It was customary in parts of West Sligo, when a grave was opened to place the spade and shovel in the form of a cross over the open grave and to leave it until the remains arrived to be interred.
A legendary explanation for this custom relates to a time long ago when Saint Patrick visited these parts. Patrick had a servant called Domhnall and one of his many duties was to collect firewood from the neighbouring wood.
Well, one day Domhnall had his bundle collected and tied but try as he might he could not lift it off the ground. He pulled and prised but to no avail.
Hearing a kind of smothering laugh behind him, he looked over his shoulder to spy a fairy man watching him amusedly. The fairy inquired as to what was the trouble! The boy nervously replied that he could not lift the bundle. The fairy offered his help – if the boy would do him a favour. Domhnall agreed and the fairy man lifted the load onto the boy’s shoulders. Telling him then what he wanted done. “Tomorrow when serving Mass ask Patrick, at the elevation of the Host, what will become of the fairies on the Last Day!”
The boy promised and at the precise moment during Mass he asked, “They will be last” the Saint replied. “Why did you ask me that?” Because, replied the boy I promised the fairy man! “Watch out” replied the Saint, “When you tell him the answer they will tear you apart limb from limb.” Domhnall on hearing this was sorely disturbed and begged the Saint to tell him what to do.
The Fairies are dancing by brook and by bower,
For this, in their hand, is the merriest hour;
Their steps are soft, and their robes are light,
And they trip it at ease in the clear moonlight,
The queen is in youth and in beauty there,
And the daughters of earth are not half as fair,
She will take thee to ramble by grove and by glen,
And the friends of thy youth shall not know thee again.
Saint Patrick advised him to return immediately to the wood and therein to dig a grave good and deep and lie down having first arranged the shovel and spade in the shape of a cross over the open grave.
The boy carried out the Saint’s orders exactly and in due course the fairy appeared and – peered down into the grave. Disconcerted by the novel situation he paused, then inquired if Domhnall had asked the Saint the exact question. He had! “and what was his reply.” He said that “Ye’ll all be lost in the fires of hell.” At this, shrieks and screams as from a million fairies alighted on Domhnalls ears. Pandemonium reigned in and around the wood. Lightening flashed, thunder roared and a terrible storm sprang up. And the trees strained and bent in the mighty whirlwind. Innumerable fairies in vengeful mood and with distraught features appeared menacingly around the grave. An age it seemed but to Domhnalls relief the fairies could not enter the grave or touch him. This continued – the terrible disturbance but at length the tempest died down and the fairy host seemed to move away though the plaintive wailing could be heard until it lost itself in the depths of the wood.
Then – as from nowhere Saint Patrick appeared and bade Domhnall to arise and come forth from the grave as the danger had now passed.
The happenings and the events soon became known throughout the district and that’s when the custom of forming the cross came about.