The dead have always played a central role in rural Irish folklore. Whether as insubstantial ghosts wandering through the countryside or walking corpses returning to torment the living, our former ancestors have always exercised an intense and continuing fascination for those who survive them and have formed the basis for many hair-raising tales. The dead, it appears, will not go away.
The belief in returning ghosts, spirits or corpses may have its origin in primitive ancestor worship. It was well known throughout the country that the dead had to be looked after at all times. Not to do so was to invite misfortune upon yourself, your family or your community. Nor has this belief wholly died out. In 1993, I spoke to an old man in north Cavan who claimed that, as a child, he remembered the corpse of his grandfather coming back from the grave on some nights during the winter months to sit at the fire and smoke a pipe of tobacco. He said that he also remembered actually touching the skin of the corpse and finding it very cold. His grandfather never spoke but sat warming himself by the fire. The rest of the family ignored this and went off to bed, leaving the corpse sitting in front of a good blaze. When they got up in the morning, I was told, the corpse was gone - presumably back to its grave. This story was borne out, without prompting, by one of the old gentleman's sisters.
A returning corpse also features in the following story, which comes from the Dublin mountains.
The Undead Priest
There was a widow woman one time, lived away in a remote mountainous area outside Dublin. The place she lived in was very lonely and she had only one son who went into the priesthood. He was very intelligent and was away for years at the seminary in Maynooth. Never once did he come back to see his mother until he was quite old. They said that he had some sort of sickness about him and that he had come home to stay for a while with his old mother to recover his health.
She was very pleased to see him and made him very welcome. Her neighbours, too, called from time to time to welcome him home but he had been away for such a long time and was no longer a local man, nor did he make any attempt to become part of the community. He was sharp and aloof and, truth to tell, with all his book-learning he considered himself much better than those who lived in the district around. Local people consulted him on matters of faith but they did not socialise with him nor he with them. He simply shut himself away in his mother's cottage in the mountains with his books and his own thoughts. Then, just before his fiftieth birthday, he suddenly died. Whether it was because of what ailed him I don't know, but I believe that the death was very quick.
His body was laid out in his mother's house and everybody in the immediate locality called there to pay their respects and to help in the funeral. Indeed, it was a sad day when they waked him and a sadder day yet when they carried his coffin from the lonely mountain cottage to the rocky graveyard on the side of a hill a few miles away. All the people in the locality went to the funeral, but the mother was not feeling up to the long and difficult journey and so remained at home.
> > > Read the concluding part in this story
From Beasts, Banshees and Brides from the Sea by Bob Curran