The Matter of the Oilliphéist by Brendan Shea

When Bryce Garner and Deirdre Murphy skipped their morning class at the National University of Ireland, Galway, on the morning of October 7th, their absence was noted by their professor, Dr. Seán Riordan. He spoke with us months later, following the discoveries near Clashganniv, County Kerry.

“I didn’t like the American fella, if I’m being honest,” Dr. Riordan, professor of Early Irish Folklore and Heritage, said. “But Deirdre was lovely. Galway girl. Worked at the sandwich shop. Made a wonderful bap. They had taken to sitting together. Drawing doodles, smiling. Thinking I didn’t notice. It was the lack of giggling—that’s what caught my attention that day, when I realized they weren’t there.”

Garner and his roommate, Frank Persico, were the only Americans enrolled in the course. Known for its rigor and expectation of previous knowledge of Irish myth and folklore, it has consistently held low enrollment over the years. According to Persico, “Bryce only took that class because of the girl. And I only took it because of him. Even after everything happened, the professor was a dick. But there’s a rule they can’t fail the study abroad kids, so I was fine.”

Remarkably, despite the disappearance of Garner and Murphy—and particularly the role his curriculum may have contributed in their disappearance—Dr. Riordan did not alter his assessments.

“The content of the course is essential,” he said.

“It was bullshit,” according to Persico. “Riordan was on a crusade, ranting about how—I still can’t pronounce it—was more important than ever. All-ee-fisht. Oily-fish. That’s all we talked about. He didn’t mention leprechauns even once, other than to ban the word from class. Anyway, that was the entire exam. The only grade for the whole semester. One essay in 90 minutes.”

Persico held up his phone, and, while out of focus, the image was of a blank paper other than this prompt: In at least one thousand words: 1. explain the origins of the Oilliphéist, 2. Analyse Oilliphéist’s connection to three periods of Irish history, and 3. Consider Oilliphéist’s role in the modern world.

“It was Oilliphéist,” Murphy’s roommate, Ciara Griffin, said. “That’s why Deirdre and the American left that day. And it’s why they didn’t come back.”

The Oilliphéist, a sort of a demonic dragon not unassociated with fairy lore, is the consistent thread through the various accounts of the Murphy-Garner disappearance. At least seven witnesses reported hearing Murphy and Garner discussing the myth. Rarely did the topic arise without a level of enthusiasm that bordered on obsession. Their recovered texts are notable for the appearance of “Oilliphéist,” which appears 53 times in their exchanges.

In the first text, Murphy warns Garner not to tease Dr. Riordan concerning the Oilliphéist, but there are no other direct references to the professor. Garner’s final text, on October 6th, 11:17 pm, simply states, “Got the car. Be ready at 8:00.”

A petrol charge on Garner’s account, dated October 7th, 11:14 am, from a small station in Clashganniv, County Kerry, led investigators to the sparsely populated hamlet. Its proximity to Ardnacreach Castle soon became significant.

A mile from the gas station, Ardnacreach Castle, formerly merely a historical footnote, speckles the landscape with its ruins. Just beyond, Mt. Eagle dominates the northern horizon, and surrounding the mountain, the dense woods and the dangerous Mt. Eagle Bogland. This is an uncommon stop for tourists, especially with more accommodating towns like Dingle and Killarney so close.

There is no historical marker at Arndacreach, and this is certainly no oversight. The few residents prefer its history to be forgotten. But, unfortunate to them, and certainly to Murphy and Garner, Dr. Riordan has made himself an expert on the matter. We include, at his own insistence, his account of the history of Ardnacreach:

Ardnacreach is the centre of the Oilliphéist story. I use story with some sense of hesitancy, for while undoubtedly Oilliphéist has been colored with centuries of imagination, there is no denying the historical roots—and indeed evidence!—of not simply its existence, but rather its continued presence. If you’re putting my back to the wall, as they say in the States, as to whether I believe Oilliphéist is a hydra, or wyvern, perhaps basilisk? Well, I contend the Oilliphéist is exactly that—the Oilliphéist. Any attempt to characterize her differently—yes, I presume to think of Oilliphéist as a she—is poor scholarship.

Our first mention of Oilliphéist and ruined Ardnacreach happens centuries before its walls fell to ruin. Modern dating methods indicates its foundations are as old as man’s first footprints on Irish soil. I hate to use the word “druid,” but you may think of those first settlers as such. These druids worshiped and lived and were burned and transformed into eternity in the ring of those stones which were later dismantled and turned to crude towers and Christian chapels. One might argue crude and Christian are redundant descriptors.

While I can hardly stomach the notion of an historical Saint Patrick, such a one challenged the druids of Ardnacreach to either convert or be destroyed. The druids blocked all paths of entry to their ring fort, opened the the cap of their slated dome, and sought to unleash hell. Now, regardless of our repressed connotations of hell, to them hell was simply the storage place of necessity. Inside Ardnacreach,they built a power of a bonfire, and though they had opened the cap to release smoke, records indicate each and all suffocated, and indeed the burns on the chieftain suggest he either set himself ablaze or lost consciousness and became unwitting timber.

This was all recorded by the lone survivor of the Christian emissaries. As to what burst through the dome of Ardnacreach, this invader, in a document imperfectly preserved, alas, recounts: “The beast seized (illegible) furies of pain and (illegible) was fire on skin. (Illegible) swallowed whole. The horrible winged worm. It flew over me with horrible screams, and disappeared. The priest, his throat (illegible) as blighted fields.” So, I ask you as I always ask of my students—what do you believe? Do you really think Mt. Eagle is named for the common raptor, or is that simply a delightful understatement for a far worse beast of prey?

When Murphy’s phone was discovered on October 16th in the apse of Ardnacreach’s chapel, dappled with blood, and crushed as if by a heavy stone, though no obvious stone was near, the attention of investigators focused on Garner.

The initial theory supposed Garner took advantage of Murphy in the secluded spot, and when she resisted and attempted to call for help, he seized her phone and destroyed it. But the utter destruction of the device could not be completed with a simple stomp. He would have needed a heavy block, and if he could wield such an object, perhaps he then used it on Murphy. From there, having learned enough of the topography surrounding Ardnacreach from Dr. Riordan, Garner disposed of the body in the woods or perhaps even the bogland.

However, no bloodied stone block has been recovered, and to carry an adult body to such a distance as the bogland would be extraordinarily challenging. And, Bryce Garner, himself, remains missing. In an effort to dispel such theories, Garner’s family paid for an extensive search of Ardnacreach, Eagle Woods, and the bogs.

The discoveries of that search, however, have stolen most of the headlines away from the two missing students.

The team of surveyors, canines, excavators, and private investigators, a week into their search, uncovered an extensive network of tunnels weaving beneath the forest and into the very bowels of Mt. Eagle. While such tunnels are not uncommon considering bogland is prone to move in strange ways, the nature of the tunnels has baffled experts, other than Dr. Riordan.

“Am I surprised to find some passages? Not at all. I’ve argued for such potentials for decades. Especially in a place with unique geology and such a rich record of documented life. But to find these passages with finely hewn walls of stone, carved with images of the winged worm? The astounding standing stone in the inner chamber beneath the Ardnacreach chapel? Well. It’s unheard of, nearly unimaginable. To consider such a discovery is to ponder the wells of madness.”

Dr. Riordan did reveal a sketch he made from the description provided by Garda Síochána. Unlike most of Ireland’s standing stones, this is better defined as a sculpture. Intricate carvings of scales ring the stone from bottom to top, where a smooth head stares with protuberant serpent eyes, a mouth overflows with teeth like needles, and a pair of wings with talons open as if ready to strike.

“That’s our lady,” he said.

When pressed, though, Dr. Riordan was reluctant to speak of the most shocking discovery.

“People live and people die. And we’ve had our fair share of that here for five millennia. There’s any number of explanations for that, and I couldn’t be troubled.”

But the unearthing of 59 bodies over a two mile radius has not gone unnoticed by the media.

The bodies were discovered over a span of six weeks among three sites. First, as cadaver dogs began their search of Ardnacreach, their reaction was so strong the Kerry County Council ordered an immediate excavation of the ruins. Then, in a chamber twenty feet below, searchers found not only the imposing Oilliphéist statue, but a spiraling display of decomposition. Laid out like a charcuterie plate, 31 skeletons encircled the statue in a series of rings, with each ring of bodies slightly overlapping the next. “The scales of Oilliphéist,” Dr. Riordan suggested.

The second unearthing is ongoing, but as of this writing, seventeen bodies have been retrieved from the Mt. Eagle bogs. Unlike the skeletal remains of the Ardnacreach site, these exhumations have produced impeccably preserved bodies. Garda Síochána, in conjunction with NUI, Limerick, released photographs of two of the “bog men.” Such bog men have been discovered across Ireland, some as old as 3,000 years. One of the Eagle bog men may very well be as ancient as that, however, the second does not appear to be nearly as old, especially considering it is adorned with boots. Certainly not in keeping with today’s sartorial standards, but this accessory implies a sense of historical recency, perhaps within the past three centuries.

Naturally, though, questions of footwear are an afterthought at first glance, considering the condition of their necks. Each throat is ripped open in marks of exactly the same proportions: four deep slices, each eight centimeters wide, and three centimeters apart.

“Nearly mechanical precision,” Dr. Riordan said.

According to a spokesman, Garda Síochána released the images to demonstrate the wound which is consistent with each of the seventeen bog bodies.

In a brief interview with RTÉ, Mr. Dermot Keane, a local farmer, dismissed the discoveries as being as common to the landscape as gorse. When asked if he had ever witnessed a creature resembling Oilliphéist, he winked at the camera. “If you’re asking me if I’ve ever seen this thing,” he said, “maybe I have and maybe I haven’t, and that’s all I have to say on this matter.”

The final discovery was most unconventional, for the eleven bodies were not found underground, or even on the ground. In the heart of Eagle Wood, mangled amongst branches of hazel, arms and legs were strewn like ornaments. Torsos were stuffed into the hollows of wych elms. Skulls, some still in their skins, were stuck onto the tallest tops of oaks as if to provide them the best views of Mt. Eagle above and Ardnacreach below.

Dr. Riordan was quick to note the location sits atop a tunnel, though no passage from the tunnel to the spot has been found. “Eagle Woods is for herself, sure. And Oilliphéist is likely in the air when she feeds her frenzy.”

No other clue has been recovered concerning the ends of Bryce Garner and Deirdre Murphy. Certainly neither were among the skeletons beneath Ardnacreach, nor have they been recovered from the bogs. There was some hope their appendages might have been amongst the chaos of Eagle Woods—for some remains are perhaps only a few years old. But no positive identification has been made.

When we left Dr. Riordan, he said he wanted to ensure us his thoughts were with Garner and Murphy.

“Consider what they saw that day.” He shook his head slightly before turning silent. Then, as the hint of a smile broke, he hid his mouth beneath his hand, tapping at his lips. “The power of myth manifested corporeal. Simply profound. The utter horror and awe of it all.”

Brendan Shea is an educator and writer from Hyattsville, Maryland. Brendan loves folklore, the idea of hiking, and sharing stories with his students. His stories have been published by Parhelion Literary, Bandit Fiction and the Longridge Review. He is represented by Jon Michael Darga of Aevitas Creative. Follow Brendan on Twitter @BeeShea.