Although the Oxford English dictionary defines a harbinger as a person or thing that signals the approach of something, there is no mention made about the possibility of a supernatural component to the agent which bears the signal. When I first heard stories about harbingers in the history of our family, the stories often seemed to include supernatural elements. As a rational person it was easy for me to be skeptical; however, it is clear to me that for the people who experienced their individual event each one truly believed there was something supernatural in what happened to him/her. This is particularly true when it comes to harbingers of death.
According to family lore, just before a person dies a harbinger of death appears. This is a belief which was held by several members of my family such as my parents, and aunts and uncles on both sides of the family, including my paternal great-aunt Mollie, sister to my grandmother Anne Magee Geraghty. In the history of our family these forewarnings have manifested as a large black dog, a small white dove, a dreaded month on the calendar, and, most dramatically, a large fireball. Following the death of a beloved family member, you might also hear or see something which you would only associate with that individual.
In the biographical note to his father's memoir Material for Victory, Laurence J. Kettle, the son of my great-great grandmother Mary's brother Andrew J. Kettle, writes of his father's dread of the month of September. Andrew believed the month portended the death of a family member. Mary and Andrew's mother Alice O'Kavanagh Kettle had died in the month of September, on the 24th day in the year 1855. Their father Thomas Kettle also died in that fateful month, on 22 September 1871, as did their brother Patrick, on 25 September 1894. Andrew's beloved son Thomas Michael Kettle was killed on the Somme on 9 September 1916, and Andrew J. himself died only 13 days later on 22 September 1916. It seems September was indeed a month which heralded death for the Kettle clan.
|Ringsend Bridge over the River Dodder|
Did the large black dog on the bridge portend a death?
In December of 1954 my paternal grandfather John Geraghty was very ill. My father and mother — Michael and Mary — had been married for just over four months, and were out for an evening together. At the end of their evening Michael and Mary decided to stop by her family home on Gordon Street in Dublin. They were walking across the Ringsend bridge over the Dodder river when toward them came an unattended large black dog walking very slowly. The dog crossed the road and passed them on the opposite side of the bridge.
My father said for some reason he felt compelled to look at the dog. When he turned to see it, the dog had disappeared. Inexplicably in that moment my father instantly knew his father was dead. Michael told Mary they must go immediately to his family home. Upon their arrival they discovered his father John Geraghty had indeed passed away.
|The white dove: a symbol of peace or a harbinger of death?|
In February of 1963 when my maternal grandfather Patrick Ball died my parents were living in Canada. My mother said that in the morning on the day her father died she was standing in her kitchen drying the breakfast dishes. In the process of drawing the plates and cups from the drying rack, she reached for a china teacup. My mother said she was stopped in her tracks because there was a very small white dove inside the cup. Frightened, Mom ran to a neighbour's house, but wouldn't tell the neighbour what she thought she had seen, and why she was so frightened. That night my mother and father received news from Ireland that my mother's father Patrick had died.
One of my mother's deepest regrets over the loss of her father was, that over the almost six and a half years my mom had been living in Canada, she did not telephone her father very often nor write to him as often as she then felt she should have. Mom dearly wished she had taken the opportunity to tell her father how much she cherished him, and she wished she had had the chance to say goodbye to her dad before he passed away.
My mother told me that a couple of days after my grandfather died she was once again in her kitchen. This time Mom was preparing the evening meal. My father had not yet returned from work, yet my mom heard a male voice softly calling her name. 'Mary, Mary, Mary', it repeated to her. Suddenly Mom realized the voice she was hearing was that of her father. In this instance she did not feel frightened. Instead my mom felt her father had come to say goodbye to her. With tears of happiness in her eyes, she called out 'Goodbye Dad!' Mom said that although her words were met with silence, she fervently believed she had heard the voice of her father bidding her goodbye, and she felt very happy he had come to her.
|Was there a ball of fire on the bridge that day?|
On 26 March 1953 my paternal grandmother Anne 'Annie' Magee Geraghty was hospitalized for minor surgery. It was discovered she had undiagnosed diabetes, as well as a whole host of other very serious health problems. Annie died of cardiac and renal failure within hours of being admitted to hospital. Annie's sister, the late Mollie Magee Halpin, was on her way to the hospital to check on her sister when Mollie encountered a very strange harbinger of death.
Molly said she was walking, again across a bridge, when from the opposite side she saw a large fireball rolling across the bridge toward her. She said she was frozen in her tracks and could do nothing other than turn away from the fire to protect herself. She swore she could feel the heat from the fireball as it passed her on the bridge. Mollie said that at that moment she felt with deep certainty her sister Annie had died. When Mollie arrived at the hospital her feeling of certainty was confirmed for her when she learned her sister Annie had indeed passed away.
Some may not agree that belief in harbingers of death is a sort of wisdom. However, one can surmise that if over the history of a person's life the deaths of members of his/her family are always preceded by these kinds of forewarning, then we might say a person had learned from his/her experience. Such learning might make him/her more intuitive, and such intuition may be said to be wisdom.
Are there any similar beliefs about harbingers of death in your family, or about 'visits' by deceased family members?
Thanks to The Graphics Fairy for the image of the dove.