“Ah, would you ever be quiet?” the old man in the corner shouted as we were in the middle of discussing strange stories we had heard. “Would you ever believe this?”
“Would I believe what?” I asked him.
“I’ll tell you a true story that I heard from the man’s own mouth. God be merciful to him and him as truthful as the day is long,” the old man declared.
“What story would that be?” I asked.
“Do you know Barney Douglas who lived over beyond Ballymore?” replied the old man. But when I shook my head to show that I didn’t know the man, the old man continued, “Ah, sure, you would not have known him, for he died before you came here. Well, Barney was coming home from town one night, after midnight and, maybe, nearer to one in the morning. He had his ‘donkey cart’ with him and he was walking along happily at the pony’s head. He was enjoying a wee smoke to himself on a fine moonlit night until he came across three men ahead of him in the middle of the road, and they were carrying a coffin. It was quite a while before they let the coffin down. Sure, the hair was standing on Barney’s head with fear, but blessing himself with the sign of the cross he walked on until he came to where the three men were standing beside the coffin.”
“‘The Blessing of God on you all,” Barney greeted them in Irish. ‘and what is happening?’”
“’The same to yourself,’ said one of the three men, “but c’mon take a place under this coffin and ask no more questions.’
“Well he was going to aske them what would he do with his pony and cart, but he decided not to now that he was told to ask no more questions. But he didn’t have ask for the men knew well what was in his mind, and another one of the men told him, ‘Sure, your pony and cart will be alright here until you get back.’
“Well, Barney went with them and helped them to carry the coffin, and a heavier corpse he had never known, by God. They went ahead until they left the coffin in the graveyard and then he was told that he could go back to his pony and cart. ‘Sure, men, I will help you to dig the grave.’
“’Do what you’re told,’ said the third man, who hadn’t spoken before, ‘or maybe it would be the worse for you.’
“’Well, Barney didn’t want to repeat himself, so he returned to his pony and cart and found them exactly where he had left them.”
“Did Barney know them?” I asked when the old man had finished.
“Did he know them? By God he knew them! For they were three of his own first cousins who had died long before that night.”
“So, who was in the coffin?” I asked.
“Barney’s own brother, who had died in California that same night, as he heard afterwards in a letter that was sent by his uncle in America,” the old man informed me. But he also assured me that Barney was never known to tell a lie in his life, and that he is dead now, may his soul rest in peace.
“Amen,” I answered.
Now, all of you who are reading this let me ask you not to make fun! You may never be asked by the dead to carry the dead at a mysterious midnight funeral, but I urge you not to make fun of Barney Douglas’ experience.
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 awfully long for this weird, unearthly sound to vibrate through the still air of the evening once again. 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 truly 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 tale I am about to relate to you is a very old story that has been passed down through generations of my family until it was told to me. It is a story of an event that was said to have happened to my father’s grandfather’s father, may the good Lord be good to him and I hope he’s in Heaven. The poor man’s a long time dead now and I hope he is happy having joined those of the family that went before him, and that he was welcoming to those that followed him. As for myself, sure, I was just a cub of boy when I sat down with my father beside a blazing turf-fire that he had set in the kitchen. It was a treat to sit there, on a cold winter’s night, in front of a blazing fire that threw out great heat and filled the cottage with the sweet aroma of turf smoke. We would get ourselves into a comfortable position on the ‘settle’ and waited until my father lit his pipe and blew out those first lung-filling pulls of tobacco, which was something he always did before telling us a story. Occasionally, however, he would find it difficult to use the safety matched to light the pipe and he would lose patience, and snarl “To hell with it!” before he took a glowing remnant of turf to do the job for him. Now, relaxed with pipe in hand he would give a cough and begin his story.
“Our family has lived in this wee house for generations now,” he began, “and my grandfather’s father, Granda Matty, was travelling home late one night. He had ridden his new grey mare to the grain store late that afternoon and it was dark when he began his journey home. The grey was a good sound animal that he had bought at a horse-fair three months earlier, and he took pleasure in riding it wherever he went. But that night was a little bit different than usual because of the icy chill in the wind, and he was very much looking forward to getting home to a warm cottage and an even warmer supper. When the horse came to the old graveyard, that still lies down the road there, he was puzzled until he saw for himself a dull, yellow coloured light coming from inside the wall. Granda Matty was an inquisitive sort of man and dismounted the mare, leaving a bag of flour tied to the saddle, and went to explore the mysterious light.”
“The old dry-stone wall was quite tall and completely intact everywhere else but at the point where Granda Matty stopped. There, about five feet above the ground, there was a stone missing that allowed him to peer, unseen, into the graveyard at the other side. As he peered through the hole what should he see but two men whom he instantly recognised, and between the lay the corpse of Tommy Sweeney, which had just been buried that morning. Not knowing what the two men were doing, Matty decided to call out to them through the hole in the wall. As they stood over Tommy’s corpse the two men heard a voice call out them from an unknown direction, “By Jaysus boys, that’s a bad job you’re at the night! The two of you should be greatly ashamed to be disturbing the bodies of the dead, may God have mercy on Sweeney!”
To say that the two men were at being disturbed by the voice would be an understatement. They almost died of fright, thinking that it was the voice of a ghost calling to them and rebuking them for their deed. But they gathered their senses quickly and each drew a long, sharp dagger, the blades of which glinted in the moonlight. In an instant they reached the wall and began to clamber over it to catch the man who had observed them in the graveyard. Granda Matty, however, had wasted no time in taking to his heels as fast as he could, and like a man twenty years younger he jumped on the saddle and made ready to go. His pursuers were just as quick on their feet and Matty had just got his feet into the stirrups before they came on him. Taking off his hat, Matty used it to help urge the horse onward and off they galloped as fast as they could go. The two men continued to chase him for a short distance but, when they realised they wouldn’t catch him, they threw their daggers at him. Fortunately, for Granda Matty, the daggers missed their target and he was able to ride home safely.”
““Who were they, Daddy, and what were they doing in the graveyard at night?” I asked him excitedly.”
“Granda Matty never said who they were, but they were in the graveyard that night taking the ‘Buarach Bhais’ off the newly buried corpse of Tommy Sweeney.”
“In the name of God, Daddy, what kind of a thing is the ‘Buarach Bhais’?
“Aye, you would be too young to know what that is, so I shall tell you. It is a strip of skin taken off a newly buried corpse, from the back of its head to the heel of its foot.”
““By all that’s holy, did people do such things? How often and why?” I asked impatiently.”
“Granda Matty said it was something done by certain people, and it was something that, at one time, was common enough,” my father replied mysteriously. “Now, if there was a young girl for whom you took a fancy, but she was not willing; or if a young girl had her eye on a young man and he was not willing, and if you were to get the Buarach Bhais off without breaking it, and lay it on the one you love without them feeling it, the they would be yours forever. It was the old magic.”
““Well, sure, that’s one strange thing for a man or a woman to be doing, at all,” I told him incredulously.
“Aye, strange, but very true,” he insisted. “This was told by my Granda Matty to my grandfather, both saintly men whose mouths never knew a lie. Those people who used to trade in those things were known as ‘Luch na m-buarach bais’, but their trade has now died out in Ireland, thanks be to God.”