By and Unknown Irish Poet
Fetterless and spirit free
So to break the wild fond dream,
For many years the idea of fairies and the little people brought a laugh and a disbelieving shake of the head from me. In later years I was to learn better and it is to be hoped that those doubters who shall read these stories will experience the same change in their thinking. It is only to be expected that not every reader of these stories will believe in Leprechaun’s, banshees and other Irish spirits. But I am here to tell you that all these things do exist in the Irish countryside. You may consider that disbelief in such things will ensure that such spirits have less power over you. Do not be fooled by such comforting thoughts. Constantly remind yourself that you should never ignore the possibility that such spirits can and do exist. Do not give voice to your disbelief and never mock the fact that others do believe. All those things are insults to “The Good People” and the most foolish actions that any man, woman, or child can commit. Testing the fairy folk of Ireland can and will bring a response in ways that are totally unexpected.
When I was a child my parents raised me to always be polite and civil to everyone that I met, irrespective of race, colour, creed and physical appearance. My mother, may she rest in peace, always taught me that, “Good manners are a burden to no person.” She was often shocked by the way people treated each other and would warn me to always be civil because, “Civility costs you nothing.” Such moral codes were bred into my being by both my parents. “If you cannot speak well of another person then it is best to say nothing about them,” my father would tell me. He would also insist that, “if you cannot do something nice for another person, then do nothing.” My parents were very firm believers that every action a person undertakes has certain consequences for which they must accept total responsibility. “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” was a scriptural adage of which I was constantly reminded. Those who decide to ignore such words of wisdom soon discover that they would have been better to take on board the advice of those older than they are.
As an example, I recall the story of Eddie Daly, a muscular young man who was full of bravado. His muscular frame was maintained by his hard work in the fields around Knocknashee. As a worker, Eddie was well thought of by local farmers while, as an attractive young man, he was admired by many of the ladies in the area. Eddie Daly, tall but muscular, was a common sight on the many roads that criss-crossed the area around Knocknashee. He would walk from farm to farm undertaking whatever work he could find, and he appeared to be almost always in demand. Perhaps much of his demand was due to Eddie’s pleasant personality, and his ability to make people laugh. There was always a bounce in the young man’s step, a lightness in his tread, and as He walked along it was as if his heels were spring-loaded. Hence, Eddie’s friends called him “Spring Heels.”
It was not uncommon for Eddie to be seen at any hour of the day and night walking the highways and by-ways that surrounded the hill of Knocknashee. He seemed to have no fear of the darkness and the spirits that made the night their own. Because he did not believe in such things Eddie was comfortable walking through graveyards at night or settling to snooze below the branches of a fairy thorn tree. He laughed at those who gave credibility to superstitions and “old wives’ tales” that were common throughout the district. He would scoff those who would attempt to protect themselves from evil spirits with the sign of the Cross, or who would greet the fairies with a pleasant, “May goodness and peace be with you.”
It is well known that almost every county and townland contains lonely places that have become noted for the fairy activity that goes on there. However, Knocknashee was famous throughout the entire country because of the strange things that had been seen or heard in that place. On every crag and in every depression, there seemed to be a “Leprechaun Mound”, fairy trees and fairy caverns. In other places throughout the district stood dark green woodland and long abandoned grave sites. People told of instances when they had heard the Banshee wails from those places, seen strange lights reflecting in the darkness, and observed dark creatures stalking the souls of the unwary. Eddie, however, did not believe in such things and wandered, carefree, wherever he wished.
Late one evening, as he walked home from farmer McCann’s property, Eddie noticed that there was someone else on the road. Occasionally Eddie would meet people he knew walking along the Kilcoo Road, and he would chat with them to pass the time. On this occasion, however, Eddie could not recognise who his fellow traveller was, but he was sure that he was not a local resident. The man a short distance ahead of him was only an inch or two shorter than Eddie, but much better dressed. From the professional hiking gear on his back Eddie could discern that the person was just another sightseeing hiker dressed in a high-class range of outdoor clothing to protect him from the elements. It would not take Eddie too long to catch up with him.
The night was passing on, getting darker as the black, rain laden clouds gathering in the sky, threatening to soak the land with a downpour. As expected, it didn’t take Eddie much time before he caught up with the stranger and began to walk at his side. “Good evening, sir,” Eddie greeted him in his most friendly voice. “I am Eddie Daly and maybe I can walk a while with you along the road.”
“Good evening to you,” replied the stranger, “my name is Joe Crawford from Dublin and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“You’ll stay in the village tonight, Joe?” Inquired Eddie. “It could be a bad night for there a powerful lot of rain on the way.”
The stranger looked skyward as he continued to walk and, turning to Eddie, told him, “sure don’t I have my own accommodation with me.”
“And where would you be planning to put up your tent, if I might ask?”
“On top of Knocknashee Hill,” came the reply, which took Eddie completely by surprise.
“That’s right. The summit of Knocknashee Hill, so we will not have much farther to travel together.”
The stranger had now aroused Eddie’s inquisitiveness. “So, you will take the track that runs from this road up to the top of the hill?” Eddie asked and then continued, “But why would a man of your standing wish to go to that lonely, exposed and windswept place”
“You have been there?”
“I have and there is nothing there,” answered Eddie. “Even with your tent you will get little protection from the weather this night, especially up there.”
Mr. Crawford smiled at the concern his new companion was showing for his welfare. “The tent will suffice, and I intend to be settled upon the top of that hill by midnight.”
“But what in the name of all that is good, is bringing you to the top of that bleak hill? What are you looking for?” Eddie asked.
“The Good People,” said Joe, irritated by the questions. “I am going to the top of the hill to see the “Good People”.”
“Fairies!” Exclaimed Eddie in total disbelief and he sniggered at the very idea. That sort of attitude did not endear him to Joe, and he marched on in silence for a moment. “Fairies”, Eddie sniggered again.
This time Joe stopped and looked at his companion with growing anger displayed in his face. “For goodness sake, keep you voice low!” he told Eddie. “Better still keep it shut! Do you know nothing?” Eddie was taken aback by the angry tone exhibited by his companion, but Joe was not finished. “You never call “The Good People” fairies because it is a disrespectful term to them. Furthermore, to laugh at them is an unwise thing to do, because they look upon that as a grave insult. Just keep your ideas and your careless words to yourself, or you might just end up being very sorry!”
Eddie was somewhat dumbfounded by Joe’s dramatic change in attitude toward him. But he decided he would not react at this time. It all seemed a bit pointless anyway because they were approaching the track that led up to the summit of Knocknashee. Only a minute or two later they came upon the entrance to the narrow dirt path, which swept across several fields before going up the steep side of the hill to its summit. At the entrance Joe stopped and immediately offered his hand in friendship to Eddie. “Thank you for your company,” the man said. “Even though it was only for a brief period of time.”
Eddie took his hand, shook it warmly and simply replied, “Thank you, Joe.”
With their farewells said, Eddie watched as Joe climbed over a wooden stile that assisted his crossing of a barbed wire fence. On the other side he stepped on to the dirt track and began to follow it as it wound its way to the base of Knocknashee Hill. He was just about to re-start his own journey home to Kilmore, about three miles distant, when a sudden thought crossed his mind and caused him to pause again. “That man is a bit of an odd fellow, but he is definitely no fool,” he said to himself. He continued to ponder for a while as he watched Joe walk further away along the path. “I don’t believe he’s here for the fairies,” he said aloud to himself. “That man is up to something on that hill and he doesn’t want anyone else to see him. Maybe I should just follow him at a distance and find out for myself just what he is up to.” He stood for a few moments longer, watching the stranger move along the track and come closer to the base of the hill. “Fairies,” he exclaimed loudly with a certain distaste in his voice. “Mark my words, there is something more than fairies, or the “good people as he calls them, that is bringing him up that hill on a night like this.” He could not take his eyes off the man in the distance, even though what light there was left now began to fade quickly.
He muttered several curses to himself, “That man knows as much about fairies as I do about deep-sea diving.” Shaking his head in disbelief at the stranger’s declared intentions he told himself, “Fairies don’t exist and he expects a grown man like me to believe that he is going to seek them out. He tells me I should be wary about what I say concerning fairy folk, but if they don’t exist why should I be afraid?” Eddie looked down the path again, now illuminated by a shimmering full moon that had arisen from behind the hills. In that silver moonlight he could see Joe Crawford still pacing his way toward the base of the hill.
“Why would he try to frighten me off?” Eddie asked himself. “There must be something special up there that he doesn’t want another person to see.” He now strained his eyes in the lessening light to attempt to gauge just how far ahead of him Joe was. Eddie decided that it wasn’t too far and made up his mind to follow the stranger and attempt to catch him up. He was determined that he would find out the truth of the man’s decision to climb Knocknashee Hill. The more he had thought about it, Eddie became increasingly convinced that whatever the man was seeking it was most likely to be very valuable. His mind now became filled with ideas of gold, buried treasure, or jewels and he wanted to have a share in the fortune. In that instant he began to clamber over the wooden stile and begin his own journey to the summit. “Alright, big man,” he said aloud, “the game has begun.” He pulled up his trousers and closed over his jacket before setting off along the dirt path in his effort to catch the stranger.
Eddie had travelled along the track many times and despite it being illuminated only by moonlight he surefootedly pressed ahead. After a short time, he had reached the foot of the hill, just where the track turned and began to ascend windingly to the summit. At this point stood an old, gnarled, but sturdy thorn tree that local superstition had declared was a fairy tree. Eddie, of course, was not a believer in such superstitions, nonetheless something in his subconscious told him to give this tree a wide berth. He did give the tree a wide-berth and began to ascend the hill in the increasing darkness that was beginning to make the narrow path even more treacherous than was normal. With every step he took Eddie moved upward and occasionally, as the full moon peeped out from behind a dark cloud, he caught a glimpse of Joe approaching the summit of the hill.
Onward Eddie pressed, realising that he would never catch his former companion before he reached the top of the hill. Three full hours of toiling up that rugged path finally brought Eddie almost to the end of his journey. The path had taken him over broken ground, loose rocks and even areas of swampy ground. On several occasions during his journey he had almost lost his footing and fallen to the ground. It was with some relief that Eddie finally reached the end of the path and could sit down to rest his weary body. He found a dry, level, grassy spot on which he could comfortably relax and take in his surroundings. But, no matter how hard his eyes scanned the area around him, he saw no sign of his former companion.
Eddie couldn’t understand what had happened to Joe, but he was determined to seek him out. After a short rest he began to move carefully across the ground seeking the whereabouts of Joe. As he searched the area Eddie came across a large opening in the ground that sat close to a large, wind-formed thorn tree. It was the entrance to a deep shaft, the bottom of which he could not see. The hole itself was wide and deep enough to swallow up any person who might carelessly fall into it. This, he decided, may have been the fate that befell Joe Crawford and that was the reason why Eddie could not see any sign of him.
It came into Eddie’s mind that this dark shaft was none other than “The Black Hole of Knocknashee” that he had heard so much about since he was a child. Although Eddie had scaled Knocknashee Hill on many occasions he had never come across this place. Old tales suggested that “The Black Hole”, was indeed the entrance to an underworld kingdom where the fairies ruled from a magnificent, magical castle. He recalled the tales of people who were said to have gone to the top of Knocknashee and never returned. It was said that the fairies had lured them to “the Black Hole”, which simply swallowed them up. There was a famous legend that a local policeman who had set out to search for a person who was missing on the hill also never returned. He was supposed to have been a skilled climber and was well equipped for his rescue mission. Rumour suggested that even he had fallen for the wiles of the fairy folk and disappeared, never to be seen again.
These were stories that Eddie shrugged off as being nothing but old wives’ tales. Nevertheless, Eddie did realise that any person could have fallen down this hole and maybe he should check it out in case this is what happened to Joe. Lying on the ground he tried to peer into the dark depths of the shaft, but he could see nothing. “Maybe, if I throw in a stone, I might hit the gate of the magical castle,” he laughed. “At least I might get to find out if there is anyone at home.” Eddie moved away from the shaft entrance to search for a large stone and eventually came across a big, granite rock. He lifted it with both hands and bringing it to the opening of the shaft he flung it down with all his might. As he listened, he could hear the echo of the rock as it bounded downward, tumbling from one wall of the pit to another.
The large granite rock made a terrible confusion of noise and Eddie leaned his head over the hole to hear the stone reach the bottom. But, as Eddie leaned over the hole, he could still hear the rumbling of the tumbling rock and he was surprised to hear that it did not appear to be going away from him. The sound, instead, seemed to be coming louder and quite suddenly the stone shot out of the hole with as much force as it first entered the shaft. The large rock flew at Eddie, catching him totally by surprise, and hit him with great force full in his face. He was flung backward quite a distance where he lay motionless for a moment.
Eddie was still very dazed as he raised himself up from the ground and his eyes were a little out of focus. Perhaps it was concussion, but Eddie’s head was spinning violently, causing him to lose his balance. He lost his footing on the grass and soon found himself rolling down the side of Knocknashee Hill. He was now faking head over heels from one crag to another and descending faster with every roll of his body. Eddie finally came to a stop at the bottom of the hill, unconscious and unmoving. There he lay until early next morning when he was discovered by a local farmer.
At first sight the farmer was convinced he had come across a dead body, but there was a loud groan when the body was turned over. Even in the shadows of the branches of a white-thorn tree the farmer could see that the person was badly injured. The bridge of Eddie’s nose was broken quite seriously, which caused disfigurement to his entire face. There was blood dried on his face and upon the grass on which he had come to a rest after his fall. The blood came from the cuts that covered his head and hands, enhanced by a multitude of purple-black coloured bruises. Eddie’s eyes were swollen shut, blackened by deep blue and black colouring.
Although Eddie was nursed to full recovery, he was changed man. He no longer demonstrated the same bravado as he once had. He began to avoid those places associated with the fairies, especially after the sun began to set. On those few occasions when he found himself alone in lonely places, he would press hard to get home before it became too late. Even as Eddie hurried home he could not be diverted from his path, nor could he allow himself to be delayed by any person he met on the road. Never again did he seek out “The Good People” or ask questions about them. In fact, Eddie became quite introverted and avoided the company of others. Those who knew him had no knowledge of what had changed him, but some insisted that he had been touched by the fairies.
At Dromahaire Abbey, in County Leitrim, many years ago there was a man saying his prayers in a part of the sacred enclosure. It is said that, when he rose from his knees, he took an iron spoon that lay under a slab covering a grave and put his hand into a hole up to the shoulder and drew up a spoonful of the clay. This he wrapped up in paper and told people it was for a sick person who subsequently mixed it in water, and he drank it for a remedy. he declared that this was the grave of Father Peter and that he had been a very holy man.
There are many legends and superstitions that surround these beautiful ruins of Ardmore Abbey and its round tower. It was said to be Saint Declan who founded the original abbey and its tower, building the base course in one night, while on the second night he built it up to its second level, carrying it to the third level on the third night. But an angry old woman scolded the saint and asked, “Will you never be done?” Saint Declan immediately completed the final part of the structure finishing it off with a conical cap.
It was also said that Declan went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and on his return, as his ship approached Ardmore some gigantic pagans tried to prevent his landing and ran out to sea threatening him. But Declan transformed them into rocks, and they stand there to this day, forming a reef. At this time also, it is reported, that a large glacial boulder floated behind Declan’s ship all the way from Rome. It followed in the ship’s wake and lodged itself safely on a ridge near the ship and cried out, “The clerk forgot the bell,” whereupon they found the bell and his vestments on the rock although they had been left behind in Rome. The stone lies there until this day, resting upon an outcrop of local rocks on the shore, and it is said to work miraculous cures to those who rub their backs against it, or creep under it in the hollow between two supporting rocks. There is a warning, also, that anyone attempting to gain a cure with a stolen garment or having unabsolved sins on their soul will have the stone press down upon them and prevents their passage through.
At Ardmore, County Waterford, in the churchyard of the ancient and most interesting ruined abbey, they show the spot where it was said Saint Declan, the founder, was buried. It is walled around, but inside the soil has been excavated to a considerable depth in past times and the custodian of the place was selling the earth as a cure for sick people.
Also, in the graveyard the practice of creeping beneath stones is seen when a childless woman creeps under a tombstone in their quest to become mothers. (from ‘Notes on Irish Folklore’, Folklore vol.27, No.4, 1916, pp419-426: JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/ 1255596)
“Dar-Daol” (pronounced: Darr-Deel)…
A Tale of Old Dublin
A Tale of Lough Neagh
Lough Neagh is one of the largest and most beautiful bodies of water in the British Isles and lies in the centre of Ireland’s northernmost Province, Ulster. The waters of the lake are transparently blue in many places allowing you to see even small pebbles on the bottom, at a considerable depth. Near the southern end, a survey of the Lough bottom revealed cut stones that appear to have been laid in order, and careful observations have traced the remnants of the regular walls of a considerable sized structure. The Tradition of those who live on the shoreline tells us that this structure was once a castle, surrounded by a village, both of which succumbed to the expansion of the lake many generations past. In ancient times, it is said that the castle was owned by an Irish chieftain called Shane O’Donovan, who was noted for his bad character traits, such as being merciless in war, a tyrant in peace, feared by his neighbours, hated by his own family, and reviled by all for his inhospitality and lack of charity.
In those far off days, his castle stood by the bank of the lake, on an elevated promontory. It was almost an island, being joined to the mainland only by a narrow isthmus that stood at a small height above the level of the lake water. It is said that at one time an angel chanced to come into that part of Ireland, who had been sent from heaven to observe the people and to note their piety. Disguising himself in the clothes and body of a man, who was weary and footsore with travelling the country, the angel observed the castle from the hills above the lough and came down to boldly request a night’s lodging there. But his request was bluntly refused and, what’s more, the nasty and uncivil Shane O’Donovan set his dogs to bite the weary man. The angel immediately turned away from the castle, but he had no sooner passed through the castle gate than the villagers gathered around him and a contest began between them as to who should have the honour of entertaining the traveller.
The Angel made his choice and decided he would go to the house of a cobbler who was so poor that he had only one potato, and when he wanted another, he cut the one in two. Gratefully the heavenly visitor shared the cobbler’s potato and he slept on the cobbler’s floor, putting his feet onto the hearth to keep them warm. But as daylight dawned he rose, and called all the villagers together, led them out, across the isthmus to a nearby hill, and bid them look back. As they did so, they saw the castle and promontory separate from the mainland and begin to sink into the blue waters of the lough. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, the castle sank, while the waters rose around it. But the waters stood like a wall on every side of the castle and did not wet a single stone from the highest turret to its foundation. After some time, the entire wall of water had risen higher than the battlements and, as the angel waved his hand, the waves suddenly rushed over the castle and its sleeping inmates, punishing the O’Donovan for his lack of hospitality. When all was done, the angel pointed to a spot close by, telling the villagers that they were to build and prosper there. Then, as the awe-stricken villagers knelt before him, the traveller’s clothing became pure white and shining wings appeared upon his shoulders, and he rose into the air to vanish from their sight.
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A Tale of Divine Justice
After Oliver Cromwell’s ruthless attack on the Irish Catholic Population, every effort was made to ensure that the Catholic Mass and sacraments could not be celebrated by the faithful. The ‘Penal Laws’ introduced and enforced after William III’s victories, gave the persecution of Irish Catholics the protection of ‘Law’. As well as outlawing Roman Catholic religious rites, Catholic Bishops were banished from Ireland and Catholic priests had to register with the authorities to preach. All these actions by the English government made the practice of Roman Catholicism in Ireland both difficult and dangerous, and saw the creation of ‘Priest Hunters’. These were ruthless men who were paid to seek out and arrest unregistered priests and present them to the authorities, who would execute them in the most barbarous of ways. The following story is a tale about the fate that met one particular ‘Priest Catcher’ in the northern portion of the country.
Charlie McCann had been hunting down a large dog fox that had been preying on the chickens that he kept around his cottage, but he had lost its track and was angry that it had gotten away. On his way home he had been met Mrs. O’Brien and described to her the loss of his prey. While she too had suffered from the predations of the fox, Mrs. O’Brien was a woman who was always full of advice. “Charlie,” she began to say, “I think that bog, where your fox escaped, was the same place where a ‘Priest Catcher’ met his fate in the days of the Penal Laws.”
“By God, Mrs. O’Brien,” Charlie replied, “do you know that I have heard two different stories, and I have forgotten both. Perhaps, you could relate the story that you know?”
“I will to be sure,” replied Mrs. O’Brien. “There was once a poor priest, who was making his escape from danger as well as he could in those terrible times. He was terrified, tired, hungry, and filled with despair sore. As he was passing through Moneyreagh, he came across a small cabin that stood just off the side of the road and went inside, where he found a woman standing near the hearth cooking some food in a pot. Breathlessly he apologised for entering without invitation into her home and asked the woman if she could spare him something to eat, and somewhere where he could lie down for a while and get some rest. Poor though she was, the woman gave him the best of what she had, which was only a square of barley-bread, some milk, and some soup. In his hunger, the priest devoured what food he had and lay down in the cabin’s only bed, where he fell asleep in a very few minutes. But, about an hour later, the woman’s husband came home and was quite taken aback to see a stranger in the bed. His wife immediately explained the entire story to him. the man’s head was filled with the silver coin given as a reward for handing in the priest, and in his greed, he decided at that moment to go and inform the local authority. Without any bye or leave the man rushed as fast he could to see the local magistrate, who lived at Derrymartin, while his wife watched in disgust. She knew, well enough, what was in his mind, but she never said a word in protest. Instead, the poor woman thought and prayed about what she should do until, finally, she decided that she could run over to the house of Mr. Whitten and tell him the entire story. She was sure that although he was Protestant, like herself, he was a kind-hearted man who would not hurt the hair on the head of a priest or a bishop. After telling Mr. Whitten her story he told her to awaken the priest and send him over to his house immediately, where he would be waiting for him at the hall-door, and try to get him into the house without anyone seeing him. He also gave her a large coat for the priest to put over his own clothes as a disguise.
“Well, everything turned out alright, and no one in the house knew of the priest being there, except Mr. Whitten and his wife, and one servant that they both knew they could trust with the secret. Mr. Whitten had every intention, as soon as nightfall came, to take the fugitive to a safer place. Well, the priest-catcher set out on the very same path as your fox to bring the information he had to the local magistrate. On his return home, just as he was passing near the bog that you mentioned, he saw a bull running at full-speed toward him from across the field. The attack was so sudden that the poor man had no means of avoiding the charge and, so, turning around he made for the bog, and within seconds he found himself up to his chin in the sludge. Down he went, there being nothing to which he could hold on to. Throwing up his arms, his hands slapping at the water for a moment, and crying out to God for forgiveness, he was sucked down, and no trace of him was ever seen again. Meanwhile, Mr. Whitten kept the fugitive priest in his house for several days and then helped him on his way. But he didn’t let him go empty-handed.”
“I am sorry, Mrs. O’Brien, that the pathway across those lovely meadows has such a terribly dismal story associated with it. On the day of my first communion, some of my school friends and I myself went along that pathway to Derrymartin chapel. I remember seeing the fine and beautiful oil-paintings, one of which represented the ‘Nativity’, and another the ‘Healing the blind man’. There was also the style and beauty of the altar, which was so much better than any other altar I had seen. Father Prentice’s pleas to us about maintaining both piety and perseverance, gave us all a deep sense of prayerfulness and increased our faith that, indeed, the Lord was really present in the sacrament we were going to receive. It seemed in that moment to us, as children, that some presence converted the paintings, the altar and the sanctuary area into a paradise. It appeared to welcome us warmly and made us feel that we would have been glad to leave this world. But, unfortunately, all too quickly did life and the hardships of school return and cause that wonderful spiritual pleasure to vanish, causing reality to return. Nevertheless, Mrs. O’Brien, I suppose that the neighbours around him did not forget the great kindness shown by Mr. Whitten?”
“Indeed they did not,” Mrs. O’Brien told him, ” and they gave the same respect to all his descendants. In fact, it was because of this kindness that Tom Whitten’s life was later saved during the rebellion. Did you know that the old chapel where it all took place stood above the bridge yonder, between the river and the Killeagh road? Indeed, it’s not that long ago since I heard the old people talking about some of the ‘corner-boy ne’er-do-wells’ who would gather in an old dry sheugh outside the chapel to play cards during the Mass. They never moved until someone called to them that they better get up out of it because the priest was coming out. Now, wouldn’t their souls be in a nice state when the Lord would call upon them, and them not hearing the Mass with any devotion, and forgetting the struggle there was to keep the faith alive.”
An Old Irish Tale
In the County of Armagh, there was once a poor widow woman, who had an only son called Bernard, but known to all as ‘Bear’. There were some neighbours who would have had a good word for the boy and said that he was as sharp a boy as one would care to meet. There were others, however, that thought he was not much better than an idiot. His mother, meanwhile, was a hard-working woman who struggled night and day to ensure that there would be a roof over their heads. One day his mother called to him and told him, “ ‘Bear’, my son, bad luck is not very far from us these days. There is no food in the house, and the day will soon be here when the landlord will be coming around to collect our rent. So, I want you to take our white cow, for she is the poorest of the three, and bring her over to the fair, and sell her to whoever will give you the best price for her.”
‘Bear’ was very happy to undertake this task for his mother, because it was better fun to go to the fair than to work on the farm. He brushed his clothes down, cocked his hat, and he headed off to the fair whistling a merry tune, driving the white cow ahead of him along the road. It was still early morning. The sun was not yet high, and the dew was lying thick on the hedgerows. The birds were singing on either side of the narrow country road, almost as if they joining ‘Bear’ as joyfully whistled to himself as he walked. It was one of those beautiful mornings that made you feel good about life and ‘Bear’ soaked in the fresh morning air as he drove the white cow ahead of him.
After a while ‘Bear’ came to a stile and sitting on the top of this stile there was a little man who was scarcely two feet high, and he was dressed all in green with a small red cap lying beside him. “Good morning to you, ‘Bear’,” said the little man.
‘Bear’ answered him politely, just as his mother had taught him, but he wondered how this strange little man sitting in the bright sunshine knew that he was known to all as ‘Bear’. “And how much do you think you’ll get for the white cow at the fair?” the stranger asked.
This concerned ‘Bear’ even more as he began to wonder just how this little man knew about his business at the fair, as well as his name. “Well, my mother told me to get that I should get the best price I could,” he answered.
“Aye, but the best price for your cow may not be in gold or silver, young man. But, if you wait a bit, I’ll show you a thing or two worth that is worth seeing.” ‘Bear watched as the little man reached down into a deep pocket of his coat and brought out a tiny harp and a tiny stool. He set these on the top step of the stile and then he reached down into his pocket again, bringing out a ‘May Bug’ gently with his hand. The ‘May Bug’ was dressed in a tiny long-tailed coat and breeches, and the moment the little man set him on the stile, he drew the stool up in front of the harp and began to try the strings and tune them up. When ‘Bear’ saw this he was so surprised that he let out a great whoop of joy.
“Just wait a minute or two, for the story is not yet completed,” said the little man in green. He then took out a mouse dressed as a gentleman of quality, and a bumble-bee in a flowered silk skirt and overdress. The ‘May Bug’ began to play a tune, the mouse bowed to the bumblebee, she curtsied to him and the white cow he was driving before him. Then, as the sound of the joyful music filled the morning air, ‘Bear’ threw back his head and laughed loudly. In time with the music his feet began to jig, causing his hat to bounce on his head, and the even the cow herself began to jump about, waving her tail very happily.
After Barney had danced and laughed himself weak, the music came to an end. The dancers stopped to rest their weary legs, and Barney and the cow also stood still. “Well, and what do you think of that?” asked the little man.
“I think it’s a better sight than any that I’ll be seeing at the fair.”
“Listen to me now,” the little man said. “I am in a great need for a good cow. To tell you the truth, it is those who live under the hill who have sent me out to buy one, and if you want them, I will give you the little harp and the musician for your white cow.”
Barney looked at what he was being offered and scratched his head for a few moments before saying, “It’s not the sort of price my mother thought I’d be getting for the cow.”
“It’s a price that, eventually, will be worth more than gold and silver to you,” said the little man. A few minutes later ‘Bear’ gave the little man the cow and in exchange, he took the harp, the stool, and the little ‘May Bug’. When he took out his handkerchief and wrapped them up in it very carefully, he turned back to the little man and discovered that he had disappeared entirely. There was no sign of him or the cow anywhere.
“And that’s a curious thing, too,” said ‘Bear’ to himself as he set out for home. He put a get pace on his step and when he came within sight of the house, he saw his mother was at the window watching for him, and she came out to meet him.
“I see you sold the cow, son,” she said excitedly. “How much did you get for it?”
“Come inside and I’ll show you,” smiled ‘Bear’, eager to show his mother the treasures he had been given. They went into the house and Barney dusted off the table. Putting his hand in his pocket ‘Bear’ took out the handkerchief, untied it and put the harp, the stool, and the little musician upon the table. The ‘May Bug’ made a bow to Barney’s mother, then he seated himself and began to play. If ‘Bear’ had laughed the last time he had seen the performance, he roared even more loudly now. The old woman, too, began to laugh and that was something that she had not done for many a year before. She laughed until the tears ran down her face, and then she dropped weakly into an armchair and laughed some more. But, when the music finally came to an end, the old woman wiped the tears from her eyes, and she began to return to her normal self. Then, she remembered that the food cupboard was still bare and that the rent was still due to be paid to the landlord despite the wonderful objects that ‘Bear had brought home. “You worthless excuse for a man!” she cried out to her son. “Is that what you sold the cow for? Tell me how you expect us to fill our stomachs and pay the landlord with such nonsense as this?”
‘Bear’ couldn’t give an answer to his mother, for he didn’t have one. The money, however, had to be gathered some way or other, and the next morning, ‘Bear’s’ mother sent him off to the fair again, and this time it was the dappled cow he was driving before him, which was a much finer and larger cow than old ‘Whitey’ had been. As he came nearer and nearer the stile he kept looking and looking to see whether the little man in green was there. It was not until the young man came quite close to the stile that he spied him. There sat the small man on the top step in the sunlight, with his red cap lying beside him. “Well, how did your mother like the price you got for old ‘Whitey’?” the small man asked.
“She didn’t think very much of it, and the trouble I got into with her is all thanks to you.”
“Sure, don’t worry about it! The woman will be thankful enough someday for the price I paid you. Now, is the dappled cow for sale, too?”
“Aye, it is for sale but not to you,” answered ‘Bear’.
“Ah, ‘Bear’, ‘Bear’! I’m beginning to think you must be the eejit that some people call you. There’s no one can pay you as good a price as I can offer you. If you had this well-dressed gentleman of a mouse to dance to the music your mother would split her sides with laughter, and you can have him for yourself in exchange for that cow.”
‘Bear’ stood his ground and would not listen to any deal the little man put forward. But the little man coaxed and wheedled, until finally ‘Bear’ gave him the cow, and took the little mouse in exchange for it. When he reached home again, he found his mother was on the lookout for him. “How much money did you get for the cow?” she asked him.
‘Bear’ made no answer, but he untied his handkerchief, and let the little mouse step out on the table. The old widow looked at this new prize with its cocked hat under its arm, and with its claws on its hip, as he made a grand bow to her. She could say or do nothing but stare and grin with admiration. Then, ‘Bear’ put the ‘May Bug’ and the harp on the table too, and as soon as it had tuned up, it began to play, and the tune was pleasant that it caused his very heart dance in the bosom. The mouse then began to dance and twirl and jig up and down, and ‘Bear’ and his mother stood and laughed until they almost split their sides.
But after the tune ended, the old woman came to herself again, and she was a very angry soul. She began to cry just as hard as she had previously laughed, for both the white cow and the dappled cow were gone, and the landlord’s rent was no nearer to being paid than it had been two days before. But they had to have the money, and there was nothing left but to allow ‘Bear’ to set off the next day for the fair with the red cow, which was the finest of the three animals she once had. ‘Bear’ trudged along, driving the cow before him, and after a while, he once again came to the stile, and there, once again, was the little man in green seated upon it. “Good-day to you, ‘Bear’,” said he.
‘Bear’ never said a word.
“That’s a fine cow you have there,” said the little man, but ‘Bear’ trudged along the narrow road as though he had not heard him, and he never so much as turned his head. “No, ‘Bear’, just hold on a minute, friend,” the little man said. “We have made two bargains, and now we ought to make the third, for there is said to be good luck in odd numbers.”
‘Bear’ would have willingly walked on if he could, but when the little man said, “Wait a bit,” it seemed as though he were rooted to the ground, and he could not stir a step, however hard he tried. Then the little man began to beg and plead with ‘Bear’ to let him have the cow in exchange for the bumble-bee, and for a very long time, Barney continued to refuse. At last, however, he could hold out no longer and the trade was made. No sooner had the young man agreed and taken the bumblebee in his handkerchief than, “pouff!” the little man and the cow both disappeared like a warm breath on a window-pane.
‘Bear’ stared and wondered, and then he turned toward home again, but the nearer he came to the house the slower he walked, for he had some notion as to what his mother would have to say about the bargain he had made. Needless to say, things turned out just the way he had thought they would. When he first put the bumblebee and the others on the kitchen table, when the ‘May Bug’ began to play and the others to dance, his mother laughed and laughed as she had never laughed before in all her life. But when they stopped, and she had come to herself again, she was so angry that simply scolding the young man not enough punishment for him. She grabbed hold of a broom, and if ‘Bear’ had not run out and hidden in the cow byre, he would have had a beating that would have more than dusted his coat for him. However, what was done was done, and what they were to do now to get food and money was more than either of them could say. But the next morning, ‘Bear’ suddenly had a grand scheme in his head.
“Listen, mother, I have a great plan in mind that might bring us in a few pennies,” he said. “I will take the ‘May Bug’, the mouse and the bumble-bee with me to the fair to-day. When we are there the ‘May Bug’ will play the harp and the mouse and the bumble-bee will dance, and it may be the people will be so happy with their tricks that they will give me some pennies.” There was nothing better than this that she could think of, and so the widow gave her consent, and off Bear set for the fair. But I can tell you that if his heart was light his stomach was lighter, for he had had nothing to put in it that morning. He trudged along and trudged along the road, and after a time he came to the stile, and there was the little green man sitting on it just as he had sat before.
“Good-day, Bear,” the little man greeted him.
“Good-day, and bad luck to you,” answered Bear sternly. “It was a dirty trick you played on me when you took our three cows from me and gave me only such nonsense as I carry here in my pocket as payment.”
“Bear,” said the little man in a solemn tone, “I tell you that never again in all your life will you make as good a bargain as you made with me. I will tell you now, truthfully, that the price I paid you shall be the making of you.”
“Aye, and how will that come about?” asked Bear sarcastically.
“Sure, isn’t that what I came here to tell you,” replied the little man. “I’m sure that you already know that the king of Erin has a daughter.”
“Aye,” answered Bear.
“But you may not know that this princess is so beautiful that there never was likes of her seen anywhere in all the world before and that the poor girl is as sad as she is beautiful. It is feared, indeed, that unless something happens to cheer her up, she will grieve her life away. Therefore, the king, her father, has promised that whoever can make her laugh three times shall have her for his wife.”
“But what has all that to do with me?” asked Bear.
“What? Can’t you see that you may be the lad to raise the laugh from her and win her for your wife, and it is with the ‘ May Bug’, the mouse and the bumble-bee that you shall be able to do it.”
“Man dear isn’t that the truth!” exclaimed Bear slapping his leg, “there’s surely nobody in all of this world that could look at those creatures playing their wee tricks and keep a sober face on him.”
The little man then laid out to Bear exactly how he was to proceed and act, and Bear listened intently until he had made sense of all the little man had to say, and then in a flash, he vanished from sight, and Barney saw him no more. He now turned his face away from the direction of the fair and toward where the palace stood, and off he set, one foot before the other, just as fast as he could go.
After a long journey Bear and came to the place, he wished to go, and a very grand fine palace it was when he reached it. But in front of it, there was a strange, terrifying sight, which did nothing for Bear’s confidence or his will to continue. There in front of the door stood twelve tall stakes, and upon eleven of these stakes were eleven heads, but upon the twelfth stake, there was no head at all. Bear decided he would not stare long at this scene and, gathering all the courage he still had he went forward, marching up to the palace door and rapping it loudly with his stick. A few moments later it opened and there stood a man, all in gold lace, looking out at him. “What do you want here?” he asked.
“I have come to see the princess and to make her laugh,” Bearn answered boldly and with confidence.
“Well, you have a hard task before you,” said the man. “However, I am not the one to tell you can or can’t, and I will go and tell the king you are here.”
He went away and then presently he not much later he returned with the king at his side. The king looked at Bear intensely for a moment or two and then he said, “You are a fine stout lad, but I doubt that you are the one to make the princess laugh. Nevertheless, you can try if you wish, although there are certain conditions must know about before you begin. You must make her laugh three times before you can have her for a wife, and if you fail your head will be cut off and set upon a stake, for the princess has made me promise that this shall be the punishment for failure.” The king went on to tell him that eleven stout lads had already lost their heads,“and there they are to prove it,” he said, as he pointed to the stakes before the palace door.
Bear looked and saw again that the twelfth stake had nothing on it, and he liked the looks of it even less than before, for it seemed to him to be waiting for his head to be fitted on top. However, he was not the type of man to turn back at this stage and he told them, “Your majesty, I will give it a try, whether I succeed or fail.”
“Very well,” said the king; “and when will you try?”
“Now,” said Bear, “if you will just give me a moment or two.”
He then took out the ‘May Bug’, the mouse and the bumble-bee and tied them all together with a long piece of string, one in front of the other. Then, setting them on the floor, he took the end of the string in his hand. Now, when the king saw that, he began to laugh, and the man in gold lace began to laugh. They laughed and laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks and they had to wipe them away. “Do you know, boy,” said the king, “you may be the one to win the princess for a wife, after all.” With that they set off down a long hall, the king first, and the man in gold lace next, and, last of all, Bear with the three little creatures following.
At the end of the hall, there was a grand fine room with a grand fine throne placed in it. Upon the throne sat the princess, and she was looking very sad. And, all the ladies that were standing around her looked very sad too, for that was the polite and safest thing for them to do when she was sorrowful. She frowned deeply when she saw the king enter, and when she saw the man in gold lace follow, she scowled. But when she saw Bear in all his tattered clothes, holding one end of the string, and the three little creatures hopping along behind him, first she smiled and then she grinned, and then she threw back her head and let out such a laugh you could have heard it a mile away.
“That’s one!” cried Bear. Then he untied the little creatures and called for a table and set them upon it, and he drew out the harp and stool and gave it to the ‘May Bug’. It seated itself and tuned the harp, while the princess and all her ladies stared and stared. Then, it began to play and the mouse and the bumble-bee began to dance. They danced so fine and light, you’d have thought they’d had wings to their feet. At this spectacle, the princess let out a laugh that was twice as loud as the other.
“Thank you, princess,” said Bear, “that’s two.” But, at that, the princess stopped laughing and looked as glum as the grave. The ‘ May Bug’ played, the others danced, faster and faster, but not a third laugh could they get out of the princess, and it seemed as though Bear would lose his head after all. But the little mouse saw as well as Bear what was happening and suddenly, he whirled around and brought his tail, whack! across the bumble-bee’s mouth. That set the bumble-bee to coughing. It coughed and coughed as though it would cough its head off and the princess began to laugh for the third time. The more it coughed the more she laughed until it seemed as though she might die of laughing.
“That makes the third time,” cried Bear ecstatically, “and now I think you’ll agree that I’ve won the princess fairly.” Well, no one could deny that, so he was taken to another grand room in the palace and there he was washed and combed and dressed in fine clothes, and when that was done, he looked so brave and straight and handsome that the princess was glad enough to have him for a husband. They were married the next day, and a coach and four were sent to bring the old mother to the wedding. When she came and saw her own son, Bear, dressed in that way and holding a royal princess by the hand, she could hardly believe her eyes, and almost died of joy as the princess had of laughing. A great feast was held in celebration, and the little man in green was there, too, and feasted with the best of them, but nobody saw him for he had his red cap on his head, and that made him invisible
An Old Tale from the Annals of my Family
There was a time when every poor Irish peasant could tell you that he was the descendants of Chieftains and Kings, who were all beaten down by the vile English and had their lands stolen from them. Now, I am not going to tell you that my ancestry stretches back to one of the ruling families of old Ireland since I cannot trace my paternal or maternal line beyond ‘The Great Potato Famine in Ireland’, or as some would call it the ‘The Irish Genocide by the English.’ There are stories from days prior to the beginning of that terrible time that have been handed down but not earlier than the beginning of that century. It appears, after the failure of the ‘United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798’ the British Government decided to increase its military presence throughout the land. One area that saw an increase in the number of red-coated soldiers was the County of my forefathers, County Tyrone.
In the year of the ‘Union’, 1801, a certain regiment was ordered to Tyrone and was very soon dispersed over various districts of that County. One detachment was sent to be stationed in the townland of Sluggan, and their first impressions of that area were far from favourable. The detachment leader and his two assistants, however, soon discovered an Síbín (Shebeen), which was an illegal drinking place, where alcoholic drink was sold without a license and without having paid revenue to the government. This drinking den for the locals was based in the small thatched cabin where the soldiers had been sent to be billeted. One night, soon after arriving, the three soldiers began to discuss the types of leisure-time amusement that were on offer, and they were quite quickly disappointed with what they found.
Under the instructions of their military superiors, the three men were not allowed to associate with the locals or get too friendly with them because of their rumoured rebellious nature. They sought further entertainment to keep them amused but, for them, there was no hunting, no shooting, no gaming, no horses to ride, no lively young ladies that they might flirt with. It should be understood, military men in those days rarely had an interest in literature, but books suddenly became very important to these men and, when they had read the few they had, they sent to the nearest town, which was quite a distance away, for more. Unfortunately, reading is not the sort of active amusement that young, healthy men truly yearned for.
One evening the three soldiers took a walk along some of the tracks and boreens of the district, and their faces soon brightened when they saw a local peasant boy, wearing a shabby hat, a torn coat, and a pair of britches that were held together by a single button and a rope belt. As he paraded merrily along his way, he was whistling a merry tune and, in one hand dangled two fine-looking trout in one hand. In his other hand he was waving a long ‘switch’, and he marched along the track with his curly red hair blowing over his bright, rosy-cheeked face in the fresh breeze. He was a picture of health and of careless happiness.
“Hello! My fine fellow! Where did you catch these trout?” asked the leading soldier.
“Now, your honour, in the small lake, just over ‘thonder’,” replied the boy with a smile, pointing back along the track
“’Thonder!’ Where the devil is that?”
“Do you see ‘thone’ hills? Well, just behind them hills there’s the lake with plenty of fish. By Jaysus, if I had but a decent fishing-rod, and something more sensible than a crooked pin!’
“Aren’t you a handsome intelligent boy! What are you called?’
‘Patrick McCoille, if pleases your honour.’
‘Well, Paddy, if you will show us the trout lake, I’ll give you a shilling.’
Paddy McCoille had heard of a shilling, but he had never yet seen one, so he was overjoyed at the prospects of getting one. He not only showed them the small lake but made rush-baskets to carry the fish they caught. He told the three soldiers tales, sung them songs, and, by his good-humour and love of fun, very much enlivened their stay at Sluggan. He was very happy to be at the centre of the soldiers’ attention and was happy to be doing anything for them that gained him a few coppers. Now, when the time came for the soldiers to leave the district, Paddy was genuinely sorrowful at their going. The soldiers decided that they could help the young lad by recruiting him as a boy soldier in the regiment.
In those days there was no much money in a family of Roman Catholic, Irish Peasants, and Paddy’s mother encouraged him to begin a military career as a fifer in the British Regiment. There he would get clothes, shoes, a bed of his own, and three good meals a day. When he was older, Paddy entered the ranks full-time and became valet to a Captain Chalmondley-Rowbotham. Within months Paddy’s extraordinary intelligence and military bearing brought quick promotion to the rank of Sergeant. There was a war with France at this time, of course, and on two occasions he showed great courage and wisdom while leading a detachment of men in battle. As a result, Paddy was unanimously put forward for officer training and once again succeeded in gaining the promotion. Despite his rapid rise through the ranks, however, he retained the good opinion and friendship of all who had been former comrades.
It is said that Paddy was considered by many to be a handsome man and, as we have seen a very clever person. What he lacked in education he took advantage of every opportunity to improve himself. But no one is perfect, and Patrick McCoille became extremely ambitious and ever vainer. He came to a point in his ‘new’ life that he did not want to remain in a situation where his very humble origins were so well known, and he finally transferred to another regiment, where he soon became equally as popular with his new companions as he had been with his old friends. Eventually, however, war with France came to an end and Paddy’s financial status quickly fell below that which he had been used to. He needed a new life and he decided to use his long-held talents to help him seek out a fortune and further growth in his social status.
With the peace gained, Paddy settled himself in a town that lay along the north coast of France and began to seek a wife that would bring with her position and wealth. He did not have long to wait. Having become a fluent French speaker and his quick wits helped him greatly to open many doors which were closed the higher born, but less talented army companions. Before very long, he met the widow of a wealthy hotelkeeper who, though twenty years his senior, gave him clear signals that all he needed to do was to propose. Whether this was a case of him being greedy or a real case of love, it is hard to say. Nevertheless, they married, and lived together for three years, during which he was both affectionate and kind to her. Then, when his wife died, she left him all that she had, which, although much less than he had hoped for, made up, together with his army pension, a reasonably good income.
Although this amount of income would have represented a mere pittance to most men, it was a fortune to such an adventurer. Armed with this money and his natural talents, Paddy set out for Paris, where he made a great impression upon a young and beautiful widow who held a high situation within French society, and very soon after they met the two were married. One problem arose, however, during the nuptial preparations when the lady objected to his name.
“McCoille!” she cried, (pronouncing it as M’ecole — My School); “I cannot allow myself to accept such a name in my social circle. It is demeaning!”
“Well, my dear, I am very sorry about that, but it is my name.”
“Does your family not possess a title?”
“None,” said Paddy, who now insisted on being called Patrick.
“What, then, is the name of your father’s estate?”
Patrick’s thoughts turned to the small thatched cabin in which he had passed his childhood. He recalled the pig that had once been a playmate before it was delivered to the landlord to pay the rent. He remembered his father, in his long, heavy coat, with a hay-band round his hat, and his mother, dressed in fluttering rags which so many of the Irish peasantry thought added smartness to their dress. After so many years he, perhaps, thought with regret of the warm, loving hearts that had beat beneath in their breasts, so fond and so proud of him. With quiet dignity, he told her, ‘Sadly, my love, it is no longer in our family.‘
“But,” persisted the lady, “you were born near some village, or in some place that had a name?”
“The townland of Sluggan was where we lived.”
“Fantastique! That is just what is needed! You will call yourself the Baron de Sluggan!”
“Of course, and why not? I shall not object to being called ‘De Sluggan’”.
She accordingly had her cards printed ‘La Baroness de Sluggan,’ and her husband, who had a great love of his family name, now became known to all as ‘Baron McCoille de Sluggan’. One of these cards is preserved as a memento by one of my relatives and Paddy’s adventures are frequently repeated at wakes, weddings, and other family gatherings.