I love Ireland, although I’ve never been there. I have ancestral roots there, in County Clare, on my mother’s side of the family. I love its history, its accent, its countryside, its ballads and instrumental music, and I love its legends of the banshee, the fairy people, and ghosts.
One of the strangest and spookiest of all the Irish ghost stories I’ve ever read only goes back to the year 1925.
In that year, a parish priest named Bernard McSweeney died. Father McSweeney was not popular with his parishioners or, for that matter, with most of his extended family. They found him cold, standoffish, and something else—they detected a hint of cruelty in him. Yet his behavior in his role as priest was impeccable. He was unswervingly dedicated to his flock; he performed services punctiliously, if dispassionately; he took in tramps, visited the sick, imposed penances for confessed sins that were not too heavy, gave last rites to the dying—but he was not liked.
When he was fifty, he fell ill. It was a strange, wasting malady; he suffered for a few months, losing weight and growing more frail by the day, and then he died quietly.
His surviving family and his parishioners would, had they been asked, have admitted to a certain relief that he was gone, and to a person would have expressed hope that his replacement would be of warmer heart and kinder spirit. Still, they got together and planned a magnificent funeral for him—partly from family loyalty and, just a little, from guilt that they had not cared more for him.
The only remaining member of his immediate family was his mother. She was by the time of his death in her eighties, in fragile health, arthritic, and so griefstricken by the loss of her son that it was arranged that she should attend the funeral in the parish church and then remain at home alone while the rest of the mourners attended the rites at graveside. They left her there, watching at the front door, and by car or cart drove the long winding road to the cemetery, where they watched as Father McSweeney was laid to rest.
On the way back to his mother’s house, however, they encountered something dreadful.
Those in the first car in the returning procession saw a man walking toward them, back toward the cemetery—and were horrified to see that it was Father McSweeney, the man they had just buried. He was not dressed as he had been in his coffin; he was wearing the black frock coat he had always worn when he was alive. But it was his face that had changed most horrifically: he was paler than pale, a shade of livid blue-white, his eyes blazing with hellish fire, and his lips drawn back from his teeth in a snarl of pure evil. They saw, before their very eyes, the reason they had disliked and even feared him.
He looked neither to left or right; he simply walked, one foot in front of the other, along the whole length of the procession, and disappeared over the top of a hill behind them.
Frantic now, the mourners raced back to his mother’s house. They found her lying unconscious on the floor. Fearing the worst, they were relieved when she revived.
And then she told them why she had fainted.
She had heard sounds in the front yard that did not sound like the returning vehicles and had gone to the window and pulled the curtain aside, to be confronted with the hideous apparition of her son, with all the devil in him, standing by the hedge.
Horror or not, he was still the son she had nursed as a baby and adored and admired as man and priest, and she had gone to the door, intending to let him in—but fainted from sheer terror before she could open it.
They thought that, unable to go into his mother’s house, he had simply retraced the route back to his grave in the remote cemetery, just as they were returning from there.
No one ever saw Father McSweeney again.
Once was enough, I should think.
The best retelling of the story of Father McSweeney comes from Rosemary Timperley in John Canning FIFTY STRANGE STORIES OF THE SUPERNATURAL (1974).