person, with bloated face and slavering lip—the ruler of Connaught, the sheriff at George Robert Fitzgerald's execution—the great gauger-maker of the west—The Right Honourable.

Let us drop the curtain. If this was not Connaught, it was Hell.

We have only to remark that the scene, with all its horrors, would have been repeated in two of the other towns of the county, but for petitions to government from some of their inhabitants.

Well—it was a frightful spectacle, horrifying and demoralizing, but perhaps applicable to the time and circumstances; at all events, it completely put an end to ribbonism in that district for many a year.


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[34] This history of Lady Betty we have received from persons who were perfectly acquainted with her during her long residence in Roscommon.