In Dublin, back in the mid-19th century, there was a young man named Thomas Rourke. He was a mild mannered lad of fourteen and the middle child of five. Tommy was a relatively small statured young man of about average intelligence. He was also a very gentle soul and quite naïve, often being on the receiving end of pranks by his older siblings and schoolmates. Years of teasing had made him jumpy and “delicate”, according to his mother.
One night, Tommy’s father got into a fight at the pub he frequented after work, which resulted in him falling into the river Liffey and drowning. With the sole provider of the Rourke family now gone, and Thomas’s older siblings moved out with families of their own, it was left to him to go out and support his mother and two younger siblings. Now Tommy, not built for manual labor like his older brothers, and not smart enough to get work as a barrister or a line of work that required a formal education, had a hard time finding a means of earning a gainful income. After many weeks of searching, Tommy found a job with the Church of St. Kevin’s. It was good pay, for what was required of the fairly easy job of night watchman at the St. Kevin’s graveyard. Tommy only had two tasks; the first being to not let any body snatchers come and steal from the graves, and the second being ready to dig up a grave in the event of a bell ringing.
It is worth a pause at this point to explain the meaning of bell ringing in graveyards. Back in the olden days, it was not common, but common enough for people to be falsely proclaimed dead and subsequently buried alive. There were even cases of coffins being exhumed and scratch marks found on the inside, proving this superstition. So, it soon became common practice for the families of loved ones requesting a special burial that involved a string to be wrapped around the wrist or finger of the deceased that went up through the coffin and ended in a small bell that was attached to the headstone. This was incase the loved one was revived after burial and had the means to alert people that they were alive and could be dug up. Thus we have the origin of the phrase, “Saved by the Bell”.
Back to Tommy. If you recall, Thomas Rourke was made into an excitable child and easily frightened, but, having no other prospects, he took the graveyard shift in order to provide for his impoverished family. His first few nights were blessedly uneventful. Not that Tommy noticed, from sun down to sun up, Tommy was too frightened to even move from his post. Every little noise frightened him, the birds cawing, the wind cutting through the trees, and the scratching footsteps of occasional passersby. Tommy stayed wrapped up in his blanket, on his stool, with his lantern on, the whole nightlong. After the first week or so, Tommy eventually grew more and more easy in the position. He had yet to encounter any grave robbers though he did have to throw out the odd schoolboy wandering through the cemetery on a dare. And he had yet to hear any bells.
After his first two months there Tommy even began to wonder if he would hear any bells. The other night watchmen who trained him could have easily been putting him on, it was a well-known wives tale, and he had certainly never known anyone who had been buried alive then dug up. He eventually dismissed the idea as the experienced night watchmen giving the “new meat” a go.
So on it went, until one night in early October. Tommy had been working for several months now and had grown easy enough in his position to keep his lantern off until he needed it. Though he rarely left his stool except to head people off at the gates. This particular night was exceptionally cold and still, the first he had experienced in his time working at St. Kevin’s. There was an occasional breeze that shook the nearly bare branches of the trees in the graveyard, but other than that, there was not a sound to be heard. He was wrapped up in several blankets, his mother insisted, and was stargazing on this beautiful, clear night… when he first heard it. The silence suddenly broken by what he could swear was the faint sound of ringing. Frozen in place, Tommy poked his head further out of his wrappings and strained to hear.
His stomach had nearly come out of his throat. He could have sworn he heard something. But after a few minutes of nothing, he settled back into his blankets, turning his lantern on low.
Then he heard it again, a small ringing. Putting on his bravest face, Tommy turned his torch on full and went to walk along the walls of the graveyard, surely this was a schoolchild trying to frighten him and if he patrolled they would run off for fear of being caught. Halfway through his rounds of the wall, the ringing stopped. Satisfied, Tommy began to make is way back to his stool, then he stopped.
There was the ringing again, more urgent, and it was coming from inside the graveyard. Warily, Tommy followed one of the walkways towards the center of the cemetery. He walked slowly, following the sound, and waving his torch from side to side, determined to find the persons responsible. Then he saw something…. near one of the taller trees in the yard was a new grave, only a few hours old, along with a new headstone. Attached to the headstone was a bell with a string leading down into the grave, and the bell was ringing.
Tommy froze. Nothing he could do could will his legs to move. After what seemed like an eternity, Tommy was finally able to force himself to go back to his post. But, instead of grabbing his shovel and returning to the grave to save the poor soul, Tommy sat down, wrapped himself tightly into his blankets, and tried to block out the sounds of the incessant ringing. He knew what he should do, but nothing could make him budge from his spot as he cried silent tears. The ringing grew more ardent, then less, as the night went on, until it eventually stopped. The silence remained unbroken for the remaining hours of the night until he was relieved at dawn. Tommy numbly walked to his house, crawled into his bed and refused to leave.
The following night, Tommy didn’t report to work. His mother couldn’t persuade him to leave his room even for a meal. Tommy just stayed buried under his blankets trying to sleep, until late into the next night… when he heard something odd.
Through his window, Tommy could hear the faint sound of a bell down the street. He pulled his pillows down over his head and waited for the offending noise to cease. Which it eventually did, for a few minutes, he then heard it again, closer than before. He quickly jumped out of bed to close, latch, cover the window, and go back to the safety of his bed. He couldn’t stop himself, however, from stealing a quick glance down the street in the direction from which he heard the ringing.
Aside from a low ground fog, the street was empty.
Back in his bed Tommy forced his breathing back to normal, just long enough for him to hear the ringing again, louder and closer than before. Though he tried to ignore it, Tommy could place the source as being around two houses down the road, perhaps closer.
Nothing could stop his uncontrollable shaking as he broke out into a sweat and began to cry from fright. Soon enough, the ringing stopped, but that didn’t keep Tommy from clamping his hands to his ears and singing a tune his mother used to sing to calm him down when he had nightmares. Throughout his trembling ditty, the ringing returned, louder and MUCH closer. He couldn’t keep his mind from telling him that the ringing could only be coming from right outside his window. This time though, Tommy was petrified. He opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out, the only sound that could be heard was the persistent ringing coming from his window. On and on it went… then suddenly… it stopped.
Tommy’s bed was drenched in a mixture of sweat and tears as Tommy shook helplessly. He strained his ears against his will to hear something, anything in the silence. After a few minutes, he did hear something, but it wasn’t the ringing of a bell. It was the creaking of his door. And the scraping of feet against the floor boards. Tommy, still under his blankets felt a twang of relief, as it was obviously one of his family coming to check on him… until…. *****….The ringing was almost deafening as the footsteps moved closer…. and closer… to his bed. Tommy could only scream at the top of his lungs, somewhere in the back of his mind, he had a small hope that this would drown out the ringing, as it got louder and closer and a cold hand grabbed his arm.
Tommy was found by his mother when she awoke to the strange noises coming from his room. He had been thrashing around in his bed when she tried to still him. He had instantly gone silent and still, his face frozen in terror. Nothing she could do roused him from his comatose state. For three days he sat unmoving in his room while his family did everything they could to wake him. Every once in a while he seemed to look directly at someone and whisper, “Don’t you hear? Can’t you hear it?” when responded to, no matter what the answer, Tommy would just clamp his hands to his ears and scream, “Make it stop! Make it stop! So loud!” before ceasing and eventually settling back into his dead stare trance.
Before long, Thomas Rourke was put in an asylum where he spent the rest of his life in a semi comatose state, waking only to grab the nearest person and pleading with them to make “it” stop. He was generally dismissed along with the other lunatics in the asylum. Only once did a young attendant ever get up the courage at ask him what “it” was. And only once did he ever give an answer… “The Bell, it’s soo loud, make it stop!!!”