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“Spooky” Story From Ballinhassig

Writes Pauline Murphy

In the 1930s The National Folklore Collection in UCD commissioned a collection of local folktales from school children across Ireland. Some of those collected tales are digitised online and they offer an insight to past traditions and stories which have been long forgotten in many towns and villages. One tale recalls “The Dead Coachman” in Ballinhassig. It was collected from a young girl at Ballyheada National School.

The tale of The Dead Coachman takes place on a dark October night in the early 19th century. Under the cover of darkness a man arrived at Ballinaboy Graveyard with a horse and covered car shortly after 9pm. This man was a body snatcher and he somehow managed to get past the night watchman who was probably snoozing in his small stone lodge by the gate! This dastardly body snatcher proceeded to dig up a recently buried corpse and the narrator of the tale tells us he “deposited his prize in the car and quickly left”.

Fearing he may get spotted going through Ballinhassig village the body snatcher came up with a plan. He placed the corpse on the driver’s seat and as we are told in the tale collected from the Ballyheada pupil: ” He strapped it there, put the reins in through the front window and then went inside the car.” The body snatcher then took the reins and started off.

His fears of being spotted in the village would transpire as he passed by the public house a group of men standing outside it hailed him down. They asked the driver, who was the corpse, where he was going. Suddenly the passenger door opened and the real driver emerged and distracted the men by asking them to go for a drink with him in the pub! The men of course went with the body snatcher for a drink while the corpse driver stayed outside, not making a sound! After a while, and satisfied he had turned the locals’ attention away from his grim deed, the body snatcher came back out of the pub and ordered his corpse driver to take off for Cork city.

In the 1800’s, grave robbing was a popular, albeit depraved way to make money. The grave robbers or body snatchers were known also as resurrection men and for a fee they supplied doctors in colleges with corpses for anatomy classes, the fresher the corpse the higher the fee. It became such a problem that watchmen were posted at graveyards such as Ballinaboy and their job was to keep an eye on any body snatchers disturbing a recently buried corpse. Anti-body snatching grills were also put over graves and to this day they can still be seen in graveyards such as St Joseph’s in Ballyphehane.

In extreme circumstances, people resorted to burying their deceased loved ones in back gardens until such a time when they could safely bury them in a cemetery knowing a body snatcher wouldn’t be interested in a “stale” corpse!

To combat body snatching The Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed which allowed deceased paupers in workhouses to be used for anatomical research and this gradually ended the careers of many body snatchers as their gruesome services were not needed any more so, the corpses in Ballinaboy and elsewhere could rest easy!

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