A legend that the original settlement of Mullingar currently lies under Lough Ennell was among the stories passed on by schoolchildren to the National Folklore Collection during the 1930s.

Out of the pens of babes… gems from the Schools’ Folklore Collection

In recent years University College, Dublin, Dublin City University and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media teamed up to digitise and release online the contents of the National Folklore Collection, including an archive of folklore compiled by children in Irish schools during the 1930s (www.duchas.ie). Paul Hughes takes a look at some gems from the collection contributed by children from Westmeath.


The butter thief?

A contribution by a Mrs Gilmore of Moyleroe, Delvin to the collection compiled by Ballinvalley National School, Delvin, recalled a curious story about a local landlord who lived in Crowenstown during the 19th century.

Laurence O’Keeffe (or Keeffe) was a tenant farmer but one of means, who had a complicated relationship with his neighbours, the Ginnells (among whose number was the future nationalist MP, Laurence Ginnell). The father, Laurence Ginnell, was frequently summonsed by O’Keeffe for trespassing on his land, and the son (the MP) recalled him to be a cruel and vindictive neighbour.

Mrs Gilmore noted one anecdote about O’Keeffe real or imagined issues with his neighbours:

“Lawrence O’Keefe of Crowenstown had seven cows but could not get any butter at his churning. One of his servants advised him to go down to Andy Hopsons of Collinstown for advice. He went, and Andy told him to go back home and get ready a big churning.

“He told him to bar up the doors and darken the windows and that the woman that was taking the milk would come shouting that she lost a heifer.

“He went home and did what he was told. He left one of the servant boys outside to watch who would come.

“After a while the boy shouted in that old Mrs Ginnell had come looking for a heifer. Lawrence [O’Keeffe] thought to get out to shoot her but the boys would not let him.”


The Castletown Geoghegan man who wrestled a priest

When Davy McKeown of Streamstown National School interviewed 81-year-old Paddy Midgley for his contributions to the National Folklore Collection, he came up with the following story about a local sportsman of renown:

“Pat Lynagh who died about a year ago was a famous collar and elbow wrestler. He lived in Ballinamill which is in the parish of Castletown Geoghegan.

“Pat challenged a priest called Fr Concannon to a wrestling match in Ballyhast. They appointed a special day for this contest. They met in Ballyhast on the day appointed. When they started wrestling Father Concannon was getting the upper hand of the lay man.

“But as the match went on the priest was getting weary, and tired. Pat succeeded in throwing him. Then they started for the second round and again Pat succeeded in knocking him to the ground. Pat brought his opponent to the ground twice.

“Father Concannon was supposed to be the best wrestler in the Diocese. Everyone thought that he would beat the layman but Pat was the better wrestler.”


The magic man from… somewhere in north Westmeath

Few know anything about a mystic by the name of Conor Sheridan, but in April 1939, the Westmeath Examiner could ask: “Who is it in Westmeath or surrounding counties who have not heard of the far-farmed mystic, Conor Sheridan?”

Sheridan comes up frequently in the National Folklore Collection, though it’s hard to pin down where exactly he lived. Some said Dromone, outside Oldcastle; others say Fore, Castlepollard or Archerstown.

James Garry (53) told collectors from Loughegar National School during the 1930s that Sheridan lived at Fore. He possessed a “charm”, and anyone who lost anything went to him to find out where it was.

Garry also stated that the parish priest in Collinstown once told people not to go near Sheridan “as he was not able to tell anything true”.

“When Conor Sheridan heard this he was very vexed with the priest. Next morning when the priest got up and went out to see his horse he would not get up for him,” Garry continued.

“He sent for Conor Sheridan and the very minute the horse saw him coming he jumped up.

“The priest was very thankful to him and offered him £16 for doing it but he did not take it as he was supposed not to take money from anyone.

“He [Sheridan] did that to the horse for he [the priest] preaching against him.”

Peggy Quinn from Rosmead, Delvin, was told by her grandfather that Sheridan lived at Gortloney, near Dromone, just a stone’s throw from the Meath-Westmeath border.

“No matter where there was a sheaf buried he could find it,” Thomas Quinn recalled. “Nothing could be said or done but he would know.

“People used to bring Conor Sheridan some whiskey and he would be able to tell them what shop they got it.”


A Drumraney/Ballymore fairy story

The following account of strange happenings in the Drumraney/Ballymore area was taken by Matthew Kearney of Ballymore National School in 1937, from a Mrs Kearney (presumably his grandmother):

“There was a girl in Drumraney about three miles West of the village of Ballymore and she had a cold. She was in bed and when her people went up to see her she was dead. The people were in a bad way and began to cry and screech.

“There was a man living in Mullaghmeehan about one mile south of Ballymore and the next morning he was out in the fields. He heard a screech over his head and looked up and said, ‘God bless and save everyone.’

“At the same moment a coffin was set down at his feet. He opened it and in it was the nicest girl he ever saw. She told him where she came from and thanked him for saving her. She told him also that her people would get a shock when they would see her.

“Quinn the man's name told her that he would go and tell them. When he entered into the house he told them not to be crying. ‘I have your daughter,’ he said. They could not believe their eyes.

“The man went home and brought back the girl to them. When the girl put foot into the house a thing went screeching as hard as it could out through the window and the thing that was left in the girl’s place disappeared forever. The girl was taken out through the window… by the fairies and an old dead hag left in her place.”


When the Spanish flu hit Killucan and Rathwire

Among the National Folklore Collection contributions taken from Rathwire National School in 1938 is one from Bridie Leavy (13) of Knockmant, Killucan, who detailed the local impact of the Spanish flu pandemic – which was still very much in living memory at the time.

In our current situation, it makes for sobering reading:

“In the year 1919 there was a severe epidemic in this district. It was called Influenza, shortened to ‘Flu’. There was very little chance of recovery for people who got it. They only lived a couple of days. Whiskey and brandy were needed for the patients but being war time it was almost impossible to get it.

“Many deaths occurred in this parish principally the curate Fr Buckley; the teacher in Edmonton, Mrs Bracken, and Mrs Smith of Killucan. May the Lord have mercy on all their souls.

“The bodies had to be put in a coffin immediately after death and the coffins closed. We are told that the bodies turned blackish. No wakes were held such as are usual in the district. The disease was of too contagious a nature. The coffins were brought to the cemetery as soon as possible after death.”


Severe weather in Athlone recalled

Schoolchildren from Athlone compiled snippets about historic climate-related incidents in the town for the folklore collection.

“About the year 1897 there was a great frost here. It was so severe that Lough Ree, Athlone, was frozen over and people could walk over the Lough on the ice. One man brought a horse and cart with a load of timber over the River [Shannon] for a bet,” the children said.

The huge snowstorm which hit Ireland in mid-March 1932 was very much alive in memory when the collection was compiled, even with some of older children in the schools. The snow was “3 feet deep” in Athlone, and “10 feet high in the drifts”, and lasted for four days.

Oral tradition about the famed Night of the Big Wind in 1839 was strong, and this came across in the children’s contributions to the collection: “It struck Athlone very badly. It blew houses and roofs down, and a great deal of hay was destroyed.”

Their grandparents, and even some of their parents, would have had memories of the “great storms” that struck Athlone in 1897 and 1899: “House were knocked down and hundreds of haystacks were blown away. Hardly any trees were left standing. They lasted for about two days.”

Flooding following prolonged periods of wet weather continues to be a problem in Athlone, and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries it was no different. “Nearly every year the Shannon overflows its banks,” the children wrote. “Thousands of acres are usually covered with water. People living near the river around Athlone have to leave their houses. Haystacks are often destroyed in these floods and sometimes cattle get drowned.”


‘Old Mullingar’ is under Lough Ennell, according to legend

Legend has it that the town of Mullingar as we know it is not the old centre of the town at all.

One ghostly tale, told by a young school pupil in Allenwood, Co. Kildare during the 1930s, suggests that the ancient centre of Mullingar disappeared beneath the waves of Lough Ennell once upon a time.

“There is a lake in County Westmeath called Loch Ennell,” goes the account of 81-year-old Patrick Cleary of Naas, told to Marcella Ennis of Allenwood NS.

“There was once a town called ‘Old Mullingar’ there, and one night the town sank down under the lake. On a fine day if anyone was out on the lake in a boat he could see the tops of tall houses and spires down in the water.

“One day, long ago, a crowd of young men went out in a boat on the lake, and when they were out, one of them said he would go down and see what the town was like. He went down and while he was going about among the houses, an animal something like a bear caught him in his arms.

“He brought him up to the top of the water, and lifted him into the boat. He (the animal) threw a veil over his face while he was talking, and he told them, never to go down there again or they would not escape. Then he went down.

“No one ever went down after that. Even men don't swim in the lake. Old people who live near the lake never use the water for any purpose. They believe the animal is there still. A lot of bronze vessels, and piggins, and noggins were taken up out of the lake before the animal was seen.”

The story was told to Mr Cleary by “old people living near the lake”.


Kinnegad pupils explain origins of Horseleap’s name

“About twenty miles from the village of Kinnegad is a small village named Horseleap,” wrote the pupils of the national school in Kinnegad for their contributions to the National Folklore Collection. “It got its name when Cromwell was in Ireland. At this time Priests were on the run not being allowed to say Holy Mass, or exercise any of their holy functions.

“Near this place a Priest was performing his priestly office, when he saw the approach of an enemy. In a near-by field the Priest saw a mare and foal and to avoid capture he mounted the animal and the foal followed.

“Crossing a fence the foal was killed but the Priest escaped capture. Returning at a later period to the same place the Priest blessed the spot where the foal was killed and henceforth the place was called ‘Horse-leap’ or the ‘Leap of the Horse’.”

Other explanations for the origins of Horseleap’s name include the death at Horseleap (Ardnurcher) of the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, and an incident in which one of the Norman de Lacy family was forced to flee on horseback from members of the Mac Geoghegan family. On approaching his castle and finding that the drawbridge was raised, he jumped the castle’s moat while still in the saddle.