Belief in Fairies and Devils and the Tortures of Hell

From `Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900', 1901, by Michael. J. F. McCarthy

"In his conception wretched, from the womb
So to the tomb;
Curst from his cradle, and brought up to years
With cares and fears."--LORD BACON.

THE scene now shifts from Munster* to Connaught, from March 1895 to March 1896. In the village of Lisphelan, in the county of Roscommon, and, as I understand, the diocese of Elphin, there then lived one James Cunningham, in "a comfortable dwelling-house," along with his father, three brothers, and a sister, all people of mature years. Most of the people in this village are said to be interrelated, and it appears the majority of them are Cunninghams. James Cunningham was the second son, and a shoemaker by trade; "the rest of the family working on the land." The Athlone or Roscommon correspondent of the Freeman's Journal, at the time of the occurrence now to be related, said that "the inhabitants of Lisphelan district were extremely superstitious," and that "on the night of the 6th of March many of them, including James Cunningham, were under the impression that evil spirits were hovering round their dwellings." Father Gately, the parish priest, who, like Father Ryan in Ballyvadlea, "was in spiritual charge," branded this as a calumny, and accused the correspondent of "slandering with charges of belief in witchcraft and fairies, &c., a whole locality who, in their appreciation of the laws of God and of His Church, and in their observance, are probably far in advance of--" What? "The Athlone or Roscommon correspondent of the Freeman!" He says further, that they are "good, honest, moral, respectable peasants." Father Gately is reported as having said at the trial in July, that, for a few days before Friday the 6th of March, James Cunningham was "religiously insane"; and, in a letter to the Freeman's Journal, of March 13, writes: "I saw him at home on Thursday, in presence of all the members of his family, in whose hearing he told me that, for twelve days, the Devil (I hope your Athlone correspondent will pardon me for using the word) had been tempting him to do away with himself, but that God gave him grace to resist the temptation."

What, it may be asked, was there "religiously insane" in this? Was not He who founded Christianity "led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the Devil"? Is not the Devil "going about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour"?

Father Gately also writes that "not a word did any one in the house, including the insane man, say to him about witches or fairies." Father Gately is reported as testifying in court that it was more than ordinarily zealous of him to call on James Cunningham, because "it was not in his district to attend sick calls."[1] He called, however, at the request of one of the brothers, and he is reported as telling the Court: "Coming near the house, I asked him was he violent, and was there any danger in seeing him? . . . The family pressed me to accept money to offer up Masses for his recovery, and I did not, and begged to be excused for objecting. But they persisted so much that I accepted the money and the obligation."[2] High Mass, high money; low Mass, low money; no Mass, no money!

He said, on the same occasion, that the family were "sober, industrious, good people, and inoffensive to their neighbours"; that they were a "religious family." The curate, Father Mulleady, had also been visiting James Cunningham "frequently" during the days prior to the 6th of March. We are told by Father Gately that, up to that fatal day, "no people could be kinder to James Cunningham than the members of his family." They actually "paid a doctor, contrary to James Cunningham's wishes, to come and see him." Paid a doctor! Marvellous proof of kindness in Father Gately's opinion!

At Lisphelan, as at Ballyvadlea, we find visitors in the house. "On the night of the dreadful tragedy," Father Gately writes, "they asked neighbours who were visiting up to ten o'clock to stay for the night, which they would never have done if they had it in their minds to do away with him, for any reason, superstitious or otherwise." I do not believe they meant beforehand to kill him; but I do believe that those people's minds were worm-eaten with superstition about devils, fairies--THE THING especially--and all sorts of other non-existent portents. I believe that their nerves were strung to breaking point after a prolonged fit of superstitious terror, and that, on the night of the 6th March, their hysterical, scared condition was such that they were capable of any crime.

Father Gately protests his complete ignorance of their superstitious beliefs. I cannot well say that I disbelieve him. I do not even censure him for being so out of touch with those poor, poor people--not poor in worldly goods, for they were very comfortable. It is the system of which he is the product, and to which I referred before in the Ballyvadlea case, that is at fault.

We are told, but not by Father Gately, that "for a week or so" previous to the eventful night, now about to be described, "James Cunningham was observed to pay frequent visits to a fort, called the Fairies' Fort, in the locality." One of those same ring-fenced forts we met in Ballyvadlea, abominable breeding grounds and preserves of superstition!

William Cunningham, a neighbour, residing "forty yards away," said at the trial that "he only knew that James Cunningham was suffering weakness of mind four days before the occurrence." This is all we know of the case, then, prior to the 6th of March. It is uncontested that, on that night, James Cunningham and the rest of the family believed "they heard noises" in and round their house, and "determined to sit up till the cock would crow."' Whether "other families in the village," as the local correspondent asserted, and has never since withdrawn; other "good, honest, moral, respectable peasants," were under the same delusion that night, in Lisphelan, and sat up likewise, I shall not inquire too closely. It is to be hoped that no other family of "sober, industrious, good people," in Ireland, will ever do so again. Mark you, the pity of it is that I do verily believe these wretched Cunninghams were "sober and industrious." There is no mention made of alcoholic drink of any description, either in the Ballyvadlea case or in the Lisphelan case; and the worldly comfort both of the Clearys and of the Cunninghams would go to prove that they were industrious.

During the evening William Cunningham, next neighbour, James Cunningham and John Gately, also neighbours, had been visiting the Cunninghams, and left the house about nine or ten o'clock. Why did not this William Cunningham go to bed when he got home?

He went out about eleven o'clock and found the prisoner's family saying the Litany; then he went into his own house; then he heard a dull thud or sound from the prisoner's house, and could not make out what it was." And he candidly declares, "I bolted my door and got into bed as quick as I could!"

Imagine this family now sitting up at midnight, in this lonely Roscommon Village, across the Shannon--the father and his four sons, all great gaunt men; and the sister, who, in the words of Father Gately, "is naturally a mild and even timid girl." Nobody saw anything wrong apparently in the proceeding. The "religious" queerness of James had been remarked, it is said; but the kindness of the members of his family to him, their perfect amity and unity amongst themselves, their perfect sanity, is not questioned by any one. Let us ask ourselves now whether the frenzy of this coming and several succeeding nights, is the sudden and unconnected birth of this night; or whether it is not rather the outbreak of superstitious flames that were smothered in their breasts from childhood, and which grew in force with their growth to manhood? When Father Gately left them on Thursday, he wrote them down as we have seen, and entertained a high respect for them! Let us now proceed with our narrative.

Twelve o'clock--that fatal hour--strikes, and the whole family "kneel down and say the Rosary." They believe that "the house is filled with thousands of devils; that they are in the loft and outside the door"; and they have been sprinkling quantities of holy water over the place to subdue them. As will be found subsequently, they are under the impression that these fairies or devils lodge "in a person's throat," and must be pulled therefrom. Suddenly now, we are told, James jumps up from his knees, catches his father by the throat, and throws him on the ground. The whole family rush to old Cunningham's assistance, and a fierce fight, of four against one, ensues. But James is a powerful, "a gigantic" man, and the fight rages from room to room for a long time; until at last James is overpowered and slain in a room off the kitchen, "terribly battered, chin cut away, teeth broken, &c." When the murder is committed, they imagine that a voice cries from the loft--"Look out for yourselves now," whereat the entire family rush from the accursed house, leaving the corpse alone therein, and fly to William Cunningham's, the neighbour living forty yards away. How are they received by that "good, moral, respectable peasant"? These "sober, industrious, inoffensive, religious" people, in the words of the parish priest, how are they received by their neighbour? He says himself, "They asked to be let in for God's sake. I refused to admit them!" They do not attempt, like Cleary, to conceal what they have done. They say to him, "Keep up good courage, you! We have him killed. There is no fear of you. There is no danger now." They then, he says, burst in the window, and let themselves in. William Cunningham says that during the rest of the night, while they stayed at his house, they kept "saying the Rosary and making crosses"; and they told him how "their own house was filled with thousands of devils in the loft, outside the door, and so forth"; and that "but for all the holy water," these devils "would sweep them all in no time."

In the morning, on Saturday the 7th, we are told by him, they went off "to inform the priest." They also went and informed the police, but not until seven in the evening. Patrick Cunningham, the brother, tells Constable Dalton, and his statement is corroborated by his father, that "the deceased had attacked them, and they had to do away with him." The old man tells the Sergeant how he heard a voice from the loft saying, "Look out for yourself now." Pat Cunningham tells the Sergeant that his slain brother "went down to the priests a couple of times, but they did him no good. 'We gave him £12 to go to America,' he added, 'but The Thing would not let him go. The Thing should have him! The Thing shouted down from the loft, Mind, yourself now.'"

The police wisely arrested the whole family, and put them into the little lock-up at Lecarrow barracks. During the night, they kept roaring out for "daylight," kicking the door, spitting (you remember how Cleary told Johanna Burke to say that his wife spat at him when going away), and saying that "spirits would take them away; but that when the cock would crow they would go away." Not much sleep for the constables in Lecarrow barracks that night. The Cunninghams broke open the lockup door; and a battle ensued in the day-room, the end of which was the "handcuffing" of the Cunninghams, and the tying of "their legs with ropes"; the "talk about fairies and devils" being kept up all the time! "They were very violent. They could not be worse," says Sergeant Doyle.

On Sunday the 8th, they are all removed to Athlone barracks, "followed by a jeering crowd through the streets," like the Ballyvadlea people in Clonmel. Why "jeering"? Obviously because it was felt these "good, moral, religious" people had brought disgrace upon the locality. "They were handcuffed and tied on brakes, presenting a fearful appearance, faces wounded, clothes bloodstained," and so on. That night in Athlone barracks incessant prayers were kept up "to drive away the fairies." The daughter, let loose out of pity, "attacked her father, and nearly choked him trying to draw fairies from his throat," and she then had to be bound.

On Monday the 9th, an inquest is held at Lisphelan, and after that the question of burying the body has to be faced. One would expect that in a locality inhabited by "good, moral, respectable" peasants, obedient to the "laws of God and of His Church," this simple act of human, we shall not say Christian, respect to the dead would be willingly undertaken by scores of pitying hands. On the contrary, the Freeman of the 11th of March reports that though "Lisphelan village is almost exclusively inhabited by relatives and namesakes of the deceased, not one of them could be induced to lend assistance in the burial of the body. Father Mulleady personally requested most of the neighbours to assist the police," but in vain! An instance is quoted of how one man, on being asked, made answer that "he was only a first cousin by marriage."

Eventually the police, under the direction of the doctors, "had to place the remains in a coffin," which "at the last moment was found to be too small for the body," and had to be broken! "The murdered man was not divested of his clothes; the coffin was placed in a cart and brought to the graveyard by the police. None of the relatives or friends took part."

Why, and a thousand times why, was this so?

All this, as we say, appeared in the Freeman of the 11th. It was two days later, on the 13th, that Father Gately's letter, before referred to, appeared in the Freeman. It is dated March 12. He has not one word of denial or condemnation for this brutal conduct of the locality. He does not allude to it even. It is to my mind the feature of this case which is most important, and, but for which, the case would not be worthy of prolonged mention: the conduct of "those good, moral, respectable peasants," slandered, forsooth, by being called superstitious and believers in fairies, who, doubtless, all read Father Gately's flattery with unction in the Freeman, two days after they had so savagely disrespected the remains of a poor dead friend and neighbour!

Thus were the remains of James Cunningham, all his life a "sober, industrious man," laid in their last resting-place. In the ordinary way, there would not have been a priest present at James Cunningham's funeral, unless he had been specially invited and his fee prepaid. There is no sight so sad, I think, as the burial of an Irish Catholic peasant, whose friends cannot afford a pound to pay for the priest's attendance at the funeral. Many and many a time, in the part of Ireland where I was born, attending one of such funerals, my father's labourers or their wives, have the tears welled up into my eyes; when, at length, the last shovelful of earth had rattled into the grave, and the last sod had been well and truly banked --and there was no more to do! The look of pained suspense, the dead silence used to be heart-wringing, as these poor men and women, gathered around the grave, gazed foolishly into each other's eyes, not knowing what to think. No word of consolation, no hopeful mention of the Resurrection and the Life to come--in which they so materialistically believe--from lips that would command respect. Oh heavens, is it any wonder that at such a moment the welkin should ring with what is called an Irish howl, and that the pent-up feelings, for which no intelligent expression is vouchsafed, should thus find vent? Oh my much-wronged fellow-countrymen, possessed of qualities which all those who know you admit to be worthy of the highest success, why are you thus made to suffer, as it were, on the rack? Your priests, our priests, if one of their own number dies, will attend his interment in shoals; will celebrate his Month's Mind as a religious festival, and even his Anniversary, with High Mass and other ceremonials. Why will they not attend your funerals, and show your remains that last tribute of religious respect for which you so yearn? It is because--but not in this already overladen book: the theme is too big.[3]

Why pursue the tale of woe? After a magisterial inquiry before Captain Preston, RM., and Mr. Lyster, J.P., the father and brothers were committed to Tullamore jail, to await their trial for murder at the July Assizes. The doctor said they were "suffering from acute mania, the symptoms of which were religious illusions." The girl and one of the brothers were sent to Ballinasloe lunatic asylum. When the others arrived at Tullamore, we are told, they "presented a frightful appearance." Crowds gathered to see them. They were escorted from the railway station to the jail "by a strong escort of police and the Lancashire Fusiliers." At midnight in their cells, we are told, they began to roar, crying that their "cells were filled with fairies and devils, from whom they prayed to be delivered"; and they "roared out for Father Gately, the parish priest of their native parish."

On July 11, before Judge O'Brien again, the father and two sons were tried for wilful murder at the Roscommon Assizes. The father was acquitted. The sons were ordered to be confined in a criminal lunatic asylum during her Majesty's pleasure. The same sentence was passed on the third son in the March following.

Once again the scene shifts back to Tipperary, in the diocese of Cashel, near the village of Cappawhite. The tragedy occurred on the 29th of November 1896, and differs from the foregoing cases in the following features. In those cases the actors were labourers or tradesmen. In this case we have to do with the farmer class--the well-to-do farmer of the Golden Vale district--and there is no question of fairies. It is fear of the tortures of Hell this time, that is the motive power. But we have what Father Gately would call "religious insanity," a far more heart-rending instance of it than in James Cunningham's case. The reader can decide for himself or herself, not only who and what caused the insanity, but also whether it is insanity to follow out a religious belief to its logical conclusion. The priest's name in this case did not get into the papers, either at the inquest or by way of letter of explanation or denial from himself, therefore I shall not mention it.

Poor Mrs. Sadlier, a comparatively young married woman, mother of four little girls, aged four, three, and two years, and an infant of five months, lived near Cappawhite, in her comfortable farmhouse, along with her husband, her children, and her servant girl. She was known to her neighbours and her dependants as "a good mistress," as being of "a very religious disposition," as one who "paid great attention to her religious duties." The witnesses at the inquest swore that not the slightest trace of insanity was noticed in her, either immediately before or after the dreadful occurrence; and the priests of the parish did not come forward at all, as I said before, to offer any explanation.

On the morning of the 29th of November Mr. Sadlier got up at 3 A.M. to attend the pig fair at Bansha, several miles away. Having had his breakfast, he left the house to transact his day's business, leaving behind him his wife, four children, and Anne Meara, the servant. It appears that three of the children slept with their mother, and the eldest little child slept with Anne Meara. Apparently the eldest child, while the servant was getting her master's breakfast, went into the mother's room and stayed there. At all events, an interval elapsed, and Anne Meara, surprised at hearing no stir or sound from her mistress's room, went up to see what was the matter.

There she saw a sight which must have sent a chill to her heart. Mrs. Sadlier was lying in the bed, which was incarnadined with blood, and on the floor were the two elder children in a pool of blood. The girl swears "she did not find Mrs. Sadlier a bit disturbed, no more than ever." The servant ran out of the house at once and procured help. The police came quickly on the scene, and Sergeant O'Sullivan says he found Mrs. Sadlier, lying quite still and dazed, but perfectly rational and conscious, with her two younger children, their heads almost severed from their bodies, by her side. The two elder little children were on the floor, also semi-decapitated, as before stated. Lying under a cloth laid at the foot of the bed was the razor with which the deed had been done. The Sergeant said he would have to arrest her, and having cautioned her that anything she might say would be used in evidence against her, asked her if she had any explanation to offer. She was "perfectly quiet," and made her statement to him at intervals. Her words were, as sworn to by the Sergeant at the inquest:--

"Well, I killed the four children in order that they may be with Almighty God, as I consider they were not capable of committing sin. I hope they were not. They were not up to the use of reason. I strove to destroy them before they would fall into the same sins that I had committed."

It is stated that "this statement," as to her having committed sins, "is not supported by a single action of hers during her lifetime." That is, of course, as far as her servant and her neighbours knew. But what is it they don't know in a country place? Nothing, except, perhaps, what happens in the confessional.

Sergeant O'Sullivan swore that she went on to say to him:--

"I imagined I saw our Saviour this morning on a Cross at the foot of the bed. I also saw my good acts and my bad acts in the balance; and I saw my bad acts overbalance my good acts, and I thought I was damned; and, sooner than put my poor children in Hell, I destroyed them. Oh my God, have mercy upon me! I have consulted my spiritual adviser, and have got Masses said for myself."

Does not the rationality, the logicality, of this quite stagger one's brain? I remember, when a child, having been given or lent an execrable little book called "Hell open to Christians," by either a Priest or a Christian Brother, as an aid to piety, and it is a wonder to me now that it did not give me meningitis. I was in spasms of terror day and night for over a month until the abominable book either got lost or I had to return it to the donor. I remember one picture in it represented a man --a Christian--in an enclosure like the lion's cage at the Zoo, being burned by flames which yet did not consume him, while demons harried him with pronged tridents!

The Sergeant says she was perfectly quiet. There is no mention made of the "spiritual adviser" having come or having been sent for! "About twelve o'clock," the Sergeant continues, "I allowed her to get up." We are told that she washed, dressed, "made her toilet," and put on her best clothes; and the Sergeant says that "before leaving the house, she kissed all her dead children in the room."

Poor Mrs. Sadlier, it was not on you, but on some one else, that day, that the recording angel had his ever-watchful eye while he entered up the crime that had deprived Ireland of those four promising young lives--"those four pretty children," as they are described! The Sergeant took her, or, rather, she accompanied the Sergeant, for nothing could exceed her docility, to Cappawhite police barrack, and thence she was committed to Limerick jail. She preserved her calmness of demeanour all through, and the jail doctor certified, mercifully, that she was insane, "suffering from melancholia"; and, on the Lord-Lieutenant's order, she was committed to Limerick asylum.

Admitting that those three dreadful cases are isolated ones, they are certainly three too many to have occurred in the five years under review.

"Religious insanity," is it? Well, then, let us have no more of it! I would rather have smallpox. That is more easily grappled with.

NOTE.--The summary of these two cases is compiled from the reports of the occurrences, trials, &c., mainly in the Freeman's Journal.

[1] See "Priests and People." ("Priests and People in Ireland" by Michael J. F. McCarthy)

[2] Freeman's Journal report of the trial at Roscommon Assizes, July 1896.

[3] See "Priests and People." ("Priests and People in Ireland" by Michael J. F. McCarthy)

See also:--

Belief in Fairies and Witches (The Burning of Bridget Cleary) by Michael J. F. McCarthy