His music aired across the fields, The constant hush that never yields Came through so crisp and sharp and clear As Christmas died into the year. From The Last Christmas
Castleisland District Heritage has acquired a copy of Secrets of a Haunted Winter written by Fine Gael politician, Brendan Griffin, TD. Brendan, who served as Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport 2017-2020, and who is a great supporter of the work of this archive including its appeal for the Presidential Pardon of John Twiss, wrote the book between 2007 and 2010. He was then a publican in the village of Castlemaine, writing ‘in the early hours after finishing work in a deserted Castle Inn.’
Secrets of a Haunted Winter is the second book from Brendan’s hand, and is a follow-on from his debut, Secrets of a Moonlit River. A subtle humour is set from the outset of the story when an announcement on Kingdom FM radio records the death of old Michael McNamara of Ballycastle, Killcrown in his 107th year. It seems old Michael suffered a heart attack after hearing false rumours of his own death.
Granda, who is listening to the announcements, switches off the radio. His life has changed in recent times with the arrival of his grandson, Cathal, who has lost his family in an accident. Until now granda’s life has been uneventful and his routine fairly predictable: breakfast followed by mass, newspaper at Ted Hanratty’s shop, to McCarthy’s Bar for lunch, watch news in McCarthy’s lounge, supper in McCarthy’s, read the rest of paper, watch news again, another pint for the road, then home to bed.
The scene diverts to his grandson, Cathal, and his friends the Shanahan brothers, Billy and Barty, who are planting saplings in Murphy’s Woods, part of the old Bradford Estate. It is winter, and getting dark, and the boys start talking about the legend of Seánín Solas so that when a beam of light appears before them, they ‘collectively scream in terror.’ But it’s only old Mrs Murphy from the Big House, who invites them up to the mansion for tea. Cathal chuckles to himself as he sees Barty’s big toe poking out of his sock as the boys remove their wellies.
A wonderful air of decadence pervades the old three-storey mansion of the Bradford Estate, with its countless windows, four square towers rising at each corner of the building and a front-facing gable above the magnificent main entrance, which is supported by four round pillars with four or five steps leading up to the door. It has numerous chimneys, walls covered with ivy, and ash trees – winter bare – line the sides and rear of the building.
The Murphy Estate was originally the Bradford Estate and consisted of over 8,000 acres, granted to Major Bentley Bradford of Yorkshire under the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland. The mansion was built by Captain Edward Bradford in the 1770s, the Murphy family gaining possession of the estate in the 1920s. ‘Sadly I am the last living member of the Murphy family and I live here all by myself,’ old Mrs Murphy tells the boys, before mentioning how during the famine, Lady Cecilia Bradford ran a soup kitchen in the old stables and saved hundreds from starvation.
Inside the house, the floor is tiled in black and white, a great oak staircase covered with thick red carpet leads to upper floors now closed off, the walls lined with ancestral portraits. In the drawing room, a stag’s head hangs above the large open fire and while Mrs Murphy goes off to make tea and telephone granda to collect the boys, Billy can’t resist meddling with the knight in a suit of armour that stands in the room.
Suddenly the boys hear strange music, and later, granda tells them about the legend of Michael MacDiarmada, a young rebel from Ballycastle who fell in love with Lady Evelyn Bradford from the big house, daughter of Lord Henry Bradford, the local magistrate. Separated by class and religion, their love is doomed. A sad tale unfolds about how they are kept apart, how Private MacDiarmada is held in the cellar of the house, how Lady Evelyn communicates by playing music, and how her one true love is taken away by the Black and Tans and never seen again.
And so the plot unfolds when the following day, the Murphy mansion is robbed. The intrepid trio are accused of stealing antiques and other valuables including the suit of armour. As with all great adventure stories, the case against them builds as they try in vain to prove their innocence.
The boys decide to ‘loan’ the school video camera to record their plan to catch the real thief. Stealing into the school office after hours (and almost getting caught red-handed of course) Barty Shanahan cannot resist taking an exam paper out of a box too, but it would be spoiling the story to say whether or not he later learns a sobering lesson about cheating.
Pre-Smart Phone Era
As the video camera suggests, the story is set in pre-smart phone technology, the time when the call box and the mobile phone were overlapping, when youngsters had to part with a coin – if they had one – to make a phone call. Indeed, Ballycastle has no mobile phone coverage, it is ‘one of the few places in the entire developed world’ without it. And so with no instant communication, it’s back to the old days of blessed confusion, misunderstandings, meeting times and places, and falling asleep when you should be somewhere else.
There is a wonderful flow to this story as it moves rapidly from scene to scene like a modern-day Enid Blyton. In educational terms, it has much to offer in terms of history, politics, and the value of local lore. The spectrum of Cromwell confiscations and English occupation to the time of the Black and Tans is considerable food for thought for young enquiring minds. It suggests that the author paid attention to history in his own schooldays, though the fictional master’s history lessons are ‘heavily laden with waffle.’
Indeed, the poor schoolmaster fares quite badly in the story. In one scene we learn how he gives ‘an unnecessarily complicated account of the first lunar landing,’ making ‘one of mankind’s greatest achievements seem boring.’ Elsewhere we learn of the master’s miserable failure ‘to accurately describe the sound made by a didgeridoo.’
The master’s speech at the Christmas fundraising concert for the church roof gives another measure of his character. He wishes to acknowledge all those who have helped put the programme together, beginning with him, ‘I myself put in a huge amount of work.’
The school play begins, and the scene with the three wise men and the donkey on stage is nothing less than laugh-out-loud. When, in the final stages of the story, the real thief is recognised in the audience, a sensational conclusion plays out in true Famous Five style with speeding cars, speeding bicycles, and a speeding donkey. There is much action before the Gardai finally arrive; in fact, they arrive on cue, just as it is all over.
Interesting Thread Interwoven
Secrets of a Haunted Winter is an adventure story with a difference: it has a ring of truth running through it. Ultimately the pieces fit: the legend of Seánín Solas, the melancholy music the boys hear in the old mansion, the strange light that appears over Murphy’s Woods, the old piece of cloth dug up while planting trees – and Cathal’s own family history.
In fact, it leaves you wondering about the fictional element of the story, where Brendan Griffin took inspiration for the tale, the location of the historic houses that dot the landscape of the Castlemaine district, the identity of MacDiarmada. And yet, when all is said and done, it forms part of a pattern repeated across the country from the pages of Irish history.
It is said a book should not be judged by its cover and this is certainly true of Secrets of a Haunted Winter. It is a very grown-up cover for an adventure story aimed at the school-going youth. The reader may therefore look upon this book as a young adult’s adventure tale to be enjoyed by young and old alike.
More importantly, it might be regarded as a legend of Keel, Co Kerry, and a tribute to the men of 1921.
________________________  Secrets of a Moonlit River and Secrets of a Haunted Winter were published in 2013 and 2014 respectively.