Irish Winter Solstice

The Irish who came to Lanark County brought their religious beliefs, some Protestant, but many were Roman Catholic, coming to the new world to escape the English oppression, so widespread at that time in Ireland.

Along with their reverence for God, and their deeply held religious beliefs, they also brought traditions known as ‘the old ways’, customs that had been practiced by the Celts for thousands of years, and passed down in their families.

Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st, and is the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

Oak King v.s. Holly King

According to Celtic legends, the solstice marks a great battle each year between the Oak King, who represented the light and summer, and the Holly King who represented the dark and winter. Each year on December 21st, the Oak King would finish victorious at the winter solstice, and daylight would slowly return to the island until it was time to do battle again on June 21st, at the summer solstice.

Dark vs Light

The winter solstice marked the battle between darkness and light, life and death, beginnings and endings. In some Celtic legends the seasonal darkness of the winter solstice was known as ‘the Dream-time’, when Nature invites us to dream, reflect, and feel peace in the darkness, and hope for the rebirth of the earth as the days grow longer. The Celts believed that all beginnings take place in the dark. Like the seeds sown in autumn, they germinate underground through winter before appearing as new green shoots in spring.

Evergreen, Yule Log,

Mistletoe, Red & Green

Many of our Christmas traditions, have Celtic origins. The Celts brought evergreen boughs inside their homes to remind themselves of life, in the cold dark winter. Springs of Holly and Ivy were brought inside to decorate the house in the darkest days, a symbol of hope, as these plants remained green throughout the darkness, just as the people would once again be bright and hopeful as the days grew longer.

Mistletoe was brought into the home as a symbol of fertility, and was brought as a gift to young couples in hopes that their union would be fruitful, and that the family would continue through the generations to come.

The old Celts decorated the evergreens with candles and reflective objects. This was their call to Nature to amplify and increase the natural energy and light of the living green boughs. These were the beginnings of what would become today’s reflective balls placed on the tree, along with tinsel and silver and gold decorations.

Today’s red and green decorations have their roots in Celtic traditions. The red of the holly berries symbolized the bright strength of blood and life, and the green was life everlasting.

The Longest Night

In ancient times the Celts sat outside on the longest night of the year, wrapped in blankets and animal skins, huddled around a bonfire, waiting for the light to appear. Old familiar stories were told, again and again, each year around the fire – some of bravery, and some told of traditions past down through the ages.

Many hours later, a glow was seen along the horizon, as the first shaft of light breaks through the dark – winter has broken, and the summer shall return.

Music begins, and old songs are sung, and the feast is prepared. Men go into the woods and bring back a large oak ‘Yule’ log, in honour of the Oak King, who is victorious, and will bring back the light and the summer to their lands.

Winter Solstice Today

Today, many Irish mark the Winter Solstice at Newgrange, a pre-historic monument in County Meath, Ireland, five miles west of Drogheda. It is a large tomb constructed c. 3200 B.C., and is older than Stonehenge.

Newgrange, photo: Irish Central

Once a year, as the sun rises at the Winter Solstice, it shines directly along the long passageway, and lights the inner chamber and the carvings inside, lasting approximately 17 minutes.

Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland

Triple spiral carving, illuminated once a year at Newgrange

A lottery is held each year to determine the sixty people who will be allowed to witness the phenomenon on the morning of the Winter Solstice from inside Newgrange. Winners are permitted to bring a single guest. 

People gather outside Newgrange each year to witness the Winter Solstice sunrise

Winter Solstice 2022

Winter Solstice is on Tuesday, December 21, 2022 at 4:47 p.m., in Eastern Ontario.

Take a moment to pause and remember some of the Celtic traditions practiced by your fore-bearers.

For all those with Irish blood flowing through their veins the Winter Solstice marks the victory of light over darkness, and signals a new start, a fresh beginning, as our days grow longer, brighter, and warmer.

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

Member, Association of Professional Genealogists

Honorary Life Member, Lanark County Genealogical Society

Author of : “Lanark County Christmas”, “Lanark County Comfort”, “Lanark County Collection”, “Lanark County Calling”, “Lanark County Classics”, “Lanark County Connections”, “Lanark County Calendar”, “Lanark County Chronicle”, “Lanark County Kid”, & “Recipes & Recollections”

available at local stores or email:

Irish Graveyards

Drawing: Rory O’Shaughnessy, “Ireland Reaching Out”

Irish Graveyards

Some of the older Irish graveyards date back to medieval times, and often there are structures or ruins of the old churches around which the graveyard and parish evolved. Commonly known as graveyards, burial grounds or cemeteries – the word “cemetery” was adapted by the early Christians from the Greek word “koimerterion” meaning sleeping place or dormitory.

There are a small number of seventeenth-century tombstones, also known as tapered grave-slabs and also some mural plaques found at a number of Irish graveyards. This type of monument was more commonly placed by the wealthy members of the parish and are likely to be located at the residences of the various religious orders. It was not uncommon for many people to have a simple stone or a cross, (not inscribed) marking their grave.

Tomb Types

Like many things in life, the type and construction materials implemented in a tomb were often a reflection of a family’s wealth or position in the community. Some types of tombs were more historic in nature and were unique to a specific time in history when that particular type of tomb was in fashion.

Altar Tomb – A rectangular, raised tomb, commonly used by early Celts

Bale Tomb – Resembles a chest tomb, with a rounded top

Barrel Tomb – Has a curved top which may or may not extend to the ground

Chest Tomb – Resembles a large trunk or container

Hip Tomb – A rectangular box with a hip roof added to the top.

Table Tomb – Appear to be a stone table, and normally supported by 6 legs

Pedestal Tomb – A tomb placed on a pedestal

Family History

For family historians, a search through a graveyard can be a rewarding experience if you’re lucky enough to find the markers you’re looking for.  In some cases grave markers with names of families who no longer live in the community might be found. Some of the families left the area because of mass-emigration, death through famine, or changes in the political, religious or social evolutions in the community.  These events can provide challenges for local genealogists searching for the gravestones of a particular family.

Yew Tree

The yew tree is a common sight in an Irish graveyard. The ‘tree of death’, or Yew, is a slow-growing, long-living tree, common in many parts of Europe. An older yew will often hollow out in the center, then send down a shoot which begins the growth of a new tree, or a tree within a tree. The ancient Druids worshipped the tree, and often buried their dead beneath a yew. When the newly-converted Christians in Ireland began to bury their dead, the bodies were often added to existing pagan cemeteries, which always had at least one yew tree on the grounds. The Christian clergy eventually incorporated the planting of the yew and its ability to generate new life, as a symbol of the resurrection.

Wrought Iron

Markers and Fences

At one time wrought iron was a common material used throughout Ireland, and many grave markers and fences surrounding tombs were created by talented local blacksmiths. The old English term ‘wrought’ is the past tense of a Medieval word meaning ‘to work’, and in this case the white-hot metal was forged with a hammer.

Wrought iron fences were built around individual graves or family tombs.

Some families chose a stone curbing around a tomb.

Ledger Stones

A ledger stone was a flat stone and had an inscription about the deceased, and often displayed symbols related to their profession, their religion, or their affiliations to a group. These stones were sometimes placed on the top of Chest Tombs.

Grave Symbols

Memorial stones may help us with our family history research through their unique individual markings. Some have vocational symbols, depicting the type of work done, or a family coat of arms, or perhaps a Masonic symbol indicating lodge membership.  In the case of a Masonic Lodge symbol further information may be found in the local or national lodge records.

Gravestone with Masonic Order Symbols


Obelisk markers are usually found on family burials or those of people of high social status, and they also tend to stand out more in the cemetery and are easily located. The advantage of the shape is that it provides four engraving surfaces, rather than just one, as in a standard headstone. The shape and height also relates back to the Celtic pagan worship of the sun god. In more modern times this shape was favoured by familes wanting to display their wealth or power.

Celtic Cross

The religious denomination of the deceased can often be established through the types of religious symbols used on their memorial. Usually, resurrection symbols are more frequently associated with Catholic memorials while mortality symbols are used more commonly on a Protestant grave marker.

A symbol of Christianity, the Celtic cross first appeared in the 8th century. Legends say that Saint Patrick introduced the Celtic Cross to Ireland and that the circle within the cross symbolizes the pagan sun, or the old beliefs, and the cross represents the conversion to Christian beliefs by the early Irish Celtic people. The circle was a powerful symbol to the ancient Irish people, and it was considered a sign of strength and many rituals were performed while standing in a circle. Several ancient monuments, such as Stonehenge were constructed in a circle, because the unbroken formation was believed to hold magical powers. It’s been thought that St. Patrick incorporated the circle within the cross knowing it was a meaningful symbol to the Celts.

Catholic Grave Symbols:

The letters “IHS” may be engraved on a cross. These letters represent – Iesus Hominem Salvator (Jesus Saviour of Mankind). The Greek letters Alpha and Omega can also appear on a gravestone to symbolize the beginning and the end.

“IHS” carved in the centre of the cross

Protestant Grave Symbols:

One of the most common symbols on Irish Protestant (and some Catholic) gravestones is a simple three letters: “R.I.P.”, in Latin: “requiescat in pace“, in English: “Rest in peace”. The letters represent a longer prayer which is:

Eternal rest grant unto him,
And let perpetual light shine upon him;
Rest in peace.”

The Clasped Hands

In the eighteenth-century there was a “Great Awakening”, when Protestantism began to change their focus to salvation and a personal relationship with God. The symbol of the clasped hands were often accompanied with words: “farewell”,  “goodbye,” and “until we meet again.” The carved hands were almost always portrayed as right hands and they represent a husband and wife sharing a last handshake. One hand is usually flat and loose, its fingers extended, which may be interpreted as either a final embrace, or the deceased leading the living to follow them.

Many of the Irish Protestant graves have what was known as “mortality symbols”, which were thought to remind people that life is fleeting, and to seize the day. The skull and crossbones are probably the oldest mortality symbols found in Irish graveyards. Often an hour glass is combined with the skull and crossbones symbols to signify time running out, or sometimes a winged death’s head also indicating that life is short.

This is the gravestone of a man who was a wood-cutter, and bears the symbol of a Forrester with an axe in his hand, as well as Adam and Eve beside the Tree of Life.

The symbols of the skull and the hourglass were known as ‘mortality symbols’, and were a reminder that a lifespan is brief. The hourglass, crossbones, bell, and skull are frequently seen together on 18th-century gravestones. The bell symbolized the church bells that rang to call the people to a funeral. These symbols were more commonly used on Protestant grave stones.

Some gravemarkers were engraved with rhymes or messages:

“Remember me as you pass by,

As you are now so once was I,

As I am now you soon must be,

Prepare for death and follow me.”

Burial Records

Note that burial records, also known as ‘plot books’, as well as maps of Irish graveyards are usually more recent in origin. The majority of records of historic graveyards in Ireland go back no further than the early twentieth century, with only a few dating to the nineteenth century.

A page from the burial records of Mount St Lawrence Cemeter, County Limerick

Local History

When possible, it may be best to find someone with local knowledge to identify individual family plots. While a local historian may not be able to confirm all individuals buried in the grave they may be able to assist with other important information such as where the family lived and what other families they are related to within that parish. Local guides and historians may be able to trace back people and events over a long period of time, so should never be overlooked as a source of information.

If you have Irish ancestry, Irish graveyards and their markers can provide a wealth of information for those researching their family history. From the ancient pagan symbols, to the more modern symbols and markers used today, the gravestones represent a physical link back to our forebearers, and they provide us with clues to who they were, and how they lived.

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

Member: Lanark County Genealogical Society

Association of Professional Genealogists, APG

Author of: “Lanark County Christmas”, “Lanark County Comfort”, “Lanark County Collection”, “Lanark County Calling”, “Lanark County Classics”, “Lanark County Connections”, “Lanark County Calendar”, “Lanark County Chronicle”. “Lanark County Kid”, and “Recipes and Recollections”.

“Lanark Era” reviews – “Lanark County Christmas”

“For people who have their own memories of Christmas past in rural Lanark County, or those who have an interest in local traditions, the book is filled with those details, and plenty of Christmas spirit to go along with them”

“The Lanark Era”, September 13, 2022, p. 9

Many thanks to all

who shared their memories

of a Christmas past:

Lynne Allan, Shirley Armstrong, Graeme Hoatson Beattie, Helen Benda, Peter Bothwell, David Bromley, JoAnne Cavanagh Butler, Jean Carson, Margery Conboy, Diane Cox, Martha Craig, Dave Crosbie, Judy Burnham Curry, Elaine DeLisle, Eric Devlin, Graeme Dixon, Marlene Springer Donoghue, Brian Dowdall, Diane Miller Duncan, Joanne Ewart, Beverly Miller Ferlatte, Richard Frizell, Karen Fulton, Eric Gordon, Anne Graham, Julia James, Muriel James, Thom Lowry, Cynda McAdoo, Gail McFarlane, Grant McFarlane, Rosetta McInnes, Everett Millotte, Ivy Mohrhardt, Chris Morrow, Carl Munro, Ethel Nagle, Jayne Munro-Ouimet, Dianne Pinder-Moss, Doris Quinn, Fran Rathwell, Rose Mary Sarsfield, Shirley Scott, Allan Stanley, Lea Beth Taylor, Steve Tennant, Doris Thompson, Ron Thornbury, Noreen Tyers, Dave White, and Don White.

To pre-order: click on the link below:

Shipping within Canada: call 613-267-2350

International shipping:

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

Irish ‘Churching’ for new Mothers

Churching refers to a blessing given to mothers following their recovery from childbirth. After remaining at home for 40 days after giving birth, the woman would return to church where she would thank God for the safe delivery of her child and receive a blessing from the priest. This was known as ‘Benedictio Mulieris Post Partum’ (The blessing of women after giving birth), and more commonly known as ‘Churching’.

The forty days was a rest period, where the woman’s husband and female relatives would take on all of the household chores, giving her time to recover after childbirth, and to spend time with and enjoy the baby. Wealthy families hired what was known as a ‘monthly’ nurse who worked specifically with new mothers taking on their duties for the first six weeks. At the end of that time, the ceremony of churching marked a return to normal life, and was often accompanied by a party.

Only married women were eligible for the blessing. They were to be appropriately dressed, and carried a lighted candle. The priest would then mark the woman with the sign of the cross in holy water.

Irish Folklore

Among the old beliefs and customs brought to Lanark County by the early settlers from Ireland, were their superstitions about new mothers, and the rituals of Churching. In Irish folklore, it was regarded as unwise for a woman to leave her house to go out at all until she went to be ‘churched’. It was believed that new mothers who had yet to be churched were regarded as attractive and vulnerable to the fairies, and so they were in danger of being kidnapped by them.

Painting: Joseph Noel Paton – 1850

Churching in the West

In the history of many religions all things having to do with birth and death are understood as somehow sacred, and the custom of ‘Churching’ was also practised in many of the other Christian churches, such as Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist.

In the Lutheran church, there is a prayer for “the Churching of Women” – “God, we praise Thee for Thy great mercy shown to this mother and her child, and humbly beseech Thee to keep them always in Thy gracious care.”

In the Anglican 1979 “Book of Common Prayer”, there is “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.” The rite takes place within the Sunday liturgy soon after the birth and parents and other family members come to the church with the newly born child to be welcomed by the congregation and to give thanks.

In the Methodist Church the custom of the churching of women, is officially known as “An Order of Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child”, and continues to be offered in the present day.

Painting: “A Woman’s Solemn Churching after Childbirth” by Christen Dalsgaard – 1860

Origins of Churching

In previous times infant mortality was very high and baptizing a child quickly became important. Because of this the mother could not always attend the baptism, because she was often still recuperating from birth.

The time of recovery — called “lying in” was often a welcome time of rest for women who often had hectic and busy days  . During the lying in, women were exempt from attending Mass on Sundays and from fasting.

Genealogy Records

You may see references to ‘Churching’ in parish records, where the minister or priest recorded the Churching, Birth, Baptism, Marriage, Death, and Burial Records of the members of a congregation.

A Thing of the Past?

The rite was dropped by the Catholic Church after the second Vatican Council of 1967. Some say that the practice lost favour because it was seen as a ‘purification’ ritual, however, another possible view is that giving thanks for safely coming through childbirth may still be relevant today. For some, a service focused entirely on the woman, apart from her identity as mother, is rare at a time when the new baby commands so much attention.

Churching in modern times

Where to Find

Irish Churching Records:

You can find Churching Records within the Church of Ireland registers, as a notation in the baptismal registers.

Some records of Irish churchings include:

Cork, Cloyne parish, – churchings from 1795 to 1818

Kilbrogan, – churchings from 1756 to 1818

St. Mary’s Clonmel,  – churching records from 1796 to 1801

Evidence of churchings in Catholic registers are more difficult to find. They are normally found in baptismal registers as notes written in the margins, as is the case in Kilbrogan RC in County Galway

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

Irish Names & Surnames Explained

Traditional Irish Naming Patterns

Naming patterns are important when researching your family history. It has been a long standing custom in families around the world to name children after fathers, mothers, grandparents, important ancestors, relatives and friends. Middle names were often used for the preservation of a mother’s maiden name or the name of a prominent ancestor in that family. Names are very useful in tracking down lineages when there is little or no paper trail.

Names can give you clues to a person’s lineage, but other sources are still required in order to have genealogical proof. The Irish used a very particular naming pattern for children for children born beginning in the mid to late 1700s and through to the early to mid 1900s. It is important to note that not all Irish families followed the pattern although enough of them did that you can often use first names to learn more about an Irish ancestor’s unknown lineage. As with anything in genealogy, this should be proven with supporting documention, but Irish naming patterns are often helpful while building your family tree.

Traditional Irish Naming Pattern:

Naming Pattern Exceptions:

Naming patterns were sometimes affected by deaths in infancy. When a specific name was considered important within the family, the name would usually be given once again, to the next-born infant. In records, there are sometimes two or more children of the same name, baptized within the same family. Each baptism of this name, usually tells of the death of the older child of the same name.

Another example when the naming pattern is altered is when a child was stillborn, or very ill when born, or dying. Sadly, the child was baptized using a less-important family name, but the name of the paternal grandfather (or important ancestor) might be ‘reserved’ for a live birth, or for a child who was expected to live.

Surname Prefixes

Irish surnames of Gaelic origin were more common until Ireland fell under English rule. This led to the use of English versions of traditional Irish surnames. Many of these traditional names had prefixes:

“O”, “Fitz”, “Mc” and “Mac”

Mac or Mc – meaning “son of”

O – meaning “grandson of”

Fitz – meaning “son of” was sometimes substituted for the prefix ‘Mac’ or ‘Mc’ by many of the descendants of Anglo-Norman invaders.

For a period of time, English law in Ireland forbade the use of “O”, “Mc” and “Mac”, although “Fitz” was allowed. When researching your family name be aware that a name like Connor could have once been O’Connor.

The prefix O’ is unique to Ireland. It originates from the Gaelic word “ua,” meaning “grandson of.” Any name beginning with O’ is without question an Irish patronymic (from a male ancestor). The O’ surnames began in the 11th century in Ireland, before the Mc/Mac surnames. Examples of these surnames are O’Sullivan, O’Connor, O’Brien, and O’Leary.

Mc or Mac?

There is a myth about Scottish and Irish surnames that begin with the prefix Mac- or Mc-, that Mac- (as in MacDonald – son of Donald) designates a Scottish and Protestant heritage, where as Mc- (as in McCormick – son of Cormac) denotes an Irish Catholic family name. In fact there is no difference between these two prefixes. They may be either Irish or Scottish in origin and spelled different ways, with either prefix, even within the same family.

Mac- and Mc- both come from the Gaelic word “meic,” meaning “son of.”


In the early days of Irish settlement in Canada, such a large number of Irish names carried these prefixes that it became an ethnic slur for the Irish people to be called: “micks.”

Surnames that Describe the Profession of the Father

Some names beginning with Mc or Mac described the profession of the father.

MacMaster -“son of a master or religious leader”

Macpherson – “son of the parson,”

MacWard – “son of a poet or scribe,”

MacKenzie – “son of the fair one,”

MacDuff – “son of the dark one,”

McDowell – “son of the dark stranger.”.

Some families chose to conform to English laws, and some didn’t, which led to surname variations within the same family. Often Irish who emigrated dropped the prefixes when they arrived at their new countries of residence.

Top 200 Surnames in Ireland

Given Names and Meanings –


Given Names and Meanings


Researching Your Irish Roots

Don’t forget Nicknames

Most given names in Ireland have at least one associated nickname. When names are recorded in birth, marriage, and death, or in church records, a nickname may have been used instead of the given name (Kate for Catherine or Billy for William, for example). Many nicknames are easy to spot, but others are less well known. For example, the nicknames used for Bridget include Bedelia, Bess, Bessie, Biddy, Breda, Briddy, Bride, or Bridie.

Nicknames may also lead the researcher astray if incorrect assumptions are used. While some might assume that Anty is a nickname for Anthony (a male), it is, in fact, more likely a nickname for Anastasia (a female). Lou is both a nickname for male children named Aloysius, Lewis/Louis, and Ulysses as well as female children names Louise or Lucinda or Mary-Louise, or Mary-Lou.

In conclusion, while naming patterns weren’t always followed exactly (for example if there were only one or two children, the father’s relatives always took precedence in the naming of the children), they were usually followed closely.

Remember, if you have an Irish ancestor, and don’t know anything of their parentage, you can use naming patterns to help in your search.

Best of luck researching your Irish ancestry!


  • De Breffny, Brian. Guide on Irish Christian Names and their English equivalents. Article Christian Names in Ireland found for years 1670-1850. The Irish Ancestor, Vol.1 No. 1, pages 34-40.
  • Coghlan, Ronan. Irish First Names. Belfast, Ireland: Appletree Press, 1985.
  • Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, and Fidelma Maguire. Irish Names. 2nd ed. 1990. Reprint. Dublin, Ireland: The Lilliput Press, 1992.
  • MacLysaght, Edward. The Surnames of Ireland. 6th ed. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1985.
  • Matheson, Sir Robert E. Special Report on Surnames in Ireland [Together with] Varieties and Synonyms of Surnames and Christian Names in Ireland. 1901. Reprint. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968.

Irish Settlers & the Ghost of Burgess Township

Drummond Pioneer Irish Boxty

Irish Christmas in Lanark County

January 6th – Irish Women’s Little Christmas

Irish Hallowe’en in Lanark County

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

Irish Hallowe’en in Lanark County

Irish Hallowe'en in Lanark County

Hallowe’en was observed by the Irish settlers in Lanark County, in the earliest times, beginning in 1816, after their arrival in Drummond Township. At that time, it was not a holiday centered around children collecting candy, but instead, marked a spiritual night when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, allowing spirits, good and evil, to pass through.

The celebration of All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en originated in Ireland, with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, (pronounced sow-win (sow sounds like cow). The Druids, the high-ranking members of the Celts, built enormous bonfires, and everyone in the community, young and old, gathered around. The Celts wore simple costumes, consisting of animal skins, to hide themselves from evil spirits, and believed that on that special night, they had the ability to tell each other’s fortunes.


Samhain marked the end of the harvest, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. The Celts believed that on October 31st, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.

When the evening’s celebrations around the fire were over, each family brought a small torch from the bonfire, and used it to re-light their hearth fires at home, believing that it would protect them during the coming winter.


Lanark County Irish Hallowe’en

There were many ancient customs, traditions and even food, associated with the early Irish settlers to Lanark County, each year, on October 31st.  Although many of the pioneers were Roman Catholic, a handful of customs from the times of the Celts still remained. Some of the traditions were centered around the idea that everyday people were able to predict fortunes on this special night. A traditional Irish fruit loaf was baked, which held specific symbols that were believed to predict each person’s fate. (recipe below)

A large part of the evening was the telling of ghost stories.  Some of the early settlers were not able to read nor write, so the story-telling was a way to pass down their traditions and beliefs, so that the next generation would remember them.

On Hallowe’en, after dusk, when the last light had faded from the sky, it was customary light a few candles, push back most of the furniture against the walls, and sit around the hearth. The lady of the house would serve the fruit loaf, with butter, jam, and tea, shots of whiskey for the grown-ups, and the telling of the ghost stories would begin…..

lanark county banshee

This is a story that was told in the 1930s in Perth, by Jimmy McNamee, our father’s cousin, about the night his parents Mary Quinn, and Maurice McNamee, heard a Banshee, while they were walking down a dirt road, coming from a house party.

Legends say that the cry of the Banshee foretells of a death, and the old timers claimed that only those with pure Irish blood running through their veins, could hear the cry of the Banshee.  

Some of the Irish settlers said that the Banshees were withered, scowling old women, but many said the Banshees were pale, fair-skinned beauties with red flowing hair, who could bewitch men with their charm.  It was said that each family had its own Banshee, and that they followed the people who left Ireland, across the ocean, to their homes in the new world.

Not long after they were married, in the late 1860s, Maurice, and his wife Mary, were coming home after a dance at a neighbour’s house.  They were walking down a bush road when they heard a cry unlike anything human they had ever heard.  It was half sobbing, half moaning cry, as though someone was in distress.

Mary Quinn McNamee said, “Maurice, can that be a Banshee?”

Still fairly close to the neighbour’s house, they decided to turn around and go back, and tell the others what they’d heard.  During the short walk back to the house they heard the cry a second time, and just before they reached the front door of the house, they heard it again.

After reaching the house, they told the neighbour and the rest of the guests what they’d heard, and everyone came outside to listen, but the cries were not repeated.

Three days later a man died accidentally in the bush close to the house where the dance was held……

ghost of ferguson falls

Many stories were passed down over the years about Jimmy Whelan’s tragic drowning, and his beautiful young lover, who still walks at night, along the shores of the Mississippi River, searching for her beloved Jimmy. This story was told and re-told in the area of Ferguson Falls, particularly at the infamous Stumble Inn, operated by Billy McCaffrey.

The Phelan family (this family pronounced their name as Whelan), had a farm along the 11th concession of Drummond Township, backing onto the Stafford farm.  The two farms were separated by the Mississippi river. My great-grandfather, Thomas Stafford, was a friend of Daniel Phelan, younger brother of Jimmy, so he knew the family well. It was well-known in the area that of all the children in the family, Jimmy, was his father’s favourite, and in the father’s will, Old Man Phelan even singled him out, referring to him as “his beloved Jimmy”.

Jimmy Phelan

James ‘Jimmy’ Phelan, of Drummond Township

It was said that Jimmy possessed a spirit of wanderlust, and instead of working on the family farm, he was drawn to the excitement of living in a lumber camp, moving from place to place, along the river.  All winter long they cut and hauled tall white pine logs, to the Ottawa River’s nearest tributary, and in the spring, when the ice broke up, they floated the logs down the river. One year, the water on the Upper Mississippi was particularly high, and a dangerous jam formed. The jam shifted, and Jimmy and the foreman, both standing on floating logs, were knocked into the cold icy waters. The foreman was rescued, but they didn’t recover Jimmy’s body for over half an hour.  It was a terrible tragedy.

In the old days, the Irishmen would sit outside of Charlie Hollinger’s hotel, and one of the stories they told was about the ‘gates of glass’. They believed that at dusk, between the rising and the setting of the moon, when the waters were still, the veil between the world and the spirit world becomes very thin. It was said that spirits could pass from one realm to another through the still waters, and this was known as the ‘gates of glass’. 

Many years later, following the death of Jimmy’s former lover, people in Ferguson Falls began to see what appeared to be a misty image of a young woman, walking along the shores of the Mississippi. The old timers said it was the spirit of Jimmy’s beloved, trying to reunite with him.

woman in water

They say she still walks along the river at dusk, searching for Jimmy.

Ghosts of the Stumble Inn

Although there were three hotels at one time in Ferguson Falls, perhaps none had such a wild reputation as the Stumble Inn. The hotels in the village were popular with the locals, travelers, and the lumber crews who worked along the river. The difference between the larger hotels and the much smaller Stumble Inn was that the smaller bar chose to ignore the local laws for their operating hours, and so, alcohol could be purchased at almost any time, including Sundays. There was even a Sunday ritual among some of the male parishioners of the nearby St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic church – to stop by, before, or after services, for a wee nip of whiskey.

Stumble Inn

The Stumble Inn, Ferguson Falls

The longer business hours of the Stumble Inn were perhaps one of the causes of the legendary fighting that took place at this small establishment. More drinking, naturally led to more fighting. Apart from the fighting though, it was also a place where a young musician, like Dad’s uncle, Jimmy Richards, could bring their fiddle or flute, and were encouraged to entertain the patrons; and so, it also became known as a venue where the budding musicians of the area gained experience performing for the crowds. Along with the music, and the fighting, there was card-playing, gambling, and story-telling.

Billy McCaffrey, owner of the Stumble Inn, passed away in 1940, and most of the old musicians who played there are long gone. Some say that if you walk along the river near the Stumble Inn, on a warm summer’s eve, you can still hear the echoes of the music and the laughter – the spirits of the old gang who frequented the Stumble Inn.

(William Henry ‘Billy’ McCaffrey, owner of the Stumble Inn, was a cousin to the Staffords, through his grandfather, Peter McGarry, brother of our great-grandmother, Betsy McGarry Stafford.)

Little People of Westport

Michael McNamee and his family sailed from Warrenpoint, Ireland, on the ship, ‘Dolphin’.  According to stories passed down by Michael, the voyage took seven weeks, and he sailed in the company of Michael Stanley of Stanleyville, and Michael Cunningham, who settled in Perth.

It was a common belief at that time, when the Irish immigrants arrived in Canada, that their particular banshees, family fairies, and little people, came with them. 

Michael’s son, Maurice McNamee, and his helper, George Murphy, worked as charcoal burners on the west side of the hills, close to Westport.  They lit the wood, and covered it with a bed of sand so that the wood might be merely charred instead of being burned.  They sold the charcoal to local families, and it was used for cooking, to heal wounds, to ingest in the case of food poisoning, and to mix with ash to make cleaning products.

old fashioned charcoal made in a sand mound

One morning, Maurice and George returned to their work site, and found the sand they poured over the charcoal pit was covered with tiny foot-prints.  The prints were about two inches long, and were in the same shape as a human foot.  Both the marks of the heels and the ends of the toes were very clear, and the entire surface of the pit was covered with the footprints, as though some tiny folk had been dancing on the mound.

Maurice and George did not want to disturb the sand.  They wanted someone to come and see the prints to verify what they had found.  There was no camera in those days, and they had neither pen nor paper with them to draw a sketch of what they’d seen……


Maurice told the story often, and then his son, Jimmy McNamee, passed the story down to the locals in the Perth area.  Jimmy was a bit of a legend in the area for his story-telling skills, and often came to one of the hotels in Perth, and passed the old stories down to all who were interested. Our Dad heard that particular story from Jimmy in 1935, in Perth, and passed it down to us.

(According to Jimmy, ghost stories were not told at daytime activities like barn-raisings or at gatherings in broad daylight.  It was in the evening, gathered around the hearth, or a bonfire, that the stories were to be told by the old-timers, and passed down to the younger folk, from one generation to the next. Jimmy’s son, Sylvester, was married to Dad’s cousin, Bridget ‘Carmel’ Stafford)


Predicting Your Future Husband with an Apple Peel:

All of the young ladies present at the gathering carve a long single peel from an apple, and toss it over their shoulders. It is believed that the peel will fall on the floor in the shape of their future husband’s initials!

apple peel


Fortunes Told with Saucers

Another custom involved the placing of three saucers on the table. Salt is poured onto one saucer, the second saucer holds a ring, and the third saucer holds a small mound of earth.  Each person is blindfolded, and led around the table three times, and then places their right hand on one of the saucers. If they touch the saucer containing the earth it is a reminder that the time is not far off when they will be but a handful of graveyard soil; if they touch the saucer with the ring it means that a happy marriage will be theirs; and if they touch the salt they will cry tears in the next year.

three sauceers

Leaving a Path for the Fairies

Many believed that on Hallowe’en the fairies like to come in, and warm themselves at the fire. It is customary to move the furniture back toward the walls, and leave a clear path from the front door to the fireplace so the fairies will come in, sing and dance with the family, and tell them what the future holds.

Predictions from a cake

Many bake a special cake for Hallowe’en called a Barmbrack. Inside the cake the baker places a match, a tiny piece of cloth, a ring, a thimble, and a button. The cake is cut into pieces, and given to those present at the gathering.  The person who finds the match will have conflict in their life, whoever finds the piece of cloth will suffer from poverty, the person finding the ring will be the next to marry, the one who finds the thimble will not marry, and if a man finds the button he will be a bachelor forever.

Traditional Irish Barmbrack for Hallowe’en


2 ½ cups chopped dried mixed fruit

(raisins, apples, currants, cherries)

1 ½ cups hot brewed black tea

2 ½ cups all purpose flour

1 tsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

½ tsp baking soda

1 egg

1 ½ cups sugar

¼ cup marmalade

1 tsp finely grated orange peel

Soak the dried fruit in the hot tea for 2 hours, then drain and gently squeeze out excess tea.

Stir the flour cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking soda together in a bowl

Beat the egg, and combine with the sugar, marmalade, orange zest, and tea-soaked fruit

Fold in the flour gently and pour into the pan.

Bake in a greased 9-inch Bundt pan at 350, for 1 hour, or until the top of the cake springs back. Allow to cool in the pan for 2 hours before removing.

Wrap the objects in waxed paper (thimble, ring, etc.) and press into the cake through the bottom before serving.

The loaf may be served with tea in the afternoon, after dark on Hallowe’en, or may be sliced, toasted and served with butter and jam for breakfast


And so, the spooky traditions of Hallowe’en were passed down through the generations, from the earliest Irish settlers in Lanark County, and on down through the years, from the old timers, to the young ones.

The ghost stories were told, and re-told, at night outside, around the Hallowe’en bonfire, or in the home around the hearth. Shots of whiskey were often served, or for the younger folks a cup of strong black tea, along with a slice of the traditional buttered fruit loaf.

As the evening progressed, and the whiskey took hold, there was always music, fiddling, flute-playing, singing of the old traditional songs, the telling of jokes, and many exaggerated tales of glory from days gone by.

Whether you spend your Hallowe’en in the traditional ways of our Lanark County Irish ancestors, or you have your own customs that you practice on this special night of the year, have a very happy and safe Hallowe’en, and be sure to watch out for the ghosts, and the little people!

country halloween

For more Lanark County Irish Ghost Stories:

The story of Jimmy Phelan and the Ghost of Ferguson Falls, in its entirety, in “Lanark County Calling: All Roads Lead Home”.

For the entire story of the Banshees in North Burgess Township, and the Little People of Westport – “Lanark County Classics: A Treasury of Tales from Another Time”

For more information on The Stumble Inn of Ferguson Falls – “Lanark County Collection: Winding Our Way Down Memory Lane”

Books available at:

The Book Nook in Perth

Spark Books, in Perth

Mill Street Books in Almonte –

Lanark County Genealogical Society – some good research links:

Irish Genealogy records:

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

Member, Association of Professional Genealogists

Member, Lanark County Genealogical Society

Author of 10 books: “Lanark County Christmas”, “Lanark County Comfort”, “Lanark County Collection”, “Lanark County Calling”, “Lanark County Classics”, “Lanark County Connections”, “Lanark County Calendar”, “Lanark County Chronicle”, “Lanark County Kid”, & “Recipes & Recollections”

available at local stores or email: