An Old Story from Ireland
In a time, long before the coming of Saint Patrick, there was an old king in Connacht, who had been blessed with three sons. The old king had been bothered by a sore foot for many years, and he could get nothing to cure it. One day he sent for blind ‘Wise-man’ and said to him, “I’m giving you wages this twenty-years and you can’t even tell me what will cure my foot.”
“You’ve never asked me that question before,” said the ‘Wiseman’, “but I’ll tell you now that there is nothing in this world that will cure you but a bottle of water from the Well of Derrydowan. “
The next morning, the king called his three sons to him and told them, “My foot will never be better until I get a bottle of water from the Well of Derrydowan, and whichever of you brings me that, will inherit my kingdom.”
“We will go in search of it to-morrow,” the sons replied. The names of the three young men were Art, Nart, and Cart, and the next morning the king gave to each one of them a purse of gold as he sent them on their way.
When they came as far as the cross-roads Art spoke, “Each one of us ought to take a road for himself, and if one of us is back before a year and a day is past, let him wait until the other two come, or else let him set up a stone as a sign that he has come back safe.”
They parted company after that, with Art and Nart going to an inn, where they began drinking. But Cart went on by himself, walking all that day without knowing with any certainty where he was going. Then, as the darkness of night fell, he entered a great wood, and he pressed on until he came to a large house. Cart went into the building and looked around, but he saw nobody, except for a large white cat sitting beside the turf-fire. When the cat saw him, she rose up and went into another room, while a very tired Cart sat himself beside the fire. But it was not long until the door of the room opened, and out came an old hag and declared, “One hundred-thousand welcomes to you, son of the king of Connacht.”
“Oh, many a good day I spent in your father’s castle, and I have known you since you were born,” said the old hag. Then she prepared a fine supper and gave it to him and, when he had eaten and drunk enough, she said to him, “You made a long journey to-day, now come with me ‘til I show you a bed.” She brought him to a fine room, showed him a bed, and the king’s son quickly fell asleep.
Cart did not awake until the sun was coming in through the windows the next morning. Then he rose up, dressed himself, and was going out of the house, when the hag asked him where he was going. “I don’t know,” replied the king’s son. “I left home to find out the Well of Derrydowan.”
”I’ve walked in many a place,” said the hag, “but I never heard tell of the Well of Derrydowan before.”
The king’s son left the house and travelled on until he came to a crossroads between two woods. He did not know which road to take but he noticed a seat under the trunk of a great tree. When he went up to the seat found a notice, saying, “This is the seat of travellers.” The king’s son now sat down, and after a minute he saw the most beautiful woman in the world approaching him. She was dressed in red silk, and she spoke quietly to him, saying “I have often heard it said that it is better to go forward than back.” Then she vanished from his sight, as though the ground had suddenly swallowed her up.
The king’s son rose up from the seat and went forward, walking all that day until the darkness of the night began to come on, and he began to wonder where he would get lodgings. He saw a light coming from the wood, and he moved towards it. The light was coming from a little house where there was not as much as the end of a feather jutting up on the outside, nor jutting down on the inside, but only one single feather that was keeping the house up. He knocked at the door, and an old hag opened it to him. “God save all here,” said the king’s son.
“A hundred welcomes before you, son of the king,” said the hag.
“How did you know me?” asked the king’s son.
“It was my sister that nursed you,” said the hag, ” and sit yourself down a while until I get your supper ready.”
When he had eaten and drank enough, she gave him a comfortable bed, where he slept until morning. Then, rising the next morning, he prayed to God to direct him on the road to find his goal. “How far will you go to-day?” asked the hag.
“I don’t know,” said the king’s son, “I’m in search of the Well of Derrydowan.”
“Well, I’m three hundred years here,” said the hag, “and I have never heard of such a place before. But I have a sister, who is older than myself, and, perhaps, she may know of it. Here is a ball of silver for you, and when you go out on the road just throw it up before you and follow it ‘til you come to the house of my sister.”
When he went out on the road, he threw down the ball, and he followed it until the sun began to go under the shadow of the hills. Then he went into a wood and came to the door of a little house. When he knocked on the door, a hag opened it to him, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes before you, son of the king, who was at my sister’s house last night. You have made a long journey today, so sit yourself down for I have a supper ready for you.” When the king’s son had eaten and drank his fill, the hag put him to bed, where slept until the next morning. Then the hag asked him, “Where are you going to ?”.
“I don’t really know,” said the king’s son. “I left home to find the Well of Derrydowan.”
“Well, I am over five hundred years of age,” said the hag, “and I have never heard anyone talk of that place before. But I have a brother, and if there is any such place in the world, he will certainly know of it. He lives seven hundred miles from here.”
“It’s a long journey,” said the king’s son.
“You’ll be there to-night,” said the hag as she gave him a little horse about the size of a goat.
“Sure, that wee beast will never be able to carry me,” said the kings’ son.
“Wait ‘til you start riding it,” said the hag, and the king’s son got on the wee horse and together they moved as fast as lightning. When the sun was going down that evening, Cart came to a little house in a wood.
He dismounted from his small mount, went up to the house, and it was not long until an old grey man came out, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, son of the king. You’re searching for the Well of Derrydowan.”
“I am, indeed,” said the king’s son.
“Many a good man went that way before you, but not a man of them came back alive,” said the old man. “However, I’ll do my best for you. Stop here tonight and we’ll have some sport to-morrow.” Then he prepared a supper and gave it to the king’s son, and when he had eaten and drank sufficiently, the old man put gave him a bed to sleep on. The next morning, the old man told Cart, “I found out where the Well of Derrydowan is, but it is difficult to get there. We must find out if you are any good at using the bow.” Then he brought the king’s son out into the wood, gave him a bow and arrow, and put a mark on a tree forty yards away from him, and told him to strike it. He drew the bow and struck the mark, causing the old man to say, “You’ll do the business.”
They then returned to the house, where they spent the day telling stories until the darkness of night fell over the wood. When the night came, the old man gave him a bow and a quiver of arrows, saying “Come with me now.”
They went on until they came to a great river, and the old man said, “Get on my back, and I’ll swim across the river with you. But, if you see a great bird coming, kill him, or we shall both be lost.”
Then the king’s son climbed on the old man’s back, and the old man began swimming. When they reached the middle of the river the king’s son saw a great eagle coming towards them with its beak wide open. The king’s son drew the bow and wounded the eagle. “Did you strike him?” said the old man.
“I struck him,” said the king’s son; “but here he comes again.”
He drew the bow for a second time and the eagle fell, dead and when they came to the riverbank the old man declared, “We are on the island of the Well of Derrydowan. The queen is sleeping, and she will not awaken for a day and a year. She only goes to sleep once every seven years. There is usually a lion and a monstrous beast watching at the gate to the well, but they go to sleep at the same time as the queen, and you will have no difficulty in going to the well. Here are two bottles for you. Fill one of them for yourself, and the other for me, and it will make me a young man again.”
The king’s son went off, and when he came as far as the castle, he saw the lion and the monster sleeping on each side of the gate. Then he saw a great wheel throwing up water out of the well, and he went and filled the two bottles he had been given, and while he was coming back, he saw a shining light from the castle. He looked in through the window and saw a great table, upon which sat a loaf of bread, with a knife, a bottle, and a glass. He filled the glass, but he did not empty the bottle. He observed that there was a writing on the bottle and on the loaf; and he read on the bottle, “Water For the World,” and on the loaf, “Bread For the World.” He cut a piece off the loaf, but it only grew bigger. “My God! It’s a pity we haven’t that loaf and that bottle at home,” said the king’s son, “and there would be neither hunger nor thirst on the poor people.” Then he went into a great chamber, and he saw the queen and eleven waiting-maids asleep, and a sword of light was hanging above the head of the queen. It was the sword that was giving light to the whole castle and when he saw the queen, he said to himself, “It’s a pity to leave that pretty mouth without kissing it.” He kissed the queen, and she never awoke, and after that he did the same to the eleven maidens. Then he took the sword, the bottle, and the loaf, and came back to the old man, but he never told him that he had those things. “How did you get on?” said the old man.
“I got the thing I was in search of,” said the king’s son.
“Did you see any marvel since you left me?” asked the old man, and the king’s son told him that he had seen a wonderful loaf, a bottle, and a sword.
“You did not touch them?” asked the old man, warily. “Shun them, for they would bring trouble on you. Come on my back now ‘til I bring you back across the river.”
When they went to the house of the old man, he poured water out of the bottle on himself, and made himself a young man again. Then he said to the king’s son, “My sisters and myself are now free from enchantment, and they are young women again.”
The king’s son remained there until the most part of the year and day were gone. Then he began his journey home, but he did not have the little horse with him. He walked the first day until the darkness of the night came down. He saw a large house, went to the door, knocked on it, and the man of the house came out to him. “Can you give me lodgings ?” he asked.
“I can,” said the man of the house, “only I have no light to light your way.”
“I have a light myself,” said the king’s son. He went into the house, drew the sword, and gave a fine light to them all, and to everybody that was on the island. They then gave him a good supper, and he fell asleep. When he was going away in the morning, the man of the house asked him for the honour of God, to leave the sword with them. “Since you have asked for it in the honour of God, you must have it,” said the king’s son and he walked that second day until darkness began to fall. He went to another great house, knocked the door, and it was not long until the woman of the house came out to him, and he asked her for lodgings.
The man of the house came and told him, “I can give you that, but I have not a drop of water to make any food for you.”
“Sure, I have plenty of water myself,” said the king’s son. He went in, took out the bottle, and there was not a vessel in the house he did not fill, and still the bottle remained full. Then a supper was prepared for him, and when he had eaten and drank enough, he went to sleep. In the morning, when he was going, the woman asked him, in the honour of God, to leave them the bottle. “Since you have asked it for the honour of God,” said the king’s son, “I cannot refuse you, for my mother made me promise her, before she died, never, if I could, refuse anything that a person would ask of me for the honour of God.” Then he left the bottle to them.
He walked the third day until darkness was came, and he reached a great house on the side of the road. He knocked on the door and when the man of the house came out, he asked if he could have lodgings there. “I can give you that, and welcome,” said the man, “But I’m sorry that I have not a morsel of bread for you to eat.”
“I have plenty of bread myself,” said the king’s son as he went in, got a knife, and began cutting the loaf, until the table was filled with pieces of bread. Yet, the loaf was as big as it was when he began. Then they prepared a supper for him, and when he had eaten enough, he went to sleep. Then, when he was leaving the next morning, they asked him, for the honour of God, to leave the loaf with them, and he left it with them. The three things were now gone from him and he walked the fourth day until he came to a great river, and he had no way to get across it. He went down on his knees, and he asked God to send him help. After half a minute, he saw the beautiful woman he had seen the day he had left the house of the first hag and, as she came near him, she asked him, “Son of the king, has it succeeded with you?”
“I got the thing I went in search of,” said the king’s son; “but I don’t know how I shall get over this river.”
She drew out a thimble and said, “It would be a bad day that I would see your father’s son without a boat.” Then she threw the thimble into the river and made a splendid boat from it. “Get into that boat now,” said she, “and when you come to the other side, there will be a horse there ready to bring you as far as the cross-road, where you left your brothers.”
The king’s son stepped into the boat, and it was not long until he was at the other side of the river, and there he found a white horse standing before him. He mounted it, and it went off as swiftly as the wind, bringing him to the cross-roads at about twelve o’clock that day. The king’s son looked around him, and he did not see his brothers, nor any stone set up, and he said to himself, “Perhaps they are at the inn.” When he went there, he found Art and Nart, and both were two-thirds drunk. They asked him how he gotten on since he had left them. “I have found the Well of Derrydowan, and I have the bottle of water,” said Cart.
Nart and Art were filled with jealousy, and they said to one another, “It’s a great shame that the youngest son should have the kingdom. We’ll kill him, and bring the bottle of water to our father,” said Nart, “and we’ll say that it was us that went to the Well of Derrydowan.”
“I’m not with you there,” said Art, “but we’ll get him drunk, and we’ll take the bottle from him. My father will believe me and you, before he’ll believe our brother, because he has an idea that there’s nothing in him but a half-wit.” Then, he said to Cart, “Since it has happened that we have all come home safe and sound we’ll have a drink before we go home.” They called for a quart of whiskey, and they made Cart drink the most of it, causing him to fall drunk. Then, they took the bottle of water from him, went home themselves, and gave it to the king, who put a drop of the water on his foot, and it made him as well as ever he had been. Then they told him that they had great trouble to get the bottle of water. That they had to fight giants and overcome great dangers.
“Did you see Cart on your road?” asked the king.
“He never went farther than the inn, since he left us,” they told him, “and he’s in it now, blind drunk.”
“Sure, there never was any good in him,” said the king, “but I cannot leave him there.” So, he sent six men to the inn, and they carried Cart home and, when he recovered from his drunkenness, the king reduced him to a servant and was to do all the dirty jobs about the castle.
When a year and a day had gone by, the queen of the Well of Derrydowan and her maids-in-waiting woke up, and the queen and her eleven maidens found a young son by her sides. The queen was extremely angry, and she sent for the lion and the monster, to ask them what had become of the eagle that she had left in charge of the castle. “He must be dead, or he’d be here when you awakened,” they said.
“I’m destroyed! Myself, and the maids-in-waiting,” said the queen angrily, ”and I won’t stop until I discover who is the father of my son!” Then she called for her enchanted coach to be made ready, with two fawns to pull it, and she hurried off until she came to the first house where the king’s son had been given lodging. There she asked if there had been any stranger there lately, and the man of the house said that there had.
“Yes!” said the queen, “And he left the sword of light behind him! It is mine, and if you do not give it back to me quickly, I will turn your house upside down.” They immediately gave her the sword, and she went on until she came to the second house, in which he had been given lodging, and she asked if there had been any strangers there lately. They said that there had been. “Yes!” said she, “And he left a bottle after him. Give it back to me immediately, or I’ll bring this house down upon you!” They quickly returned the bottle to her, and she went off again until she came to the third house, where she asked if there had been any strangers there lately. They said there was. “Yes!” said she, “And he left the loaf of lasting bread after him. That belongs to me, and if you don’t return it to me quickly, I will kill you all!” She got the loaf, and she set off once more, and never stopped until she came to the old king’s castle, where she pulled the challenge bell outside the gate. When the king came out, she asked him, “Have you a son?”
“I have,” said the king.
“Send him out here ‘til I see him,” said she and in response the king sent out Art. The queen asked him, “Were you at the Well of Derrydowan?”
“I was,” said Art.
“And are you the father of my son?” she asked.
“I believe I am,” said Art.
“I will know that soon enough,” she said, and she drew two hairs out of her head, flung them against the wall, and they were made into a ladder that went up to the top of the castle. Then she said to Art, “If you were at the Well of Derrydowan, you can go up to the top of that ladder.” Art went up half-way before he fell and broke his thigh. “You were never at the Well of Derrydowan,”said the queen and she asked the king, “Have you any other son?”
“I have,” replied the king.
“Bring him out,” said the queen. When Nart came out, she asked him, “Were you ever at the Well of Derrydowan?”
“I was,” said Nart.
“If you were, go up to the top of that ladder,” said the queen, and he began going up. But he had not gone very far until he fell and broke his foot. “You were not at the Well of Derrydowan,” said the queen and again she asked the king if he had any other son. When the king said he had, he added, “But it’s a half-wit he is, that has never left home.”
“Bring him here,” said the queen, and when Cart came, she asked him, “Were you at the Well of Derrydowan ?”.
“I was,” said Cart, “and I saw you there.”
“Go up to the top of that ladder,” said the queen, and she watched as Cart went up the ladder like a cat. When he came down, she said told him, “Yes, you are the man who was at the Well of Derrydowan, and you are the father of my son.” Then Cart explained the trick that his brothers played on him, and the queen was about to slay them both, until Cart asked her to pardon them. The king then declared that Cart must inherit the kingdom, and he dressed him in robes and put a chain of gold around his neck. Then, Cart got into the coach beside the queen, and they departed the castle for the Well of Derrydowan. The maids-in-waiting gave Cart a great welcome, and they all came to him, with each one asking him to marry them. He stayed in that place twenty-one years, until the queen died, and then he brought back with him to Galway his twelve sons Galway. Each of the sons married a wife, and it is from them that the twelve tribes of Galway are descended.