Stories, Research & Projects
Written by Michael George Crawford from Warrenpoint. First published by V. G. Havern [Warrenpoint] and printed by Outlook Press [Rathfriland] in “Legendary Stories of The Carlingford Lough District (1913)”
Adapted by Dónal Kearney (2016)
North of the Clonallon Road in Warrenpoint rises the Hill of Jenny Black. It is named after an infamous old witch who dwelt there in the days when the dark arts held sway, when certain women were suspected of being in league with the demon. They were thought to have the evil eye and conjured spells to the injury of humankind. Every accident that happened was the suspected actions of a witch.
To the credit of the people of Ireland, it must be said that they took no part in the cruel torturing and murdering of persons suspected of witchcraft, which disgraces nearly every country in Ireland to this day. There was a statute passed by the British in Ireland against witchcraft. It wasn’t until the Witchcraft Laws were repealed by King George II that the ancient dames breathed freely once more after the long reign of terror and persecution against them. One might ask: where are they all now?
Jenny Black resided at the top of Clonallon Hill and she was held in the greatest terror by those believers in the dark arts.
She was generally seen sitting in her cabin at the wheel, spinning and weaving diabolical spells and charms in the usual manner of witches. Her black cat would blink at the fire in the grate, in the usual manner of black cats. It is said that her cat would talk to Jenny Black in front of visitors, until they fainted or fled with fright.
At this time, the hills of Clonallon were covered with dense woods, believed to be inhabited by evil spirits, devils, hobgoblins. The local folk would give these woods a wide berth after dark. Jenny Black was long noted for playing tricks upon nocturnal wanderers; she appeared in frightful shapes and would swoop down on them to tear or jostle them about the road.
One dark night, two farmers were returning from the town with their horses and carts. When they met the hill, Jenny was just alighting off her broomstick. The horses were not acquainted with Jenny’s particular form of travel – they bolted and galloped wildly back down the steep hill. At the bottom of the hill, the horses collided and sent their owners flying off the carts, headfirst to the ground. The horses, wild with fear, then trampled the men and killed them where they lay.
On another occasion, the witches fair and devils gay were enjoying an evening’s entertainment in the wicked woods of Clonallon when they were disturbed by a farmer of the name O’Hare. Slightly under the influence of the uisce bheatha, and spirited by his indulgences, O’Hare boldly faced Jenny’s assembled guests. He was not in the least bit cowed by their numbers and horrible appearance. Stepping unsteadily forward, he challenged the whole condemned lot to fight him. Looking around and smiling at each other, the beasts fell upon him with teeth and nails, tore at this flesh and beat him over the head with their limbs.
Jenny Black, cleverly manoeuvring the broomstick, swept down from the air like a hawk, lifted him out of the woods and sailed through the skies towards the lough. Halfway to Carlingford, Jenny dropped the unfortunately O’Hare far into the dark waters below, where he sank and remained below the surface. The farmer O’Hare’s sad fate kept local folk from meddling in the devil’s business any more. They spoke of Jenny Black in a more respectful manner after that.
One night, a couple of teenagers went out hunting started a hare on the witch’s hill. Their dogs gave chase to the hare, which ran round the hill, doubling and twisting back on its own tracks. The youths noticed that the dogs were not too anxious to get in close on the seeming hare, and they became suspicious of the animal. They called the dogs off – at that moment, the hare turned into the withered and naked old witch known as Jenny Black.
The dogs yelped with fright and the boys were petrified. The witch then cast a spell on them, led them into a chamber in the hill, which was filled with people older than the witch herself. They lured the young fellows round a cauldron that was swirling wildly. The others were throwing strange herbs into the seething pot, and the boys knew instantly that they were in the presence of witches and wizards.
Jenny Black then forced the boys into a dance, their partners being two of the ugliest witches of the company (which was saying a lot!). For hours they were trapped in that mad whirl. The sweat rolled off them, their heads were light and dizzy with the crazing dancing. They minds swam and their bodies ached, but still they were compelled to jig. They realised that the hags were dancing them to death, revelling in the energy of their souls, dripping them dry through the medium of dance.
When they were near their last gasp, one of the lads remembered he had a small witch-hazel stick in his pocket. Witch-hazel was said to possess the power to resist the spells of witches, if properly used. So he dipped into his pocket as subtly as he could – he made it part of his manic dance – and he touched his partner’s hand with the witch-hazel. With an awful shriek, she disappeared. He quickly danced around the room before the crowd could fathom what was happening and touched the rest of them with. Right enough, they all vanished and the boys escaped. However, their dogs had sadly become the party’s feast.
She often wandered the fields of Warrenpoint as a hare. She milked the poor farmers’ cows before the people were up in the morning – a common deviance of witches. On Hallows Eve, the witch and her evil companions concocted their strongest spells for the year ahead. To thwart her designs, the planters carried lighted candles through Clonallon’s woods, from eleven to midnight (the principal time of their operation). If the lights burned steady and clear, the people would triumph over the witches in the year ahead. However, if the light blew out while they were in the woods, the locals would be subjected to the witch’s power for the ensuing year.
Eventually, the local folk burned Jenny Black at the stake. Since then, the woods of Clonallon were consumed by a purifying fire. Her old home was destroyed and the forested site of her evil deeds were levelled.
To this day, there are some who believe that Jenny Black still haunts her hill in the form of a white hare.
As gentle mists roll out the bay,
Like velvet lies Clonallon grey,
Jenny sang a haunting tune and
set her sights by the spotlight of the moon.
The women of the town,
they owe old Jenny more than they can know.
They men are leading timid lives
For on their antics she does not look light.
Upon the lough, a silhouette
Upon the lough, so cold and wet
And so they talk – “We’ll get her yet!”
And so they talk upon the lough.
Hunted like a witch from Hell
- before she died, she weaved a spell;
Clapped her palms and screamed until
the curse was cast on Jenny Black’s Hill.
To this day, she roams the fields;
An old, white hare – Away she steals!
That name still lingers on our ears
despite the passing of the years.
I am doing a good bit of research these days into the connections between folklore and community identity. This has involved a long hard look into folk songs and traditional song, in particular. I’ve been reading a short book I found in a charity shop called Ireland: Towards a Sense of Place. It’s interesting because it was published in 1985, though many of its ideas have yet to bear fruit in Ireland today.
A lot of Irish lore delves into life on this island – as well as life off this island. Emigration is a major theme in the songs and stories because it seems we are never done leaving. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Irish about emigration, or indeed about any of the recurring themes in our local stories. The reason they are popular is that they are universal, human themes: love, loss, death, revelry, magic, etc. Irish folk culture has been influenced by other western European cultures for as long as we can tell.
In the category of the so-called emigrant’s farewell, we can understand the sense of place that has become so important in Irish culture. With a diaspora spanning continents and millions of people who feel Irish, this sense of place is a fascinating one 100 years since the foundation of an independent Irish state. Although a very young political entity, Ireland’s sense of history seems timeless.
If this sleep were on you in Cill na Dromad or some grave in the West,
It would ease my sorrow, though great the affliction and I’d not complain.
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, No. 68
In this poem, it scarcely matters where Cill na Dromad actually is. It could even be fictional, for all that it matters. The point is, as Seán Ó Tuama reminds us, we all know what Cill na Dromad is: “the centre of one’s universe, the beloved home-place”.
In all of this literature connected with place – even in the nature lyrics written by the monks in the golden age of early Christianity – there is no sense of the mystic presence of God or Spirit such as one finds in the literature of other peoples. Rather one is continually struck with the feeling that place and natural phenomena connote above all stability, certainty, eternity on earth… The traditional treatment of home-place and territory in literature survived in good measure the linguistic changeover in the nineteenth century from Irish to English.
In my research of religion in Irish folksong, I've repeatedly come across this idea that Christian values are largely absent from early Irish texts. Instead, there are much stronger pagan themes relating to the aesthetics of the natural world. Seán Ó Tuama reminds us that “there is no sense of sexual sin” in most of Irish literature.
no priest or friar will I believe
that it’s sin to couple in love
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, no. 73
Since the sagas of early Ireland, throughout the learned writings of the Middle Ages, up to contemporary folksong, Irish poetry would seem to embrace a carnal comprehension of love. It often alludes to the physical act in the wilderness of the land itself.
Interestingly, this love of home-place was tied up with the landscape, the indigenous animals, the rivers and hills, and the local language itself. Thanks to the translation from Gaeilge to English, we can now listen to the thoughts and ideas of our ancestors even if we weren't lucky enough to study Irish in a good school that encouraged us to keep it up long enough to interpret ancient Irish poetry. With poetry, melody or mythology, we can better relate to people who historically lived in Ireland.
I do not like referring to people who lived in 19th or 17th or 15th century Ireland as “Irish” because I struggle to accept that we have enough in common with their culture to claim to be compatriots. As far as people can be connected from such a temporal distance, we do share a lot. But I share as much with the people who lived in Dublin as I do with my own great-great-great-grandfather. Very little. I share genes with my family. I share the physical experience of this city with its former residents. But the city has changed so much; almost unrecognisably in many parts. So is it really the same place? Not to mention the evolving cultural influences that have impacted the city’s shapes, sights, sounds, smells, etc. Thanks to the supremacy of American media, Dubliners now have more in common with the Kardashians than with their own grandparents' generation.
As William J Smyth said in 1985,
“sense of place is bound up with memory, identity, caring; with articulating the true nature of our past experiences so as to enable us, more creatively, to engage the present, and through that the future.
It is possible to share these past experiences through the songs and music of the past. We can use these memories to help us define ourselves. Only with an appreciation of what's gone before can we cast judgement on our own past and our own identity. If we can't engage with our own community, we're left alone to forge meaning and identity through other sources; like American media.
Who we are is much more complex than our family history. Likewise, where we're from is much more complex than the physical space in which we find ourselves. Like a map, a physical location is “static” and “does not capture the rounded sense of place as experienced by the insider”:
This experience involves all the senses – of seeing, feeling, of sound, or touch or taste. The map does not capture the Proustian smell of hayfields and the cowhouse, the ritual of the calendar feasts, of places saturated with pain and love, meanness and meaning. Neither does the map capture the excitement and roguery of the market, the squalor and the songs of the back streets, the variety of human life in city, town and kitchen.
It's these 'memory-moments' that make us who we are. They grant us our cultural references. I believe that culture is behaviour; we are what we do. Smyth said in 1985 that, "To know who you are as a people is vital to the balance of all our lives." We have to be careful to stave off the gradual dissolution of local memory and therefore local identity. This could easily happen if we don't remember the things that brought us to where we are. It has happened before. Indeed, it's already happened in large parts of western Ireland where songs, stories, language has been lost. Looking at Dublin in 2016, is the cult of progress is "eliminating part of our memory, part of our identity, part of our future"?
Folklore is a product of a people’s culture. Stories and songs are passed through generations to preserve the previous impressions of a community. These can be melodies, ideas, rhythms, stories or movements. Dancing and singing are age-old human pastimes. They are timeless. By participating in the traditional arts here in Ireland, we can share a moment of community with our ancestors (the people who lived here before us). Though removed in time, we are connected by place. A song can act as a time machine; or, as composer Michael McGlynn has said, songs exist “out of time”.
One of the reasons we enjoy the traditional arts relates to our constant search for identity. We crave a connection to people whom we perceive to be similar. Through the traditional arts, we can connect with people who are absent, who are gone, who have said what they wanted to say. By singing folk songs, we can feel a connection with such people in the past. Often, we pursue this connection backwards in time while ignoring or suppressing the social need to engage with others in the present, who might live and work and move around us every day.1
When we see artworks from another era, we can begin to imagine the culture of those peoples through their works of art. Therefore, we can have a more complex and personal understanding of the people. If these people come from our own place, we often feel we can better understand ourselves. Lore also has a narrative power when it takes the form of story and song (but can also be abstract) in that it allows us each to have an interpretation and thus add to the story as it is passed onto the next recipient. In this way, we are contributing to our own story, our own identity.
If we can participate in our own folklore, we are creating it in community with others. In practice, the artist constantly views the world around herself and, through imagination and a process of digesting the events of the day, produces work that represent the time she lives in. This way, the artist encodes the experiences of her own time. If we participate, we can also be a part of this process of encoding our own culture, actively making our own traditions.
On this point, I’d like to lay out a few of the fascinating ideas I’ve come across in my recent studies of philosophers John Dewey (“Art as Experience”, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1934.) and Maxine Greene (“Releasing the imagination: essays on education, the arts, and social change”, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.).
It’s not that easy to participate in works of art - especially contemporary art forms. In the 1930s, Dewey wrote about the energy a person needs to apprehend art. It is not enough to merely walk through a museum. To have an aesthetic experience requires a personal commitment, an emotional and personal conviction, an effort to identify with the artwork. Maxine Greene refers to this as a “mind-opening” effect. Only when we ask questions of ourselves can we be receptive to a piece of art, a song, a painting. Greene believes that art opens us up to new ways of seeing the world. She advocated for “aesethic education” as an approach to open the minds of those people living at the margins of society, in order to present new possibilities for them of imagining new ways to exist in the world.
If so, we need certain things before we can engage. We need a reason to engage. We need a physical space in which we are comfortable enough to relate to the artwork, on our terms. It’s difficult to force people to connect to a performance if they are initially disinterested or disengaged; this may be as a personal response to the ideas presented, the space being used, or indeed the form being employed (ballet, sculpture, folksong).
Identity & the Other
Dewey writes that artworks can help us to appreciate and understand “otherness” and people who are outside of (or marginalised from) our own society. Dewey described art as “a continuity of experience” between people from different worlds; through a felt, imagined connection of individuals removed in time and place. Art can therefore be the source of a relationship with someone or something unfamiliar (a culture, person, idea). After an artistic experience, we can learn to see with someone else’s eyes, to hear with her ears.
In “Philosophy of Right”, Hegel wrote that each of us gains validity and finds satisfaction in others. In this way, we are very much social creatures. Hegel describes how individuals (the “particular person”) actually need others to accomplish their goals - whether in the context of work, friendship, family or love.
In his writings on civil society, John Keane reminds us of the inherit tensions of a pluralist, multiculturalist society. So we are presented with a picture of contemporary society as necessarily social yet inevitably conflicting.
Dewey wrote that “[moralities] are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo, reflections of custom, reinforcements of the established order”. I think this means that rules and standards can become engrained in culture to the extent that they end up being outdated. However, Dewey believed the artist can generate meaning in the world beyond the evidence we can actually observe (eg. generalised ideas of right and wrong).
An artist’s ideas about the future come from her “imaginative vision”; in Dewey’s words, “change in the climate of the imagination is the precursor” to real-life changes.2
Representation Through Art
So we as citizens can unleash our own imaginations as to what might be possible in our own worlds. Museums play a important role in this process in providing a hushed atmosphere for personal reflection on artefacts and artworks. Of course, lots of people don’t feel comfortable in museums, so we must ask: for whom are such institutions a barrier to seeing the world in a different way?
In recent decades, artists have accepted that, by experiencing art in a more comfortable atmosphere, the audience is more open to the ideas within. Otherwise, when artists are obsessed with more traditional modes of cultural dissemination, people who are deemed to be uneducated/uninitiated can feel excluded from the process.
Thus, an “authentic invitation” can disentangle an artwork from the prestige or prejudice of its context. This is very important for any artist, or any innovator attempting to introduce a new idea to any audience. So how can we extend this authentic invitation? How can we engage citizens in a genuine dialogue about human values? Dewey believed that art gives us the capacity to sympathise, to identify with others beyond a relation to the past, and can serve as a way to see and imagine possibilities in the present (as well as the future).
By this reasoning, music could be seen as a powerful approach to fostering ‘community amongst any group of people, especially people who are already connected by place.
1) I think we choose to sing these songs because there’s a security in that distance, and this temporal abstraction keeps us safe. Although the function of traditional music in Ireland is highly social, we operate in a modernist society; one in which “hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les autres”, Huis Clos, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1944). Perhaps the cultural shift that occurred in Europe throughout the 20th century, alongside the boom in interpersonal technological relationships, has rendered incompatible our own understanding of social function of traditional music and song in Ireland today. Of course, to appeal to contemporary audiences, the traditional arts must evolve although this might seem to contradict a purist’s idea of tradition.
2) The infrastructure of statehood illustrates one model of conflict management on a large scale. An authority chooses its citizenry, which it protects with laws and international norms. If there are citizens, by definition there must be non-citizens. The state owes little to no obligation in law to these alien non-citizens. The state may act as it wishes towards stateless individuals, who exist without an authority to defend them. For citizens to retain the legal protection they enjoy, they/we must abide by the rules and laws of the state. If not, they/we risk ex-communication. In recent history, this has been documented in Guantánamo Bay and in refugee “camps” (so-called as per Giorgio Agamben’s theory on homo sacer) constructed at Europe’s borders.