In the latter half of 1786 there was a ghost in a house in Fanad in north Donegal. It was a “very troublesome” ghost that kept everybody in that part of the country ‑ man, woman and child ‑ in a state of “constant terror”. Besides making a “prodigious racket” by “violent knockings”, it frequently set the “tables, chairs, pots, polsticks, candlesticks, &c. all a dancing thro’ other in the most antick manner” and when persons presumed to ask it “whence, or how or for what purpose it came”, it never failed to make them feel its displeasure “by a smart thump on the head with a brick, a stone or a turf”. A letter from Ramelton, the post town nearest Fanad, appeared in the London-Derry Journal on November 7th. Prominently placed ‑ between oatmeal prices and some marriage and death notices ‑ it described unsuccessful attempts to exorcise the ghost, first by a clergyman of the established Church, then by a Presbyterian minister, and finally by a Catholic priest. Then, all three tried together. They prayed, read and sang psalms, but all to no avail. While they were engaged in this “holy work”, a violent noise could be heard coming from a room above stairs; it sounded “as if a thousand cats and dogs were joined together in horrid concert in opposition to the Rev. Gentlemen below stairs”. After some time, their hats and wigs were twirled round by an invisible hand, and their books were entirely covered with turf mould; then, there was a “smart shower of bricks and turf” which forced the clergymen to evacuate the house. At length, however, there was a successful exorcism. According to a second letter from “A Ramelton Correspondent”, carried in the Journal on November 21st, a group of freemasons had come to Fanad, carrying with them the insignia of their craft. At midnight, having put everybody out of the haunted house, they had sacrificed “a beautiful white cock upon a book of curious Egyptian hieroglyphics, when a prodigious noise, like thunder, was heard above the stairs, and soon after a great barrel came rolling down the stairs, which made as if it wanted to get out of the street door, but being brought into a circle formed on the parlour floor, it burst with such violence, as to make the brotherhood recoil to the very wall; a blue sulphurous flame came out of the barrel, in the midst of which, it is said, was observed something like the figure of a little, deformed old woman, who went up the chimney with so wonderful a whiz as astonished every person present, and immediately all the noises ceased.”
The publication of this second letter in the Derry paper elicited a rejoinder, which was carried in the rival Strabane Journal. Its author, “A Friend to Truth”, gave an account of the haunting and exorcism broadly consistent with that of “A Ramelton Correspondent”. In fact this letter includes more colourful descriptions of the ghost’s “tricks”, and some additional details: notably, it mentions that the freemasons came from Letterkenny, and it describes the haunted house as a tannery. The purpose of the rejoinder was to rebut the Ramelton correspondent’s claim that the freemasons had worn their insignia and that they had killed the beautiful white cock. They had worn no insignia, “A Friend to Truth” insisted, and the cock was alive and well.
In 1822, a full thirty-six years after the first appearance of the ghost, Caesar Otway, an evangelical controversialist, holidayed in north Donegal with his brother-in-law, Anthony Hastings, rector of Kilmacrenan. They spent three weeks together, visiting places and people of interest in the district, and five years later Otway published an account of his holiday in Sketches in Ireland (1827). In the course of the visit, Otway had gone to Fanad. In Sketches, he dismisses the peninsula’s Catholic inhabitants as “a most bigoted and superstitious race”, “given up to … saint adoration” and “addicted to well-worshipping and sundry absurd superstitions”. These superstitions included a conviction that Colm Cille, the regional patron saint, had banished rats, mice and earthworms from the peninsula and a belief too that no man from Fanad would ever hang. To illuminate the grip of superstition, he relates anecdotes that he claims to have been told by Amy (probably Éamonn) M’Ilwee. He describes M’Ilwee as “my friend’s [Hastings’s] herd … who sits, or walks, or sleeps, the whole summer day tending cattle, and who seems to think, waking or dream, sleeping, of nothing but ghosts and witches, and saints, of Oisin and Fin M’Coul, and Columbkill”. “Reader,” he continues, “it is well for you that I forget the quarter of Amy’s stories. One he told me of a ghost in Fannat [sic], which amused me at the time, and perhaps the cause of my amusement was the absurd seriousness ‑ the confident believing countenance with which the uncouth and simple creature carried on his narrative.” Otway then quotes M’Ilwee telling that, when he was a boy, he was sent as a servant to a Protestant farmer, whose father had recently died. He was not long there, he said, when a ghost appeared in the house. M’Ilwee detailed several attempts ‑ by freemasons, a “fairywoman”, and a musician, Tim the Piper ‑ to exorcise the ghost. The freemasons and the fairywoman had no effect. However, when Tim the Piper played “The Coolan”, it ceased its tricks and the musician found a roll of tobacco lying on his knee. Still, when the music stopped, the trouble started up again. At length, the owner of the house went to the Catholic priest, who agreed to exorcise the ghost, on condition that the man would convert to Catholicism. The man duly converted, the priest performed an exorcism and all the trouble ceased.
The import of the story of the ghost as told by Amy M’Ilwee in 1822 is clearly very different from that of the tale related by “A Ramelton Correspondent” and “A Friend to Truth” in 1786. In its first telling, the story invites interpretation as a republican parable: it is not the leaders of ethno-religious communities who can banish the troublesome ghost and enable a peaceful future, but a fraternal organisation, with a professed commitment to liberty and equality. However, by 1822, the story has evolved, at least for M’Ilwee, into a proof of the power of the Roman Catholic church ‑ over both its Protestant rivals and the vernacular religious traditions represented by the fairywoman ‑ and into a portent too of the Protestant community’s imminent demise. After all, the priest exorcises the ghost on condition that the haunted man converts. And yet, in the mention of the tune that soothed, some of M’Ilwee’s listeners may have heard a plaintive reminder of the republican spirit of the late eighteenth century, that by 1822, people were being told was “gone and for ever”. “The Coolan” is a slow air. It is also a political tune. In his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (1786) ‑ coincidentally, published in the year the ghost appeared ‑ Joseph C Walker described “The Coolan” as being “universally admired”, and he claimed that the words that once accompanied it had been forgotten. He proceeded to allude to those lost words, connecting them to legislation enacted in the reign of Henry VIII “respecting the habit and dress of the Irish, whereby all persons were restrained from being shorn or shaven above the ears, and from wearing Gibbes or Coulins (long locks) on their heads, or hair on the upper lip”. According to Walker, “On this occasion a song was written by one of our Bards, in which an Irish Virgin is made to give the preference to her COULIN, (or the youth with flowing locks), to [sic] all strangers, (by which the English were meant) or those who wore their habit.” Hence, if the air already had an anti-colonial resonance, as Walker suggested, he himself had added to it, by making explicit in print what formerly had only been said. And later, in the early 1800s, Thomas Moore infused the melody with even sharper political meaning by having his “Tho’ the Last Glimpse of Erin with Sorrow I See” set to an arrangement of it. In most editions of Moore’s Irish Melodies, this song—first published in 1808, the tenth anniversary of the 1798 Rising—was printed with an explanatory note, quoting at length Walker’s connection of the tune to the reign of Henry VIII, yet the lyrics ‑ addressed to a lover going into exile after defeat by the English ‑ can not but have called to mind the more recent loss, and the massive outflow of republicans in its wake:
Tho’ the last glimpse of Erin with sorrow I see,
Yet wherever thou art shall seem Erin to me;
In exile thy bosom shall still be my home,
And thine eyes make my climate wherever we roam.
To the gloom of some desert or cold rocky shore,
Where the eye of the stranger can haunt us no more,
I will fly with my Coulin, and think the rough wind
Less rude that the foes we leave frowning behind.
And I’ll gaze on thy gold hair as graceful it wreathes,
And hang o’er thy soft harp, as wildly it breathes;
Nor dread that the cold-hearted Saxon will tear
One chord from that harp, or one lock from that hair!
The story of the Fanad ghost was to be told over and again, down though the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It was told in the lime-washed farmhouses of north Donegal, the red, tumbledown terraces of Derry and the dark closes of Glasgow, which, from the mid-1800s, filled with the work-hungry of northwest Ulster. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, the story had reached beyond these core audiences to become the subject of an inordinately long musical-hall recitation published by a draper’s assistant in Edinburgh in 1884, and an illustration of rural folklore in a memoir penned by a retired lighthouse-keeper living in Rathmines, Dublin, in 1898. And in 1910, William McAdoo ‑ a Donegalman who was, successively, a US congressman for New Jersey, assistant secretary of the navy, New York police commissioner and chief magistrate of the city’s magistrates’ court ‑ made mention of the Fanad ghost in an after-dinner speech in Manhattan’s finest hotel, the Plaza, on Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. But wherever and whenever the story was told and in whatever form ‑ oral or written, prose or verse ‑ it seems that Protestants, regardless of their politics ‑ for McAdoo, a Presbyterian, was a supporter of the Irish republican cause ‑ cleaved to the basic narrative given by “A Ramelton Correspondent” and “A Friend to Truth” in 1786, and ascribed the exorcism to freemasons, while Catholics, like the herd Amy M’Ilwee, waiting for the millennium in 1822, portrayed a priest as the grand agent of deliverance. And that Protestants and Catholics should have continued to tell themselves different stories about something which may not have actually happened registers both the impression which the original story had made in 1786, and the depth of the division wrought in communal relations in the generation after the 1798 rising.
Growing up on William Street in Derry at the close of the nineteenth century, Alexander (commonly Alec) Roulston Foster (1890-1972) often heard his maternal grandfather, Samuel Roulston, talk of the ghost. And yet old Samuel, who had been born at Ballyscanlan, between Milford and Kilmacrenan, about 1821, omitted something ‑ the boy, Alec, was related, through his father, John, to the people whose house had been haunted, that is, the Fosters of Drumfad.
Alec would not become aware of this connection until summer 1927, when, in his mid-thirties and on a walking tour of north Donegal, he called on William John Foster (1841-1929) of Drumfad, a distant kinsman. William John, then aged eighty-six, was a Church Protestant, who farmed over 210 acres, much of it fine land, and, in a concession to stereotype, bred pedigree bulls. He may have been an Orangeman: in 1863 he had subscribed to a book of Orange songs published in Derry. Certainly, he had once been a unionist, for he had signed Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant at Clondavaddog church in 1912, vowing to use “all means which may be found necessary” to resist home rule for Ireland. And so in 1927, the year that Alec Foster came calling, William John was one of hundreds of thousands of unionists who had been coldly cast adrift by their own leadership in 1920, when after decades of opposition to home rule, they acceded to partition and accepted that very measure for the six-county state of Northern Ireland. Abandoned unionists could be found across the new southern Irish Free State, but William John and the unionists of north Donegal were doubly damned, for Derry, their regional capital, was now on the far side of an “international’ frontier and the city having a nationalist majority, the Orange clique that ran the new lilliputised “North” was to run it down for the next half-century. Therein lay the perversity of partition ‑ tin hut checkpoints on the road from Ballybeg to Ballymore and, beyond that line, a tin pot regime underdeveloping its own second city, now cut off from the bulk of its natural hinterland.
The young Alec Foster moved in spheres remote from that of the old cattle farmer who was to tell him the story of the Fanad ghost. He had attended Foyle College, the boys’ grammar school for Derry Protestants, and then studied classics at Queen’s University Belfast. There he played rugby, captaining the team in the period 1908-12. He was capped seventeen times for Ireland between 1910 and 1921, and toured South Africa with the Lions in 1910. After graduating first of firsts in Classics in 1911, he sat the Indian civil service examination and was accepted for the colonial service. However, he declined the offer, opting instead to pursue a career in education. He taught successively in Foyle College, Glasgow High School and the elite Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where he was head of English from 1921 to 1923, when he became headmaster of the less esteemed but still prestigious Belfast Royal Academy (BRA).
Although a kinsman of William John, Alec was a Presbyterian not a Churchman. As such, he belonged to a community whose political culture, in northwest Ulster at least, had remained comparatively liberal through the nineteenth century. In the middle decades of the century, for instance, the lively anti-landlord Londonderry Standard was the preferred regional paper of Presbyterians while Churchmen read the gentry-boosting Sentinel, and Catholics the Journal, hostile to landlords but increasingly in thrall to priests. The Standard articulated a plague on both their houses attitude to the establishment and the establishment in waiting: “civil liberty as established by William III”, James McKnight, its Irish-speaking editor, would write in 1868, “has been taken from the people of Ireland by the priests and the landlords.” As late as the 1880s, Catholics and Presbyterians together elected the pro-tenant John Kinnear, Presbyterian minister of Letterkenny, Liberal MP for County Donegal, and even in 1911, when politics elsewhere had polarised into Unionist (mainly Protestant) and Nationalist (mainly Catholic) camps, people of different denominations in North Tyrone returned a Liberal, TW Russell, to Westminster. By that year, when Alec Foster came of age, the old liberalism was undoubtedly waning, but, even then, few northwestern Presbyterians shared the maudlin nostalgia for the disestablished establishment that cast a long shadow over Church Protestant society.
Alec, for his part, tended to the radical end of the spectrum. At Queen’s he was a leading member of the Gaelic Society, which was concerned with reviving the Irish language, and, outside university, he was apparently in the Wolfe Tone Club, a Fenian front organisation that protested against the visit of George V to Ireland in 1911. Later, he deplored the second-raters who took power in the misbegotten six counties, supported campaigns for the extension of civil rights to Catholics, and hoped to see reunification. His first wife, Annie Lynd (1881-1946), whom he had married in 1914 and with whom he raised a broad-minded daughter, Christine, on the narrow ground of middle class Belfast, identified with the same tradition in Irish Presbyterianism. She and her sisters had been in the Gaelic League and her elder brother, Robert, a noted essayist, was a supporter of Irish left-wing and republican causes. Still, the middle class of the “wee north” being claustrophobically small ‑ the core of its business, legal and political elite came from nine grammar schools ‑ the Fosters’ circle included many prominent unionists. Among them were Bill Lowry, minister of home affairs (1943-44) and attorney general for Northern Ireland (1944–49), who was married to Annie Lynd’s sister Ina, and Sir Anthony Babington, a Westminster MP (1925-37), attorney general for Northern Ireland (1925-37) and lord justice of appeal (1937–49), who was a member of Belfast Royal Academy’s board of governors. Babington was a particular friend of Foster’s. The son of a Derry architect and civil engineer, he was a strong supporter of the headmaster’s reforms. According to Edward McCamley, the school historian, the two friends “took an inordinate pride in being Derry men”, and, one suspects, this shared background may have strengthened their bond.
Alec Foster lived a full life, and he was a figure of substance in sport, education and traditional singing. But it is partly due to his daughter marrying Conor Cruise O’Brien, whom she met when a student in Trinity College, Dublin in the late 1930s, that some details of his life have recently attracted attention. Among them is the fact that Foster suffered from manic depression, and a biographer of O’Brien has suggested that this condition and heavy drinking precipitated his “induced” early retirement as headmaster of BRA in 1942. However, the retirement has been ascribed by others to his having sponsored a report by the “Association for Civil Liberties”, which “impressed severe strictures on the Unionist government”. Moreover, while O’Brien’s biographer, Donald Akenson, describes Foster, with underwhelming indecision, as a “less-than-convinced Ulster Unionist” and a “virtual nationalist”, he was, self-consciously, a republican. His youthful political involvements may be blurred, but in the mid-1960s he was a prominent member of the Wolfe Tone Society, a republican discussion group that was associated with both a leftward shift in the IRA and the emergence of a civil rights campaign in the North. In fact, Foster chaired a key meeting of the Society in Maghera in August 1966 that led, a few months later, to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
In truth, the reasons for Foster’s retirement in 1942 are tangled. Certainly, his republicanism was no secret, and his politics were not left at the school door. He liked to remind people that Wolfe Tone’s brother had attended BRA, and a former pupil recalls that in a Latin class in the 1930s the headmaster broke into “Let Erin Remember”, Thomas Moore’s elegy cum anthem composed after “the rise and fall of the Irish nation”. No less significantly, in 1939, Foster hired O’Brien, a southern Catholic who was then himself a nationalist, as a substitute teacher of history. The young Dubliner, charged with instructing children advantaged by partition in this most fraught of subjects, caused a stir by beginning his first class with “Hands up, those of you who would die for your country.” And later the young man, who married Foster’s daughter as Europe descended into war, assigned a class of fourteen-year-olds a one-word essay topic – “Ireland”; one youngster opined that he liked living in Ireland, “mebbe because I get satisfaction out of having an enemy in the South”. By then, of course, “the border” ‑ an oddity to all for much of the 1920s ‑ was being naturalised to some degree for the unionist middle class of Belfast. After all, students graduating from BRA in the late 1930s had been born since it was drawn. And, particularly after the outbreak of war, when it became a more imposing physical and mental frontier, the Fosters’ all-Ireland vision became more anomalous in their predominantly unionist circle. Indeed such was unionist cultural hegemony in wartime, it became more difficult to sustain such a vision. Annie Lynd, herself a Gaelic Leaguer in college days who still considered herself Irish, caused consternation when visiting her son-in-law’s family in Dublin in 1941, when she opined that “We should soon put Italy out of the war”. “We?”, was the response of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, the widow of a pacifist summarily executed by British troops during the 1916 Rising, who herself had been an editor of the republican weekly An Phoblacht in the early 1930s, and in her fifties spent fifteen days in Armagh Gaol for defying an order prohibiting her from entering the North.
Importantly, Foster’s republicanism had long included a commitment to social justice. He helped working class children to get a second-level education, and he was a proponent of adult education. Such projects and pronouncements would not have endeared him to everybody in the city’s business and professional classes, for whom co-educational BRA was very much the bronze medal in a race in which gold was Campbell College and silver the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, both of which were boys only. Now, not only was BRA third best, but the headmaster seemed intent on “lowering” the social profile of the student body, as widening access was understood. Hence, the red no less than the green strands in Foster’s politics may have drawn opposition, which may also have been motivated by simple snobbery.
But Foster’s mental health was the major problem. His manic depression (today more commonly called bipolar disorder) ‑ a vicious form of cyclical depression with a complicated polygenic inheritance ‑ had been having an intermittent effect on the management of the school for over fifteen years when, in August 1942, he resigned as headmaster. In summer 1927, shortly after his first encounter with William John Foster in Fanad, Alec had experienced a breakdown that was to cause him to take three months’ leave of absence that winter (1927-28). It seems likely that the pace of his reforms at BRA, where he had been appointed only in 1923, and the resistance he encountered from some of the governors and staff precipitated this turn. Clouding the suggestion that Foster’s politics caused him problems in BRA, his most dogged opponent on the board of governors was his former professor, Robert Mitchell Henry, chair of Latin (1908-39) and secretary of the academic council at Queen’s (1909-39), who was himself a Protestant and an Irish nationalist. Henry, who had a low opinion of women, first clashed with Foster over co-education and, after losing that battle, continued to spar with him through the 1930s. (The professor ‑ a brother of the artist Paul Henry ‑ was notoriously passed over for the vice-chancellorship of Queen’s in 1933 on account of his nationalist politics.)
Foster recovered from this bout of depression, but he suffered a relapse in summer 1929. Although it is unclear what sparked this crisis, he had just completed a master’s in classics at Queen’s, which may well have been stressful given his vexed relationship with Henry. It was a more severe episode than the first, and he was required to take complete rest for the remainder of the school year, returning only in autumn 1930. Douglas Gageby, who was then a pupil at BRA, remembered Foster as highly tense, like somebody on a “high wire”. He was certainly under pressure, for there had been a slump in the number of BRA students passing state examinations in the early 1930s: indeed, at one point the number of passes was 2.5 per cent below the average for Northern Ireland. In September 1934, Foster submitted an intemperate memorandum to the board, in which he blamed the mathematical, French and science departments for the poor results, proposed dismissing one popular teacher, and named others to be threatened with “further action” unless they improved. As happens, the staff got sight of the memorandum and complained in writing to Foster, and about him to the board. In the superheated squabble that ensued, the school’s solicitor advised that the staff’s letter to the headmaster provided grounds for their summary dismissal, and the board asked that they withdraw it; the nationalist Henry demurred from this request. The staff complied, and duly apologised, but, in the meantime, Foster’s health gave way, and in November 1934 he suffered a third breakdown. He was not to return to school until June 1935.
JC Beckett joined the history department of BRA in September 1934 as relations between the headmaster and the staff soured; he was there when Foster returned from his leave of absence, and he remained there until 1945, when he left to take up a position in Queen’s. The headmaster, he believed, never recovered the confidence of the teachers, who henceforth looked to JN Shearman, his deputy, for leadership. Although Foster’s relations with the staff did improve in the late 1930s, the outbreak of the war brought with it new concerns for the safety of the pupils in the event of German air raids, and, indeed, for the very survival of the school as parents moved their children to the countryside. Ultimately, in April 1941, air raids devastated working class districts of Belfast, killing almost 1,000 people, and destroying tens of thousands of houses. The destruction and fatalities raised a wave of resentment against the Stormont regime, whose efforts to protect the populace appeared negligent. At the same time, the ragged poverty exposed by the raids bespoke a deeper indifference in high places to ordinary people. Against this background, Foster showed signs of the obsessive enthusiasm that, for people with his condition, sometimes precedes deep depression. That autumn he accepted an invitation to write a series of articles for the Belfast Telegraph in which he “trenchantly attacked the public representatives of the community for their inattention to the social and educational needs of the poor”. The articles undoubtedly irked those Unionist leaders at whom he was pointing, and, most probably, irritated some members of his own board. Compounding matters, Foster then attempted to persuade the education authorities to restrict scholarship-holders to schools in their own districts, which, for Belfast children, meant staying in a city targeted by the Luftwaffe rather than attending a school in a safer rural locale. At this point, in December 1941, Foster’s doctors advised a medical leave of absence, and he formally resigned as headmaster in August 1942, though he would continue teaching in the school until the end of the war. In short, then, Foster’s politics was not the main source of his troubles in BRA, and there is no evidence that his endorsement of the National Council for Civil Liberties “forced” his resignation. And yet, for a variety of reasons, no doubt including some political, there were people who were happy to see him go.
Annie Lynd died just after the war, and Alec remarried. His second wife, Betty Guidera, with whom he was to have three children, was a Catholic, and he took her religion. They lived for a period in Wicklow and then in Kerry, interrupted by spells back in Belfast, where Alec taught classics. He was involved in some radio programmes on traditional song for BBC Northern Ireland, and he wrote letters to newspapers on a range of topics ‑ he had come, after all, from the “scribbling” culture of the northwest. Politics remained a preoccupation. He was “a consistent critic of the Stormont government”, and in the late 1960s added his voice to those opposing the threatened closure of Derry’s Magee College, the only third level institution west of the Bann, and the regime’s associated decision to establish a new university in Unionist Coleraine. Later, in January 1970, in a protest against South African apartheid, he called on church leaders of all denominations to lead a march on Lansdowne Road, where Ireland was to play the Springboks. “God knows,” he said, “we have enough discrimination at home, without welcoming its foreign champions to Ireland.” Interestingly, a consciousness of the disavowed political heritage of Irish Presbyterians still backlit his politics. Shortly before his death in summer 1972, when many Catholics in the deep south thought all “black Protestants” in the north were Orange, he sent a newspaper columnist a ballad which he told her showed “the attitude of the Presbyterian republicans of old … They thought of republicanism as a logical development from their stand against the Divine Right of Kings ‑ the Rights of Man, and so on.”
When Foster died, The Irish Times described him as a “noted controversialist on sport and other issues in this country”. O’Brien, who had amicably separated from Christine (they divorced in 1962), took issue with that description in a warm appreciation in the same paper: “A controversialist sounds a rather grim type, a man of abstract causes, pedantic, quarrelsome. Alec was the reverse of all that. He did not love abstractions. He loved human beings. Stronger than that ‑ for the word ‘love’ has been bent by so many theologians and patriots ‑ he actually liked human beings.” He praised him for his opposition to apartheid, and noted that he “stood against Orange exclusiveness and wanted to see the unity of Ireland”. He was buried, O’Brien remarked, on a Kerry hillside, in beautiful country, “strikingly resembling his native Swilly [sic] shore”.
William John and Alec Foster may not have “well agreed” in politics, but they shared an interest in song and story and genealogy, and so, on that summer’s day in 1927, the old man told his visitor what he had heard of the Fanad ghost. In William John’s telling, the haunting occurred in the house of George Foster, a fifty-six year-old bachelor then living with his “old mother” in Drumfad. His story, like that which first appeared in the press in 1786, opens by detailing the ghost’s tricks, but it foregrounds another character, a Catholic servant girl, who, it early intimates, was the cause of the trouble. And, in another and significant departure, it portrays the trouble as extending beyond the confines of the house to farm animals and crops in the fields, that is, to the land:
The windows would rattle and sometimes break even in calm weather. The delph would tumble out of the dresser and smash in pieces. The turf sods would leap from the hearth across the kitchen floor. A heavy sound would be heard on the stairs as if a barrel was rolling down. The table would rise a foot or two into the air and move towards the servant girl.
None of these things would happen when the girl was absent, and she was greatly distressed at being apparently the cause of them.
The disturbances were not confined to the house. Outside on the farm the stooks of corn would dance in the fields, spilling the grain. The cattle would charge wildly about. The cows miscarried and the milk wouldn’t churn.
The trouble, William John said, lasted on and off for two years. Then, one night, George had a strange dream. He dreamed that if he crossed the Foyle Bridge at Derry ‑ he knew the city but had never crossed the river ‑ and rode out the Glendermot Road, he would find the man who would lay the ghost. George rose and awakened his mother to tell her of his strange dream. But she told him that he was “overwrought” and sent him back to bed. Three times that night, however, George had the same dream; so at dawn, he saddled his horse, left a note for his mother and started for Derry.
Having crossed the bridge, he reached the house of a man named Hyndman. The man of the house was away at the fair of Strabane, and his wife entertained the visitor while they waited for him to return. On Hyndman’s arrival, George began to explain his business:
“Yes,” said Hyndman, “I know why you’re here, but I’m sorry I can’t help you.”
“Why not?” said the crestfallen traveller.
“I’m pledged not to tell.”
The mistress, seeing Foster’s distress, took pity on him.
“Well,” she said, “you promised not to tell, but didn’t promise not to write it down.”
“I never thought of that,” he replied, and then and there he wrote down the names of two men, Craig of Inch and Lynch of Birdstown. “They’re the men can lay the Ghost,” he added.
George Foster duly returned to Fanad, bringing with him Craig and Lynch, both of whom were freemasons. It was said that when he collected them, “each of them had been forewarned and was waiting with his horse saddled, ready for the road”. And some people, including some of the Fosters, said that George brought a third exorcist with him ‑ the parish priest of Letterkenny. But William John was insistent that it was only Craig and Lynch that he brought, and that they had with them three cocks ‑ a white cock, a red cock, and a black cock.
And so, William John continued, they began the exorcism. The house was cleared and the black cock was thrown in and the door was shut. Instantly, there arose a “frightful squawking and scurrying”. The cock was fighting for his life. Then, after a few minutes, there was silence, and when they opened the door they found the black cock stretched on the floor, stone dead.
Next, they shut up the red cock in the house. The same kind of frantic squealing and squawking followed, and then silence. They opened the door to find the red cock still alive, but with a broken wing.
Finally, they turned in the white cock. And “all Hell broke loose”. The windows were blown out, the roof rose and billowed, the slates flew off. There was a tumult of glass and the sound of delph being shattered, and furniture being flung about. At long last, like a gust of smoke or vapour, the ghost rose out of the chimney, and howling across the sky disappeared in a hole in a field, which has remained ever since, unfilled and devoid of vegetation.
As silence fell, the cock crew loud and clear, and when the door was opened, there he was strutting and crowing in the ruins of the kitchen, with the dresser and delph splintered on the floor, table and chairs upended and smashed, the crook torn from its hinges, and an overpowering sulphurous stench through the house.
As the white cock came strutting and crowing out across the threshold, the exorcists were busy reading spells and incantations from Holy Writ, banishing the spirit from the premises. At one point, one of them omitted the appropriate passage, whereupon he was levitated some feet into the air, and remained there till the other exorcist repeated the passage.
At this point in his tale, William John reintroduced the servant girl, in whose presence alone the ghost had been troublesome, and he associated her with the priest and, no less importantly, George’s brother, a man some people identified as William Foster.
Many neighbours had gathered to witness this ceremony. One man now asked how the curse had come upon the house. “Search the skirt of the servant girl” was the reply. And when this was done a piece of paper was found sewn in the hem of the skirt containing a maledictory spell. It had been supplied by the priest at the instance of George Foster’s brother, who wanted to drive him out.
At the mention of the priest’s name some of the crowd made a threatening move towards the exorcists, but they vanished into thin air!
From that day to this a white cock has always been kept in the Drumfad farmyard.
William John’s story is closer to that told in the 1786 letters of “A Ramelton Correspondent” and, most especially, “A Friend to Truth” ‑ whose main point was that the white cock survived ‑ than any other account committed to paper in the nineteenth or twentieth century. But the original story can be understood as a republican parable. Here, a prime purpose is warning of betrayal by Catholic servants, an old fear ‑ one that had been revived by anti-reformers in the mid-1780s, and which spiked again during the Orange-Ribbon feuding of 1810–13, in the difficult years of the late 1810s and early 1820s and, indeed, on other occasions in the decades that followed. And William John clearly involves the ghost with fears of communal death and loss of land. George is a childless bachelor, living with his elderly mother, and his brother has done a deal with the priest that will involve him getting his farm in return, it is intimated, for his conversion to Catholicism. And so the farm will no longer be a Church Protestant farm. Hence, while the story of the ghost, in its first telling, can be read as concerning the overcoming of a colonial past and embracing of a republican future, William John’s tale is a parable about the need for vigilance given an omnipresent threat to the status quo.
Not all Protestants who related the story of the ghost told it in exactly the same way as William John. For instance, Alec’s brother Samuel Russell Foster heard that the ghost was the result of a curse “spelled on a hell-raking ancestor, William or George” ‑ the difference may be significant – “who squandered the family fortune on horse-racing, wine and women, especially on mistresses in France, and who for some particular blackguardism or blasphemy incurred satanic wrath or retribution”. But in that telling too one detects a fear of losing land and, in that process, they ‑ the “whole Protestant community” or simply Church Protestants ‑ dying. And that prospect was real: demographic decline had been the Protestant experience in Fanad since the early nineteenth century, when Church baptisms had started to fall off. In 1766 some 28.1 per cent of the population had been Protestant (16.2 per cent Church; 11.9 per cent Presbyterian); but by the early 1830s, the Protestant proportion had fallen to 18.6 per cent, and it was to continue to fall through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; in 1861 it was 14.4 per cent (9.3 per cent Church; 4 per cent Presbyterian)—half what it had been a century earlier—and in 1901, by which stage the population of the parish had halved, Protestants accounted for no more than 7.5 per cent of the people of Fanad. Hence, John William, born in 1840, would have come of age and then reached his great age ‑ again, he died in 1929 ‑ watching numbers dwindle at Sunday services in the little churches at Rosnakill, Leatbeg and Portsalon; and marriages, baptisms and funerals ‑ the life-cycle events that knit community ‑would too have become less frequent. In his youth, he would have had old-timers ‑ people who were alive when the ghost appeared ‑ point out land once farmed by Protestants that had since passed to Catholics, and heard them mention surnames long gone from Fanad; and when he himself became the old-timer, he did the same, but to a much diminished audience. Again, just under one in five people in Fanad had been Protestant around the time of his birth (already a significant decline from his father’s youth); and yet, decades before his own death, Protestants accounted for fewer than one in ten.
If an apprehension of cultural death looms over William John’s narrative, he included a seemingly irrelevant addendum, which returns the ghost to the intra-Protestant rivalries that had been acute when it first appeared in 1786, and which also connects the story to the republican spectre which had then, in the mid-1780s, come to haunt many Church Protestants in isolated rural communities. The chief planters in Fanad, William John told his visitor, when he had finished the story, were their people, the Fosters of Drumfad, and also the Babingtons, McIlwaines and Borelands. And “the land between the Mulroy and the Swilly had been allotted to William Foster, but the planters could only ‘have what they could hold’ and the Foster allotment was progressively reduced”. The Dills, some of whom were still then living in Fanad, were “latecomers”, he said, formerly Dillons who “changed their name and their religion”, from Catholicism to Presbyterianism, to get land. And “the Dills (Dillons)”, he said, “had been the men who besieged and murdered the Protestant rector Hamilton …”
Here, William John was referring to Dr William Hamilton, rector of Fanad, who stood against the United Irishmen in north Donegal in 1796-97, ransacking the district for arms and suspects. In late January 1797, he escaped a two-day siege at his glebe house, when several hundred United Irishmen mobilised to secure the release of some leaders whom he had taken up for possession of arms and documents. However, on the night of March 2nd, a large body of republicans surrounded a mansion at Sharon, outside Manorcunningham, where Hamilton had opted to stay after attending a meeting in Raphoe rather than risk riding back to Fanad in darkness. They had fired shots through the windows, killing the lady of the house, as she screened her husband, Dr John Waller, who was confined to a wheelchair. Then, threatening to burn the place and all in it, they had demanded that Hamilton be turned out. Hamilton had fled to the cellar, but Waller’s servants had dragged him by the hair from his hiding place, and thrust him out the door, where he was killed.
As for the Dills, they were then a well-to-do farming family, in Springfield, near Drumfad, where the ghost appeared. And there may have been something to William John’s conviction, in 1927, that some members of the family had been involved in killing Hamilton. Down through the nineteenth century, the Dills themselves told of how a few days after the assassination, a soldier belonging to a detachment stationed in Roughan came to their house and asked to see Young John Dill. As they walked together down the avenue, the soldier suddenly fired at him and ran off. The wound was only slight, but the Dills demanded an investigation: “the detachment were called out so that Mr. Dill might identify the perpetrator, but the commanding officer by a manœuvre contrived his escape”. According to a family tradition, “it was said, and generally believed, that Dr. Hamilton’s widow, maddened by the cruel murder of her husband, and suspecting Young John Dill to be one of the conspirators, had bribed the soldier to assassinate him’. Moreover, Young John Dill’s brother, Francis, then minister of First Ray Presbyterian congregation a few miles from Sharon, was also said to have been brought before a court martial, charged with being a United Irishman and with having had a hand in the killing; but he was not convicted, supposedly because a member of his congregation testified that on the night of the assassination he had been attending a dying member of his family. And yet, while telling these stories in the late 1800s, the Dills always insisted that none of their forebears had been republicans.
William John Foster may have erred in summer 1927 in identifying the occupant of the haunted house as George Foster. At Easter 1796, William Hamilton had compiled a census of the Church Protestants in his parish. It returns five households headed by Church Protestants named Foster in Drumfad:
George Foster ‑ 2 sons, 3 daughters, 1 nephew, 2 men servants (Papists), 1 maid servant (Papist). Church Protestants: 7/10
Margaret Steward, widow of Joshua Foster ‑ 5 sons, 4 daughters, 1 servant boy (Papist). Church Protestants: 10/11
William Foster ‑ mother (Dissenter), 3 nephews (Dissenters), 1 niece (Dissenter), 2 servant boys, 1 maid (Papists). Church Protestants: 1/9
Samuel Foster ‑ wife, 2 sons, 2 daughters, 1 servant boy (Papist). Church Protestants: 6/7
Widow Foster ‑ 1 maid (N/A). Church Protestants: 1/2
George was married, but William, like the haunted man in William John’s story, was not, and his house too included his widowed mother and a “Papist” maid. And, ten years after the ghost had appeared, it was a house divided against itself, for William was the only Church Protestant of nine people living in it. His mother, three nephews, and niece were all Dissenters (5), and his two servant boys and maid were Catholics (3). It was, in other words, a house that, by 1796 at the latest, seemed unlikely to long remain a Church Protestant house.
At Easter 1929, two years after William John told him the story of the ghost, Alec Foster returned to north Donegal with four friends ‑ Sam Foster, probably his brother; Sam Taylor, an artist and art teacher; JC Taylor, a prominent solicitor and sometime head of the Incorporated Law Society of Northern Ireland; and Sam Porter, then a barrister and later a senior judge, who had been a member of James Connolly’s short-lived Irish Socialist Republican Party in the late 1890s and early 1900s, and unsuccessfully contested the Pottinger constituency for Belfast Labour in the 1918 general election. The friends may have been holidaying together out of concern for Alec, who despite recovering from the deep depression that had caused him to take an extended leave of absence in winter 1927-28 (shortly after his first visit to William John) was to relapse in summer 1929, and be required by his doctors to take complete rest for the remainder of the school year. In other words, Alec may already have been becoming, as the mother of his haunted ancestor had described her son in 1786, “overwrought”.
The party called out to Drumfad. William John was still living, though he would die before the end of the year. The visitors were anxious to get a good photograph of the white cock, the old man having told Alec that there had been one in their farmyard ever since the haunting. William John’s daughter, Lucy, then in her mid-fifties, scattered some grain in the yard and the flock gathered, but the cock proved hard to snap. Sam Taylor tried for some fifteen minutes to isolate him, but he kept slipping away through the hens. He was about to give up when “unaccountably the cock detached himself from the flock and went strutting down before the tarred bottom of a white-washed wall in bright sunlight”. Taylor snapped him three times in “perfect conditions”. But when the plate was developed, “the three snaps of the cock showed nothing but a blurred haze”; the rest of the reel came out perfectly.
“Was it a cock at all?” wondered Foster.
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This piece is an edited and adapted extract from ‘Spirit, Spectre, Shade: A True Story of an Irish Haunting; or, Troublesome Pasts in North-west Ulster’, which is to appear in Field Day Review, 9, 2013; for which, see www.fielddaybooks.com. Breandán Mac Suibhne is a historian of eighteenth and nineteenth century Ireland. His publications include Society and Manners in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin: Field Day, 2011), an annotated edition of the travel-writing of the author and medical doctor John Gamble (1771–1831), and, in Dublin Review of Books, an assessment of recent writing on the Great Famine; http://www.drb.ie/essays/a-jig-in-the-poorhouse.