Poem number 21 for April 2015. Last night I was showing my son a book about the area in Co. Mayo, Ireland, where my father’s family were from. It’s called Corthoon, and the nearest town is called Charlestown. The specific townland where my father was born is called Sonnagh. The book is a sort of social history, centred on the local national school. The introduction says “this book is a social history of a part of rural Ireland where people lived for some or all of their lives – many emigrating to Ireland or America never to return and others bringing back life experiences to enrich the folk history of the area”. Well not many came back (other than for a holiday); certainly none of my father’s 13 brothers and sisters ever went back to live there. They all stayed in England or America. The book contains photographs of my father and some of his sisters, brothers and friends. There are interviews and stories, amongst them a story by an aunt of mine, about fairies. There are other tales in the book, about strong men and strong women and ghosts and more fairies. I’ve taken some one of those tales and mixed and embroidered them – that’s what a story is for.
The Strongest Woman in Ireland
… was so strong that she could life a 25 stone sack of oats onto an ass’s back.
She was so strong she lifted a cow out of McGowan’s bog where 10 men could not.
When she was 18 years old she weighed 18 stone. Only the parish priest weighed more.
She could find no dress to fit her and so she wore a tunic made from tent canvas.
Her fame was such that two men came from Dublin to ask her to join their travelling circus.
She was the best dancer in County Mayo and could dance both the man’s and the lady’s part.
She had such an appetite her parents could not keep her fed, so she hunted wild deer and pigs in Coillte Forest and killed them with her bare hands.
Some people say they saw her carrying a sheep under each arm, and that they weren’t her sheep.
One day there was such heavy rain that the river flooded and would have drowned the schoolhouse. She lay down in the path of the river and diverted it around the school.
She was such a fast runner that when her father had a thirst, she could run into the town and bring him back a pint of porter before he even knew he was thirsty.
She did not feel the cold, and would swim in the Sonnagh River in the middle of winter and catch trout with her bare hands.
Her eyes were so keen, she could spot a hare in a field and catch it without any need of a dog.
Her ears were so good that she could hear the priest’s sermon without getting out of bed.
Her hair was so thick that one day when her mother tried to cut it, she blunted the scythe.
She was so strong she did not need a man, which was just as well because all the men were scared of her except for one man. One night this one man who was not scared of her crept into her bed without a stitch of clothes, but she laughed at him. He never came near her again.
When she was 20 she sailed to America to seek her fortune, but the ship sank within sight of New York. When she saw it was sinking, she dived overboard with a rope between her teeth and swam ashore, dragging the ship with her.
When she was 25 she died after slapping a fly on her forehead, she hit herself so hard. Some say it wasn’t a fly it was a fairy.
If she was alive today she would be dead 61 years.
Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015