There was nothing nice or polite about Neil Kelly. He simply told his wife that he was going to the forge to get a ‘doctoring instrument’ and off he went without another word being said. When he arrived at the forge he mumbled a greeting to the blacksmith, who asked him “Where are you heading to today?“
” I have come here, for to ask you to make me an instrument for some doctoring I intend to do.”
“Aye, well what type of instrument is it that you want?”
“Make me a ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’,” replied Neil.
The Smith made these instruments for him in a short period of time and Neil then returned home.
When the next day dawned, Neil Kelly rose up from his bed and prepared himself to be going out as a doctor and went out of the house. As he walked along the road, Neil met a red-haired lad on the side of the high road. The lad politely saluted Neil Kelly and Neil did likewise in reply. “Where would you be going?” asked the red man.
“I am going as far as I can to get me a doctoring job.”
“It’s a good trade,” says the red man, “It would be best for you to hire me.”
“What wages would be you be looking for?” inquired Neil.
“I suppose half of what we shall earn until we come back to this place again would be right.“
“I’ll give you that,” said Neil without hesitation, and with this agreed the two men walked on their way together.
“There’s a king’s daughter,” said the red man, “who is close to death. We should go as far as the place in which she rests, and we shall see if we can heal her.“
The two men walked on as far as the gate of a strong well-guarded castle, and the porter came to answer their call. He asked them where they were going to, and they said that they had come to look at the king’s daughter they were, to see if they could do her any good. The king, hearing this gave the visitors permission to enter the castle, and they were taken to the place where the girl was lying. The red man went to her and took hold of her wrist to check her pulse, and said that if his master should get the price of his labour he would heal her. The king replied by saying that he would give his master whatever he should award himself. In response, the red man said, “If I could have the room to myself and my master, then he could work better,” and without hesitation, the king said he should have it.
He wanted a little pot of water brought down to him, which he immediately put on the fire to boil. He asked Neil Kelly, “Where is the doctoring instrument?“
“Here they are,” said Neil, “a crooked knife and a white knife.”
He put the crooked knife on the girl’s neck, and he took her head off her body. Then, he took a green herb out of his pocket and rubbed it into her neck. Not one drop of blood came out of the wound as he took the head and threw it into the pot of water starting to boil on the fire. He boiled it for a while, seized hold of the two ears, and taking it out of the skillet, he struck it down on the neck. The head stuck on the girl’s body as well as it ever was. “How do you feel now,” he asked the girl.
“I am as well as ever I was,” said the king’s daughter.
The big man shouted for her father and the king came down to the room. When he saw his daughter, he was totally joyous, and he would not let the visitors go away again for three days. When they were eventually leaving the castle, the king brought down a bag of money and poured it out on the table. He asked Neil Kelly if there was enough there for him. Neil said that there was more than enough and that they would only take half of the amount. But the king wanted them to take the entire amount, and the two men replied, “There is a daughter of another king who is waiting for us to go and look at her.” With that, they bid farewell to the king and went on their way.
They went to look at their new patient and went to the place where she was lying ill. After looking at her in her bed she was healed in the same manner as the previous princess was healed. The king was grateful, and he said that he did not mind how much money Neil should take from him, giving him three-hundred pounds cash, and then they left to go home.
“There’s a king’s son in such and such a place,” said the red man, “but we won’t go to him. We will go home with what we have.” They were heading home, with ten heifers that the king had given them, and as they walked homeward, they came upon the place where Neil Kelly had hired the red man.
“I think,” said the red man, “that this is the place where I met you the first time.”
“I think it is,” replied Neil Kelly, “Friend, how shall we divide the money?“
“Two halves,” said the red man, “that’s what we agreed.”
“I think it is too much to give you half,” said Neil Kelly, “a third is enough for you. It was I who had the ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’, and you had nothing.”
“I won’t take anything,” said the red man, “unless I get half the money.” The two men fell out over the money, and the red man left him.
Neil Kelly was coming closer to his home, driving his share of the cattle. The day became hotter and the cattle began to scamper backwards and forwards in the heat, with Neil Kelly trying his best to control them. When he caught one or two, the rest would be off when he used to bring them back. The horse, which he used to catch the cattle, was tied to the stump of a tree while he continued to try to catch the cattle. But they all got away and he hadn’t a clue as to where they went. Then, when he returned back to the place where he had left his horse and his money, neither the horse nor the money was to be found and he did not know what he should do.
He thought that he should go to the house of the king whose son was ill, and he went head until he came to the king’s castle. He went to look at the boy in the room where he was lying, and he took his pulse. Neil said that he thought he could heal the boy, and the king told him, “If you heal him, I will give you three hundred pounds.”
“If I were to get the room to myself, for a little while,” said Neil and the king said that he would have it. He now called down for a small pot of water, which he put on the fire to boil. Then, he took his ‘crooked knife’ and went to take the head off the boy, just as he had seen the red man doing previously. He was sawing at the head, but it did not come away easily, allowing him to cut it off at the neck. The blood was pouring out as he finally took the head off the boy and threw it into the boiling water. He boiled it for a while until he considered that the head had been boiled enough. Neil then tried to get the head out of the pot and managed to get a hold of its two ears. The head fell, in a gurgling mass of flesh, and the two ears came with him. By now the blood was pouring out in great amounts, flowing down the room and seeping out from under the door.
When the king saw that the blood was flowing out from under the door of the room, he knew that his son was dead. He wanted the door opened, but Neil Kelly refused to comply with the king’s orders, and soldiers broke down the door. The young man was dead, and the floor was covered with blood. They seized Neil Kelly, whom they told would hang the next day, and they gathered a company of guards to take him to the place where he was to be executed. They went with him the next day and were walking toward the tree where he should be hanged, and he stopped his screaming. Ahead they saw man stripped and running quickly toward them with a type of mist around him. When he came up to them, the running man cried aloud, “What are you doing to my master? “
“If this man is your master, you had better deny him, or you’ll get the same treatment,” they warned him.
“But it is me who should be suffering, for it me who caused the delay. He sent me for medicine, and I did not come in time. If you free my master, perhaps we can still heal the king’s son.”
They freed Neil and the two men were taken to the king’s house. The red man went to the place where the dead man was, and he quickly began to gather up the bones that were in the small pot. He gathered them all except for the two ears. “What did you do with the ears ?” he asked Neil.
“I don’t know,” said Kelly, “I was so frightened.”
The red man finally got the ears and he put them all together. From out of his pocket he took a green herb, which he rubbed around the head. The skin soon covered it again and the hair grew as fine as it had been previously. He put the head in the skillet again and allowed it to boil a while. The red man put the head back on the neck, where it stuck as well as it ever had done, and the king’s son rose up in the bed. “How are you now?” asked the red man.
“I am well,” said the king’s son, “but I feel terribly weak.”
The red man shouted again for the king and the king was overjoyed to see his son alive again. They spent that night celebrating and, the next day, when they were going away, the king counted out three hundred pounds. He gave the money to Neil Kelly and told him that, if he had not enough, he would give him more. But Neil said that he had been given enough and that he would not take a penny more. He bade farewell and left his blessing, and struck out, heading straight for home. When they saw that they had reached the place where they had fallen out with one another the red man pointed out, “I think that this is the place where we had our difference.“
“It is,” said Neil, and they sat down to divide the money. He gave half to the red man, and he kept another half for himself.
The red man said farewell, and he went. He was walking away for a while, and then went back. ” I am here again,” said the red man, “I had another thought to myself that I would leave all the money with yourself, for you yourself were open-handed. Do you mind the day you were going by past the churchyard, and there were four people there with the body in a coffin? Two of the people were seeking to bury the body, but the dead person owed some debts. The two men who were owed the debts by the dead man were not going to allow the body to be buried. They were arguing, and you were listening to them. Then, you went in and asked how much they were owed by the dead man. The two men said that they each were owed a pound by the body and that they would not let it be buried until the people, who were carrying the coffin, promised to pay at least part of the debts.You said, ‘I have ten shillings, and I’ll give it to you, and let the body be buried.’ You gave them ten shillings, and the corpse was buried. Well, it was I who was in the coffin that day. When I saw you going doctoring, I knew that you would not do the business, and when I saw you in deep trouble, I came to save you. I give you all the money, and you shall not see me again until the last day. Go home now, and don’t do a single day’s doctoring so long as you live. It’s only a short walk now until you get your share of cattle and your horse.” Neil went on towards home, and he didn’t walk far until he came across his share of cattle and his horse, as the red man had said. He took them all home with him. There is not a single day since, that he and his wife do not thrive on their fortune.
“Saved by a Pipe! Yes, by God,” said Charlie Hannon one night as we sat at a wake. “Let me tell you, there’s a powerful lot of strange things to be seen and felt, and don’t let anyone tell me that there’s not!”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, Charlie,” said I.
Without even recognising that I had answered him, Charlie continued, “The night my father died I went to Dungannon for to get pipes and tobacco for the wake, and to tell my sister that lived there about the death of our da. Well, I left the house about eight o’clock, or thereabouts, for as you know I had a long road to travel – aye, fifteen miles if it’s an inch. I went by the Rock, for I had a fine lump of a mare with me that I had bought at the time. Her name was Sally, and sure there wasn’t another horse the likes of her to be had in all the parish. Now, it was pretty late when I left Dungannon, between midnight and one o’clock at least, but I didn’t hear or see a thing until I came as far as the wood on this side of Rock. We must have been just in the middle of it when the mare suddenly stopped, and she gave three snorts out of her nostrils. Well, as you know, I never was one to be afraid of anything, but I thought to myself that if maybe there’s something unnatural roaming around here now? You see, I never have known Sally to be afraid of anything dead or alive before that night.”
“’ Go on Sally,’ says I and patted her gently on the neck with my hand. But, the devil a bit would the poor mare stir. She just kept snorting, and snorting, and going back and back. ‘ Be you devil or sent by him!’ cries I, ‘man or beast, or whatever you are, get out of the mare’s way and let me get home to me father’s wake with the pipes and tobacco for the neighbours who are waiting for them.’ But, devil the answer did I get. Things were not looking good, I thought to myself, and what am I going to do now? It was then that I remembered that it was the right thing to do, to put a pipe in the lining of your hat whenever you come across anything unnatural. Sure, I had a couple of the pipes in the pocket of my coat that I couldn’t fit in the box and I put down my hand and took one up and put it inside the lining of my hat. Well, by all that’s holy! I had no sooner done that than up came a man on horseback.
“It was a clear night, and I swear that he must have come up out of the road itself, for there neither one thing or another that moved there before that. Sally kept on snorting and the man rode on past on my left. But just as he was passing, he stretched out one hand to me and pulled up his horse with the other, without speaking a word. ‘Here,’ says I, reaching him a pipe, ‘take it, if that’s what you want, and for God’s sake leave me alone.’ Well, he took the pipe, but as soon as he heard God’s name, he and his horse rose up into one big lump of fire, and the noise that was made as the fire struck against the wall along the roadside, was the fiercest thing I ever heard. And I hope that I never will hear the like of it again. The rattle of the stones falling, and the whizzing of the fire through the trees, is still in my ears yet.
“Sally went on, then, happy enough, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m all right now.’
“But I was mistaken. I hadn’t moved but a foot or two until I felt something jumping up behind me on the mare, and I felt two hands around my back, and a cold breath on my neck behind. As I told you I never used to be afraid, but the fear of God was put in to my heart that night. The poor mare’s back was bending with the dreadful weight of the thing behind me. I tried to shake off the hold it had of me, but not a budge I was able to do at all, one way or another. I didn’t know, what in heaven, I was going to do. I wasn’t able to speak, and the mare wasn’t able to move. But praise be to God ! I wasn’t long that way until who should I see standing beside me on the road but the man on horseback that I had given the pipe to. He had no horse with him this time, but he had a whip in his hand. ‘Get off, immediately ‘ says he to the thing behind me.
“The Devil an answer did he get. ‘I tell you again,’ says he, getting very cross, and raising the whip above his head, ‘get off.’
“No answer. ‘For the third, and last, time,’ says he, in a terrible rage now, entirely, ‘I tell ye to get off.’
“Not a word did the thing behind me speak, nor a budge did it put out of itself. When the man seen that it wouldn’t come off, he began slashing, and slashing at it, and every slash he gave, I saw the fire rising above my head until at last I felt the weight go off the mare, and I knew I was rid of it. ‘Go home now,’ said the man, crying, ‘you won’t be troubled any more, but take my advice and don’t be out so late at night again by yourself.’”
There have been volumes upon volumes written about the terrible events that blighted and tore apart Northern Ireland in the thirty years, from 1965 until the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. There is hardly a family in the Province that did not suffer in some way from the terrors, pain, heartache and devastation of the ‘The Troubles’. But, despite all the words that have been written there are none that can truly describe the horrors of those days, except those that have been expressed by people who lived through those dark days. The ‘peace’ that has now existed for the past twenty years is tenuous, to say the least, and has done little, if anything, to remove the bitterness and hatred caused by those years of strife. Among the many stories of those days is a sad tale, which involved a man of faith who was forced to come face-to-face with his own devils.
There was nothing special about the Murphy family. They were simply a group of average individuals living a quiet life in a medium-sized mid-Ulster town. The parents had always been determined to have their children well educated, and all four sons had very much focused their attention on this. Two of the eldest sons had attended university and qualified as Chartered Accountants prior to moving to Australia to make their fortunes. The second youngest son, Martin, had chosen to join the priesthood and, after his ordination, he was assigned a Parish close to home, much to the joy of his pious mother and father. Frank, however, was the youngest son and, although as academically gifted as any of his brothers, but he wanted to enjoy his youth for a while after finishing college, rather than throwing himself into a career immediately.
After the death of their father, the two youngest brothers had spent more of their time with their mother, Annie. She missed her husband dearly but, like a typical Irish mother, she had her sons around her to keep herself active and busy taking care of them. She was a pious and loving woman, adored by all her sons and, in return, she spoiled them terribly. But, the youngest son had always been her favourite, for he was her last child and she would always look upon him as her baby boy. Although she had always shown a little more affection toward him, Annie had never allowed him to become a spoiled, weak and capricious boy. At the same time, however, she did not give her other sons any reason to feel left out, because she made a point of sharing her deep store of maternal love equally between all four boys. Naturally, with the two oldest boys being so far from home, it was Martin and Frank who benefitted most from their Annie’s care and attention.
Martin had been aware, all of his life, that his mother had a special place in her heart for Frank, but he never had any feelings of jealousy toward him. Frank, after all, was the only son who still lived in the home-place with Annie, and Martin was happy that his youngest brother got all that extra attention and love that he undoubtedly obtained from her.
Frank was a gentle, quiet-natured young man who had a great mind and a wonderful imagination. He was greatly admired by his brother, the priest and his mother called him her ‘Little Lamb’. They both expected that Frank would, eventually, achieve a degree of greatness in whatever he chose to do with his life. Annie was not overly concerned about the amount of time that Frank spent with his friends because they knew that he was the type of person who would always maintain the highest standard of personal behaviour when in public. Although Frank had always enjoyed a drink, he was never known to drink to excess. Furthermore, like his many friends, Frank liked to party but always made a point of coming home no later than midnight and completely sober.
The lives of the Murphy family, however, changed abruptly one night in the Spring of 1967. That night, Annie watched the hands on the large mantlepiece clock turn very slowly as the ‘tick, tock’ of the second hand sounded loudly in the quietness of the living-room. The clock struck one o’clock, and the anxiety that had been building up inside Annie that evening had brought a sense of panic to the mother. Frank, in all the time he had gone out with his friends, had never returned later than one o’clock, and he had never brought any trouble to the door.
It was now past one o’clock and, yet, there was no sign of Frank, and no word of excuse received from him. Fortunately, Martin was in the house that night, sitting with his mother. Rather than return the Parochial House after supper Martin decided that he would stay with Annie. He was now well settled on a comfortable armchair, which stood beside the glowing coal-fire to await Frank’s return home. But, as the minutes continued to tick by slowly, he watched his mother’s already well-frayed nerves begin to come apart. With tears forming in her eyes she quietly muttered, “I just wish Frank would come home.”
“He’ll be alright, Ma! He’ll soon be coming through that front door as if there’s nothing wrong, kiss you on the cheek, as he always does, and go on to his bed,” Martin told her in a soft, comforting tone of voice.
But, Annie was not comforted by Martin’s soft words. “I don’t know, Martin,” she told him. “He has never been this late and I am really worried that something might have happened to him.”
“Please stop fretting, Ma,” Martin urged her as tenderly as he could. “He has just been delayed, ma, and he might not be home for an hour or so yet.”
But, Annie just could not relax, because her worries over Frank’s whereabouts filled every corner of her mind. She fidgeted nervously in her chair, then she made tea for her and Martin, and then she would go to the front door to see if there was any sign that Frank was nearing home. The hours, however, continued to pass slowly and still there was no sign of her youngest son. Then, as darkness gave way to the light of early morning, Annie’s concerns had grown to a point where she began to cry silently to herself, afraid that she might not see her son again. Martin could only sit and watch silently as those bitter tears fell from his mother’s eyes. He was becoming increasingly angry with his brother’s tardiness, and he promised himself that when his younger brother did arrive he would get a piece of his mind regarding his irresponsibility. At that present moment, he could not show any sign of his anger to his already upset mother. He believed it would be more beneficial to maintain his efforts to keep the old woman calm about his brother’s absence.
Martin managed to settle his mother in the chair beside the fire and began telling her humorous anecdotes about some of his parishioners, in the hope that they would keep her mind occupied with lighter thoughts. Quite suddenly, Annie’s body went rigid and her head turned quickly toward the living room window. “It’s him! It’s Frank!” she cried out. “I can hear his footsteps on the path.” She rose from her seat quickly and, loudly sighing “Thank God!”, she went to open the front door to him.
But, Martin heard the voice of a man, which he knew was not the voice of his brother, Frank. He then heard his mother give a loud and painful groan, and this caused Martin to rush to her assistance. Annie had fainted in the hallway and Martin noticed that it was a uniformed policeman that was giving her assistance.
“What in God’s name has happened?” asked Martin anxiously.
The policeman rose up from his knees and helped to bring Annie into the living room, laying her comfortably on the sofa, with a cushion at her head. “I am sorry to be the one that brought such terrible news to you,” said the constable.
“We have found your brother’s abandoned motorbike this morning, lying in a hedge.”
“Is he badly hurt, or …?”
“We have not located your brother yet, Father. But, we did find traces of blood on the seat and are concerned for his welfare,” said the policeman, interrupting Martin.
You can imagine the great shock and fear that Martin felt when he received this grave news. Calling a neighbour over to stay with Annie, he asked the policeman to take him to the scene of this apparent accident. He was driven, in a police car, to a narrow lane that turned off the main road and led through a bog, and he eventually came to the scene, which was marked by another police car and several uniformed officers. Some of the police officers were diligently searching the hedgerows on each side of the narrow, bog lane and Martin quickly joined in with their efforts. Even as Martin searched, there was a definite feeling of unease that began to fill his entire body, and he knew in his mind that this lane held some terrible secret for him. Martin had been up all night and was very tired, and yet he knew that this was not the reason behind his feelings of unease. There was a smell of death in the air about him, but Martin continued to search every possible nook and cranny on each side of the lane, thoroughly, for almost a mile.
They could find nothing in their searches. There was not a trace of Frank anywhere. All that was left to be found was the motorbike and its bloodstained seat. As he took a final look around the area where the motorbike was found, Martin was suddenly brought to an abrupt standstill and he called out to the others to join him quickly. The grass in that place was very much trampled down, and Martin could not be sure if this was a sign that a struggle had taken place, or if the police had trampled the grass during their search. When the police searchers came up to Martin’s position, he was able to discover from them that they had not trampled the grass in that area. They insisted that they had found the area in that condition. Martin now got down on his knees and began to take a closer look at the grass around him and, after a little time, discovered a quantity of fresh blood. Beside this patch of blood, Martin found a thin leather wallet that he knew belonged to his brother, and he picked it up to show the policemen. It all seemed to confirm his worst fears, that his brother Frank was indeed dead. Confirmation of this belief appeared to be supplied by the condition in which the motorbike had been found. From the way it lay in the hedgerow, it was apparent to Martin that this had not been caused by any road accident and indicated, instead, that Frank may have been murdered.
It is almost impossible to describe the pain and agony that tore through Martin’s body at this terrible moment of realisation that his brother was probably dead. There was a terrible rage that filled his heart, which was matched only by the deep sorrow that he felt for the loss. He didn’t want to believe that this tragedy had happened and that there was still hope that Frank would suddenly appear in front of Martin, alive and well. With renewed vigour and his head filled with contradictory thoughts, Martin continued in his frantic search for a body that would give the family closure on what had happened to Frank. Although the search lasted for many hours, stretching well into the evening, Martin had to return home without success. But, Martin found it was a much different home from the one that he had left earlier that day. In those long hours, the stress had aged greatly Annie and Martin now found her in a state of stupor, which had taken hold of her after a wild frenzy of screaming and crying, all brought about by the news she had been given concerning the fate of her youngest son. It was almost as if the light of life had gone out of her, and her heart had been smashed to pieces, rather than broken. Martin was at a complete loss as to what he should do and watched over his mother as she lingered for a few weeks, steadily going downhill and calling out for her dead child.
Sadly, Annie finally passed away one evening as she slept in her bed. As Martin stared down upon her small, pale face he noticed that there was a peaceful expression upon it. There was no longer any trace of the torture and agony she had been feeling since she had first gotten the news of Frank. Although there had not, even yet, been any definite confirmation from the police about Frank’s fate, Martin now felt certain that his youngest brother was dead. He could not, however, comprehend who would have wanted to kill Frank, or why? If it was an accident then why was there no body found? Surely, he thought to himself, no one could hold a grievance, but Martin could not understand who would have had a grievance against such a friendly, harmless man like Frank Murphy.
With so much sectarian hatred prevalent in Northern Ireland at this time, Martin’s first suspicions fell upon ‘loyalist’ paramilitaries. He believed that these dark, evil men murdered young Frank, believing it would be seen as a great victory to kill the innocent brother of a Roman Catholic priest. Yet, he had no proof. Despite the widespread horror that was felt at young Frank’s disappearance and probable murder, there was not a single clue as to who might have perpetrated such a crime. Using every possible contact that he had, both Catholic and Protestant, Martin tried to discover what had happened and who may have done the evil deed. But, all his efforts were in vain, and as the months passed public interest in the event seemed to fade.
The first anniversary of Frank’s disappearance had passed, and the anniversary of his mother’s death was quickly approaching. Since their deaths the young priest had chosen to throw himself completely into his Parish duties as a means of helping him to come to terms with the tragedies that had so changed his life. One Saturday evening, as was usual, he sat in the confessional box in the chapel and made himself available to those who wished to confess their sins and show penance for the wrongs they had done. One of the penitents was known to Martin but appeared to be completely unaware of the form of the religious ritual. He was not a regular church-goer and Martin was, to say the least, very surprised to see this young man enter his confessional. He knelt and began to confess the many misdeeds of his ill-spent life. It appeared that this young man simply wanted to unburden his entire conscience in one go, and he spoke of sins that were filled with unbounded selfishness, oppression, revenge and unlimited passions. There was no sin that this young man had not committed in his short life, everything from theft to betrayal, and from mild sexual thoughts to wild encounters actions were included. Martin had heard many of these same sins during his short tenure as a curate, but the confession of this young man thoroughly shocked him.
Martin would later admit that he was both nauseated and disgusted by this young man and the sins he had confessed. Even the young man himself began to falter as he revealed to the priest each immoral action and thought he had committed. At one point it seemed to Martin that the young man was equally sickened by his faults and had never realised just how extensive and appalling they were. Martin saw both surprise and confusion on the man’s face as he laid out his sins. Then, as Martin began the rite of absolution the young man called on him to stop. “Please Father,” he spoke nervously, “I am not yet finished my confession.”
“I’m sorry,” Martin replied, “please continue.”
But he could hear the penitent moving uneasily as he knelt in the confessional. Martin felt as if the penitent was fighting with his conscience about whether, or not, he should admit some particularly grievous sin. The man had already confessed to so many unsavoury sins already, and the priest could not quite understand why he was so reluctant now. “You have done so well this far. If there is more that you wish to confess you should continue. Free yourself of your sins and you will feel so much better. God already knows your sins and by you confessing them you are showing that you are aware of how hurtful they have been to him. Return to his love. He wants to forgive you all your sins and break those chains which bind your soul to evil. So, speak freely,” Martin urged the penitent in a gentle voice.
The priest listened to the man sobbing for a minute or two, stopping only to dry his tears and blow his nose. Then, very quietly and hesitantly at first, the young man began to mutter, nervously, that he had killed someone in cold-blood. Martin shuddered at the revelation and, from what he had heard the man say so far, he found it difficult to believe. Clearing his voice, he asked in the calmest tone that he could muster, “Please tell me, how and where did you commit an act of cruel murder? And whatever possessed you to take the life of another human being?”
The young man had kept his head bowed during his confession, but he raised his head until he could see the face of the priest behind the confessional screen that separated them. It was also the first time that Martin had seen the penitent. Despite the veil between them, the priest could see clearly the young man’s tear-soaked and reddened eyes. He noticed that they were glazed over and appeared to be ready to pop out from their sockets with terror. The blood seemed to almost drain from the man’s complexion and there was a tremor in his body. Martin now watched in total surprise as the young man slowly raised his clasped hands toward him. It was as if the penitent was praying to him, begging him to that would ease the pain in his entire being. Was this young man seeking mercy from him Martin wondered, as the penitent moved closer? With quivering lips and in a low sobbing voice the man declared, “I am the man who killed your brother, Father Martin!”
Martin’s body suddenly went numb. Then, as if hit by a Taser gun, his entire body shook violently, and he was wracked with terrible pain. The priest’s entire mind went into a ‘brain-melt’ as his thoughts were scrambled together and began to spin around in his head, and his heart began to pound so fast that he became sure that it would burst. Maybe it was God, or maybe it was his own instinct for survival that caused Martin to breathe normally once again, and he began to slowly feel his blood run begin to run normally once more through the many tingling vessels in his body. The young priest’s hands were clasped to his breast, but just as his body returned to something like normality, he slumped back in his seat and began to laugh hysterically. It was not the reaction that the penitent had expected and fearing for the priest he went to assist him. Several minutes passed before Martin began to recover his equilibrium and his face was soaked in a cold sweat, and his eyes were filled with bitter, bitter tears. As Martin became aware of his surroundings again he saw the penitent holding him close, his face wracked with the terrible thought that he had caused the priest to suffer some sort of emotional breakdown. Holding Martin close to him the priest he was pleading for his mercy and not to hand him over to the law. Martin could hardly believe that it was him that was telling the young man, “Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to worry about me or the police. Your sins have been shared under the seal of confession, and because of that, I cannot reveal one item to another living soul. You are safe, but I beg you to get away from me now. Just get out of my sight and stayaway from me until I feel able to see you and speak to you again.” With he heard these words the young man released his hold on Martin, moved away from the confessional, and exited the church building.
Martin told me that, after this encounter, he knelt alone in the church and prayed to God for the strength to get him through this. He had, more by accident than by design, met the man who had murdered his youngest brother and, through this crime, had caused the subsequent death of his mother. Although an ordained priest, Martin also considered that he was nothing more than a simple man, would find forgiveness a difficult proposition to grant under such circumstances. Moreover, that he was a priest meant he needed God’s help to hold fast to that sacred calling to which he had dedicated his life. He prayed intensely for God’s blessing to give him the strength to fulfil the words of the Gospel as he professed them – “Love and Forgiveness.” But, God appeared to hold back his blessing for a time and it was only after much prayer and meditation that he felt able to meet the young man again. On this occasion Martin had decided to deal with him with him in the same manner as any other priest, and give him absolution for his sins, setting him a penance that he had to complete.
You often hear people repeat the adage that tells us, “Time can heal all hurts.” But, Martin found that this was not so true when it came to the hurt that filled his heart. Although years had passed by and the pain began to hurt less, it was never totally healed. The ‘Killer’ had confessed his crime to him unbidden, and he had appeared to have changed his previous lifestyle dramatically. He had begun to attend Church services and the holy sacraments almost daily. There were none other than Martin who knew of his crime, and many remarked about just how much he had quietened down since he had begun to attend the Church regularly.
There were some, however, who did not trust that young man, and Father Martin admitted that he was far from being a reformed man. The only difference between the old and the new, Martin said, was that he had become better at hiding his transgressions from public view. In fact, Martin was becoming increasingly suspicious about the young man’s true motives for apparently changing his lifestyle, and for spending so much time in his company. He was sure that all of this was simply to avoid suspicion of being directed at him and, by telling the priest his terrible secret under the seal of the confession, he ensured that his admission of guilt would not reach the ears of the law. By using the Confessional with the priestly brother of his victim he had ensured that Martin would not try to avenge his brother’s death murder.
After confessing his darkest secret to Martin, he had also made the priest aware of why he had committed such a terrible act. that the motive behind the terrible act had been jealousy. He said that Frank, being a handsome and easy-going young fellow had attracted the attention of a certain young lady from a good family. Unfortunately, Frank didn’t know that he had placed himself in competition with this young man, whose attention had been spurned by the same young lady. It was Frank who won through and was walking out with the young lady, and he had even been seen exchanging kisses with her. All these things helped stoke this young man’s jealousy and he sought vengeance. The ‘last straw’ that convinced him to get rid of Frank once and for all was when he personally witnessed them kissing.
He admitted to Martin that he armed himself with a long, sharp knife and hid in the hedgerow along the bog road, which he knew Frank would use to motorcycle home after meeting the young lady. He lay in wait until he heard Frank’s approach and saw the light from the motorbike as it shone on the road. Just as Frank was passing the hiding place his assassin sprang out from his lair, totally surprising Frank and forcing him to stop suddenly. Then, before Frank could recover his composure the assassin drove his knife into Frank’s back, killing him almost instantly. But, the young killer did not tell Martin what he had done with the body, and yet Martin was confident that he would say where he had disposed of the remains and give him the final closure he needed.
One evening, in the middle of Lent, Martin was walking along the very same road where his brother’s life had been so savagely taken. As he walked in the growing darkness, Martin heard the approach of a car behind him and he stopped so that he could allow the car to pass safely by. But, the car did not pass him and chose to stop on the road adjacent to where Martin was standing. The car’s window was wound down and the smiling face of the guilty man appeared, much to the priest’s loathing. Martin did not know why the man was on the same road as he, or why he had stopped to talk. “Good evening, Father,” he said with that sickening smile that Martin hated so much.
“Good evening,” replied Martin in a dry and unwelcoming tone.
The young man got out of the car and pointed to a lone tree, standing not far into the nearby bog. “Do you see that tree?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied Martin.
“It is close to that tree that your brother is buried,” he said with absolutely no emotion in his voice.
Totally astonished by this sudden revelation, Martin’s mind was not quite thinking straight, and he replied, “What brother?”
“Your brother Frank, of course,” said the villain. “It was there that I buried the poor man after I had killed him.”
“Sweet Jesus! Merciful God!” screamed the priest. Then raising his eyes to heaven, he angrily added, “Thy will be done!”
Rushing at the villain Martin seized him by the lapels of his jacket and growled into his face, “You damned wretch of a man!You have admitted to shedding the blood of an innocent man who has been crying out to heaven for justice these last ten years or more. I am turning you into the police, now!”
He turned ashy pale as he faltered out a few words to say that, as a priest, Martin had promised not to betray him. ” That was under the seal of confession and under that seal, I can never speak of that deadly secret you admitted to. But, God is good, and you now admit your crime in the open, where the seal of confession does not hold me back. At last, I, the brother of your victim, will be able to avenge the innocent blood that you shed.”
The blood drained from the assassin’s face as Martin tightened his grip and pushed him into the car’s passenger seat. Martin climbed into the driver’s seat and re-started the engine. Totally overcome by events the captive killer did not try to resist while he was driven into the police station, where he was charged with murder and committed for trial.
Reports of Martin’s capture of his brother’s murderer spread far and wide. The Bishop of the Diocese summoned the young priest into his presence and arranged for a dispensation to be given to Martin with regard to the man’s confession. But, Martin did not need to use his dispensation.
Frank’s body was found in the place indicated by his murderer, and forensic science did the rest. The proof provided by the investigators was such that the jury was able to quickly find the killer guilty. The judge complimented Martin on his brave action and heroically observing the obligation of secrecy that bound him. Speaking to the press, the judge declared, “You have witnessed just how the Church of Rome believes that Confession is a sacred trust that cannot be broken. Even when the cause is the avenging of a brother’s murder, it is still an insufficient excuse for breaking that trust.”
“Ah, would you be quiet!” cried an old man with whom I was discussing such topics, “Would you believe this?“
“Would I believe what?” I asked him.
“It’s as true as I’m living,” he insisted. “I heard it from the man’s own lips, may God be merciful to him! And Lord forbid that I should tell a lie on him!“
“What was it?” I asked again impatiently.
“Did you ever know Brian Douglas that lived over there in Ballymacnab?” the old man replied, and, like the proverbial Irishman, I shook my head.
“Oh no, you wouldn’t have known him” he went on, “he died before you came here. Well, he was coming home one night from town. It was after twelve o’clock or maybe coming near to one. He had his horse and cart with him, and he was walking along at the horse’s head, smoking away at his pipe as content as you like, and it was a fine moonlit night, Glory be to God! Then, what should he see before him in the middle of the road but three men carrying a coffin. Well, it wasn’t long, sir, until they put down the coffin. Sure, the hair was standing on Brian’s head with fear, but he made the sign o’ the cross on himself, and he walked on until he came up to where the three men had been standing beside the coffin. ‘The blessing of God on you,’ said Bryan in Irish, ‘and what’s wrong with you all, at all?’
“’The same to yourself,’ spoke up one of the three men, ‘ but come and take a fourth man’s place under this and ask us no more questions.’ Well, sir, he was going to ask, ‘What will I do with my horse and cart?’ but he thought better of it, and he didn’t, for you see he was told to ask no more questions, and it wouldn’t have been right for him to go against them. But sure he didn’t need to ask, for they knew well enough what was going through his mind, and another of the men said to him, ‘ your horse and cart will be here when you come back.’
“Well, he went with them and helped them to carry the coffin, and never was there a heavier corpse, the Lord be good to us, ever buried he told us. They went on until they left the coffin in the graveyard, and then they told him he might go back to his horse and cart. ‘Oh,’ says Brian, ‘I’ll help you to dig the grave now that I’m here.’
“’Do what you’re told,’ said the third of the men, who hadn’t spoken before this, ‘or maybe it would be al the worse for you.’
“Well, sir, Brian was reluctant to say anything more, so he went back to his horse and cart, and sure enough they were waiting for him at the very spot where he had left them.“
“Did Brian know the men?” I asked the old man when he had finished.
“Did he know them? Indeed, he did, for they were his own three first cousins who died long before this event.”
“And who was in the coffin?“
“It was Brian’s own brother, who had died in California that same night. But he only heard this afterwards, when he received a letter that came from his uncle in America.”
The old man assured me that Brian had never told a lie in his life and that he was dead now, may God be merciful to him!
You, who are reading this now, I ask that you should not scoff the story. You may never be called upon to assist the dead to carry the dead at a mysterious midnight funeral, but do not ridicule the story of Brian Dougan’s experience that has been brought to you by an honourable man.
Eileen Lennon was a small, lively, four-year old child with an Angel’s face and a smile that could melt the hardest of hearts. Her long, red curly hair flowed down over her shoulders and highlighted her bright, hazel coloured eyes. She was the unspoiled only child who had been gifted to her mother and father by a loving God and they treasured every moment that they could spend with her. Joey, Eileen’s father, was a hard working labouring man who also looked after a few sheep, which were allowed to roam on a small plot of land that he owned in the hills on the outskirts of town. Meanwhile, Sarah, Eileen’s mother, was an industrious housewife who took pride in the way she cared for her daughter, her home and the small flock of sheep, which allowed her husband to work hard, earning cash as a labourer with a local builder.
As with most farmer’s wives, the Spring was always Sarah’s busiest season of the year. Over those weeks she and joey would work all hours together to ensure that the ewes were safely delivered of their lambs. Spring was also Eileen’s favourite time of the year because she could see the little lambs frolic about the farm and, sometimes, hold them. She particularly loved to prance about the small field behind the house, where her parents would keep the lambs and ewes until they were less dependent on their mother’s milk. Every morning, even before breakfast, Eileen would traipse around after her mother begging to be allowed out into the small field with the lambs. Sarah, being the good mother she was, would not permit the child to leave the house until she had breakfasted and dressed appropriately. There were times, nonetheless, when Sarah’s attention was elsewhere that Eileen would quietly open the kitchen door to the outside and make her way toward the lambs. But, such escapes often did not last long and Eileen more often than not would find herself back at the breakfast table with her mother’s scolding words echoing in her ears.
One bright, sunshine filled Spring morning young Eileen sat at the family breakfast table, silently eating a bowl of ‘Weetabix’ and milk, her favourite cereal. She had been particularly well behaved that morning, but she was very eager to be outdoors and in the lambing field. A new, black lamb had been born a couple of days previously and she so wanted to go to it and snuggle into its soft fleece. That morning, her mother had dressed Eileen in a beautiful powder blue tee-shirt and blue jeans, and on her feet were her oldest pair of sandals. These were, Eileen knew, her ‘rough clothes’ and they would be staying home that day. She was very excited at the prospect of spending the entire morning with her beloved lambs, and especially the new black addition to the flock. “Mammy, I’m all done,” the little girl called out to her mother. “I have put my dishes in the sink, so can I go out now into the fields for a while?”
“Well, if you are finished your breakfast, I can’t see why not? But keep close to the house, Eileen! I am going to do the washing and I will be checking on you,”
“Okay, Mammy,” the child answered with a large beaming smile that lit up her entire face. She jumped down from her seat at the table and wasted no time in hurrying out of the kitchen door. “Don’t be running, for you will hurt yourself!” warned Sarah as Eileen ran out of the door and closed it loudly behind her. “That will keep her occupied for an hour or so and out from under my feet,” Sarah sighed gratefully. “I hate washing day!”
Sarah began sorting out the clothes from the washing baskets into “Whites” and “Coloureds” before she placed them, in their separate groups, into the washing machine. Once the first load of washing was switched on Sarah began to tidy away all the breakfast dishes into the sink, where they would be washed. There was one thing that anyone could be sure of when it came to Sarah Lennon, and that was her dedication to cleanliness within her home. There were many occasions when Joey had voiced his frustration at being obliged by his wife to remember that there was a place for everything and everything had to be put in its place. Despite the frustration, Joey was aware of the fact that his wife was not the sort of woman to tolerate untidiness in the home.
Earlier that morning Joey had left the house to cycle into town to undertake another day’s work on the building site. Over the previous few years the town of Derryard appeared to be expanding at a great rate, with new homes being built everywhere. The new creamery and cheese factory had encouraged people to move into the area and now the building of a sugar processing unit promised an influx of people seeking work. Quite a number of people had asked Joey, why did he not seek work in one of the factories? But, he would simply tell them that he had worked outdoors all his life and could not even contemplate in a factory environment. “Sure I wouldn’t see the sky, or breathe the sweet fresh air. I would not hear the birds sing, or the bleating of the sheep. It would be like sentencing me to jail to put myself in one of those places,” he would tell people. There was little doubt that Joey did indeed enjoy the outdoor life, and those who knew him said you would have to go a long way to find a man who worked as hard as he did.
As the town expanded and he was fully employed building new houses for the anticipated workforce, it often puzzled Joey as to how people could actually afford to buy these new houses. He saw the billboards advertising some houses for £125,000, others for £140,00, and even some at £175,000. The cottage in which he lived with his family, and the bit of land that came with it, had been inherited through the passing of a spinster aunt who had left it to him in her will. He knew nothing about mortgages or other means of financing property. Joey had been brought up in a family that believed in the idiom, “Never a borrower be.” He had no loans, either owed or owing to him, and his dealings with others were mostly in cash. Sarah, being the recognised sensible person, was the family’s banker and ensured that whatever surplus of money they had was put into the town’s branch of the “Credit Union.”
In the cottage, while Joey was at work, Sarah bused herself in the home. She began to make the beds and finished hoovering the hall before she went back to the kitchen to check if the first load of washing was complete. The washing machine’s cycle had finished and Sarah opened the machine’s door to begin lifting the still damp clothes out on to the kitchen table. When the washing machine was emptied she filled it with a second load of clothes and put it on another cycle. The second cycle would continue while she folded the clothes from the first was in preparation for the drying line in the garden. This was always the routine that she followed, but she had been too busy to notice that the weather was about to change for the worse. The rain had begun to fall outside while she folded her clothes. Sarah had hoped that a full week’s washing of dresses, shirts, blouses and undergarments would be completed and hung out to dry before lunch, but she now heard the sound of rain drops beating heavily against the glass pane of the kitchen window.
“Ah, good Jesus, no!” she exclaimed loudly as she watched the rain bounce off the glass. “Eileen? Eileen? Where are you?” she called out from the opened Kitchen door. Eileen might only have been four years old, but she knew that when the rain began, playtime outside was over and it was time to come back into the house. There was, however, no reply and the rain began to get heavier.
“Eileen? Come here now!” she shouted at the top of her voice, but again there was no reply. Opening the door wider and putting a coat over head and shoulders, Sarah stepped outside and could see no sign of her daughter. The sheep had moved nearer to the hedgerows to find some shelter and Sarah thought that maybe Eileen had followed their lead. Again she called out loudly and again there was no reply forthcoming. “If she is acting the ‘cod’ with me now, I’ll give her a red bottom with the strap,” Sarah promised herself. But she was more frustrated and worried than angry with her daughter. Pulling her raincoat closer around herself Sarah made for the small gate that led into the field where the sheep and lambs were. As soon as she opened the gate, and despite the rain blowing in her eyes, Sarah caught sight of her daughter lying prostrate on the ground a few yards into the field.
“Eileen?” she screamed, her lungs nearly bursting with the effort and her heart pounding in fear.
Without a moment’s hesitation Sarah ran to the body of her child, which lay motionless in the wet grass as the rain continued to pours down on her. Immediately she noticed a large, bloody gash at the side of the child’s temple, where she had evidently hit her head against a large rock that lay half-buried in the soft ground. Picking Eileen up into her arms, Sarah called for the child to awaken, begging her to open her eyes, as she moved quickly to the shelter of the cottage. There was, however, no movement from the child.
Eileen was laid carefully on the couch and a ‘fleece throw’ was put over her damp, cold body. With her daughter comfortable, Sarah lifted the phone and dialled for an emergency ambulance. “It’s my daughter!” Sarah told the operator excitedly. “She has had an accident and is not moving!”
“Please speak slowly and clearly,” the operator asked. “What has happened?”
“She has fallen and hit her head off a rock, and she is cut at the side of her head,” replied Sarah, hurriedly.
“Is she responsive?”
“No! She’s not moving, please send an ambulance!”
“I am sending it now, Madam,” replied the operator. “Is the child breathing?”
“Yes; No; I don’t know!” Sarah panicked.
“I know it is hard, but please try to keep calm. An ambulance is on its way and I need you to check if she is breathing,” the operator told Sarah calmly.
“I don’t know for sure; I don’t think so; My God help me!”
The operator continued to talk calmly to Sarah over the phone, giving her instructions on how to administer CPR. But Sarah was in no state of mind to carry out the exercise precisely. She tried to listen to what the operator was saying and tried her best to follow the instructions, but all her efforts appeared to be in vain. The seconds were lost in minutes as Sarah tearfully tried to encourage Eileen to awaken, and the minutes ticked by relentlessly as the child remained unresponsive. She didn’t know how long she had been on the phone, or even when she had contacted the operator, but her heart filled with new hope as the ambulance pulled up outside the cottage with all lights flashing. In moments a para-medic entered the house, closely followed by the ambulance driver, who was carrying oxygen cylinders and a plethora of other equipment.
Sarah, now relieved of her nursing duties, sat back and allowed her emotions to take control. She wept and wept until large tears flowed from her eyes, down her pale cheeks and dripped on to the cushion that lay on her knees. She didn’t want to wipe away the tears, preferring to stretch her hands out to hold the small, pale, cold hands of her daughter. “Will she be okay?” she asked the para-medic as he worked frantically with the unconscious little girl.
“Paddles!” he called out to the driver. “Keep your hands away,” he told Sarah.
The paddles were put on her bare chest and the shock caused her body to jump, and then the CPR continued. Nothing.
He tried again and as the driver tried CPR the para-medic interrupted him and shook his head. He turned to Sarah and asked, “Is there someone we can contact for you?”
“She is going to be alright?” Sarah asked but she noticed the desolation in the man’s eyes and received her answer. All the hope she had for Eileen’s recovery was gone in a moment. “I’m sorry Mrs Lennon, but she has gone,” confirmed the para-medic in a very quiet tone.
Sarah screamed in her grief, kissing her daughters face and crying bitter tears of heartbreak. Quietly the ambulance driver noted the time of death and began to tidy away the equipment, for the police would soon be at the scene.
“Don’t stay out after dark, or the bogeyman will get you!” was the warning a mother would give her children when they went out to play. But, more often than not, the children would laugh at the very idea of a bogey-man existing. Tradition in Ireland, however, does warn us that it is very dangerous for any person to be wandering the country roads and lanes on a late November night because that is the time that the dead celebrate the fact that they are able to wander the earth once again.
Tradition says that the busiest night for these spirit celebrations is the very last night of the month, for that is the evening on which the celebrations cease. It is on that night their right to dance freely on the hill with the fairy folk comes to an abrupt end. After they have danced their last dance the dead have to return to their cold graves, where they will lie in the ice-cold earth without music or drink until November returns the next year. It is only at that time will they be able to spring-up once again from their graves, dressed in what remains of their funeral clothing, and rush into the moonlight shouting loud howls of joy. But some might wonder from where such a tradition originated and, perhaps, the following story might help in answering the question.
“One cold November night there was a local woman who was making her way home at a time when it was said, the dead roamed the land. But she was very tired and carelessly she sat down on a large rock that stood by the side of the road so she could rest for a few moments and regain her breathing in the cold night air. Within a few moments of her sitting down upon the rock, however, a young man came walking by and he began to speak with her. ‘If you wait here a little while,‘ he told her, ‘you will see the most beautiful dancing that you have ever witnessed, over there by the side of the hill.‘”
“The woman stared quietly at the young man for a moment and noticed that his face was very pale and wore a very sad expression. ‘Why are you so sad?‘ she quietly asked him. ‘Your face is as pale as that of a corpse.‘”
“‘ Take a good look at me,‘ the young man told her. ‘Do you know me?‘”
“‘ Yes,‘ she said nervously, ‘Now I know who you are! Sure, you are young Breen and you were drowned last year when you went out fishing. What are you doing here?‘”
“‘ Look over there,’ he told her, ‘On the side of that hill over there you will see the reason for me being here.‘”
“The woman took a look over to where he pointed and saw a large crowd dancing in time to sweet music, and among their number she could see all those who had died as far back as she could remember. There were men, women and children, all dressed in white clothing, and their faces were as pale as the moonlight. ‘Now,‘ the young man said ominously to the woman, ‘you should run for your life, for if the fairies see you here, and bring you into the dance you will never be able to ever leave again.‘”
“While the woman and the young man were talking, however, the fairy folk came up to them both and danced in a circle around the woman, joining their hands together. At that moment she fell to the ground in a faint, and she was to remain in an unconscious state until the next morning when she awoke in her own bed. All those people who saw her at that time said that her face was as pale as that of a corpse, indicating that the woman had been given a ‘fairy-stroke.’ Having realised that she was afflicted the herb doctor was asked to help cure her, but despite their best efforts, she remained the same. As soon as the moon rose that night there was soft, low music heard from all around the house. Then, when the neighbours went to check on the woman, they found her dead.
I will admit that the following story is a very strange tale, but I can assure you that it is not a fiction, which has been dreamed up in my own imagination just amuse you. Most of my stories are, in fact, told to me by various people throughout this land, and I give you my oath that none of these stories differ in even the slightest way from the way in which they are given to me. Although the following story, which I am about to present to you is, perhaps, one of the most remarkable, it is also one of the best authenticated stories that I have ever heard.
The person who told this tale to me was my maternal grandfather and he never doubted, even for one moment, that it was not an accurate description of facts. However, I do recall my grandfather telling the story to me in a whispering tone, almost as if the tale was too solemn a story to be spoken about in the loudness of an ordinary conversation, and too mysterious to be told in a light or flippant way. When he told me this story, almost fifty years ago, my grandfather also told me that he did not want it spread far and wide. He thought it was better not to say too much about it, but those involved in the story are now long gone, bless their souls. But, I still feel that I cannot disclose the names of those who are involved in the story, and it is not necessary to do so to relate the story accurately since the facts of the story lose nothing by the omission of names.
One fine spring morning, not too many years ago, there were two young men who lived along the shores of Lough Neagh, and they took a boat and steered it to a fair being held on the opposite shore of the great lough. As is often the case with young men, however, they took a little bit too much whisky and Guinness at the fair, in addition to the amount that they had taken with them on the boat. These two young, intoxicated men set sail before a fair wind as they began on their return journey later that same evening. Their journey back would cause them to travel just over twelve miles across the waters of the lough. Meanwhile, in the small village that they called home the two men had left behind a close friend and associate, who had been unable to go to the fair with them. Instead, this young friend had gone to the bog for turf on that fair evening, just about half an hour after his two friends had set sail for home. With great industry the young friend soon filled his creel, and got it comfortably on his back, before he started for home.
As he followed the country track towards home he had an inexplicable impulse to look around. As he did so, the young turf collector saw, sitting on a small, heather-covered mound, his two young friends who had gone to the fair. But, unknown to the turf collector, the friends had left the fair twelve miles away only half an hour before. He could clearly see that the two young men had a bottle of whisky between them and were apparently enjoying themselves. As they had made merry and laughed loudly they had spotted their friend on his way home, and they signalled for him to come and join them.
Without any hesitation he made his way over to the mound, where he sat down to get the creel more easily off his back. But, as soon as he had removed the creel, his two friends had gone, and they were nowhere to be seen! There was no doubt in his mind that he had seen them plainly. Although he had not expected them to return so early, he was certain he had seen them and could not have been mistaken. He began to believe that they were trying to play a trick on him and he looked all round in the long heather bushes that stood behind the little clumps of turf, everywhere. But, his two friends could not be found no matter how hard he looked for them!
The entire event had astonished him at first, but he then became very frightened. Taking up his creel once again he hurried home and told everyone he met about what he had seen in the bog. Worried about his friends, the young turf collector anxiously gathered a few of his neighbours, and they all made their way to the lough shore to find out if the boat had returned, or not. It was not there. In fact, the boat was not discovered until the next morning, broken into hundreds of pieces of timber, floating in a little inlet almost ten miles further away! It was not until nine days afterwards, sadly, that the bodies of the two unfortunate young men who had travelled in the boat were finally washed ashore and retrieved.
Deaths and burials are not the most enjoyable topics of conversation for everyone to involve themselves in. But I have often found it interesting to read about the very odd notions people have had about burials and the way that they have been carried out at various times and in various parts of this world. Here I would like to offer the reader some of the more strange and eccentric burials that I have heard about.
1. It is said that on of England’s major figures in the industrial revolution, who made his fortune in iron was determined that he would take some of his accomplishments to the grave with him. When the man died, he had himself buried in the garden of his home in an iron coffin, over which he had built an iron tomb that weighed some twenty tons. It was a task that he could not leave to be completed by anyone and, as an extra precaution, he instructed the coffin and tomb to be built while he was still alive and would conduct tours for his friends and visitors, to show them what he planned for his final resting place.
Despite his personal supervision, however, when the gentleman died the family discovered that the coffin was too small. It was decided that until a new coffin was made, he could be laid in the ground temporarily. Then, when he was eventually buried in his iron coffin it was decided that the coffin was too near to the surface and was transferred to cave that had been excavated in a rock. The story, however, does not end there for when the man’s estate was sold many years after his death the family instructed his body to be removed from its rock tomb and buried in a local churchyard. Mr. Wilkinson, the subject of this story, has the questionable honour of being a man who died once and was buried four times, and prior to his death he was very happy to make presents of iron coffins to any of his friends who expressed a wish to have one. In a somewhat similar fashion, a certain clergyman in the granite county of Cornwall is said to have had a coffin made of granite, in which he was subsequently buried.
2.Quite a number of people don’t want to face death and would prefer to be immortal, but that will not happen. Perhaps, it is this fact that encourages people to have their coffins ready long before they are ready and keep them close at hand to look at, or have others admire them as reminders of the fate that is due to us all, until the day come when it is finally put to its proper use. There was a story of a Scottish slater who is said to have made his own coffin, decorated it with seashells and displayed it with other fancy, shell-decorated items in a room which he called his grotto. In similar fashion a joiner from the North-east of England made his own coffin and, during the intervening period used it as a toolbox that included sliding shelves and a lid that was fixed to hinges. But in this series of stories, I will try to avoid the age-old theory that people from the North of England and Scotland are tight when it comes to money. It is much better to call them thrifty and practical, and that is the reason that there are so many instances of northern working men constructing their own coffins in their leisure time.
To show this neutral stance let me offer some examples of odd burial traits from elsewhere in England and further abroad. The first story that comes to mind is of an Alderman of Gloucester, who had his coffin and his monument built before his death. When the monument was finished the Alderman decided he did not like the way in which his nose was carved on his effigy and had a new one carved. Fortunately for the Alderman the task was finished just in time, for the man died immediately after the nose was finished. Then, there is the example a Nottingham man, called Wheatley, who bought himself a coffin and filled it with liquor. Unfortunately, the poor man was quickly brought into disrepute in the town, for the coffin became his own private tavern. Just as odd, however, is the story of a navy surgeon who rose to a very important position in Portsmouth and had a favourite boat converted into a coffin and stored it under his bed for many years. Finally, there is the tale of a German couple who provided themselves with coffins, which they kept in a stable and utilised them as cupboards for storing various types of food. But it was not to end well for the couple, for when the man was the first to die, his widow packed the contents of both coffins into one and put his body into the other. Of course, the coffin full of eatables was lowered into the coffin and the mistake was not discovered until the next day when the widow opened the other cupboard to find the body of her husband there. Naturally, all that food could not go to waste and the coffins were changed over and the funeral repeated.
3. I used to joke with my mother and tell her she was not to worry about where she was going to be buried, for I would dig a hole in the garden and bury her standing up, waving goodbye. She used to laugh at the very idea of it, but the burying of people in an erect position had often been carried out. The famous late sixteenth century poet and playwright, Ben Jonson, was buried upright in Westminster Abbey, which inspired the following lines the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’
“Even rare Ben Jonson, that famous wight,
I am told is interred there bolt upright,
In just such a posture, beneath his bust,
As Tray used to sit in to beg for a crust.”
4. In fact, it is not that strange for people to buried in standing, or upright positions after death. Military heroes, for example, have often been buried by their men in upright positions on the battlefield where they died, sometimes with spear, sword, or lance in their hand. Records show that one of these types of burial was discovered at the Curragh of Kildare. Archaeologists opened an earthen tumulus and, inside the ancient monument, they discovered the skeleton of an old Irish Chieftain in an upright position, with a barbed spear in, or near, one of the hands.
Despite what some may think, it is quite easy to bury a body in an upright position by setting up the coffin on one end. However, when considering this trait, we must also look at the many instances when a body was placed in a sitting position, which made a coffin unnecessary. There are many recorded instances of this happening including the occasion when the Emperor Frederick ‘Barbarossa’ opened the tomb of Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle and found the body of the great Emperor seated on a throne, as if he was still alive, dressed in his Imperial clothes, with this sceptre in one hand and a copy of ‘Bible’ on his knees.
There is also the story of a tomb in a London graveyard that could be seen from the high road and was said to have been placed there by a certain Dr. John Gardiner. It was made up of a large headstone containing an inscription that described this tomb as being his ‘last and best bedroom.’ The tomb itself was prepared some years before Gardiner’s death and, it is said, that the Doctor was buried there, although there is no strong proof.
5. Sadly there are many more cases of people being put into their graves with something that would be considered an excuse for a coffin. Among these is recorded the burial of a Mrs Fisher Dilke, during the time of Cromwell and the puritans. The lady’s husband does not appear to have had much regard for his recently deceased wife for he commissioned a coffin be made from some old boards that lined his barn and organised a grave for the lady in the graveyard a third of the normal price. The husband then invited eight of his neighbours to act as bearers and paid them with them a selection of cheap cakes and wine, while he read over the corpse from the Old Testament. The bearers then placed the body in the grave and they each threw a full spade of dirt into the grave before the husband and his neighbours trudged their way home.
Another similar instance for the provision of a poor coffin took place in an old English, which had once been a nunnery. On one occasion there had been a need to take up the kitchen floor and when this work began, twelve skeletons were found lying in a row, each between two planks. At the time of the discovery, it was decided that the bodies were those of nuns who had died there.
6. There have also been plenty of people who have been buried without the comfort of any type of coffin at all. There was once a military officer who declared in his last will and testament that his body should be attended to by medical men, wrapped in ‘Cerecloth’, and buried without a coffin in a particular part of his estate. He also insisted that acorns were sown on the burial spot so that sturdy oak trees would flourish having been nourished by his remains. Instructions were left with his gardener to weed and water the plant and today a fine oak grows there.
Similar to this the story is the strange burial, or absence thereof, for Jeremy Bentham, who was born on 15th February and died on 6th June1832 in London. He was a famous English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, who is regarded as the founder of ‘Modern Utilitarianism’. His will called for a head of wax to be attached to his skeleton after dissection and the entire figure to be stuffed to the proper size and dressed in Bentham’s own clothes. The body was then seated on his own armchair and the man’s walking stick placed in one hand.
7. It was not uncommon for there to be burials without coffins in the years between the mid-eighteenth, and the mid-nineteenth centuries. In fact, there are numerous Parish Registers that contain entries showing that it was up to 25% cheaper for a burial without a coffin. One particular country gentleman directed that his body be buried without a coffin and at least ten feet deep in a particular field near his house. He also declared that the field would then be thoroughly ploughed over, as if to obliterate his memory as completely as was possible.
It is a fact that the St. Clair family of Rosslyn fame were for many generations, at least the male members) buried without coffins. The latest of these family burials is said to have taken place towards the close of the seventeenth century. It is reported that when the vault was next opened, the body of Sir William St Clair could be seen lying in his armour with a red velvet cap on his head. Apparently, there was nothing decayed except for a small part of the white fur-edging to the cap.
In some parts of Ireland, at one time, it was customary to carry the body of the deceased person to the graveside in a coffin, upon which the body was taken out of the coffin and reverently buried in the earth. There was one Augustinian abbey graveyard in particular, not far from Enniscorthy, in which certain families were generally buried in this fashion, with the graves being scrupulously prepared with boards, earth, sods, and grass. It is said that the Superior of the first Cistercian abbey founded in England since the Reformation was buried in a similar fashion in the chapterhouse of the abbey. There was also a merchant, called Thomas Cooke, who had given considerable donations to a local college who willed that his body should be buried in a winding-sheet, minus coffin, in the grounds of the college.
8. Just as some people have been buried without coffins, so have there been occasions when coffins were buried without people, most of which involved fraud in some manner. There is a tale of a foreigner who died in 1871 and whose death was entered into the Parish Register, accompanied by an authentic medical death certificate. A coffin was bought for the body and a grave was commissioned to be dug in the local Roman Catholic graveyard, and a funeral took place along traditional lines. Then, a few weeks after this, the widow made a claim for a hundred thousand francs from an insurance office. The recently deceased person, however, was known to have been a fugitive fraudulent bankrupt and the police were called in to look at the case. The grave and coffin were opened, and they discovered that there was no corpse there. It appears that the fugitive had made out the certificate of his own death, ordered his own grave and coffin, and followed his own coffin to its last home as chief mourner!
8. With or without coffins, many persons have been buried in places other than churchyards or graveyards. It is not unknown, for example, for people to be buried in their own gardens, farms, parks, or plantations. There is the story of one family that had a coffin placed as a table in a summerhouse. Another story tells of Sir William Temple, former Member of the Irish Parliament, and diplomat, who, before his death in 1700, ordered his heart to be enclosed in a silver casket, and buried under a sundial in his own garden, opposite a particular window. However, where the body was buried remains unknown. Another odd burial was that of William Liberty, a brickmaker, who was buried in a tomb that he had built himself by the side of a lonely footpath, which ran across a field. Later, it was discovered that there was a room built in the same tomb for William’s widow. And so there are many stories told in like manner.
9. But strangely there are many strange stories concerning bodies being left unburied, or kept above-ground, in an effort to avoid the consequences of some law or other. One of the strangest stories tells of a farmer whose body was kept in a barn, enclosed in lead, and placed upon one of the roof beams. The locals gave two theories to explain this, the first one being that the farmer had expressed a desire that his body should be kept there ‘until the day of judgment.’ The other theory said that the farmer believed he would return to life again thirty years after his death, and he left his property subject to this contingency. After the thirty years the farmer’s representatives gave him three days’ grace, but then buried him, and finally disposed of his property.
 Material that had been treated with melted wax or gummy matter and formerly used especially for wrapping a dead body
Those who have read some of my books of Irish Short Stories or have followed my stories will know that they contain several stories about “The Banshee”, which, of all Irish spirits, fairies, and ghosts, is the most widely known. Those people from other countries who visit Ireland usually read up on the customs and folklore of the nation, along with its flora, fauna, and wildlife. Indeed, some visitors arrive believing that ‘The Banshee’ is one of the sites of our country and they seem to expect it to manifest itself to them at some time during their stay.
The Banshee, however, is an Irish legend whose roots go way back to the dark days of pre-history, when there were all sorts of mystical and magical creatures that were said to roam the land. But the first recorded sighting of ‘The Banshee’ was the spirit that attached itself to the Clan of O’Brien, from among whose ranks came several High Kings of Ireland, and haunted their old Castle of ‘Kincora’, the ruins of which remain near Killaloe in County Clare. Then, at the great and bloody ‘Battle of Clontarf’, that was fought in 1014 A.D. between the Irish and the Danes, Ireland’s famous High King, Brian Boru, was killed at the very moment of his victory. It is rumoured, however, that ‘The Banshee’ appeared to the old King on the eve of battle to tell him of his future victory, while forewarning him that he would not survive the battle.
There is a story from more recent times, which is said to have occurred in the countryside of North County Armagh. Although there are no longer any surviving witnesses to what happened at that time, the story is accepted as fact by the local community. The story tells us that at a house, which still stands in this rural area, an old man lay upon his deathbed waiting for eternal sleep to overcome him. The man’s three grown-up sons had, in the meantime, sent for the local doctor and were anxiously awaiting his arrival just as the first light of dusk crossed the sky. They were having a smoke on the front steps of the cottage, and they quietly chatting among themselves when they first heard the heavy rumbling noise of coach wheels on a metalled road. They looked up and they saw a huge, black coach drive into their farmyard, which stretched out from the main door of the house. Nervously, one of the old man’s sons went down to meet the coach, believing that it was carrying the doctor, but the coach swept past him at speed and continued to move down the lane to a gate. Witnessing all this, the other two sons ran after the coach, which was became hidden from view by high hedges, but they could still hear the rumbling of the coach wheels. In their rush, the two young men almost crashed into the gate, which was closed across the lane and barring the exit. The rumbling of the coach had stopped by this time and the carriage itself had totally vanished, without leaving as much as a wheel rut in the ground. The large padlock on the gate remained completely intact and there was no sign at all that the gate had been tampered with. But, a short time later, the doctor arrived at the house and he quickly came to realise that there was nothing that he could do for the old man, who died quietly only an hour or so after the visit.
There is an older story, which relates to an event that took place one night in early spring, in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Two house servants had been instructed to await the arrival of a coach, which was bringing home the family’s eldest son. The young man had travelled to England, and further afield, seeking a cure to the illness from which he was suffering, but all his efforts had proved to be fruitless. One of the servants, who had been dozing in the hall, was suddenly awakened by the heavy rumbling noise of an approaching coach. Still half asleep, he immediately awakened his companion and they both went out of the house door and down the long flight of steps to open the carriage door. But, as the servant reached out his hand to turn the handle to the door, he was surprised and terrified to see a skull looking out of the window at him. In his terror, he screamed loudly and fell in a heap at the side of the coach and, when he finally awakened once more the servant slowly picked himself up from the ground, but he saw neither sight or sound of the coach. About ten minutes later the invalid eldest son’s coach arrived, and the servants carried him to his bed. Unfortunately, the young man’s illness had become very much worse and his suffering ended when he died in his sleep.
On a winter’s night, at the beginning of the last century, a coach was seen by a gamekeeper who was doing his rounds of a large property, which stood in a scenic wooded glen among the beautiful Glens of Antrim. It was a calm and frosty night as he made his patrol of the property, and he suddenly heard the loud rumbling of wheels on the avenue that ran up to the back of the house. But he knew that it was not possible for any vehicle to be arriving at the property so late at night, and all sorts of strange thoughts began to enter his head. Recalling ancient legends from the district, his thoughts quickly turned to the possibility that the noise could be the approach of the ‘Death Coach’. As this possibility dawned upon him, he ran to open the gates on the avenue before the ‘coach’ arrived, and he just about managed to open the last gate and throw himself on the ground beside it, when he heard the coach go past. With his head buried in the damp ground the man did not actually see the coach itself as it went past, but the next day he heard the news that the property owner’s uncle had died suddenly in London. But, in this story, there is a very important fact for the reader and uninitiated to learn, namely that at the sight or sound of a coach all gates that might bar its way should be immediately thrown open. It is only by doing this can a person ensure the ‘Death Coach’ will not stop at their house to call for a member of the immediate family, but it will only warn of the death of a relative who is somewhere else.
Despite the many stories and legends about the Banshee, we must remember that she is not always the harbinger of death in Irish families, because certain families have other strange and varied warnings that death is near to them. There was one local family that I recall, who believed a death in their family is foretold by a female ghost, dressed in a white satin dress and opening the door into the living area where she walks across the room and through the hallway. A friend once told me that his family believed that the breaking of a mirror is an omen of death, while a cousin related that he knew of a family who was convinced that the independent opening and shutting of the farm gate foretells the passing of a family member. Among Irish families, there are varied traditions concerning the fore-telling of death, including one that says the cry of a cuckoo, in any season of the year, is a herald of death. In another family, that warning of death may be the sound of a ringing bell, even when there is not a bell in the house. I can remember my uncle’s wife telling me, at one time, that a rat crossing their path is a warning of a death in her family, while a neighbour’s family are certain that seeing a large white owl is a certain sign of death among them.
This list is short, but I am certain that there are many people from various areas of Ireland who could add to my list and make it much more comprehensive.
Jack Flannery was a humble, hard-working shoemaker who lived quietly with his wife and their grown-up son, in a little cottage that stood by the roadside, at the edge of the village of Derryard. Trained by his father, Jack’s son had built a good reputation in the county. With such a reputation both Father and son always had plenty of work to do and were often obliged to sit up until late at night in their workshop to ensure that all the orders entrusted to them were completed.
One calm winter’s night, in early December, at about midnight, both men were, as usual, busy. They were sewing the leather at a brisk rate in one corner of the cottage’s narrow kitchen, where a turf fire was burning brightly on the hearth. Jack’s wife had grown tired earlier in the evening and had gone to bed. Everything in the house was quiet, except for the crickets, which chirped monotonously in the crevices all around chimney breast. Even the old sow and her litter of young ones, who were kept in a small corner of the cottage had stopped grunting and were asleep. The hens that were roosting on the broad beam at the further end of the cottage, near the door, had long given-up their usual cackling, and the entire house was at peace.
Jack and his son continued to sew leather in silence, which was broken only by the occasional whispered request made by one or other of the men for some article they required
“I don’t know, son, but I’ll go to the door and ask,” the father replied.
“Who in God’s name is there?” called the old man, on-going toward the door. When there was no reply, he asked once again, “Is there anyone there?” Again, there was no answer. “Well,” he whispered to his son as he returned to the bench and stood beside him.
“There was someone there, or something, whether it was good or bad, and wherever they’ve gone to.” The two men listened in silence for a few moments in case the knocking would return, but they couldn’t hear anything that would indicate the presence of a visitor outside. But they were not disturbed again that night.
The next night, however, at the same time they were very alarmed when they heard the footsteps again. The latch was lifted as it had been on the previous night and then allowed to fall with an exactly similar click. “God preserve us!” exclaimed the old man, who immediately arose from his seat, while his son was far too frightened either to speak or move.
As he had before, Jack went to the door and demanded, “In God’s name, who’s there?” When no answer was given, he called out again, “For God’s sake,” said the poor old man in a trembling voice, “is there anyone there?“
For a few moments he waited for a reply, but his wait was in vain. “Son,” said he, “we’ll get ourselves to bed now. But, don’t be afraid.” He could see that the young man was trembling in terror from head to foot, “Maybe it’s just someone playing games, and trying to scare us. But, let me tell you that, if it is and they try it again they’ll be sorry.” There was not another word spoken between them, and both men immediately went to bed and were soon fast asleep.
The third night, at the very same hour, the footsteps again came to the door. On this occasion, however, the latch was not lifted. Instead, there were three quick, sharp knocks as if the knuckles of someone’s hand were struck against the door. The old man, swearing an oath, immediately jumped to his feet, and going to the door opened it quickly, and went out into the night. He ran around the house and searched everywhere, but he could not find even a trace of anyone. Angry and frustrated, father and son went off to bed that night more frightened than they had been on either of the preceding nights. The father’s suspicion that there was someone who was trying to terrify them had given him a little more courage than the son, but now even he began to feel ill at ease. He had now begun to realize that his suspicions were incorrect, for he was firmly convinced that their tormentor could not have escaped so quickly if it was mortal. With this thought in mind, therefore, the father became very alarmed, for he felt that they had been given a warning that something bad was about to happen. But, if it was a warning, it would not be repeated, because such dire warnings are only given on three occasions.
As expected, those dread footsteps were heard no more, but this only increased his concerns, which he discussed with his wife and his son. A fortnight passed, and nothing unusual had occurred, which caused the dread that Jack Flannery, his wife, and son were feeling to considerably diminish. Then, on a Sunday night, at the of the fortnight, when old Ned McClean paid a neighbourly visit and found the Flannery family to be quite cheerful. Ned found them sitting beside a comfortable fire burning on the hearth, enjoying the pleasant glow of the blazing turf, and the pleasant experience of a quiet smoke at the end of the day.
“God save all here,” said Ned as he entered the house.
“And the same to you Ned,” replied Jack and his wife in unison, adding, “Sure, you’re very welcome, especially since you don’t go out much at all in the evenings.“
Ned and the Flannerys were long-time friends, and although Jack and his wife had always a kindly welcome anyone who entered their little cottage, the welcome for Ned was always that little bit warmer than any given to others. Jack’s son was, as they informed their friend, “out galavanting” and that they had the pleasure of the fire all to themselves. Inviting Ned to sit, they were all soon absorbed in discussing ‘old times’, which was a great favourite with them. They became thoroughly involved in the conversation and the time passed both quickly and pleasantly. But, unfortunately, they were interrupted, which caused a cold chain of silence to drop over the company and revived a dread of approaching evil once again in the hearts of the Flannerys.
The shoemaker was in the middle of telling his favourite story about the ‘bad times,’ when the cock on the beam flapped his wings and crew once, twice, thrice. “Ned,” said the shoemaker, “you will hear some bad news before long, mind what I’m telling you.“
Ned shook his head and replied, “I don’t like it at all, Jack, Lord preserve us!“
Mrs. Flannery blessed herself and uttered some inaudible prayers. Nevertheless, the interruption left them all in no humour for more storytelling about the past, and that one frightening incident that had just occurred was too unnatural to think about any further. Ned, therefore, departed the cottage with a fervent “God speed” from Jack and his wife.
Ned only a short distance to go home. Then, having said the rosary, he went to bed and was just beginning to close his eyes when he heard a loud rapping at the door. He listened and soon recognized that it was Jack Flannery’s son calling. “Ned, are you asleep?“
“No,” the old man replied. “What’s wrong?“
“Oh, get up quick, my father’s dead.”
“Dear God, boy, what are ye saying?” exclaimed Nicholas in amazement.
“My father’s just after dying. Hurry over, for God’s sake.“
It was the truth! Just about the hour of twelve midnight poor Jack Flannery’s soul had taken its leave from this earthly world. His wife had noticed that he was breathing heavily and was getting no response to her inquiries as to what was wrong with him. At that point, she called out to her son to get up at once and bring a light to the bedroom. The light finally revealed the lifeless body of a man who had been both a loving husband and a kind father.