In the 1820s the hangman for the Connacht circuit was a woman known as ‘Lady Betty’. She had actually been sentenced to death for killing her own son, and stealing his savings. But she escaped the hangman’s noose by pleading that she could fill the vacancy that existed for a hangman. Her first hanging was watched to see if she could handle the rough business of a public execution with some sort of expediency. Apparently she could. She was officially appointed to hang and flog those convicted in the Connacht courts.
I first heard of ‘Lady Betty’ in Sir William Wilde’s Irish Popular Superstitions published in 1852, when the author was 37 years of age. Sir William, born in March 1815, had spent an idyllic boyhood playing, fishing and hunting through the fields and woods around Elphin and Castlerea in County Roscommon. His father was the local doctor, and young William was probably welcomed into every home of the parish. The book contains many stories and superstitions that as an adult, Sir William, as well as being a renowned medical man, became famous for. It also contains horrific descriptions of the Great Famine, and a story of cruelty and disaster that struck the family of Paddy Welsh.
Paddy Welsh with his wife and son, Michael, lived in a thatched cottage beside the River Suck at Castlecoote. Paddy befriended the doctor’s son, telling him fantastical stories of the neighbourhood, playing his fiddle, and showing him how to make fishing flies. He was an expert fly fisherman. Young William delighted in his company. The seeds of a love for the ways of the countryside and its antiquities were well sown in the young boy, when Paddy Welsh died of a fever. William was eight years old.
Then a series of disasters happened to the Welsh family that would forever stay in William’s mind. One night a large band of Ribbonmen * called to the Welsh cottage door. They knew the late Paddy was a sporting man, and they wanted his shotgun. When they had the gun, and saw young Michael, they insisted he join them. They planned an attack on Ballinrobe barracks. Michael, who had had a premonition of his death some days before, had no choice but to go along with the gang.
The police had been alerted, however, and were waiting in the ruins of Ballintubber castle, the very place where Michael felt that he had been cursed. The police allowed some of the Ribbonmen to pass before opening fire. The gang fled in all directions. Two youths were to later die of their wounds, and dozens were arrested. But Michael Welsh lay dead on the roadway.
A bizarre procession
On the following Monday morning, two poles forming a gallows were erected in the market square of Roscommon town. From these the body of Paddy Welsh’s son was suspended by his hands. A placard, with the word ‘Ribbonman’ scrawled across it, attached to a decorated hat was fixed by ‘Lady Betty’ on the dead youth’s head.
About noon Michael’s body was taken down and tied in a sitting position in a cart which then set off at the head of a bizarre procession, which wound its way slowly through the town. Three horses and carts followed. Bound to the tailboard of each cart was a man sentenced to flogging. This time, a young Sicilian did the whipping. When he grew weary, he was replaced by some of the drummers from the local army stationed in the province. ‘The carts were followed by a cavalcade of mounted police, army officers and magistrates. Sir William concludes that ‘it completely put an end to Ribbonism in that district for many a year.’
Destroyed by scandal
I am taking this story from a new book on the lives of the Wilde family just published by the Galway poet Gerard Hanberry.**Sir William Wilde, a brilliant eye and ear surgeon, was a man of many talents. He was appointed the Medical Commissioner for Ireland to examine information gleaned from the 1841 and the important post Great Famine 1851 censuses. He catalogued the entire collection of antiquities at the Royal Irish Academy in six months, completed just two days before a visit from the British Association, the most important archaeological organisation in Europe at the time. It was immensely impressed at Ireland’s treasures, and its catalogue. Wilde whisked them all off to Inish Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, where they picnicked at Dún Aengus on the edge of a a sheer drop into the Atlantic. The visitors were over whelmed, and charmed. Wilde famously diagnosed that the so called ‘madness’ of Dean Jonathan Swift, dead since 1745, was probably due to severe pain caused by a swelling on his eye, which he noticed on Swift’s death mask.
Sir William married the foremost beauty and rebel poet of her day, Jane Elgee, who, under the name ‘Speranza’, wrote passionate nationalistic poems and articles for Gavan Duffy’s the Nation, the organ of the Young Ireland movement. William, who had three children before he met Speranza, had three children with her: Willie, Oscar, and a daughter Isola who died tragically young. But what is truly remarkable in this exceptional book, is that both father and his son Oscar were destroyed by scandal. Sir William was accused of seducing one of his young patients, resulting in a sensational and drawn out trial which gripped Dublin, and Oscar was destroyed by his reckless sexual liaisons with men and boys in the Victorian Age. Speranza ended up a tragic and penniless figure of fun in poor London lodgings.
Hanberry continues the Wilde story right up to the present time, through the lives of Oscar and Willie’s children and grandchildren. Placing the life of Oscar in the context of his family background,‘ a more complete picture emerges of this brilliant Irishman, whose wit and works still dazzle, and whose tragic fall still breaks the reader’s heart’.
Whenever he could Sir William escaped his cares and woes to his home at Moytura House at Cong, Co Mayo, taking his boys when they were on school holidays, exploring, measuring and sketching the ruins, and ancient sites along the Corrib and its islands.***
Oscar could not help but to be influenced by his father’s stories of legends, history and superstitions. Oscar was always very superstitious. Even though he understood that superstitions were ‘the opponents of common sense’, he also held that ‘common sense is the enemy of romance’.
*Ribbonmen was one of several 19th century secret societies recruited from the ranks of farmers, shopkeepers, publicans, tradesmen and wage earners, who continued the aspirations of the old United Irishmen towards an independent Ireland.
**More Lives Than One - The remarkable Wilde family through the generations by Gerard Hanberry, published by The Collins Press, on sale at €24.99.
*** Sir William wrote some 12 books, but perhaps his most famous book in this part of the island is his Lough Corrib - its shores and Islands, first published 1872.