(Irish Folklore and Mythology): The Flight of the Outraged Corpses

Fox's bridge

Shournagh River at Fox’s Bridge near Courtbrack, Cork (David Hawgood) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Flight of the Outraged Corpses

The townland of Matehy is a pretty discreet and unimposing place but it has a surprisingly macabre story associated with its graveyard. Located to the north-west of Blarney, its focal point today consists of a cluster of houses, a school, a church, a bar and, nearby, on the summit of a ridge, a cemetery that overlooks east Inniscarra towards the River Laoi.

Given its circular topography and high position, it’s quite possible the site was a pre-Christian site and, in fact, some folklore references suggest that it was once the dún of a tribal chieftain called Teichthec. The cemetery itself however, seems to date from the late medieval period (most of the headstones date from the late 1700s).

The fascinating story associated with this graveyard site can be very roughly summarised as follows:

During the period when the Penal Laws were being enforced in Ireland, a party of English soldiers (led by a man named Captain Fox) came across some people performing mass at a mass rock in Ballyshoneen. A brutal man, Captain Fox killed the priest, cut off his head and carried it on his sword as he victoriously led his men away. As the soldiers were galloping by the present day Vicarstown Cross, they attempted to cross the small bridge over the Shournagh River when Captain Fox’s shied and he fell to the ground and broke his neck. The area where he fell is still called Fox’s Bridge today.

 The remaining soldiers, in a panic, saw the cemetery in Loughane and, carrying their captain’s body, buried him there, in amongst the other graves.

That night, the dead of Loughane Graveyard, unable to bear the presence of the evil (and, one supposes heretical) Captain Fox, pulled themselves up out of the ground in disgust. Lifting up their individual headstones, the corpses stumbled across the field to the Shournagh river, travelled uphill to Matehy cemetery where they set their headstones in the ground and replaced themselves into the earth. A number of the headstones were said to have been lost as they crossed the river and some of those can be seen on the riverbed today.

If you’ve read my previous post The Mystery of the Jumping Church, you’ll spot that this is simply a variation of the ‘sacrilege story’ and a clue to the story’s actual derivation can be found in the local place name. The present day name ‘Matehy’ is actually an anglicization of Magh Teicheadh (Plain of the Retreat’ or ‘Plain of the Flight’ – not, in fact, the name of a Chieftain) and this is believed to be derived from a flight or battle that took place in the locality so long ago no historical record of it exists. It’s easy to see how, over time, the placename was adapted and distorted to create the story about the flight of the corpses to Matehy.

In previous posts, I think I’ve mentioned how stories like this can be found all over Ireland if you keep your eyes and ears open. I absolutely love such tales because they add a character and an emotional resonance to the land that I’ve never been able to find in ‘newer’ countries such as New Zealand or Australia where the stories of the original inhabitants (Australian Aborigines or Maori) are often overwhelmed and lost to the influence of the colonising cultures. I’ve often wished that New Zealand could do some study along the lines of the  Irish Folklore Commission’s famous Schools’ Folklore Scheme for Maori but I suspect that although remnants of such stories could be found, many of them would have been lost by now. I think all cultures are poorer for that.

On a more positive note, if you enjoyed the story of the outraged corpses you should try watching this lovely interview with a local Matehy man from the RTE (the Irish national television station) archives. It really is quite fun.