By indexer
2 years ago

The Burnt Babe and Black Arthur: a story

Jack Thomas was delighted beyond measure when he was invited to explore the library of Stradbally House in County Mayo, Ireland. He had had a lifelong fascination with the weird and wonderful and he had known about Stradbally House, and the mystery of its library, ever since his university days.

This was because his great friend at the time, Paddy O’Neill, was a nephew of the owner of the house and had visited it on several occasions. He had told Jack about the library late one night after the two had been out on the town and had one pint each too many.

According to Paddy, somewhere in the library was an old document that was supposed to contain a family secret that had been passed down through the O’Neill generations for centuries, but only the head of the family was allowed to know it. At least, that was the tradition, but no recent masters of the house had known where this document was. Given that he was only a nephew, and the current owner had three sons who were ahead of Paddy in the line of succession, he was resigned to the fact that he would never know what the secret was.

That was twenty years ago, but now - out of the blue – Jack had had a letter from his old friend to tell him that disaster had befallen the O’Neills of Stradbally in the form of a plane crash in which all the senior members had died while on their way to a business meeting. Paddy was now the Master of Stradbally House, and Jack was invited to see the place for himself.

Jack had not forgotten the story of the family secret, and he leapt at the chance to discover what it was.

Jack’s main problem in searching for the missing document was that he did not really know what he was looking for. Was it an old leather-bound book? A page in a book? A reference hidden somewhere in one of the thousands of dusty tomes on the shelves? This search could take some time!

As it happened, he had a stroke of luck on the third day of his search. He had moved a stack of books from a high shelf when he saw that the back of the bookcase in question was not complete. One piece of wood was missing, leaving a gap. The corner of a folded sheet of paper was just visible and Jack was able to pull it out from where it had been lurking for many years past.

The paper was yellow and clearly frail. Jack opened it with extreme care and read what was written on it in a faded but otherwise legible hand:

“1 Corinthians 15:52. But not the burnt babe or Black Arthur, who died with no quarter given.”

If this was the family secret it was not one that was easily understood. The obvious first thing to do was to look up the Corinthians reference in the massive family Bible that was also in the library. It was a familiar line to anyone who knew Handel’s Messiah as well as Jack did:

“For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed”.

Jack knew that this was a statement of the belief that – prior to the Day of Judgment – all the graves would open and every dead person would rise up out of the ground and ascend to the Pearly Gates of Heaven to be judged along with everyone who was still alive, which was where the phrase “the quick and the dead” originated.
But that did not help with the rest of what was written on the paper. Who were the burnt babe and Black Arthur?

Family Bibles were traditionally where family trees were written inside the front cover, and this ancient volume was no exception. The Bible had been printed in 1651, but somebody must have transferred details of previous generations of O’Neills from another source, as was obvious from the fact that all the entries prior to 1670 were in the same hand.

The O’Neills of Strathbally apparently went back to 1389, which was presumably when the first O’Neill built the first Strathbally House, although it had rebuilt at least twice since then. Jack noticed the name Arthur occurring several times in the family tree up until the 1590s, but after that the name was never used again. Maybe the final Arthur O’Neill, who was born in 1551 and died in 1593, was “Black Arthur”, whose reputation was so terrible that no later O’Neills wished to use the name again for their sons and heirs.

So what was the story? Jack was desperate to find out. He spent as much time as he could in the library, even to the extent of missing meals and staying up late into the night. He was sure that somewhere there had to be a document that explained everything. Eventually, after two whole weeks of searching, he found what he was looking for.

It was a history of the O’Neill family, written and published in 1878. It had actually been one of the first items that Jack had focused his attention on, but it was extremely disappointing because the Arthur in question was glossed over in the text in a mere couple of sentences. It simply said that he had died “in unfortunate circumstances” without leaving a son and heir and that the estate passed to his younger brother who then continued the O’Neill line.

However, with nothing else coming to hand, Jack decided to have another look at the book just in case he had missed something on his first perusal of it. Indeed he had. As he flipped through the pages a loose sheet of paper fell out. How Jack had missed it the first time round he could only wonder at. But here – at last – was the answer he sought.

It was an account of a terrible crime committed by Arthur O’Neill and the awful punishment that befell him. There was no indication of who wrote it – it could have been pure fiction for anything that Jack knew about it. It read as follows:

“Arthur O’Neill was desperate for a son, but his wife was barren and could not produce one. He therefore visited his attentions on one of his female servants so that he could adopt the child as his own, with his wife’s full knowledge. The serving girl fell pregnant and as her belly grew over the months, so did that of his wife, with larger and larger cushions doing the job.

“When the girl went into labour, Arthur sent for a midwife. However, he was so determined to keep the matter a secret that he told his men to blindfold her so that she would not know which house she was visiting. She had been chosen from a village several miles distant, so – from the midwife’s perspective – there would have been quite a number of potential destinations.

“When the midwife arrived she was taken to a small room where the serving girl was ready to give birth. With the blindfold removed, she performed her duties and delivered a baby girl. When the baby cried, a large man rushed into the room, seized the child from her and dashed out again into the next room, where a roaring fire burned in the grate.

“The midwife was then horrified to see – through the open doorway – the man stare at the baby, utter a cry of despair and throw the baby into the fire, where it would have died very quickly.

“The midwife’s blindfold was re-applied immediately afterwards and she was hustled down the stairs. However, as she was still holding the scissors with which she had cut the cord, she just had time to snip a piece of cloth from the curtain in the room, and she also took very careful note of the number of stairs from the room to the ground.
“As soon as she could, she reported what she had seen to the local magistrate, whose officers visited every possible house in the district in the hope of working out where the crime had taken place. On visiting Strathbally House, an officer reported that a piece of curtain was missing in a room that had a bloodstain on the floor. The midwife was later able to match her piece to the hole in the curtain, and confirm the number of steps that had to be climbed to the room.

“Arthur O’Neill was arrested, tried, and condemned to death. The judge was so appalled by the crime that he ordered Arthur to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which was a punishment normally reserved for people who had committed high treason in England, and which involved the victim being partially hanged and then disemboweled and cut into four pieces while still conscious. However, in rural western Ireland, who was going to say that such a fate was not deserved?

“Arthur O’Neill, who was always known thereafter as Black Arthur, was duly taken to the place of execution, but the sentence was not carried out as originally intended. That was because the executioner declared that the hanging had been too successful and that Black Arthur would feel no pain from the quartering, so this was omitted.

“However, the local people were scared that the spirit of Black Arthur would haunt the neighbourhood, so they took their own steps at his burial in unconsecrated ground to ensure that he would not return, either on the day of judgment or at any time before.”
That was all that was written, but on back of the sheet was a sketch map that showed the exact location of Black Arthur’s grave.

When Jack showed this to Paddy they looked at each other with the same questioning expression on their faces.

“Should we dig down and have a look?” Paddy asked.

“Would there be anything left to see after all these years?” was Jack’s question.

“The peat round here is at least twenty feet deep. That stuff preserves anything. It’s worth a try.”

So the next day they dug down at the point indicated on the map, and eventually reached something solid. It was undoubtedly a wooden coffin, perfectly preserved as Paddy had predicted. But the coffin was securely closed with thick chains.

“That might have stopped him rising on the Day of Judgment”, said Jack, “and I suppose that a generous application of holy water and sage leaves might have prevented his ghost from terrifying the locals. So presumably that is what the writer of that note had in mind”.

“I’ve got a decent set of bolt-cutters at home”, said Paddy. “Do you want to look at the face of Black Arthur?”

So that is what they did. With the chains cut, they were able to prize the lid off the coffin and see the remains of Black Arthur, which were also extremely well preserved after more than 400 years of incarceration in peat. But what they saw was every bit as horrifying as the crime that Arthur had committed.

Arthur’s eyes were wide open in terror and his mouth gaped in a frozen scream. The two friends fell back and were able to see the inside of the coffin lid, which was deeply scored with finger-nail scratches.

It was perfectly clear that Arthur had not died on the scaffold, but had revived inside the coffin and suffered a massive heart attack brought on by panic at being unable to free himself, despite his massive strength. So – were those chains really there to guard against Black Arthur’s chances of fulfilling the text of 1 Corinthians Chapter 15? Or did the villagers know all along that hanging and quartering was too good for such an evil man, and the death he would suffer would be the one he most deserved?
2 years
soncee Great story friend
2 years