There are, however, exceptions. In several districts in Ireland, especially in the west of the country there are those who still believe that evil-disposed persons can deprive their neighbours of their milk or butter. This is said to be done in various ways, the most usual of these being the use of a corpse hand, which is kept shrivelled and dried to stir the milk and to gather the butter. Another method that is adopted is to follow the cows on a May morning, and gather the soil which drops from between their cloots (the two halves of a cloven hoof). Yet another strategy is said to be by collecting the froth, which forms on a stream running through their pasture, and milking your own cow on it. While some insist that these means are so simple that their absurdity is enough to refute any belief in them.
Yet, such things are still firmly believed in. Allow me to demonstrate that this is indeed the case, and also, at the same time, expose the trickery and sleight of hand by which some criminal types succeed in throwing dust into the eyes of the native population. I will relate to you an event in which I was personally concerned, and to disclose the matter fully in all of its ramifications, twists and turns. I must confess that I was, for a short time, almost inclined to believe myself to be the dupe of a fairy man.
It has been quite a number of years since I lived in the area known as the “Vale of the Blackwater”. It is still well known to be good pasture land, and I owned a good cow who provided me with a plentiful supply of milk and butter, which were of excellent quality, and helped greatly in contributing to the material comforts of my family. That cow was a beautiful and a gentle creature, which, I was certain, would be the beginning of a large herd of similar cattle that would help me build a profitable and extensive dairy.
Around the ‘Blackwater’ there was a very strong belief that an evilly-disposed person possessed the power to deprive a dairy farmer of his milk and butter, and I heard many complaints about such things happening. The majority of these complaints named the main culprit to be a woman who lived in the vicinity, and who was known locally as “The Hawk,” She was a handsome, middle-aged woman who lived in reasonably comfortable circumstances, but there was a fire in her eye and a terrible sharpness in her tongue that justified the name locals had given her. Her husband was a small farmer, but there were many who suspected him of being concerned in a murder some years before this. She, however, was a reputed to be a witch, and the entire family were disliked and avoided by the people who lived in the area.
One cold January morning, while working outside, I was informed that a woman had come into the kitchen of the house. She had simply sat herself down at the kitchen table and began to watch the motions of the family, without stating the purpose for which she had come. When I went down to the house, I found her sitting at the table, neatly dressed, but with a very sinister expression on her face that made me feel uncomfortable from the beginning. On asking her the purpose of her business with me, she told me that she had heard I was in the market for some geese, and that she had a few birds to dispose of.
“How many?” I asked.
“A goose and a gander,” she replied tersely.
“How much do you want for them?”
When she told me the price she was asking I was taken aback and exclaimed, “How Much?“ Her price was almost three times the usual market price and that was why I was so shocked. Then, I thought that I had, perhaps, made a mistake in the number, and I asked her again, “Why, how many have you?”
“A goose and a gander,” said she.
“And what kind of an eejit do you suppose me to be, that I would agree to give you such a price as that?” I said abruptly.
“Oh!” said she, “they are good geese, and only I wish to help you out I would not offer them to you at all.”
“Indeed! I am much obliged by your good wishes,” said I, “but as I think you want to make a fool of me, you should take your geese to another market. Rest assured I will not take them at any price, and the sooner you take yourself off with them the better.”
The woman appeared to be highly offended by what I said and, as she got up from the table to leave, I heard her mutter something about my being sorry for refusing her offer. The woman left the house angrily and it was only after she had left, that I discovered it had been “The Hawk” who had favoured me with the visit.
On that same morning, a gang of ‘travellers’, consisting of tinkers, chimney-sweeps, a couple of beggars, and a piper, had pitched their tent on the road side, a short distance from my home. The members of this group had spread themselves out, over the surrounding district in pursuit of some work they could do. All of this coincided with it also being churning-day, and my wife had set up everything in their proper order, and she was proceeding well with her work. The milk had cracked, the butter was expected, and suddenly the sound of music could be heard throughout the farm. The piper, who was a member of the party of ‘travellers’ had come to the farm to give us a sample of his musical skill. He played for us all a few planxties and hornpipes, was duly rewarded for his efforts, and he left. Shortly after he was gone, two buxom beggars, both brown and bare-legged, with cans in their hands, kerchiefs on their heads, and huge massive rings on their fingers, came and demanded alms. They were told that there was nothing then ready, and one of them immediately asked a drink.
“I have absolutely nothing to offer you but water,” said my wife, “until the churning’s done.”
“It’s Well water,” said my wife proudly and went to get some. On getting the water the beggar-woman took a sup or two, put the remainder in her can, and then went off. Strange as it may seem, my butter went off too. From that day in January until the following May eve, not a morsel did we get from our beautiful ‘Brownie’.
Because I did not put any faith in tales of witchcraft, I was willing to attribute this difficulty to some natural cause affecting the cow. But, in all this time the milk did not show any perceptible change in either its quantity or quality. At the same time, the cow did not exhibit any symptoms of being sick or out of sorts, except that she began to cast her hair. We made sure that she was well supplied with good fodder, comfortably lodged, well attended to, and every possible care was taken of the milk. But all these precautions served no purpose, because the butter was not forthcoming and, because I did not believe in witchcraft, I was laughed at by my neighbours.
“Your cow is bewitched,” they cried, “and you may as well throw spit against the wind, if you think you will get your butter back without first getting the charm.”
Some said “The Hawk” had it, while others said that the gipsy took it away in her can, and some others suggested that it had followed the piper. None of these things seemed to matter, because I still had to eat my bread without butter, and brood over my loss, and not one word of sympathy did I get. There were, however, various counter-charms recommended for me to employ. “Send for Andy, the Scotsman from the other side of the Lough,” said one, “he fears neither man nor beast, and he will surely get it for you.”
“Send for ‘The Hawk,’ and clip a bit off her ear,” said another neighbour.
“Let them keep their mouths full of water, and never speak while they are churning,” said a third.
The one thing that I did learn at this time was that there were as many ways of getting it back, as there were of losing it, and all of them equally simple, and probably just as efficient. In this way matters continued until the early part of April when, one morning, a man called to the house wanting to see me. He was a bright, active, and handsome fellow, who was small in stature and not richly dressed. He was a sinewy man, well built and strong looking, with that tanned wrinkled skin of a man who is used to being outdoors. He was well clothed in tweed jacket, well worn cord trousers, and a pair of black working boots. His cloth cap sat at an angle on his head and he had a good pair of boots on his feet. There was certainly no shyness in demeanour and he possessed a certain look about himself, which seemed to say, “I’d have you know that I am actually a clever man.”