Disturbing the Dead: A Local Legend of Innisfallen, Ireland

Pinpoint Location: Innisfallen (Lough Leane), County Kerry / Map data ©2017 Google

This Local Legend from Innisfallen was collected by Thomas Crofton Croker some time before 1852. It tells the tale of Phelim O’Sullivan, who paid the price for disturbing the dead. 

Long ago, before the lake was a lake at all, there was many a snug bit of a farm, where nothing is now to be seen but the wide-spreading waves of Loch Lane. Wisha, then, bad luck to Moll Donoghue, for sure it was all along of her leaving the spring-well uncovered, that the beautiful land was drownded.

Well, as I was saying, many a long day before the lake was a lake at all, one Diarmid O’Sullivan had a snug little farm of his own at the butt of Toomies Mountain. Snug and comfortable Diarmid O’Sullivan was, and well to do in the world; for he had plenty of everything, and would have been as happy as may be, if it wasn’t for his son Phelim.

There wasn’t such a bullamskiagh (a bully — literally, a shield striker) in the barony of Magunihy as Phelim. Och, it was he was the boy for a bit of a skrimige (skirmish); and then, as for fun and frolic, there couldn’t be a pattern or dance, wedding or wake, within ten miles of him, but Phelim was sure to be there.

It happened that Jack Connor of Fyrees, as sporting a boy as you’d wish to see, took sick of a fever and died; he was the very likeness of Phelim, and there wasn’t two such cronies to be found from Knocknacoppul to Tignavauriah. A sorrowful day you may be sure it was, when news of Jack’s death was brought to the farm, and it was Phelim that took it to heart, and was braunach (sorrowful) enough on account of it, and set off hot-foot to the wake. A beautiful wake he had of it, with plenty of ‘givings out,’ and such wonder of a burying, that you might have heard the cry a good mile before they came to the old church of Innisfallen, that wasn’t an island at all then, but only a snug little knop of a hill.

When the burying was over, the people went off one after another, till at last no one was left but Phelim, who, from the whiskey and the grief mixing together, lost all knowledge of everything going on around him. He had seated himself in front of his crony’s grave, near a great heap of sculls and bones, and a pitiful sight it was to see them, as bare and as bleached as the brow of Mangerton after a night’s snow.

“Why, then, Jack Connor, you were a good fellow,” said Phelim, who was beginning to come to himself, “and sure and certain I’ll never see the likes of you again; it’s a pitiful case that you should lie there in the cold grave, and many a good-for-nothing spalpeen (cowardly rascal) left behind.”

“Only to think the likes of you should ever come to this,” continued Phelim, at the same time taking up one of the skulls that lay near him, “to think the likes of you should ever come to this, is enough to break the heart in a stone!”

“Who is it that meddles with the dead?” said a great, big, tall, old man, stepping at the same time from behind a broken tomb.

Phelim was quite daunted at the sound of the voice, and no wonder, for it was not like the voice of one belonging to this world; when he looked up, he felt his blood turning to ice within him. There the old man stood, like one of the giants of old, with a long white beard, and his large lifeless-looking eyes fixed upon Phelim, as he put the question to him for the second time: “Who is it that meddles with the dead, when the dead have the power to walk?” For, sure enough, it was the dead hour of night; and the moon was shining clear and bright on mountain and wood, on river and rock, and gave a ghastly appearance to the grey tombs, and upright headstones that were scattered about that lonely spot.

Now Phelim wasn’t much given to fear anything dead or alive, so he soon mustered up his courage, and began to excuse himself as well as he could.

“Why then, please your honour,” said he, “I didn’t mean any harm at all, for sure it was only thinking of poor Jack Connor I was, that’s lying there in the cold grave.”

“That’s no reason for me,” said the spirit, or whatever it was, “you had no business meddling with the dead, so you’d better put down the skull and follow me, for your penance must be long and heavy.”

“Why, then, isn’t it a poor case to be obliged to folly a ghost at the dead hour of night?” says Phelim to himself as he walked after the figure who went before him, swiftly and silently, to the mouth of a dark tomb, that stood open, as if ready to receive them both.

“You must leap down there, Phelim,” says the ghost, standing in front of the tomb.

“Why, then, is it to bury me alive you want? Never will I leap down that black dismal looking hole, if you was as big again,” says Phelim.

“You won’t!” says the old man, “we’ll see that presently;” so with that he gave Phelim a rap, and down he went. “You’re down now, and it will be many a long day before you come up again,” says he, and he said no more.

Two hundred years after, a loud ullagone (lamentation) was heard on the shore of Innisfallen. The good fathers who lived in the abbey then went out with all speed to see what was the matter, and they found a fine young man, who seemed lost entirely in sorrow, when he saw the great piece of water that was flowing between him and the mountain of Toomies.

And who was this but Phelim, who had just come back to the world again, and was bemoaning the loss of house and home; for it seemed to him as if it was but a day since he had followed Jack Connor to the grave, and now to have the waters flowing over all: but he had been to another world, the secrets of which he was not allowed to tell.

When the good fathers heard his story, they took him into the abbey, where he became one of the most blessed among them all, and was sought after far and near by the people, whom he often advised to take pattern by his example, and never be so foolish as to meddle with the dead.

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