(Irish Folklore and mythology) The Mystery of the Jumping Church

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Our family got dragged up north years ago, when my Dad took us to stay at a friend’s house in Dundalk (county Louth). I have particularly fond memories of that trip, not only because we had access to the luxury of children’s morning television from the BBC (this didn’t come into the Republic until about the same year as legalised condoms!) but because of some of the downright weird places we visited while we were there.  The two places I still recall most vividly were ‘The Jumping Church’ and ‘The Angel’s Highway’ (next blog article). Back in the day, the famous Jumping Church of Kildemock wasn’t particularly famous and sounded more like the title for an episode of Father Ted than a place to visit.

Nowadays, the site is actually a popular visitor destination for tourists. The church ruin that remains dates back to the 14th century and there’s only one wall remaining but it’s still a fascinating spot for according to local folklore, the west gable of the building jumped two feet inside the wall of the original foundation (marked in red). The reason as to why it did this? To exclude an excommunicated church member who’d been buried in the church.

For kids of course, the weirdness of this story was instantly appealing although I remember that when we were passing through, the version we heard from the locals concerned a Protestant landlord who’d insisted on being buried within the church (and, no, even at the time that didn’t seem to make much sense). The more commonly touted version, of course, states that someone buried an apostate of the Catholic Church just inside the wall of the building (some of the stories claim that the man had been excommunicated) … and the church didn’t like it. The building was so incensed at the presence of this ‘heathen’ that it shore off its own west wall and ‘jumped’ it back three feet so that the body lay outside the building.

A third story – a MUCH more scientific one –suggests that a terrible storm in 1715 caused the wall to fall over so that it was subsequently rebuilt. Two feet inside the foundations. I know that Irish people have a bad rep as ‘cowboy’ builders but, come on!

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In fact, none of the above stories are probably true (although fragments of the storm story may hold weight). The real story is very much older than that. Burial places and cemeteries (and, much later, church graveyards) have always had an important physical and symbolic importance in Ireland (and still do today) and often, to understand the past or appreciate how the past is reflected in modern customs or beliefs we need to understand that context.

Long ago, communities held great pride in local warriors, saints or political heroes (essentially the celebrities of the day – albeit usually dead). As most of them ended up in the burial place eventually, this was often the sacred site associated with their veneration. For this reason, there are a lot of stories about these sacred sites being ‘guarded’ by the people buried there. Probably the most well-known example of this is Lóegaire, who was said to have demanded to be buried upright at Tara to defend it against enemies but there are plenty other examples as well.

In later times, insults to the community were often articulated through ‘sacrilege stories’ – insults against the community’s sacred site (cemetery) and in order to create a suitable ‘satisfactory’ ending, ‘justice’ was often achieved through contrived intercession of its ghostly occupants. This is why, all over Ireland, you’ll find cemeteries with similar stories where villains (English, Protestants, landlords or all of the above!) create a ‘sacrilege situation’ but are then resoundingly ‘outdone’ by the inhabitants or the character of the site itself.

Everyone loves a ‘happy’ ending!