They may explain it as “Wee Folk” or – “signs” but they seem to have some amazing precognitions.
By J. Patrick Waring
Ever since we emigrated from Ireland 33 years ago my mother’s great dream has been to go back for one visit, with one purpose in mind—to kneel at her parents’ grave and pray. She is an old woman now, nearing 80, and her dream will, in all probability, never be fulfilled.
I think, though, it indicates she is a person who would be most unlikely to deceive us (or herself) concerning her parents’ deaths. And she has often told us of the “signs” that foretold the passing of both.
They were farm people, living near Bomacatall, Drunquin, in County Tyrone. My brother and I were born there. Their farm was “fairy land”—and my grandfather, who called the Wee Folk by name, saw to it that the fields were worked “around” their ancestral haunts. My mother remembers well the Sithean—green fairy mounds—she believes the Wee Folk still use.
I think most literate people are aware that in Ireland today, not even highways are constructed over these strange mounds. Periodically, debate on the subject erupts in the Dail, much to the enchantment of the rest of the world. But all the Celts take their fairies seriously. In fact, a distinguished Gaelic scholar, the Rev. Robert Kirk, of Aberfoyle, Scotland, says he frequently has seen the fairies. “They have changeable bodies like those called ‘astral’ . . . appear and disappear at pleasure.”
Anyhow, as a rather beautiful Irish girl, working on the farm, eating black bread and cold porridge in Lent and finding wakes a real diversion in the era before movies and TV, my mother grew up amidst tales of ghosts, the banshee, the “cursing stones” (one of the “black arts” that goes back to Druid days) and the like. She believes them yet. In large measure, so do I.
She was “a slip of a girl of 15″ when her father took to his bed and began failing. She was his favorite daughter and often sat up with him nights, to bring him a drink of fresh spring water or bathe his forehead.
On one particular March night she looked out of the window and saw a candle, burning steadily, coming across the fields. This was before flashlights or even “hurricane lanterns,” and certainly a candle was unusual in the gusty spring nights. She thought it must be a neighbor, late though the hour was, picking his way across the black Irish bogs. The light was held about waist-level and remained motionless for a long time beside a century-old hawthorn, which stood over one of the ancient burial mounds.
She wakened her mother, who joined her at the window. The light began moving again; but when it came to the gate, it moved down towards the “byres,” then to the corn-stacks (stacked oats) and, finally, up the path to the front door.
There was a knock; but when my mother opened the door no one was there. Her mother was already waking Willie, the oldest of her five sons, to hurry off for the priest.
“She knew, but she didn’t want to be scaring me,” my mother remembers. “One of the Wee Folk had done it for my father.”
At any rate, her father died towards morning.
Those attending his wake saw the light, almost continuously, about the “bush” (the hawthorn) but after his funeral, it disappeared. This is one of the reasons the Irish parliament cannot get a road built across the Sithean.
My mother was several years older when my grandmother “took to her bed” for two months. Like Irish girls even today, the women then did not marry early and were exemplary daughters. So my mother nursed her mother, cooked for her brothers and—when they worked late on the turf bogs—milked in the cow-byre at night.
This particular evening, she had fed her mother “a bit of strong gruel” and left her sleeping before going down to the barns.
“I was on the second cow”—I can hear her voice, telling it again and again since I was a child— “when I heard my mother’s step, strong and firm on the stones outside. For a minute, I thought she had got up and was coming out for air. Then I minded she had been lying two months. She wouldn’t be able to walk across the room.
But Mother stopped milking to listen. The steps came closer.
“Is that you, Mother?” she asked gently, thinking now maybe her mother was “wandering.”
There was no answer. The footsteps were by the barn door now. She turned to face the doorway. “Mother?”
The footsteps went on steadily past the barn. My mother went to the door but saw no one.
“I went back to the milking and then up to the house. My mother was lying as I had left her. I asked her if she had been awake long, and she said no—my opening the door had wakened her.
“I asked her if she’d been outside, and she only laughed at me. ‘Child, dear, now what would put that notion in your head?’ But I had heard her step as plain as ever I heard anything in my life, and I knew the time was near. She died that Friday, and we buried her on Sunday, in the graveyard at Drunquin, alongside my father.”
My mother never sought to explain the footsteps. Nor was there anything unusual to her in the fact that for her father it was a “light,” while for her mother it was some sort of auditory pre-warning. To her, simply, both were “signs.” The banshee never wailed for any of her family but it did for some, “and many a wan heard it.”
Removed from the mysticism of the Emerald Isle, you might think she would have left her “belief” in such things behind. But this “occult” ability belongs to persons more than places. A shy, unlearned person, my mother talked only to her family of Irish ghosts, Wee Folk, “second sight,” and the like. “Beliefs” does not aptly apply, either; these things were part of her experience, rather than of her creed. Thus, when I first became interested in J.B. Rhine’s experiments and tried explaining them to her, she refused to believe them! Further, poltergeists, fireballs and the like were actually repellant to her; she was afraid that if they existed they were the work of the devil. In retrospect, I find that this attitude simply gives more credence to the extraordinary stories that she did tell to us.
To her there was a world of difference between people reading marked cards across an ocean and the “signs.” (From whom these”signs” came, and why, she never attempted to analyze.) She was also aware of the “Black Arts”— to be talked about only, never to be tried. Or if tried, only by them that “dared”, when need was great. So we first heard of the dread penal times. Well she remembered the adults discussing the unrest of 1880, how it simmered to the point of open rebellion, and how the English sent a big warship to see that “the rates” were paid. It was then that the “old residents” dug up the Clocha Breaca—in Gaelic, literally, “Speckled Stones,” definitely Druid hand-me-downs.
When the warship was sighted, one of “the old ones who still knew the art,” was waiting. On the Donegal hills—”it was about the harvest time, as they told it, and I was a slip of a thing at the time, maybe four”—the 12 “cursing stones” were placed in a circle, like the numeri-cals on a clock. The old one spat in the direction of the approaching warship, turned each stone in an anti-clockwise direction, all the while chanting the handed-down Druid curse.
“The English ship foundered,” narrated my mother, “and lies there till this day.”
Years later, when my interest in all this became more scientific, I uncovered this fact: on September 22, 1884, an English warship, the Wasp, ran afoul of the jagged rocks off Tory Island, County Donegal, sank to the bottom and lay derelict for 50 years. No satisfactory explanation of the disaster—in clear weather, on a well-charted lane to rebel Ireland—was ever offered by the British Admirality.
I asked my mother if she knew the Gaelic curse, but she wouldn’t talk of it. The “old one” who sank the warship did public penance for even digging up the “Speckled Stones.” St. Patrick burned some 2,000 of the “great” books of the Irish Druids; and his successors are in no wise inclined to encourage any revival in a people whose present-day mysticism is grafted on to an astonishing consciousness of such knowledge in their mysterious and ancient past.
But the “signs” were a different thing entirely. As children, we became used to waking up in the morning to hear one or the other of our parents talking about the night’s “revelling”—not to be confused with ordinary dreaming.
“There’ll be news of some sort in the next day or two from Tom.” And though I can only remember Tom’s writing about six times in all the years, we would inevitably get a letter from Tom.
To my mother, her mother—in dreams, of course—was an unmistakable sign of news, more often bad than good. Ten years after we left Ireland, my mother appeared one morning, her face lined with worry.
“I saw my mother last night as plain as ever I saw her. It was Willie she was warning me about. He’s hurted, and the farm’s to go to Jamie.”
Willie indeed was “hurted”— within a few hours either way of the time of my mother’s dream. He fell off a cart coming from Omagh, the wheel passed over his head, and as far as I know, he is still in Omagh asylum. After a long legal hassle, the farm went to Jamie, Mother’s youngest brother.
We never had an accident in our own family that my mother wasn’t “warned” thus. She always knew the person, but never the right nature of the incident, nor exactly how it would befall us. Once, for example, when she had a dream of horses covered with blood, she was sure it was because our animals were going to get entangled in barbed wire. Instead, the wooden evener on our tandem discs broke; my father was jerked off the seat and pulled across the sharp discs. The horses were covered with blood from cut veins as he unhitched them and hurried home for aid. I can only compare this all to the precognition shown by natives of India and the Near East who, alone at an oasis, without radio or other communication system, casually tell you a caravan’s approaching, how many people are in it, what they want and where they’re going.
The difference is this: the Arabs seem to receive information in a conscious trance; the Irish in their sleep. The trance-picture is clear and complete; the dream-image often blurred and unresolved. One could be nothing more than clairvoyance or telepathy, probably a dormant faculty in most people. The other, however, can be and often is completely precognitive. I have had both types of dreams. Like my mother, I recognize those that are “just dreams” and those that have significant bearing on my life. I have no control over them and cannot explain them.
No more can I explain either of the only two “signs” of which I have personal knowledge.
The first concerns a lonely old bachelor, Louie D., who often visited our farm. After I left home, he continued to spend many hours and days there.
My younger brother, named Jamie after his Irish uncle, was still at home when the first “sign” came. It was early November; Jamie and a neighboring farmer, Fred, were piling logs. Each morning at eight Fred stopped for Jamie and they went to work together.
One morning, my parents, sleeping in their bedroom off the kitchen, were awakened by three loud knocks at the front door. Dad shouted upstairs to Jamie. “Fred’s here!”
“I know!” Jamie hollered down. “I heard him.”
He came downstairs, only partly dressed, to admit Fred. No one was at the door; there were no tracks in the snow that had fallen through the night. All three then noticed the time—6:30.
Fred arrived as usual at eight and was told the story. On the way to work the two men met another neighbor who informed them that Louie D. had just been found dead in his shack. He had knocked on our door for the last time.
In February, 1951, when my father—”a powerfully strong man,” my mother often described him— had to undergo major surgery for an obstruction near the colon, I had a dream with frightening overtones. In my dream I was on my way to see my father at the hospital, but couldn’t get to see him because I arrived too late. “Visiting hours are over,” the doctor said. Then without any sense of transition, I was in a small room with walls of stained brown woodwork. At the far end was a coffin, partly opened, in which I had to look.
I made my way to it; and to my terrible relief saw, not my father, but the face of my next-door neighbor, who was much my father’s age and build. With heart pounding, I wakened.
I tried to tell myself it was not one of those dreams and was considerably cheered when my father came through the four-and-a-half hour operation in “good condition.” After two days, the doctor was so optimistic that I decided to drive out to the farm (which still has no telephone) and tell my mother and Jamie.
When I got there it was three o’clock and they were sitting down to tea, a habit my father particularly enjoyed in the winter. It was a bitterly cold day and I was glad to join them. My mother, who had not been well enough to make the trip to the city, was apprehensive. Jamie who, of course, had to stay on the farm and tend the stock, was relieved when I told him the hospital’s verdict.
Even as we talked, there came a tremendous crack on the roof— as if a mighty hand had pounded the frozen shingles.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” My mother was so frightened, she jumped from her chair.
Jamie and I ran outside, thinking the sound had been made by a jet breaking the sonic barrier, or by heavy snow falling off the roof.
But there were no vapor trails in the frozen sky; no disturbance on the roof.
Mother was sure that Dad had died. We got into my car, drove to the village and put in a long-distance call. I was able to get the doctor, who told me my father had died about 35 minutes before. A violent coughing spell had torn the operation internally. The second stint on the operating table was too much for a man his age.
“We have been trying to contact you all afternoon,” the doctor added, apologetically.
For me, visiting hours were over.
Though I have recorded many such events—the dreams in particular—trying to find a pattern, so far I have reached only one or two definite conclusions. The first is that any precognitive event, whether it be of winning a horse-race or of a dear one’s death, is of strong emotional importance to the person involved. Another is that you can consciously influence, or even destroy, this strange mystical nature.
For example, in the dream of my father, because I was afraid even in my sleep of what I would see in that coffin, I saw another face than father’s. Yet when I saw him again it was as in the dream—in his coffin, in a small funeral chapel where the walls were finished in quiet mahogany. I walked down the room alone—the first of the family to do so.
I am not sure you can speed up the frequency of such experiences, nor that it is even good to try.
And I do not allow myself to be frightened any more—not even in dreams.