Tuesday 19 June 2012

Folklore Snippets: The Ghost and His Wives

Here's a story from Ireland which insists on the traditional message of the Lyke Wake Dirge: whatever charity or good deeds you do in life will be rewarded you in equal and accurate measure after death. 

I love the flat, unastonished tone of this story, which of course was originally told out loud by Michael Flaherty, and is much better read aloud than silently.  The confusion of hero and narrator at the end is a characteristic feature of oral storytelling; and so is the fairy dance after which the narrator awakes to find the vision has fled.  ("And I awoke and found me here/On the cold hill's side.")

"The Ghost and His Wives" from: West Irish Folk Tales, ed: William Larminie 1893
Narrator Michael Faherty, Renvyle, County Galway.

There was a man coming from a funeral, and it chanced as he was coming along by the churchyard he fell in with the head of a man. “It is good and right,” said he to himself, “to take that with me and put it in a safe place.” He took up the head and laid it in the churchyard. He went on along the road home, and he met a man with the appearance of a gentleman.

“Where were you?” said the gentleman.
“I was at a funeral, and I found the head of a man in the road.”
“What did you do with it?” said the gentleman.
“I took it with me and left it in the churchyard.”
“It was well for you,” said the gentleman.
“Why so?” said the man.
“That is my head,” said he, “and if you did anything out of the way to it, assuredly I would be even with you.”

“And how did you lose your head?” said the man.
“I did not lose it at all, but I left it in the place where you found it to see what you would do with it.”
“I believe you are a good person [ie: a fairy]” said the man; “and if so, it would be better for me to be in any other place than in your company.”
“Don’t be afraid, I won’t touch you. I would rather do you a good turn than a bad one.”
“I would like that,” said the man. “Come home with me till we get our dinner.”

…They were playing cards that evening, and the gentleman slept that night in the house, and on the morning of the morrow, “Come with me,” said the gentleman.

They got up and walked together till they came to the churchyard. “Lift the tombstone,” said the gentleman. He raised the tombstone and they went in. “Go down the stairs,” said the gentleman. They went down together till they came to the door; and it was opened, and they went into the kitchen. There were two old women sitting by the fire. “Rise,” said the gentleman to one of them, “and get dinner ready for us.” She rose and took some small potatoes.

“Have you nothing for us for dinner but that sort?” said the gentleman.
“I have not,” said the woman.
“As you have not, keep them.”
“Rise you,” he said to the second woman, “and get ready dinner for us.” She rose and took some meal and husks. “Have you nothing for us but that sort?” “I have not,” said she.
“As you have not, keep them.”

He went up the stairs and knocked at a door.
There came out a beautiful woman in a silk dress, and it ornamented with gold from the sole of her foot to the crown of her head. She asked him what he wanted. He asked her if she could get dinner for himself and the stranger. She said she could. She laid a dinner before him fit for a king. And when they had eaten and drunk it, the gentleman asked if he knew the reason why she was able to give them such a dinner.

“I don’t know,” said the man, “but tell me if it is your pleasure.”

“When I was alive I was married three times, and the first wife I had never gave anything to a poor man except little potatoes; and she must live on them herself till the day of judgement. The second wife, whenever anyone asked alms of her, never gave anything but meal and husks, and she will be no better off herself, nor anyone else who asks her, till the day of judgement. The third wife, who got the dinner for us – she could give us everything from the first – because she never spared on anything she had; and she will have of that kind till the day of judgement.”

"Come with me till you see my dwelling," said the gentleman.  There were outhouses and stables and woods around the house, and to speak the truth, he was in the prettiest place ever I saw with my eyes. "Come inside with me," said he to the man, and I was not long within, when there came a piper, and he told him to play, and he was not long playing when the house was filled with men and women. They began dancing. When part of the night was spent, I thought I would go and sleep; and when I awoke in the morning I could see nothing of the house or anything in the place.

Picture credit:  Helen West Heller,Ghost on the Stairs c.1925
linoleum-cut or woodcut
© private collection
See website http://helenwestheller.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/helen-west-heller/


  1. I find especially interesting the way it deals with supernatural as something completely ordinary. He finds a head, picks it, meets a (headless?) man on the road who claims to own the head, no big deal.

    This reminds me of the tone in some surreal authors (Moravia is the first to come to mind) or in Kafka's fantastic short stories. Also, that's how it goes in most Japanese horror/fantasy movies (Ringu, Spirited Away), in which people seem quite unsurprised when they learn they are dealing with ghosts or gods.

  2. I think that's very true, Marcos. Surreal is a good word for it.

  3. Why do you think that confusion of the hero and narrator occurs at the end?

  4. I think it's because there's a convention in some kinds of oral storytelling that the story is told as a personal experience - it's most common in 'tall tales', where you get a straight-faced storyteller pretending to fool an audience, who in turn 'pretend' to be fooled, and everyone delights in the impossibility of the tale. This story begins as a tall tale and then becomes something different, but I think that's where the blend of narrator and hero comes from.

  5. It's quite faux naif, isn't it: like people telling about a funny embarrassing problem: "I... er I mean my friend..."

    It's as if the teller is flagging an untruth.

  6. Although you have given credit of the artist who created the image you have posted, you neglected to include the source of the image which I believe is from my website at
    Please consider adding this credit and link or remove the image. Thank you very much.

  7. Dear Scatt, thanks for your comment. I had in fact linked to your website via the name of the artist, but I'm happy to add your website link separately too.
    Regards and best wishes - it's a fascinating site.

  8. Thanks Katherine for adding a link to my Helen West Heller website. Sorry I didn't see you had linked to it via the artist's name. But this important ane unknown artist can use all the publicity she can possibly get. Heller's woodcut "Ghost on the Stairs" fits wonderfully in the Walsh tale you tell. I''m a bit of a Viking fan so I've enjoyed going through some of your online entiresl. There was a large rock with a hole bored in it off Bass River, Cape Cod near where I grew up; it was thought to have been made by the vikings - Harvard University had a crew of archaeologists at the site when I was a teenager (mid 1950s) to see if they could find any artifacts - iron, bronze, etc. - that might link this rock to the vikings. . . all they found where tons of clam shells, left hundreds of years ago by indians that camped in this area during the summers. I did find an arrowhead not found by the Harvard crew at the site. I had hoped if the rock mooring wasn't made my the vikings, that it might have been made by the private, Captain Kidd - it was rumored this treasure might have been buried in this area . . . Hopefully some day I will visit some of the standing stones, stone rows and circles of the British isles. . .

  9. that's "pirate" NOT "private" - don't know what's up with my "spell check" some days it just likes to make up words for my :-)

  10. that's "me" LOL

    p.s., I'm beginning to feel I'm lost in a Sam Becket narrative - I can't go on but I must go on.