In Irish legend, the most common death omen is the Ban-sidhe–the banshee, that woman whose dreadful weeping chills the hearts of all who hear her. The little County Clare village of Crusheen, though, has a death omen all its own: a pair of tall, ghostly lights that hover about six feet off the ground. They rise in the old graveyard, on an island in the middle of nearby Lough Inse Chronain (Lake Inchicronan), and, crossing the water, move through the village, stopping to hover over any house where a death, expected or otherwise, is about to occur. The lights have appeared for centuries. This is the story behind them:
The island of the graveyard was once the site of Inchicronan Abbey. Linked to the mainland by a causeway that is only passable in spring and summer, the island can be a trap in winter’s snow. Still, the monks there made every effort, no matter what the weather, to get to the village of Crusheen, which had no priest of its own, to hear the confessions and perform the last rites for the dying–save once.
Centuries ago, a woman lay dying in the village at the height of a winter storm. Her son struggled through the wind and snow to reach the island and beg one of the monks to come give his mother the last rites. He reached the island safely, but, to his dismay, the monk refused to come with him, saying there would be time to make the return trip in the morning, when the storm moved on.
He was wrong, for the woman died in the night, her sins unconfessed and unabsolved. She was buried in the old graveyard with her ancestors, however.
The monk lived on for many years, and was, in his turn, buried in the section of the churchyard reserved for the monks of Inchicronan. But his spirit, so the story goes, bears a burden of sin for that one thoughtless act: failing to attend the spiritual needs of a dying woman, so long ago.
And so it is that, when someone in the village is about to die, two flames rise in the churchyard: one from the grave of the woman who died unshriven from a monk’s selfishness, the other from the grave of the selfish monk. They move together, then side by side, across the old causeway and through the village, whenever a death is imminent. They rise to rooftop level, where they hover for several minutes, then slowly drift back down to the lake and across to the graveyard, where they disappear.
There are many stories of the appearances of the lights: the most famous involves the death of an elderly hermit named Joe Cavan, who lived all but forgotten in a hut near the eastern bank of the lake. One night, the lights passed through the village but did not stop; instead they came to rest over an apparently empty spot east of the village. Only then did the villagers recall Joe Cavan, and when they checked, they found him dead on the floor of his hut.
Outsiders, so the legend goes, need not fear the lights; they only show up to warn of deaths in families whose ancestors lie in the graveyard by the ruins of Inchicronan Abbey. Still, they’re a fearsome sight to behold–and all brought about by an old, old lack of charity.
A fuller account of the Lights of Crusheen can be found in Robert Jackson’s book GREAT MYSTERIES: GHOSTS (1992).