The Mullingar X Files : 1686 Phantom Army

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THE MULLINGAR X FILES ~ THE PHANTOM ARMY Of 1686  ~ (5 min read)
On November 22nd 1686,a special court of inquiry was held in the Session (Court) House of Mullingar. This building was located on the site of what is now Danny Byrne’s pub. The Inquiry was presided over by the Magistrates of County Westmeath and was held at the request of the Lords Justices of Ireland.

The purpose of the Inquiry was “to discover the truth or otherwise of certain alarming reports that foreign and other troops had invaded Ireland and had been seen passing through Mullingar and other Midlands towns on October 25th and other nights previous to and after that date.” Evidence suggested that Mullingar could have been invaded by an army of phantoms or fairy horsemen.

Mullingar in 1686 was a very small town with a population of under 1000. It was the county town and also an assize,market and garrison town. The old Norman castle was still in use ,located on what is now the site of the County Buildings. The Westmeath County Jail stood along the main street where the Greville Arms Hotel is now. The town was a manor owned by Sir Arthur Forbes,a Scottish military officer who had been granted the town by King Charles the Second as a reward for his loyalty to the Crown during the British Civil Wars.

The population was largely Roman Catholic but with a significant Protestant community who largely controlled local politics Agriculture was the main source of employment and the town had a number of important fairs and a weekly market.The town occupied a strategic location on the main road between Dublin and Connacht. Every house in Mullingar was said to be an ale house and there were a number of small breweries and malthouses.

There was an important Dominican Friary in the town-situated close to what is now Cusack Park. The Roman Catholics of the town attended Mass in a tannery on the northern edge of the town along modern day Bishopsgate Street. The Protestant Church was All Saints’ and stood on the same site as the modern church building.

The main entrance road to the town from the east ran along the present day Delvin Rd and crossed the River Brosna at a place referred to as “The Friars’ Mill.” There was no canal at that time and the Friars Mill was located at the eastern end of Mill Rd where the Springfield Tunnel is now. It was at this fording point that the phantom army entered the town according to some of the witnesses who gave evidence to the Court of Inquiry.

From the Mill the ghostly troops would have moved along what is now Barrack Street,past a row of houses described in a map of 1691 as “the 17 tenements” and a couple of mills before crossing the river Brosna again at Annebrook and moving towards the town centre.

The magistrates who gathered for the court hearings came from across Westmeath. They included William Hancock, Charles Rochfort ,Robert Cronin ,John Malone,Edward Nugent and H Packington. There was also a Justice of the Peace from Co Roscommon called Edward Donnollan. During the Inquiry they would hear from more than a dozen witnesses-including the Head Constable of Mullingar,the Commanding Officer of a military unit stationed in the town and a number of local civilians.

All the civilians would claim to have watched the soldiers,both cavalry and infantry passing along the roads of Mullingar during the night. In several cases the witnesses would describe the type of uniforms and weapons the soldiers were wearing and carrying.

The first witness was Timothy Gaynor. According to the Court documents,Gaynor “sayeth that on the 29th of October about 10 of the clock at night,he saw about 100 horsemen march in ranks as our troops used to march and they passed over the ford known as the friars mill. ” Morris Collo also stated that he “saw ye horsemen pass over ye ford called Friars’ Mill. They marched four abreast.”

James Duffy told the court that he had also seen “a 100 to a 120 horsemen about 10 of the clock at night with carbines mounted their hands and with curb bridles”. Another witness,John Walsh “sayeth that on or about the 6th of November last,being in Mullingar,near his own dwelling house,he saw several soldiers marching in file at night.”

A servant girl called Margery Moran gave evidence that on the night of November 10th,she was” sitting with her mistress and heard what she believed were cattle passing by but half an hour later she went outside ye house and saw a number of horsemen passing by.”

Another witness,Patrick Donnelly, “sayeth that he heard the trampling of horses on the grounds of Mullingar . ” He saw what he described as “country people on carrons or little Irish horses”. Three more witnesses, Cornelius Hannon,John Caby and R Maghtoon reported “great numbers of men on ye grounds of Mullingar.”

Not every witness claimed to have seen soldiers-or even phantoms.. Peter Coghlan told the Inquiry of “hearing a noise on ye grounds of Mullingar. He went forth to see what ye matter was and found some Ulster men there who had brought timber for ye market in Mullingar.”

The phantoms were seen not just in the Friars Mill or other town centre areas but further out of town in the rural hinterland. Katherine Cahill told the court that “she was coming from Portloman Church and saw 16 horsemen with their cloaks behind them lined with yellow and also some men with capes like grenadiers”
(The Grenadier Guards regiment).

John Marten of Russellstown also saw marching soldiers out on the edge of town. He was asked if what he had seen might have been “fairy horsemen”. But “he stoutly maintained that they could not have been fairies:”,otherwise they could only have been seen by one man”

Captain Rone De Carno was the commander of a cavalry unit stationed in Mullingar. He told the Inquiry that “on the 10th of November about 9 of the clock at night,several people came running into the town crying that there was a body of 100 horsemen entering ye town.

Whereupon he said,being alarmed he mounted on horseback and with his troop went round ye town and tarryed abroad until two of the clock after midnight but meeting none of these apparitions he returned back with his troop to their quarters.”

The next witness was the Head Constable of Mullingar,James Mallaghlan. He stated that “he was on Wednesday called out of his house at about 10 of the clock at night by John Caby and three others of the watch (the night watch patrol),who sayeth that they were all undone for there were 300 men entering the town.” Mellaghan declared virtuously that “whereupon though exhausted,I got up and gave account thereof to Captain De Carno.”

The magistrates concluded that the witnesses were deluded and that no soldiers-ghostly or of flesh and blood, had actually invaded the town on any of the dates in question. The evidence of Mallaghlan and De Carno,who had seen no “apparitions” was considered more reliable than that the civilians.

Nor did the Inquiry find any evidence of what the Lords Justices in Dublin described as “mootings,assemblies and cabals tending to mischievious designs”, taking place in Mullingar. The magistrates appear to have concluded that it was all a case of mass hysteria.

And yet,the witnesses were drawn from across the town and beyond-men and women. They were not a crowd of party revellers. There was no suggestion that they had been drinking . They clearly believed they had seen strange soldiers marching into the town..

So what really happened in Mullingar on those October/November nights in 1686? Was Mullingar really invaded by ghosts? Some of the sightings had taken place around Samhain or Halloween-that time of the year when,it was believed,the dead returned to this world and the doors between this world and the next opened.

Or perhaps,rather than seeing ghosts the witnesses got a glimpse into the future as the veil between present, past and future opened up. Four years later,in 1690,Mullingar actually was invaded by an army of foreign soldiers.

The army of William of Orange-drawn from all over Europe,was stationed in the town through the winter of 1690/91. It may be that on those nights around Halloween in 1686,a portal of some kind opened around the Friars Mill,in the ancient town of Mullingar and soldiers from the future or the past or from a parallel dimension marched through.

RUTH ILLINGWORTH ©

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