A Midnight Funeral

A Tale of Mystery

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.

graveyardOh 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.

NEIL KELLY’S FORTUNE

An Old Tale of Ireland

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.

Anne Maria Carew

The following inscription was found in on a tombstone in the churchyard of Youghal that marks the grave of Anne Maria Carew, who died at the young age of 24 years.

’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, when
hope hath built a bow’r
Like that of Eden, wreathed about
with many a thornless
flow’r,
To dwell therein securely, the self-
deceivers trust—
A whirlwind from the desert
 comes, and all is in the dust.

’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, that
when the poor heart clings
With all its finest tendrils, with all
its flexile rings,
That goodly thing it cleaveth to so
fondly and so fast,
Is struck to earth by lightning, or
shattered by the blast.

’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, with
beams of mortal bliss,
With looks too bright and
beautiful for such a world as
this,
One moment round about us their
angel light wings play;
Then down the veil of darkness
drops, and all is passed
away.

’Tis ever thus, ’tis ever thus, with
creatures heavenly fair,
Too finely formed to bear
the brunt more earthly natures
bear—
A little while they dwell with us,
blest ministers of love,
Then spread the wings we had not
seen, and seek their homes
above.

(Unknown Author)

The Hurling Stick

This is a story that was related to me by a very old grand-aunt who lived in the heart of Connemara. As we sat by a blazing turf fire she told me that these things happened to a person who was very well-known to her, and so I have absolutely no reason to doubt a word of her tale. She lived all alone in a small, thatched and white-washed cottage , which stood on a lonely, narrow mountain road. Two fields to the rear was the two-storey farmhouse that belonged to the affluent and influential Meehan family. Tom Meehan was the head of that prosperous family, widely known and very much respected in the district. He was, moreover, recognised and famed as one of the finest hurlers that the County had ever produced.

Tom was very friendly to my old grand-aunt and many evenings he would stop by her cottage to see if she was keeping well. She had been a very good friend to Tom’s mother all her life, and Tom was going to make sure that she wouldn’t be too lonely in her old age. On those evenings when he called around to her cottage, he would tell her how the farm was progressing and keep her up to date about events among the neighbours. During the darker nights of autumn and winter, Tom would always ensure that the old woman had plenty of coal by the fire and a wee glass of whisky on her night stand as she would watch television.

The old woman would often share local folk tales and myths with Tom, constantly warning him about fraternising with the ‘Good People’, Leprechauns, and the various spirits that lurked about the mountain roads and forests. Tom, of course, was not the superstitious kind and would often laugh at her warnings, causing her some annoyance. Then, one bright, moonlit, autumn evening he was walking home, as usual, after spending the entire day in the fields. Following a well-travelled track Tom found himself walking through a small copse of trees and, in the distance he could hear excited voices. He followed the sound, which appeared to him to be coming from a field that sloped gently down from the edge of the trees. As he emerged silently from the shadows of the trees, Tom was surprised to see before him two teams of small men. They were dressed in different colours and playing a game of Hurling in the field, which was now brightly illuminated by the light from a full moon.

Hurling 2Tom stood among the tall trees and silently watched the game. As he watched he could not help but admire their prowess with their ‘Hurling sticks’ (Caman – pronounced ‘Cum-mon’), and he quickly came to the conclusion that these players were not ordinary men. From what he could see in that field, Tom was certain that these men were none other than ‘Good People’, who had often been described to him by my old grand-aunt. The quick and talented manner in which these men played the game totally captured Tom’s admiration, and he stood for a very long time just to see how the game progressed. Then, as the end of the match approached, Tom saw one of the men on the field trap the ball (Sliotar – Slit tar) in the air with his ‘caman’ and, as it dropped down, he stroked it so gracefully over the bar from the half way line. This was, without doubt, one of the best Hurling strokes that Tom had ever seen in his life. In his appreciation of the player’s move, Tom roared out a great shout of delight, causing the game to be stopped and all the players quickly turned toward the area from where the shout came.

There was silence for a moment until one of the players called out to om from the centre of the field. “Would you like to join in our game?” he asked. It was a surprising question because the player must have recognised that Tom was actually a mortal being.

Tom had often been warned about mixing with ‘Good People’  but the thought of playing hurling with such beings was too exciting to ignore. “I would,” he replied shyly, “but is there a place for me among you all? And if there is would I be good enough to join one of your teams?”

“There is room for one more player, which you can fill if you have a mind to,” came the reply as some of the other players laughed loudly at the prospect of a mortal being playing alongside them.

Tom became really excited at the prospect of playing hurling with ‘The Good People’, but he had no ‘caman’ of his own to play with, and he asked, “Would you have a hurley with which I can play a game?”

To his surprise, one of the little men reached to the ground for a spare ‘caman’ and handed it over to Tom. “Here,” he said, “This caman is made from the finest Ash and is one of the finest made, but  we will allow you to use it.”

Taking the hurling stick n his hand, Tom admired the comfortable grip of it in his hand and its balance in the swing. Never had he seen a hurling stick of its kind or finish, and he could hardly wait to join in the game with the others. Rolling up his shirt sleeves Tom took up his position in midfield just as the whistle blew shrilly in the evening air. Almost immediately the new caman appeared to help Tom play in a manner that he had never before experienced, and with his assistance the team that he had joined in the field won the game by a small margin. As they walked off the field the leader of the team came to him and told him, “You are a good player for a mortal! I suppose that now would be a good time to tell you who we are.” Tom nodded in agreement and he listened attentively as the small man explained, “We are called the ‘Good People’ in these lands and our home lies in that churchyard over yonder.” Tom watched as the team leader pointed toward an old church steeple in the distance. Then in an exceptionally friendly, almost secretive, manner he quietly continued, “But, let me tell you that we that we find ourselves to be in a great fix!”

“What sort of fix would that be?” Tom asked his new found companion.

“Well, the truth is that we have to play an important match against our greatest rivals in the next clan, and it all takes place a week from tonight. That is why we have been practising so hard lately. But, we have discovered recently that they have recruited the assistance of a mortal called ‘Red Mick Shea’.”

“Red Mick?” exclaimed Tom when he heard the name.

“Aye, and he is said to be the finest hurler in three counties. Do you think that you might be able to help us?”

“’Red Mick’ is one of the best alright,” Tom replied. “But, if I can have the same hurling stick then I will help you the best that I can.”

“You can have that caman, by all means,” the leader of the ‘good people’ agreed with delight and he immediately began to announce the arrival of their newest recruit to the team. “I think, boys, that we are now ready for all comers,” he called out and there were loud cheers from all those gathered on the field.

For the next seven days Tom could hardly contain his excitement at the prospects of playing in such a match. But, he could not tell anyone about the forthcoming match and made plans to get to the field without anyone knowing. A week from that very same night, boots in hand, Tom quietly crept out of the house without disturbing anyone. He had kept the secret of his great adventure, and his entire body shook with excitement as he headed out to play the game that he had promised the leader of the ‘good people’.

When Tom reached the same field, that he had played on the week before, he discovered that the two teams of ‘good people’ were already lined up and ready for the throw in. ‘Red Mick’ was at the ready on the half-back line and Tom saw him as he came on to the field of play and was handed the hurling stick. Tom took up his position within the team and the whistle sounded for the game to begin, followed by a great cheer from the spectators.

The sliotar was thrown into the centre and a great frenzy of players came together to try and take control of the game. Up and down the field the game swayed as first one team and then the other team gained superiority over the other. Hurling sticks clashed against each other, mixing their noise with the clap of leather balls being hit by the camans. The spectators watched closely as one moment Tom’s team dominated the play and, in the next moment, it was the rival team that appeared to be supreme. Score followed score, with very little between the two teams until, finally, the whistle blew loud to end the game. It was Tom’s team who had gained victory in the well-matched contest and there was great cheering and whoops of joy among the home crowd, whose team had               because of the victory.

The small man who had led ‘The Good People’ now came up to Tom, shook his hand warmly and told him, “We would like to thank you for all your efforts this day. If you would  just tell me what you would like to have for yourself  as a memento and, if it is in my power, you shall have it. Tell me then, is there anything?”

“To tell you all the truth,” smiled Tom and his eyes twinkled with joy. “I’ have taken a great fancy to that hurling stick that you loaned to me for the match, and that is all that I wish to have. That is, without doubt, the finest hurling stick I have ever played a game with. High Balls, Low Balls, and Fast Balls all came my way this night and I never missed one the entire game with that stick in my hand.”

“Now isn’t that the truth of it, Tom,” the leader replied. “You never missed even one ball during the entire match. But now, sadly, you have asked us for the one thing that is not within our power to grant you. The hurling stick, in our tradition, is the sole property of the fairy clan and no single one of us can just give one away to someone outside the clan. Especially to a mortal.”

The great disappointment that he felt at these words was immediately visible on Tom’s face. He believed that, after all, he had played a very significant role in the clan’s victory over their greatest rivals and now, despite his contribution to their victory, they had refused him the one simple prize that he felt he deserved. Still, he insisted, “But I must have it!”

“We are sorry, friend, but the hurling stick can never be yours,” Tom was told in no uncertain terms and it seemed that the discussion was at an end, as far as the ‘good people’ were concerned.

“I must,” insisted Tom, obstinately raising his voice and a tear rising in his eye with frustration. But this obstinacy only caused offence to some and an angry murmur began to arise among the good people. There  was division and a war of words now began, which developed into an almost muddle of loud, angry voices. Finally, still feeling that it was his due to have the hurling stick given to him, Tom slowly and silently walked off the field of play and grimly took the hurling stick with him.

Although it was not very far to his own home from the field, Tom almost immediately began to feel rather ill and nauseous as he walked off with the ‘caman’ in his hand. By the time that Tom had gotten to his own front door he was in a state of near collapse, and his family sent an emergency call for a doctor to attend to him. There was, however, nothing that any doctor could do for the unfortunate man. He lay motionless in his bed, weakening further day after day, and his wife cried as she solemnly asked him, “Is there anything at all that you need me to do for you, Tom?”

“Yes, my dear,” he answered her weakly. “There is a hurling stick  that is lying in the loft. Would you ever bring it down here for me and place it at the foot of the bed, where I can see it?”

“Of course I will, my dear,” Tom’s wife told him and she immediately set about fulfilling the task he had set her. From that very moment, every hour of every day that followed, Tom’s sickly condition appeared to worsen until everyone could finally see that there was little hope of  his recovery. As things became critical Tom’s wife came to his bedside and, holding his hand tenderly, she asked him, “Is there any last wishes that you would like us to carry out for you?”

By this time, the dying man could barely open his eyes to see his family, but he managed to turn to them and, in a very weak voice, Tom told them,”I want you to promise me just one thing.”

“Anything!” they answered.

“Will you all simply promise me that you will place that hurling stick by my side as I lie in my coffin, so that it will be buried with me?” he asked them.

They sadly agreed to do what they were asked and, when the time came, the family carried out Tom Meehan’s last wishes. The much prized hurling stick was subsequently buried with him in the Parish graveyard. But, even today, there are still some who say that Tom Meehan is still playing a great game of hurling, with that stick, in heaven and is still leaving his opponents completely astounded by his artistry.

The Water Carrier

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.

funeral (1)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.

Quinn Undertakers

 Hugh Quinn was the only undertaker in the entire district. Others had come and gone, but Hugh Quinn had become “Mr. Death” in Ballysheen. As well as the undertaking services he had created the monumental sculptors, and even arranged with the local churches to have the graves opened. At the same time, Quinn’s funeral cars would also undertake a transformation and act as wedding limousines for local brides, and Hugh also supplied Marquees for those couples who wished to have their wedding celebrations held at home. Moreover, Mrs. Quinn, Hugh’s hard-nosed business-woman wife, set herself up as a small outside catering contractor whose services were often called upon.

It was into the tender care of Hugh Quinn and his son, also known as Hugh, that Theresa Grogan and Father Donnelly entrusted the old woman’s corpse for preparation. Gathering themselves together Hugh and his son prepared the hearse and a simple coffin to go and bring the body back to their premises. They drove out to the Grogan house to begin their work, to which Theresa left them by themselves. It took the two men just less than two hours to complete everything and return  to the funeral parlour, where the remains were respectfully transported to the treatment room. The preparation room was at the rear of the premises and before beginning their tasks the Quinn men changed from their formal day clothes and into their work suits.

Young Hugh was well-liked person in the village and known to many by the name “Quasimodo”, because of the hunch in his back and his way of walking with a slight limp. This could have been considered to be in bad taste by some people, but those that knew him by that name made sure that young Hugh didn’t know what they called him. The young man now helped his father to lay out Mrs. Grogan’s corpse on the preparation table and his father set about collecting the various equipment that would be needed for the job at hand.

“Old Mrs. Grogan would be embarassed if she knew that I was looking at her naked body,” commented Hugh senior, lightheartedly.

“It’s a good job she is already dead then,” smiled Quasimodo.

“Aye, it is a good job! She was one cantankerous old villain when she was living.”

“Villain?” questioned Quasimodo. “ Did you know her well?”

“I knew her well enough”, Both her and her husband, Quinn Senior, remarked as he began to prepare the body for her coffin.

“Her husband?”

“Larry Grogan. A good man and a perfect gentleman,” replied Hugh senior. “When Larry was a young man there were many who considered him to be the best labouring man in the district. In fact such was the reputation he had built-up for himself that many of the big farmers and businessmen in the area would bid big sums of money to ensure he worked for them. That man could turn his hand to anything. He could thatch and he could dig. Larry Grogan could work in the fields from dawn to sunset digging over the ground with a shovel and spade. Come rain, hail, or snow Larry Grogan would always finish whatever job he had set out for himself.

“Sure there are any number of big, brawny men in the district but none of them have any sense. What was it made Grogan so different?” asked Quasimodo.

“Larry Grogan might indeed have been quite brawny, but he also had a good brain. He was a man who would never rush into making a decision, preferring instead to think about what the consequences of decision may be beforehand.”

“Well, tell me Da, how did Larry Grogan, as a labouring man, ever come to own that house that the Grogan’s live in now?”

“Grogan could thatch, lay bricks, plough, fence, construct, dig ditches and undertake a host of other things. That man could do the work of two men and, in all honesty, I can never recall the man ever taking a day off for sickness. Larry Grogan would have worked the two minutes silence and any who took him on knew that they would get more than a fair day’s work for the money they paid him. But, there was one other outstanding trait that Larry Grogan had and that was his ability to save money. He saved enough money to first buy that bit of land outside the village and immediately set about building his house upon it.”

“He built it himself?”

“Every brick and rafter, and he made one hell of a good job of it. Furthermore, he turned that ground around the house from rough grazing land into fertile soil. At the same time he reclaimed some of the land from the bog by digging ditches and draining it.”

“He didn’t leave much time for socialising. It is a wonder he was able to meet a girl at all!”

“Dear God, Hugh, but you are one miserable sod,” His father commented. “Grogan was a very active young man. He loved to play football and thoroughly enjoyed frequenting all the places that young men can find diversions. He was as much one of the boys as any of them.”

“He liked the ladies?” laughed Quasimodo, with a slight blush.

“He liked a drop of ‘Guinness’ and the odd glass of ‘Powers’ whisky. There was many a night, after a few drinks, that Larry Grogan would dance the night away at the Ceilidh. He was a great dancer and he always wore nothing but the best in clothes. There were not many in Ballysheen who could afford to have such a wardrobe and yet save in the manner that Grogan did.”

“Hardworking, popular and with plenty of money! Grogan must have been a good target for the ladies to catch?”

“He would have been a good catch for any woman at the time, but Sally was the one who caught him, God rest her. She was Sally Lowry at the time and lived at the far end of the village. She was older than me, but when she was young she was a fine looking woman with plenty of life about her, and good hands for the work. Every time she went to the dances or ceilidhs  she always wore something new and modern. She was the great one for the style, always preening herself and showing off to attract the boys. In recent years she was know for her temper and vicious tongue, but I remember a different Sally Grogan; confident, pleasant and always smiling. She was the sort of woman who knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. Sally wanted Grogan and the poor man never stood a chance when she made her move on him. Within a week or two of meeting the two of them got together as a couple, and they were courting over the next five or six years.”

“Five or six years?” Quasimodo gasped in surprise.

“That was a short engagement in those days,” the older Quinn laughed. “Nowadays a man and woman just have to look at each other and they’re hopping into bed and never mind the wedding! But Larry and Sally did manage to become the centre of village gossip for a period of time at least. People began to notice that the two of them would disappear many a Sunday after Mass, and they wouldn’t be seen until evening, with great satisfied smiles on their faces. Also, after the dances, Larry would leave Sally home and stay there with her until the early hours of morning.”

“So you were all at it even in those days?” giggled Quasimodo.

“Nothing much has changed, son. Even in those days except when you played with fire you almost certain to get burned. Larry and Sally, it seems, played with fire, got burned, and were obliged to undertake each other for better or for worse. It was Larry’s older brother, Tom, who pulled the shotgun when Larry and Sally came to seek his advice. Within these very short weeks the two of them were married by the priest and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“Good God, when you look at her lying there, ready for her coffin you would think she was a good, god-fearing woman and that butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth,” Quasimodo remarked.

“The vicious tongue and bad temper that woman had would tell you that she feared no one. Even solid iron would have melted in that foul mouth of hers,” replied Hugh senior as he began putting the finishing touches to the corpse.