The Buried Giant of Clonmacnoise

Patrick Weston Joyce

In the reign of Congalach king of Ireland (A.D. 944 to 956) there lived a poet named Erard Mac Cossi (for whom see p. 45 above) who at the time of the present occurrence was on a visit with the king beside Lough Leane in Westmeath (near the village of Fore). Early one morning in summer this poet happened to be walking on the shore of the lake: and he saw at a little distance a very large woman—far beyond the usual size of women—sitting alone. She was dressed all in green, and as the poet came towards her he observed that she was extremely beautiful, and that she was weeping bitterly. He spoke to her and asked why she was weeping so. She replied that her husband had been killed that morning at the fairy-hill of Shee Codail; and buried in the great cemetery at Clonmacnoise. After some further conversation the woman rose up and went away: and Mac Cossi immediately sought the king and told him of his strange adventure. The king was much surprised and interested; and he felt so curious about the matter, and so anxious to test the truth of the story, that he set out at once with the poet for Clonmacnoise, where he arrived in the evening of the same day.

After the brotherhood had welcomed the visitors the poet told his story. But the monks knew nothing of such a person as he spoke of; and they were quite sure that no one had been buried in the cemetery that day. So the king concluded that either the story told by the large green-dressed lady was an invention, or that Mac Cossi himself was under some strange delusion: and they thought no more of the matter.

It was too late to return that night; so the king and the poet slept at the monastery. Early next morning they were awakened by the tolling of the death bell; and on inquiry they were informed that one of the monks had died the evening before and was to be buried that day. The monastery was all astir in preparation for the funeral; and as the cemetery was close by, the king and the poet remained to see the interment.

When the monks went to dig the grave, they were surprised to find that the spot they had chosen had all the appearance of being quite recently disturbed—the red clay fresh and soft—as if a grave had been opened and closed again. But how this could have come to pass was more than any one could tell, seeing that the burial ground was within full view of the monastery windows; and that not even a single stranger, much less a funeral, could enter it without being observed. And what was more startling still, they found marks of blood on the clay, and fresh green leaves scattered about. Seeing this, they set about examining the place thoroughly while the king and Mac Cossi looked on; and they resolved to open the grave. Deeper and deeper they dug, tempted on by the blood-marks and leaves; till at length, at a depth far beneath the ordinary graves, they came upon the body of a great bearded man fifteen feet high, lying full length with the face downwards. It was surrounded with a thick covering of green birch-branches, carefully placed between it and the clay;[1] and when they came to examine the body, they found it all bloody, with many great wounds and other marks and tokens of a violent death.

After some time they replaced the body in the same position as before, after carefully adjusting the covering of birch-branches; and having filled in the grave, proceeded to bury the monk elsewhere. Meantime the story got wind; and next day the people of the neighbourhood came in crowds to look at the grave. But the sight of the place only raised their curiosity all the more: they brought spades and shovels and began to open the grave anew, determined to see and examine for themselves the body of the bearded giant.

The same marks were in the clay; and as the wondering people dug on and on, the blood and green leaves continued to increase. But when they came to the place where the body had been left the evening before, there they found indeed the branches of green birch lying the whole length of the grave, but no body. There was blood on the branches and blood on the clay beneath; but although the people dug and searched carefully downwards and sideways and all round, they found nothing more. So they closed up the grave and left the place; and from that day to this no one has ever been able to find out anything more about the buried giant of Clonmacnoise.

[1] At interments in pagan times in Ireland it was usual to wrap up the body and bury it in a thick covering of birch-branches, called strophaiss, which preserved it from the clay, like our coffins. See my Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, p. 534.