Disturbing the Dead: A Folktale of Innisfallen, Ireland

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

This folktale from Innisfallen tells the tale of Phelim O’Sullivan, who paid a steep price for disturbing the dead. 

Long ago, many farms lay where the wide-spreading waves of Loch Leane are now. Diarmid O’Sullivan owned a snug little farm at the butt of Toomies Mountain. He had plenty of everything, and would have been happy, if it wasn’t for his son Phelim.

Phelim was the greatest bullamskiagh 1)a bully — literally, a shield striker in the barony of Magunihy. always looking for a bit of a skrimige (skirmish), there couldn’t be a dance, wedding or wake, within ten miles of him, but Phelim was there.

It happened that Jack Connor of Fyrees took a fever and died; he was the very likeness of Phelim. When news of Jack’s death was brought to the farm, Phelim felt saddened, and he set off hot-foot to the wake.

A beautiful wake it was, and the cry cold be heard a good mile before they came to the old church of Innisfallen, which wasn’t an island at all then, but only a snug little hill.

When the burying was over, the people went off one after another, until only Phelim was left. He had seated himself in front of his crony’s grave, near a great heap of skulls and bones. A pitiful sight it was to see them, as bare and as bleached as the brow of Mangerton after a night’s snow.

“Jack Connor, you were a good fellow,” said Phelim, taking up a skull. “I cannot believe this will be all that’s left of you soon.”

“Who meddles with the dead?” an otherworldly voice replied.

Looking up, Phelim felt his blood turning to ice. There an old man stood, like one of the giants of old, with a long white beard, and his large lifeless-looking eyes fixed upon Phelim.

“Who meddles with the dead, when the dead have the power to walk?”

Sure enough, it was the dead hour of night; 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 headstones that were scattered about that lonely spot.

“I meant no harm, but was only thinking of poor Jack Connor.”

“You had no business meddling with the dead, so you’d better follow me.”

Phelim walked after the figure who went, 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,” the ghost said, standing in front of the tomb.

“You wish to bury me alive? I refuse to jump!”

“You refuse?” the old man said, shoving Phelim into the tomb. “You’re down now, and it will be many a long day before you come up again.”

Two hundred years after, a loud ullagone (lamentation) was heard on the shore of Innisfallen. The good fathers who lived in the abbey went to investigate, and they found a fine young man, seemingly lost in sorrow as he viewed the water that was flowing between him and the mountain of Toomies. Phelim had returned to the world, and was bemoaning the loss of house and home.

When the good fathers heard his story, they took him into the abbey, where he became one of the most blessed among them. All his life he warned others to learn from his example, and to never meddle with the dead.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. a bully — literally, a shield striker

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