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JOHNSTOWN - MYTH AND MEMORY

Leinster Leader 25 October 2007
Ghosts, ghouls and the echo of vanished coaching horses
– history meets Hallow’een
by
LIAM KENNY
 
Ghosts, ghouls and graveyards loom large in the imagery of this time of year as preparations are made for that heady cocktail of ancient superstition and modern commercial overkill known as Hallow’een or in the old Irish, Oiche Samhna. Certainly, graveyards take on a life of their own (pun intended) at Hallow’een with stories of churchyard hauntings and strange happenings in the night being part of the seasonal folklore. Occasionally, despite the seriousness of the subject, there can be a touch of black humour in the retelling of a graveyard’s lore and legend. One the better graveyard stories (and all the more so because it has credibility) is centred on the burial ground in the picturesque village of Johnstown, just off the busy N7 Dublin road.
 
On entering the graveyard the eye is drawn to a large Celtic-type cross which bears the name of Richard Southwell Bourke who among his many titles was landlord of the Palmerstown Estate, Earl of Mayo and Baron Naas. However it was in another capacity that he was to meet a violent death. Hailing from one of the most influential families in the Anglo-Irish aristocracy he was given the plum job in the British Empire’s hierarchy by being appointed Viceroy to India. However his tenure was cut short when he was assassinated in a bizarre incident on an island in the Indian Ocean. The shocked British authorities were faced with the problem of how to preserve his body on the long sea voyage from India back to Ireland. The solution was to preserve his body in a barrel of vinegar earning for him, among locals, the nickname of the ‘pickled earl.’!
 
This is not the only tale that the Johnstown cemetery – well-maintained by the Johnstown Tidy Towns committee -- has to yield. Inset into the ancient church wall is a grave slab from the 15th century which bears the coats of arms of the Flatsbury and Wogan dynasties – the latter also connected with Rathcoffey castle. The Flatsbury’s have vanished as a name in modern times but one of their number, Philip Flatsbury, left a record for posterity with his compilation of a volume known as the ‘Red Book of the Earls of Kildare’ which although compiled in 1503 survives to the present day in the Trinity College library in Dublin.
 
The old church with its striking arch is a legacy of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John who were one of the great crusading orders. Indeed the placenames Johnstown and Palmerstown both take their names from the crusading and pilgrimage exepeditions of the middle ages. They formed contingents of knights who went to the Holy Land to defend it from what were perceived as the infidel tribes from the middle east.   The knights left their mark elsewhere in County Kildare not least on the county’s north-eastern border where they built the well-fortified castle of Kilteel.
 
Leaving Johnstown graveyard one looks across to the familiar and hospitable premises known as the Johnstown Inn,  part of a range of buildings which served the needs of travellers on the main road from Dublin for centuries. And if tangible proof were needed of the transport heritage of the locality a little up the main road towards Dublin, on the margin of the north-bound carriageway, an old stone can be seen. Closer inspection reveals a milestone which may well date from the transformation of the old Dublin road into the country’s first toll-road in 1729.
 
It is not difficult to imagine the scene at Johnstown with teams of horses being attended to at the stables beside the inn, forage and water being supplied to fortify the animals as they pulled coaches of anxious passengers hurrying to various parts of the country.
 And no doubt too in the late hours of the night the odd echo can still be heard from down the centuries of coaching horses – headless or otherwise – clattering down the route past Johnstown’s ancient cemetery. It may not be real history but, hell … its Hallow’een!
 
  • My thanks to Mr. Brian McCabe and the Johnstown Community Association who have mapped out a walking trail on the new footpaths linking Kill and Johnstown.
 
Series no. 38

Liam Kenny focuses on the historic village and environs of Johnstown in his regular column in the Leinster Leader, 'Nothing, New Under the Sun.' Our thanks to Liam 


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