THE BLACK RIBBON.
From "Pearson's Magazine," May, 1907.
Of the strange old legends told of the early days of many of our historic houses, most have come down to us with such obvious additions and exaggerations as to make them, though always interesting, quite incredible. But of the Beresford ghost short, hereafter narrated, this is not so. Alter a lapse of over two centuries, it remains one of the few true ghost stories incapable of any material explanation; special value attaches to the present version of the story, as it has been compiled from the family records, and authenticated by the present representative of the family, the Marquis of Waterford.
The Irish Beresfords are a family of great antiquity. Among their family portraits is one of a certain Lady Beresford, clad in the picturesque dress of the latter part of the seventeenth century, and wearing round her right wrist a broad band of black ribbon.
Thereby hangs the following story:--
In the month of October, 1693, Sir Tristram and Lady Beresford, of Curraghmore, were the guests of Lady Macgill, at
Gill Hall, Dromore, County Down,
the present seat of Lord Clanwilliam.
One morning Sir Tristram awoke early and went out for a long walk before breakfast, leaving Lady Beresford still asleep in bed.
On his return the family sat down to breakfast. Lady Beresford was still absent, and as the meal progressed Sir Tristram became anxious, and a servant was sent in search of her. Presently she entered the dining-room, showing plainly by her looks and manner that something serious had happened.
Sir Tristram inquired the cause of her agitation, and then, noticing that she was broad piece of ribbon bound tightly round her right wrist, he asked anxiously whether she had met with an accident.
Lady Beresford begged him in an undertone not to make any remarks about the ribbon, adding in a vehement whisper, "You will never see me without it again."
"Very well," said Sir Tristram, "since it is a secret then I will make no more inquiries about it."
Lady Beresford then asked whether any letters had arrived for her, and Sir Tristram asked her if she had any particular reason for so doing.
"Yes," she replied, "it is because I am expecting to hear of the death of Lord Tyrone, which took place on Tuesday last."
As Lord Tyrone, who was a family friend, was then supposed to be in his usual health, Sir Tristram at once concluded that his lady had had a bad dream, which had evidently preyed upon her mind. At that moment, however, a letter with a black seal was handed to Sir Tristram, and the moment Lady Beresford saw it she exclaimed, "it is to say he is dead!"
The letter, which was from Lord Tyrone's steward, was indeed found to contain the sad news of his lordship's death. Lady Beresford, although greatly grieved, declared she felt almost relieved for now she knew the worst. She then informed her husband that the child that was soon to be born to her would be a boy, a fact of which she said she felt quite as certain as she had done respecting the news about Lord Tyrone.
In the following July a son was born, and about six years afterwards Sir Tristram Beresford died. Lady Beresford then withdrew herself from society, and taking her two children with her, retired to one of the family seats in County Derry, where she proceeded to lead a simple country life of secluded calm.
Among her neighbours were some connections of the family, a Mr and Mrs. Jackson, who had a house at Coleraine. Mrs. Jackson had been formerly a Miss Gorges, daughter of Dr. Robert Gorges, and her brother, Richard Gorges, often stayed with her. While on one of these visits to her sister he promptly fell in love with the still young and comely Lady Beresford, and in 1704 they were married.
The marriage turned out an exceedingly unhappy one. Two sons and a daughter were born to the ill-assorted couple, but soon after the birth of the second son they parted. Through all these years Lady still wore the band of black ribbon round her wrist, and no eye ever beheld her without it.
When Sir Marcus Beresford, her eldest son, was a lad of about twenty, his mother invited him, and also her daughter, Lady Riverstone, to be present at some celebration in honour of her birthday. Dr. King, the Archbishop of Dublin, and an old clergyman who had christened Lady Beresford, were also present. The latter was specially honoured by his hostess, and in the course of conversation she said to him: "You know I am forty-eight today."
"Nay," he replied, "I can assure your ladyship that you are only forty-seven."
"Then," said Lady Beresford, "you have signed my death-warrant. Send my son and daughter to me immediately, for I have much to do before I prepare for death."
When alone with her two children, Lady Beresford told them that she had something of great importance to communicate to them, and forthwith proceeded to disclose the mystery of the black ribbon by relating the following weird story.
She and Lord Tyrone, she said, had been educated together as children, and the greatest sympathy and love ever existed between them. They were both brought up as Deists, but had strong leanings towards Christianity, and being greatly doubtful and perplexed, they made a solemn promise that whichever died first should, if permitted, appear to the other to declare which religion was more acceptable to God.
One night, she went on, as she was sleeping in her bed at Gill Hall, near Dromore, County Down, she suddenly awoke and saw Lord Tyrone standing by her bedside. Terribly frightened, she was about to scream and awaken her husband, but at last she found courage to address him.
"Tell me why are you here at this hour of the night?"
"Have you forgotten our compact, pledged to one another years ago?" he replied "I am allowed thus to appear to tell you that the Christian religion is the one by which you will be saved."
The ghost then informed her that she would be blessed with a long-wished-for son, that she would survive her husband and marry a second time, and that she would die at the age of forty-seven. "I myself," he added, "died on Tuesday at four o'clock."
Lady Beresford then begged the apparition to give her some sign so that in the morning she might know the whole episode had not been a dream.
"Reach out your hand," said the spirit.
Lady Beresford did so, whereupon he laid his hand, which was cold, like marble, heavily upon her wrist. Immediately the nerves withered and the sinews shrank, leaving a broad red scar.
Next morning Lady Beresford bound her wrist with black ribbon, and as time went on all the prophecies were fulfilled in a most remarkable manner, except, apparently, that of her death, for she was congratulating herself that she had passed her fatal forty-seventh birthday, when the old clergyman disillusioned her by informing her that she was really only forty-seven at present.
Lady Beresford added that she wished her son and daughter to untie the piece of black ribbon after she was dead. They left her quite calm and about to sleep, but an hour later her bell rang hastily, and all was over.
Before she was put in her coffin, however, Sir Marcus Beresford and Lady Riverstone knelt solemnly by her bedside and removed the black ribbon as they had promised. They found the wrist marked and scarred exactly as their mother had described.
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The Rev. Classon Porter, in his article "Witches, Warlocks, and Ghosts," reprinted from the "Northern Whig," 1885, gives a lengthy and detailed account of the Lord Tyrone ghost story. He states that when Lady Beresford asked the spirit to prove to her by some physical act that the vision apparently before her was real and not a phantom of her brain, the figure drew aside the curtains of the bed, and also wrote a few words in her pocketbook, which was lying on the table. Even this did not satisfy Lady Beresford, when the spirit asked her to hold out her arm, with the result as detailed above.
The article also contained an account of the Islandmagee Witches; Dr. Colville, Galgorm, Ballymena, and the Evil One; and the Haddock Ghost Story, investigated and certified by Bishop Jeremy Taylor.
The Rev. Classon Porter was minister of the Unitarian Church at Larne. Born 1814, died 1885. He wrote at considerable length on Presbyterian Church history and biography. His articles, "Jeremy Taylor at Portmore, before he became Bishop," and "Bishop Taylor at Portmore and the Neighbourhood" are interesting and valuable.
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A FAMOUS LISBURN MURDER, 1813.
(From the "Northern Whig.")
In Lisburn in 1813 there lived a baker named Adam Sloan, and among his employees was one Barney M'Cann (paid, it may be remarked incidentally, 6s 6d a week), a slight slip of an active lad, who had previously worked in Dromore and who was a native of Newtownhamilton. He was, as they, say, a bit of a playboy -- we do not get much money but we do see life -- and the Maze Races coming on, he duly went to the Maze.
But not alone.
He had found a fellow-townsman, Owen M'Adam, a cattle and horse dealer, who had got a sheaf of notes, a pony that would carry him from Belfast to Dundalk in less than a day, a very peculiar watch, and a great deal more drink than was good for him.
They had no doubt a pleasant day and a pleasant return to Lisburn, and M'Adam then thought that he would go about his business.
In the evening he mounted his famous pony, and, accompanied by M'Cann, passed on towards Hillsborough. They were seen together in many public-houses. In one M'Adam pulled out his sheaf of notes, in another his watch, whose dial was extraordinary in that it had the figures of four soldiers on it. At the Warren gate, Blaris, they stopped at yet another spirit shop to get half a pint of whisky, and when the proprietor objected that M'Adam had had enough, M'Cann replied that it would only sober him. The last that was seen of them was that instead of taking the coach road to Hillsborough they went up the banks of the Lagan.
Nothing more was heard of the traveller for a day or two, when some lightermen found a body near the edge of the water. It seemed at first the victim of an accident, but when the medical evidence showed that the man had been strangled or choked before the boy was thrown into the water; when there was no watch, no money, and no pony; it was seen to be the victim not of accident but of murder, and people began to ask where was M'Cann.
Where was M'Cann? He had come quietly back to Lisburn, and, telling his master that he had got a better job in Dromore, took his clothing and all he owned and as quietly moved on.
Meanwhile the inquest was held, a verdict of wilful murder returned against M'Cann, a warrant issued for his arrest, and the police -- such police as they had in those days -- put in pursuit. For a time they could find his traces. Here a man sold a watch whose dial had four soldiers on it. There a man left a pony to be called for later. M'Cann was known to have a hairy cap -- a leather cap half-covered with rabbit skin -- and they arrested every man with such a cap, but none of them covered the head of M'Cann. So the days passed, the weeks and months, and M'Can had utterly disappeared.
It is an object lesson on the difference that modern means of communication have made. Dr. Crippen might well have envied his predecessor.
Ten years afterwards he was discovered. Not near Lisburn but in Galway, not a baker but a butcher, not a stripling youth but a man of seventeen stone, no longer with 6s 6d a week but with 28 acres of land and £1,500 in the bank, with a wife and five children, and, it appears, the respect and even affection of the people of Galway.
Who discovered him does not appear in the evidence.
The story runs that it was a tinker or pedlar, one of those peripatetics who scour the country and know everybody and everybody's business better than they do themselves. As he was passing down William Street, Galway, the butcher began to chaff him about the purchase of a joint, one word leading on to another till "How do you come to be trading in twigs?" said the butcher; "it's in hemp you ought to be dealing." Then something jogged the pedlar's memory. "If every man got his due," said he, "more nor me would be dealing in hemp, Mr. M'Cann." There is a very suspicious ring about that story. It is rather too neat.
Anyhow, James Hughes was denounced as Barney M'Cann, and Mr. James Burke, the Mayor of Galway, arrested him.
The story goes that he asked M'Cann into his parlour, where he had a file of soldiers, but that is nonsense. He in reality went to the meat market, told M'Cann that he had a very nasty charge against him, and invited him to explain it.
Then Mr. John Reilly, J.P., brother of Mr. William E. Reilly, agent for the Marquis of Downshire, also came into the hearing. Hughes insisted that he was Hughes, and denied that he was M'Cann. He consequently denied that he was a native of Newtownhamilton. He came from Dungannon, he said; but he did not know the name of Northland or Knox, of any magistrate, the parish priest or clergyman, or even of the innkeeper; and he further remarked that even if he had been drinking with M'Adam nobody could prove that he murdered him.
Tried at Downpatrick, the evidence against him was overwhelming.
Unlike the Tichborne claimant, M'Cann could not find anyone who knew him as Hughes before 1813, and even those he produced as witnesses could only swear he was M'Cann.
The verdict was never in doubt, and the judge speedily pronounced the savage verdict of those days:-- "You shall be removed from where you stand to the place from whence you came, the common gaol, there heavily ironed and placed in solitary confinement until the day of your execution. You shall then have your irons struck off and be taken to the place where criminals are usually executed, and there be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Eternal and Omnipotent God have mercy on your soul. And after you are dead your body to he taken to the County Infirmary, there to be dissected and anatomised. The sentence to be carried into execution on Thursday."
This, be it noted, was Wednesday. Prisoner called for a "long day" -- a term forgotten now, a longer respite between sentence and execution -- but it was refused.
The next day dawned, and at twenty minutes to two in the afternoon M'Cann appeared on the scaffold in front of the gaol before a multitude of people. He acknowledged his guilt, he prayed for ten minutes, pulled the cap over his face, and stood calmly to he pinioned. Suddenly the trap was shot, and M'Cann fell; not to his instant death. Under his great weight the rope snapped and he fell twenty feet to the ground. He lit on his feet, but pinioned as he was, collapsed on his back and the soldiers, we read, "with rapid humanity" carried him within the gaol gates. In a few minutes he sat upright upon his own coffin and asked for a drink of water.
There are two stories of what happened then, the penny plain and the twopence coloured. According to the first he cried "My life's my own," for there was a common and rooted idea that such an accident was equivalent to an execution. In the second version, "I have been sentenced to be hanged," he said, "and I have been hanged. We hare satisfied the law's requirements and I suppose I may go."
"Oh, no," replied the sheriff. "It is true that you have been hanged, but it is also true that my orders are to hang you by the neck till you are dead."
Real or apocryphal as that may be, it is a fact that M'Cann remained sitting on his own coffin for an hour and a half. Then he walked steadily again to the scaffold, appearing more afraid of another fall than of his death. This time there was no accident, and soon, with an escort of the 77th Dragoons, his corpse was on its way to be dissected and anatomised.
He was executed at Downpatrick on July 29th, 1823.
(Next week: Some Old Maps.)
(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 29 November 1918 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week for several years. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)