The Monks and the Farmer: A Local Legend of Mucruss, Ireland

Pinpoint Location: Muckross, County Kerry / Map data ©2017 Google

This Local Legend from Muckross was collected by Thomas Crofton Croker some time before 1852. It tells the tale of the Father Holen, who was a thief and a rogue. 

The Abbey of Irrelagh (meaning the Abbey on the lake) was once renovated by Father Thady Holen, and the poor friars didn’t know what in the world to do for want of the victuals. So they began to complain:

“It’s because you’re spending all our money on the building,” said they to Thady, “that we’re in the pucker we are this blessed day, without a bit or a sup to keep body and soul together.”

“Whisht, you fools,” says Thady, “if I didn’t make an elegant building of it, do you think the people would come to mass or confession here when they have many a better place to go to? But if you’ll only hold out for a little while, we’ll have the full of the people, and then everything will go on well enough. In the meantime, I’ll find some way of making the pot boil, and you must all lend a hand. Can’t you go to the strong farmers’ wives and make much of the children, put your blessing upon the house, and say an occasional mass, and, I’ll answer for it, they won’t let you want for anything.”

“We will,” said they; and away they all went except one young friar, Father John they called him, and, without any doubt, he was the very image of the old Father Thady Holen, as like as could be, and, only that such a thing couldn’t be, you’d say he was the old friar’s son; but, be that as it may, it’s certain they were the greatest cronies in the world, and the young one always did the old one’s bidding.

“Come here, brother Jack,” said Thady, “I want to have a bit of a talk with you. You see what a way I’m in with those ungrateful hounds, after building such an elegant house over their heads, they can’t put up with short allowance for a few days; and surely, if I don’t find plenty of the best for them, there’ll be open murder, and we’ll be all done for. So I’ll tell you what I’ll do, if you’ll only stand by me, and promise not to let on to man or mortal.”

“Never fear me,” said Father John, “I’d go through fire and water to serve you.”

“Well,” said Thady, “I’ll tell you what I have in my head. Old Ned Cronin has plenty of fat sheep, and I can’t see why we shouldn’t help ourselves to a couple of them when it’s for the good of the church. We can give him the value of them in masses for the good of his soul, and all his fathers before him; that’ll be better for him than all the sheep in the world. Exchange is no robbery, they say. So, if you have no objection, we’ll begin this very night.”

“No objection in life,” said Father John; and so away they went to help themselves to old Cronin’s sheep. You may be sure it wasn’t the worst they took; and, when they came back, there was no want of mutton in the Abbey, nor of plenty of good broth.

Poor Cronin didn’t know what to do; his best sheep were all going one after another, and, for the life of him, he couldn’t make out the thief.

“Mother dear,” said he to his old mother-in-law, who sat in the chimbley corner, isn’t it a cruel case to have all my fattest sheep going this way? soon I’ll be a ruined man, so I will, and be obliged to cut and run. Oh, then, if I had hold of the thief I’d make a mummy of him, so I would, but I can’t for the life of me think of who it can be.”

“Can’t you, Agra?” said the old woman quite quietly, “why, then, I’ll tell you, it’s those thieving beggarly monks that come prowling about the place, like so many foxes after a flock of geese; and, sure enough, they’ve hardly left me a hen in the world to lay an egg to eat for my supper. The sorrow take the whole set of them.”

“Whisht! whisht! mother dear,” says Cronin, “Don’t be talking of the clergy in that kind of way, or you’ll bring a curse on me and mine; for sure we ought to leave the clergy to God, let them do what they will.’

“Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you, my child,” said the old woman, “and if you’ll only give your consent, I’ll engage to find out the thief. Put me in the big chest that’s up on the loft, and make a little hole in it for me to peep through, and give me something to eat, and a drop to comfort the old heart within me, and take the chest to the Abbey to keep, by the way you’re afraid of the robbers, and I’ll soon know if it’s the friars that’s taking your sheep. You can come for the chest next day, pretending you want to get something out of it.”

Cronin, being persuaded, did as the ould woman desired, locked her up in the chest, and took her to the Abbey.

When the night came, the two friars as usual brought in a lump of a fat sheep, and tumbled it down on the floor. “We have you,” said they, “in spite of old Cronin and all his watching.”

“Ho, ho! maybe so, I think I have you now; I knew I was right, though Neddy wouldn’t believe me,” thought the old woman to herself as she was peeping through the hole in the box, when she saw the two friars killing the sheep. Now, you must know, she had a way with her of taking a power of snuff when anything fretted her, and the sight of the killing the sheep vexed her so, that she began to take snuff like mad; the snuff was as good snuff as ever was made by Miles Moriarty or Lundy Foot himself, and it so happened that, for the life of her, she couldn’t help giving a thundering sneeze.

“By the thumb-nail of our blessed lady, we’re found out; break open the chest at once,” roared Father Thady. And, sure enough, they did break open the chest, when what would they see but the old woman.

“Choke her, Jack,” whispered Thady.

“Ay, there she’s done for now; only stick a lump of bread in her mouth, that it may look like an accident, and fasten up the chest again.’

“That I might,” said Father John, “but I’ll be revenged of that thief of a Cronin, for giving us such a murdering job.”

“Leave it all to me,” said Thady, “I’ll manage it so that we’ll make a pretty penny, and throw all the blame on the old hag herself, who’ll tell no more stories now, that’s certain.”

The next morning Cronin came for his chest, which he carried home with him, and his mother-in-law in it, safe and sound, as he thought. But when he opened it, and found the old woman as dead as a barn-door nail, he was dumb-foundered.

“Och, ullagone, mother dear, why did you die?” cried he, “why wouldn’t you take my advice, and not be meddling with the clergy? See now if you haven’t brought a judgment from God upon yourself for speaking ill of those holy men? Och, ullagone, why were you so obstinate, mother dear?”

But all his ullagoning was no use, it wouldn’t bring back the old woman again; so, after a rattling wake, he had her buried in the churchyard of the old Abbey.

“Now, Jack,” said Father Thady, after the burial was over, “now, Jack, I’ll tell you what, when the night comes on we’ll dig the old woman up, and put her against Cronin’s door.”

No sooner said than done, and when Cronin opened his door in the morning, the old woman fell in upon him, and he raised such a hullabaloo with the fright, that he brought all the neighbours about him in a twinkling. He didn’t know what to make of it, for he was frightened out of his seven senses, so away he ran to Father Holen to ask his advice.

“It’s a terrible thing indeed,” said the old rogue, holding open a large pocket he had in his vestment for bagging rabbits, “she must have done something that hinders her from resting in the grave. But I’ll tell you what you’ll do; give out a great wake, and invite all the brothers to it, and get masses said for the repose of her soul.”

Now, Cronin understood what this meant well enough, so he put some money in the friar’s pouch for the masses, and invited all the holy fathers to the wake, where there was plenty of everything, and they were as merry as if it was a wedding. After they had eat and drank enough, and said their masses, the old woman was buried again. But the Friars weren’t satisfied yet, so they dug her up once more, and fastened her on the back of Cronin’s horse, that was grazing in the field.

When he went out in the gray of the morning, what should he see but his old mother riding towards him! Away he ran bellowing like a bull, and away the horse trotted after him every foot of the way till he got over the threshold of his own door. If he was in a perplexity before, he was more so now; and, to make bad worse, the Friars didn’t know what to say; however, they advised another wake and more masses, which was accordingly done, and the old woman buried again with all possible speed.

“Now, Jack,” said Father Thady, as they raised the ould lady for the third time, “for the master stroke of all, that’ll finish the work, and take all suspicion clear and clean off of us.” So with that they carried the body to Cronin’s sheep-house, where, after killing three of the sheep, they stuck her up in a corner with a bloody knife in her hand.

When Cronin came to let the sheep out and saw three of them lying dead, and his old mother standing with the bloody knife in her hand, his anger got the better of his fright.

“You old murdering vagabond!” cried he, “I see how it is now, it was you that killed the sheep, and now you can’t rest in your grave, for belying the holy friars.”

He ran off and told the whole story to Father Thady, who gave him absolution and promised, as he now knew the reason of her walking, he’d make her lie quiet in the grave forever after. Then the old woman was buried and never rose again.

The story flew about the country like lightning, and brought crowds to the Abbey; for they looked upon it as a miracle from God in behalf of the holy fathers, who from that hour never wanted for anything, till Cromwell came and turned them, body and bones, out of house and home.

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