The Water Carrier

irish-funeralWhen I was a young man my favourite hobby was to take long walks into the countryside and sketch many interesting sites. Pictures of beautifully situated thatched cottages, old barns, ruins, old churches filled my sketch-book. Then, one day, I found myself sitting alone in the desolate churchyard of Drumm, totally lost in my silent efforts to capture the scene that lay before me. I would lift up my eyes from my sketchbook on occasion to look directly at the interesting ruin I was attempting to sketch and felt the warmth of the sun upon my head. Then, the quiet stillness that had prevailed all day was suddenly broken by a faint and wild sound that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life. Admittedly the strange sound startled me, causing me to stop my sketching for a moment or two, and listen nervously for the strange sound to repeat itself. It didn’t take long for this seemingly unearthly sound to once again vibrate through the still air of the evening, and even more loudly than at first. As I listened to its strange vibration and tone I began to liken it to the sound many glasses, ringing as they crowded together crowded together.

I arose from the place on which I had seated myself and began to look around for the source of this strange noise. There was nobody near me and, yet again, this heart-chilling sound suddenly filled the air with its wild and wailing intonation, that reminded me of an aged harp reminding me of the Aeolian harp. Another burst of the noise came forth and became suddenly obvious to me that it was the sound coming from many voices that have been raised in lamentation. It was a loud wail of sorrow that, before this occasion, I had heard only rumours. For the first time in my life, I now heard its wild and terrible sound. Those who read this tale, and have already heard the same sound, will surely understand just how startled I was when I heard it in the silence of that day in Drumm.

In the light of that day I could clearly see a crowd of male and female locals as they were winding their way along a low path that led toward the churchyard where I was standing, and among them, they bore the coffin of their departed friend. As they came onward, on occasion, I could hear a loud and pitiful wail of sorrow arising from the mourning crowd. Their voices rang loud in a wild and startling unison as they moved up the hill, until, gradually, the sound descended in volume until it became nothing more than a subdued wail. These local people continued to bear their loved one’s body onward, but not in the measured and solemn step of before. Instead, they now moved in a more rapid and irregular manner, as if the pain of their grief was hurrying them on to the graveside; the hoped for culmination of their efforts.

The overall effect of this local country funeral was certainly more impressive than that of any other funeral I had ever seen. Though there was little of the pomp and circumstance of other funerals, such as a hearse, or large commemorative wreaths, the pallbearers could never have been equalled as they bore along the body of their dear departed friend on their shoulders in the stillness of evening until, at length, they reached the cemetery. The men carried the coffin into the interior of the ruin, where the women had gathered to continue their mourning for the dead, and half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately began to prepare a grave. I can honestly say that I have seldom seen men more full of activity. But, scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, than the loud peal of the pipes was heard at a distance. The young men paused in their work, and turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point from where the sound appeared to originate.

As I looked up I quickly saw another funeral procession wind its way around the foot of the hill. Immediately the young men at the graveside renewed their work with greater effort than before, while amid anxious shouts encouraged them to complete their work as quickly as possible. Some shouted, “For Jaysus sake, hurry boys, hurry.

Shift your arse, Paddy!” others called.

Certain friends called out, “Put your back into it, Mike!

If you could remove the sod as quick as you put on the weight, it would suit you better,” others laughed.

Meanwhile, by this time the second funeral party now saw that the churchyard to which they were going was already occupied. Instantly the second funeral party quickened its pace, and the sounds of mourning rose more loudly as it came nearer the churchyard. Suddenly, a small detachment of men, bearing picks and spades, came forward from the main party and rushed headlong up the hill. At the same time an elderly woman, with streaming eyes and dishevelled hair, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had taken their coffin. She ran towards the young men who were already digging with all might and she passionately implored them to do more. “Boys! Sure you wouldn’t let them beat you to the job and have my sweet boy wandering about, dark and alone in the long nights. Dig hard boys. Lay into it and gain a sorrowful mother’s blessing upon you for letting my wee Paddy have rest.

I saw her bedraggled appearance and the intensity of her manner and thought the poor woman was crazy  Such was her condition that I could hardly make out what she had said to the young men and was obliged to ask one of the bystanders about it. “Is it because she’s going crazy about it, you’re asking’? ” said the person that I had asked, looking at me in a puzzling manner. “Sure, I thought everyone knew the answer to that. Especially someone who looks as well learned as you. The poor woman doesn’t want her dead son to be walking about, as he must unless them boys are smart.

What do you mean?” I asked him. “I don’t understand you.”

“Whisht! whisht!” he urged me; “here they come and, in the name of God, Joe Gallagher’s at their head,” he called to me as he looked towards the advanced-guard of the second funeral, which had now gained the summit of the hill. They leapt over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery and advanced towards the group that surrounded the grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.

Stop what you are doing there, I tell you,” said Joe to those men employed in opening the ground and still used their implements with great energy.

Stop it now, or it’ll be worse for you! Did you not hear me, Rooney?” said he, as he laid his muscular band on the arm of one of the young men digging, suddenly stopping him from working.

Of course I heard you, Gallagher,” said Rooney; “but I chose not to heed you.”

Just you keep a civil tongue in your head, wee man,” said the Gallagher.

By God, Gallagher, you’re brave and fond of giving advice that you want to listen to yourself,” Rooney retorted and, once again, plunged the spade into the earth.

“Didn’t I tell you to stop, Gobshite?” Gallagher roared, “or, I’ll make put my boot so far up your arse you’ll be eating leather for six months!”

“Get away out of this! What brings you here at all, Joe Gallagher?” interrupted another of the men by the graveside. “Just looking for trouble is it?”

“Sure what else would bring the likes of him here, but to cause mischief?” said a grey-haired man, who was standing just a couple of yards away from the graveside. “Don’t you know by now that there’s always a quarrel whenever there’s a Gallagher about?”

“You may thank your grey hair, you old goat, that I don’t make you take those words back painfully,” said Gallagher as he glared at the old man.

There was a time,” replied the old man, “when I had something more than just these grey hairs to make such as you respect me.” As he spoke he drew himself up with an air of great dignity so that everyone could see that he was still tall and had retained a broad chest, all of which bore truth to the statement he had made. There was brief, but bright flame, that was kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and his expression of pride and defiance gave way to an expression of coldness and contempt toward Gallagher.

Listen to me, old man, I’d have beaten you more stupid than you already are even on the best day you ever had,”  sneered Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.

Don’t you believe it, Gallagher!” said a contemporary of the old man; “You have plenty of conceit and a big mouth that you use to bully those weaker than you!

Isn’t that the the truth,” said Rooney. “He’s a great man in his own mind. By God, I could be a rich man if I could buy Gallagher at what I thought he was worth, and sell him what he thinks he’s worth.

A loud sniggering laugh rose up among those gathered at the graveside, much to Gallagher’s disdain. There was a darkness that came across the big man’s features and Gallagher now took up a posture so threatening that a man standing close to me turned to his companion and said, “By God, Eddie there’s going to be ‘wigs on the green’ before too long!

And the man was quite right in his prediction. Scarcely had the words been uttered by him, than I began to see the men about me taking off heavy coats and jackets, rolling up the sleeves of their jumpers and shirts. It turned much more menacing when the men began looking around them for anything that they could use as a weapon. With weapons in hand, there was a general closing-in of the bystanders around this group, which made it perfectly clear to me that a huge and bloody fight would soon begin.

It was not long before the entire world seemed to come crashing in around me. A general melée began in the centre of the gathering with the main antagonists passing through the whole group until a massed battle began. Within very few minutes the belligerents were dispersed into various battling groups throughout the ruined churchyard. I stood back as a spectator from the topmost step of a stile that led into the burial-ground. It seemed to me that it was better for my continued health not to stand too closely to where the action was happening. As I stood to observe the battle my attention was attracted by the sudden appearance of a man, exclaiming at the top of his voice: “Oh, you reprobates! Stop this, I tell you, you heathens! Are you even Christian people at all?

This man was a tall, thin, pale man, wearing a hat which, from exposure to bad weather, had its broad, slouching brim crimped into many fantastic shapes. The crown of the hat was depressed in the middle, and the edges showed the paleness of wear, very far removed from its original black. He wore no collared shirt and had a narrow white scarf was drawn tightly round his neck. A single-breasted overcoat of rusty black, with standing collar, was tightly buttoned nearly up to his chin, and hung to the knees of his black trousers, beneath which peeped well polished black leather shoes. This was the man who quickly climbed the stile on which I stood, politely saying, “Excuse me, sir,” as he pushed me. From the top of the stile, he jumped to the ground, from where he proceeded with long and rapid strides, towards the combatants. In his hand, the man brandished a heavy thong whip with which he began to lay about each and every one of the brawlers with equal measure and total impartiality a heavy-handed justice. I was also flabbergasted by the fact that all these blows inflicted on them by this newcomer were not at all resented by those whom he assaulted. It almost appeared as if they had decided resistance against this man was futile and they quickly began to flee before him. They looked like so many frightened schoolboys before an angry teacher and they gathered together in a group which immediately became pacified by his presence.

As I watched this happening I came down from my perch at the top of the stile and ran, towards where the man was admonishing the crowd. There I found this tall, thin man delivering a severe reproof to the crowd he had quietened down. The more he reproved them for their “unchristian acts” the more evident it became that he was a religious leader of this group of troubled beings. But his admonition to them was short and certainly impressive. His speech was well worded for the audience to whom it was delivered. It was simple in the language it used and solemn in the way his deep, gritty voice spoke the words. “And now,” added the clergyman, “let me ask you why you were all fighting like so many wild savages? Your conduct makes me think that you are more likely to be savage creatures rather than intelligent men who have been raised within the hearing of Gods word.

There were a few moments of silence following the question until, finally, someone among the crowd mustered enough courage to answer the cleric. He told him that the entire fracas was, “due to the burying.”

There is no more solemn a sight,” replied the the priest, “But, is the burial of the departed not enough to keep the evil passions of your hearts in check?

The truth of the matter, if it pleases your reverence, is that there was nothing ill-natured in it. It was only a good-natured turn we were doing for poor Paddy Mooney that’s departed this life. You know it’s to yourself that we will be going for masses to be said for the poor boy’s soul.

Now!” answered the priest. He was anxious to nip this appeal to his own interest in the bud. “Don’t you dare talk to me about doing a good-natured turn for someone.” He stared at them all sternly, telling them, “Prayers for the souls of the faithful departed are taken up by the whole Church. But, what has such a good act have to do with your scandalous and lawless actions that I have just witnessed you commit.” He now turned to the last speaker, “You were one of the busiest with your weapon and you are the most riotous of the group, Rooney. You had better take care that I don’t speak out against you from the altar.

Oh, God forbid that your reverence would have to do the like of that!” cried out the mother of the deceased, imploring him as big teardrops chased each other down her cheeks. “Sure it was only that they wanted to put my poor son in the ground first. It’s just, as your reverence knows, that they did not want to have my poor Paudeen–

Tut, tut! woman!” interrupted the priest, waving his hand rather impatiently, “don’t you let me hear any nonsense.”

I ask your reverence’s pardon, for I am not the type of woman who would knowingly offend my very own clergy– may God’s blessing be upon them night and day! But I was only going to put in a good word for Mick Rooney. He and everyone else of us wish for nothing but peace, but it is Joe Gallagher, who just would not leave us to do our peaceful duty.

Gallagher!” said the priest, in a deeply reproachful tone. “Where Is he?

Gallagher did not come forward when called, but the crowd drew back and left him revealed to the priest. On his face, he wore and expression of sullen indifference, and he also seemed to be the only person in the crowd who was totally unfazed by the presence of the cleric. The priest now moved towards him and, extending his hand in the attitude of denunciation towards Gallagher, he spoke very solemnly, “I have already spoken to you in the chapel and now, once again, I find myself having to warn you to be careful. Wherever you go trouble and strife seem to always follow you. You are a disgrace and if you do not quickly reform your life I will have no choice but to seek your expulsion from the Church. Make no mistake Gallagher, I shall pronounce a sentence of excommunication upon you from the altar, if necessary.

Everyone within hearing was overcome by the solemnity and severity of the priest’s words. When the word “excommunication” was uttered by the cleric, a thrill of horror seemed to run through the assembled crowd. It appeared to me that even Gallagher betrayed some emotion when he heard that terrible word. Yet, for a moment he managed to show no emotion and, turning on his heel, he retired from the scene with some of the swagger with which he had entered it. The crowd opened to let him pass, giving him a wide space, as if they sought to avoid contact with one who had been so fearfully denounced.

Calling upon the entire crowd to hear him the priest told them, “You have two coffins here. Now you will immediately begin to excavate two graves and allow both bodies to be interred at the same time, and I will read the service for the dead over them.” With these instructions ringing in their ears the crowd wasted very little time in carrying them out. The narrow graves were quickly dug and the bodies of the dead were consigned to their last long sleep, as the deep, solemn voice of the priest was raised in the “De Profundis “. When he had concluded this short and beautiful psalm, the friends of the deceased closed the graves and covered them neatly with fresh cut sods.

You know things have been done right,” said Rooney, “when you see the ‘Daisy Quilt’ is finally put over them.

The priest, now that his job was done, retired from the churchyard and I followed him with the sole purpose of introducing myself to him. I sought from him a clear explanation of what was still a most intriguing mystery to me, namely, the actual cause of the quarrel with Gallagher. From certain passages in his address to the crowd, I could grasp that he understood the cause and could, perhaps explain it to me. I quickly caught up with the cleric and introduced myself to him. Thankfully, he received me with a great deal of courtesy and politeness, which was to be expected from a man with such a good heart. Now, having gained his attention, I tried to assure him that my curiosity was simply because I wished to understand the reasons for the fight that had taken place and that he had put a stop to. I was hoping that he would not think that I was overbearing when I asked him for an explanation.

It is no intrusion, sir,” answered the priest very frankly. He spoke with a rich, soft brogue, whose intonation expressed his inbuilt good nature. The brogue, with which he spoke, reminded me of someone from an upper middle-class and well-educated family. There was no trace of the most vulgar expressions that are usually found in the manner in which the ordinary working class speak. There are those, of course, who try to sound more genteel than they really are by grafting a posh English accent to their brogue. But they often trip themselves up because the accents of the two countries can never be truly blended together. Far from making a pleasing accent, it conveys to the listener that the speaker is trying very hard to escape from his own accent, which they consider to be inferior. It is a vain attempt to demonstrate some fineness, which fails because their vulgarity is so deeply inbred.

This was not the case with the way in which Father Donnachadh Ryan spoke to me. His voice was both deep and rich in tone, a true manly voice that had boomed when he had admonished the crowd for their violent attitude.  Even when he was engaged in less formal conversation it lost little of its richness or depth. I listened intently while Father Ryan proceeded to enlighten me on the subject of the funerals, and the quarrel that had arisen between the two groups. “The truth of the matter is, sir, that these poor people are possessed of many foolish superstitions. We might, as men, pardon their errors and simply look upon them as fictional tales that take hold in fertile imaginations. Just because we can understand how such suspicions take hold in the minds of the less educated and more susceptible, we cannot, as their spiritual leaders allow ourselves to admit openly to them that such superstitions are in error.

This explanation surprised me. I did not think I would find a clergyman, especially a Catholic priest, say such a thing. “The superstition that I speak of,” he continued to explain, “is just one of the many that these warm-hearted people indulge in, and it is not a particularly evil one.” Then he suddenly ended his discourse and pulled out a richly chased gold watch of antique workmanship. “Now, sir, I must ask your pardon; I have an engagement to keep at my home, which obliges me to immediately make my way there as quickly as I possibly can. But, if you have enough time to spare, you can walk with me to the end of this little road and I shall be able to make you well acquainted with the nature of the superstition in question.

I was happy to agree and we set off together. As we wound our way down the little stone path that led to the main road, Father Ryan began to give me an account of the cause behind all the previous trouble. “There is a belief among the local people here that the ghost of the last person interred in the churchyard is obliged to travel, unceasingly, the road between this earth and purgatory, carrying water to slake the burning thirst of those who were confined in that terrible place. The ghost is, therefore, obliged to walk through the wasteland during the middle of the night, until some fresh body is placed in the grave and supplies a fresh ghost to relieve the guard. In this way, the supply of water to the sufferers in purgatory is kept up unceasingly.

This was the reason why the violent encounter had come about, and why the old mother had called out,  “that her darling boy should not be left to wander about the churchyard dark and alone in the long nights.”  Father Ryan gave me some curious illustrations of the different ways in which this superstition influenced his “poor people,” as he constantly called them. But I suppose you have already had quite enough. I shall, therefore, say no more of these other cases and I am happy that I have at least given you this one example. Sadly, even in these more modern times such wild superstitions still exist in our land and undoubtedly owe their continued existence to the goodness of the Irish heart and the poetic imagination of our people.

Copyright Jim Woods, 2017

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