I can recall a wee man who lived in the village of Derrytrask for quite a few years, but almost all his neighbours thought he was a bit of an ‘eejit’ (idiot). If asked, “what made them look upon the wee man as an eejit?”, they would look at the questioner in such a way as if he was not right in the head. Their proof that the wee man was ‘not the full shilling’ was the way that he was so demonstratively fond of music but had never been able to learn to play more than one tune on his ‘Uileann-pipes’. The sole tune that he did play was known as the “Munster Cloak”, which was his party piece in the various bars, and at the local festivities. People would make fun of him as he played his one tune over and over again, but he did earn a few shillings from his ‘recitals’. The money he received, however, helped both the wee man and his widowed mother to pay the rent on their small holding, and occasionally buy some luxuries for themselves, like snuff and a bottle or two of stout.
One warm Spring night the Piper was walking home from a local house, where there had been a bit of a dance. The ‘House Ceilidh’ had been a lively one and like several other attendees he found himself somewhat the worse for wear, because of the whisky and poteen he had taken. As he staggered along the narrow cart track of a road he managed to arrive safely at the little bridge spanning the small stream that flowed close by his mother’s cottage. He decided to stop there for a moment and sit down upon a large flat rock, then he breathed into his pipes’ bag and squeezing it he began to play the one tune that he knew so well, the “Munster Cloak.” As the first musical notes floated into the air he was suddenly grabbed from behind and flung on his back in the middle of the track. In the darkness of the night a ‘Pooka’ had come upon him by surprise. For those readers who may not know what a ‘Pooka’ is, the easiest explanation is that it is a spirit creature which takes on many forms and shapes. This spirit creature, however, possessed long horns and as the Piper regained his senses he took a good, strong grip of them. But, as he grabbed at the strange creature’s horns he cried out with a loud voice, “Damn you to hell, you evil creature. Just allow me to go on my way home for I have a shining silver sixpence in my pocket that is for my mother, and she wants some snuff brought to her!”
Using the horns, the ‘Pooka’ now threw the Piper onto his own back and spoke menacingly to him, “Pay no attention to your mother, or even to what she wants, but concentrate your mind on keeping your hold on those horns. Remember that if you should fall from my back there is little doubt that you will surely break your neck and smash those pipes you are carrying.” Then, in a softer tone of voice, the ‘Pooka’ asked him, “You could play for me the ‘The Blackbird, for it is my favourite tune?‘”
“Sure, wouldn’t I be the greatest of all pipers if I could play ‘The Blackbird’, when I don’t know it,” replied the Piper with a snigger.
“Don’t you be concerning yourself about whether you know the tune, or you don’t know it!” the ‘Pooka’ snapped at him. “Just you begin playing those pipes of yours and I’ll make sure you play the right tune.”
Although he was deeply frightened, the Piper blew hard into his pipe bag and he began to play such fine music that he began to wonder how this could happen. “By the holy, but you’re a fine teacher,” said the Piper, “and now tell me where you are taking me in such a hurry?”
“There is to be a great feast being held tonight in the house of the Banshee, which stands at the top of Croagh Patrick,” said the Pooka. “I am bringing you to the feast, where you will play your music and be well rewarded for your trouble.”
“Sure, isn’t that a great bit of news, for you’ll save me a journey,” replied the Piper, “Father Tom has told me that I should make the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick as a penance, because I was the one who stole the big white goose from the Martins’ farmhouse yard.”
But, the Pooka paid no attention to him, put down his head and rushed the piper across hills, the bogs and rough places, until he finally brought him to the top of Croagh Patrick. Then, as they came to a halt, the Pooka struck three blows on the ground with his foot, and a great door opened before them. Without a moment’s hesitation they both passed through the door and found themselves in a large, finely adorned room. There, in the middle of the room, the Piper saw a large golden table, around which sat hundreds of old women, all of whom were staring toward him. One of the old women stood up from her seat and greeted him, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, Pooka of November. Who is this mortal being that you have brought with you?”
“This mortal is the best Piper in all of Ireland,” said the Pooka, proudly.
One of the old women now struck a blow on the ground and a door opened in the side wall of the fine room. Then much to the Piper’s surprise, he noticed the big white goose, which he had stolen from Martins’ farmyard coming out of the door. “Now this is a miracle,” said the Piper, “for myself and my mother ate every bit of that goose, except for one wing. Sure, it was that one wing that I gave to old ‘Red Mary’, and it was her that told the priest I had stolen the goose.”
The goose now marched over to clean the table before carrying it away, and the Pooka now turned to the piper and urged him, “Play your music for these ladies to enjoy.”
The Piper filled the bag with air and he began to play. He played so well that all the old women took to the floor and began to dance, and they danced so lively until they could dance no more. It was then that the Pooka came forward and demanded that they pay the Piper for his music. Without any complaint each of the old women took a gold piece from their pockets and gave it to him. “By the staff of Saint Patrick,” says the Piper, “sure I’m as rich as the son of any great lord.”
“Now come with me,” asked the Pooka, “and I will bring you back to your home.”
Together they went out of the room and, just as the Piper was about to mount the back of the Pooka, the goose waddled over to him and presented him with a new set of pipes. With the same speed as before the Pooka set off and it did not take him long until he brought the Piper back to Derrytrask. They came at last to the little bridge once again and the Piper dismounted the Pooka, who quietly told him that he should go home. But, before the Piper left, the Pooka told him, “You now have two things that you have never had before. You now have sense and music.”
Hurrying home the Piper was feeling on top of the world, and he knocked loudly at his mother’s door. He called out to her, “Mother, let me in. Your son is as rich now as any lord, and I have become the very best Piper in the whole of Ireland.”
“Ah, you’re drunk again,” replied his mother in disgust.
“No, Mother, indeed I’m not,” insisted the Piper, “Not a single drop of liquor has passed my lips.”
His mother opened the door to him, and he gave her the gold pieces he had received from the old women. “Wait, now,” says he, “until you hear the wonderful music that I can play now.” He quickly buckled on the pipes and began to play them, but instead of sweet music of before there now came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. The terrible noise that he made wakened all the neighbours, and they all began to make fun of him. Their mocking continued for a while until the Piper put on his old pipes and, from that moment, he played the most melodious music for them. Now that they had heard his music the Piper told them all the great adventure that he had gone through that night and they listened to his story in disbelief.
The next morning, when the Piper’s mother went to look at the gold pieces her son had given her, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant. Shocked by this news, the Piper went to see the priest and began to relate to him the adventure he had undertaken. But, the priest would not believe a word that he told him, and the Piper decided to give proof by playing the pipes for him. As he did so the screeching of the ganders and the geese began once again. “Get out of my sight, you thief,” the angry priest roared at him. But the Piper would not move an inch until he put the old pipes on him to demonstrate to the priest that his story was indeed true. He buckled on his old pipes, and he began to play the most wonderful and melodious music. From that day until the day of his death the piper’s fame grew and it is still said that there was never his equal as a Piper in all the western part of Ireland.