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Poem by William Kennish


Old May Eve


WHEN winter’s gloom no longer cast
A cloud o’er Mona’s isle,
And fields at length, in sweet contrast,
With renovated soil
Began to show their vernal bloom,
And charge the air with rich perfume
Throughout the lowland vales,
While heather-bells, and yellow broom,
Instead of dreary winter’s gloom,
Enrobed the highland dales,
The cattle loiter’d from the stall,
Obedient to the herdsman’s call,
To range at large the field;
The honeysuckles round did crawl
With mimic life the cottage-wall,
Their fragrance sweet to yield,
And April’s kind refreshing showers
Brought forth the moorland simple flowers;
The loving turtles cooed;
The small birds in the thorny bow’rs
Enjoy’d their sweet connubial hours
With their unfeather’d brood,
The partridge from the heights did roam,
To seek a more congenial home
To rear its tender young;
Thus Nature did her charms display
To welcome in the twelfth of May,
From which I take my song.

Back in those days when Superstition’s wile
Was rife within my fair and native isle,
And sages strove with unabated toil
‘Gainst all who wish’d their ancient ways to foil
It was the case in that benighted age
That all, from urchin to the tott’ring sage,
Implicitly believed the story true,
That all the witches in the island flew,
At times like crows, transform’d by magic skill,
Or into hares they’d turn themselves at will,
T’ evade the scrutiny of human sight,
On old May-eve, at twelve o’clock at night,
To swear their dark allegiancy anew
With Beelzebub and his infernal crew,
To vent their spite upon the human race,
In some sequester’d goblin-haunted place,
Where the Satanic council would appear
To give instructions for th’ ensuing year,
And issue mandates of their dark intrigue
To those old witches serving in their league.

Now when arrived th’ eleventh of May,
As I have heard old Manxmen say,
Each horse was snugly stall’d,
And cows from off the grassy plain,
Ere Sol had kiss’d the western main,
Were promptly homewards call’d;
The sheep from off the mountain’s height
Were drove in flocks to rest that night,
So fraught with pending ill,
Within the wicket of the yard,
That they from witches might be spared
By counteracting skill:—
The rank bolugh, of magic charm,
Th’ infernal legions to disarm
Of all their deadly pow’r,
Was strew’d along the cow-house floor,
And round the threshold of the door,
With many a yellow flow’r;
And crosses of the rowan tree
Were form’d by swains in homely glee,
And tied to each cow’s tail,
And round the lintels of the bire
To further check their fiendish ire,
If bolugh-charm should fail;
For if they once their spell could lay
Upon the kine, they’d pine away
By sure and slow degrees,
And baffle all the good wife’s skill
That year her butter-crock to fill,
Or even make a cheese;
In vain she’d agitate the cream,
And of new hoards of butter dream,
And plunge and plunge again
The staff into the spell-bound churn,
With many a skilful twisting turn,
And shoulder-aching pain:—
She’d make the kitchen poker hot,
To counteract the spiteful plot
Of the suspected dame,
By plunging it into the cream,
To make the spell fly off in steam,
But still no butter came.
In vain she’d try to make a cheese,
The whey from ‘mongst the curd to squeeze
Surpass’d her, tho’ well skill’d;
For e’en the rennet’s influence
Had caught the fatal consequence
Before the calf was kill’d.
To guard against each dire event,
The old May-eve was yearly spent,
Partly as I have said;
But what I have yet to relate
About this scene of ancient date,
Took place within the glade.

When now protected by each charm
All living things upon the farm;
The youthful swains would take their flight
To some commanding neighb’ring height,
And set the crackling furze alight,
Which by creating such a blaze
As fairly mock’d the moon’s pale rays,
And well kept up till break of day,
Would scare the warlock host away.

That eve the speckl’d thrush had press’d
His brooding mate upon the nest,
Then hopp’d upon a neighb’ring spray
To charm her with his ev’ning lay,
And placed, when he had ceased to sing,
His mellow lute beneath his wing.
Then all the small birds in the glade
Would cease their mates to serenade,
And drop to rest upon a thorn
To wait the first coy peep of morn.
Ah! little did the songsters know
How close at hand the hour of woe,
When the destructive brands were seen
Advancing ‘cross the lowland green, —
Like those nocturnal fiery damps
Which oft are seen amongst the swamps
To dance with many a wondrous prank,
When charged the air with vapour dank,
And oft delude the courting swain
Into some marshy bog or drain,
Mistaking it to be the light
From some lone cot that met his sight;
Thus led astray to meet his fate
Just as he thought to gain the gate, —
So might be seen on old May night
The torches’ zigzag glaring light,
Winding their course along the plain
Borne by the zealous rustic train;
But when they did the brand apply,
The parent-birds alarm’d would fly,
With frightful screams, around each nest:
It might have moved the hardest breast,
To hear the helpless wee-things squeak
With outstretch’d neck and open’d beak,
As if imploring for relief,
Thus adding to the old birds’ grief;—
Alas! it was beyond their pow’r
To save them in this evil hour:
The red destructive element
Was raging round their little tent,
Which cost them many a weary day
To hedge around with moss and hay,
And line with due parental care
With interwoven wool and hair.
The flames had done their ravage now
Leaving behind the bare black bough,
And scorch’d to death the callow-brood
Lay ‘mongst the mouldering embers strew’d.

Ere chanticleer, with clarion shrill,
Would break the enchantment of the gill,
Where sat old Nick in state that night,
He and his suite took to their flight,
And left old Kate in full possession
Of his black art, and at discretion
To initiate those upon probation,
And give each hag her proper station,
Tho’ first she’d Hornie to consult
Who best if appoint to Crag na Mult,
Being the most important post
Of all Kirk Maughold’s warlock coast.
Now Kate to each her post decreed,
And all assembled had agreed
To put their witchcraft to the test,
And for their master do their best,
When hark! that sound a warning brings,
‘Tis chanticleer’s shrill voice that rings;
Uprose the witches great and small
Obedient to the warning call —
As ravens from their carrion flee
To seek the shelter of the tree,
When midst their feast they startled hear
The fowler’s gun loud ringing near —
So did each beldame take to flight,
As rang that sound across the night.

Kate took her course to Glen reagh Rushen
Where long she’d lived with Nan, her cousin,
Whose counsel she full often drew
When mischief dire she wish’d to brew,
And there was known for many a year
To keep the country-side in fear.
At her command the gobogs dole
Would rend the nets in many a hole,
And liberate the herring shoal.
She’d raise the wind with sudden blast
And leave the boat without a mast;
And drive her on the leeward shore
To perish midst the breakers’ roar.
Indeed ‘twas said she could out-do
Old Nick himself, and all his crew;
And his Satanic mirth provoke
By many a wily witchcraft joke;
For she was up to all the art
Himself and council could impart;
But notwithstanding all her power,
She could not see th’ impending hour
That frown’d upon her guilty plan
And on her mischief laid a ban,
For as it chanced a Manxman stood
In ambush near a copse of wood,
Where all the plain he could command,
A loaded rifle in his hand,
Ready to take a deadly aim,
And put a stop to her wild game. —
He was not long left in suspense
Before her work she did commence;
At first on raven wings she flew,
As if to take a gen’ral view,
And scan around with cautious gaze
If aught observed her warlock-ways,
Giving the Manxman ample scope
To realize his sanguine hope, —
He points his tube towards her wing,
Then draws the trigger of the spring,
But to his great astonishment
No sparkling fire flew from the flint,
The hammer struck with sound as dead
As if ‘t had been a piece of lead.
During the interval of time
It took the rifle to reprime,
The hag had lighted from the air
And changed herself into a hare,
Which sprang close by to where he stood,
Freezing with fear the Manxman’s blood,
But when recover’d once again,
A happy thought flash’d o’er his brain,
That he had heard his grandam say,
How many a warlock in her day
Was shot to death by silver balls,
And now the very fact recalls,
That both his wrist-bands did attach
Two silver studs, which few could match,
For they were heir-looms of his granny,
And much admired by his Nanny:
But willing not to lose this chance
He now most boldly did advance,
Tearing the buttons from his sleeve
This great adventure to achieve,
He ramm’d them down with tardy hand,
And said, “shee yee,” with self-command,
As he the silver charm let fly
Which shot the creature in the thigh,
Just as it leap’d across the ditch,
And rid Glen Rushen of the witch,
For it was said a wounded hag
At break of morn was seen to lag,
With hobbling steps as though in pain,
Leaving a blood-track on the plain,
And further, that whilst in this plight,
Old Hornie seized her in his right.

Thus ended the career of Kate,
And when her cousin learnt her fate;
She very wisely took the hint
That men were now on mischief bent —
Would use the sense that few of yore
Had ever shown in force before,
To pop her off some luckless day,
And make of her a lawful prey
For his Satanic majesty,
Long ere her contract-day was nigh:
For when site ‘fore his council stood
And wrote in letters with her blood
Her lineage, and her Christian name,
And vow’d no further right or claim
To Providence — but his alone,
When mortal life from her had flown,
And not till then — but while on earth
She was to revel in her mirth.
That she might live a quiet life
She now resolved to end the strife
Existing ‘twixt her and mankind,
And set to work her crafty mind
How best both parties she could please;
For she had taken high degrees
In the dissimulating art,
And studied well the human heart.
Her dark alliance with old Nick
She still most scrupulously strict
Perform’d unto the very letter,
For few than her own self knew better
How to evade each binding clause
In Beelzebub’s infernal laws;
And as for mere mankind to teaze
She ‘d do ‘t by proxy at her ease
And so it proved, for never more
Was the old baggy seen to soar,
Stride legs upon her beesom stick,
Or play a solitary trick
Of her own wonted witchery
On either poor or gentry,
But lived retired on the bog
With her pet sheep and faithful dog,
Which also to a tale gave rise
That they were witches in disguise.
As often as old Coaly howl’d
Some great disaster was foretold;
And when her chanticleer would gerramt
Old wives would say “chee yee drow marrum.“
Yet, still her former fame did spread
From the Dhoon bridge to Maughold head;
For it was said, since she retired,
That she the fairies often hired
As her auxiliaries at night,
Being more commodious for flight
Than her corporeal candidates;
They thus perform’d more marvellous feats
Than could a hare or carrion crow,
For elves could through the key-hole go,
Or through a crevice in the wall,
Or any chink though e’er so small,
To administer her dark design
Without a trace of earthly sign.
They’d ransack all the cupboards through,
And play a pretty how-d’-ye-do.
They next would go in airy flocks
To see that all the water-crocks
Were rightly placed, and brimming full,
That each might have a quenching pull:
But woe be to the sleeping maid
Were crocks not fill’d and duly laid:
For once it chanced, in days gone by,
That the good dame to bed did hie,
Forgetting all about the water,
And sacrificed her only daughter
To many a ling’ring year of pain —
Her case no doctor could explain —
For on that very luckless night
The fairies came, and at first sight
Descried the matron’s gross neglect,
And without waiting to reflect
They flew towards the daughter’s bed,
And in her sleep the virgin bled,
Tradition says not in what part,
Altho’ no doubt ‘twas near the heart:
They introduced their lancets keen
To carry out their vengeful spleen,
In drawing, whilst the dame did snore,
Her daughter’s vitals from the core
Into an heir-loom china mug;
Then hid it ‘neath the chimney-lug,
That while it wasted day by day,
The virgin too would pine away
And die, — when no more blood was there
To vanish slowly into air.15
But ere the fatal day arrived
Old Nelly16 by her skill contrived

T’ explore the mystery of the spell,
But by what means she ne’er would tell.
But here it may suffice to say,
That on a stormy winter’s day
She enter’d with her poke and staff, —
Found the dame and her better-half
In deep affliction for their child,
Who sat, with aspect meek and mild,
Wrapt up in blankets from the cold
in many a well-adjusted fold.
Old Nelly then tuck’d up her gown,
Untied her poke and laid it down;
And sought her well-known resting seat
Close by the cheerful blazing peat;
And in due order did proceed
To cut the stimulating weed;
And charge her short and coal-black pipe;
Giving its stem a graceful wipe
When she the soothing bowl had fired;
Then most respectfully retired
As far within the chimney-cheek
As was convenient from the reek;17
Taking a survey round each shelf,
She to the dame address’d herself —
“My blessing on my Mannin veen,18
And on the heir Of Ballaqueen;19
Full well I knew him when a boy;
And witness’d all the mother’s joy
To see his youthful heart inclined
To feed the aged poor and blind.
He oft would urge her of her store
Of meal to give a trifle more;
And now, when I am press’d with age,
And on the verge of nature’s stage,
It makes my wither’d heart to glow
That I one blessing can bestow
On you, and the afflicted one,
Whose sinking form a spell is on.
This night, at twelve, come here alone,
And underneath this very stone
You’ll find a china mug or cup,
Which you will take, then break it up,
And throw the pieces in the fire;
Then quickly to your bed retire,
And you will see your child at length
Slowly resume her wonted strength.”
Her words proved true, for soon the maid
“Began to thrive,” — as old wives said;
Her cheeks resumed their wonted hue
And she a comely woman grew;20
And always saw an ample stock
Of good spring water in each crock
Before she ventured to her bed
Mindful to what neglect had led.
Such were the pranks that fairies play’d,
Tho’ many a well-schemed plan was laid
By Ballawhane and many more,
Who skill’d in astrologic lore,
Their dark enchantments to explore,
And send them to their native Styx
No more on man to play their tricks;
But they were proof ‘gainst all their skill,
And kept possession of the gill,
Where oft Kate’s coz. was seen to stray
At break of morn, and close of day,
T’ engage their service when she needed,
And thus she in her plans succeeded,
Until the poor old creature died,
Grossly neglected and belied.
____

In these proceedings we descry
A relic of those days gone by
When dark Credulity enshrined
In ignorance the human mind;
When Cruelty, with gory hand,
Dealt devastation through the land,
With that infernal foe to man,
Grim Superstition, in the van;
When men unsheath’d the murd’rous steel,
And ‘neath the guise of holy zeal
Implored Omnipotence divine
To aid them in their dark design.

Thank heaven, the cloud is nearly past
That gave those monsters birth,
And Truth’s bright rays are covering fast
The long-benighted earth.

Tho’ tyrants yet, e’en at this hour,
Still crush their fellow man,
Short shall be their unhallowed pow’r,
For knowledge has began

To pour her beams, from east to west
O’er earth from pole to pole,
At great Jehovah’s high behest
T’ illuminate the soul.

Though slowly yet its course appears
Along life’s thorny ways,
The day shall come, in later years,
When with refulgent blaze

Its rays shall shine from heaven above
On man throughout all space,
And clothe with philanthropic love
His soul with god-like grace;—
Blest Consummation! when no more
Man shall delight in strife,
But join in heart from shore to shore
To ease the ills of life.



William Kennish


William Kennish's other poems:
  1. Reflections on Man (O Man! reflect on what thou art)
  2. Reflections on Man (I’ve ofttimes thought why mortal man)


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