Thursday 16 April 2020

Encounters with the Boo Darbies - tales from Ramea, English Harbour, Colinet, and Conception Harbour

“I can recall her saying to us, ‘If you go out tonight the Boo-Darby will carry you away.’ She said that he was a black man with horns. This proved to be very effective, because I always shuddered when she mentioned the Boo-Darby.”

A word you will not hear very often anymore in Newfoundland is “darby” -- meaning a type of potentially supernatural figure.

The word is not lost completely, however. There are at least three place names in Newfoundland that include the word “darby.” The first is Darby's Harbour, a former settlement located on Merasheen Island, Placentia Bay.  There is also another Darby Harbour in Placentia Bay, in Paradise Sound, which was abandoned before the official resettlement period of the 1960s and ‘70s.  A third is Darby's Island, still shown on some maps as “Old Ferrole Island,” which fronts the communities of Brig Bay and Plum Point, on the Great Northern Peninsula.

The name pops up in other contexts as well; the Newfoundland folk music quartet of Jean Hewson, Christina Smith, Rick West, and Dave Penny have performed together under the name “Boo Darby.”
But clearly defining what is meant by “darby” or “boo darby” is difficult, as the meaning varies from place to place, from person to person, and changes over time.

In certain contexts, darby can mean a type of ghostly apparition or spook. It can also be used to refer to a Hallow-e'en spectre, or a boogey-man type figure used to frighten or threaten children. One person from Ramea told folklorist John Widdowson how their mother used the name “Boo-Darby” to keep them in line:

“My five-year-old brother was taught and expected to obey at all times but like most kids he occasionally disobeyed, when mother would step in and say, ‘Now Tommy, you do like you’re told or under the steps you go where the Boo-Darby is ready for bad little boys.”

In one story from Colinet, St. Mary's Bay, Barbara Rieti’s informants told her a strange story about serving girl who was killed, flattened, by the darbies. She writes,

“So by and by she hears them coming, they come down the back of the meadow. She hears the fences busting and cracking, and she ran to sing out to tell them that they were corning. And they were gaining on her so fast that she see she couldn't do it and when she got to the door they were nearly on top of her and she sung out, ‘Darbies.’ And as quick as that, they said, you could hear the big ruption. They trampled her in the door, flattened her out, and she was black as tar. And the whole house, our uncle said, full up, great big long white feathers was full from the floor right up to the ceiling, he said. And a cold breeze going through the house , frightening everyone to death, and about two seconds everyone was gone.”

While it seemed clear to the storytellers that the darbies killed the girl, it was a bit confusing if those particular darbies were fairies, evil spirits, or humans in disguise.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English includes several different meanings for the word darby, but most commonly it seems to have referred to disguised people who participate in disguised mummering activities during the twelve days of Christmas, though it could also mean a scoundrel, sly or cunning fellow.

Mr. Hubert Furey, of Harbour Main, is a great raconteur and a master recitationist, and a fabulous person to turn to when you are looking for bits of Newfoundland folklore.

“We never called them mummers, when I was young,” he told me. “We called them darbies.”

“We would make up our costumes, with cardboard masks with holes, and paint, crayon and whatever, sheets and pillows, wool for hair, whatever you could do to make yourself look ridiculous or funny or otherworldly. There wasn’t much style in the thing, it was very individual, whatever you could make up. You had the odd person who was very ingenious and creative, who had a good costume. But generally speaking it was whatever found itself on the body, so to speak, from whatever was lying around.”

Darbies in Harbour Main followed many of the customs followed by mummers and jannies in other parts of the province, except for the fact that darbies would start their rounds at about December 15th, but they would be done by Christmas Eve.

Joseph Dobbin, writing in 1984, shared his thoughts and memories about Christmas in St. Mary’s Bay at the start of the twentieth century.  He included a reference to the darbies, saying:

“You and your brothers and father now begin to make your rounds. You go from house to house, singing, dancing, dressing up as the darbies, frightening children and little old ladies with your masks and the hobby-horse, and you have a wonderful time chasing, finding and blackening your friends, particularly the ones who showed any sign of fear of the darbies.”

In Conception Harbour, the darbies would go out even earlier, around Colcannon time (All Souls’ Night) at the end of October. There, the darbies would burn corks in the stove and pull them out with tongs, then use the blackened cork to darken their faces.

So are darbies a type of frightening, black-skinned supernatural creature, who inspired people to mimic them during mummering season? Or did it work the other way around, with costumed figures giving mothers a story to use to frighten naughty children?

If you have had a run-in with darbies, boo-darbies, boo-baggers, or other frightening creatures, comment below.

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