Matehy Graveyard in County Cork - spelling and lore (how did headstones end up in a riverbed)

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51° 56' 6.5904" N, 8° 39' 59.3856" W

When I look out the side window of my house, I gaze upon the newly erected signposts at the crossroads pointing to Cork, Berrings, Kanturk, and the more exotically sounding Mathey. I gaze upon this final signpost in disbelief because with all the European money and intellectual savvy, the signpost-makers have unforgiveably misspell and hence mis-represented one of the defining characteristics of my hinterland. ‘To be named is to exist’ and amongst the people who live in and aound this small rural hamlet the extraordinary legend of how it got its distinctive name is paramount.

An older signpost, at Vicarstown Cross, on the Butter Road, carries the correct approximation of the name in its anglicised form: Matehy. I must admit that it is impossible for those not-in-the-know who come across it to pronounce it correctly. One friend renders the name as a diminutive of mathematics: maths, and offers it as ‘math-hie’, while most others are pushed to a composite of something that we wipe our feet on and dried grass for cattle as in ‘mat-hay’. I particularly enjoy when some Americans pull up in a self-drive car to look for directions to Blarney and I orientate them in the direction of the unpronouncable. Its correct and oblique pronounciation is ‘maw-te-ha’ which comes directly from the Irish Magh Teithe. Magh Teicheadh might be translated as the ‘Plain of the Retreat’ or the ‘Plain of Flight’, as in the sense of fleeing.

I can remember so well when I first moved to this lovely area, the neighbours called in, to introduce themselves, bringing with them welcoming gifts of bags of spuds, fresh hens’ eggs and steaming apple tarts. Remarkably, each and everyone of them, over the cup of tea, separately and unknowingly, recounted the legend of the graveyard in Matehy. This, within a few minutes of just meeting them! Their need to retell the tale and empower me in its significance as soon as possible was like some kind of initiation ritual and one which gave our locality its emotional and psychological identity. Such was and still is my fascination with the detail, I regularly walk the short distance up the road to the small cluster of houses that make up the sleepy community of Matehy. It has a fine school, an unusually named pub ‘The Strand Bar’, a small, disused post office, a church, a garage for tractor repairs and above all, a most imposing graveyard.

This is a classic graveyard  and has all the qualities that one would wish for in a place of antiquity. Firstly, the large circular wall which defines its perimeter puts one in mind of an early medieval foundation, similar to Donoughmore and Aghabullogue just out the road. Whether it is of that age or not, some of the walls of a ruined church from the later medieval period remain, ivy-clad and flanked by a number of towering yew trees. The sheer number of burials over time has created an undulating surface to the graveyard and the whole area is strewn with a host of magnificently carved headstones dating from the late 1700s onwards. One grave, from 1895, which reads ‘he served his country and loved his kind’ is that of the great, Cork-born patriot, Denny Lane, one of the leaders of the Young Irelanders and author of the much loved song Carrigdhoun.

Notwithstanding the great Denny Lane, what is most of interest here, is that according to local folklore, this graveyard received an unexpected inclusion of new burials overnight in the most macabre of circumstances. The events in question preport to take place in the early 1700s when the Penal Laws were in full force. At this time, the Protestant ascendency passed a number of severe laws in an attempt to expatriate the Catholic/Irish population, crushing them in respect of education, land ownership and all aspects of normal civic life. The regulations on their religious worship was especially harsh: a catholic was forbidden from exercising his religion; forbidden from participating in any catholic service or mass and would-be dissenters were bound by law to attend Protestant worship. Catholic priests were specifically targeted and the Bishop’s Banishment Act of 1697 set out to rid the country of all practicing priests, bishops and administrative clergy by 1 May 1698. A certain number stayed and some restrained tolerance was allowed with a further act of 1704 limiting their numbers to one registered priest per parish.

The most fundemental of the catholic priest’s obligations, i.e. the celebration of Sunday mass was now outlawed and illegal and hence the emergence of the well known Carraig an Aifrinn or Mass Rock’. The Mass rocks took advantage of naturally-occuring, large, flat slabs which functioned as a type of altar. The best sites were high up to allow a good view of any approaching military and open on all sides to facilitate escape routes in all directions. Such a mass rock is situated within sight of my house and sometimes features in the tale of the graveyard of Matehy. The former headmaster of Matehy National School, Cornelius Lehane, gives some interesting detail of the tale in the School’s Folklore Collection of 1937/1938 and various versions of the story still abound. What follows is a composite of all I have heard.

One Sunday morning a small congregation knelt in prayer in the field below the mass rock at Ballyshoneen, timidly attending their priest who on pain of his life celebrated the mass. Unknown to them a small party of yeomen, led by a notorious priest-hunter Captain Fox, had made the journey from the city on horseback. A thick fog prevailed on that morning and the military contingent were not observed by the lookouts. The yeomen heard the mumbling of prayers in the distance, dismounted and Captain Fox stealthily made his way up behind the priest.

The priest had his hands raised at the elevation of the Eucharist, when Fox pounced and before the terror-stricken faithful, he cut the arms off the priest, and then took his head which he impaled on his sword. The horrified congregation were forced to flee for their own lives and as they scattered across the rolling hills, they could see the priest slayer ride off in a triumphant gallop, the trophy of the priest’s head aloft. Leaving the valley of the Sheep river behind, the horses’ hooves threw up great clods of earth as they galloped up and through Vicarstown Cross Roads. As they passing the old church and graveyard, the blood was up and horses giddy and the sharp decent to the Shournagh River was taken with too much haste and taspy. Here Fox’s horse shied, throwing its rider to the ground and breaking his neck, killing him outright. This place, with the small bridge that crosses the Shournagh River is still known as Fox’s Bridge today.

Without the leadership of their headstrong captain, the remaining yeomen were overcome with panic. Their dead captain was now a liability and put their lives in further danger. They needed to rid themselves of the captain’s body. Torn between duty and fear, they were able to make out a small church across the fields in Loughane and riding there, they hastily buried their captain in a shallow plot amongst the other graves. In fear of any reprisals for their gruesome behaviour, they beat a hasty retreat out of the valley.

But the story does not end there! That night, at the stroke of midnight, the very ground of Loughane Graveyard, in which the dead were buried, began to quiver and move and the dead themselves awoke. They could not rest in a place where such a despicable murderer had been placed and one by one they slid out of their coffins and graves, until the entire graveyard was awakened. They had to get away. They took their headstones upon their backs and the dead of Loughane crawled and slithered their way across the field to the Shournagh and up the hill to the Matehy cemetery. They lost some of the headstones en route and a number can still be seen in the riverbed. When they reached the top of the hill, the sun was rising in the east and a cock crew to anounce the day and as he did, all occupants of Loughane graveyard had re-interred themselves, headstones and all to Matehy. Back in Loughane, a solitary, large, flagstone marks the original position of the graveyard and according to the legend the burial place of Fox.

The graveyard and the small cluster of houses are to this day defined by this nomenclature: Magh Teithe: literally ‘the plain of the fleeing from the priest murderer’. Regardless of its content, this legend, folktale and story is deep within the psyche of my neighbours and the inhabitants of the extended hinterland. It is important to us and the incorrect spelling of our signpost needs to be rectified to authenticate and validate our local tradition and identity.

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