Here in Ireland we have an old saying-“A man who dies owing money or a woman who leaves a newborn baby will never lie quiet in the grave” Talk about making people feel guilty when they are at their most vulnerable?
The dead were considered to be very possessive and would return from the grave to claim what was rightfully theirs.This was especially true regarding a mother and her child and it was widely believed within rural areas that if a mother died during childbirth she would return to care for the baby.However there was a more macabre side to this belief for sometimes the dead mother missed the child so much that she would return to carry the baby back to her grave. One way to prevent this was to lay the clothes of the father across the foot of the baby’s cot/cradle, this would act as a protection against the fairies and the dead until the child could be baptised. If a child were to be taken before baptism it would be lost to the world of the living forever.Isn’t it wonderful what stories the church made up in order to control the populace?
The story that follows concerns one of these poor unfortunate women, once well known it is a tale that is rich in folklore. However, like so many of the old stories it is becoming little more than a fading memory.It is our job to make sure that the stories that make up such a rich tapestry are retold and in this way they will continue to be passed down to the next generation.
The Arney Woman.
Roughly three miles from Gilleese’s public house at the Arney crossroads a man called Peter Maguire and his wife set up home. Peter was a local carpenter, known by everyone as a kind decent man, quiet but friendly and always ready to help his neighbours. He never had a bad word to say about anyone and could always be relied upon; his wife however was a horse of a different colour.Mrs Maguire was described by the locals as surly, sullen, miserable, and bad tempered; of course it may have had something to do with the fact that she wasn’t a local girl?
Peter’s wife was from the far side of Bellanaleck which was the next village up the road; no one knew anything about her or her people.The locals considered her to be unfriendly and it was even said that she would sooner issue a curse than a blessing. As a ‘Blow in’ she had strange ways about her, she had vibrant red hair, very pale skin, and a physical deformity as one of her legs was shorter than the other resulting in a very pronounced limp. Around the Arney area these attributes marked her out to be a witch; she never attended mass in the local church so the locals decided that she was in league with the faeries, the devil and any number of evil demons. Well what do you expect from a blow in?
Despite all of this, Peter Maguire was very happy and totally unaware of what his good neighbours were saying behind his back. His wife was a good cook, she kept a neat house, she was a quiet woman, at least when she appeared in public with him, The locals however believed that this was all an act and that she must have led Peter a dog’s life with her controlling ways and her foreign habits (blow in), they decided she had put Peter under an evil spell. People began to avoid looking at her and local farmers kept their animals away from her during market day as it was feared that she would put the evil eye on them.
A year after they were married some of the local women began to notice that Mrs Maguire was putting on a little weight around the middle and soon Peter announced the good news, he was going to be a father, of course his wife said nothing and she was as bad tempered as usual.Some of the local women attempted to make friends with her, they called to the Maguire’s cottage to wish her well and offer advice but they found Peter’s wife to be very cold and unfriendly and they soon left.However, the women noticed that the pregnancy was taking an awful toll on her, they said she seemed to be wasting away and soon the rumours began to spread for it was well known that those who had fairy connections have great trouble carrying and delivering their children.Soon the time arrived for the baby to be born but even then Peter’s wife wanted nothing to do with the local women, even though many of them were ‘wise women’ experienced in the ways of the midwife.
On the night of the birth Peter ran to a neighbour’s cottage and battered on the door, the baby was coming but his wife was very ill, if she didn’t get help he feared she may not survive.The neighbours ran to Peter’s cottage, they managed to save the baby, a little boy, but they could do nothing for her and by morning she was dead. Of course some said it was no more than she deserved and that it was no bad thing that she had died.There was no funeral in Arney graveyard, Peter was struggling to look after his baby and trying to come to terms with his grief so the locals took it upon themselves to send the body back to Bellanaleck where she came from, let them bury her because she wasn’t an Arney woman.
Time passed and the baby was in good health, Peter employed a young local woman to act as a wet nurse and to look after his son during the day and at night the baby slept at the foot of Peter’s bed in a cot that he had made for him and here the story should have ended. However, it was not to be.
One dark night, a few weeks after his wife’s death, Peter was woken from his sleep by the sound of scratching from outside his bedroom window, he got out of bed and looked out into the darkness but saw nothing, he checked on his son who was sleeping peacefully and went back to his bed. No sooner had he got under the blankets than he heard scratching again, he got out of bed once more muttering under his breath and once again looked out of the window into the darkness.He staggered backwards, his heart clutched by the ice cold fingers of fear for standing there looking in was his dead wife.Her face as deathly pale, her eyes lifeless and her once vibrant red hair hung matted and listless.Peter felt a chill so cold that it felt as though his blood was freezing in his veins, it was her eyes that chilled him most of all for they appeared to be looking right past him and into the room.
He turned to see what it was that she was looking at, her eyes were fixed upon the cot where Peter’s son lay sleeping and in that awful moment he knew why she had returned, she’d come for the baby.He stared at her in terror, suddenly she vanished and he heard rattling at the door cottage, his heart missed a beat but then he remembered that he had bolted the door before going to bed, he sighed in relief.His relief was short lived for suddenly he heard the sound of wood splintering and the outside door creaked open, she was in the cottage.
Peter was shocked into action; he placed himself between the bedroom door and his son’s cot.There was a crack in one of the panels of the bedroom door and he saw her looking through it, a shaft of moonlight shone onto her hard stare but instead of coming into the room she moved away and into the kitchen area.Peter held his breath, suddenly he heard the sound of movement and cupboards opening and closing, he peered through the crack of the door. The moonlight lit up the kitchen and he saw his dead wife devouring some cheese he had left in one of the cupboards, having satisfied her hunger she turned, went through the broken door and disappeared into the darkness.Peter collapsed onto his knees, shocked, confused, and shivering in fright he began to imagine what could have happened. He prayed to god that his dead wife return to her grave and leave him and his son in peace.Peter then remembered the old story about the walking dead and how to protect his child; he placed his clothes on the end of the cot and hoped that his god would answer his prayers.If only it were that simple.
This sequence of events happened night after night, Peter’s wife returning only to search for food and leave.Every night Peter cowered in his room, terrified of confronting the thing that used to be his wife, he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work and spending his waking daytime hours in terror. It couldn’t go on; if she came again he would have to seek outside help, but what of his neighbours?
One night just as darkness fell, one of Maguire’s neighbours, a man called William Nixon was walking to Gilleese’s public house when to his horror he saw Peter’s dead wife walking the road between the pub and Maguire’s cottage.She was dragging her bad leg behind her and keeping close to the hedge, her matted red hair had grown longer and was covered in lice and graveyard dirt; her filthy fingernails had grown and looked like the claws of a wild animal.William ran to the pub and it was to take several shots of whiskey before he stopped shaking and was able to talk about what he had seen.
Back at Maguire’s cottage, Peter heard scratching at the window, he had brought his son into bed with him in order to protect him and he pulled the blankets over their heads.He began to say his prayers, begging god for help, but it was to no avail.The baby started crying and the sound of scratching began to intensify, becoming more frantic, then all went quiet.Peter lowered the blankets and peeked out, he heard the bolts on the cottage door rattle but he had strengthened them and the corpse found the door barred against her. To Peter’s horror the baby started crying again and the sound seemed to incense the corpse, with a loud tearing noise the bolts gave way and she came crashing into the kitchen.
Peter shouted “In the Name of God go back to your grave and leave us in peace” It did no good, not even the name of god made any difference for as he held his son tight to his chest he saw his bedroom door slowly creak open.Peter’s heart nearly stopped, she was in the room, standing at the foot of his bed looking into the empty cot she drew her dirt encrusted fingernails across the little white pillow where the baby had left an imprint of his head. Peter heard a low growl coming from her throat as she moved back through the door and back into the kitchen, from there she went out through the cottage door into the darkness. If something wasn’t done now then next time it may be too late.
Later that day Peter went to see his parish priest. The priest was from a rural background and was scared stiff when he heard Peter’s story, he had already heard his parishioners whispering about the strange things happening up at the Maguire cottage and even though Peter begged him in the name of god to help him he refused.He did however offer to pray for him and he sent Peter away with a crucifix blessed by the bishop saying this would solve all his problems and don’t forget to put a few bob in the collection box.Peter sadly walked away, disappointed and feeling abandoned, needless to say he kept his money in his pocket.
That night as dusk began to fall Peter took up a position by the window looking towards Arney crossroads; it was from this direction that his dead wife would come. Once again he threw his clothes over his son’s cot in order to protect him from evil and harm then he waited. As the sun slowly sank in the sky and twilight settled in Peter saw his dead wife walking slowly up the road, she was dragging her leg and keeping well in to the hedge. Peter gripped his crucifix tightly and as she dragged her finger nails across the glass of the window he thrust the cross against the pane but it only seemed to annoy her.Her face was a mask of hatred, her mouth working as if cursing him although there was no sound. She turned and was gone from the window only to once more throw herself against the cottage door. Peter heard the door splinter and she was into the cottage again.
Peter raised the crucifix, keeping one hand on the coat that lay protectively across the foot of the cot where his son was sleeping, “Get back to your grave, you’ll never have my child, leave us alone”, the corpse turned and left the way she had come and Peter watched her limp away knowing that she would return, only now Peter had a plan forming in his mind.
Near the Bars of Boho lived Ellen Mohan, she was known locally as Grey Ellen and it was widely believed that her lonely and isolated cottage was frequented by ‘The Gentry’ (the faerie folk).She was aid to be very wise in the ‘old ways’ and had been given special powers by the fairies, it was Grey Ellen that Peter went to for advice.He left his son with his sister and was anxious to return home before nightfall so even though he was scared he approached Grey Ellen’s cottage, knocked on the door and entered.
Peter told her his tale and it was only then that she spoke. “The walking dead is it? And ye’ve been to the priest, for all the good that will do ye for it’s well known that for all their big books and fancy learning the church knows nothing about the old ways”. Leaning towards Peter she gripped his arm with her bony hand, “The church is only any good if its backed up by the older powers of the earth and the land, now tell me does your wife wear any boots when she visits you?”, Peter thought for a moment, “No” he said, “She always comes barefoot and dressed for the grave”.Grey Ellen asked him if he knew why this was and Peter shook his head, “It’s because of the iron nails in them” said Ellen, “Iron was always a magic metal from the old times, more powerful than the cross the priest gave you. Faeries and the walking dead can’t stand it anywhere near them”
Grey Ellen went to a small box and took out a handful of iron nails, handing them to Peter she told him to wear one on a string around his neck and to place another around his son’s neck.When the corpse comes again she told him to throw a handful at her and that this would drive her away.Peter took the nails, thanked her and left.When he arrived at his sister’s cottage he took the cross from around his son’s neck and replaced it with a nail much to his sister’s amazement and set off for home.
By the time he arrived back at the cottage it was getting dark, Peter lit a lamp and put his son into his cot, placed his coat over him for protection and decided to go to bed and wait to see what the night would bring. As he turned he saw his reflection in a little mirror hanging on a nail by his bed, he looked old and weary, a lot older than his years.As he stood gazing at himself he saw reflected in the glass the old wardrobe containing his wife’s clothes, suddenly he froze and his mouth went dry, the wardrobe door was opening slowly, long dirt encrusted fingernails curled around the edge of the door. Peter watched in horror as his dead wife’s head appeared, her eyes full of hatred, her long red hair dropping graveyard dirt and crawling insects onto the bedroom floor.She sprang towards the cot with hands outstretched, Peter tried to stop her but she moved with supernatural speed.
Suddenly she stopped and let out a terrible scream; she raised her head and looked at Peter, her eyes ablaze with hatred for she had seen the nail around the child’s neck. She spat and hissed making desperate snatching motions over the cot, Peter cowered in terror but he realised it was the power of the iron nails that had prevented her from taking his son. Suddenly he remembered the nails he carried in his pocket and he flung a handful at her, she screamed and jumped back in fear, “Get back to your grave ye old witch” he roared. Seeing a single nail that had fallen to the side of the cot he picked it up and threw it at her, it caught her on her pale waxy cheek and the dead skin began to sizzle and burn. Once again she let out a blood curdling scream and ran out the cottage door into the darkness.That horrific night was to be the last time Peter Maguire was to see his dead wife. Peter’s son eventually grew into a strong and sturdy young man who looked after his father in his old age, he married a local girl and his descendents still live in the area.
If ever you’re in the Arney area and fancy a quiet pint in Gilleese’s pub you may have to walk past the crossroads where Peter Maguire’s cottage used to stand my advice is walk fast and don’t stop, for the walking dead cast a long shadow.