“Saved by a Pipe! Yes, by God,” said Charlie Hannon one night as we sat at a wake. “Let me tell you, there’s a powerful lot of strange things to be seen and felt, and don’t let anyone tell me that there’s not!”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, Charlie,” said I.
Without even recognising that I had answered him, Charlie continued, “The night my father died I went to Dungannon for to get pipes and tobacco for the wake, and to tell my sister that lived there about the death of our da. Well, I left the house about eight o’clock, or thereabouts, for as you know I had a long road to travel – aye, fifteen miles if it’s an inch. I went by the Rock, for I had a fine lump of a mare with me that I had bought at the time. Her name was Sally, and sure there wasn’t another horse the likes of her to be had in all the parish. Now, it was pretty late when I left Dungannon, between midnight and one o’clock at least, but I didn’t hear or see a thing until I came as far as the wood on this side of Rock. We must have been just in the middle of it when the mare suddenly stopped, and she gave three snorts out of her nostrils. Well, as you know, I never was one to be afraid of anything, but I thought to myself that if maybe there’s something unnatural roaming around here now? You see, I never have known Sally to be afraid of anything dead or alive before that night.”
“’ Go on Sally,’ says I and patted her gently on the neck with my hand. But, the devil a bit would the poor mare stir. She just kept snorting, and snorting, and going back and back. ‘ Be you devil or sent by him!’ cries I, ‘man or beast, or whatever you are, get out of the mare’s way and let me get home to me father’s wake with the pipes and tobacco for the neighbours who are waiting for them.’ But, devil the answer did I get. Things were not looking good, I thought to myself, and what am I going to do now? It was then that I remembered that it was the right thing to do, to put a pipe in the lining of your hat whenever you come across anything unnatural. Sure, I had a couple of the pipes in the pocket of my coat that I couldn’t fit in the box and I put down my hand and took one up and put it inside the lining of my hat. Well, by all that’s holy! I had no sooner done that than up came a man on horseback.
“It was a clear night, and I swear that he must have come up out of the road itself, for there neither one thing or another that moved there before that. Sally kept on snorting and the man rode on past on my left. But just as he was passing, he stretched out one hand to me and pulled up his horse with the other, without speaking a word. ‘Here,’ says I, reaching him a pipe, ‘take it, if that’s what you want, and for God’s sake leave me alone.’ Well, he took the pipe, but as soon as he heard God’s name, he and his horse rose up into one big lump of fire, and the noise that was made as the fire struck against the wall along the roadside, was the fiercest thing I ever heard. And I hope that I never will hear the like of it again. The rattle of the stones falling, and the whizzing of the fire through the trees, is still in my ears yet.
“Sally went on, then, happy enough, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m all right now.’
“But I was mistaken. I hadn’t moved but a foot or two until I felt something jumping up behind me on the mare, and I felt two hands around my back, and a cold breath on my neck behind. As I told you I never used to be afraid, but the fear of God was put in to my heart that night. The poor mare’s back was bending with the dreadful weight of the thing behind me. I tried to shake off the hold it had of me, but not a budge I was able to do at all, one way or another. I didn’t know, what in heaven, I was going to do. I wasn’t able to speak, and the mare wasn’t able to move. But praise be to God ! I wasn’t long that way until who should I see standing beside me on the road but the man on horseback that I had given the pipe to. He had no horse with him this time, but he had a whip in his hand. ‘Get off, immediately ‘ says he to the thing behind me.
“The Devil an answer did he get. ‘I tell you again,’ says he, getting very cross, and raising the whip above his head, ‘get off.’
“No answer. ‘For the third, and last, time,’ says he, in a terrible rage now, entirely, ‘I tell ye to get off.’
“Not a word did the thing behind me speak, nor a budge did it put out of itself. When the man seen that it wouldn’t come off, he began slashing, and slashing at it, and every slash he gave, I saw the fire rising above my head until at last I felt the weight go off the mare, and I knew I was rid of it. ‘Go home now,’ said the man, crying, ‘you won’t be troubled any more, but take my advice and don’t be out so late at night again by yourself.’”
This story is concerned with the fate of a wealthy farmer, who lived in some comfort on land that lay in the west of Ireland. Through his own efforts he had built a large farm and a fine family, none of whom wanted for anything. Many men would have considered themselves to be particularly blessed if they had found themselves in a position that was comparable to his. But, he did not consider himself to be a lucky man and preferred to say that he was able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour, and for many years the evils of ill-health and sorrow were kept away from the doors of the family home.
The story begins, however, one day in the middle of the harvest as he was supervising a group of workers who were cutting and gathering hay in the large meadow close to the main farmhouse. It was a very hot day in the meadow and the farmer sat himself down among the hay bales and drank a cooling cup of buttermilk. After easing his thirst, the farmer took the opportunity to stretch out on several bales of fresh cut hay and fell asleep under the warm sun in a cloudless sky. The birds flew in the air and tweeted their peaceful songs, serenading the sleeping farmer for the next few hours. But, as the farmer slept, his workers gathered in all the cut hay and made their way home after another satisfying hard day’s work.
The farmer had lain in the full glare of that hot sun for several hours. When he finally awakened, and sat up, the farmer did not realise where he was, at first. When he recovered his senses fully, however, the farmer realised that he was in the field at the rear of the main house. Raising himself up from the hay bales, he stretched his legs and then began walking toward the farmhouse to get some shade, and some food. But, he had not travelled very far when he began to feel a severe pain in his side, which he immediately blamed on his extended sleep among the hay bales. By the time he had arrived at the house he was feeling a chill in his body and he immediately made his way to the ‘range’, sitting in a chair close by and trying to warm himself a little. As he sat there, his daughter came to him and asked him quietly, “Where were you, father?”
“I fell asleep in the sunshine for a while, sweetheart,” he told her. “I laid myself down upon the fresh cut bales of hay that were in the meadow and I simply closed my eyes.”
“But, what has happened to you, Father?” the young girl asked anxiously. “You don’t look at all well.”
“Damn it,” snarled the farmer, “I don’t know what happened to me, but I have the strangest feelings inside of me. Believe me, daughter, I can tell you that I have never felt like this before, but I hope to feel much better after a good sleep.” With these words he got up slowly from his seat and made his way upstairs to his bedroom, where he undressed for bed and went to sleep. It was a deep and sound sleep that lasted until the sun was well up in the sky the following morning.
When the farmer wakened from his sleep the next morning, he found his wife was sitting at the side of his bed. “What was wrong with you that caused you to sleep so deeply, and for such a long time?”
“I don’t know, my darling” he told her in a voice that sounded very tired and downcast. Getting himself dressed, the farmer went down to the kitchen, where his daughter was making a cake of soda-bread for breakfast.
Once again, he sat in the comfortable chair beside the ‘range’ and his daughter quietly asked, “How are you feeling this morning, Daddy? Are you feeling any better than you were last night?”
With a loving expression on his face, he looked up at his daughter and gave her a little smile. “I had a very good sleep,” he told her in a positive tone of voice. “But, in all honesty, I don’t feel one bit better than I did last evening. You know, it is almost like there is something inside me that seems to be constantly on the move, and it is making me ill,” he said.
“But, Daddy, that’s impossible,” she said to him quite sternly. “It is simply a cold that you have caught while lying outside on the new mown hay. But, if you are not better by this evening I am going to get mammy to send for the doctor.”
The Farmer said nothing that would dissuade her from following her course of action. He only knew that he was in almost constant pain, although he didn’t know for certain where the terrible pain originated. One moment he felt the pain coming from one part of his body and then, in the next minute, the source of the pain appeared to have moved elsewhere. So, it continued throughout the day and when evening came the farmer did not feel even the slightest bit of relief in his condition. In response the farmer’s wife sent for the doctor to come as soon as possible and attend to her husband’s illness. However, for some unknown reason the wait for the doctor became quite prolonged, and the farmer became increasingly concerned about what might happen to him. His wife and daughter, in the meantime, were doing everything they could to keep up the man’s spirits.
Finally, the doctor arrived at the house, and asked the farmer how he felt. The farmer replied that it was hard to explain, but it felt as if a creature of some sort was leaping and jumping about inside his stomach, causing him to feel very ill. Taking off all the sick man’s clothes the doctor gave him a thorough examination but could not discover anything untoward. He put his ear to the man’s side and to his back, but he could hear nothing, despite the pleas of, “Now! now! don’t you hear it? Now, aren’t you listening to it jumping?“
The doctor could hear nothing abnormal and began to wonder if his patient was now losing his mind. He was certain that there was nothing wrong with the farmer and he told the farmer’s wife that this was the case. The doctor did tell her that he was worried about the anxieties that her husband was suffering, and that he would send her some medicine the next day that would give him a good, soothing sleep and help settle any fever he may have.
True to his word, the doctor sent the medicine and the poor man took it and he did manage to get another good sleep. But, when he awoke in the morning he was feeling worse than ever, although he could no longer hear the creature jumping about inside him. Once again, the doctor was sent for and, when he came, he was unable to do anything for the patient. The poor man gained no relief from all the medicines that the doctor left with him. At the end of the week the doctor returned to check-up on his patient, but again found him in a worse condition than he was in before. Again, he was unable to do anything for the man, and he was at a complete loss as he tried to diagnose the illness that the man had contracted. “I will not be taking any more of your money from you,” he told the farmer’s wife, “because I can do nothing for your husband, and because I don’t know what is wrong with him, I will not pretend that I do. I will continue to come to see him from time to time, but I will not take any money from you.”
The Farmer’s wife flew into a rage and scarcely had the doctor left the house until she called everyone around her to hear what she had to say. “That Doctor Braddock is not worth a sixpenny bit,” she told them. “Do you know that he told me that he wouldn’t take any money from me again, and he himself told me that he knew nothing about anything. So, to hell with him, he’ll not cross over my door again, and we will get another doctor. I don’t care how far we have to travel, but we must get him.” Everybody in the house agreed with what she had said, and they sent for another doctor. But, when he came he was no better a physician than the other. The new doctor, however, had no qualms whatsoever about taking their money. He came often to see the sick man, and every time he came he would have some new and longer name to give this sickness. The doctor did not know the meaning of these names himself and nobody else knew what they meant, because he had created them just to frighten the ignorant. They remained that way for two months, without once knowing what ailed the poor farmer. When they decided, finally, that this doctor was doing him no good they got another doctor, and another doctor, until there was not a doctor in the entire county who had not been consulted.
The farm lost a lot of money over the employment of these doctors. A great number of cattle had to be sold to get the cash to pay their fees. For over six months they had kept doctors attending him and giving him various medicines. In the meantime, the farmer that was once stoutly built and well-fed grew bare and thin until, at last, there was hardly an ounce of flesh upon him, just skin and bones only. He grew so ill that he became scarcely able to walk. His appetite was gone, and he had great trouble swallowing a piece of soft bread or drinking a small cup of milk. Everyone who had witnessed his health failing said that it would be a blessing if he was to die rather than continue to suffer, for he was now only a feint shadow of his former self.
One day the poor farmer was sitting on a chair in the doorway of the house, sunning himself in the heat of the day, and everyone else in the house had gone out, leaving him alone. Up toward the door a poor old beggar man who used to travel from place to place seeking whatever charity he could obtain. He thought that he recognised the man sitting in the chair, but he had changed so much in his appearance that the beggar man was unsure. “I’m here again, asking or whatever you might find it in your heart to give me,” said the beggar man. “But, what in the name of God ever happened to you, because you are not the same man that I saw here six months ago, may God help you !“
” Ah, now, Seamus,” said the sick man, “I don’t know what has happened to me, but I know that I won’t be in this world much longer.”
“Sure, it is terribly sorry I am to see you how you are,” said the beggar man. “Tell me how this all began, and what do the doctors say.”
“Doctors?” snapped the sick man, “My curse upon them all, though I should not be cursing, and me so near the grave.”
“Perhaps,” said the beggar man, ”I can find a way to help you, if you were to tell me how it all began. I am a knowledgeable man when it comes to diseases and the herbs to cure them.“
The sick man smiled and said wearily, “There isn’t a medicine man in the county that I haven’t had in this house looking at me, and haven’t I sold half of my cattle to pay them. Not one of them could give me a moment’s relief with all their medicines and concoctions. But I’ll tell you how this all began.” He then proceeded to give the beggar man an account of everything he felt, and about everything the doctors had prescribed.
The beggar man listened intently to the sick man and, when he had finished his story, he asked, “What sort of field was it that you fell asleep in?”
“It was a meadow at the time, but it was just after being cut.”
“Was it wet?” questioned the beggar man.
“It was not,” said the sick farmer.
“Was there a little stream or a brook of water running through it?” asked the beggar man.
“There was,” says he.
“Can I see the field ?”
” You can, to be sure, and I’ll show it to you,” said the sickly farmer and, as bad as he was, he rose off his chair and pulled himself along until he came to the place where he had lay down to sleep that fateful summer’s evening. The beggar man spent a long time examining the place and then he stooped down over the grass, going backwards and forwards with his body bent, and his head down, groping among the herbs and weeds that were growing thickly in it.
The beggar man rose at last saying, “It is as I thought.” At this he stooped down again to search some more. When he raised his head a second-time he held in his hand a small green herb and asked, “Do you see this? Any place in Ireland where this herb grows you can be sure that there’s an Alpluachtra nearby, and you, my friend, have swallowed an Alpluachtra.“
“How do you know that” asked the sickly farmer. ” If that was so, sure the doctors would have told me before now!“
“The doctors!” laughed the beggar man scornfully. “Would you ever have a bit of sense. Sure, each of those boys is nothing more than a clown. I tell you again, and believe me, that it’s an Alpluachtra you have swallowed. Sure, didn’t you say yourself that you felt something leaping in your stomach the first day after you being sick? That was the Alpluachtra, and because he was in a strange place, he was a little uneasy. He was moving here and there for those first couple of days until he could settle himself in comfortable place. That creature is the reason why you remain so thin, for every bit of food you eat, the Alpluachtra is getting the good out of it, not you. You said yourself that one side of you was swollen, well that’s the place where the nasty thing is living.”
The sickly farmer would not believe him at first, but the beggar man kept on talking and trying to prove that it was the truth he was speaking. When the farmer’s wife and daughter came back to the house the Beggar man told them the same thing and they were ready enough to believe him. The sick man put no faith in the diagnosis, but they all prevailed on him to call in three doctors together and tell them this new story. They all came together to listen to what the beggar man was saying, but they all laughed at him, the farmer’s wife, and the farmer’s daughter, calling them fools. They said it was something else that was causing the farmer’s illness and gave that illness names that were twice or three times as long as ever before. They left the sick man a bottle or two of medicine to drink and they left, still laughing at the idea that these people believed the patient had swallowed an Alpluachtra.
When the doctors left the beggar man spoke again, “I doesn’t surprise me that you are not getting any better, if it’s fools like them that have been left to take care of you. There is not a doctor or a man of medicine in all of Ireland that can help you now. There is only one man, O’Donnell, who is known as the Prince of Killough and who lives on the shore of Lough Ree, that is the best doctor in all the provinces of Ireland.”
“Where is Lough Ree?” asked the poor man.
“It’s in the West,” the beggar man told him. “It’s a big lake and he lives on its shores. Take my advice and go there immediately for he is your last hope you have, and you Ma’am should make him go, if you wish your man to live.”
” By God! ” the woman told him, “I’ll do anything that will cure him.”
“If so, send him to the Prince of Killough,” he insisted.
“I’d do anything that will cure me,” said in a weak voice, “for I know I haven’t got long to be in this world if I don’t get some relief, or without something being done for me.“
“Then go to the Prince of Killough,” urged the beggar man. “Anything that you think would do yourself good, you ought to do it father,” the daughter advised.
“There’s nothing will do him any good but to go to the Prince of Killough,” said the beggar man.
The beggar man stayed in the house that night and, the next morning, he began to argue again that the farmer should go to the ‘Prince’. With the support of the wife and the daughter the beggar man managed to prevail upon the farmer to go. The daughter said that she would go with him to take care of him, and the beggar man said that he would accompany them to show them the road. “And I will be at my wit’s end worrying about you, until you come back to me cured,” said the farmer’s wife.
After harnessing the horse, the sick man was placed on the cart along with food for the journey, and they set out their journey. They could not go far the first day, for the sick man was so weak that he could not bear the shaking he was suffering in the cart. He was better the second day, and they all passed the night in a farmer’s house at the side of the road, leaving again the next morning. On the evening of the third day, they came to the house of the ‘Prince’.
It was a nice house, sitting on the edge of the lake, among a thicket of trees, and covered with a straw roof. They left the horse and cart in a nearby village, and they all walked together, until they came to the house. They went into the kitchen and asked if they could see the ‘Prince’. The servant they asked informed them that he was eating a meal, but he might come when he was ready. At that moment, the ‘Prince’ entered and asked his visitors what it was they wanted. The sickly farmer rose up and told him that he was in dire need of the ‘Prince’s’ help, and he began to tell him his whole story. “And now I ask if you can help me?” he asked when he came to the end of his story.
“I hope I can,” said the ‘Prince’, “anyhow, I’ll do my best for you, as you came so far to see me. It wouldn’t be right for me not to do my best. Come up into the parlour with me. The thing that old man told you is the truth. You swallowed an Alpluachtra, or something else. Come up to the parlour with me.”
He brought the sickly farmer up to the parlour with him, and it happened that the meal he had that day was a big piece of salted beef. He cut a large slice off it, and put it on a plate, and gave it to the poor man to eat. “Hold on! What are you doing?” asked the farmer, “I haven’t eaten so much as a crumb of meat in the last three months, because I can’t eat anything.”
“Would you be quiet for a moment?” replied the ‘Prince’, “Just you eat what I tell you!” The poor farmer ate as much as he was able, but when he set the knife and fork down the ‘Prince’ made him take them up again and begin anew. He kept the poor man there eating until he was ready to burst and, at last, he was not able to swallow another bit, even if he were to get a hundred pounds for doing so. When the ‘Prince’ saw that the farmer would not be able to swallow any more, he brought him out of the house. He told the farmer’s daughter and the old beggar man to follow them, and he took them all out to a fine green meadow, which had a little stream of water running through it.
He brought the sick man to the edge of the stream, and told him to lie down on his stomach over the stream, and to hold his face over the water, to open his mouth as wide as he could, and to keep it nearly touching the water. “Wait there quiet and easy,” said the ‘Prince’. “For the sake of your life do not move until you see what will happen to you.“
The poor man promised that he would be quiet, and he stretched his body on the grass and held his mouth open, over the stream of water. Meanwhile, the ‘Prince’ went to fetch the daughter and the old man with him, and the last word to the sick farmer were, “Be certain, and don’t make a move, whatever happens to you.”
The sick man was not lying like that for more than a quarter of an hour, when something began moving inside of him, and he felt something coming up in his throat, and going back again. It came up and went back three or four times after other. At last it came to the mouth, stood on the tip of his tongue, but was frightened, and ran back again. However, after a few moments, it rose up a second time, and stood on his tongue, and at last jumped down into the water. The ‘Prince’ was watching him closely, and just as the man was going to rise, he called out to him, “Don’t move yet.”
The poor man had to open his mouth again, and he waited the same way as before. He was not there a minute until the second one came up the same way as the last and went back and came up two or three times, as if it got frightened. But at last, it also, like the first one, came up to the mouth, stood on the tongue, and when it felt the smell of the water below it, leaped down into the little stream.
The ‘Prince’ whispered, “Now the thirst’s coming on them; the salt that was in the beef is working them now and they’ll come out.” And before the words had left his mouth, the third one fell, with a plop, into the water; and a moment after that, another one jumped down, and then another, until he counted five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
“There’s a dozen of them now,” said the ‘Prince’, “that’s the clutch, but the old mother didn’t come out yet.” The sick man was getting up again, but the ‘Prince’ called to him, “Stay as you are. The mother didn’t come up.”
He remained as he was, but no other one came out, though he stayed there for more than a quarter of an hour. The ‘Prince’ himself was becoming uneasy for fear the old Alpluachtra might not come out at all. The poor farmer was so tired and so weak that he wished to get up and, despite all the ‘Prince’ told him, he was trying to stand on his feet. The ‘Prince’ caught him by one leg, and the beggar man by the other, and they held him down against his will. They remained there for another quarter of an hour without speaking a word, or making a sound, and at the end of that time the poor man felt something stirring again in his side, but it felt seven times worse than before. He hardly keep himself from screaming out. The creature kept moving for a good while, and he thought the side was being torn out of his body. Then, it began coming up, and it reached the mouth, and went back again. At last, it came up so far that the poor man put two fingers into his mouth to try and catch hold of it. But if he put in his fingers quick, the old Alpluachtra went back quicker.
“Oh, you buck eejit!” cried the ‘Prince’, “What made you do that? Didn’t I tell you not to make a move? Now, remain quiet if she comes up again.” They had to remain there for half an hour, because the old mother of the Alpluachtras was scared, and she was afraid to come out. But she came up at last, perhaps, because she was too thirsty to withstand the temptation of the water, or perhaps she missed the company of her children. Whatever the reason, she came up to his mouth, and stood there for almost a minute, and when she felt safe, she jumped down into the water. The ‘plop’ of her into the water was seven times heavier than those of her children.
The ‘Prince’ and the other two had been watching everything and scarcely dared to breathe, but as soon as she entered the water, they pulled the man back, and had him standing again on his own two feet. It was three hours before he could speak a word, and the first thing he said was, “I’m a new man.” The ‘Prince’ kept him in his own house for a fortnight and giving him good care and feeding. Then, he allowed the farmer to return home with his daughter and the beggar man, and he refused even to take as much as a penny from them.
“I’m more pleased than anything that I was able to cure you, and I don’t want even a penny from you,” said the ‘Prince’, “You lost plenty on so-called doctors already.”
They all returned home safely, and he became healthy and fat. He was so thankful to the poor beggar man that he kept him in his own house until his death. For as long as he was alive, he never lay down on green grass again. Moreover, if he ever felt any sickness or ill-health again, he never once called a doctor to him. Is it any wonder?
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 asovereign 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 tohim, ‘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.”
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of types and breeds of Cat which share this world with us. Among all these many natural types and breeds of feline, however, there are those from the world of the supernatural, which have particularly wicked and evil ways. The Cat Sidhe, (Cat Sìth-Scottish Gaelic) is one such has become a part of Celtic mythology, which is said to look like a large black cat with a white spot on its chest, that and mainly haunts rocky high ground. Although the greater number of legends associated with these creatures are to be found within the tales of Scottish folklore, there are a few stories that occur within the folklore archives of Ireland. It is customary within Irish folklore that such creatures as these are considered as demons, or witches’ “familiars”, that adopt the disguise of a cat to gain easy entry into human residences. And, once inside the homes of mortals, they can spy on all that happens and, thereby, bring about a range of terrible events. The idea of the Cat Sidhe (‘Fairy Cat’) may have been originally inspired by the presence of the European Wildcat in the lands of the Celts. In those days the Wildcat was a much more numerous and widespread animal than it is now. Much like the wolf, it is extinct in Ireland but the memory of the large, all black cat with the white spot prominent on its chest, still lingers. Known as the ‘Demon Feline’ by some it was a creature never to be trusted. It was even thought capable of stealing a person’s soul before it could be claimed by God, and in several areas would hold special wakes to keep the creature away from the corpse before it was buried. At these, the people would play music, and all sorts of games to distract the Cat Sidhe away from the room in which the corpse lay. At the same time, no fires were lit in the room where the body lay for, it was said, the ‘Demon Feline’ was attracted by warmth. Although never to be trusted when encountered, legend tells that on the feast of ‘Samhain’ the Cat Sidhe would bless any house that left a saucer of milk out or it to drink. But for those houses that did not leave out a saucer of milk, there was only a curse as a reward, such as having the cow’s milk dry-up. Such things, of course, led many to believe that the Cat Sidhe was a witch that could transform at will into a cat and back again nine times. It was said that should a witch choose to go back into their cat form for a ninth time, they would remain a cat for the rest of their days, and hence the tradition of the cat having nine lives.
The ‘Demon Feline’, however, came into its own when ancient rituals for calling up the dead were practiced. From tribe to tribe these rituals varied, but generally involved torture or cruelty to animals and humans and, occasionally, included animal sacrifice. It was not unknown in some of these rituals for the bodies of cats to be roasted alive over the course of several days and nights. All these rituals were carried out to summon legions of spirits or demons in the form of black cats, with the devil at their head, to answer questions concerning the future. The following tale from Ireland, called ‘The Fisherman’s Wife’, recalls an encounter with one of these ‘Demon Felines’ and the difficulties that she faced before overcoming the demon. In the West of Ireland, there once lived a woman, whose fisherman husband was an industrious worker who also had good knowledge of the sea and knew where to find the best catches. He worked hard to ensure that his wife was always well supplied with a great variety of fish that she could clean, cure, store, and make ready for sale in the market. But, despite her husband’s good fortune, this woman’s life was not at all a happy one because, when the husband was out fishing, she was being constantly tormented by a huge black cat that would make its way into the house, where it would greedily devour all the best and finest fish that she had prepared for market. Finally, she decided that if she was to successfully fight off this creature, then she needed to arm herself with a large, thick stick, and with it, in her hands, she would patiently await the cat’s next entrance. Then, one day, unexpectedly, as she was sat in the house gossiping with another woman from the village, the entire house suddenly fell into great darkness and the front door of the house burst open as if blasted by a great wind. Through the open doorway and into the house the huge black monster of a cat strolled, triumphantly marching all the way up to the glowing fire. When he reached the hearth, this demon cat turned toward the two women with a grimace on its face and roared like a lion. “Oh, dear God! Sure, it’s the devil himself!” screamed a young girl who was sorting fish on a bench not far away. “I’ll teach you to call me names, woman!” snarled the huge, black cat and it leaped at the girl, scratching her arm deeply with its huge claws and caused blood to flow from the wound. A diabolical laugh echoed through the house as the cat sneered, “There, now, woman! You’ll hold a much more civil tongue in your head the next time a gentleman, the likes of myself, calls on you!” Saying those words, which rang loudly in the young girl’s ears, the demon cat jumped at the open door, slamming it closed again to prevent any of his captives from escaping. The cat deemed it vital now that the wounded young girl was crying hysterically from the fright and the pain she had been caused. Now, with this one terrifying leap, the huge black cat had cut-off every possible route of escape for the women.
Just as the monster slammed the front door shut, a man, who was passing by the house, was stopped in his tracks by the series of loud cries and screams that were coming from the building. Being very much concerned by the terrible cries that he heard the man rushed up to the door of the house and, using every ounce of his strength that he could muster, he tried to force it open. But the demon cat dug in its heels and, doggedly standing its ground, it refused to allow the man to enter the house and help the women. The man, however, was carrying a large, thick blackthorn stick in his hands and he began to beat down on the monster with every muscle in his body and gave the demon several great blows that told. But, the monster feline was more than a match for the man and launched itself at him with force, tearing at his face and hands so badly that the man had no choice but to take to his heels and run away as fast as he could. Now that the potential rescuer of the women had been forced to flee the scene a huge expression of joy came across the face of the demon as he hissed at his captives, “Now, it’s time for me to eat my dinner.” Then with quick and eager steps, the cat moved toward the long bench-table upon which the fish had been spread out as if they had been made ready for him to examine. “I hope these fish are as good as they look,” the cat sneered as it displayed its sharp, ivory-colored, teeth to the frightened women. “Now, listen to me, don’t even think of making any kind of a fuss, or disturbance while I am helping myself to this feast.” Then, using the great strength it had in its rear legs, the demon cat pounced up on to the bench-table and began to rapidly and hungrily devour all the best fish. With each fish that it gobbled down, the demon continued to stare and growl at the terrified women, who now began to fear that they too might be on his menu. Suddenly, filled with renewed courage, the fisherman’s wife jumped up from her where she was seated and squealed at the monster, “Get away out of this place you, black devil cat!” As she squealed the woman also gave the demon several mighty blows with a set of large, brass coal-tongs that would have certainly broken the back of any normal cat. In her anger and rage, the woman screamed again at the monster cat, “Get away from here, damn you! You will have no feast of our fish this day!” Unfazed by the woman’s screams, the huge cat turned slowly to face her and grinned triumphantly as he began to tear at and devour the fish, feeling none the worse for the heavy blows that the fisherman’s wife had struck him. Undaunted by the failure of their efforts to chase the predator away, the two women continued attacking the demon cat with whatever instruments that they could put their hands on, striking huge blows that appeared to be hard enough to kill. Still, the huge cat continued to stare at the women contemptuously, apparently unaffected by their efforts to hurt him, and it then began to spit out fire as he made a deadly leap toward them. The demon’s great claws and sharp teeth tore into the hands and arms of the women until their blood began to run freely from the wounds caused, and the women made their last-ditch effort, screaming in their terror, to rush out of the building to freedom. Within a very few minutes of leaving the building, the fisherman’s wife sought out a bottle of Holy Water and with this, in her hands, she moved back into the building to confront the great demon. Tentatively, the woman peeked into the house through the open door and saw that the huge cat was still totally engaged in devouring the fish that had been laid out upon the bench-table. So, with great stealth, the fisherman’s wife quietly crept over to the place where her enemy stood and, without making a sound, she opened the bottle of Holy Water and threw the contents all over the unsuspecting demon cat. In an instant a dense black cloud of smoke filled the entire room, covering everything until the only object that could be seen in the darkness was the demon’s glowing red eyes, which burned bright like the coals in a fire. Then, as the thick smoke gradually began to clear away, the fisherman’s wife saw the huge cat as it was burning slowly until it finally became like a shriveled, black cinder and disappeared. It was a gratifying sight but, from that moment onward, the fish catch would remain untouched by the demon and safe from further destruction. The power of the ‘evil one’ was finally broken and the fearsome ‘demon feline’ was never to be seen again. Now that we have reached the end of this tale, it is time to consider the long-held tradition which warns us about the very vengeful tendencies shown by all cats, and that we should make every effort to ensure that we never do anything to offend these animals. What can happen if we fail to abide by these warnings is demonstrated in the following story, which is alleged to be true –
The story tells us that there was once a fine lady of quality, who had a habit of lifting her cat into her arms and to feed it from the food on her own table during dinner. She would select tasty morsels from the plate and give them to the cat with her own hands. One evening, however, the lady decided that she would give a special dinner party for her friends. On such an occasion the lady did not feel it was appropriate for her pet to be fed from the table around which her friends would be seated. The food was served, and the needs and expectations of the cat were completely ignored, while she was rebuffed on several occasions when she approached her mistress. The cat was greatly angered by the treatment it had received and she moved into a dark corner of the room, where it lay silently sulking and planning how it might get revenge for being treated so abysmally. It awaited its opportunity, which arrived after the lady had gone to her bed for the night. The vengeful cat crept silently out from its hiding place and, making its way to the mistress’ bedroom, sprang at the sleeping woman’s bared throat. The cat bit deep into the flesh and created a wound that was so severe that within a week the poor woman became gravely sick and eventually died from virulent blood poisoning. There is a long-standing tradition, which says that there is a power that resides within the blood of a black cat which is to be held in the highest esteem by those persons who are proficient in the making the cures of ancient times. It is such as these that know the true power of the black cat’s blood can only be unleashed when it is mixed with magical charms, thereby providing relief to suffering people through ancient potions that cure even the worst of diseases. Those ‘wise people’ who prepare these magical charms and potions will tell you that three drops of blood from a black cat are more than enough to gain the desired effect. The custom among the ‘Fairy Doctors’ and ‘Wise Women’ is that they gather this blood by nipping off a small piece of a cat’s tail. But it is my opinion that untrained persons would be better leaving such tasks to the experts because cats can become evil demons and will seek to take a terrible vengeance upon anyone who offends them.
Paddy M’Dermot was one of the most popular boys in the entire county and such was his popularity that there was hardly a fair or a festival that did not have him in the middle of it. In fact, just like a bad penny, Paddy turned up everywhere and it was exceedingly rare that his poor little farm was sowed in season, and where barley was expected to grow, there grew nothing but weeds. It was through this young man’s complete lack of industry that money became a scarce commodity in Paddy’s pocket. Then, the cow was sold after the pig, and nearly everything that he had followed the same path. Paddy’s luck changed one night as he lay in a deep, drunken sleep in the Rath of ‘Moneyrack.’ As he slept, he was visited by a beautiful dream that showed him he was lying in a spot that covered a pot of money, which had been buried there in ancient times. But Paddy remembered every detail of his vision despite his high level of intoxication, and he told no other person about what he had seen. The next night he gathered a spade and a pickaxe from the barn, and into his pocket he placed a bottle of holy water. Armed in this way, Paddy made his way to the Rath and, after circling the place for a moment or two he began to dig. ‘Ah now, Paddy McDermot, be easy now,’’ said the greyhound; ‘don’t I know very well what you are looking for?’ ‘Well then, if you do know, I may as well tell you at once, especially since you seem to be a civil-looking gentleman, that does not think it is below him to speak with a poor eejit like myself.’ Anyone could immediately detect that Paddy wanted to butter-up the stranger a little. ‘Well then,’ said the greyhound, ‘come out here and sit down on this bank.’ Like a damned fool, Paddy did as he was asked, but had hardly put his foot outside of the circle he had made with the holy water, when the beast of a greyhound set upon him, and drove him out of the Rath. Paddy was frightened, as well he might, at the fire that flamed from the hound’s mouth. Nevertheless, he returned the next night, certain that the money he sought was in that Rath. As he had done before, Paddy made a circle with the holy water and again hit the hidden object with the pickaxe. Once again, the strange greyhound appeared in the same place he had the previous night. ‘Oh ho,’ said Paddy, ‘you are here again, are you? Well, let me tell you that it will be a long day before I allow you to trick me again.’ Then, he lifted his pickaxe and made another stroke at the hidden object. ‘Well, Paddy McDermot,’ said the hound, ‘If it is just the money, you’re after, tell me how much would satisfy your needs?’ Paddy scratched his head while he thought for a few moments. Then, looking the greyhound directly in the eye he asked it, ‘How much will you give me?’ He was still in fear of the greyhound but tried hard not to show it. ‘Just as much as you would consider reasonable, Paddy M’Dermot,’ said the greyhound craftily. ‘What?’ said Paddy to himself, ‘there’s nothing like asking enough. But how much is enough?’ Then, turning to the greyhound he said, ‘Say fifty thousand pounds!’ He could have asked or more, for I am sure the old devil had enough to cover the bill. Without a moment’s hesitation the greyhound said, ‘You shall have it!’ Then, after walking away a little distance, the hound came back with a crock filled with golden guineas between its paws. ‘Come here and count them for yourself,’ said the spirit dog. But Paddy knew what the old devil was up to him and didn’t move an inch from where he was. The crock was now shoved alongside the holy water circle, and Paddy quickly pulled it into his arms with the greatest of pleasure. He was so excited that his feet never stopped moving until he reached his own home, where he that the golden guineas had been transformed into bits of bones. His old mother, when she saw what her son had brought home, burst into uncontrollable laughter. Paddy now swore that he would get his revenge against the deceitful spirit dog, and he returned to the Rath the next night, where he met the hound again. ‘So, Paddy you are here again?’ the hound asked, somewhat amused. ‘I am, you dirty blackguard,’ said Paddy, ‘and I won’t be leaving this place until I pull out the pot of money that’s buried here!’ ‘Is that right?’ asked the hound. ‘Well, Paddy M’Dermot, since you’re so brave and full of adventure I will make up what you are owed if you would walk downstairs with me out of the cold.” Paddy looked around and saw that it had begun to snow quite heavily. ‘May I never see home again if I follow you,’ replied Paddy, ‘All you want me for is to wear me down with old bones, or perhaps break my own, which would be just as bad.’ ‘I promise,’ said the hound, ‘I am your friend, Paddy, so don’t just stand there. Come with me and your fortune is made. If you stay here, you’ll die a beggarman.’ So, one word followed another until Paddy finally agreed. In the middle of the Rath a beautiful staircase opened up and they began to walk down it. After winding and turning they came, at last, to a house, which was considerably grander than the houses of many aristocrats, in which all the tables and chairs were made from solid gold. Paddy was delighted and, after sitting down, a fine lady handed him a glass of something to drink. But, he had hardly swallowed a spoonful when all around set up a horrid yell, and those who had appeared beautiful before now looked like what they truly were–enraged ‘fairy-folk’. Before Paddy could even bless himself, they seized him by his legs and arms, carried him out to a great high hill that stood like a wall over a river, and flung him down. ‘Murder!’ cried out Paddy, but it was already too late. He fell upon a rock and lay there as if he was dead until the next morning, when some people found him in the trench that surrounds the mote of Coolhill, the ‘good people’ having carried him there. From that moment until the hour of his death, Paddy was one of the great wonders. He walked doubled over and had his mouth where his ear should be.
This is the first guest item I have included in my blog and I present to my readers for its interest value, and in the hope it will encourage others to send in their stories.
Browsing through Donegal Town’s official website recently, I came across some snippets of information from long ago regarding the anecdotes of a local character by the name of Belle Fey. A Faye, being a fairy, or Siog [sheog] a name given to her by her Dromore neighbours as a result of her strange ways. Belle Melly being her real name according to the 1940/41Donegal town electors list, for Dromore.
Poor Belle, I’m sure she’d turn in her grave if she were able to read the comments. Who’s to say she was just an old eccentric, had the author taken leave of his imagination, really! Doesn’t anyone believe in fairies or the little people anymore.? In my opinion Belle’s name ought to be up there in lights amongst Donegal’s countless legendary characters. Perhaps a song or a poem ought to have been composed in her honour. As far as I’m concerned, she was the real thing, a real living Siog. Belle, could, tell fortunes too, and see into the future just like her wee fairy friends who would come and sit at the foot of her bed during the night: she often said, the male Sioga would also visit her bedroom, a fact which greatly annoyed her – herself being a modest female and all.
I ought to know better than most folk about Belle’s, mystic talents because as an Eight-year old I had the doubtful privilege of meeting this wrinkled, steely-grey-haired, plaid-shawled old creature, and, being on the receiving end of a ‘Belle spell’, so to speak.
When we were youngsters my father and mother often brought our family on the gruelling twenty-four-hour journey to Donegal during our summer holidays. My dad emigrated to Yorkshire in the UK and was a coalminer in Yorkshire’s forbidding and dangerous 3,000 ft deep coalmines.
We usually stayed for the two weeks holiday with my dad’s brother and sister–the postman John, and Mae Carney; their house was situated in Dromore, up the lane at the top of the hill off the Donegal road. Their slate roofed cottage stood on the brow of the winding hill with its magnificent panoramic views over Donegal Bay, and the Blue Stack mountains–when it wasn’t raining that is! And was just a stone’s throw across the lane from Belle Fey’s faded whitewashed, thatched cottage. Belle must have had her eye on me, this wee buachailin ban, [ fair haired boy] as I was often up and down the lane with my sister Patricia, with Mae’s old enamel bucket to fetch water from the well, which bubbled up from a wee crystal–clear spring at the side of the lush green overgrown lane. Aunt Mae swore the water was “the best ever for making tae.”
As I recall, it was the day my father Hugh, was visiting his youngest sister Maggie Quinn at her pub, ‘Quinns Bar’, (Lazy Bush) at the top of Mountcharles, where he often went to catch up on the local gossip and discuss the price of cattle and imbibe in a few pints with his old school cronies. That particular occasion was a signal for Belle, to make her move on me, as she invited herself into John and Mae’s, house. Shortly a whispered discussion took place with my mother and aunt Mae, who herself was fond of reading the tea-leaves and such-like, as well as blowing her cigarette smoke up the turf blackened chimney of their huge open fire-place, which puzzled this eight-year old at the time. Many years later it transpired that John hated Mae smoking!
To continue the story; I was ushered into aunt Mae’s, dimly lit front parlour, which contained a dusty dark wood dining table and chairs, with the odd religious picture randomly placed on the whitewashed walls.
Situated on the inside gable of the house was an old fashioned black Victorian cast-iron fireplace, into which Belle, proceeded to set light to a crumpled newspaper in the empty grate. As the paper blazed away brightly, shooting orange blue flames up the chimney, Belle began mumbling as she stooped over the grate, while I stood mystified at the side of her, I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was saying, but I swear it wasn’t English. After a while Belle rose from the hearth in her usual bent posture, declaring authoritatively to my mother and Mae, in her rich Donegal accent. “This wee caddy will remain fair haired for the rest of his life”.
Sixty-five years on, and a bit more, and guess what? Short of having a bit of the thatch missing at the back, I still have a modest head of fair hair, despite a lifetime of trying to alter its colour by dousing it with strong tea, before I hit the town with the lads on a Friday night.
My mother and father, brothers and sisters, were all blessed with fine heads of typically Irish, dense, wavy auburn hair. Ultimately with the passing of time and sadly for them their hair turned grey and then white. Uncle John’s, hair may have been a bit sandy looking which he got from Ding, and Grandma Sweeney’s, side of the family, but with no stretch of the imagination was he blonde. So where in the blazes, excuse the pun, did mine come from? Belle Fey, “just an eccentric old woman? My foot!
There are many people who have heard about the adventures, but there are only a very few who may have heard of what caused all the perils he faced, which was the error of having slept beneath the walls of the Pooka’s tower. He was a man that I was very friendly with and many were the times that I visited his house at the bottom of ‘Shields’s Hill’, where he told me his story. This tale I now write it down for you …
“Sure, I am often asked to tell my story, so this is not the first time that I relate it. The Squire’s son had finally come home from foreign parts, much to the joy of his parents. In celebration of his return the Squire organised a great meal to which all the people of the district were invited, high-born and low-born, the rich and the poor. And what a feast it was, the best of everything and plenty of it. We ate our fill, and we drank our fill, and we danced the night away. In short, as you have undoubtedly guessed, I became quite inebriated. I was as drunk as a Lord and so, as I was taking the stepping-stones to cross the river at Ballyknock, I slipped, missed my footing, and fell head over heels into the cold water. ‘Ah! Good Jaysus!’ I shouted, ‘I’ll be frozen to death if I don’t drown first!’ But, Ibegan to swim and swim, as fast as I could. I swam for my dear life until I finally I reached shore, which I did not recognise. By some strange means I had swam to the shore of an abandoned island.
“I wandered about that island, not knowing where I was going or what I would meet, until my feet took me, stumbling, into a large bog. The moon was shining as bright as day, and my eyes searched to the east and west, and to the north and south. But, wherever I looked my eyes could only see a vast swathe of bog land. I began to scratch my head in my confusion, and I whistled a sorrowful air as I began losing hope of seeing home again.Suddenly, the sky grew darker and the moon grew black. In my fear I looked and saw something that appeared to be moving swiftly down between the moon and me, and I could not tell what it was. Down it swooped toward me, and it looked at me full-square in the face. By Christ, it was an eagle, and it stared into my face and spoke. Says he to me, ‘Well, Daniel Burke, how do you do?’
‘Very well, I thank you sir,’ says I in return. ‘I hope you’re well also.’ You can be sure that, even as I spoke to him, my mind was busy trying to reason how an eagle could speak to me like a mortal man.
‘What brings you here, Daniel?’ he asked.
‘By God, sir, I wish I knew,’ says I, ‘I only wish that I was safe home again in my own house.’
‘So, Dan, you want to go out of the island?’ says he.
‘Oh, you can be sure of that!’ says I.
‘Daniel?’ says he, ‘You know fine well that it is not the proper thing to do for you to get drunk on a feast day, but you are a decent and, normally, sober man, who attends Mass regular. You are also not one of those who throw stones at me or mine or shouts out at us when we are in the fields. So, my friend, get upon my back and take a tight grip in case you fall off, and I will fly you out of this place.’
‘Would you get away out of that?’ says I, ‘you’re trying to make an eejit out of me, Sir. Who has ever heard of a man riding horseback on an eagle before?’
‘I swear to you, Dan,’ said he, ‘I am being straight with you, so you can either take up my offer or starve in the bog. By the way, don’t take too long to make up your mind for your weight is sinking the stone in the bog.’
“Aye, it was true enough, for I found the stone sinking further and further every minute I was standing on it. ‘I thank you, Sir,’ says I without hesitation, ‘for the offer and I accept it!’ I, therefore, climbed upon the back of the eagle, and clasped my arms tightly around his throat, and up he flew in the air as graceful as you like. At this time, however, I had no inkling of the trick that he was going to play on me. Upward, upward, and upward still he flew until I lost all idea of how high we had risen, dear knows how far he flew. It came to me at this moment that, perhaps, the eagle did not know the right road to my home. ‘Excuse me,’ said I to him in a quiet and civil way. I did not want to upset him, especially when we were so high above the ground and I was so vulnerable. ‘Sir,’ says I, ‘I don’t mean to be disrespectful or discourteous, but if you would just fly down a bit lower you will find that we are just over my wee cottage, and you could drop me off there with my deepest gratitude.’
‘Are you mad, Dan?’ says he, ‘do you think me an eejit to be putting you down there? Take you a wee glance at the next field, and those two men down there with a gun! It would be quare joke on me to be shot by such men, while I helped a drunken blackguard that I took off a sinking stone in a bog.’
Well, kept, flying, flying, upward despite all my pleas to him to fly down. ‘Could you tell me, sir, just where in the world are you going?’ I asked him.
‘Ah, Dan, would you whisht (be quiet) for a minute! Just you mind your own business, and don’t be trying to interfere in the business of other people.’
“Finally, where should we come to, but to the moon itself. You can’t see it now, but there is, or at least there was in my day, a reaping-hook sticking out of the side of the moon, like this –’ (Dan began to draw the shape of the reaping-hook on the ground with the end of his stick).
‘Dan,’ said the eagle, ‘I’m absolutely exhausted after this long flight. My bloody wings are aching! I had no idea that it was so far.’
‘And, who in the name of God asked you to fly so far?” says I. ‘It wasn’t me! I was the one on your back begging, then praying and finally beseeching to stop half-an-hour ago!’
‘Now, there’s no use giving out, Dan,’ says he, ‘I’m too tired to listen, so just you get off now, and sit down there on the moon until I rest myself for a wee while.’
‘What? Sit down on the moon, did you say?’ asked I. ‘You want me to sit upon that wee round thing? Sure, I’d fall off in a minute, and be killed and split, and smashed all to bits! You are some saviour, so you are.’
‘Ah, sure don’t be like that, Dan,’ said the eagle. ‘You can take a tight hold of that reaping hook that’s sticking out of the side of the moon, and that will stop you from falling.’
‘Indeed, by God, I won’t,’ said I.
‘Maybe you won’t,’ he said to me under his breath. ‘But if you don’t, I might just give you a shake, and a slap of my wing, and send you down to the ground again, where every bone in your body will be smashed to smithereens and splashed all over the place.’
‘Well, that’s a lovely thing to say,’ I thought to myself, ‘how in the name of Jaysus did I ever get mixed up with the likes of him,’ and so I called him the worst word I could think of, in Irish of course in case he would understand what I had said. I slipped off his back, nervously taking hold of the reaping-hook, and I sat down upon the moon. That was a mighty cold seat, I can tell you that.
“When he was sure that I was secure the eagle turned to face me and said, ‘Good morning to you, Daniel Burke,’ said he. ‘I think I’ve certainly got you now. You are the blackguard that robbed my nest last year, and your reward is that you are very welcome to pass the time dangling your heels from the moon. Thief!’
‘Is that it, and now this is the way I am to be, you brute?’ I shouted at him in anger. ‘You are nothing but an ugly and unnatural beast that would leave me in such a predicament.’ But, all my anger and shouting made not one bit of difference. He turned away from me laughing loudly, spread out his great wings, and flew away like he had been shot out of a gun.
‘Stop!’ I bawled after him, but I might as well have been shouting in the wind for all the attention he took. Away he flew, and I never saw him again from that day to this, may he fly into a cliff the blackguard. As for me, I can tell you I was both heartbroken and very afraid. All that I could do was angrily call out all sorts of insults to the one who had abandoned me. Then, to my complete surprise a door opened, with a great creaking noise, right in the middle of the moon. Such was the noise that you would have thought the door had not had its hinges oiled or greased in an age. But, who do you think walked out of the door? None other than the man in the moon, himself. I immediately recognised him by the beard that he wore.
‘Good day to you, Daniel Burke,’ says he, ‘and how are you keeping?’
‘I’m doing very well, thank you,’ I told him. ‘I hope you are doing well, yourself.’
‘Whatever has brought you here, Dan?’ he asked.
So, I began to tell him the whole sad and dreary tale. ‘Dan,’ said the man in the moon as he took a pinch of snuff, ‘You can’t stay here! when I was done, ‘you must not stay here.’
‘Is that right?” I replied rather sarcastically. ‘Allow me to inform you that I am here very much against my will, and I just want to go home. My only problem is that I don’t know how to get back.
‘Well, Dan, that is your business,’ said he. ‘Mine is to inform you that you cannot not stay, so be off now as quickly as you can.’
‘Sure, I’m doing no harm,’ I insisted, ‘I am only holding on tightly to the reaping-hook, in case I fall off.’
‘That’s just what you must not do, Dan,’ says he.
‘Just a minute,’ says I, ‘may I ask you how many there are in your family, since it must be the size of the family that persuades you not to give a poor traveller a lodging. I’m sure that it is not very often that you’re troubled with strangers calling to see you, for it’s a long way to travel.’
‘As a matter of fact, I’m by myself, Dan,’ says he, ‘but you would be better letting go of the reaping hook.’
‘I know what you are saying,’ I told him bluntly, ‘but, I’ll not let go of my grip, and the more you tell me to do so, the tighter will my grip become.’
‘You had better, Dan,’ says he again.
‘Well, my wee bucko,’ says I, taking in the entire build and stature of the man in the moon from head to foot, ‘there are two words I could say to you now but won’t. I will not budge one inch from this place, but you may if you like.’
He was not at all pleased at how I had spoken to him and he sternly answered, ‘We’ll just see about that.’ He went back through the door and loudly slammed it behind him, the shudder that it brought almost convinced me that the moon would fall from the sky.
“I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for the trial of strength with him, that I was sure would happen when he came back again. And come back again he did, only this time he had a kitchen cleaver in his hand, and without saying a word he too two almighty swipes at the handle of the reaping hook that was holding me up, and with a loud crack it snapped in two.
‘Good morning and Goodbye to you, Dan,’ said the old blackguard, spitefully, as he saw me falling downward with a bit of the handle still in my hand. ‘I thank you for your visit, and now Daniel, cheerio!’
It all happened so fast that I did not have time to answer his jibe, for I was tumbling over and over, and rolling, at such a speed that it would have taken the light from your eyes. ‘This is not good,’ said I to myself aloud, ‘for a decent man, the likes of me, to be seen in this mess! By God I am rightly f—.’I did not get to finish what I was saying as my attention was taken by a loud ‘swishing’ noise as a flock of wild geese flew by, close to my ear. They must have flown all the way from my own bog of Ballyknock, for how else could they have known who I was?
The old gander, who was their leader, turned his head toward me and cried out, ‘Is that you, Dan?’
‘It is,’ said I, not at all surprised that he knew my name because, by this time, I had become used to all kinds of strange things happening. Besides this old gander was no stranger to me.
‘Good day to you,’ says the gander, ‘Daniel Burke, how are you keeping this lovely morning?’
‘Very well, sir,’ says I, ‘and I thank you kindly for asking. I hope you are the same, old friend.’
‘I think you are falling, Daniel,’ says he.
‘Well, I suppose you could say that,’ says I.
‘And where are you going to that you have travel so quickly?’ asked the gander.
So, I began to tell him the whole sad, sorry tale of falling into the river, the eagle taking abandoning me on the moon, and the old man in the moon causing me to fall.
‘Don’t worry, Dan’ says he, ‘Just take hold of my leg and I’ll fly you home.’
‘You are a life-saver!’ says I, though I wasn’t sure if I could trust him. But what could I do only take hold of his leg as tightly as I could. We flew, and flew, until we came over a wide ocean, which I knew well. On my right I could see Cape Clear, sticking up out of the water.
‘Friend!’ I called to the goose, ‘just fly me to land, please.’
‘That’s impossible, Dan,’ he replied, ‘because we are going to Arabia.’
‘To Arabia!’ I gasped, ‘surely that’s a foreign place, and far away. Oh dear! There’ no man to be more pitied than me.’
‘Whisht, you eejit,’ said he, ‘would you hold your tongue. Arabia is a very decent place, not unlike Ballyknock, only with a wee bit more sand.’
Just as we were talking, a ship came in sight. ‘Ah! Would you kindly drop me on that ship, please?’
‘We are not rightly above it,’ said he.
‘We are,’ I insisted.
‘We are not, and if I dropped you now you would splash into the sea.’
‘I would not,’ says I. ‘I know better than that, for it is just under us, so let me drop immediately.’
‘If that’s what you want,’ said he. ‘There you go,’ and he opened his claw, and, sure enough, down I came right into the very bottom of the salty sea! I sank to the very bottom, where I gave myself up for ever. But, a whale now walked up to me, scratching himself after his long night’s sleep. He looked me full in the face, and said nothing except he raised his tail, splashing me all over again with cold, salt water until there wasn’t a dry stitch on my entire body.
It was then that I heard a familiar voice speaking to me and saying, ‘Get up out of that you, drunken old fool!’ Startled by the voice, I woke up, and there was Jenny with a tub full of water in her arms, which she was splashing all over me. God love her, she was a good wife to me, but she could never bear to see me drunk, and she had a bit of a fist of her own.
‘Get up,’ said she again, ‘for of all places in this parish you would have to choose to lie in drunken sleep beneath the old walls of Carrigaphooka, and I could wager that you did not rest too easily there.’
By God she had the truth of that. I was almost driven insane with meeting the eagle, the man in the moon, flying ganders, and whales. My head was astray with being driven into bogs, and up to the moon, and down to the bottom of the green ocean. I can tell you that no matter how much drink I’d taken, it would be a long time before I’d lie down in that same place again, that’s for sure.”
“Don’t stay out after dark, or the bogeyman will get you!” was the warning a mother would give her children when they went out to play. But, more often than not, the children would laugh at the very idea of a bogey-man existing. Tradition in Ireland, however, does warn us that it is very dangerous for any person to be wandering the country roads and lanes on a late November night because that is the time that the dead celebrate the fact that they are able to wander the earth once again.
Tradition says that the busiest night for these spirit celebrations is the very last night of the month, for that is the evening on which the celebrations cease. It is on that night their right to dance freely on the hill with the fairy folk comes to an abrupt end. After they have danced their last dance the dead have to return to their cold graves, where they will lie in the ice-cold earth without music or drink until November returns the next year. It is only at that time will they be able to spring-up once again from their graves, dressed in what remains of their funeral clothing, and rush into the moonlight shouting loud howls of joy. But some might wonder from where such a tradition originated and, perhaps, the following story might help in answering the question.
“One cold November night there was a local woman who was making her way home at a time when it was said, the dead roamed the land. But she was very tired and carelessly she sat down on a large rock that stood by the side of the road so she could rest for a few moments and regain her breathing in the cold night air. Within a few moments of her sitting down upon the rock, however, a young man came walking by and he began to speak with her. ‘If you wait here a little while,‘ he told her, ‘you will see the most beautiful dancing that you have ever witnessed, over there by the side of the hill.‘”
“The woman stared quietly at the young man for a moment and noticed that his face was very pale and wore a very sad expression. ‘Why are you so sad?‘ she quietly asked him. ‘Your face is as pale as that of a corpse.‘”
“‘ Take a good look at me,‘ the young man told her. ‘Do you know me?‘”
“‘ Yes,‘ she said nervously, ‘Now I know who you are! Sure, you are young Breen and you were drowned last year when you went out fishing. What are you doing here?‘”
“‘ Look over there,’ he told her, ‘On the side of that hill over there you will see the reason for me being here.‘”
“The woman took a look over to where he pointed and saw a large crowd dancing in time to sweet music, and among their number she could see all those who had died as far back as she could remember. There were men, women and children, all dressed in white clothing, and their faces were as pale as the moonlight. ‘Now,‘ the young man said ominously to the woman, ‘you should run for your life, for if the fairies see you here, and bring you into the dance you will never be able to ever leave again.‘”
“While the woman and the young man were talking, however, the fairy folk came up to them both and danced in a circle around the woman, joining their hands together. At that moment she fell to the ground in a faint, and she was to remain in an unconscious state until the next morning when she awoke in her own bed. All those people who saw her at that time said that her face was as pale as that of a corpse, indicating that the woman had been given a ‘fairy-stroke.’ Having realised that she was afflicted the herb doctor was asked to help cure her, but despite their best efforts, she remained the same. As soon as the moon rose that night there was soft, low music heard from all around the house. Then, when the neighbours went to check on the woman, they found her dead.
In the past the Irish peasantry never thought, even for one moment, that a child abducted from its home would have been killed and buried in the cold earth somewhere. In their minds they imagined that the missing child was living among the fairies, although this belief did not lessen the heartbreak felt by the parents. They were convinced that their child was now condemned to endure, if not enjoy, all the changes in circumstances they would experience in a life that was constrained by their exile from heaven and earth. When the child was not restored again to its parents, it was assumed by the entire community that the child’s life was being prolonged to an indefinite period while it lived among the fairy-folk.
The idea that the fairy-folk practiced human abduction was held as being true among the Irish peasantry of days long passed. Today, when a child goes missing, or is abducted, all sorts of alarm bells begin to ring in our society. Some are returned unharmed, but most are found alive or dead, but all suffered at the hands of evil people. But, there are still some of whom no trace has been found. In many cases within Irish peasant homes those children who suddenly became sickly, or acted strangely, were often called changelings. It was said that the original child had been abducted from their home by the fairy-folk and replaced with an old, decrepit, sickly, emaciated ugly fairy child. The human parents almost expected such a thing to happen, especially when they knew that the fairy-folk prized young and lovely mortal children.
To guard against such things happening to children the midwives were accustomed to giving newly-born children a small spoonful of whisky, mixed with earth, as its first food. This was a charm intended to preserve the child from any extraordinary spell that may be cast upon them by the fairies. Special care was taken to watch over all new-born babies and to guard them until after they had been christened. Only then would they be considered free from the threat of abduction, or changed for a deformed, evil fairy child.
Although the peasant woman feared for her newborn child, especially if it was a handsome, fit, and pleasing child. But, it was not only children that were subjected to abduction and forced exile from their homes. Records speak of mortal women, who had recently been confined in childbirth, were also subject to abduction by the fairy-folk, who took them to the fairy realm where they would be forced to suckle and nurse fairy-born infants.
In Irish folklore, Changelings are said to have an inclination for carrying out certain grotesque pranks. They were known to mysteriously obtain a set of pipes, which they would carry under their arm, and they would often sit up in their cradle to perform a variety of airs with great flourish, as well as some strange grimaces. When the Changeling plays lively jigs, reels and hornpipes on that instrument, the people living in the cottage immediately began to dance wildly despite their reservations. Though they might be ready to drop with exhaustion the dancers are unable to stop their dancing until the Changeling stops playing.
Despite all the hilarious whims and oddities that a changeling might possess, it was still regarded as a very unwelcome family intruder. It was not unknown for the fairy child to be thrown across the fire’s hearth to attempt to eject him from the household. He would then suddenly vanish up through the open chimney, all the while calling on vengeance and shouting curses, as well as all kinds of terrible names, against the family that had sheltered him for so long.
The other method of removing the changeling froma cabin was to use a clean shovel to pick it up and place it on the centre of a dung-hill. In the meantime, the parents still believed that their own children would be returned to them no matter how long they had been absent. Men and women with special knowledge of the fairy-folk, called ‘fairy-doctors’ were called upon to direct certain prayers that would ensure the true child would return. The verses of these prayers were usually chanted in Irish. The following are the lines of a prayer that was once used for this reason and is translated into English and recorded Rev. John O’Hanlon (1870) :-
“Fairy-men and women all,
List! – it is your baby’s call;
For on the dung-hill’s top he lies,
Beneath the wide, inclement skies,
Then come with coach and sumptuous train,
And take him to your mote again.
For if ye stay till cocks shall crow,
You’ll find him like a thing of snow, –
A pallid limp, a child of scorn,
A monstrous brat of fairies born.
But ere you bear the boy away,
Restore the child you took instead;
When, like a thief, the other day,
You robbed my infant’s cradle bed,
But, give me back my only son,
And I’ll forgive the harm you done;
And nightly, for your gamboling crew,
I’ll sweep the hearth and kitchen too;
And leave you free your tricks to play,
Whene’er you choose to pass this way.
Then, like good people, do incline
To take your child and give back mine.”
When these words, or words like them, had been recited the Fairy-Doctors would retire to an adjoining cottage, closing the door carefully behind them and await whatever might happen, while they repeated some additional prayers and incantations. Any noise, whether caused by the elements or a passing vehicle, was quickly put down as due to the approach or departure of a fairy troop. When the door was opened sometime afterwards these so-called ‘Doctors’ would confidently declare that the true child had been returned. The poor emaciated being atop of the dung-hill was then brought into the cabin, and its deluded parents were told that their child would not long survive. The subsequent death of the child through mistreatment and malnourishment appeared to confirm the prediction made by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’. Each occasion added to the reputation already established by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’ among the Irish peasantry.
Children, however, were not the only occupants of the Raths who had been abducted. The fairy-folk would take a fancy to the pipes used by accomplished pipers, as well as the instruments used by other famous musicians. These people would often be abducted and brought to the underground and underwater habitations of the fair-folk. Unfortunately for these musicians, they had to play their music for the finely dressed, frisky little gentlemen and ladies. While the fairies danced the musicians played, until they were almost dead with fatigue. One saving grace, however, was that the fairy-folk were very conscientious about giving out good servings of refreshments and, usually before morning, those whom they had abducted would be freed. Sometimes, however, the musician was invited to stay with the fairy-folk but, if he preferred to return home to the land of mortals, he was allowed to go freely. But, the fairies will take away the musician’s instrument and replace it with one that is much more perfect and sweeter toned. Moreover, the fame of having been abducted to the land of the fairy-folk and having been given such a gift will establish the musician’s place in society, and his future financial prospects.
Likewise, midwives were said to be abducted to the fairy raths as pillion passengers on fairy horses that conducted them into the invisible abodes of the fairy-folk. Should these women take any food or drink while they are with the fairy-folk they cannot return home. But, these women are constantly pressed to eat and drink by the fairies, who constantly presented luxurious meals and drinks to them, upon which are placed the spell of detention.
We constantly hear stories about the gifts that the fairies can and have bestowed upon mortals like us. The fairies, however, were known to be less free in bestowing the riches of gold and silver to humans as a reward. Even when such riches were offered, those people so rewarded still found it very difficult to get their hands on it. There are many stories told about ‘crocks of gold’ and other treasures given by the fairy-folk that usually turn into stones, dry leaves, old bones, or something equally as worthless.
The Irish ‘fairy-man’, or ‘Fairy-women’, sometimes called ‘Fairy-Doctors’, were supposed to hold some mysterious sort of communication and influence with the fairies that lived in the motes and raths of the country. There were, of course, many rumours that these ‘fairy-doctors’ were impostors, who were originally changelings themselves. Such was the wariness of such people by the peasantry that they were generally relegated to living an almost hermit existence and a deep veil of mystery shrouded everything that they did.
They said that they were very well acquainted with all the secret things of the past, present and future. It was, allegedly, within their power to cure all illnesses and diseases that affect both man and beast. They said they could assist in the discovery and restoration of lost property, as well as give descriptions that would assist in the detection of the thief and their prosecution. People would go to them to have their fortunes told, because it was believed that they had knowledge of all matters that were of concern to the person. It was said that the fairies could cause cream to produce great amounts of cheese and the ‘fairy-doctors’ would take great care to impress on the minds of the ignorant that it would be desirable to make friends with the fairy-folk. This would prevent any evil effects caused by fairy resentment which could sometimes be regarded as fatal to the individual against whom it is directed.
The ‘fairy-doctors’ would often collect herbs and plants over which they would mumble certain spells and then use them as charms and cures for various troubles. These plants and herbs were considered to have been specially impregnated by some mysterious fairy influence that is efficacious for the healing arts. Sometimes, ‘Knowledgeable Old Women’, also called ‘Fairy-women’, were often known to exercise charms that did not encourage people to have confidence in their success. For example, an herb, or a bit of burnt sod taken from a the bonfire on St. John’s night in midsummer was often sewn into the clothes of women. It was a charm that was supposed to protect the wearer from any fairy plots, or abductions.
It was also said that there was an ointment that midwives used to smear on the fairy-children that, if rubbed on the eye of a mortal, would enable the mortal to see the spiritless skeleton of fairy illusions in the underground halls and palaces. Old friends and neighbours would often be discovered among the fairy followers in this manner. The fairies themselves, during their dancing and singing, also became visible to the eye that was rubbed with this ointment. Should a mortal make any sign to show that they could see the, the fairies would ask, “Do you see me?”
If answered in the positive they would be asked, “Which eye?”
Once informed the fairy will thrust his finger, or even puff his breath into that eye, and blind the incautious person, causing the charm to be removed.
As a final point of interest, the ‘Fairy-man’ was also called a ‘Charmer’ or ‘Cow-Doctor’ because he undertook to remove any fairy charms from sick cattle by preparing herbs and potions by spring well. So secretive was this process that he would not allow anyone to approach the site while he was creating his various concoctions. In some cases, particularly in the West of Ireland, cows were often driven into certain natural springs or loughs that were designated as being holy. This was done, usually, to restore the normal supply of dairy milk and butter, if the owner believed it had been reduced by some supernatural means. Considered to be a necessary part of the charm a bit of fresh butter was thrown into the water while certain incantations were sung.
I can recall a wee man who lived in the village of Derrytrask for quite a few years, but almost all his neighbours thought he was a bit of an ‘eejit’ (idiot). If asked, “what made them look upon the wee man as an eejit?”, they would look at the questioner in such a way as if he was not right in the head. Their proof that the wee man was ‘not the full shilling’ was the way that he was so demonstratively fond of music but had never been able to learn to play more than one tune on his ‘Uileann-pipes’. The sole tune that he did play was known as the “Munster Cloak”, which was his party piece in the various bars, and at the local festivities. People would make fun of him as he played his one tune over and over again, but he did earn a few shillings from his ‘recitals’. The money he received, however, helped both the wee man and his widowed mother to pay the rent on their small holding, and occasionally buy some luxuries for themselves, like snuff and a bottle or two of stout.
One warm Spring night the Piper was walking home from a local house, where there had been a bit of a dance. The ‘House Ceilidh’ had been a lively one and like several other attendees he found himself somewhat the worse for wear, because of the whisky and poteen he had taken. As he staggered along the narrow cart track of a road he managed to arrive safely at the little bridge spanning the small stream that flowed close by his mother’s cottage. He decided to stop there for a moment and sit down upon a large flat rock, then he breathed into his pipes’ bag and squeezing it he began to play the one tune that he knew so well, the “Munster Cloak.” As the first musical notes floated into the air he was suddenly grabbed from behind and flung on his back in the middle of the track. In the darkness of the night a ‘Pooka’ had come upon him by surprise. For those readers who may not know what a ‘Pooka’ is, the easiest explanation is that it is a spirit creature which takes on many forms and shapes. This spirit creature, however, possessed long horns and as the Piper regained his senses he took a good, strong grip of them. But, as he grabbed at the strange creature’s horns he cried out with a loud voice, “Damn you to hell, you evil creature. Just allow me to go on my way home for I have a shining silver sixpence in my pocket that is for my mother, and she wants some snuff brought to her!”
Using the horns, the ‘Pooka’ now threw the Piper onto his own back and spoke menacingly to him, “Pay no attention to yourmother, or even to what she wants, but concentrate your mind on keeping your hold on those horns. Remember that if you should fall from my back there is little doubt that you will surely break your neck and smash those pipes you are carrying.” Then, in a softer tone of voice, the ‘Pooka’ asked him, “You could play for me the ‘The Blackbird, for it is my favourite tune?‘”
“Sure, wouldn’t I be the greatest of all pipers if I could play ‘The Blackbird’, when I don’t know it,” replied the Piper with a snigger.
“Don’t you be concerning yourself about whether you know the tune, or you don’t know it!” the ‘Pooka’ snapped at him. “Just you begin playing those pipes of yours and I’ll make sure you play the right tune.”
Although he was deeply frightened, the Piper blew hard into his pipe bag and he began to play such fine music that he began to wonder how this could happen. “By the holy, but you’re a fine teacher,” said the Piper, “and now tell me where you are taking me in such a hurry?”
“There is to be a great feast being held tonight in the house of the Banshee, which stands at the top of Croagh Patrick,” said the Pooka. “I am bringing you to the feast, where you will play your music and be well rewarded for your trouble.”
“Sure, isn’t that a great bit of news, for you’ll save me a journey,” replied the Piper, “Father Tom has told me that I should make the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick as a penance, because I was the one who stole the big white goose from the Martins’ farmhouse yard.”
But, the Pooka paid no attention to him, put down his head and rushed the piper across hills, the bogs and rough places, until he finally brought him to the top of Croagh Patrick. Then, as they came to a halt, the Pooka struck three blows on the ground with his foot, and a great door opened before them. Without a moment’s hesitation they both passed through the door and found themselves in a large, finely adorned room. There, in the middle of the room, the Piper saw a large golden table, around which sat hundreds of old women, all of whom were staring toward him. One of the old women stood up from her seat and greeted him, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, Pooka of November. Who is this mortal being that you have brought with you?”
“This mortal is the best Piper in all of Ireland,” said the Pooka, proudly.
One of the old women now struck a blow on the ground and a door opened in the side wall of the fine room. Then much to the Piper’s surprise, he noticed the big white goose, which he had stolen from Martins’ farmyard coming out of the door. “Now this is a miracle,” said the Piper, “for myself and my mother ate every bit of that goose, except for one wing. Sure, it was that one wing that I gave to old ‘Red Mary’, and it was her that told the priest I had stolen the goose.”
The goose now marched over to clean the table before carrying it away, and the Pooka now turned to the piper and urged him, “Play your music for these ladies to enjoy.”
The Piper filled the bag with air and he began to play. He played so well that all the old women took to the floor and began to dance, and they danced so lively until they could dance no more. It was then that the Pooka came forward and demanded that they pay the Piper for his music. Without any complaint each of the old women took a gold piece from their pockets and gave it to him. “By the staff of Saint Patrick,” says the Piper, “sure I’m as rich as the son of any great lord.”
“Now come with me,” asked the Pooka, “and I will bring you back to your home.”
Together they went out of the room and, just as the Piper was about to mount the back of the Pooka, the goose waddled over to him and presented him with a new set of pipes. With the same speed as before the Pooka set off and it did not take him long until he brought the Piper back to Derrytrask. They came at last to the little bridge once again and the Piper dismounted the Pooka, who quietly told him that he should go home. But, before the Piper left, the Pooka told him, “You now have two things that you have never had before. You now have sense and music.”
Hurrying home the Piper was feeling on top of the world, and he knocked loudly at his mother’s door. He called out to her, “Mother, let me in. Your son is as rich now as any lord, and I have become the very best Piper in the whole of Ireland.”
“Ah, you’re drunk again,” replied his mother in disgust.
“No, Mother, indeed I’m not,” insisted the Piper, “Not a single drop of liquor has passed my lips.”
His mother opened the door to him, and he gave her the gold pieces he had received from the old women. “Wait, now,” says he, “until you hear the wonderful music that I can play now.” He quickly buckled on the pipes and began to play them, but instead of sweet music of before there now came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. The terrible noise that he made wakened all the neighbours, and they all began to make fun of him. Their mocking continued for a while until the Piper put on his old pipes and, from that moment, he played the most melodious music for them. Now that they had heard his music the Piper told them all the great adventure that he had gone through that night and they listened to his story in disbelief.
The next morning, when the Piper’s mother went to look at the gold pieces her son had given her, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant. Shocked by this news, the Piper went to see the priest and began to relate to him the adventure he had undertaken. But, the priest would not believe a word that he told him, and the Piper decided to give proof by playing the pipes for him. As he did so the screeching of the ganders and the geese began once again. “Get out of my sight, you thief,” the angry priest roared at him. But the Piper would not move an inch until he put the old pipes on him to demonstrate to the priest that his story was indeed true. He buckled on his old pipes, and he began to play the most wonderful and melodious music. From that day until the day of his death the piper’s fame grew and it is still said that there was never his equal as a Piper in all the western part of Ireland.