….and The Death Watch Beetle…..
Now that I am in my early seventies there are many superstitions that I no longer believe in. It was not always so for my mother, being a country girl from the middle of nowhere in Ireland was a deep believer in most, if not all of them. There were things she would not do on certain days, there were places she would never visit and things she would never say – or allow us children to do or say. Her belief in the unnatural bordered on religious fervour………
Most if not all can be explained as totally natural but it would have been impossible to convince my mother or my country grandparents of any fact that contradicted their honest, if illogical, beliefs.
She would never let us play with elder sticks………….those straight sticks from the elderberry tree. They were great for fencing as young boys but oh no, if mum caught you using them you were likely to get a flick of the dishcloth around your ears. Come to think of it, how we boys never ended up blind is a mystery. Oh yes, the sticks, she believed that if you were hit with an elder stick you would never grow.
It was likewise with the blackberries when the wet October nights produced a white froth on the berries. That was her signal that the blackberry season was over. You see she claimed that the froth was ‘the Pooka spit’ and could poison you at the very least. The Pooka was supposed to be another fairy type character….
There were dozens more but they would take too long to explain…..
One summer, about 1950, we were ‘down the country’ with my grandparents which turned out to be our last childhood holiday spent there. Of course we did not know then that it was to be so and would probably have broken our hearts had we realised it at the time. You see, one evening whilst sitting around the turf fire waiting for Granddad Gorman or one of our uncles to tell us a story, gruesome or otherwise, we were introduced to ‘The Death Watch Beetle’……………….
We were all sitting around with nothing to do with the silence almost perfect except for the occasion crackle from the turf on the fire. I suppose I was dozing off perched on my favourite corner hob almost on top of the fire. Again it is amazing how I never actually fell asleep and toppled over into the actual fire but that is getting away from the little story I am trying to relate.
Suddenly, and I will admit that his call frightened me, Granddad called out to Granny “Shush now, can you hear it?” Granny replied “Hear what Patsy?” “There it is again” he called as he pointed to the ceiling. “Tis the Death Watch Beetle”. I strained to listen and what I heard sounded to me like the clock ticking away on the wall.
“What is it you mean Granddad?” I asked. He took a long time before he spoke and when he did there was a tremor in his voice. Granny now stood with one hand over her mouth. Granddad spoke with an even softer voice than he generally used and I was shocked to hear him say “Someone nearby is going to die shortly – you mark my word Michael. As sure as eggs is eggs, someone will die soon”.
No one else spoke as we sat in the silence listening to the sound which seemed to get louder as time passed. Before we went to bed that night, Granny told us to promise to pray for the person who was soon to die.
Two days later, we went with Granny on the donkey and cart to the nearby town where we boarded the train that would take us home. My older brother carried a letter to mum from Granny. When we arrived home a few hours later and mum had read the letter she let out a huge gasp and clasped the letter to her breast. Even as young as I was, at nine or ten years, I could still feel the tension in the air.
Two nights later as we were getting ready for bed and mum stood at the open window in our bedroom she cried out “Tis the Banshee, your Granddad was right”. All I could hear was the soft howling of what I thought was one of the local dogs crying at the moon. When I said so to mum, she cried out “Dog my foot: ‘tis the Banshee I tell you. Someone is going to die tonight”. I could tell that she was serious and truly believed in what she was saying.
(It would be several years before I fully learned of the Banshee – The mythical Woman Fairy – who can sometimes be seen combing her long black hair on the edge of forests, wailing at the top of her voice, announcing the imminent death of someone nearby. As for the beetle, it is a genuine character who eats away at the rafter wood in old buildings).
The strangest thing about Granddad hearing the Death Watch Beetle and mum hearing the Banshee, about ten days later Granny Gorman passed away. We were too young to attend her funeral with mum. Granddad survived her by about fifteen years but visits to the country became rarer at the years passed.
Coincidence? Of course it was but to this day, I cannot help but believe that the beetle and Banshee foretold of her death………… a death that robbed me of one of the greatest influences in my life and a woman whom I dearly loved………