Seamus Curran was a popular businessman in the town and the news of his sudden death came as a terrible shock to everyone who knew him. From every corner of the town and outlying district people came to the house where his body was being waked to pay their respects to their friend and the family he had left behind. After first visiting Seamie lying in his coffin most of the mourners were crowded into the front room of the house, where they had a smoke, drank a little whiskey to the man’s memory, and recalled stories from the man’s life.
It was well after ten o’clock when Hughie McCann, the local undertaker, came into the room and was immediately handed a cup of tea, for the poor man had ‘taken the pledge’ twenty years previously. But Hughie had barely gotten his backside settled in the chair before several men in the room began to press him to relate a few of his stories to entertain everyone. He knew that a few humorous stories would shorten the long night ahead of those who would be sitting up with the deceased until morning. So, Hughie cleared his throat and told them all that he would do his best, although everyone who knew Hughie also knew that his ghostly tales were always the best. On this occasion, however, Hughie began with a song and encouraged everyone to join in and, when he had finished the gathering called for another.
In the kitchen of the wake house many of the neighbour women had joined together to supply the food for those who attended the wake. Among the women there was one who had three daughters of marriageable age and a good match was sought for each. The mother, of course, knew Hughie McCann well and she was aware that he was an unattached male who was well on in years and had never once thought of marriage. She spoke quietly to a woman friend standing beside her in the kitchen. “Sure, wouldn’t I be a happy mother if I could get your man McCann to take one of my daughters as a wife,” she said. “He’s a man with plenty of money behind him and a good business to give him a good living. Would you speak to him? But don’t mention my name.”
A short while later the woman approached Hughie McCann with a fresh cup of tea in her hand and casually mentioned that she knew a fine and beautiful girl who would make him a good wife. “You know, Mr. McCann, you are no spring chicken, and you are not getting any younger. It is time you got yourself a good wife, before it’s too late.”
Hughie rose up from his chair, his eyes filled with anger and told her bluntly, “There is not a woman yet born who I would even consider marrying, and not even two hundred wild horses would ever be able to drag me to the altar to do so!”
The mother of three daughters had heard him speaking and was deeply insulted by his words and, being the type of woman she was, she was not going to let him get away with it. “May bad luck follow you, for you are an insignificant wee brat of a man!” she told him. “You could have gotten yourself a beautiful young bride whose shoelaces you are not fit to tie, Hughie McCann! But all you will be left with are the corpses you have put in cheap old coffins that you hammer together. It’s like the dead burying the dead.”
“Allow me to tell you something,” retorted Hughie, “I would rather have the dead about me than many of the living any day, especially when the living people are like yourself. The dead have been good to me over the years, may they rest in peace, employing me to build their coffins, for when all is said and done the living would rather avoid me.”
The angry woman was not finished with what she wanted to say and told him, “That would be right! Sure, you are half-dead yourself, and it is with the dead you should be, and not with the living. Why don’t you just get out of here and look to the dead for company?”
“You can be sure, if I knew how to find them, I would go there,” Hughie answered tersely.
“Ah, you could ask them over for supper!” she laughed.
Hughie did not reply to her and walked out of the kitchen door and, in a loud voice that all could hear , she called out, “Men, women, and children, and for all those for whom I built a coffin, listen to me now as I issue an invitation for you all to come to my home tonight and partake in a feast that I will give in your honour.”
All those people standing around the coffin in which the corpse was laid out were totally dumbfounded when the dead man appeared to smile as Hughie spoke. In terror each one standing there took to their heels, and Hughie McCann hurried out of the wake house, making his way back to his work premises. But as he passed a public house he went in and purchased a bottle of whiskey, which he put into the pocket of his jacket before he moved on. When he reached his workshop, however, he saw that the interior lights were switched on. He knew that he had closed-up the workshop securely before he had gone to the ‘Wake house’. What he saw now concerned him, for he thought that thieves may have broken into the shop and night set fire to it. He stopped and hid himself in a dark shadow covered corner of the building opposite the shop to confirm his worst fears. However, all that Hughie could see were crowds of men, women, and children walking quietly toward his workshop, which they entered, one after another. As he watched, Hughie unexpectedly felt a tap on his shoulder and heard a voice asking, “Is this where you have been, and all of us waiting for you to make an appearance? Now, this is not polite way to treat your guests, so, come on now with me.”
As Hughie entered the shop with the man, it quickly became clear that a large crowd of people had gathered there. As his eyes scanned the faces in the crowd, he recognized several of his former and other people he had known in the past, all of whom were singing, dancing, and chatting among themselves. At that moment a man came out from the crowd and made his way up to Hughie and asked, “It seems you do not know me, Hughie McCann?”
“No,” replied Hughie answered, “I don’t know you! Sure, how could I?”
“There was a time when you knew me well,” said the man. “Even now you will recall who I am, for I am the first man that you built a coffin for. It was me that gave you a start in the undertaking business.”
Another man approached and he was very lame. “Do you know who I am, Hughie?” he asked.
“God forgive me, but I don’t,” replied Hughie.
“Jesus, man!” gasped the lame man. “Sure, I am your cousin, and it is not long ago since I died.”
“Of course, you are!” Hughie beamed with delight. “Now I recognize you and I can clearly remember how became lame. But how will I ever get all these people out of here? What time is it now?”
“It is early yet, Hughie! Sure, it’s hardly eleven o’clock,” replied his cousin. “Just make them all feel welcome and entertain them.”
“But I don’t have any money on me now to get food or drink for them. Anyway, it’s almost midnight and all the stores are closed,” Hughie told him.
“Well, just do the best you can!”
The fun and the dancing continued unabated and, as Hughie looked around the room, he caught sight of a woman who was standing in the far corner of the room. She was looking very shy and was not even trying to join in the festivities. “Why is that woman not joining in the fun?” asked Hughie. “She is not dancing and enjoying the craic like the others.”
“Her?” replied Hughie’s cousin pointing in the direction where the woman was standing. “Sure, that woman is not long dead. In fact, you donated a coffin to the poor woman because she did not have the money to buy one.”
“Well, the poor woman is afraid you will ask her for the money, or that you might even let it slip that she had not paid for her coffin,” the cousin added.
The best dancer in that room was Johnny Braden and he had died at least two years before this. Playing the fiddle was Tommy Riley, who had chosen to make a fiddle for the occasion rather than bring one. He peeled off what little flesh was left on his body and rubbing up and down he made music, for each rib gave a different note. To everyone’s surprise the music Riley played was excellent and, without doubt, the best Hughie had heard play. Then, everyone in the room decided to follow Tommy Riley’s example, pulling off what flesh remained on them, and they began to dance in their bones. You can just imagine the scene in front of Hughie as these skeletons danced their jigs, reels, and hornpipes. When they would accidentally clash against each other the air was filled with the loud rattling of bones, and the rush to put them back in place again.
Hughie McCann’s mind was filled with the desire to just survive the night, although there was no sign of daylight breaking. Meanwhile, ‘Big Alo’ Sullivan was moving around the room suspiciously, and Hughie remembered him well because he had been married twice in his lifetime, and his two wives were accompanying him. The undertaker watched as ‘Big Alo’ took the second wife on to the dancefloor, and they began to dance so well that the entire place was delighted, the skeletons all applauding and calling for more. Unfortunately for ‘Big Alo’ and his partner they danced too well for one of the guests, who was his first wife and she had become filled with a jealous rage. She ran on to the dance area and taking ‘Big Alo’ by the arm shouted that she had more of a right to dance with him since he had married her first.
“Catch yourself on,” screamed the second wife. “It is me that has the better right. When he married me, you were already dead, and he was free to marry whoever he wanted to! And besides that, I am a much better dancer than you! So, whether you like it or not I shall dance with him!”
“Ah, shut your beak you old crow!” the first wife screamed. “Sure, you wouldn’t even been here dancing tonight at all if you had not been able to borrow another woman’s shin bones!”
‘Big Alo’ stared down at his two wives and asked the second wife, “Have you someone else’s shin bones?”
“Aye! Of course, I have. Didn’t I borrow them from a neighbour woman?”
“Tell me, who owns the shin bones?” asked ‘Alo’.
“They belong to Katie Murray, but she didn’t have a good name about her!”
“But why did you not come on your own two feet?”
“Well, you see, I hadn’t a good name about myself either, but I was put under a curse that whenever there was a feast or a ball, I wouldn’t be able to attend unless I could borrow a pair of shins,” she told him.
As the blush of embarrassment rose in his face, so did ‘Alo’s’ anger. Much to his shame he had been told that the shin bones he had danced with had been borrowed from a woman who did not have a good reputation. In his anger, ‘Alo’ lifted his hand and slapped his wife, sending her spinning into a corner, much to the disgust of the woman’s friends and relations in the room.
“We cannot let him get away with that!” said one of them. “We have to knock some manners back into him!”
They all came together like a mob and because they no weapons, they pulled off their left arms to strike and slash at anyone who got in their way, and a terrible fight began. Hughie McCann, in the meantime, stood in silent amazement as the battle was launched, but he soon became concerned at the prospect of being killed in the bitter struggle. ‘Alo’ was busy dodging the various blows that were being aimed at him, and he accidentally on Hughie’s toe. Caught by surprise, and in pain, Hughie struck out with his fist and knocked ‘Big Alo’s’ head clean off his shoulders, causing it to roll to the far side of the room.
When ‘Alo’ realized that he had lost his head he rushed to recover it and used it to strike out at his attacker. His strike was true, knocking Hughie under a bench and being at a disadvantage, he found himself being throttled by ‘Big Alo’’. Hughie’s throat was being squeezed so tightly that he lost consciousness and could remember nothing more. But when he did come to his senses again, the following morning, his apprentice found him stretched out under the bench with an empty whiskey bottle under his arm. The poor man was bruised from all the pounding he had received, and his throat was very sore from the way he had been throttled by boney hands. But Hughie did not know how all the previous evening’s festivities had ended, or when his guests had left.