An Irishman's Diary
Frank McNally got it slightly wrong when he referred to the Cooneen ghost here recently. Cooneen is a townland on the banks of the Colebrooke river in Co Fermanagh, just over the boundary from Tyrone. The Protestants in the vicinity address it, in the written form, as Cooneen. The Catholics use the written form of Coonian. Blood has been shed defending the difference, although both sides are happy to pronounce it as Coon-yin, as Frank pointed out.
Before the days of electricity and TV and when radio was a cumbersome beast powered by wet and dry batteries, I often heard the ghost being talked about. As a boy, a wartime evacuee from bomb-shattered Belfast, I would slip down the stairs as neighbours gathered round the turf fire to discuss the events of the day and of days gone by in our farmhouse in the neighbouring townland of Tattnabudagh. As in all rural areas, telling ghost stories was a popular way of passing the evening hours.
The neighbours had different versions of the story but there was agreement on one point: the ghost was a Catholic. It haunted the isolated farmhouse of the Murphys, a Catholic family. The local parish priest had been called in on at least two occasions to exorcise it. But his powers were not powerful enough and the ghost refused to budge. The ghost appears to have been well ahead of contemporary thinking at the time – the early days of the last century – as it apparently had an ecumenical bent. One of its favourite pursuits was tapping incessantly on the bedroom walls – to the rhythm of sectarian ballads. One night it could be Father Murphy from Old Kilcormack , the next it could be The Sash My Father Wore.
Eventually the Murphys got fed up with the tapping serenade and emigrated to America.
To return to the academic point: to be historically accurate Frank should have referred to the Coonian ghost. A Catholic is from Coonian and a Protestant is from Cooneen. When electricity eventually came to the townland a red British Post Office telephone kiosk was erected at the crossroads, adjacent to the hut that housed the B Specials and the Home Guard. I was far away from the Colebrooke river at that time but out of curiosity I investigated how the agents of the Crown had handled the conflicting identities. On the ordnance survey map the townland was listed as Cooneen but in the telephone directory the kiosk was listed as Coonian. Perfidious Albion at its most duplicitous.
Confusion is not always a liability. Up the mountain road from Cooneen was a place known as Jenkin’s Hill, on the border of Co Monaghan. Cattle owned by Sir Basil Brooke (later Lord Brookeborough, the prime minister at Stormont) who lived down the road at Colebrooke, had grazing rights on the mountain. It was rumoured that the cattle, having no sense of geography or political loyalty, would occasionally stray across the Border, particularly when the prices to be had at fairs in Monaghan and Cavan, were higher than in the North. The Free State might be abhorred but its shilling was not unacceptable. He was a mean humourless man of stern countenance. But he did have one joke. The single-track Clogher Valley Railway ran past his demesne. One day Sir Basil noticed the gate on the level crossing at Colebrooke was half-raised. Johnny, he said to the gatekeeper, why is the gate only half-up? Well, I’m half-expecting a train, sir, said the gatekeeper.
As befitted its name, Cooneen had an abundance of rabbits. These were a valuable commodity in wartime Ulster. When I caught about half-a-dozen I slung them over the bars of the bike and cycled into Fivemiletown where the butcher paid one shilling and ninepence a head for them, a handsome sum in those days. He had a ready market for the meat among the hundreds of American troops stationed in the area waiting for D-Day and the RAF men who manned the observance posts on the mountains watching the Western Approaches. The townland has a more sophisticated export these days.
In a supermarket recently I saw Cooneen Goats’ Cheese; given the spelling the goats are obviously Protestant.
But what happened the ghost? It accompanied the Murphys across the Atlantic and created havoc among the other passengers by tapping on the cabin walls. Whether Father Murphy or The Sash caused the greater disturbance is not recorded.
On reaching the New World the ghost disappeared and there has not been a tap out of it since.