Curing toothache by magic at Tramore, County Waterford in 1888

To the local magistrates at Tramore, County Waterford, the arrest of Tim and Bridget Dooley on licensed premises after hours must have seemed an open-and-shut case.


Although in summer time a busy holiday resort, "Tramore was always somewhat backward in winter time".[1] Its lack of street-lighting would become a local issue in the years that followed. We can reasonably sure that the town would have been both quiet and dark on the Sunday night in 1888 when Tim and Bridget Dooley were "found at prohibited hours on licensed premises".  To the two local magistrates, it must have seemed an open-and-shut case. But the accused strongly contested the charge. Their defence – that they were not buying drink but consulting a faith healer – provoked repeated waves of laughter in the court, and the episode provides a glimpse into life in a small Irish community in the era of Parnell and Home Rule.

Presiding over the petty sessions were gentlemen amateur magistrates, Congreve Rogers Esquire, and Major Maunsell. Congreve Rogers was a middle-ranking landlord, owning 603 acres in County Waterford and 1180 acres in Wexford.  His house, rented from the Doneraile estate, stood in an idyllic location overlooking Lady Elizabeth's Cove, about three-quarters of a mile from the town centre.[2] Major George Maunsell was probably a member of the family of Limerick landowners and bankers. It is likely that he had retired to the inexpensive surroundings of Tramore on his Army pension, and for a time he supplemented his income by working as a land agent.[3] Maunsell deferred to his colleague on the bench. This was eminently proper and entirely comprehensible, since Congreve Rogers was well into his nineties, and showed no sign of retiring from community service. The London journalist who called him Rogers "a just and upright magistrate of the distinctly nineteenth-century type of common sense"[4] would perhaps have been surprised to learn that "good old Congreve" had been born as far back as 1789.[5]  Both magistrates were keen horsemen. A memoir of the Irish hunting scene called Congreve Rogers "as fine a sportsman as ever lived". An amateur jockey who "rode well-bred horses" and "was always well turned out", he was a popular figure at Tramore races, where Maunsell served as a steward.[6] They were also prosperous Protestants. The episode would confirm that they lived in a different universe from Tim and Bridget Dooley.

The case was prosecuted by Constable Hassett of the Royal Irish Constabulary. It is no surprise that he cannot be further traced in Tramore: RIC personnel were moved about the country fairly frequently. However, there is a strong possibility that he was Patrick Hassett, who joined the force in 1881 and served for a time in County Waterford. He was later promoted to Sergeant, and was the grandfather of BBC foreign correspondent, Fergal Keane.[7] There is some mystery about the lack of reported detail in the case against the Dooleys: neither the public house nor the mysterious "young man" who doubled as barman and faith healer were identified.[8] It is likely that the prosecution of the publican would have followed the conviction of Bridget and Tim Dooley, which would have been cited as evidence that he had permitted illegal drinking on his premises. In the event, the charge against the Dooleys was taken no further.

There is an entry for a Bridget Dooley in the 1901 census and – given that Dooley was not a common name in County Waterford – this almost certainly refers to the same person. She was 55 – making her 41 or 42 at the time of her court appearance in January 1888 – a Catholic, a resident of Cross Market Street (also called, then and now, Little Market Street). She could speak Irish but was unable to read or write, a deficiency that did not stop her from operating, in 1901, as a shopkeeper. Perhaps she had taken to shop keeping to support herself in her widowhood: Egan's 1894 Directory lists "Mrs Dooley" as a resident of Little Market Street, but without any occupation. Tim, it would seem, had died within a few years of the court case.[9]

Immediately the charge was read, Bridget Dooley objected: "Your Worship, the policeman does not understand it."[10] "Understand what?" asked Congreve Rogers. Mrs Dooley was quick to explain. "About the charm, your worship. I'll tell you. We didn't go at all to get drink. We went to see the young man in the house that has the charm." Her protest produced laughter in the court, the first of many outbreaks of mirth. "He has a charm for all diseases, and as he had the charm for the toothache, and as my little girl was nearly mad with it, I went to him, Sunday evening as it was, but not to get a drink."

Rogers expressed astonishment that there could be such superstition in the town. Magistrate or not, Bridget Dooley was not going to let him get away with that. "It is not at all superstition, as you call it, your worship. The little girl was bawling and shouting with the toothache, and I said to Tim, 'Come, and we will bring her down to the young man who has the charm for all diseases, and we will get her cured'." She seemed undismayed by the loud laughter that now filled the courtroom.[11]

Major Maunsell interjected that the story was "incredible", and Congreve Rogers probed her about the charm. The answer seemed self-evident to Bridget: "The young man has it." Rogers pressed her. "Aren't you a silly woman to believe such nonsense as this?" Bridget Dooley refused to regard her interrogation as a reprimand from a superior. "You don't know anything about it," she rebuked the magistrate. "You must have faith in it." Her defiance provoked further loud laughter. Pressed to define the charm, she described it "some sort of a prayer". But Congreve Rogers suspected that the prayer took a more liquid form. Perhaps the young man in the pub had applied "a little whiskey"? "Not a sup, your worship," came the instant response. Then, no doubt with the intention of silencing the mirthful, Bridget repeated her insistence: "It did her a great deal of good. She has not had the pain since." Rogers was unconvinced, and Constable Hassett joined the fray. "Did you give the child any whiskey?", he challenged the outraged mother. She replied in a splendid turn of phrase, one that almost certainly reflected her Irish-speaking background: "Is it a child like that to give her whiskey."

Realising that he was not going to obtain a confession on the alcohol front, Congreve Rogers fell back on the letter of the law. "You're charged with being on licensed premises on a Sunday, and you had no right to go there." Tim Dooley now spoke up, denying that either of them had gone to the pub for drink. But Bridget was not to be silenced. "Begor, your honor," she told Rogers, "I would go quick to your house on a Sunday, if I thought you had a charm." By now, Rogers seems to have concluded that there was going to be no sensible outcome to this prosecution, and he too might as well play it for laughs. "Do you mean in the shape of a little whiskey?" was his riposte.

Tim Dooley now gave formal evidence, telling the court that his daughter had been yelling and bawling with the toothache. " Well, your worship, as I heard there was a young man in the public house who had a charm for everything, my wife and I took her down to see him, and he said the charm over, and she got better, but it came on again." "A what?" asked Rogers, still unable to comprehend the ritual. In the impatient tones of one addressing a slow learner, Bridget interjected: "A charm, your worship." "Surely you don't believe in this sort of nonsense and superstition?" he demanded once again. "I do, your worship. Didn't I prove it[?]"

Tim Dooley now managed to regain control of the conduct of their defence. On being asked how much he had paid for this magical service, he replied: "The young man who said the charm over her was too decent to take anything, but he asked to have his hand crossed with a penny." Amid renewed laughter, Rogers upped his invective to denounce the transaction as "shocking depravity", before asking "Dooley, did you believe in this nonsense?" "Believe in it, sir!", exclaimed the accused, who knew a silly question when it crossed his path. "Didn't the prayer and the crossing of his hand cure her?"

Congreve Rogers pointed out the obvious weakness in Dooley's argument. "Didn't she get bad the second time?" But Tim had an answer to that objection. "She did just before Christmas," he conceded, "but I brought her down again and gave him another penny and he said another prayer over her." The courtroom was now rocking in near-continuous amusement. "Did the prayer and the penny cure her?", Maunsell enquired. Tim Dooley was half-inclined to agree that the Major was touching upon a reasonable objection. "She got a little touch of it in the Saturday night, and I did not get a wink of sleep," he conceded, "so we took her down, because my wife said to me, 'Tim, it is the third time that brings the real charm.' Well, just then I took her down to see him, and devil the pain she has felt since."

Constable Hassett, who seemed by now the only person in the courtroom focused upon securing a conviction for illegal drinking, sought to catch the defendants out. ""Did you see the young man work the charm at all that night?" "Don't you mind," replied Dooley, using a conventional phrase to tell the policeman to confine himself to his own business. "He said the prayer over her, and the pain has left her since."

Rogers now contemptuously enquired how much the young man was paid for this third "performance"? But Dooley had an answer to rebut the sordid implications of the magistrate's enquiry. "He would not take the penny the third time, but to keep the charm good he told me that I should buy something in the house, and I bought a penny orange." "And that cured her?" asked the sceptical Major Maunsell, amid more laughter. Tim Dooley came back with a crushing reply. "It did. She hasn't had the pain since."

Speaking on behalf of nineteenth-century rationality, Rogers tried another tack: "don't you think that if you had taken her to Dr Prosser's you would have acted more naturally than by believing in such ridiculous rubbish as charms?" But Tim Dooley had no confidence in the town's medical practitioner. "There was not a bottle in Dr Prosser's could have had the effect the charm had on her, believe me," he assured the magistrate. In fact, they had indulged and exhausted the nostrums of the scientifically educated. "We used all the bottles and the mischief it did until she got the charm."[12]

Congreve Rogers was now close to exploding with indignation. "I could scarcely have believed that such ridiculous superstition could prevail at the present time. I thought the old gipsy tricks had been long since exploded, and that the humblest individual in the country had common sense enough not to believe in such rubbish," he lectured the defendants. But, once again, Tim Dooley was not having any of the magistrate's false knowledge. "All I know is that the charm cured her, and she has not had pain or ache since," he shot back. Rogers abandoned the pointless dialogue.  "I see it is no use talking to you. The absurdity of crossing the hand with a penny, and buying an orange in payment for the favour conferred, is really ridiculous."

Without leaving the bench, the magistrates engaged in consultation. Evidently they decided to focus on the issue of the defendants' alleged illegal presence on licensed premises. Tim Dooley was asked directly if he and his wife had gone to the pub seeking a drink. Unlike Bridget, who had chosen to confront the court on her own terms, Tim had apparently taken the oath before giving evidence. He now swore positively that they had not gone to the public house "for object of getting drink". The case was dismissed.

No doubt the acquittal was the product of impatient frustration, but it was also the outcome of a remarkable confrontation between two views of the universe. "I see it is no use talking to you," Rogers had concluded. "You must have faith in it," Bridget Dooley had told him. The census tells us that she was illiterate, and it is unlikely that her husband had received more than basic schooling, if that. Yet, for all their outwardly deferential mode of address,  in their unfailing repetition of "your honour" and "your worship", the Dooleys had taken on two educated authority figures, in exchanges that they treated as anything but a dialogue between equals: "You don't know anything about it," was Bridget's contemptuous put-down to Rogers. Even more remarkably, they had emerged as – in effect – the victors. The law said that it was an offence to be present on licensed premises when a pub was officially closed. The Dooleys did not dispute the allegation. Technically speaking, their admission meant they were guilty as charged. The law made no exception for customers seeking magic charms from occult-endowed barmen. Yet the magistrates adopted the face-saving declaration from Tim Dooley that he and his wife had not gone to the pub in search of alcohol. Victory for the accused was thus a tacit recognition of Tramore's alternative culture. We might here note one further point. If Bridget Dooley correctly reported her age as 55 in 1901, then she was born in 1845 or 1846. Her own childhood may not have been blighted by the Famine – although who can say? – but she and Tim would have grown up within an environment of popular opinion that had good reason to distrust the wisdom of the powerful. There had been widespread distress, and some cases of death by starvation, in Tramore during 1847, and the locality was hard hit again in 1880, when over eight hundred people received relief.[13]  If the Dooleys chose to live in a cosmos of beliefs that were not shared by their betters, they could not be entirely blamed.

There was an unspoken, but none the less obvious, political undertone to the Dooley case. The 1884 Reform Act had trebled the (all-male) Irish electorate to 737,965 registered voters: "most households in the country now had the vote".[14] The resulting Nationalist sweep (outside Ulster) in the 1885 general election had placed Home Rule firmly on the British political agenda, even though the 1886 Bill had failed to pass at Westminster. Proponents of a devolved parliament on Dublin's College Green appealed to the memory of Henry Grattan and the spirit of Daniel O'Connell. Opponents saw it as an assembly that would be chosen by, and must pander to the absurd ideas of, tens of thousands of Tim Dooleys, with their belief that toothache could be cured by a penny prayer. Hence the story was picked up and widely reported in the British press, and overseas too.[15]

But was it really fair to claim – in the words of a Welsh newspaper – that the case provided "an extraordinary instance of the superstition prevailing among some of the Irish peasantry"?[16] We may pass over their contestable designation – as citizens of tiny urban Tramore, the Dooleys were hardly metropolitan sophisticates. Their roots did probably lie in the peasant world of the Waterford countryside, and traditional beliefs lapped around the fringes of the town itself.[17] There was Gormog, a spirit who haunted the sand dunes. Apparently forgotten in modern-day Tramore, he was still remembered (under variant names) in the nearby parish of Fenor in the 1980s, where he was said to stalk the Tramore Strand during stormy weather.[18] The Dooleys would certainly have heard of, and probably credited, the "sheevra" or (as the fairy figure preferred to be called) "the little gentleman of Ballinattin", a townland at the back of Tramore Back Strand. A version of his legend was recorded as part of the 1937 folklore project, in which schoolchildren collected stories, often from old people. Paddy Kirwan was a baby when his mother left him wrapped him in a shawl in a corner of a field while she was working nearby. When she returned, she found a strange child in his place. Another women reported that she had seen a white cow breathing on the child, at which point it was concluded that the "good people" (the fairies) had changed little Paddy into one of themselves. Although physically immobile, Paddy Kirwan was endowed with special powers. In nineteenth century legend, the identity of the sheevra was transferred to another family, with the familiar Waterford surname of Power. The subject of many tales, he was "a great man for knowledge and magic".[19] Folk cures also formed part of the mental landscape, around Tramore as elsewhere. In the townland of Quillia, adjoining Ballinattin, there was a well that could cure warts (Tobar na bhFaithne). The magic only worked at sunset.[20] Just west of the town, at Islandtarsney, a hollowed stone in an orchard also collected water that cured warts. Warts could also be cured by the use of dew, collected before sunrise on a May morning, or by rubbing a snail on the affected skin. Well into the twentieth century, a man at Fenor had "the charm" – a prayer like the one believed in by the Dooleys – that stopped bleeding.[21]

One interesting feature of these stories is not simply that they were believed – however much this credulity astonished Rogers and Maunsell – but that they remained dynamic. In 1816, a British troop ship, the Sea Horse, was shipwrecked in Tramore Bay, with the loss of 363 lives. A century later, Canon Power, the authority on Waterford's place names, recorded the tradition that the ship's "phantom band" was "still occasionally heard on the Burrow."[22]  In 1823, five huge pillars were constructed on headlands adjoining Tramore Bay, to warn shipping to avoid its dangers. One, on Great Newtown Head, was surmounted by a large cast-iron statue of a British sailor, pointing a warning finger to the ocean. Local legend claimed that a girl who could hop barefoot around Tramore's cliff-top landmark, the Metal Man, would find a husband within a twelvemonth. The legend had presumably been transferred from some more ancient site, a switch indicating that local folklore remained dynamic and imaginative well into the nineteenth century.[23] Gormog seems to have become conflated with the story of a coastguard, who was caught helping smugglers, and rode off into the sea: horse and rider were sometimes seen on the Strand.[24] A well-established story told how the sheevra of Ballinattin took revenge on men who stole his whiskey. A later version associated the episode with the Malcomson embankment, suggesting that it was still alive narrative in the 1850s, when that project was completed.[25] Of course, we cannot be sure that Bridget and Tim believed that Gormog stalked the strand serenaded by the musicians from the Sea Horse. None the less, there is a good chance that they dwelt in a cosmos that was physically identical to the Tramore of Congreve Rogers, but imbued with an entirely different spiritual structure.

But even if the Dooleys were essentially peasants who happened to dwell in a small town, the argument may be advanced that their favoured cure for toothache was neither specifically Irish nor unusually bizarre for the era. Only a few months before, the Irish Times – voice of the Unionist elite – had published an item about Latin prayer to the saints against toothache, recorded in a manuscript in the Royal Library in Stockholm.[26] There was no suggestion that the prayer was still in use, but it did appear that its inscription on parchment in a dead language conveyed a certain respectability. The Irish Times also retailed other folk remedies against toothache from England, such as wrapping your nail clippings in paper or putting a double nut in your pocket. (In a Worcestershire variant, a spider was stuffed inside a nutshell, which was then worn around the neck.)  Equally, you could defend yourself against toothache by first slipping on your right stocking, inserting your right leg into your trousers and then putting on your right shoe, before the left. In his 1883 tome, Folk Medicine, W.G. Black implied that the practice was still followed in Sussex, but unfortunately had to warn that Shropshire opinion was equally firm in its insistence that it was the left-side garments that conferred the desired protection. This was an example of a belief system that had fractured into rival orthodoxies. It was also a reminder that superstition was not the sole preserve of women.

Some folk medicine recommended using splinters to counter toothache. In Ontario – chief province of modern, rational, twentieth-century Canada – it was reported in 1913 that they should be cut from a tree that had been struck by lightning. This may have derived from a tradition, recorded in 1879, that Northumberland people walked for miles to shave splinters from a gallows. A professional charmer who specialised in eradicating tooth pain made a living in Ayrshire in the 1840s, diverting the suffering by driving nails into a beam, a benign substitute for a technique used elsewhere that involved using a nail to scratch the gums. A similar charmer worked in Cheshire as late as the 1860s.  Some remedies were not only bizarre but also downright cruel: in the 1880s, it was still believed in Sussex that toothache could be cured by chopping a paw off a live mole. Others may even have possessed some chemical underpinning. In Argyllshire, sufferers were urged to chew the bulb of an iris. Cornwall was one of several districts where people protected themselves from the affliction by biting the first fern they spotted growing in springtime. Ireland's much-abused peasantry was hardly unique in its devotion to strange remedies.[27]

However, it must be conceded that many Irish toothache remedies were located at the dottier end of the spectrum of folk wisdom – but, here again, the Dooleys seem remarkable for their moderation.  "A peculiar sanctity is attached in Ireland to the blood of the Keoghs," Black reported in 1883. "In Dublin, the blood of a Keogh is frequently put into the mouth of a sufferer from toothache." A Belfast Keogh was reliably reported to have had skin like a pincushion, "punctured scores of times to procure his blood."[28] Dublin and Belfast were the two cities that are generally regarded as bridgeheads of Irish modernity, the engines of industrialisation, scepticism and class consciousness. It was bad luck for international reporting of the Dooley case that Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar, had just published a hefty study of Irish legends, providing a quarry of cultural eccentricity that the Daily Telegraph could not resist.[29] Aiming to portray a Gaelic and mystic Ireland, "Speranza" did not seek to identify her material by time or place, so it is impossible to know how general were the practices that she chronicled. "To avoid toothache never shave on a Sunday" was another gender-specific remedy. Sufferers could seek relief by taking a vow to God, the Virgin, and the new moon, never to comb their hair on a Friday. To maintain the charm, the victim must fall to his or her knees upon seeing a new moon, and saying "five prayers in gratitude for the cure, even if crossing a river at the time." Perhaps it was assumed that the Moon was made of tooth enamel, which would at least be a more interesting hypothesis than green cheese, but the eclectic content of the charm suggests an attempt to add a Christian veneer to a pagan ritual. A syncretic origin may also be suspected in a graveyard ritual noted by Wilde. The toothache sufferer should kneel upon a grave chosen at random, and say three paternosters and three Ave Marias for the souls of the dead lying beneath. A handful of grass should then be taken from the grave, thoroughly chewed and spat out, with care taken not to swallow any of it. "After this process the sufferer, were he to live a hundred years, will never have toothache any more."[30]

It will be noted that in each of these devices, the "charm" is a process and did not, as might be expected from modern use of the term, involve an object (except for the graveyard grass, which was apparently a medium and not in itself a talisman). However, there was one exception. It seems to have been assumed in Irish folklore – though it was not made explicit – that in the New Testament miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the two fish were mackerel, and that food so blessedly produced could not have caused tooth decay. Hence carrying two jawbones of mackerel in your pocket was "an infallible remedy against toothache ... and the older they are the better, as nearer the time of the miracle."

Other beliefs can be identified by locality and era. Black was informed by a County Wicklow correspondent of a toothache cure, in which "the points of three smoothing irons are pointed three times in the name of the Trinity at the painful tooth – for then, sure enough, the pain vanishes."[31] (Bridget Dooley had a similar faith in the number three.) From Connacht came a belief, reported in 1922, that toothache could be transferred to a donkey by kissing its teeth.[32] In 1937, an informant living near Tramore reported a toothache cure that involved boiling a wild rose called sweet briar. The aching tooth was then washed with the juice, and then plugged for several minutes with wool that had also been soaked in the juice.[33]

As late as the 1930s, miracle cures of all kinds were reported from St Declan's stone at Ardmore, thirty miles along the Waterford coast. In a splendid coincidence which I should not have wished to rationalise to Bridget Dooley, while this note was in progress, Dublin City University announced research showing that, well into the twentieth century, it was widely believed that toothache could be transferred to a frog. The ritual involved reciting religious incantations while inserting a live frog in the victim's mouth. Another cure was to remove a tooth from a corpse, or skeleton.[34]

One other aspect of the Dooleys' belief deserves some comment. It did not depend on the use of any artefacts: no nuts or mackerel bones or smoothing irons were involved.  The charm that they sought took the form of a prayer, and this raises the question of a parallel form of spiritual practice to the Catholicism to which Bridget at least formally subscribed in the 1901 census. A form of anti-toothache prayer was apparently popular in Ireland, Wales and the Scottish Highlands – interestingly enough, the recorded forms are all in English, although these were areas where Celtic languages remained strong. The doggerel related how Jesus had cured St Peter of toothache, with some traditions insisting that this had happened in the Garden of Gethsemane. A nineteenth-century Anglican clergyman was said to have pointed out to a parishioner that the episode had unaccountably failed to find a place in the Gospels, only to receive the response: "Yes, your Reverence, that is just the charm. It's in the Bible, but you can't find it."[35] It is easy to imagine those very words, recited in an Oirish accent, reinforcing negative stereotypes. But in most examples, the St Peter verse was not intended for recital. Rather, toothache victims were instructed on no account to look at the paper, but to sew it, folded, into their underwear. Since poor people rarely changed their undergarments, the charm would easily remain undisturbed. However, County Waterford practice seems to have varied. A version of the prayer was reported from Passage East, about thirteen miles (twenty kilometres) north-east of Tramore, in the 1937 folklore survey, with the promise that "those who say these words shall never be troubled with the toothache."[36] It is highly possible that this was the charm that the Dooleys sought for their daughter.

One wonders what Tramore's parish priest, the Reverend Patrick McCarthy, made of the Dooleys and their belief in magic prayer. In recent decades, much historical discussion of the role of the Catholic Church has centred on Emmet Larkin's theory that Ireland experienced a "devotional revolution" in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. A major limiting factor in the debate is the nature of the evidence. It can be established that, across Ireland generally, the Catholic Church tightened up its organisation, expanded its personnel and massively increased the number and the size of its buildings, as in Tramore, where a monumental Gothic Revival church arose to dominate the town between 1856 and 1871.[37] But there are complications in the application of Larkin's theory to Tramore. One is that Mass attendance was already very high – indeed, suspiciously so – before the 1840s. On the basis of returns from 1834, an 84 percent attendance rate has been calculated for the town. The presence of a Catholic middle class may have resulted in atypical forms of social control: poor people who depended upon mercantile incomers for employment perhaps had more incentive to be seen at Mass than would have been the case at, say, Portlaw, where the economic power was firmly in Protestant hands and the attendance rate was just 21 percent.[38] However, the most likely explanation is that the Tramore statistics may have been slewed by the inclusion of holiday makers. Another problem is the massive presence of Father Nicholas Cantwell, an outspoken personality, an "affecting" preacher in both English and Irish, who took up his position in the confessional at a fixed hour every morning – and who was parish priest from 1828 until his death in 1875.[39]

Larkin's theory emphasises that laity were encouraged, with what seems to have been considerable success, to attend Mass, but it is difficult to assess whether orthodox belief was deepened by ritual participation, the more so because the most intimate dialogue between priests and parishioners took place in the confessional, where historians cannot go. It is at this point that we might regret the lack of interest shown by the Tramore magistrates in the liturgical content of the barman's prayer. If Christian in ethos, the charm might imply a challenge to the intermediary role of the priesthood. If directionless mumbo-jumbo, it had potentially satanic implications. In his study of local holy wells, Waterford historian Eugene Broderick argues that "the whole atmosphere of pre-Famine Catholicism was ambiguous." Aspects of that "ambiguity" evidently survived in other forms of folk belief.[40] If it was indeed the St Peter-toothache prayer that the "young man" recited, then the charm so fervently believed in by the Dooleys straddled the boundary between religion and heresy.

Father McCarthy would have found it hard to ignore the episode. He lived one street away from the Dooleys, and had served much of his career in the town, as curate before becoming parish priest in 1884.[41] Did he commend Tim and Bridget for their faith in prayer, but urge them to direct their orisons to Saint Apollonia? But what would happen if appeals to the patron saint of dentistry failed in their effect? Bridget accepted as a matter of course that "it is the third time that brings the real charm". Failure of service through the approved mechanisms of the Church might be harder to explain. Did he preach against superstition, or did he choose to ignore the undergrowth of pagan survival, reckoning that there were limits even to priestly authority? It was a question that could not be solved in isolation. Parish priests would have been aware that a silent revolution – indeed, a revolution of silence – was taking place in their communities, a dramatic change that might have seismic consequences for the future. The 1901 census asked a question about language competence: could respondents speak Irish? In the households of Tramore, as no doubt across much of Ireland, family after family reported bilingual parents with unilingual children.[42] The Dooleys formed part of this transition: Bridget, aged 55, could speak Irish, her son Thomas, aged 22, could not. Perhaps Tim had not been fluent in the older tongue, but it seems that the Dooleys, like so many other parents, had decided sometime in the late 1870s not to pass on the Irish language to their children. Father McCarthy would have been aware that his flock were confronting a world of Anglophone modernity.

Eight years before this episode, in the winter of 1879-80, Ireland had experienced its most severe distress since the dark times of the 1840s. After one Sunday morning Mass in February 1880, Father McCarthy had addressed the congregation with a fiery warning. There were, he said, "ladies with more money than brains, charity or religion" who were attempting to "lay hold of the young with promises of food, lead them to lonely places where the disgusting and blasphemous tracts of the Church Missionary Society are read to them."[43] Proselytising Protestants had long been notorious for using soup to undermine the faithful: now they were throwing in a hint of sex as well. The syncretist duality discerned by Broderick may appear contradictory to us, but to the Dooleys it was probably an ambiguity of equilibrium. Once again, we hear Bridget's protest to the magistrates: "You must have faith in it." Her confidence in the charm was of a kind with her trust in the ministrations of the Church. It followed that it might prove profoundly unwise to disturb the equilibrium by challenging any one of its component elements. In 1903, Edmund Downey set his romp of a novel, Clashmore, around Tramore, with a predictable stock of characters, including a wise parish priest. Downey may not have been entirely fanciful in making Father John Hackett say that he would "prefer Paganism to some of the new-fangled religions which masquerade as forms of Christianity."[44] It may well have seemed preferable to co-exist with folk wisdom, however bizarre, rather than open the Pandora's Box of rationality. There is a weary sarcasm about Canon Patrick Power's explanation of the derivation of Drumcannon, the historic parish that included Tramore, in his 1907 survey of Waterford place names. The ridge took its name from Conan, a local giant, who feuded with a rival, Longa of Carriglong. The two flung rocks at one another across the intervening valley, where the continuing presence of mighty sandstone boulders proved that "popular tradition does not lie!"[45] 

As already noted, available evidence suggests that Tim Dooley was dead by 1894. In 1901, Bridget Dooley shared her home with her 22 year-old son Thomas, who was an illiterate agricultural labourer, and a 4 year-old grandson, Daniel Farrell. At Crobally Upper, a townland that was practically part of Tramore, seven year-old Bridie Farrell was living with her grandmother, Bridget Lee. It has to be assumed that Bridget Dooley had a daughter who was married by 1894, but died leaving two orphaned children in or soon after 1897. By 1911, only one of these people can be identified: Thomas Dooley, now 32 and reportedly literate, was lodging in Queen Street, part of Tramore's town centre, and working as a "carman" – a combined delivery and taxi driver.[46] Bridget and Tim Dooley may have had other children: the daughter who cried with toothache was not named, nor was her age revealed in the 1888 court case.

The episode of the Dooleys' brush with the law gives us an amusing glimpse into a small Irish community, but much remains obscure. Perhaps I may have led readers too far from the cameo of a hilarious scene in Tramore's tiny courtroom. However, many questions arise from that Sunday night attempt to relieve the pain of a sick child. Few can ever be answered.


Endnotes contain references and supplementary information.

All websites were consulted in September and October 2018.


[1] This was a comment at a public meeting in November 1900: Munster Express, 10 November 1900.

[2] Return of Owners of Land of one acre and upwards ... in Ireland (Dublin, 1876, version of Parliamentary Paper), 177, 93. Griffith's Valuation (consulted through shows Congreve Rogers already living there in 1853. Within ten days of his death, in 1896, the Doneraile estate received over twenty tenders from would-be tenants keen to take over the house. Munster Express, 19 December 1896.

[3] Slater's Directory, 1881, 276, gives his address as Seafield, Tramore. See also NUI Galway, Landed Estates Database (Maunsell). For the land agency, Munster Express, 13 April 1889. Reconnaissance into H.G. Hart, The New Annual Army List ..., suggests that Maunsell served with the Galway Militia and may not a Regular Army officer. He became an Honorary Major in 1860, but he may be the George Maunsell of the 106th Regiment who retired as a Captain in 1856.  In the 1890s, he moved to Dungarvan, but remained popular in Tramore. Munster Express, 27 August 1898.

[4] London Daily Telegraph , quoted, Munster Express, 4 February 1888.

[5] Congreve Rogers died in December 1896. His headstone in the Protestant churchyard in Tramore gives his age as 107, which would have made him 98 or 99 at the time of the Dooley case. He stopped attending local courts for a time in 1892, when he was 103, but resumed his activities early in 1893 to support proposals for a new sea wall at Tramore. He resigned from the local lifeboat committee (because he "never attended") 8 months before his death. He was remembered with affection by a long-time resident in 1903. Munster Express, 4 June 1892, 21 January 1893, 18 April, 12 December 1896. Waterford News, 25 September 1903.

[6] B.M. Fitzpatrick, Irish Sport and Sportsmen (Dublin, 1878 ), 66, 72-3; Irish Times, 11 August 1881, 23 August 1888.


[8] Folk remedies were usually dispensed by older people, as custodians of tradition. The "young man" may have been a seventh son. In 1937, Ireland's Folklore Commission mobilised school children to collect stories from their neighbourhoods.  "There was a charm for toothaches and the seventh son in any family had this charm," was reported from Ballyheeny, Clashmore in west Waterford. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0640, Page 386. The site is easily searchable, by topic and by county, and full citations have been omitted in most references.

[9] Census information located via In 1901, Bridget Dooley shared her home with her 22 year-old son Thomas, who was an illiterate agricultural labourer, and a 4 year-old grandson, Daniel Farrell. In 1911, another Bridget Dooley, aged 23, was working as a servant in Tramore. If a daughter, it is curious that she was not mentioned in 1901. The only other family of Dooley nearby was that of Thomas Dooley, aged 62 in 1901, and his 51 year-old wife Joanna, who farmed at Ballydrislane, a short distance inland from Tramore. It is likely that they were related. The Tramore entry in Egan's Directory is reproduced in A. Taylor, Tramore of Long Ago (1996), 185-9.

The best known local example of the surname is Dooley's Hotel, on Waterford City's Merchants Quay, which traces its foundation to Kate and Moll Dooley in the 19th century. The 1901 census identifies them as Kate Dooley, aged 37, and her sister Margaret, aged 27 – impressively youthful for female entrepreneurs. Their birthplace is recorded as King's County (now Offaly), which makes it unlikely that they were closely related to Tim and Bridget.

[10] Irish Times, 26 January 1888.The Munster Express, 4 February 1888, took its report of the case from the London Daily Telegraph.

[11] Bridget Dooley's wording ("we will bring her down to the young man who has the charm") fits the topography of Tramore town centre, which sprawls down a hill. Little Market Street is short but steep.

[12] John H. Prossor (not Prosser) was practising medicine at Tramore by 1876.  Thom's Irish Almanac and Official Directory..., 1876, 822. It is a striking reflection on late-19th century health care that nobody suggested consulting a dentist.

[13] E. Broderick, "The famine in Waterford...", in D. Cowman and D. Brady, eds, The Famine in Waterford... (Dublin, 1995), 175-6; D. Ó Ceallacháin, "Land Agitation in County Waterford...", Decies, 53, 1997, 114.

[14] Brian Walker, "The 1885 and 1886 general elections in Ireland", History Ireland , xiii (2005).

[15]  See, as an example, the South Wales Echo, 27 January 1888, available via the National Library of Wales online newspaper collections; Reynolds Newspaper (London), 29 January 1888. Reports can also be traced through the online newspaper websites of the National Library of New Zealand (PapersPast) and the National Library of Australia (Trove). The London Daily Telegraph, quoted Munster Express, 4 February 1888, was sardonic, calling Bridget "the occult, the esoteric, the mystic matron of Tramore."

[16] Flintshire Observer, 2 February 1888.

[17] No Dooleys are recorded among Tramore occupiers in Griffith's Valuation of 1853.

[18] Canon P. Power, Place Names of the Decies (London, 1907), 370; R. Byrne, "Irish words still in use in the Fenor area", Decies, 26, 1984. Variant names for Gormog include Gormogach (Power) and Gurramú,  Gurrucha and Gurramuchal (Byrne), Guramooghagh and Guramooguck (D. McGrath, A Guide to Tramore Bay, Dunes & Backstrand (locally published, 2002), 34-5). As "the Gormoogie", the spirit hid treasure in Ballynattin (also spelt Ballinattin), according to a story collected in the 1937 folklore project, before building himself a palace in Tramore Burrow: The story came from James Rockett, who was probably the 14 year-old James Rockett of Drumcannon townland in the 1911 census. His father, also James, an illiterate farmer and Irish-speaker, was possibly the source. Canon Power noted Gormog's Garden on Tramore Burrow. What was probably another version, the Goolamooluck Man, seems to have evolved around 1929, when lights were reported on the sandhills in stormy weather. It was suggested that these were flashes  from car headlights on nearby roads. Edmond Keohan, a Dungarvan businessman who had spent his childhood in Tramore 70 years earlier, had never heard of the name, although he remembered tales of the band of the Sea Horse. Bertram Poole, a Waterford City photographer and amateur antiquarian in his early 50s, also speculated that the Goolamooluck Man was "a newly invented name for Gormog". "The old people used to tell us of a spirit called Gormog, who saunted [sic, for haunted] the sand-hills, and at times assumed the form of a black pig." Local accounts of the Goolamooluck Man were embroidered by the tale that he had lived in the Burrow, where he waved a lantern on stormy nights to lure ships to destruction. Accordingly, he was punished by being "forced, on stormy nights, to wander around the sandhills, lantern in hand." Local folklore evidently remained creative. Cork Examiner, 31 March, 2 April 1930. I am grateful to Professor Stíofán Ó Cadhla and Professor Gearóid Ó Crualaoich of the Department of Folklore and Ethnology (Béaloideas agus Eitneolaíocht), University College, Cork, for bringing this material to my attention. The Goolamooluck Man does not seem to have been reported in the 1937 folklore survey, but allowance should be made for possible variant spellings. 

A story from the early life of the poet Wilfred Owen may also throw additional light on the Gormog legend. In 1902, Owen's parents brought their three young sons for a holiday in Tramore. Recalling the visit in 1948, Owen's brother Harold stated that the family had boarded in a thatched cottage with husband-and-wife fisherfolk called Fleury. On the last day of an adventurous vacation, the Owens struck out in a previously unexplored direction, and found themselves in a grove surrounded by dark woodland. This was almost certainly one of the wooded areas on the west side of the town, away from the main tourist trails. Caught in a shower of rain, they spotted a lake swathed in mist at the end of the grove and, although the Owens now felt uncomfortable and disoriented, Wilfred's father boldly insisted on reaching the water's edge. However, the lake, which was almost certainly a mirage, seemed to recede as they approached. At this point, a menacing figure, tall and male, appeared about ten yards away, startling Owen's mother who screamed in alarm. His father shouted apologies if they were unwitting trespassers, but the figure angrily waved a stick in response. Then, suddenly, the mist cleared, and neither the apparition nor the lake could be seen. The obvious logical explanation for the incident is that the lake was a trick of the light caused by sea mist settling in a hollow, while the stick-waver was a farmer who chose to back off upon realising that the interlopers were harmless tourists.

The sequel is instructive. Back at their lodgings, the Owens recounted their adventure to their friendly hosts, only to discover that the Fleurys did not wish to know. Indeed, the visitors were urged not to mention the episode to anybody. Given the 1937 story that the Gormoogie did not confine himself to the Burrows and the Strand, it seems likely that the Fleurys believed their visitors had encountered some manifestation of Gormog, and that, at the very least, it would be bad for business if the story got around.

In fact, Harold Owen's recollections, 46 years on, do not tell the whole story. The family did not stay with a married couple in a thatched cottage, but with a widowed mother and her daughter in a boarding house. The 1901 census records 80 year-old "Marianne" (usually called Mary Anne) Fleury living with her 39 year-old unmarried daughter Marion (known locally as May) in Terminus Road, which (from its proximity to the railway station) must be the modern Lower Branch Road. The census enumerator graded their residence in the 7- to 9-room category, with 6 front windows, one of the handsome Victorian residences alongside the modern Majestic Hotel. Mrs Fleury, who died in 1903, had lived in Tramore for sixty years, although she was a native of Passage East. Her husband, Caesar Fleury, had been the town's postmaster. In 1875, he was admitted to the James Fanning Institution in Waterford City, a charity which catered, inter alios, for "epileptic lunatics and harmless idiots". He was described as "a most respectable man", which perhaps suggests that he suffered from severe epilepsy, a condition that was neither well nor sympathetically understood at the time. Mrs Fleury then supported her family, first by running a public house in Main Street, and then by establishing a general store called "Inquire Within for Everything." She launched her sons into successful careers, one becoming a steamship captain, another a hotelier in the South African mining town of Kimberley, and the third a salesman for the Mazawattee Tea Company. The Fleurys were definitely not ignorant and superstitious peasants. Perhaps the most striking information from the census is that the family were Church of Ireland: Protestants, it seems, may have believed in Gormog as fearfully as their Catholic neighbours. J. Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen (London, 2013), 24-6; information from the 1901 census via; Munster Express, 12 November 1870, 15 May 1875, 11 September 1875, 28 March 1903; Waterford News, 12 October 1877, 1 February 1884; A. Wigham, "The Early Years of the Fanning Institution", Decies, 14, 1980, 49-51.

[19] For Ballynattin (also spelt Ballynattin), S. Ó Cadhla, The Holy Well Tradition: The Pattern of St Declan, Ardmore... (Maynooth Studies in Local History, no. 45, Dublin, 2002), 42. The Ballynattin stories were collected in 1933 by Séan Ó Suilleabhéain from an 80-year-old male informant.  Like Dr Prossor, Power supplied remedies in bottles. "Cnuasach Déiseach", Bealoideas, 1939, 38-46. The origin story summarised here was collected by Biddy Power, a pupil at the Star of the Sea Convent in Tramore from her great-aunt, Kate Foley(possibly the 50 year-old Kate Foley of Tramore in the 1911 census, but it is a common name): UCD, National Folklore Collection, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0651, Page 120, consulted 12 October 2018 via Other stories collected in the 1937 project also placed the "little elf of Ballinattin" in the Comeragh mountains, and associated him with guarding a pot of gold in a churchyard at Kilbunny, near Portlaw, about 12 miles of Tramore. This suggests that the story had spread beyond the Tramore district. Power was said to dislike the term "elf" (siabhra, sometimes anglicised as "shreevra") as it had pejorative connotations. I am grateful to Ann Barry for translation. Ó Suilleabhéain , "Cnuasach Déiseach", Bealoideas, 1939, 38-46;  Ríonach Uí Ógáin, "The folklore of County Waterford", W. Nolan and T.P. Power, eds, Waterford History and Society... (Dublin, 1992), 627. In 1853, one Patrick Power occupied 30 acres at Ballynattin, but – given the prevalence of the surname – this is not surprising. A Joanna Dooley also farmed 19 acres at Ballynattin.

[20] Power, Place Names of the Decies, 369; story told by  James Rockett of Drumcannon, 1937  .

[21] Fenor: its Facts, Faces and Folklore (Fenor, 1994), 59-60. 

[22] Power, Place Names of the Decies, 370. Canon Power showed a degree of resignation in recycling such stories.

[23] A well-known and obviously posed Edwardian photograph which showed girls hopping around the Metal Man indicates that the story was exploited, if not invented, to amuse tourists. A. Kelly and F. O'Donoghue, Tramore (Dublin, 2017), 35.

[24] McGrath, Guide to Tramore, 34-5.

[25] A. Taylor, Tramore of Long Ago (1996), 112-13.

[26] Weekly Irish Times, 14 May 1887, repeated 8 September 1894. Material was supplied by a correspondent called "Irish Molly": 21. 28 May 1887.

[27] W.G. Black, Folk Medicine ... (London, 1883), passim; J. Tanner, "The teeth in folklore", Western Folklore, xxvii (1968), 97-105.

[28] Black, Folk Medicine, 140.

[29] "Speranza" (Lady Wilde), Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland (2 vols, Boston, 1887), ii, 90-1.

[30] The grass/graveyard cure for toothache was reported in the 1937 survey from Kill, County Waterford, about 8 miles (14 kms) west of Tramore. Kissing the face of a dead priest was a remedy for toothache reported from Wexford Town in 1937. There were obvious supply problems here.

[31] Black, Folk Medicine, 119. A County Waterford variant was to carry the lower jaw of a "porcupine" (presumably a hedgehog).

[32] Tanner, "The teeth in folklore". It should be remembered that the published description of a practice may have taken place some years after its alleged currency.

[33] The informant was James Rockett of Drumcannon.

[34] The research, by Professor Carol Barron and Tiziana Soverino, examined results of a project in 1937-8 in which schoolchildren recorded local beliefs. Because frogs were amphibious, it was believed that they could transcend different worlds. The poor creatures had a rotten time in rural England, where they were similarly burdened with various mouth and chest infections. A Shropshire woman told Black that "we used to hear the poor frog whooping and coughing, mortal bad, for days after; it would have made your heart ache to hear the poor creature coughing as it did about the garden." Black, Folk Medicine, 35-6. Several Waterford stories collected in 1937 refer to the frog ritual as a cure for toothache, e.g. from Ballyduff in the north-west of the county: " if you had a toothache and you put a frog into a mouth and left him there until he screeched three times you would be cured immediately." In the upland country east of Cappoquin, County Waterford, it was also necessary to run 3 times around a field, no easy task if you were sucking a complaining frog.  

[35] A version of the charm ran: "As Peter sat on a marble stone, / The Lord came to him all alone, / 'Peter, Peter, what makes you shake?'/ 'O Lord and Master, it is the toothache.'/ Then Christ said, 'Take these for My sake, / And never more you'll have toothache.'" Black, Folk Medicine, 77-88.

[36] "To say this prayer is a cure for a toothache. Saint Peter sat on a marble rock crying with the toothache. Our Lord passed by and said 'Peter what is they ailment'. Peter said, 'O Lord I am troubled with the toothache'. Our Lord said, 'Stand up Peter and follow Me'. And those who say these words shall never be troubled with the toothache." The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0652, Page 313.

[37] Ecclesiastical real estate brought its own problems. Tramore parish church required "extensive and necessary renovation" in 1885, requiring fund-raising to pay off a debt of £2,000.   Munster Express, 26 September 1885. The devotional revolution as applied to County Waterford is discussed by E. Broderick, "Devotions at Holy Wells...", Decies, 54, 1998.

[38] M. Kiely and W. Nolan, "Politics, Land and Rural Conflict..." in Nolan and Power, eds, Waterford, 485. The possible argument that Tramore had a high rate of attendance at mass because it was an urban area might be supported by similar high rates in Waterford City. Attendance rates in towns such as Dungarvan (55%) and Cappoquin (45%) were not especially high. In any case, it is a simplification to equate the Catholic parish of Tramore with the town. In fact, it incorporated five traditional parishes, extending some distance inland. P. Power, Parochial History of Waterford and Lismore (Waterford, 1912), 204.

[39] Freeman's Journal, 4 December 1875. Power makes one intriguing statement (Parochial History of Waterford and Lismore, 204) that Tramore's patronal feast was the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, but that it "ceased to be specially celebrated in the parish some fifty years, or so, since." This suggests that it was abandoned about 1860. No other information has been traced, but it is possible that the feast day, 14 September, attracted local celebrations that were deemed unsuitable for a genteel seaside resort in its tourist season.

[40] Broderick, "Devotions at Holy Wells...", Decies, 54, 1998, 58-9.

[41] Egan's Directory shows him living in the Turret House, Hotel Square. He died in 1896, aged 57, "revered" in the parish. Munster Express, 1 February; Waterford News, 8 February 1896; Power, Parochial History of Waterford and Lismore, 205.

[42] In 1877, one of Tramore's more exotic residents, (Alfred) Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse, hailed attempts to preserve the Irish language, "that grand, copious, and magnificent form of human speech used by our fathers for so many centuries and by ourselves till within a recent period within this island." Wise had "patiently acquired a knowledge" of the language. Freeman's Journal, 8 May 1877.

[43] D. Ó Ceallacháin, " Land Agitation in County Waterford, 1879-1882: Part 1...", Decies, 53, 1997, 119-20.

[44] E. Downey, Clashmore (1903), ch. 34. Devotees of Father Ted may feel that Downey's priest is unfortunately named.

[45] P. Power, Place Names of the Decies (London, 1907), 366-7.

[46] Census information located via Grandmother Bridget Lee was described as an "annuitant" from County Kilkenny, and her house was superior in quality to Bridget Dooley's residence. Thomas Dooley was listed as female, which seems an obvious mistake.