Emerald Isle

The Corpse Watchers

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

If the waked one wakes, the watcher had better watch out!

The corpse watchers, an Irish fairy taleOnce upon a time there was a poor woman with three daughters, and one day the eldest decided to seek her fortunes in the world.

“Mother,” she said, “bake me a cake and kill my chicken, for I am away to the wide world.”

And so her mother did just that, and when all was ready, her mother asked “which will you have – half of these with my blessing, or all of them with my curse?”

“Curse or no curse,” said the daughter, “the whole is little enough.” So away she went, and if her mother didn't give her a curse, neither did she give her a blessing.

She walked and she walked until she was tired and hungry, so she sat down by the side of the road to eat her dinner. While she was eating, a poor old beggar woman came up and asked her for a bite.

“Nothing is what you'll get from me,” said the daughter, “for there's almost nothing for myself as it is!” and the poor woman walked off in sorrow.

That night, the daughter stopped at a farmhouse and asked for a place to sleep, and the woman of the house told her that she'd get a spade full of silver and a shovel full of gold if she'd only stay awake and watch her son's corpse that was at wake in the next room.

Odd indeed she thought such a request, but agreed, and so when the family had gone to bed, she sat by their fire and kept half an eye on the corpse which lay under the table, thinking hardly that a whole eye let alone two were needed.

All at once the dead man sat up under his shroud, and stood before her as she shrank, horrified.

“All alone, fair maid!” he cried, but she had no answer. A second and a third time he said it, and when still she was dumbstruck, he struck her with a hazel switch, and she was turned into a grey rock on the spot!

About a week later the second daughter of the house decided to go the same road in seeking her fortune, not caring for her mother's blessing either, and didn't the very same thing happen to her, so that there were two grey rocks sitting side by side in the wake room.

At last the youngest went off to look for the other two, but she took care to carry her mother's blessing with her. When she met the poor old beggar woman on the road, she shared her dinner, little as it was, and at last came to the farmer's house.

She knocked and was let in, and like her sisters, agreed to watch the corpse in the next room. She sat warming herself by the fire along with the cat and dog, for it was a cold night, and amused herself with some nuts and apples the mistress gave her. She thought it a great pity that the man under the table was a corpse, for he was handsome.

But as the midnight bell tolled, up he leapt as sprightly as any schoolmaster and shouted out

“All alone, fair maid!” but she wasn't long answering him back!

“All alone I am not,
I've little dog Douse and Pangur the cat,
I've apples to roast and nuts to crack,
So all alone, I am not!”

Taken aback, he said “I can see you're a girl of courage, though it will take more than you have to follow me. I'm away now to cross the quaking bog and through the burning forest. After that I must enter the cave of unending terror and climb the hills of glass, and then drop from the top into the sea of the dead.”

“I'll follow you,” she said, “for I've been engaged to mind you!”

He thought to prevent her but she was as stiff as he was stout, so off he sprang through the window with a great bound, and after him she raced through the moon-silvered night. Coming to a great dark hill, he sang out:

“Open, open, great hill dark, and let the light
of the Green Hills through.”

And the girl sang after, “Aye and let the fair maid too!”

With a mighty groan and a gasp of musty air the hill itself opened wide, and they both passed through, coming to the edge of a bog.

Light he stepped over shaky bits of moss and sinking sod, and while the maid was thinking about how to cross, who should appear but the old beggar woman, now revealed as a fairy, a friendly bodb of the farmer's family!

The fairy touched her shoes with a hazel stick, and the soles of her shoes spread a foot to either side, letting her walk easily across the sucking marsh. As she came to the edge of the bog, the burning forest arose before her, boughs twisting and cracking forever in blazing brimstone fires!

But the good fairy was there to help, and cast a thick woollen cloak across her shoulders, drenched in icy ocean water from Manannan's fountains, and not so much as a hair on her head was singed.

After that they came to the cavern of horrors, where the shrieks and groans of dark things long imprisoned were fit to drive anyone to madness, and so they would have done to her, if the fairy hadn't stopped her ears with beeswax strained from the hives of Lir beforehand! Yet even with fairy help it wasn't an easy journey, and she saw many frightful things, wights and demons wreathed in blue flame, with sharp rocks and slimy frogs backs and snakes underfoot.

After what seemed like an endless walk, she escaped and came to the mountain of glass, where the fairy made her slippers sticky with a touch of her hazel wand, so she was able to follow the young man's corpse to the very top.

There was a deep and turbulent sea a quarter of a mile below them, with waves so huge and fierce they seemed almost like mountains themselves, but the corpse stopped and turned to her.

“Go home to my mother,” he said, “go home and tell her how far you came to do her bidding. Farewell.” He toppled over headfirst into the sea, and after him she plunged, without stopping a moment to think about it.

The fall stole the breath from her mouth and she was frozen with terror as she fell, but when she came closer to the heaving waters she came to her senses and dove like an arrow, sinking down to a great depth, where she saw at the bottom of the sea a green light glimmering.

Swimming with all her might, she entered the light and found herself in a gentle meadow beneath a green sky with flowers of many colours all around her. The young man sat beside her and she nestled into his side, falling asleep with her exertions.

She never knew how long she slept, but when she awoke, she was in bed at his house, with himself and his mother sitting beside her keeping watch.

They told her after she had a cup of tea, it had been a wicked witch who put the glamour on him, stealing half his life to put him between the living and the dead until a woman could be found with the strength and courage to restore him to our world again.

She found a hazel wand by her side under the blankets, and when she touched the two grey stones nearby, her sisters regained their earthly forms and were sent back to their mother, with a spade of gold and a shovel of silver each, for all the good it might do them.

As for the youngest daughter, well she got the young gentleman for her husband and lived happily ever after!

Some have it that the dark hill may lie near this spot:


Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore