Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 105

Start for Caerfili — Johanna Colgan — Alms–Giving — The Monstrous Female — The Evil Prayer — The Next Day — The Aifrionn — Unclean Spirits — Expectation — Wreaking Vengeance — A decent Alms.

I LEFT Merthyr about twelve o’clock for Caerfili. My course lay along the valley to the south-east. I passed a large village called Troed y Rhiw, or the foot of the slope, from its being at the foot of a lofty elevation, which stands on the left-hand side of the road, and was speeding onward fast, with the Taf at some distance on my right, when I saw a strange-looking woman advancing towards me. She seemed between forty and fifty, was bare-footed and bare-headed, with grizzled hair hanging in elf locks, and was dressed in rags and tatters. When about ten yards from me, she pitched forward, gave three or four grotesque tumbles, heels over head, then standing bolt upright, about a yard before me, raised her right arm, and shouted in a most discordant voice — “Give me an alms, for the glory of God!”

I stood still, quite confounded. Presently, however, recovering myself, I said:— “Really, I don’t think it would be for the glory of God to give you alms.”

“Ye don’t! Then, Biadh an taifrionn — however, I’ll give ye a chance yet. Am I to get my alms or not?”

“Before I give you alms I must know something about you. Who are you?”

“Who am I? Who should I be but Johanna Colgan, a bedivilled woman from the county of Limerick?”

“And how did you become bedevilled?”

“Because a woman something like myself said an evil prayer over me for not giving her an alms, which prayer I have at my tongue’s end, and unless I get my alms will say over you. So for your own sake, honey, give me my alms, and let me go on my way.”

“Oh, I am not to be frightened by evil prayers! I shall give you nothing till I hear all about you.”

“If I tell ye all about me will ye give me an alms?”

“Well, I have no objection to give you something if you tell me your story.”

“Will ye give me a dacent alms?”

“Oh, you must leave the amount to my free will and pleasure. I shall give you what I think fit.”

“Well, so ye shall, honey; and I make no doubt ye will give me a dacent alms, for I like the look of ye, and knew ye to be an Irishman half a mile off. Only four years ago, instead of being a bedivilled woman, tumbling about the world, I was as quiet and respectable a widow as could be found in the county of Limerick. I had a nice little farm at an aisy rint, horses, cows, pigs, and servants, and, what was better than all, a couple of fine sons, who were a help and comfort to me. But my black day was not far off. I was a mighty charitable woman, and always willing to give to the bacahs and other beggars that came about. Every morning, before I opened my door, I got ready the alms which I intended to give away in the course of the day to those that should ask for them, and I made so good a preparation that, though plenty of cripples and other unfortunates wandering through the world came to me every day, part of the alms was sure to remain upon my hands every night when I closed my door. The alms which I gave away consisted of meal; and I had always a number of small measures of meal standing ready on a board, one of which I used to empty into the poke of every bacah or other unfortunate who used to place himself at the side of my door and cry out ‘Ave Maria!’ or ‘In the name of God!’ Well, one morning I sat within my door spinning, with a little bit of colleen beside me who waited upon me as servant. My measures of meal were all ready for the unfortunates who should come, filled with all the meal in the house; for there was no meal in the house save what was in those measures — divil a particle, the whole stock being exhausted; though by evening I expected plenty more, my two sons being gone to the ballybetagh, which was seven miles distant, for a fresh supply, and for other things. Well, I sat within my door, spinning, with my servant by my side to wait upon me, and my measures of meal ready for the unfortunates who might come to ask for alms. There I sat, quite proud, and more happy than I had ever felt in my life before; and the unfortunates began to make their appearance. First came a bacah on crutches; then came a woman with a white swelling; then came an individual who had nothing at all the matter with him, and was only a poor unfortunate, wandering about the world; then came a far cake, 22 a dark man, who was led about by a gossoon; after him a simpley, and after the simpleton somebody else as much or more unfortunate. And as the afflicted people arrived and placed themselves by the side of the door and said ‘Ave Mary,’ or ‘In the name of God,’ or crossed their arms, or looked down upon the ground, each according to his practice, I got up and emptied my measure of meal into his poke, or whatever he carried about with him for receiving the alms which might be given to him; and my measures of meal began to be emptied fast, for it seemed that upon that day, when I happened to be particularly short of meal, all the unfortunates in the county of Limerick had conspired together to come to ask me for alms. At last every measure of meal was emptied, and there I sat in my house with nothing to give away provided an unfortunate should come. Says I to the colleen: ‘What shall I do provided any more come, for all the meal is gone, and there will be no more before the boys come home at night from the ballybetagh.’ Says the colleen: ‘If any more come, can’t ye give them something else?’ Says I: ‘It has always been my practice to give in meal, and loth should I be to alter it; for if once I begin to give away other things, I may give away all I have.’ Says the colleen: ‘Let’s hope no one else will come: there have been thirteen of them already.’ Scarcely had she said these words, when a monstrous woman, half-naked, and with a long staff in her hand, on the top of which was a cross, made her appearance; and placing herself right before the door, cried out so that you might have heard her for a mile, ‘Give me an alms for the glory of God!’ ‘Good woman,’ says I to her, ‘you will be kind enough to excuse me: all the preparation I had made for alms has been given away, for I have relieved thirteen unfortunates this blessed morning — so may the Virgin help ye, good woman!’ ‘Give me an alms,’ said the Beanvore, with a louder voice than before, ‘or it will be worse for you.’ ‘You must excuse me, good mistress,’ says I, ‘but I have no more meal in the house. Those thirteen measures which you see there empty were full this morning, for what was in them I have given away to unfortunates. So the Virgin and Child help you.’ ‘Do you choose to give me an alms?’ she shrieked, so that you might have heard her to Londonderry. ‘If ye have no meal give me something else.’ ‘You must excuse me, good lady,’ says I: ‘it is my custom to give alms in meal, and in nothing else. I have none in the house now; but if ye come on the morrow ye shall have a triple measure. In the meanwhile may the Virgin, Child, and the Holy Trinity assist ye!’ Thereupon she looked at me fixedly for a moment, and then said, not in a loud voice, but in a low, half-whispered way, which was ten times more deadly:-

“‘Biaidh an taifrionn gan sholas duit a bhean shilach!’

Then turning from the door she went away with long strides. Now, honey, can ye tell me the meaning of those words?”

“They mean,” said I, “unless I am much mistaken: ‘May the Mass never comfort ye, you dirty queen!’”

“Ochone! that’s the maning of them, sure enough. They are cramped words, but I guessed that was the meaning, or something of the kind. Well, after hearing the evil prayer, I sat for a minute or two quite stunned; at length recovering myself a bit I said to the colleen: ‘Get up, and run after the woman and tell her to come back and cross the prayer.’ I meant by crossing that she should call it back or do something that would take the venom out of it. Well, the colleen was rather loth to go, for she was a bit scared herself, but on my beseeching her, she got up and ran after the woman, and being rather swift of foot, at last, though with much difficulty, overtook her, and begged her to come back and cross the prayer, but the divil of a woman would do no such thing, and when the colleen persisted she told her that if she didn’t go back, she would say an evil prayer over her too. So the colleen left her, and came back, crying and frighted. All the rest of the day I remained sitting on the stool speechless, thinking of the prayer which the woman had said, and wishing I had given her everything I had in the world, rather than she should have said it. At night came home the boys, and found their mother sitting on the stool, like one stupefied. ‘What’s the matter with you, mother?’ they said. ‘Get up and help us to unpack. We have brought home plenty of things on the car, and amongst others a whole boll of meal.’ ‘You might as well have left it behind you,’ said I; ‘this morning a single measure of meal would have been to me of all the assistance in the world, but I question now if I shall ever want meal again.’ They asked me what had happened to me, and after some time I told them how a monstrous woman had been to me, and had said an evil prayer over me, because having no meal in the house I had not given her an alms. ‘Come, mother,’ said they, ‘get up and help us to unload! never mind the prayer of the monstrous woman — it is all nonsense.’ Well, I got up and helped them to unload, and cooked them a bit, and sat down with them, and tried to be merry, but felt that I was no longer the woman that I was. The next day I didn’t seem to care what became of me, or how matters went on, and though there was now plenty of meal in the house, not a measure did I fill with it to give away in the shape of alms; and when the bacahs and the liprous women, and the dark men, and the other unfortunates placed themselves at the side of the door, and gave me to understand that they wanted alms, each in his or her particular manner, divil an alms did I give them, but let them stand and took no heed of them, so that at last they took themselves off, grumbling and cursing. And little did I care for their grumblings and cursings. Two days before I wouldn’t have had an unfortunate grumble at me, or curse me, for all the riches below the sun; but now their grumblings and curses didn’t give me the slightest unasiness, for I had an evil prayer spoken against me in the Shanna Gailey by the monstrous woman, and I knew that I was blighted in this world and the next. In a little time I ceased to pay any heed to the farming business, or to the affairs of the house, so that my sons had no comfort in their home. And I took to drink and induced my eldest son to take to drink too — my youngest son, however, did not take to drink, but conducted himself well, and toiled and laboured like a horse and often begged me and his brother to consider what we were about, and not to go on in a way which would bring us all to ruin, but I paid no regard to what he said, and his brother followed my example, so that at last seeing things were getting worse every day, and that we should soon be turned out of house and home, for no rint was paid, every penny that could be got being consumed in waste, he bade us farewell and went and listed for a sodger. But if matters were bad enough before he went away, they became much worse after; for now when the unfortunates came to the door for alms, instead of letting them stand in pace till they were tired, and took themselves off, I would mock them and point at them, and twit them with their sores and other misfortunes, and not unfrequently I would fling scalding water over them, which would send them howling and honing away, till at last there was not an unfortunate but feared to come within a mile of my door. Moreover I began to misconduct myself at chapel, more especially at the Aifrionn or Mass, for no sooner was the bell rung, and the holy corpus raised, than I would shout and hoorah, and go tumbling and toppling along the floor before the holy body, as I just now tumbled along the road before you, so that the people were scandalized, and would take me by the shoulders and turn me out of doors, and began to talk of ducking me in the bog. The priest of the parish, however, took my part, saying that I ought not to be persecuted, for that I was not accountable for what I did, being a possessed person, and under the influence of divils. ‘These, however,’ said he, ‘I’ll soon cast out from her, and then the woman will be a holy cratur, much better than she ever was before.’ A very learned man was Father Hogan, especially in casting out divils, and a portly, good-looking man too, only he had a large rubicon nose, which people said he got by making over free with the cratur in sacret. I had often looked at the nose, when the divil was upon me, and felt an inclination to seize hold of it, just to see how it felt. Well, he had me to his house several times, and there he put holy cloths upon me, and tied holy images to me, and read to me out of holy books, and sprinkled holy water over me, and put questions to me, and at last was so plased with the answers I gave him, that he prached a sermon about me in the chapel, in which he said that he had cast six of my divils out of me, and should cast out the seventh, which was the last, by the next Sabbath, and then should present me to the folks in the chapel as pure a vessel as the blessed Mary herself — and that I was destined to accomplish great things, and to be a mighty instrument in the hands of the Holy Church, for that he intended to write a book about me, describing the miracle he had performed in casting the seven divils out of me, which he should get printed at the printing-press of the blessed Columba, and should send me through all Ireland to sell the copies, the profits of which would go towards the support of the holy society for casting out unclane spirits, to which he himself belonged. Well, the people showed that they were plased by a loud shout, and went away longing for the next Sunday when I was to be presented to them without a divil in me. Five times the next week did I go to the priest’s house, to be read to, and be sprinkled, and have cloths put upon me, in order that the work of casting out the last divil, which it seems was stronger than all the rest, might be made smooth and aisy, and on the Saturday I came to have the last divil cast out, and found his riverince in full canonicals, seated in his aisy chair. ‘Daughter,’ said he when he saw me, ‘the work is nearly over. Now kneel down before me, and I will make the sign of the cross over your forehead, and then you will feel the last and strongest of the divils, which have so long possessed ye, go out of ye through your eyes, as I expect you will say to the people assembled in the chapel tomorrow.’ So I put myself on my knees before his reverence, who after muttering something to himself, either in Latin or Shanna Gailey — I believe it was Latin, said, ‘Look me in the face, daughter!’ Well, I looked his reverence in the face, and there I saw his nose looking so large, red, and inviting that I could not resist the temptation, and before his reverence could make the sign of the cross, which doubtless would have driven the divil out of me, I made a spring at it, and seizing hold of it with forefinger and thumb, pulled hard at it. Hot and inctious did it feel. Oh, the yell that his reverence gave! However, I did not let go my hold, but kept pulling at the nose, till at last to avoid the torment, his reverence came tumbling down upon me, causing me by his weight to fall back upon the floor. At the yell which he gave, and at the noise of the fall, in came rushing his reverence’s housekeeper and stable-boy, who seeing us down on the floor, his reverence upon me and my hand holding his reverence’s nose, for I felt loth to let it go, they remained in astonishment and suspense. When his reverence, however, begged them, for the Virgin’s sake, to separate him from the divil of a woman, they ran forward, and having with some difficulty freed his reverence’s nose from my hand, they helped him up. The first thing that his reverence did, on being placed on his legs, was to make for a horse-whip, which stood in one corner of the room, but I guessing how he meant to use it, sprang up from the floor, and before he could make a cut at me, ran out of the room, and hasted home. The next day, when all the people for twenty miles round met in the chapel, in the expectation of seeing me presented to them a purified and holy female, and hearing from my mouth the account of the miracle which his reverence had performed, his reverence made his appearance in the pulpit with a dale of gould bater’s leaf on his nose, and from the pulpit he told the people how I had used him, showing them the gould bater’s leaf on his feature, as testimony of the truth of his words, finishing by saying that if at first there were seven devils, there were now seven times seven within me. Well, when the people heard the story, and saw his nose with the bater’s leaf upon it, they at first began to laugh, but when he appealed to their consciences, and asked them if such was fitting tratement for a praist, they said it was not, and that if he would only but curse me, they would soon do him justice upon me. His reverence then cursed by book, bell, and candle, and the people, setting off from the chapel, came in a crowd to the house where I lived, to wrake vengeance upon me. Overtaking my son by the way, who was coming home in a state of intoxication, they bate him within an inch of his life, and left him senseless on the ground, and no doubt would have served me much worse, only seeing them coming, and guessing what they came about, though I was a bit intoxicated myself, I escaped by the back of the house out into the bog, where I hid myself amidst a copse of hazels. The people coming to the house, and not finding me there, broke and destroyed every bit of furniture, and would have pulled the house down, or set fire to it, had not an individual among them cried out that doing so would be of no use, for that the house did not belong to me, and that destroying it would merely be an injury to the next tenant. So the people, after breaking my furniture and ill-trating two or three dumb beasts, which happened not to have been made away with, went away, and in the dead of night I returned to the house, where I found my son, who had just crawled home covered wit bruises. We hadn’t, however, a home long, for the agents of the landlord came to seize for rent, took all they could find, and turned us out upon the wide world. Myself and son wandered together for an hour or two, then, having a quarrel with each other, we parted, he going one way and I another. Some little time after I heard that he was transported. As for myself, I thought I might as well take a leaf out of the woman’s book who had been the ruin of me. So I went about bidding people give me alms for the glory of God, and threatening those who gave me nothing that the mass should never comfort them. It’s a dreadful curse that, honey; and I would advise people to avoid it even though they give away all they have. If you have no comfort in the mass, you will have comfort in nothing else. Look at me: I have no comfort in the mass, for as soon as the priest’s bell rings, I shouts and hoorahs, and performs tumblings before the blessed corpus, getting myself kicked out of chapel, and as little comfort as I have in the mass have I in other things, which should be a comfort to me. I have two sons who ought to be the greatest comfort to me, but are they so? We’ll see — one is transported, and of course is no comfort to me at all. The other is a sodger. Is he a comfort to me? Not a bit. A month ago when I was travelling through the black north, tumbling and toppling about, and threatening people with my prayer, unless they gave me alms, a woman, who knew me, told me that he was with his regiment at Cardiff, here in Wales, whereupon I determined to go and see him, and crossing the water got into England, from whence I walked to Cardiff asking alms of the English in the common English way, and of the Irish, and ye are the first Irish I have met, in the way in which I asked them of you. But when I got to Cardiff did I see my son? I did not, for the day before he had sailed with his regiment to a place ten thousand miles away, so I shall never see his face again nor derive comfort from him. Oh, if there’s no comfort from the mass there’s no comfort from anything else, and he who has the evil prayer in the Shanna Gailey breathed upon him, will have no comfort from the mass. Now, honey, ye have heard the story of Johanna Colgan, the bedivilled woman. Give her now a dacent alms and let her go!”

“Would you consider sixpence a decent alms?”

“I would. If you give me sixpence, I will not say my prayer over ye.”

“Would you give me a blessing?”

“I would not. A bedivilled woman has no blessing to give.”

“Surely if you are able to ask people to give you alms for the glory of God, you are able to give a blessing.”

“Bodderation! are ye going to give me sixpence?”

“No! here’s a shilling for you! Take it and go in peace.”

“There’s no pace for me,” said Johanna Colgan, taking the money. “What did the monstrous female say to me? ‘Biaidh an taifrionn gan sholas duit a bhean shalach.’ 23 This is my pace — hoorah! hoorah!” then giving two or three grotesque topples she hurried away in the direction of Merthyr Tydvil.

22 Fear caoch: vir caecus.

23 Curses of this description, or evil prayers as they are called, are very common in the Irish language, and are frequently turned to terrible account by that most singular class or sect, the Irish mendicants. Several cases have occurred connected with these prayers, corresponding in many respects with the case detailed above.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50