There are many strange geological formations in Ireland, the most well-known being the Giant’s Causeway in the County Antrim. The ocean battered cliffs on the west coast of Ireland present a striking spectacle of huge rocks carved by nature into great sculptures. Then, inland, the mountains rise like fabled giants that are marching to the protection of the people. But, here and there, stand geological anomalies that are not as tall as the mountains of the west, but not as small as the Drumlins of Armagh. The ‘Black Hill’ is one of these anomalies and consists of black layers of stone that appear to be harder and denser on the upper surfaces than they are beneath. In the rains and winds that sweep across the land the lower portion of each layer, disintegrates first, forming a clear step is the ground. The main road Derry City stretches through this area and passes by the ‘Black Hill’. Overall, the Hill is shaped like a cone and, on the slopes, the grass-covered terraces composing it are very regular in shape and size from the base to the peak. It gives the observer the impression that there is a road carved out of the sides of the mountain, that winds its way in an easy ascent to the summit of the ‘Black Hill.’.
“That is known as the ‘Pooka’s Path’ by all around here.”
“What, in the name of God is a Pooka?”
“What’s the Pooka, did you ask?” asked the old man. “Well, sure, that’s not easy to tell. For one thing, it’s an evil sort of spirit that does be always creating mischief. But, sure it never does any serious harm to any excepting to those that deserve it, or them that speaks of it disrespectfully. I’ve never seen it, myself, thanks be to God, but there are those who have, and they say that it looks like the finest black horse that ever wore smithy shoed. But it isn’t a horse at all, for no horse did have eyes of fire, or be breathing flames of blue with a smell of sulphur, or a snort like thunder, and no mortal horse would take the leaps and bounds that it does or go as far without getting tired. Sure, it was said that when it gave Tom O’Byrne the ride it gave him, it went from Belfast to Athlone with one jump, and the next took him Galway, and the next was in Dublin, and back again be way of Limerick and Kilkenny, and he never turned a hair. How far is that? Sure, I wouldn’t know, but it’s a brave long distance, and took him right across Ireland and back again. Byrne knew it was the Pooka because it spoke to him like a mortal Christian, only its language isn’t at all agreeable and will never give you a decent word after you’re on its back, and sometimes not even before.”
“It must be a monster of a thing?” I replied, eager to move on, but the old man had not finished yet.
“Sure, Danny Burke was coming home one night. Now, I was only a boy at the time, but I mind him telling the story. He said that he had been at a fair in Galbally, where he had been having a few drinks, though some say he had a bellyful. But when he come to a rath, and just beyond it, where the fairies dance, you know, the front of the wall where that policeman was hit on the head by a poacher last winter, he fell in the ditch, completely jiggered and exhausted. Sure, it wasn’t the length as much as the wideness of the road, for he was going from one side to the other and it all proved too much for him. So, he laid still in the ditch for a bit and then tried to get up, but his legs were too weak, and his head was too heavy, and when he attempted to get his feet on the road it was his head that was on it, because his legs couldn’t balance him. Well, Burke lay on and he was entirely done, and while he was studying just how he would get up, he heard the trotting of a horse approaching on the road.
“‘Ah, sure, I’ll get a lift now,’ says he to himself as he lay waiting, and up came the Pooka. When Danny saw him, by Jaysus, he covered his face with his hands and turned away from him, roaring with fright like a mad bull.
“’Ah now, you wee sneaking blackguard,’ said the Pooka, with a mighty snort, ‘Would ever stop your bawling or I’ll kick you to the end of next week.’
“But Danny was scared, and he bellowed louder than he had before, so the Pooka, with his hoof, give him a crack on the back that knocked the wind out of him. ‘Will you be quiet,’ said the Pooka, ‘or will I give you another crack, you buck eejit?’
“Danny stopped the weeping and the Pooka began to calm himself, though his language was no less temperate. ‘Stand up, you pure-bred guzzler,‘ said the Pooka, ‘I’ll give you a ride on my back.’
“’I wish I could, but I can’t’ says Danny, ‘Sure, I’ve not been drinking at all, but smoking too much and eating, and it’s sick I am, and not drunk.’
“’You’re a drunken reprobate,’ says the Pooka, ‘Don’t you be trying to deceive me,’ lifting up his hoof again, and giving his tail a swish that sounded like the crack of a whip. ‘Didn’t I follow you for two miles by your breath,’ says the Pooka, ‘And you smelling like a poteen factory. And the nose on your face as red as a turkey-cock’s. Get up out of that, or I’ll lift you,’ says the Pooka, jumping up and cracking his hind foot like he was dancing a jig.
“Danny did his best to get up, and the Pooka helped him with a grip of his teeth on Danny’s collar. “‘Pick up your cap,’ says the Pooka, ‘and climb up. I’ll give you such a ride as you have never even dreamed of.’
“‘Ah, please,’ says Danny, ‘I’d rather walk, for riding makes me dizzy.’
“’Don’t be stupid,’ says the Pooka, ‘will you just get up out of that or will I kick the stuffing out of your cowardly body.’
“The Pooka turned around and he flourished his heels in Danny’s face. Poor Danny tried, but he couldn’t, so the Pooka took him to the wall and give him a lift onto it, and when Dennis was mounted, and had a tight hold on the Pooka’s mane, the first leap he gave was down the rock there, a thousand feet into the field you can see, then up again, and over the mountain, and into the sea, and out again, from the top of the waves to the top of the mountain, and after the poor sot from the ditch was almost dead, the Pooka come back here with him and dropped him in the ditch where he had found him, and he blew in his face to put him to sleep before leaving him. It was morning before they found Danny and carried him home. The man could not walk for a fortnight after, because of the weakness of his bones after the ride he’d been given.
“But sure, the Pooka’s a different beast entirely to what he was before King Bryan-Boru tamed him,” said the old man. “Never heard of him? Well, he was the king of Munster and High King of all Ireland, and he tamed the Pooka once and for all on that hill in front of you. You see, in the old days, the entire country was full of evil spirits, and fairies and witches, and devils, and the harm they did was almost unceasing, for they were always coming and going, like the shuttle on a loom, and without so much as a by your leave. The fairies would be dancing on the grass every night by the light of the moon, and stealing away the children, and many were those they took that never come back. The old rath on the hill beyond was full of the dead, and after nightfall they’d come from their graves and walk in a long line one after another to the old church in the valley where they’d go in and stay until cock-crow, then they’d come out again and back to the rath. There was hardly a parish without a witch, and some nights they’d have a great entertainment on the Hill, and you’d see them, with snakes on their arms and necks and ears, by way of jewels, and the eyes of dead men in their hair, coming for miles and miles, some riding through the air on sticks and bats and owls, and some walking, and more on Pookas and horses with wings that would come up in line to the top of the hill, like the cabs at the door of the theatre, and leave them there and hurry off to bring more.
“Sometimes the Old Enemy, Satan himself, would be there at the entertainment, coming on a monstrous dragon, with green scales and eyes like the lightning in the heavens, and a roaring fiery mouth like a lime-kiln. It was the great day then, for they do say all the witches brought their reports at them times for to show him what they had done. Some would tell how they stopped the water in a spring, and upset the neighbours, more would show how they dried-up the cow’s milk, and made her kick the pail, and they’d all laugh like they were ready to split in two. Some had blighted the corn, while more had brought the rains on the harvest. Some told how their enchantments made the children fall ill, some said how they set the thatch on fire, more told how they stole the eggs, or spoiled the cream in the churn, or bewitched the butter so it wouldn’t come, or led the sheep into the bog. But that wasn’t all.
“One would have the head of a man murdered by her charms, and with it the hand of him that was hung for the murder. One would bring the knife she’d scuttled a boat with and point to the sea to where the corpses laid of the fishermen she’d drowned. One would carry on her breast the child she’d stolen and meant to bring up in evil, and another one would show the little white body of a baby she’d smothered in its sleep. And the corpse-candles would tell how they deceived the traveller, bringing him to the river, and the evil spirits would tell how they drew him in and down to the bottom in his sins and then to the pit with him. And old Beelzebub would listen to all of them, with a reporter, like them that’s taking down the speeches at a meeting, by his side, writing what they said, so as when they come to be paid, it wouldn’t be forgotten.
“Those were the times for the Pookas too. They had power over those that went out after night, except it was on an errand of mercy they were going. But. Not one sinner that hadn’t been to his duty regular would ever see the light of day again after meeting a Pooka, for the beast would either kick him to smithereens where he stood, or lift him on to his back with his teeth and jump into the sea with him, then dive, leaving him to drowned, or spring over a cliff with him and tumble him to the bottom a bleeding corpse. But there were great howls of joy when a Pooka would catch a sinner off-guard and brought him on the ‘Path’ on a night that Satan was there. May God protect us, what a sight it was. They made a ring with the corpse-candles, while the witches tore him limb from limb, and the fiends drunk his blood in red-hot iron cups with shrieks of laughter to smother his screams. The Pookas jumped on his body and trampled it into the ground, and the storm would whistle a tune, and the surrounding mountains would keep time, and the Pookas, and witches, and spirits of evil, and corpse-candles, and bodies of the dead, and devils, would all jig together round the rock where old Beelzebub would sit smiling, as if saying that he could ask no better diversion. God save us, but it makes my skin creep to think of it.
“Well, as I was telling you, in the time of King Bryan, the Pookas did a great deal of harm, but as those that they murdered were drunken beasts that were in the shebeens during the day and in the ditch by night, and wasn’t missed when the Pookas took them, the King paid no attention, and sure he can’t be blamed for that.
“But one night, the queen’s baby took ill, and the king told one of his men, ‘Here, Riley, get you up and on the white mare and go for the doctor.’
“’Right then,’ says Riley. But, the king’s country house was in the break of the hills, so Riley would pass by the Rath and the ‘Black Hill’ on the way to get the doctor. ‘Well,’ says he quietly to himself, ‘I don’t want to be doing this job.’
“So, he says to the king, ‘Will it not do until the morning?’
“‘It will not,‘ says the king to him. ‘Get up, you lazy beggar, sitting and eating my bread, while the life is leaving my child.’
“So, Riley went with a great slowness in his feet, took the white mare, and off, and that was the last that was seen of him or the mare, for the Pooka took them. For those who said that they had seen him in Cork two days later, trading off the white mare, there were no lies told. They were, in fact, deceived by a trick of the spirits that made them believe it was Riley.
“Nevertheless, the baby got well again. But, because the doctor didn’t get there, the king now began to wonder what had happened to Riley and the white mare, and although he searched wide and low for them he didn’t find them. And then he realised that they were gone, because the Pooka had not left as much as a hair of the mare’s tail.
“’What’s this?‘ exclaimed the King, ‘Is it horses that the Pooka will be stealing? Well, bad luck to him and his impudence! This will never do. Sure, he’ll have us ruined entirely.’
“Mind you now, it’s my opinion from what he said, that the king wasn’t concerned too much about Riley, for he knew that he could get more Irishmen when he wanted them, but what he meant to say was that if the Pooka took to horse-stealing, he’d be ruined entirely, for where would he get another white mare? So, it was a very serious question and he retired into a room with a big book that he had, which contained some secrets. The king was very intelligent, well educated, and a mind that was craftier than that of a fox.
“So, the king read and read as fast as he could, and after reading without stopping, except for the occasional food break, for seven days and nights, he came out, and when they asked him if he could beat the Pooka now, he never said a word. He just gave a wink of his eye, as for to say he had him.
“So, that same day he went into the fields and along the hedges and ditches, from sunrise to sunset, collecting the materials for a charm against the Pooka. But, what he got I don’t know, no more does anyone for he never said, but kept the secret to himself and didn’t say it even to the queen. The king was only too aware that secrets run through a woman like water in a ditch. But there was one thing about it that he couldn’t help telling, because he wanted a certain item and couldn’t get it without help, and that was three hairs from the Pooka’s tail, without which the charm wouldn’t work. So he told a manservant he had that he’d give him a great deal of gold if he’d get them for him, but the servant pulled off his cap and scratched his head and said, ‘Dear God, your majesty, I don’t know what good the gold will do me if the Pooka gets a crack at me body with his hind heels.’ Neither would he undertake the task without a reward and the king began to fear that his plan was over before it had begun.
“But it happened on the Friday, this being on a Tuesday, that the Pooka caught a sailor that had only been on land long enough to get blind drunk, and got him on his back, and jumped over the cliff with him leaving him dead. When they came to search the sailor to see what he had in his pockets, they found three long hairs round the third button of his top-coat. So, they took them to the king and told him where they got them. The king was greatly pleased, because now he believed he had the Pooka in his grasp and could end his enchantment.
“But, as the evening came, he a doubt came into his mind and he began to wonder. If the three hairs were out of the Pooka’s tail, the charm would be good enough, but if they were not, and were from his mane instead, or from a horse instead of a Pooka, the charm wouldn’t work and the Pooka would get on top of him with all the feet he had at once and it would be the death of him immediately. So, this doubt struck the king with a great force and for a while he felt uneasy. But, with a little soul searching, he got around it. He went to confession and received absolution so that he’d be ready. He then told one of the servants to come in and tell him, after supper, that there was a poor widow in the laneway beyond the Black Hill that wanted help that night, that it would be an errand of mercy he would be on and, therefore, safe against the Pooka if the charm didn’t work.
“‘Sure, what’ll be the good of that?’ asked the man, ‘It will be a lie, and won’t work.’
“‘Don’t be worrying yourself,’ says the king, ‘just do as you are told and don’t argue, for that’s a point of metaphysics.’ It was indeed a great deal of deep learning that he had, ‘that’s a point of metaphysics and the more you argue on them subjects, the less you know,’ says he, and he’s speaking the truth. ‘Besides, even if it is a lie, it’ll deceive the Pooka, and it’s my belief that the means will justify the end,’ says he, as his thoughts turned to the white mare.
“So, after supper, as the king was sitting in front of the fire, and had the charm in his pocket, the servant came in and told him about the widow. ‘By God,‘ said the king, like he was surprised, in his attempt to completely deceive the Pooka. ‘If that’s true, I must go relieve her at once.’ So he got up from his chair and put on his soldier’s boots, with spurs on them a foot across, and he took a long whip in his hand, for fear, he said, that the widow would have dogs, then he went to his chest and took his old stocking and got a sovereign out of it, and went out with his right foot first, and the spurs rattling as he walked.
“He came across the yard, and up the hill beyond and around the corner, but saw nothing. Then up the foot path round the Black Hill and never met a soul but a dog that he threw a stone at. But, he didn’t go out on the road to the widow’s, for he was afraid that if he met the Pooka and he caught him in a lie, not being on the road to where he said he was going, it would be all over with him. So, he walked up and down between the old church below there and the Rath on the hill, and just as the clock was striking twelve, he heard a horse in front of him, as he was walking down, so he turned and went the other way, getting his charm ready, and the Pooka came up after him.
“‘The top of the morning to you, your Honour,’ said the Pooka, politely, for he had noticed by his clothes that the king was not just a commoner but was one of real quality.
“‘And good day to you,‘ says the king to him, boldly, and when the Pooka heard him speak, he became even more polite in his manner, and made a low bow and scrape with his foot. With polite greetings exchanged they walked on together and began to converse.
“”Sure, it’s a black night for traveling,’ said the Pooka.
“‘Indeed it is,’ replied the king, ‘and sure, I would not be out in it, if it wasn’t a case of necessity. I’m on an errand of charity.’
“‘That’s very good of you,’ said the Pooka to him, ‘and if I may ask, what’s the necessity?’
“”It is to relieve a widow-woman,’ said the king.
“‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, throwing back his head laughing with great pleasure and nudging the king with his leg on the arm, by the way that it was a joke because the king said it was to relieve a widow that he was going. ‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, ”It is myself that’s glad to be in the company of an elegant gentleman that’s on so pleasing an errand of mercy.’ ‘And how old is the widow-woman?’ says he, bursting with the horrid laugh he had.
“‘Ah, now,’ says the king, getting red in the face and not liking the joke in the least, for just between us, they do say that before he married the queen, he was the quare-buck with the women, and the queen’s maid told the cook, that told the footman, that said to the gardener, that told the neighbours that many were the nights that the poor king was as wide awake as a hare from sun to sun with the queen bleating at him about that topic. Even more amusing, there was a widow in it, that was as sharp as a rat-trap and surrounded him when he was young and hadn’t as much sense as a goose, and was ready to marry him at once in spite of all his relations, just as widows understand how to do. So it’s my considered opinion that it wasn’t decent for the Pooka to be laughing that way, and shows that evil spirits are dirty blackguards that can’t talk with gentlemen. ‘Ah, now,’ says the king, because the Pooka’s laughing wasn’t an agreeable noise to listen to, ‘I don’t know her, for I never seen her, but I believe that she’s a hundred, and as ugly as Beelzebub, and when her old man was alive, they tell me she had a temper like a gander, and was as easy to manage as an armful of cats. But she’s in want, and I’m after bringing her a sovereign.’
“Well, the Pooka ceased his laughing, for he had seen the king was not very amused, and says to him, ‘And if you don’t mind, where does she live?’
“‘At the end of the lane beyond the Black Hill,’ says the king, very short.
“‘By God, that’s a good bit,’ says the Pooka.
“‘Aye, that’s true,’ says the king, ‘what’s more, it’s uphill every foot of the way, and my back is broke entirely with the steepness of it,’ says he, giving a hint that he would like a ride.
“‘Will yer honour get upon my back,‘ says the Pooka. ‘Sure, I’m going that way, and you don’t mind getting a lift?’ says he, falling like the stupid beast he was, into the trap the king had made for him.
“‘Thanks,’ says the king, ‘I believe not. I’ve no bridle nor saddle. Besides, it’s the spring of the year, and I’m afraid you’re shedding, and your hair will come off and spoil my new britches,’ says he, pretending to make excuse.
“‘Have no fear,’ said the Pooka. ‘Sure, I never drop me hair. It’s no ordinary breed of a horse I am, but a most uncommon beast that’s used to the quality,’ says he.
“‘Yer speech shows that,‘ says the king, the clever man that he was, to be polite in such a way to a Pooka, that’s known to be an out-and-out devil. ‘But ye must excuse me this evening, because the road’s full of stones and is terrible steep, and you look so young that I’m afraid you’ll stumble and cause me to fall,’ says he.
“‘Fair play to you,’ says the Pooka, ‘it’s true, I do look young.’ And he began to prance about on the road giving himself airs like an old widow-man who is wanting a young woman, ‘but me age is older than you suppose. How old would you say I was,’ says he, smiling.
“‘Sure, I wouldn’t know,’ says the king, ‘but if it’s agreeable to you, I’ll look in your mouth and give you an answer.’
“So the Pooka come up to him softly and stretched his mouth as if the king was wanting to climb in, and the king put his hand on the jaw as if he was going to see the teeth he had. Then, that moment he slipped the three hairs around the Pooka’s jaw, and when he did that, he drew them tight, and said the charm crossing himself, and the hairs immediately became cords of steel, and held the Pooka tight, as if it was a bridle.
“‘Ah, now, you bloody beast of a murdering devil,’ says the king, pulling out his big whip that he had hidden in his top-coat, and giving the Pooka a crack with it under his stomach, ‘I’ll give you a ride that you won’t forget in a hurry, you black bollix of a four-legged devil and you stealing my white mare,’ and he hit him again.
“‘Oh my,‘ says the Pooka, as he felt the grip of the iron on his jaw and he knew that he was under an enchantment, ‘Oh my, what’s this all about?’ rubbing his breast with his hind heel, where the whip had hit him, and then jumping with his fore feet out to catch the air and trying to break away. ‘Sure I’m ruined, I am, so I am,’ says he.
“‘That’s true,’ says the king, ‘By God it’s the one true thing you ever said,’ says he, jumping on his back, and giving him the whip and the two spurs with all his might.
“Now, I forgot to tell you that when the king made his enchantment, it was good for seven miles round, and the Pooka knew that as well as the king and so he started like a policeman was after him, but the king was afraid to let him go far, thinking he’d do the seven miles in no time, and the enchantment would be broken like a rotten string, so he turned him up the Black Hill.
“‘I’ll give you all the exercise you want,’ says he, ‘in travelling around this hill.’ And round and round they went, the king sticking the big spurs in him every jump and cracking him with the whip until his sides ran blood in streams like a mill race, and his screams of pain were heard all over the world so that the king of France opened his window and asked the policeman why he didn’t stop the fighting in the street. Around and around and about the Black Hill went the king, lashing the Pooka, until his feet made the path that you see on the hill, because he went so often.
“And when morning came, the Pooka asked the king what he’d take to let him go, and the king was getting tired and told him that he must never steal another horse, and never kill another man, except for foreign blackguards that weren’t Irish, and when he gave a man a ride, he must bring him back to the spot where he got him and leave him there. So the Pooka consented, Glory be to God, and got off, and that’s the way he was tamed, and explains how it was that Danny Burke was left by the Pooka in the ditch just where he found him.“
“Moreover, the Pooka’s an altered beast in every way, for now he drops his hair like a common horse, and it’s often found sticking to the hedges where he jumped over, and they do say he doesn’t smell half as strong of sulphur as he used, nor the fire out of his nose isn’t so bright. But all the king did for him would not teach him to be civil in his speech, and when he meets you in the way, he speaks just as much like a blackguard as ever. And it’s out of devilment that he does it, because he can be polite as you know by what I have told you about him saying to the king, and that proves what I said to you that evil spirits can’t learn real good manners, no matter how hard they try.
“But the fright he got never left him, and so he keeps out of the highways and travels by the footpaths, and so isn’t often seen. And it’s my belief that he can do no harm at all to them that fears God, and there’s those that say he never shows himself nor meddles with man nor mortal except they’re drunk, and maybe there’s something in that too, for it doesn’t take much drink to make a man see a good deal.”