Fact is Sometimes Stranger Than Fiction---- A true story
The latter part of the eighteenth century saw upheaval in many parts of the world. America and France were experiencing revolutions. A new order was establishing itself and intellectual stimulation was at a peak. Because Ireland had close connections with both of these countries the people here were profoundly affected. Politics in Ireland at this time were stagnant and the time was right to have a revolution of our own. And this duly happened.
But few of these things penetrated the simple minds of the humble people who lived in our part of the Glenelly Valley. The late revolution in Ireland was largely driven by the Presbyterians and because the people living in this area were by and large Catholics the noise passed over their heads. The people were getting on with lives and were perfecting the art of survival in a harsh environment. And they were being successful.
Glenelly Valley lies in the upper regions of the Sperrin mountain range. It is a very beautiful area and it stretches from near Newtownstewart in the West towards Draperstown in the East. It is some twenty miles long. Off this long Valley lie a number of lesser Valleys. They are on the North side and have a certain beauty of their own. This story has its origins in the Aughdoorish Valley which stretches two miles northwards towards the high peak of Mullaclogha.
Into this area around that time came a new family; well they were just a couple. Their name which was Stout wagged a lot of ears in Aughdoorish because it was so unusual. They were supposed to be related to Rob Mc Farland who was the Landlord of this area. But there was a lot of mystique about them and the Stouts weren't forthcoming and what the neighbours weren't told gave them tremendous scope for their creativity.
At that time the top end of the Aughdoorish Valley was heavily populated and though this area is now totally depopulated some of the names still linger on in the lower regions. Names such as Conway, Mullan, Mc Swiggan and Falls dwelt on the Eastern slopes of the Valley and Mc Courts, Mc Makins and mc Cormacks on the western slopes.
Mc Farland gave the Stouts a small plot of land in the throat of the glen and the large mountain backdrop of Mullaghclogha threw its shadow over their smallholding. The neighbours laughed. A more inhospitable place it would be hard to imagine.
Willie Mc Court from the other side of the Valley said. "They won't last a year in that place; it wouldn't graze snipes." But they were wrong. Andy Stout proved to be a thrifty man and given the opportunity to develop his plot he set about it eagerly. He was as the neighbours said a ferocious worker. He cleared shrubbery, built ditches and ridged the soil. Over a period of time he turned his plot into a work of art. Ground that the neighbours said wouldn't graze snipes was soon producing quality oats and potatoes and he grew other vegetables that the neighbours never even knew existed. And in all of this Andy was ably assisted by his wife Martha. Over the next couple of years the Stouts settled in and developed close friendships with several neighbours. The neighbours recognised that the Stouts had great integrity and took them to their hearts.
And then there was more good news, Martha was pregnant. The neighbours had a field day. Martha was not exactly young and aspersions were placed on Andy's virility because of the long time that they had been married. But the Stouts knew why Martha was pregnant. For the first time in a very long time they were happy and content and nature knew very well that this was a good time for them to have a child.
In due time a baby girl was born to the Stouts and they were extremely proud. They called the new baby Anna Marie and the child developed without any complications. The child had blonde hair and a beautiful complexion and as she developed her character and personality matched her physical beauty. Her overriding trait was one of sunniness and happiness. The neighbours loved her and the parents adored her.
Anna Marie blossomed in her environment. She came to love the outdoors and from a very young age would often accompany her father. She quite soon had the large mountain, which surrounded them like a horse shoe, mapped out in her mind. Directly in front of them and lying at the far side of the Aughdoorish burn was the Farorie burn which was really a big stream and it rose out of the Sheelings which was the high ridge of the western slopes. To the North West was the towering ridge of Mullaghclogher and below that was the Green Brae where her father's white geese could be seen grazing. And moving eastwards one could see the the Spaltans which looked like the humps of camels. Then there were the A ditches. The one to the right of their house was John Davies ditch the one to the left was simply the Long ditch and to complete the A, a cross ditch ran along the back of their house. When Anna Marie looked southwards she could see the thatched cottage of their neighbours, the Conways, but between them was a deep gorge that had been etched out by heavy rainfalls. Her father told her that the people called this area the Eith. She could also see the Aughdoorish burn which her father said was two miles long and which joined the Glenelly River.
When Anna Marie was a few years older she would visit all of these places and one of her favourite places was the Eith. She would visit there with the Conway children with whom she had developed a close friendship. The Eith contained a number of waterfalls and there was a particular one that fascinated her. To her young mind it was huge and she would watch the water cascading over the edge and fall foaming into the pool below. Sometimes in the summer they would wade into the pool and stand under the cascading water. It was such fun. And they were enthralled by the large bird that had built its nest in a scraggy bush that overhung the waterfall. The nest was safe there because it would have been too dangerous to try to get to it. But that didn't stop the Conway boys dreaming and Anna Marie remembered the fear she felt when one of the boys attempted to climb the bush. He swayed precariously on the thin branches and Anna Marie closed her eyes and prayed. Her prayers must have worked for the young lad admitted defeat. And sometimes they would wander through the purple heathers on the slopes of the Eith and feast on the bilberries that grew in abundance there. Their tongues and lips would turn purple as they ate and they would stick out their tongues and laugh uproariously. These were great times Anna Marie thought.
There were other days when the weather was clear her father would take her to the top of Mullaghclogha. The climb to the top was not easy but it was well worth the effort. Her father would point out the details as she gazed in wonder all around her. Her enthusiasm was infectious and her father would for a short spell enter her world. Off to the south could be seen the ridges of the several valleys that made up the Sperrin mountains. And to the North were the ancient villages of Dungiven, Feeney and Claudy. Further along and hidden in hollows were the larger towns of Derry and Limavady. Off to the west were the high peaks of the Donegal Mountains and her father pointed out small spots of land very far to the east which he said were the Islands of Scotland.
Anna Marie marvelled at the size of the world and vowed that one day she would explore all this. Her father on his part marvelled at his own daughter and thought that she must be the pinnacle of God's creation. He never thought that he could love someone so much.
"Daddy", Anna Marie said, "If I die before you, would you bury me on the top of this mountain so that I can see the whole world forever" Andy Stout felt a shiver running down his spine for he had seen too much of death in times past. And deaths that were not natural and he himself had---But that was in the past and he didn't want to think about it.
Andy Stout laughed, "Don't be silly girl, you've a long life in front of you" he said as he grabbed her hand and hurried away from the mountain. For all her love of life Anna Marie was also thoughtful. As they descended the mountain she asked questions. "Daddy why does that burn twist and turn on its way to the river?" "Lots of obstacles in the way" he said. And then he added that the burn was a lot like life itself. "That water is on its way to the ocean where all differences are dissolved, but there are lots of obstacles in its path. I think it's the same with life; we are heading in that direction but we do have difficulties on the way. I think one day all our differences will also be dissolved in a different ocean."
"Will that ocean be an ocean of love?" Anna Marie asked and her father marvelled at her perceptiveness.
"Yes", he said, for his daughter had restored his conviction in the goodness of life.
When Anna Marie was seven years of age she went to school. Her mother would walk with her round the top of the Eith and on to Conways. From there she would journey on with the Conways to school. The year was eighteen eleven and the school was in Cranagh village. The schoolmaster was Barnaby Conway. At that time there was much activity in the village for there was a new chapel being built. The priest Father Mullan had come back from Italy and had established himself in the village. Catholic emancipation had not yet arrived but the Rebellion of Ninety Eight helped convince the Government that change was needed. They realised that the Catholic Church which would always be conservative in nature could be used as an instrument of good government. So a blind eye in the meantime was turned on their activities. The school was a one roomed thatched building and it had a good attendance in the winter months but for most children there were better things to do in the summer.
The climax of this story begins when Anna Marie was ten years of age. It was a sunny summer's evening and she was outside playing with her dog. She was playing on the patch of ground between her father's crops and the Aughdoorish burn. Suddenly her dog began bristling and looking down the valley. There was another dog approaching and Anna Marie watched it intently. It was not well, she soon realised.
"The poor animal is sick" she thought, and her natural instinct was to help. Her own dog didn't seem to share the same instincts for its tension and resistance increased. Anne Marie moved closer and stretched out her hand but when she saw the glazed look in the dog's eyes she froze. The dog sensing movement snapped blindly and caught the girl's arm, leaving a slight graze there. Anna Marie came to life, turned and ran, and the dog sloped on higher into the mountains.
The girl went to the stream washed her arm, saw that the wound was slight and dismissed the incident from her mind. Over the next few days Anna Marie was her natural good natured self but gradually her mood changed. She became moody and irritable and often lost patience with her parents. The small wound on her arm was nearly healed and she didn't mention it to her parents. But there was a slight itch there and it got worse.
Life went on for a few weeks but suddenly Anna Marie got a muscle spasm in her neck. She was frightened and she told her parents about the bite from the dog. The parents saw no connection between her present condition and the dog bite. They sent for the local "doctor" and a concoction was collected from the fields and given to Anna Marie over the next few days but her condition worsened. The neighbours were very supportive and rallied round to help. They were in and out of the house constantly offering advice.
And suddenly there was a frightening change. The girl's neck twitching increased and she was finding it difficult to swallow. Her parents never saw an illness like this before but with the rapidity with which it was developing they knew that there could be only one outcome.
"Am I going to die?" Anna Marie implored her father; and her father bowed his head and told her a lie.
And when things couldn't get worse they did. Poor Anna Marie started foaming at the mouth and she started seeing and hearing things that weren't there. The neighbours observed all this and they became frightened. Rumours began spreading about her condition and they became vastly exaggerated. My own grandmother had a good description of how rumours go. "The first one said it and the next one swore it" she would say.
Then suddenly the word "Possession" entered their vocabulary. And the stories became wilder. They started disbelieving their own eyes and some said that it was not natural for that woman to have a child at her age. "It wouldn't be possible" They looked at the crops that Andy Stout was growing and said that it wasn't natural. Very soon his garden was producing a bigger miracle than the story of the loaves and fishes. They visited the sick child and carried the stories away with. Some of them did it out of malice but most out of fear.
The stories reached the Stouts ears and they were distracted. Martha looked down on her beautiful daughter whose foaming at the mouth had become worse. She was suffering so much. "Could it be possible" she asked her husband, "could she be possessed?" Andy was incensed. "Shut up woman," he almost shouted.
Things then took an even uglier turn. People were saying that the Stouts should get out of their area and there was talk of giving them an ultimatum. All of these stories reached the Stouts and they were at their wits end. The close neighbours were still supportive and they stayed loyal. Andy and Martha had settled in here had some very good neighbours and they were very tired of moving. Despite everything they were determined to stay. They looked at their precious daughter who was suffering so much and they wished that there was something they could do to lessen her pain .They both knew in their hearts that she was now beyond help.
Then one day when the threats became more vocal, Martha turned to her husband. "I know that we are of a different religion, but there is a new priest down in the village and he is supposed to be very powerful. They say that he has great power in his hands. Would you go down there Andy and ask him could he intercede with the good Lord to take our daughter out of her misery?
Andy resisted her pleas but gradually a thought began to dominate his mind. Martha, his wife had stood by him in the past when lesser women would have fled. He would do anything to alleviate her pain. Eventually he agreed to go.
That very evening he knocked on the priest's door. He was invited in and Andy told him their story. He told the priest about his daughter's hopeless illness and he told him about the threats that were being made against them. The priest kept nodding but the truth was that he was hearing nothing new. This very evening he had a delegation from his parishioners and he knew very well their ugly mood. He had counselled them about their unchristian behaviour but he was dealing with an irrational mob.
Andy continued; "What I am asking you Father is to bring my daughter's misery and our own to an end.
"And how do you think that I could do that?" the priest asked. "My wife thinks that you have the power of life and death in your hands. I don't believe that but I am asking you for God's sake help us. Your hands are anointed; they can be forgiven anything"
The priest was a man of action. He had taken to heart that dictum from his bible; "Watch and pray" It was his driving force in life. He felt that we need prayer but that prayer without action in this world was useless. He knew that some of his parishioners were out of his control and that a great injustice would be done to this family and he knew that there was little time left. "Is there nothing that can be done for the child?" he enquired. "Nothing" the man before him said, "she doesn't recognise any of us now."
The priest looked at the man standing before him and his terrible pain drew compassion from himself. "Get the neighbours who support you to come to your cabin tomorrow evening and I will call and I put you under oath never to repeat our conversation ever again" "Thank you, thank you" the man said and he hastened away.
Leaving the village that evening he passed a small gathering of people standing at a corner and a man shouted from the comfort of the crowd. "You're not wanted here, your nothing but a dampt spy set amongst us, Get out; get out while you can."
Andy walked on and when he got outside the village he sat down on the ditch and cried. Andy Stout thought that this was the last straw. "That man doesn't know and they will never know, he vowed, that I dammed near swung on the end of a rope for their cause. I was only one step ahead of the law when I reached this haven. They have a priest living openly there now and they are building a big new chapel. They have that now because I took up their cause in ninety eight. And then he thought about getting out. He thought about Mary and Joseph and knew that he wasn't any better than them. They also had to get out when life threatened, and then the images of those people wandering in the desert came to his mind and he didn't want that again for his good wife Martha. Andy thought about his past life and his burning passion for justice and he thought about the good men who had stood beside him in the white heat of battle. These men had proved themselves at that time and he knew that he could call on them again and they would rush to his side; but that time was past.
But Andy Stout had once lived life at the very edge and maybe because of that had developed a method of relief. He was able to go inside himself and for a time could shut out the incessant thoughts that bombarded him. He would become aware of the warm blood coursing round his body and feel all the good sensations of being alive. He couldn't stay there for ever but it always refreshed him. Andy went there now and presently he came out of his reverie and walked towards the mountain and home.
The priest was as good as his word and he was at the couple's door the next evening. There were several neighbours standing around the doorway and they stepped aside. The grey mist that was never far away had descended on the little cabin and the group looked somewhat ghoulish standing there. It was just as if the mist had been sent to cloak these evening's events. The priest entered the dwelling. The parents were standing over the child who was lying prostrate on the couch.
"Leave me" the priest said. The parents joined the people outside.
Presently the priest could be heard praying and also the sounds of moaning from the child. The praying seemed to go on for a long time. A woman with a black shawl over her head turned to her neighbour and whispered; "It's the priests that has the power"
Old Willie Mc Court who had spent a long time in America and had acquired a degree in cynicism in the process was at the back of the gathering. He spat viciously into the mist and said, "Shite"
Black shawl bowed her head and prayed for all lost souls. Presently the praying stopped and then there was a muffled gurgling sound coming from inside and Andy Stout dropped to his knees and everyone followed. Then there was a silence that seemed to go on forever. And again the praying began and this time the priest seemed to be pleading.
Eventually the priest emerged and he turned to the parents."You can go in now; your child is at peace?
Martha and Andy held hands as they entered and when they saw their beautiful daughter lying in death they were overcome with grief. The father fondled the blonde curls and looked at the face that was again beautiful and he was glad that she was now at rest. "I always knew that the priest has the power" Martha whispered almost as a prayer and the father nodded grimly. He looked at his wife and muttered through his tears. "I committed a grave sin Martha" Martha looked sharply at her husband for she seldom heard him utter the word sin before. "What are you saying Andy, what have you done?"
He looked back at his daughter and he again fondled the soft curls. "I loved her too much Martha; I loved her too much"
The priest meanwhile was outside conversing with the neighbours and a lot of niceties' were exchanged; poor family; beautiful angel; it's the good that die young Father; too good for this life, rest in peace. Then when Black Shawl said; "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away" Willie Mc Court in the background again spat viciously and this time into the breeze that was even now blowing the clouds away from the doorway; and his expletive was lost on the air. Nevertheless Mc Court was shaken. Like most cynics Mc Court was praying secretly to be proved wrong and this evening's events were a shock to his system. He thought that it was too much of a coincidence that the child should die while the priest was praying. It puzzled him. Now beneath that hard exterior Mc Court had all the sensitivity of a young girl in love but life had taught him to hide it. He could cry at the sight of the beautiful purple violets that struggled for life in the crevices of the rocks at the back of his own house. They were so delicate and so vulnerable and yet so resilient. And he often got up before dawn to witness the rising sun coming up over the hill. And he thought that in all his travels he never saw a more moving sight than the multi-colours created by the sun disappearing behind Mullaclogha.
Willie Mc Court was the first to visit the death bed after the Stouts. As he looked at the dead child he thought of the cruelty of it all. Here was an only child with the good looks and the nature of an angel and who was loved by everyone who knew her. And to think that her young life had been snuffed out by such an awful disease. And when Willie Mc Court moved to the child and placed his hand on the pale hands of the still warm child he burst into tears. He stood there unashamedly and felt the hot tears run down his face and the rest of the group stood there and felt the same powerful emotions. The Stouts saw this and were heartened by it.
The priest said his goodbyes and
headed down the lane towards the village. He felt in his head that he had done the right thing. "Watch and pray" "The greater good" he repeated to himself. He had acted for the good of those people who would continue to live in the Glen. He felt that a price must always be paid.
The woman of the house must also have felt the same for she followed the priest down the lane.
"Father "she said proffering out her hand, "Something for your trouble". The priest waved her away with a jerk of his arm. "No money," he said much too abruptly, and he quickened his walk away from the place.
But the evening sun was now shining and it warmed the blood in the group still standing around and life began reasserting itself again. A young lad made a bawdy remark about priests and nuns, when the priest was sufficiently far away, and everyone laughed. And Black Shawl turned sharply to the boy and said, "Get away with you, you skitter, and the track of the diddy still fresh in your mouth" and the boy blushed and everyone else laughed including Black Shawl for she was not all holy.
There is nothing like a young death to unite a people and the ones who only yesterday were openly opposed found their common humanity and were ashamed. The Stouts for their own part were very forgiving for they knew what fear can do, for they had been there themselves in the past.
It was many years later; and too long for Martha and Andy Stout, when the signs and symptoms of Rabies became known in the glen, that it was realised that this was the disease that Anna Marie had contacted when she got bit by that dog.
Every house in the upper regions of the Aughdoorish Valley is now derelict. The stone walls are for the most part still visible but there are no roofs. The crows and the magpies make their nests in the sycamore, ash and blackthorn bushes that grow there and the fox and the rabbit play in the living rooms of houses that were once vibrant with life. The lights have all gone out and the people have either emigrated or simply grew old and faded away.
Last week I stood on the still visible ridges that Andy Stout had carved out of poor land and I observed the rickle of stones that had one time been their dwelling. Some farmer had rearranged those stones and they are now a compound for sheep. But I looked at those stones and I went back in time to that eventful day and I stood there with that group at the deathbed of the child and joined with them in their grief.