Spooky Stories at the Ceili House

Hugh A Murphy pays tribute to all the characters of Lislea

The time of year would always arrive in the céilí house, especially around halloween, for the inevitable ghost stories.

These were the stories which both delighted and terrified us the most. We would huddle behind the armchair as the open fire sent large shadows dancing around the walls, the fear and excitement running in tingles down our backs.

The great thing about these stories for us was that the vast majority of them were told first-hand, by the very people who had actually experienced the events. This brought them out of the realm of fantasy and into the reality of fact.

Stories such as the time one of those present, on his way home from his céilí late at night, met a stranger on the Ballard road. Having stopped and spoken to him briefly he moved on. After a couple of paces when he turned around there was no one there. The man had completely disappeared.

Or the time when the uncle of one of the men went to bed as usual up in the bedroom only to find when he woke up in the morning that both himself and the bed were down in the kitchen. This happened three nights in a row. On the fourth day the uncle left the house and never slept in it again.

Or the time when the priest’s horse refused to cross a small bridge on the Longfield road as he was returning from a sick call. Despite all the priest’s efforts the horse refused to move until he finally down got off its back, knelt down on the road and prayed and at last coaxed him forward. When he arrived home the horse was covered in a white lather of foam. The next morning he was found lying dead in the stable.

And also the time that three men on their way home from their céilí in our house around half twelve at night stood transfixed as a beautiful child danced before them in the moonlight along the wall of Lislea graveyard. When they finally summoned up enough courage to move forward, the child disappeared.

It is hard to over estimate the importance of the céilí house in the Ring of Gullion area in those early years, right up indeed to the 1960s, and the significant role it played in rural society. These were people whose life was by no means easy, a life of almost constant daily toil. The céilí house was the only means of relief and entertainment that they had. Without it their lives would have been a great deal poorer.

Like the many jobs done on the farm, such as the corn cutting and the threshing, the céilí house also provided a form of communal bonding, where men could meet others of their kind with the same range of interests. It was almost like a local parliament where critical issues of the day were debated in detail, opinions put forward and tested, and values reinforced.

The art of conversation and storytelling were honed to a fine edge, helped greatly by a language that owed much more to its recent Gaelic past than it did to the so-called 'English' that we thought we were speaking, carrying with it as it did the rhythm, colour, and poetic nuances of the original.

These were men who lived life at a completely different pace than today, a pace dictated by the horse and the single score plough. For them there was plenty of time to embellish their language and sharpen up their stories along the headrigs of the day for the cut and thrust of the céilí house at night where reputations could be won or lost.

Unknown to themselves, they were not only skilled artisans, but also scholars, dramatists, philosophers, poets. In a later era I have no doubt that some of them at least would have been numbered amongst the academics of their day.

I could never have imagined as I watched these men 'spoked' around the fire each night in the céilí house 'planting their tales in each other’s till' that I was witnessing the end of an era, unfolding before my eyes.

I am not saying, by any means, that life today is any  worse, or indeed better, but it definitely is different! I count myself fortunate to have been able to spend the early years of my youth, before I could be waylaid by education, in the company of these people. They were destined later to represent for me the true university of life and wisdom. They passed from this world, one by one, almost unnoticed and unsung.

Hugh A Murphy, reproduced by kind permission of RoSABetrayal

Lislea graveyard
Is the published book
Of my verse,
Each printed death
An unuttered poem
Of my life.

I read them as I pass
To the Crooked Road
Punctuating their text,
Each rock and corner
A pause
Where my words were struck,
Phrases formed
By a raised stick
Or a flung head,
Silent poets of
A timeless verse.

I have betrayed them
To the chiselled stone,
Vocal chords of death,
They publish my neglect.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation