Thursday, 17 November 2011

Walking the Cassie cattle trail: 3. More light on the Witchthorn

Before moving on from the site of the Bellahill witch thorn and the Witchthorn National School (just past the Resting Slap on the Cassie as described in the previous post), I found some more information which I think is worth relating.

The above-mentioned illustration and account of the Witchthorn from Alexander Johns of Carrickfergus in 1849 is not the only source of information on these. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs for the Parish of Kilroot dated 1839 records that the Witchthorn and the school were on the farm of Thomas Hay, and this source gives the following account of the witchthorn:
"Gentle Bushes 
On an eminence in the townland of Bellahill, and holding of Thomas Hay, there stands a large ancient thorn locally called the Witches' thorn and gave local name to a national school situate at that place. This school is known by the Witchthorn National School.
There are a few other ancient thorns in the parish, and esteemed sacred as being fairy abodes and consequently remain unmolested."
Well, as we saw in the last post, by 1849 branches were being removed and it disappeared before 1900. The title of the OS Memoir account - "Gentle bushes" show that they viewed the superstitions here to be the same as those common throughout Ireland, and related to the "gentle folk" or Fairies. Incidently, a fairy was by no means "gentle" but the term comes from 'gentile' and the Irish "ginte" (gentile, pagan, heathen Dane) - and from which word we get the local family name of McKinty/McGinty (meaning 'son of the Danish man or Viking'). 

As the townland of Bellahill was overwhelmingly Presbyterian, such superstitious beliefs (particularly in fairies) were generally held in ridicule, and so the identification of the tree with witches rather than fairies. In the early 1900s John Hay from this farm in Bellahill told his daughter-in-law (Mrs Susie Hay) a story of how Mr Dalway had ordered the men to clear away an ancient motte-like mound or 'rath' from near the bottom of the Cassie. The hero of the story was a local man who used his sister's tiny clog to make fairy footprints around the 'fairy fort' and play a practical joke on the whole countryside.  Susie Hay then based her ballad, 'The Rath in the Valley' on that story (Note that 'freit' is an Ulster-Scots word for 'superstition' and 'moat' for 'motte' or 'mound' - but in this poem these words are used by the 'English' landlord!):
By Susie Hay

Once upon a time, so I've heard tell,
  A Rath was in a valley, and fairies there did dwell.
None dared molest the "Wee folk" who came when moon was clear,
  And everyone for miles around that Rath did well revere.

The landlord of the valley came unto the mound;
  Said he, "By Irish 'freits' I never will be bound;
That moat doth spoil my field, so to my men I'll say,
  Go at once to that low field, and clear the Rath away."

The men obediently went off, with shovel and with spade;
  Upon that Irish Rath an attack they fiercely made;
But the truth of all the matter was that they were Irish too,
  And the fear of Irish fairies did thrill them through and through.

The first day of their labours, all went very well,
  And nothing but the sound of spades resounded through the dell,
And driving off with carts of mould, they did not their work leave,
  Until above the valley, shone the first faint star of eve.

Lo, see them the next morning, as to their task them come,
  From different cots around the vale, a-straggling one by one,
Scarce wakened from their night's deep sleep, scarce seeing the right
  But from their stupor quickly roused, when near the Fairy Rath.

The first one who did reach the Rath, to all began to shout,
  "Oh hurry, hurry, hurry, boys, the fairies have been out."
And sure enough, around the mound,--this tale is really true--
  Were marks of tiny footsteps, as of a fairy shoe.

The men were seized with horror; their very bones did freeze!
  And shouts of wild excitement filled the early morning breeze,
And wafted them right up unto the very mansion house,
  To where the lordly master was sitting with his spouse.

"Now what, now what, now what," he called, "is this unearthly row?
  "What's happened that wild Irish crowd, what are they doing now?"
"Oh sir," a messenger replied, who came, all pale with fear;
  "The men won't touch the Rath because the fairies have been here."

So down unto the valley strode the irate English lord,
  Said he unto himself, "I'll quell that Irish rabble horde."
But not a man of all the crowd would ever put a spade
  Into the Rath, the fairy marks had made them so afraid.

When some time passed, so I've been told,
  The work was done by other men, who were by nature bold,
And had no fear of Little Men, Banshee, or Witche's wail;
  But still the "fairy shoemarks" stay an ancient country tale.

The secret of the tale was kept, until 'twas told to me;
  The solution was quite simple, as you will plainly see;
A 'divil-of-a-fellow' a-livin' near the bog,
  Marked all the 'fairy footsteps' with--his little sister's CLOG.
This, and much more, information about the Hays of Bellahill was sent to me by Robert (Bob) Todd of Nova Scotia in Canada, who contacted me after reading the blog.  The Thomas Hay on whose farm the witch thorn stood in the 1839 account was Bob Todd's great, great grandfather. The OS Memoir for 1839 also says that Thomas Hoy (the spellings Hay, Hoy, and Hoey seem to have been used interchangeably for the same person and family) was 'librarian' of the Bellahill Book Club, established in 1837, with 8 members and 23 volumes of historical works. It almost certainly met in the Witchthorn National School, which was also on the 'holding' of Thomas Hay.

The Witchthorn National School sat on the wide verge on the right-hand side of the Cassie as shown here. In the I839 OS Memoir it is  described as sitting "on the old road leading from Bellahill to the commons".
It was a small, thatched, single-story building, only 18 feet long by 15 feet wide and had been established about 1800. The 16 scholars were all Presbyterian, and the master was a John Saunderson, also a Presbyterian. The school was 'visited' by Rev. William Glendy, a 'minister of the Remonstrant Congregation' and was 'well furnished with desks and forms'.

As we leave the Witchthorn and move on down the Cassie towards Porg Hill, it is quite a coincidence that the history of the two family farms on either side of the cattle trail (the Hay's and the Poag's) has come to life by means of two separate Canadian descendants (Barry Poag and Bob ('Hay')Todd). But more of that soon ...


  1. You might like this:

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  3. Thanks Adrian, a great article by Melvyn Bragg, and I enjoyed reading the comments on it as well! I recently re-read the Grapes of Wrath myself and missed some of the Biblical metaphors Bragg mentions - but did get how prophetic it was about today's corporate greed.
    Steinbeck's 'religion' was a bit more complex than retrospective literary opinion allows, as was that of the other great American writers with Scotch-Irish roots such as Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe and even Steven King. I'm reading Toibin's book on James (The Master) at the minute - similarly brilliant and insightful to Bragg, but similarly constrained by a wee blind spot.

  4. Philip - moving ancient raths and fairy-places is still a bad idea even today:

  5. Phil

    Steinbeck's To A God Unknown speaks of a deep Celtic animism or paganism doesnt it?

  6. Mark,
    I remember well the papers talking about the Fairy thorn removed to clear the site for the Delorean car factory near Belfast - and it was even said of the new buildings at the Ulster Folk Museum. I know the last to be untrue, and when we were landscaping the fields around the folk park there, I got the men to transplant a mature thorn in the middle of one of the fields as a 'fairy thorn'. A year later it didn't seem to take, and so I asked them to dig it out and try another. They refused (politely) and I didn't push them. It actually wasn't dead and is still there! An interesting 'living' exhibit.

  7. Adrian,
    'To a God Unknown' -another great book of Steinbeck's - not that I have fathomed out what was going on in his mind with the title. He does explore the relationship between farmers and their land and what 'belief' means to different people. He does speak to a sort of 'universalism' of instinctive belief, which I don't think he regarded as pejorative, (like animism or paganism would imply).
    In fact he prefaced the book with a translation of the ancient Hindu (Vedic) poem with the same title as the book and which begins:
    To A God Unknown
    He is the giver of breath, and strength is his gift.
    The high Gods revere his commandments.
    His shadow is life, his shadow is death;
    Who is He to whom we shall offer sacrifice?
    (This hymn goes on describing the creation, and the "god" who made all these things: "He whose word is eternal, giver of breath and life and power, sole ruler of the universe, swelling alone in his grandeur, to whom the gods bow. "Lord of Death, whose path is life immortal! Thou alone canst fathom thy mystery, there is none beside thee." Each of the 6 verses quoted by Steinbeck ends with the line, "Who is He to whom we shall offer sacrifice?")

    It would be an understatement to say that Steinbeck didn't want to be accused of being a Christian Apologist, so he may have quoted the Vedic Hymn to avoid the assumption most people would have made that he was referring to the well-known Biblical quotation from Acts:
    Acts 17:16-23
    "Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols...Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you fear the gods; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your devotion, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One to whom you show reverence without knowing, Him I proclaim to you..."

    A very interesting question, Adrian, and I must read the book again.

  8. Adrian,
    I've been prompted by you to re-read "To a God Unknown". As soon as I got back into it I found you were absolutely right - Steinbeck does 'speak of a deep Celtic animism' and I am fascinated with this deep cultural link to our fairy/witch thorns. His antipathy towards organised religion is too often mistaken for a dismissive attitude to spirituality. Much food for thought!

  9. Philip

    Yeah one of the side effects of the New Atheism or whatever its called is that no one under 30 will even read something like The Golden Bough anymore because its "god stuff". My feeling is that The Golden Bough is one of the key books of our time and I feel sure that it heavily influenced Steinbeck, Robert Graves, among many others.

  10. Adrian,
    There is a whole chapter in The Golden Bough on tree-spirits and the ancient worship of trees, and it surely must have influenced Steinbeck as you say. I am a bit daunted about having to go and read all 69 chapters of it, but maybe I should.
    In 'To a God Unknown', Steinbeck opens with Joseph Wayne telling his father John (yes, I know, John Wayne!) that he has to leave the family farm and go west. His father calls him to him and says:
    "Come to me Joseph. Put your hand here - no, here. My father did it this way. A custom so old it can't be wrong. Now leave your hand there!"
    Old John then gave his son his blessing to leave:
    "May the blessing of God and my blessing rest on this child. May he live in the light of the Face".

    I don't know if this biblical reference (to the placing of the son's hand under the father's thigh/groin for a blessing or oath) hit me first time I read it, but such things now pop out at me throughout. [In Genesis 24, Abraham even asked his head servant: "Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will get a wife for my son ..."]
    If they make a movie of this film I would love to see they handle this scene with John Wayne! Unless I am very much mistaken no such Hebraic custom was practiced in the wild west.