It happened in the early part of the eighteenth century close to the little village of Ballycumber in West Offaly when the local estate of Castlearmstrong was taken over by a man named Johnston. The lands were previously owned by the family that gave it its name, the Armstrongs.
The Armstrongs’ main claim to memory now is that the family provided the most notorious “Castle informer” in Irish history in the form of John Warrenford “Sheares” Armstrong whose evidence led to the execution of the brothers John and Henry Sheares, two of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion.
They were a plantation family who over a period of time acquired large areas of territory formerly ruled by the native MacCoughlan Clan. However the economic depression in farming which followed the cessation of the Napoleonic Wars about 1830 heralded the decline of the Armstrongs as ‘landed gentry’ and their estates passed into other hands. Their main claim to memory now is that the family provided the most notorious “castle informer” in Irish history in the form of John Warrenford “Sheares” Armstrong whose evidence led to the execution of the brothers John and Henry Sheares, two of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion.
Johnston soon after acquiring the estate gained the reputation of a cruel and intolerant landlord and a sectarian bigot to boot. Surveying the lands from the upper windows of the ‘Big House’ one morning he noticed some people in a field some distance away. Calling his kind steward he demanded to know who those intruders were and who gave them permission to trespass on his lands. The steward informed him they were peasants from the locality visiting a holy well located in the field . On hearing this Johnston became enraged and armed with a bull whip and a fearsome dog which he kept for the purpose, he drove the poor unfortunates from the field. He then ordered that the well (which was attributed to St. Brigid) be filled in immediately.
This instruction was duly carried out with foreboding by estate farm labourers who knew that instant dismissal would be their lot if they refused.
The following morning Johnston was awakened by a commotion coming from the downstairs. On investigating he was met by agitated kitchen staff trembling in fear and pointing towards the basement. There an amazing site was to meet his eyes – a spring of clear water was bubbling up out of the floor, with the water already halfway up the walls “Oh, we knew it wouldn’t be lucky sir to touch the holy well” wailed the distraught kitchen maid whose duty it was to light the morning fires, finding herself waist deep in water when she went to carry out her orders. Johnston instantly dismissed this suggestion as ‘papish superstition’ and threatened to use the bull whip on whoever might mention it again. He pointed out that as the house was built on higher ground it was physically impossible for water from the well or the closing of it to be responsible. By this time the basement was totally flooded and a rivulet of water was beginning to flow out the hall door. This flow soon became a steady stream forcing the entire household to retreat to the upper floors. As they gazed in bewilderment out the windows they noticed that the stream of water was flowing in the direction of the holy well, forming a large pond in a hollow about midway.
By this time Johnston’s wife was even more agitated than the domestic staff, perhaps being more susceptible to local beliefs than her husband, pleaded with him to have the well reopened. He agreed to do so, stating that it would prove him right, that the closing of the well had nothing to do with the flooding of the house.
The workmen, who had closed the well the previous day were now dispatched to open it again. No sooner had they done so that the flooding in the house began to subside. Dismissing this as merely coincidental Johnston ordered everyone back to work, and for the mess within the house to be cleaned up. If he thought this was the end of the matter he was in for a rude awakening.
The pond which was formed as the waters returned to the well remained and maintained its level no matter how dry the weather, even though there was no drain or channel linking it to the well or any other water source. Devotees of the well saw this as a significant sign and soon a practice developed of people washing their feet and afflicted parts of their bodies in the waters of the pond. Rumours of miraculous cures began to circulate. This new development sent Johnston into a rage, and he decided he would put a stop to it.
Remembering his experience with the well, he decided not to have the pond filled in. Instead he devised a plan, which illustrated his wickedness and the justification for his reputation. He gathered up all the glass containers he could find and breaking them he scattered the broken pieces over the pond, and watched in glee as the poor peasants coming to get relief from their pain and misery, experienced further pain and suffering as they sought solace in the waters of the pond. .
Johnston’s contempt for the devotees of the holy well was matched by his treatment of any poor unfortunate appro-aching his door begging for alms or assistance. If they failed to leave immediately when ordered to do so, he would treat them to a lashing with the bull whip, or he would set the dog on them. One poor travelling woman who had the misfortune to come begging to his door was treated in this fashion, returning to her husband bleeding from a savaging by the dog. In a fit of rage the husband confronted Johnston. Fearing that he had a more formidable opponent, Johnston produced a gun and threatened to use it. When the poor travelling man pleaded for his life, Johnston offered the alternative of walking barefoot in the pond. Knowing the history of the pond’ the traveller bending down on the pretence of removing the little footwear he had, caught Johnston off his guard, jumped on him wrestling the gun from his grasp. Now pointing the gun at Johnston, whose turn it was to plead for mercy, the traveller ordered him to remove his boots and walk barefoot in the glass strewn waters.
Having no agreeable alternative Johnston had to walk the pond in his bare feet. Throwing the gun in after him, the traveller made good his escape, Johnston emerged with badly cut feet, limping to his mansion some distance away. It is reported that no matter what medications were applied, his wounds never healed and he died soon afterwards.