“So,” he said, without any introduction, “you’ve lost your butter.”
“Yes,” I replied, “it is certainly gone.”
“Well, if you want me to, I will get it back for you,” he said in a matter of fact way. “My name is O’Hara, and I live at the ‘White Glen’, where I am known to the people as ‘The Fairy Man.’ I am able to find things that have been stolen, for I carry the ‘garvally’.” (This was an implement like a Shepherd’s Crook which was carried by magicians and holy men, and was said to have mystical powers)
“Is that right?” I remarked with a disbelieving tone of voice, “Sure, you must be a very clever man, but can you get my butter?”
“Have no doubt of it,” said O’Hara, “if it is in the country at all, then I will get it back for you.”
Naturally, being a native of the area I had heard about the ‘garvally’ on previous occasions, when it was described to me as “a crooked thing like the handle of an umbrella, covered with green baize.” It was used in bygone years for swearing upon and, it was said to be, “ a terrible thing, for if you swore falsely and it was around your neck, your mouth would turn to the back of your head, or you’d get choked in such a way as you’d never fully recover.” In recent times it had, however, lost much of its virtue and fame, through so many wastrels putting it around their necks and swearing to a deliberate lie, without suffering any visible harm.
As for O’Hara, he made no strange demands. He simply requested that he be given a deep plate, some water and salt, with a little of the cow’s milk. When these were provided, he began by asking my wife and I to come forward a little. He then asked our names, if I was the owner of the cow, how long I had had her, if that woman was my wife, when we had lost our butter, and if we suspected any person who might have taken it. To all these questions I gave the necessary answers, but to the last of these I told him that I did not believe in witchcraft.
“Don’t you believe in fairies?” he asked.
“Not Much,” said I.
“No matter,” said O’Hara, “maybe before I’m done you will begin to believe in them.”
Turning back to the plate he proceeded, in a very solemn manner, to pour some water into the plate on three individual occasions, following this procedure: He would say “In the name of the Father,” and add a drop; then, “in the name of the Son,” and another drop; finally, “in the name of the Holy Ghost,” and the third drop would be poured. He then proceeded to add the milk in the same manner, and finally sprinkled in the salt, using the same formula. O’Hara now stirred the mixture three times with his finger, repeating the words as before, and asked us both to do the same. I hesitated to do this, because I did not want him to think that I had any faith in the process, by taking an active part in it. But, O’Hara convinced me to act against my scruples by asking me if what he was doing is not being done for a very honourable reason. I could do nothing else but agree that, so far, I saw nothing very objectionable in what he was doing. My wife, of course, had no such scruples and eagerly joined with O’Hara to persuade me to do what I had been asked.
His next step was to make the sign of the cross over the plate with his hands, and then, waving them over his head, he made several curious figures in the air while muttering some kind of language that I could not fully understand. From the odd sound and syllable that I could catch, it sounded as if he was talking some kind of vulgar Latin. Gradually, the man became very excited, raving like a demon, stamping with his feet, and shadow-punched with his fists. As he spoke, it was if he was pleading rather than opposing or issuing commands. All the while his eyes appeared to be fixed upon and following the motions of some being he was talking to, but we could not see. Suddenly he gave out an unearthly scream, as if in an agony of terror and pain. At the same time, he held up his hands as if he was warding off some kind of threat, retreating backwards around the room as if being by some kind of implacable enemy. Gradually, he returned to the place that he had left and, turning himself to the four cardinal points, he made the sign of the cross at each turn after dipping his fingers in the mixture. He blessed himself devoutly by anointing his forehead, shoulders, and breast. As he regained his self-possession, O’Hara raised his hands and eyes toward heaven in an attitude of fervent thankfulness, and wiped the perspiration which streamed profusely from his brow with the cuff of his coat. As he gradually recovered his breath, he moved from a state of the greatest possible excitement, and became calm and collected once again.
In my mind, all of this was an act, albeit was done extremely well. I must confess, however, even though I was convinced that it was all false, the entire show made a very powerful impression upon me. In truth I did not feel at all comfortable with this play acting. I did not like the idea of being in the same room with the evil one, who to all appearances was chasing my friend, the magician, around it. I began to feel a sudden and indescribable sensation of dread creeping over me, and there were more than a few drops of perspiration that formed on my brow. My hair, of which I do not have very much, mysteriously began to stiffen and to become wiry. My wife clung closely to my side seeking protection, and the great agitation in her mind could be felt through the heavy pumping of her heart, which in that moment matched the beating of my own.
Having taken a short pause, the magician asked for a ribbon, which he immediately passed over his forehead and around his head. Bringing the ends to the front, he knotted it over his nose before twining it round his fingers in the manner that children call a cat’s cradle. O’Hara knelt down and peered through the ‘cradle’ attentively into the mixture, which I imagined at the moment fermented and sent up a blue vapour.
After gazing a few seconds in this manner he cried out “Aha! She that has your butter is not far off! Bring me a lighted candle.”
We hurried to do as he asked and, when it was brought to him, he placed the candle in the plate. “Now,” he said, “both of you kneel down here. Do as I do, and say as I say, and we’ll have her brought here directly.”
“No!” I exclaimed loudly, “we will not.” By this time, I thought we had gone far enough. I was convinced that if what we were engaged in was not an unholy act, it was at least a piece of gross deception, and I did not want to continue with the charade, or give it any authority through my further participation.
“Why?” O’Hara exclaimed in surprise, “do you not want to get your butter back?”
“Yes,” I told him, “I would like to have my butter returned, but I don’t want it done through a charm or other black art.”
“What is being done here is undoubtedly a charm,” he said, “but it is done with the best of intentions, and I have done the same for others who are as every bit as good as you ever were.”
“So much the worse for them,” I replied, “that they would allow such profane things to be done, and I am sorry that any person would be so wicked, or so foolish, as to encourage you in your tricks. Allow me to tell you that I neither like you, nor your trickery, and the sooner you get about your own business the better.”
The conjuror jumped to his feet angrily, blew out the candle, grabbed hold of the plate, and attempted to throw the contents into the fireplace. My wife, however, was in no mood to have her hearth wet, and she took the plate from him, putting it in a place of safety. He was very angry and began to shout, accusing me of allowing him to take a great deal of trouble on my account, and he insisted on getting on with his task. But, I was determined not to give in to him, and, being considerably upset and annoyed by what had transpired between us, I insisted that he get off my property, and I left him to what was asked of him.
A few moments after I left O‘Hara I heard the noise of a violent altercation and scuffle, and I was loudly called on for help. Rushing to the scene of altercation, I found my wife holding O’Hara tightly by the neck, and preventing him from leaving.
“What is going on now, for God’s sake?” I shouted.
“Your man, here” said she, “when he leaving us, decided to take a glowing coal out of the grate, and then he told me to take care of my children.”
Of course, O’Hara strongly denied all this, until he was confronted by the young girl, whom my wife employed as a servant. I immediately threatened to call the police and to have him charged as an impostor. But, he began to stammer, and finally acknowledged that he had said those things to my wife. He quickly added that he had meant no harm by it. “And sure,” said O’Hara, “there’s absolutely no harm in advising you to mind them well. For, just as easily as one of your cows could get injured, so maybe your children can be just as easily injured.”
“You’re not treating me well,” he continued; “I came here at the request of a friend to try to do you a good turn, and I asked for nothing in return, yet now you’re putting me out of your house. But, I’ll tell you that you will be happy to see me yet. Just take my advice and never throw out your Sunday’s ashes until Tuesday morning, and always sweep your floor in from the door to the hearth.” And, with those final words, away he went.
My heart now began beating a lot easier, because I thought that we had finally got rid of the ‘Fairy Man’. This, however, was not to be the end, for I was to be mystified even further. When I looked at the plate over which he had performed his incantations, I discovered that the contents were thick, yellow, and slimy, with a sediment that looked like globules of blood at the bottom. This was something extraordinary, because I had watched the man very closely, and I did not see him put anything into the plate but the milk, water, and salt.
The end of the month now drew near, and our bread still had no butter to spread upon it. This was the reason why almost every morsel of bread seemed to stick in my poor dear wife’s throat. She, of course, did not possess the same scruples of conscience as I had, and she was of the opinion that the cow had been bewitched. She would remind me of my faults by complaining, “Here we are day after day, losing our income when all our problems could have been solved but for your squeamishness, in not allowing the ‘Fairy Man’ to finish his task.”
She would harangue me almost every day in this way, and did not hesitate to call me a fool, an eejit, and a complete ass. I must admit that nearly every one of my neighbours were much of the same opinion as she was. One of my neighbours, a respectable farmer’s wife, was particularly tenacious about her opinion. One evening, while visiting, she said, “My Robin was down in Sligo, and he heard that if you got the coulter of a plough (a vertically mounted component of many plows that cuts an edge about 7 inches (18 cm) deep ahead of a plowshare), and made it red-hot in the fire while you were churning, the butter would come back. Or, if you chose to churn on Sunday morning before the lark begins to sing, you will surely get the butter back.”
“Don’t you tempt me anymore, more with your spells, for I will not stand for it,” said I, impatiently. “I will never swop my peace of mind for a pound of butter, if I should never eat another morsel.” But, in all honesty, my peace of mind was already gone. The continual urging and yammering, that I was being subjected to, had made me heartily sick. Inwardly, I had made mind up to sell the cow at the first opportunity I had, and thereby end the matter completely.
In the afternoon of May eve, I had reason to leave home for a very short time, and, when I returned, I was rather surprised to find all the windows in the house closed, as well as the door locked against me. I knocked on the door and called out for someone to let me in, but I received no answer. I could, however, hear the noise of churning going on inside, and the truth of what was happening flashed across my mind. Annoyed by my wife’s belief in such superstitious nonsense, I went to the garden to await the result of her ritual. In a very short period of time she came running out of the house like a demented person, clapping her hands and screaming, “Oh! we’ve got the butter, we’ve got the butter!”
As I went into the house I found a coulter of a plough fizzing and sparkling at a white heat in the fire, an ass’s shoe under the churn, my worthy neighbour standing over it, panting and blowing from the exertions she had made on my behalf, and wiping the dew-drops from her really lovely face. Meanwhile, in the churn, floating like lumps of gold in a sea of silver, as fine a churning of butter as ever we had been blessed with. Well, I will admit that I was gobsmacked by the entire episode, and when I was asked, “Now, is there no witchcraft or magic in a red-hot coulter?” I could scarcely muster up courage to utter “No.”
I tried, in vain, to protest that the butter came back to us because “Brownie” had got back to her pasture. It was all, I argued, because of the change in her feeding, from dry fodder to the mellow and genial production of spring grass. The loss, I said, was the result of changing her feed from grass to hay. In the face of what had happened in the house, however, it was futile to argue such a case. Everyone was convinced that it was all due to O’Hare’s incantations, or the magic of the red-hot coulter, the influence of the ass’s shoe, or the tremendous pommelling the milk had been subjected to.
A few days after the event, I had the opportunity to talk to a knowledgeable man who was a herdsman in charge of a large stock farm. He patiently listened to my story and when I had finished he burst into hearty laughter. “Dear God,” said he, “I took you for a sensible man, and never thought for one minute that you would believe in such nonsense.”
“Some time ago I would sooner have believed that black was white,” I told him. “But how can I ignore the chain of circumstantial evidence that I have witnessed? Firstly, ‘The Hawk’ coming to me with her high priced geese, then the gypsies and the piper, and finally losing my butter just at that moment.”
“It is very easy to account for it,” he said. “In the first place, you took your cow from grass and fed her on hay.”
“Yes, we did. But, we made sure that she had plenty of winter cabbages, and we gave her boiled potatoes.”
“Just the thing. Cabbage is good for helping to provide plenty of milk, but not for butter. I bet you that you gave her the potatoes warm.”
“And she got a scour?”
“Indeed she did, and her hair fell off.”
“So I thought. And afterwards she got in good condition?”
“Oh! aye, she put her butter on her ribs. Did you kill a pig at Christmas?”
“Where did you put your bacon?”
“Why, under the shelf in the dairy.”
“Now the truth is out! Never as long as you live put meat, either fresh or salted, near your milk-vessels. If you do, you will surely spoil your milk and lose your butter.”
“This may account for my loss, but what have you to say to its coming back?”
“Why, what’s to stop it, when your bacon is in the chimney and your cow at grass?”
“But the red blobs in the plate, and O’Hare fighting the devil for me, what do you say to that?”
It was at this point that the man burst into such a violent fit of laughter that I really thought he would actually snap the waistband of his trousers. “O’Hare! ha! ha!— O’Hare! ha! ha! ha!— sure he’s the greatest villain that ever breathed fresh air. He came to me one time when I had a cow sick, and said she was enchanted by the fairies, and that he would cure her for me. He began with his tricks with the milk and water, just the same as he did with you. But, I watched him very closely, and when I saw the smoke rising out of the plate, I got him by the neck, shook a little bottle of vitriol out of the cuff of his coat, and took a paper of red earthy powder out of his waistcoat pocket.”
I was both shocked and confounded by what he told me. Could I have been made a complete fool of by the ‘Fairy Man’? Even the thought of this made me feel humiliated, and I began to wish that I had remained in complete ignorance. On reflection, however, I had every reason to congratulate myself that it had been only a temporary lapse in my beliefs. I had been right in my original opinion, that, except the witchery of a pair of blue languishers, or the fairy spell of a silver-tongued siren, there is now no evil of the kind to be believed in.