Saturday, October 31, 2015

Sepia Saturday #303: On All Hallow's Eve: Tales of Harbingers & Ghostly Visits

Harbinger: noun: a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of something.

All Hallow’s Eve, a.k.a. Hallowe’en, often elicits thoughts of the magical and the mysterious. The Hallowe'en inspiration image for today's Sepia Saturday has me thinking about the mysterious beliefs of those members of our family of 'good lineage', who shared tales about harbingers of death, and the supernatural elements which often accompanied those forewarnings.

When I first heard stories about harbingers of death in the history of our Irish family, as a rational person it was easy for me to be skeptical about the veracity of these tales. However, it seems clear each one of the persons associated with such stories genuinely believed auguries of death signalled the imminent passing of their family members.

Also, following the death of a beloved family member, a ghostly visitation from the deceased person was not deemed unusual by a number of family members, neither was hearing, seeing or even smelling something which you would associate only with the loved one who had died.

According to family lore, shortly before a person dies a harbinger of death appears. This is a belief which has been held by a number of members on both sides of the family tree, including my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins of all varieties.

Most interesting are those stories in which harbingers manifested as an enormous black dog, a small white dove, and most dramatically, a massive fireball. Also, at least one relative dreaded an entire month on the calendar, believing it portended the deaths of his family members.

Why did Alice believe falling pictures,
broken china and dropped knives presaged
the death of family members?
On the maternal side of our family tree, harbingers of death have been known to present themselves in a more understated fashion as well. According to my mother, my maternal great-grandaunt Alice Fitzpatrick Ward — the woman who together with my grandfather raised the Ball children — believed a number of harbingers manifested through ordinary household goods. For example, a hanging picture which inexplicably fell from the wall, landing face down, portended the death of a family member or friend.

So too, Alice warned that a broken china plate, especially a treasured one, was an omen of someone ‘leaving the family’. For Alice, even a dropped dinner knife might indicate the departure of a loved one. Perhaps such superstitions led to strict rules governing the way in which the Ball children cleared away and washed up the dishes and cutlery.

Alice is pictured here on the left in the only photograph I have of her, from her 'In Memoriam' card. Although Alice was a devoutly Roman Catholic woman, she shared with my mother a number of superstitions about the dying and the dead.

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Was September a month to be dreaded?
Did it portend the death of Kettle family members?
Andrew J. Kettle (pictured on the left), brother of my maternal 2nd great-grandmother Mary Kettle Fitzpatrick, had a dread of the month of September. An intelligent and accomplished gentleman, Andrew nevertheless believed September was a month which portended the death of family members. So firm was his conviction that the ninth month was one of fateful foreboding, his son Laurence made mention of the belief in the biographical note to his father's memoir, The Material for Victory.

Seems Andrew J. Kettle had good reason to dread September. Mary and Andrew's mother Alice O'Kavanagh Kettle died in the month of September, on the 24th day in the year 1855. Their father Thomas Kettle also died in that ruinous month, passing over to the 'other side' on 22 September 1871. 

Mary and Andrew's brother Patrick passed away on 25 September 1894. As well, Andrew's beloved son Thomas Michael Kettle was killed on the Somme in France on 9 September 1916, and Andrew J. Kettle himself died only 13 days later on 22 September 1916. Fifty one years after her father died, Catherine Kettle passed away on 13 September 1967. Additionally, other Kettle descendants have died in the month of September. It seems September is indeed a month which heralded death for members of the Kettle clan.

Although we might view the Kettle deaths in September as purely coincidental, it is not difficult to imagine this deeply religious man might have come to believe September would continue to ring out the death knells in his family.

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Was the enormous black dog on Ringsend Bridge an omen of the death of my paternal grandfather?
By December of 1954 my paternal grandfather John Geraghty — never an especially robust fellow — had been ill for quite some time. On the 9th of December, my father Michael and mother Mary had been married for just over four months, and were out together for an evening's entertainment, visiting friends in Ringsend. At the end of their evening, Michael and Mary decided to stop by her family home on Gordon Street. They were walking across the Ringsend bridge over the River Dodder when toward them came an unattended enormous black dog walking very slowly. The dog crossed the road and passed them on the opposite side of the bridge. 

Startled by the sheer size of the animal, my father said he felt compelled to look at the dog, to be sure it wasn't wending its way back toward them. He stopped at the centre of the bridge and looked across the road to see it, but the dog had disappeared. Inexplicably in that moment my father knew his father was dead. My father told my mother they must go immediately to his family home. They flagged the lone black taxi travelling down Ringsend Road and asked the driver to hurry to the Geraghty home in Crumlin. Upon their arrival they discovered Dad's father John Geraghty had indeed passed away. Although my dad felt skeptical about what his own eyes had seen, he believed the massive black dog, who seemingly disappeared in the middle of the stone bridge, had been a harbinger of his father's death.

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Did a tiny dove appear in a china teacup,
presaging the death of my maternal grandfather?
In February of 1963, when my maternal grandfather Patrick Ball died, my parents and brother were living in Canada. My mother shared with me the story of an incident which occurred in the early hours of the day on which her father died. That morning, standing in her kitchen drying the breakfast dishes, my mom reached to draw a china teacup from the drying rack. 

My mother said she was stopped in her tracks because curled up inside the china cup was a very small white dove. Frightened, she ran to a neighbour's house, but simply could not bring herself to tell the neighbour what she thought she had seen, and why she was so frightened. My mom thought her neighbour would think she was 'mad as a hatter'. Later that day my mother and father received a telephone call from Ireland bearing the news that my mom's father Patrick had died that morning. In retrospect, my mother believed the appearance of the tiny dove foretold her father's death.

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Did the spirit of Patrick Ball visit his daughter?
After her father died, my mother profoundly regretted the fact that, during the almost six and a half years since she and my father and brother had emigrated away from Ireland, my mom had not telephoned her father very often, nor written to him as often as she then felt she should have. Mom dearly wished she had taken the opportunity to tell her dad how much she cherished him, and lamented not having the chance to say goodbye to her father before he passed away.

A couple of days after her father died my mother was once again in her kitchen. This time she was preparing the evening meal. Although my dad Michael had not yet returned from work, my mom heard a male voice softly calling her name. 'Mary, Mary, Mary'. Initially thinking it was Michael, Mary called out, 'I'm here in the kitchen'.

The disembodied voice repeated Mary's name. Suddenly, she realized the voice she was hearing was not that of her husband, but was instead her father calling to her. In this instance she did not feel frightened. Instead she believed her father had come to say goodbye to her. With tears of happiness in her eyes, she called out 'Goodbye Dad, God Bless You!' Although her words were met with silence, Mom said she whole-heartedly believed she had heard the voice of her father bidding her goodbye, and she felt very happy he had come to 'visit' her.

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Did Mollie truly see a terrifying fireball,
and was it a harbinger of her sister's death?
Perhaps the most extraordinary story about the appearance of a harbinger is one told by my paternal grandaunt Mary 'Mollie' Magee Halpin.

On 26 March 1953, Mollie's sister, my grandmother Anne 'Annie' Magee Geraghty was hospitalised for 'exploratory' surgery. It was discovered Annie had undiagnosed diabetes, as well as a whole host of other very serious health problems. The doctors quickly concluded nothing could be done for Annie.

Unaware of the dire state of her sister's health, Mollie waited until the end of the day to visit her sister in hospital, On her way, she had a very strange encounter of the supernatural variety.

Mollie said she was walking across a bridge, when from the opposite side she saw a massive fireball rolling across the bridge toward her. She was both shocked and horrified by what she saw, but was unable to run away, and could do nothing more than turn away from the fire to protect herself. Mollie swore she could feel the heat from the fiery sphere on her back as it passed her on the bridge. When she turned to look at it, the fireball was gone and a feeling of deep peace and serenity came over her. Mollie said in that moment she felt with absolute certainty her sister Annie had died.

When Mollie arrived at the hospital her feeling of certainty was confirmed for her when she learned Annie had died of cardiac and renal failure. According to the attending physician, Annie's death had occurred around the time Mollie was crossing the bridge. Her whole life long Mollie fervently believed the fireball was real, and was a harbinger of her sister Annie's death.

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As I said at the outset of this piece, it is easy to be skeptical about such stories. However, there remains so much about death and dying that we do not know, and what truly goes on in 'the great beyond' remains a mystery to those of us still on 'this side’, so perhaps such harbingers do appear when Death comes knocking on Life's door.

Do you have similar beliefs about harbingers of death, or stories of 'visits' by deceased relatives, on your family tree?

Be sure to fly on over to the Sepia Saturday blog to connect with others and read their take on today's inspiration image.

Happy Hallowe'en!


©irisheyesjg2015.

26 comments:

  1. We really are a superstitious lot, aren’t we, Jennifer ;-) ‘Three dead knocks’, signaled the death of someone in my grandmother’s family – When a person answered knocking on the door, no one was there. This happened three times and afterwards news would come of a death in the family. This omen always scared the life out of me and I thank God, I’ve never heard knocking myself!

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    1. Dara, thanks very much for your comments. A superstitious lot indeed! 'Three dead knocks': This omen would scare the life out of me too, especially since I live in a city in which a lot of people — charity canvassers, 'bible-thumpers', and various workmen — usually knock at the door instead of ringing the doorbell. It will take on a whole new meaning for me now. :-)

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  2. Poor Andrew, dreading an entire month must have been very stressful. I find these tales fascinating. (I like Dara's 3 dead knocks too) The fireball one makes me wonder about Mollie’s relationship with her sister. Was it a “fiery” one? Happy Hallowe'en Jenn!

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    1. Charlotte, thanks very much for your comments. I feel the same way about Andrew, poor fellow, though I can relate to him somewhat when it comes to the month of March. Such an interesting idea about the fireball and their relationship. Definitely food for thought! Happy Hallowe'en to you too!

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  3. I do believe that some of us do experience feelings of dead loved ones near us.

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    1. Jackie, thanks very much for your comment. I feel the same way. Occasionally, especially when I'm driving, the fragrance of my mam's perfume or my dad's tobacco seems to be in the air, and I feel as though they are with me. It's a nice thing.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  4. I've got goosebumps from reading this. Fascinating! I have NO such stories, and that makes me rather jealous.

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    1. Wendy, thanks very much for your comments. I felt the same way when I was composing the post. Sorry you have no such stories, but we'll happily share if you'd like a couple of Irish ones. ;-)

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. I'm with Wendy...glad not to have those stories, jealous that I don't. What a conflicting set of emotions!! I'm old enough to know that NOTHING is impossible...

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    1. Deb, thanks very much for your comments. Conflicting emotions indeed! You're welcome to some Irish harbingers too. ;-) I'm with you in being old enough to know nothing is impossible. What is it they say? Stranger than fiction?

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  6. This was so interesting to read. No stories like this in my family. I was rather jealous as I read because these stories are so well preserved in your family - my family has not done so well at storytelling. Poor Andrew - always dreading the month of September and wondering who would be next to go.

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    1. Kathy, thanks very much for your comments. Ah yes, I'm very grateful some of my Irish family members down through time have been great storytellers, though some topics required a little more drawing out, and sometimes a lot of questions. I agree with you about Andrew J. Kettle. I find it interesting to know that a man who had accomplished so much with Parnell and the Land League would have such fears.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  7. What an interesting superstition! Most superstitions are interesting to me however as my life has been all but void of any experience with them.. The only superstition I can remember being mentioned when I was young was that a hat on the bed meant bad luck. I vaguely remember something about opening an umbrella indoors too. Good post. Fine stories. Made me think.

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    1. Anyjazz, thanks very much for your comments. I remember being scolded for putting new shoes on a table (in the box, mind you) and opening an umbrella indoors. I'll have to ask my cousins about bad luck and a hat on the bed, because I'm not familiar with that one. As Dara mentioned, we Irish are quite a superstitious lot.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  8. Fascinating! My great grandparents were Irish but I never heard my mother mention anything about any family supertitions or intuitions, apart from things like touching wood if you say something has never happened to you for example, which I feel compelled to do.

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    1. Jo, thanks very much for your comments. Perhaps there are some superstitions waiting to found in family stories. No doubt not every Irishman/woman was/is superstitious. In my own family, it seems as though those who lived away from the big cities such as Dublin and Belfast tended to be more superstitious, although Alice Fitzpatrick Ward, a farmer's daughter and a sea captain's wife who lived most of her life in Dublin seemed to believe in a lot of them.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  9. It is interesting how many harbingers of deth have been experienced by your family members, though I don't really believe in them or in similar harbingers of bad luck.

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    1. Postcardy, thanks very much for your comments. A good healthy dose of skepticism is always good for the soul, though none of us on this side of 'the curtain' truly knows what's out there. What was it they used to say on X-Files? 'I want to believe' and 'The truth is out there'. ;-)

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  10. An interesting post. I enjoyed it very much. A harbinger is simply a peek into the future. That 'peek', however, can take on strange shapes. The mind is a very strange place (think: dreams!) Some people think it's impossible to see into the future. But it isn't. I don't know how it works? I simply know from years of personal experience, that it does. So I definitely believe in harbingers. It's just that each person sees the future in their own way - whatever way that might be - be it a fireball, a black dog, a white dove or ??? Not everyone has the ability to see into the future, however. I'm not sure why? But I don't argue with it. Sometimes I wish I didn't have the ability. Other times I'm glad I do. I guess I simply have to accept that "it is what it is" as today's favorite saying goes.

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    1. La Nightingail, thanks very much for your comments, and your very interesting take on harbingers. There is so much in this wide world and beyond that we do not understand, the possibilities are unending.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  11. Wow. My family isn't superstitious at all so these sort of stories are foreign to me. How fascinating.

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    1. Lorraine, thanks very much for your comments. It is so interesting to me to think about the differences between families. As you say, such stories of superstition are foreign to you, whereas my mam told us so many similar stories and legends when we were growing up. I do think it is fascinating too.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  12. Interesting post Jennifer. In my opinion it’s easy to be a skeptic, but I think superstitions reveal a more complex belief system and the idea that some people are more intuitive to these kinds of things. Some of my family members have had similar beliefs. It’s nice to think your grandad came to say goodbye to your mom. I’ve not yet experienced anything like these (not that I’ll admit to, anyway).
    :-) Catherine

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    1. Catherine, thanks very much for your comments. I also believe some people may be more open to accepting the 'unusual'. I'm with you in liking the idea of my grandad having come to 'say goodbye'. It certainly brought comfort to my mam to believe so. Hmm? Now I'm curious about what you won't admit to. ;-)

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  13. Wonderful stories; I actually felt a shiver run up my spine!

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    1. Little Nell, thanks very much for your comments. Me too; I get shivers when I think about them.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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