I found this story in a Portsmouth newspaper published in 1808. I cannot swear to its accuracy. I rather suspect that it is just one of those yarns that are swapped among the village loafers sitting in the local tavern or country store. With each retelling the tale will be “improved” by the story teller.
It seems that an Ulster Irishman arrived in the early spring to the port of Boston. He knew no one in the area and was eager to get to Londonderry. There, he knew a lot of men who had earlier emigrated from across the sea. Londonderry was at this time made up of the present day towns of Derry and Londonderry. The newly arrived traveler thought that the frontier town of Londonderry would be a good place to settle and make his fortune.
Near the wharf in Boston he rented a one-horse cart to carry his belongings to his future home. The roads in the city were fine and he found himself making good time in the first phase of the 50 mile trek to Londonderry. However, as soon as he left the city limits, the traveling conditions began to deteriorate. Paved avenues became gravel roads, and then soon degenerated into narrow dirt paths with a mane of grass running up the center. The road went up and down hills that were both steep and rocky. He also found his forward progress was slow because the course of the road was about as straight as the vines in a pumpkin patch. What looked like a few hours travel took two days and he had to sleep in his wagon on the side of the road.
As the emigrant crossed over into New Hampshire, the so-called highways got even worse. The roads were so narrow that the brush on the side of the road hit his face as he rode by. In the dark, these trees’ limbs looked like banshee’s arms trying to snatch him off his cart. As if the rocky, rutty, hilly and crocked road conditions weren’t bad enough, it was also mud-time and black fly season in New Hampshire.
Along the route there were few bridges. Streams had to be crossed by fording through water as high as the hubs on his wheels of his cart. Every hour or so, the road would cross through a bog. Too frequently, his wagon’s wheels would get mired in the mud and it would take all the strength his horse could muster to yank the cart free from the suction of the muck. Sometimes the exasperated Irishman would have to jump down from his seat and help push the cart out of the mud. Soon his clothes were caked with mud.
By now the man from Ireland was far from being a happy traveler. He was tired, dirty and hungry; his body was a mass of welts caused my black flies, no-see-ems and mosquitoes. And he was still miles from Londonderry.
On the second day, as he crossed through Salem, his cart had become mired in yet another mud hole. That was the last straw. He considered himself a man of patience but he had finally reached his breaking point. The frustrated and red-faced Ulsterman let loose a series of protracted curses and profanities. The air nearly turned blue as he loudly screamed every swear, expletive and vulgarity that he knew. It is likely that even a hardened sailor would have blushed at hearing the Irishman’s cussing. This string of profanities went on for nearly a quarter of an hour and must have been carried for miles in the stillness of the Salem air.
Finally, the Ulsterman had used up all of his strength and became quiet. It was then that he noticed he was not alone. Standing by the side of the road was a man with a dour look on his face. The unsmiling stranger was dressed in the black clothes that told the world that he was a clergyman of the Presbyterian persuasion. And by the look on his face, this man of the cloth was not at all happy with the Irishman’s protracted bout of cussing.
Looking down his long nose at the emigrant, he addressed him in a pious, affected voice that was loud and filled with moral indignation: “Sir! By your language, I can tell that you are going to Hell! You are going to Hell!”
The tired Irishman thought for a moment about this judgmental admonition. Defiantly, he looked the clergyman squarely in the face and replied: “Well sir, that’s probably true because I look around and I can see that I’ve reached that particular destination.”
Then, after making a courtly bow, he gave the man in black a knowing wink and said: “And I’ve heard a lot about you — top-of-the-morning to you, Mr. Satan.”
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.