In Ireland, even today, there are so many superstitions, rituals and traditions in the day to day life of its people. This is especially true when it comes to the passing of dear friends and relatives, their funeral arrangements, and their final interment. These superstitions and traditions might vary slightly from family to family, but each holds strongly to their own. In fact they hold so faithfully to their own family rituals that on occasions they can lead to anger and physical violence when different families come together to mourn in different ways.
When I was a young man my favourite way of spending my leisure time was to take long walks through the countryside and sketch many of the interesting sites that I would come across. Over the years I had filled my artist’s sketch book with pictures of beautifully sited thatched cottages, old barns, ruins, and old churches. On one particular sunny day, I was sitting alone on a grassy embankment at the edge of the desolate graveyard and church in Drumm. In that beautifully quiet place I became almost totally lost in my efforts to capture, on paper, that special scene that lay before me. Occasionally I would lift up my eyes from my sketchbook to look directly at the detail that was present in this interesting ruin which I was attempting to paint. It was also an opportunity wipe the perspiration from my brow, that was caused by the heat of the sun radiating down upon my head.
The quiet stillness that had prevailed all that particular day was suddenly broken by a faint and wild sound that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life. Admittedly, the strange sound startled me and caused me to stop my sketching for a moment or two. Alone in that graveyard I began to listen nervously, waiting for that strange sound to repeat itself. I didn’t have to wait very long for this weird, unearthly sound to once again vibrate through the still air of the evening. It was now even more loud than it had been at first and, as I listened to its strange vibration and tone, I decided that it could be likened to the sound made by many glasses, ringing and tinkling as they are crowded in together.
I stood up, rising from the place where I had been seated, and I began to search around for the possible source of this strange noise. There was not another body in my vicinity when, once again, this heart-chilling sound suddenly filled the air about me with its wild and wailing intonation. At first the sound reminded me somewhat of a tune being played upon an aged harp. When another burst of the sound came forth, it became quite obvious to me that it was the sound of many human voices that were being raised in lamentation somewhere close by. It was a loud, heart-chilling, wail of sorrow about which, before this occasion, I had only ever heard only rumours. Now, for the first time in my life I heard that wild and terrifying sound and shivered with cold fear. Those who read this tale, and who have already heard the same sound, will surely understand just how anxious I was when I heard it in the silence of that day in Drumm.
As my eyes scanned the area outside of the graveyard I could clearly see, in the light of that day, a crowd of local people, both male and female. In an orderly line they wound their way along a low path that led them toward the churchyard where I was standing, and among them the strong men carried the coffin of someone who was a dear departed friend or relative. As they came closer toward me, occasion I heard a loud and pitiful wail of sorrow that arose from the mourners in that crowd. The voices rang loudly, in a wild and startling unison, as they moved up the hill, until the sound gradually descended in its volume, finally becoming little more than a subdued wail. Diligently, these local people continued to carry their loved one’s body onward, but not in the same measured and solemn step as before. Now, they were moving in a much more rapid and irregular manner, almost as if the pain of their grief was hurrying them on to the graveside, which was the much hoped for culmination of all their efforts.
The overall effect of this large local rural funeral was, I must admit, certainly more impressive than any of the other funerals I had ever seen in my short life. There was very little of the pomp and circumstance of other funerals I had observed, such as a hearse, or large commemorative wreaths. But, the equal of the pallbearers could never have been found as they steadily bore along the body of their dear departed friend on their shoulders in the stillness of evening until they reached the cemetery. The male friends and relatives of the deceased person carried the coffin into the interior of the ruin. There the women had gathered to continue their mourning for the dead, and half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately began to prepare a grave. I can honestly say that I have seldom seen men more full of activity. But, scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, than the loud peal of the pipes was heard at some distance. The young men paused in their work, and they turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point from where the sound appeared to originate.
As I looked up I clearly observed that another funeral procession was winding its way slowly around the foot of the hill. Immediately the young men at the graveside returned to their work with greater effort than before. As the spades dug into the black soil anxious shouts from onlookers constantly encouraged them to complete their work as quickly as possible. Some of the more polite followers shouted, “For Jaysus sake, hurry boys, hurry.”
“Shift your big arse, Paddy!” others called.
Friends of some of the men shouted out to them, “Put your back into it, Mike! ”
“If you could shift the sod as quick as you shift the ‘Guinness’, it would suit you better,” others laughed aloud.
By this time the second funeral party, that was approaching, could see ahead of them that the churchyard to which they were going was already filled with people. Almost immediately this second funeral party quickened their pace, and their sounds of mourning rose more loudly in the morning air as they came nearer to the churchyard. Quite unexpectedly, a small detachment of men, carrying a variety of picks and spades, came forward out of the main party. Then, without warning, this group of armed men rushed headlong up the hill toward the churchyard, accompanied by loud shouting. At the same time an elderly woman, her eyes streaming with tears and her hair dishevelled, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had taken their coffin. Arms raised, she ran towards the young men who were digging at the ground with all their might and, passionately, she begged them to do their work more quickly. “Ahh Boys! Sure you wouldn’t let them beat you to the job and have my sweet boy wandering about, alone on these long, dark nights. Please dig hard boys. Lay into it with all your power and gain, for yourselves, a sorrowful mother’s blessing for ensuring my wee Paddy will have rest.”
Standing among those men in her bedraggled appearance, and the intensity of her manner as she pleaded with them, I thought the poor woman was crazy. In fact, such was her condition, that I could barely make out what she was saying to the young men, and I was obliged to inquire off one of the bystanders if they could fill in the blank spaces.
“Are you asking me because you believe she is going crazy? ” said the person that I had asked, as he looked at me in a very puzzling manner. “Sure, I thought everyone knew the answer to that. Especially someone who looks as well learned as you. The poor woman doesn’t want her dead son to be walking about in the night, as he must, unless those boys are smart.”
“What do you mean, walking about in the night?” I asked him. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Whisht! whisht!” he urged me to be quiet. “Here they come now and, in the name of God, they have Joe Gallagher at their head,” he said to me as he anxiously looked towards the advanced-guard of the second funeral, which had now gained the summit of the hill. They quickly leaped over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery and advanced towards the group that surrounded the newly excavated grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.
“Stop what you are doing there, I tell you!” shouted Joe Gallagher to those men who were working at opening the ground and were still using their implements with great energy.
“Stop it now, or it’ll be worse for you! Did you not hear me, Rooney?” said Gallagher again, as he laid his muscular hand on the arm of one of the young men who were digging, suddenly stopping him from continuing his work.
“Of course I heard you, Gallagher,” said Rooney; “but I just chose not to listen to you.”
“Just you keep a civil tongue in your head, wee man” Gallagher warned him.
“By God, Gallagher, but you’re a brave man and very fond of giving people advice that you should listen to yourself,” Rooney retorted and, once again, plunged his spade into the earth.
“Didn’t I tell you to stop, you Gobshite?” Gallagher roared, “or, I’ll put my boot so far up your arse, Rooney, that you’ll be chewing leather for six months!”
“Get away out of this, Gallagher! What brings you here at all?” interrupted another of the men by the graveside. “Just looking for trouble is it?”
“Sure what else would bring the likes of him here, but to cause mischief?” said a grey-haired man, who was standing just a couple of yards away from the graveside. “Sure, don’t you know by now that there’s always a quarrel whenever there’s a Gallagher about?”
“You may thank your grey hair, you old goat, that I don’t make you take those words back with some pain,” Gallagher told the old man as he glared at him.
“There was a time,” warned the old man, “when I had something more than just these grey hairs to make such as you respect me.” As he spoke the old man drew himself up with an air of great dignity. He wanted everyone to see that he was still a tall man and had retained a broad chest, which would bear the truth of the statement that he had made. There was a bright, but briefly lived flame, that was kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and his expression of pride and defiance quickly gave way to an expression of coldness and contempt toward Gallagher.
“Listen to me, old man, I’d have beaten you more stupid than you already are, even on the best day you ever had,” sneered Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.
“Don’t you believe it, Gallagher!” said a contemporary of the old man, who had known him in his younger days. “You have plenty of conceit, and a big mouth that you use to bully those weaker than you!”
“Isn’t that the truth,” said Rooney. “He’s a great man in his own mind. By God I could be a rich man if I could buy Gallagher at what I thought he was worth, and sell him at what he thinks he’s worth.”
A loud, mocking laughter rose up among those gathered at the graveside, causing Gallagher’s agitation to increase tenfold. There was a deep darkness that came across the big man’s features, and Gallagher immediately took up a posture so threatening that a man standing close to me turned to his companion and told him, “By God, Eddie there’s going to be ‘wigs on the green’ before too long!”
The man was to be proved quite right in his prediction. Scarcely had the words been uttered by him, than I began to see many of the men around me taking off their heavy coats and jackets, and rolling up the sleeves of their jumpers and shirts. The entire scenario turned much more menacing when the men began looking around them for anything that they might use as a weapon. With their weapons in hand there was a general closing-in of the bystanders around this group, which made it perfectly clear to me that a huge and bloody conflict would soon begin between the opposing groups.
It did not take long before the entire world seemed to come crashing in around me. There was a general melée that began in the centre of the gathering, with the main antagonists passing through the whole group until, finally a mass battle began. Such was the speed of events that within very few minutes the belligerents had dispersed themselves throughout the ruined churchyard in various battling groups. As a spectator, I stood back from the topmost step of a style that led into the burial-ground. It was obvious to me that it was better, for my continued good health, not to stand too closely to where the action was happening. As I stood watching the battle my attention was attracted by the sudden appearance of a man, who was exclaiming at the top of his voice: “Oh, you evil people! Stop this, I tell you, you heathen people! Are you even Christians at all?”
This loud intruder was a tall, thin, pale man, who was wearing a hat which, from exposure to bad weather, had its broad, slouching brim crimped into many fantastic shapes. The crown of the hat was depressed in the middle, and the edges showed the paleness of wear, that was very far removed from its original black. He wore no collared shirt and had a narrow white scarf drawn tightly around his neck. A single-breasted overcoat of rusty black, with standing collar, was tightly buttoned nearly up to his chin, and hung over his frame to the knees of his black trousers, beneath which peeped well polished black leather shoes. He pushed his way through the fighting men and quickly climbed the stile upon which I was standing, politely saying, “Excuse me, sir,” as he pushed by.
From the top of the stile he jumped to the ground, and he proceeded with long and rapid strides, towards the groups of combatants. In his hand the man brandished a heavy bullwhip with which he began to lay about each and every one of the brawlers. In equal measure and with total impartiality, he began dealing out a heavy-handed justice. I was also greatly impressed by the fact that all these blows inflicted on them by this newcomer were not at all resented by those whom he assaulted. It almost appeared as if they had decided resistance against this man was futile, choosing instead to begin fleeing quickly before his blows. They looked like so many frightened school-boys before an angry teacher and they gathered together in one large group, which immediately became pacified by his presence.
As I watched these events happening I stepped down from my perch at the top of the stile and ran, towards the place the man was admonishing the crowd. There I found this tall, thin man delivering a severe reproof to the crowd he had quietened down. The more he reproved them for their “unchristian acts” the more evident it became that he was a religious leader of this group of troubled people. But his reproval of them was short, sharp and certainly impressive. His speech was well delivered in simple terms for the audience to whom it was directed. It was simple in the language it used and solemn in the way his deep, gritty voice spoke the words. “And now,” added the clergyman, “let me ask you why you are all fighting like so many wild savages? Your conduct makes me think that you are more likely to be savage animals rather than intelligent human beings who have been raised within the hearing of God’s word.”
There were a few moments of silence following his question until someone among the crowd mustered enough courage to answer the cleric. He told him that the entire fracas was, “due to the burying.”
“There is no more solemn a sight,” replied the priest, “But, is the burial of the departed not enough to keep the evil passions of your hearts in check?”
“The truth of the matter, if it pleases your reverence, is that there was nothing ill-natured in it. It was only a good-natured turn we were doing for poor Paddy Mooney that’s departed this life. You know it’s to yourself that we will be going for masses to be said for the poor boy’s soul.”
“Now!” answered the priest. He was anxious to nip this appeal to his own interest in the bud. “Don’t you dare talk to me about doing a good-natured turn for any person.” He stared at them all sternly, telling them, “Prayers for the souls of the faithful departed are taken up by the whole Church. But, what has such a good act have to do with your scandalous and lawless actions that I have just witnessed you all committing.”
He now turned to the last speaker, “You were one of the busiest with your weapon and you are the most riotous of the group, Rooney. You had better take care that I don’t speak out against you from the altar.”
“Oh, God forbid that your reverence would have to do the like of that!” cried out the mother of the deceased, imploring him as big teardrops chased each other down her cheeks. “Sure it was only that they wanted to put my poor son in the ground first. It’s just, as your reverence knows, that they did not want to have my poor Paddy-”
“Tut, tut! woman!” interrupted the priest, waving his hand rather impatiently, “don’t you let me hear any nonsense.”
“I ask your reverence’s pardon for I am not the type of woman who would knowingly offend my very own clergy — may God’s blessing be upon them night and day! But I was only going to put in a good word for Mick Rooney. He and everyone else of us wish for nothing but peace, but it is Joe Gallagher, who just would not leave us to do our peaceful duty.”
“Gallagher!” said the priest, in a deeply reproachful tone. “Where is he?”
Gallagher did not come forward when called, but the crowd drew back, and left him revealed to the priest. On his face he wore and expression of sullen indifference, and he also seemed to be the only person in the crowd who was totally unfazed by the presence of the cleric. The priest now moved towards him and, extending his hand in the attitude of denunciation towards Gallagher, he spoke very solemnly, “I have already spoken to you in the chapel and now, once again, I find myself having to warn you to be careful. Wherever you go trouble and strife seems to always follow you. You are a disgrace and if you do not quickly reform your life I will have no choice but to seek your expulsion from the Church. Make no mistake, Gallagher, I shall pronounce a sentence of excommunication upon you from the altar, if I feel it is necessary.”
Everyone within hearing distance was overcome by the solemnity and severity of the priest’s words. When the word “excommunication” was uttered by the cleric, a thrill of horror seemed to run through the assembled crowd. It appeared to me that even Gallagher betrayed some emotion when he heard that terrible word. Yet, for a moment he managed to show no emotion and, turning on his heel, he retired from the scene with some of the swagger with which he had entered it. The crowd opened to let him pass, giving him a wide space, as if they sought to avoid contact with one who had been so fearfully denounced.
Calling upon the entire crowd to hear him the priest told them, “You have two coffins here. Now you will immediately begin to dig two graves, and allow both bodies to be interred at the same time, and I will read the service for the dead over them.” With these instructions ringing in their ears the crowd wasted very little time in carrying them out. The narrow graves were quickly dug and the bodies of the dead were consigned to their last long sleep, as the deep, solemn voice of the priest was raised in the “De Profundis”. When he had concluded this short and beautiful psalm, the friends of the deceased closed the graves, and covered them neatly with fresh cut sods.
“You know things have been done right,” said Rooney, “when you see that the ‘Daisy Quilt’ is finally put over them.”
The priest, now that his job was done, retired from the churchyard and I followed him with the sole purpose of introducing myself to him. I was seeking from him a clear and simple explanation of what was still a most intriguing mystery to me, namely, the actual cause of the quarrel with Gallagher. From certain passages in his address to the crowd I could grasp that he understood the cause and could, perhaps explain it to me. I quickly caught up with the cleric and introduced myself to him. Thankfully, he received me with a great deal of courtesy and politeness, which was to be expected from a man with such a good heart. Now, having gained his attention, I tried to assure him that my curiosity was simply because I wished to understand the reasons for the fight that had taken place, and to which he had put a stop. I was hoping that he would not think that I was overbearing when I asked him for an explanation.
“It is no intrusion, sir,” answered the priest very frankly. He spoke with a rich, soft brogue, whose intonation expressed his inbuilt good nature. The brogue, with which he spoke, reminded me of someone from an upper middle-class and well educated family. There was no trace of the more vulgar expressions that is usually found in the manner in which the ordinary working class speak. There are those, of course, who try to sound more genteel than they really are by grafting a posh English accent to their brogue. But they often trip themselves up because the accents of the two countries can never be truly blended together. Far from making a pleasing accent, it conveys to the listener that the speaker is trying very hard to escape from his own accent, which they consider to be inferior. It is a vain attempt to demonstrate some finesse, which fails because their vulgarity is so deeply inbred.
This was not the case with the way in which Father Donnachadh Ryan spoke to me. His voice was both deep and rich in tone, a true manly voice that had boomed when he had admonished the crowd for their violent attitude. Even when he was engaged in a less formal conversation his voice lost little of its richness or depth. Still, I listened intently while the priest proceeded to enlighten me on the subject of the funerals’ etiquette, and the reason behind the quarrel that had arisen between the two groups. “The truth of the matter is, sir, that these poor people are possessed of many foolish superstitions. We might, as men, pardon their errors and simply look upon them as fictional tales that take hold in fertile imaginations. Just because we can understand how such suspicions take hold in the minds of the less educated and more susceptible, we cannot, as their spiritual leaders allow ourselves to admit openly to them that such superstitions are in error.”
His explanation, however, quite surprised me. I did not think I would find a clergyman, especially a Catholic priest, say such a thing. “The superstition that I speak of,” he continued to explain, “is just one of the many that these warm hearted people indulge in, and it is not a particularly evil one.” Then he suddenly ended his discourse and pulled out a richly cased, antique gold watch of great workmanship. “Now, sir, I must ask your pardon; I have an engagement to keep at my home, which obliges me to immediately make my way there as quickly as I possibly can. But, if you have enough time to spare, you can walk with me to the end of this little road and I shall be able to make you well acquainted with the nature of the superstition in question.”
I was happy to agree with his proposal and we set off together. As we wound our way down the little stony path that led to the main road, Father Ryan began to give me an account of the cause behind all the previous trouble. “There is a belief among the local people here that the ghost of the last person interred in the churchyard is obliged to travel, unceasingly, the road between this earth and purgatory, carrying water to slake the burning thirst of those who are confined in that terrible place. The ghost is, therefore, obliged to walk through the wasteland during the middle of the night, until some fresh body is placed in the grave and supplies a fresh ghost to relieve the guard. In this way the supply of water to the sufferers in purgatory is kept up unceasingly.”
This was the reason why the violent encounter had come about, and why the old mother had called out that her, “darling boy should not be left to wander about the churchyard dark and alone in the long nights.” In his explanation, furthermore, Father Ryan gave me some curious illustrations of the different ways in which this superstition influenced his “poor people,” as he constantly called them. But I suppose you have already had quite enough. I shall, therefore, say no more of these other cases and I am happy that I have at least provided you with this one example. Sadly, even in these more modern times such wild superstitions still exist in our land and undoubtedly owe their continued existence to the goodness of the Irish heart and the poetic imagination of our people.