The Monks and the Farmer: A Folktale of Muckross, Ireland

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

This folktale from Muckross tells the tale of the Father Holen, who less of a saint, and more of a thief and a rogue. 

The Abbey of Irrelagh1)Abbey on the lake was once renovated by Father Thady Holen, and the poor friars ate and drank soberly during this time. So they began to complain.

“It’s because you’re spending all our money on the building.”

“Fools!” Thady replied, “If I didn’t make the building elegant, do you think the people would come to mass or confession here? Hold out for a little while. In the meantime, go visit the farmers’ wives; praise their children, put blessings upon their house, and say an occasional mass. They won’t let you want for anything.”

“We will,” they said.

Away they all went, except one young friar called Father John. He looked so much like Thady Holen that some whispered he could have been the old friar’s son, if such a thing were possible. But they certainly were great cronies, and the young one always did the old one’s bidding.

“Come here,” Thady said, “I need your help. You see those ungrateful hounds? I need to placate them before there’ll be open murder.”

“I’d go through fire and water to serve you,” Father John replied.

“I’ll tell you what I have in mind,” Thady said, “old Ned Cronin has plenty fat sheep, and we should help ourselves to a couple of them for the good of the church. We can pay him in masses for the good of his soul. If you have no objection, we’ll begin this very night.”

“No objection,” Father John said.

So they went to help themselves to old Cronin’s sheep, 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,” he said to his mother-in-law, all my fattest sheep are gone. Soon I’ll be a ruined man, and be obliged to cut and run.”

“I’ll tell you,” the old woman said quite quietly, “it’s those thieving monks that come prowling about the place. The sorrow take the lot of them.”

“Mother dear, don’t talk of the clergy that way.”

“Give your consent, and I’ll find the thief. Put me in the big chest, and make a little hole in it to peep through. Take the chest to the Abbey to keep, because you’re afraid of the robbers, and I’ll soon know if it’s the friars that are taking your sheep. You can come for the chest next day, pretending you want to get something out of it.”

Cronin did as the old woman desired, locked her up in the chest, and took her to the Abbey. When the night came, the two friars brought in another lump of a fat sheep, and tumbled it down on the floor.

“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, but then she couldn’t help giving a thundering sneeze.

“We’re found out! Break open the chest at once!” roared Father Thady. And, sure enough, they did break open the chest and discovered the old woman.

“Choke her, Jack, and stick a lump of bread in her mouth, to make it look like an accident.” Thady whispered, and his crony obliged.

“I want revenge on Cronin, for giving us such a murdering job.”

“Leave that to me,” Thady said, “We’ll make a pretty penny, and throw all the blame on the old hag herself, who’ll tell no more stories now.”

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

“Mother dear,” he cried, “why wouldn’t you take my advice, not to meddle with the clergy? You have brought a judgment from God upon yourself for speaking ill of holy men!”

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, “when the night comes we’ll dig the old woman up, and put her against Cronin’s door.”

When Cronin opened his door in the morning, the old woman fell in, and he raised such a hullabaloo with the fright, that he brought all the neighbours running. Frightened out of his senses, he ran to Father Holen for advice.

“It’s a terrible thing,” 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; give out a great wake, invite all the brothers, and get masses said for her soul.”

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, Cronin saw his old mother riding towards him! He ran away bellowing like a bull, but the horse trotted after him every foot of the way until he got over the threshold of his own door.

This time, 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 a third time.

“Now, Jack,” said Father Thady, as they dug her up again, “for the master stroke, which will take all suspicion 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, “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 be able to grant her eternal peace. Then the old woman was buried and never rose again.

The story spread 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, until Cromwell came and turned them, body and bones, out of house and home.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Abbey on the lake

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