Grave Matters


Graveyard in Terryglass, County Tipperary
This story, Grave Matters, may not be reproduced in any form.
© 2013 Loretto Leary

It was just as the ad in The New York Times had described; “Charming detached cottage-style house, fully restored and extended, combines the traditional design of the Irish cottage with the space and facilities of a modern home. Idyllic location in a rural setting, where the new owner can enjoy the peace and tranquility of the surrounding Irish countryside.”

Before the ad went to print, she called and made a bid. A fresh start in the homeland of her ancestors, just what she needed. Single, again, and now independently rich, thanks to a good divorce lawyer, Erin Flynn gave The New York Times two weeks’ notice and started packing.  This was her chance to write her bestseller in the land of the great writers, Beckett, Yeats, Wilde, and Shaw. They would be her muses as she sat in her new home, a cottage by the Atlantic, far from Manhattan and far from her ex-husband and his girlfriend.

 The taxi stopped at the wrought iron gate. Erin emerged from the back seat, eyes wide; absorbing the sight: a white washed cottage, with red door and window frames, behind it the extension.

The original cottage was the main building; it dated back two hundred years. Property developers modernized the small house and extended onto it in 2006, completely refurbishing it with top quality fittings and finishes. The cozy sitting room with multicolored cut granite fireplace and stove inset, handcrafted fitted kitchen with the same granite as counter-tops. One-of-a-kind details; mahogany kitchen cabinets with brass studs, the door handles—fleur- de- lis designs, a bench beneath the bowed window in the living room, all dark oak with ornate handles made of purple velvet. The marble pillars either side of the arched entrance from the kitchen to the living room added opulence to this small cozy home. The taxi driver pulled away as Erin swung her arms wide and twirled in her new kitchen.

 “Home, at last!”

Her belongings now stowed away in their new homes and resting places, Erin sat and stretched her full length on the couch. It was getting dark outside already, though it was only six o’clock in the evening.

“The days get short faster in Ireland,” she thought. “It’s only October twenty second.” The fireplace looked empty and cold. “I’ll light it in a minute,” she said aloud, and lay deeper into the cushions behind her head, every muscle in her body relaxed and light. Jet lag was hitting her hard. She felt as if her body was hovering, extreme tiredness, and seventeen hours on the move. She sniffed, and ran an index finger beneath her nose. She did it again, realizing her nose was not itchy, but a foreign, yet strangely familiar smell was irritating it. Slumber could not be fought away.

The room was pitch black when she emerged from semi-comatose sleep. Disoriented at first, Erin then remembered where she was. She fumbled with the lamp on the table to her right.  The hairs on the back of her neck stood erect as a breath of cold air wafted across her outstretched arm. The fumbling fingers found the switch, and a soft light illuminated the room. She swung her legs from the couch and landed her feet directly in front of her. Leaning over her knees, her hands kneaded the sleep from her eyes. The strangely familiar smell hit her once more.

“Is it the chimney,” she said, and walked over to it. Her left hand resting on the mantel, she sniffed at the open fireplace. “No. This isn’t it.”

 The hand caressed the smooth granite tiles down the front of the fireplace. Grey, black, white, pearly pinks, blues, green, and speckled brown squares, all evenly cut and placed. She loved how the property developer had described the colors in his sexy Dublin accent.

“India mahogany, blue pearl, tropical green, and aurora granite tiles.”

The names reminded her of something, but she couldn’t remember what; a common occurrence since she took a job as an ad setter. Whenever she tried to remember where she saw something before, the answer was always an ad in The New York Times.

The smoky smell grew stronger. Erin checked her watch, it was ten after twelve.

 “It’s after midnight?” she stood, looking around. “What is that smell?” She frowned, hands on her hips, surveying her surroundings, trying to recall what the odor was.

“Cigarette smoke? No. What was it?”

An image of her grandfather flashed before her. Tweed cap askew, wrinkled face laughing, and a pipe clenched between his teeth.

“A pipe?”

Inhaling solid and deep, she drew in the slightly sweet and potent aroma of Peterson’s Irish Oak pipe tobacco, her grandfather’s brand. She remembered seeing the golden round tins, a picture of an old man wearing glasses to the left of the ornate, curling, yellow P, everywhere in his house.

“If those builders have been smoking in here I will kill them,” she said, and headed up to her bedroom. Still, in the darkness, the smell permeated the small house. Erin wrapped herself into the duvet and sighed. The smell developed into an unquestionable aroma of pipe smoke.

A voice from the corner of the bedroom whispered.

 “She isn’t afraid. Talk to her.”

She bolted upright and screamed. Her arm reached for the bedside lamp. Her knees involuntarily pulled up into her chest, her arms encircling her shins. She tried to scream. The vocal chords were frozen.

He stood in the corner of the room. Top hat, walking cane, and gloves, all held in his left hand, and the smoldering pipe in his right. His cravat neatly tucked into the light grey striped waistcoat, and the chain of his pocket watch dangling in an arc just below. Dapper.

“Now, look here my good woman! I know you are scared, but that simply cannot be helped at this point and juncture in time,” he said in his upper crust English accent. The hairs of his handle bar mustache wafted upward on the sides when he spoke. He nodded politely, put the pipe back to his lips, and shrugged his shoulders. “This is how it is.” His hands retreated to his trouser pockets, the elbows splayed wide as his head did a firm once off nod and his chin lifted, peacock-like, plumed and proud.

She fell back into a deep faint.

“Brilliant! Great job breaking the news to her gently,” the voice from the cupboard called.

“Leave it to the smartest man in the cemetery to do the stupidest thing,” a woman’s voice reverberated from the bedside locker.

The handle bar mustache took on a life of its own. It wafted furiously as he waved his hands at the empty room and the voices surrounding him.

“You lot never appreciated anything I did!” he huffed. “That’s it! I refuse to have anything more to do with this. You can all rot in…, rot in….” The mustache fell silent as he struggled to think of the places they all could rot in.

“Oh yes? Oh, do go on. Go on. Do tell! Where can we rot in?” a man’s voice called from downstairs.

“The kitchen cupboards?” requested the voice from the bedside locker. Laughter echoed throughout the cottage.

“No,” bellowed a boy’s voice from a place behind some heavy wood. “The bench beneath the window!” and the laughter came once more.

As dawn broke, a slit of grey light pierced her eyeballs. The lids, although still heavy with sleep, seemed to know that it was time to lift open and face the day. Blink after blink would not remove the grey shadowy form beside the bed.

“Now don’t go all crazy and start screaming like a mad woman,” the form said, in a woman’s soothing voice.

Erin pulled the white duvet above her head. “You’re not real!” She muffled from beneath the layers of feathery down. “Go away, you’re not real!”

The woman laughed. “Define real,” she said, and patted the lump huddled into a fetal position beneath the covers. “Good woman, now get dressed. We have something important that we need to talk to you about. We will wait for you in the kitchen.”

There were no footsteps, no boards creaking as the woman went down the stairs. She was gone, and the room was empty, except for Erin, shivering uncontrollably beneath the covers.

Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. Slowly she emerged from the white mountain of duvet, and peered around the room.

“This is called exhaustion. I’ve gone insane, finally. The stress has hit me.”

She pulled her flowery nightgown around her shoulders and dragged her arms through the sleeves, all the while tip toeing toward the top of the stairs. She stood; right ear cocked high, and listened. There was a murmur, more than a murmur, an audible mumble of people talking in low voices coming from the kitchen. One-step, and then another, brought her closer and the talk became louder.

“Let me do the talking,” a woman said.

“I beg your pardon but I am the most qualified to address the young woman about this grave matter,” the man with the handlebar mustache answered. He fluffed the sides of his whiskers up into fine points.

“You did a fine job of it last night,” a man said. Then another voice called “Hush.” Followed by the abrupt announcement, “She’s in the hallway.”

Erin pushed the kitchen door open, and the crowd bowed their heads in polite respect.  A woman dressed in an old-fashioned long dress with a bustle, her hair pinned up neatly in a bun, stepped forward and spoke.

“Now don’t be afraid. We are here in our earthly forms and mean ya no harm.”

A chair slid back from the table, all by itself.

“Show yourself when you move objects,” the woman said to the moving chair.

A mist manifested, swirled around the chair, and from the twirling haze came the form of a boy, about ten years old. He wore ragged coarse pants, a flouncy white cotton shirt and a woolen green waistcoat, his hair was long and unkempt.

“Sorry ‘mam. Didn’t mean to frighten you.”

Erin nodded, her bottom lip dangling and trembling. The boy motioned for her to come and sit as he took a step back. In slow motion, she felt for the chair blindly, her eyes refusing to leave the crowd of people standing around the kitchen.

“Who are you…people?”

“As I was saying last night…” A voice interrupted the clipped British accent.

“Yearra! Will ya shut yer gob, ya gobshite!” A heavily set, red-haired man called from the back door. “The reason she’s as white as a ….” He gulped, and then continued, “…a ghost, is because you frightened the life outta her last night, ya woeful ejit ya.”

“I said who are you people?” Erin’s hands gripped the side of the pine chair, the nails of her fingers digging into the wood, and her knuckles now white.

“Begorra that’s a New York accent, isn’t it?” the red-haired man said.

“Would someone please tell her why we are here?” said a woman wearing a flapper dress and neat little 1920’s hat on top of straight blonde-bobbed hair.

“Who got the vote?” the boy asked, looking at the faces in the crowd.

“They voted for me,” said a bearded man with piercing green eyes, and dressed in shabby clothes.

“Let everyone else whist now,” said the woman in the bustled dress. “Go ahead Seamus.”

Seamus stepped a little closer toward Erin, and she leaned back into her seat.

“I know this is, strange,” he said, “but here’s the reason why your new home is filled with two hundred years of ghosts. The property developer who renovated this cottage extended onto it by digging up our graveyard.”

“Wait a minute! No, no, no!” Erin stood abruptly, her palms facing the crowd gathered in a stop motion. “This is my home. I bought it, I paid for it.”

“That’s right ‘mam,” Seamus added, “But everything in this renovated cottage has been dug up from the graveyard that was originally on the hill behind the house.”

“What? I don’t understand what you mean?” Erin said, taking a step back when she remembered that Seamus was a ghost, handsome enough, but still a ghost.

Ireland August 2009 285“Take a look at your kitchen cupboards there,” Seamus said, pointing at the mahogany cabinets with the brass studs. “Do they remind you of anything?”

“Not really,” Erin shook her head. She thought about it more. “No, they don’t.”

“Well, take a closer look at these ornate door handles.” Seamus now was standing at a cabinet and stroking the fleur-de-lis design on the handles. “Does this remind you of anything?”

Erin shook her head again. Then, as if in flashback, the image of a coffin handle flickered across her mind. Her hand drew upward to her mouth, now a solid circle in a silent scream.

“A coffin handle? It’s a coffin handle!”

Image Source:

Image Source:

Seamus nodded. “The cabinets are all recycled mahogany coffins.”

The taste of vomit erupted into her throat. She swallowed, reluctantly.

“I need to sit down,” she said, and flopped down weightily into the chair, her shoulders hunched over her knees. The crowd moved closer. The woman in the flapper dress arrived before her, at face level, on a bended knee; her face, ethereal and elf-like, peering up into Erin’s eyes.

“We are not here to hurt you, or scare you. It’s nothing like that. But our resting places have been disturbed.” The crowed either nodded or murmured their agreement. Erin looked from face to face. Two hundred years of history displaced, now standing in her kitchen looking for her help. “Go on Seamus,” the elf-like flapper girl said.

“The granite on these surfaces here,” Seamus continued, “And the granite around your fireplace in there,” he pointed toward the sitting room, “All headstones cut and sized down, edges smoothed; our headstones. These pillars here were the entrance way to Lord Clanricarde’s mausoleum.”

The man with the mustache took off his hat and bowed extravagantly. “At your service, ‘mam.”

“Nothing was spared. The bench beneath the window was poor little Tadhg’s resting place. “Right Tadhg?”

Tadhg nodded. “I died of scarlet fever in 1837,” he said, and wiped the snot from his nose as he ran the forearm of his shirt across his pale face.

“I don’t understand what I can do about it though?” Erin said, looking at Tadhg, realizing that her fear was gone. She reached for the young boy’s hand but the fingers slipped through his form.

“Why would the property developer do such a thing?” she asked.

“That’s an easy question to answer,” said the woman with the bustle. “Money.”

“Greed,” said another ghost from the back of the crowd.

“Gluttony,” chimed a different voice from the middle of the throng.

“Insatiability for filthy lucre,” said Seamus. “I knew his grandfather, and he was just like him. Two peas in a pod, they were.”

“Old man O’Toole?” asked a man with a Victorian cape and monocle eye.

“That’s the lad. The grandson is ten times worse though, tight with money and mean as hell. He would have sold his grandmother, even if she was twenty years dead.”

“And he did,” said a voice from above the gathering.

The crowd looked up. An orb of light hovered and darted from one person to another a few inches above their heads.

“Good morrow to all ye tethered spirits! And who is this?” the orb asked, hovering before Erin’s face.

“Erin,” she gulped. “My name is Erin, and I bought all of this.”

“Good morrow Erin. My name is Charlotte O’Toole and I am an untethered spirit.”

“I don’t understand,” Erin responded. “I was just getting accustomed to these spirits here. Why are you a light and not a ghost like these ones?”

“My husband and I had Viking burials on the River Shannon, all on the hush-hush, mind you, in 1902. Cremated, you know. He was a huge Viking scholar. Weren’t you dear?”

“Indeed my love, indeed!” a man’s voice called from the distance. A second ball of light drifted out from the fireplace and across the sitting room.

“Hence we are untethered spirits,” the light said, and came to a hover beside his glowing wife.

“Ye are woeful looking egits though,” laughed Seamus, and the crowd of recognizable ghostly figures chuckled. “Cremation is cheaper than coffins I suppose,” he added, and the ghostly horde cackled uncontrollably.

“Tight arse,” an old man with a blackthorn shillelagh said when the crowd’s laughter filtered away.

“Laugh all you want,” the male orb said, as it flittered from face to face. “Fact is, I am untethered, whereas you lot are tied down.” The orb rested on the shoulder of the old man.

“’Tis true, ‘tis true, I suppose” the old man said, leaning heavily onto his shillelagh and nodding.

Erin shook her head and stood to face the crowd and the two airborne orbs.

“What can I do about this?” she asked. “I mean, honestly! What can I do about it?”

“Nothing much,” Seamus answered. “But we can’t leave. We can’t. You understand that now, don’t you?”

“Then we will have to set a few ground rules,” Erin said, and walked among the spirits, eyeing each face intently. The faces, solemn, followed her every move around the kitchen.

Grave Matters by Loretto Horrigan Leary

Grave Matters by Loretto Horrigan Leary

“I paid a lot of money to buy this place, live out my dream of writing a book!” she said, and ran her hands through her hair.

“Hey! She’s a writer!” Seamus called out. The crowd cheered as the whispers of “She writes!” and “She’s a writer!” swarmed around the room.

“Well!” he said, “That’s just, just great news. Great news altogether.”

“Why?” Erin asked.

“Because we have some stories to tell you,” he said.

“By God we do!” said the old man with the shillelagh.

“True stories,” the woman with the bustle piped in. “Tales that’ll make your toes curl,” chimed Tadhg.

Erin, walking through the crowd, eyed each face of each spirit closely. They smiled and nodded at her. She sensed Yeats, Wilde, Beckett, and Shaw disappear. In their place was two hundred years of untold stories.

“What was the name of the graveyard you were all buried in?” Erin asked.

“It had no name really,” Seamus replied. “We just called it An Reilig.”

“It is the Irish for graveyard,” little Tadhg announced.

“Stories from the Reilig,” Erin said, nodding and taking in the history surrounding her. “I like it.”

© 2013 LHL


8 thoughts on “Grave Matters

  1. I love your graveyard photo. Just beautiful. And the phrases “tethered spirits” and “untethered spirits.” I was a bit reminded of Conor McPherson’s ghost stories in “The Weir”!

    • Really! I have never read or seen the play. Cool, must see if I can buy it on The graveyard pic is from Terrryglass in County Tipperary. I love it because both Catholics and Protestants are buried in that graveyard, let the stories begin!

      • How lovely to think of the boundaries between Catholic and Protestant being erased. Yes, I highly recommend The Weir. The masculine preserve of a rural Irish pub is disturbed by the arrival of a young woman, whom the male locals serenade with a series of fairy and ghost tales… until she tells a very disturbing tale of her own.

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