A Tale of Lough Neagh
Lough Neagh is one of the largest and most beautiful bodies of water in the British Isles and lies in the centre of Ireland’s northernmost Province, Ulster. The waters of the lake are transparently blue in many places allowing you to see even small pebbles on the bottom, at a considerable depth. Near the southern end, a survey of the Lough bottom revealed cut stones that appear to have been laid in order, and careful observations have traced the remnants of the regular walls of a considerable sized structure. The Tradition of those who live on the shoreline tells us that this structure was once a castle, surrounded by a village, both of which succumbed to the expansion of the lake many generations past. In ancient times, it is said that the castle was owned by an Irish chieftain called Shane O’Donovan, who was noted for his bad character traits, such as being merciless in war, a tyrant in peace, feared by his neighbours, hated by his own family, and reviled by all for his inhospitality and lack of charity.
In those far off days, his castle stood by the bank of the lake, on an elevated promontory. It was almost an island, being joined to the mainland only by a narrow isthmus that stood at a small height above the level of the lake water. It is said that at one time an angel chanced to come into that part of Ireland, who had been sent from heaven to observe the people and to note their piety. Disguising himself in the clothes and body of a man, who was weary and footsore with travelling the country, the angel observed the castle from the hills above the lough and came down to boldly request a night’s lodging there. But his request was bluntly refused and, what’s more, the nasty and uncivil Shane O’Donovan set his dogs to bite the weary man. The angel immediately turned away from the castle, but he had no sooner passed through the castle gate than the villagers gathered around him and a contest began between them as to who should have the honour of entertaining the traveller.
The Angel made his choice and decided he would go to the house of a cobbler who was so poor that he had only one potato, and when he wanted another, he cut the one in two. Gratefully the heavenly visitor shared the cobbler’s potato and he slept on the cobbler’s floor, putting his feet onto the hearth to keep them warm. But as daylight dawned he rose, and called all the villagers together, led them out, across the isthmus to a nearby hill, and bid them look back. As they did so, they saw the castle and promontory separate from the mainland and begin to sink into the blue waters of the lough. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, the castle sank, while the waters rose around it. But the waters stood like a wall on every side of the castle and did not wet a single stone from the highest turret to its foundation. After some time, the entire wall of water had risen higher than the battlements and, as the angel waved his hand, the waves suddenly rushed over the castle and its sleeping inmates, punishing the O’Donovan for his lack of hospitality. When all was done, the angel pointed to a spot close by, telling the villagers that they were to build and prosper there. Then, as the awe-stricken villagers knelt before him, the traveller’s clothing became pure white and shining wings appeared upon his shoulders, and he rose into the air to vanish from their sight.
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“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.’”
A Fairy Encounter
Many years ago, there lived a hard-working farmer named Liam Mooney, who lived on the borderlands between County Armagh and County Louth. Times had been harsh for many seasons and there was little money to be made from poor harvests. Then, one day, the landlord came to Liam and told him, “You owe me three years’ rent now, and unless you can pay it all to me within the week, I’ll throw you, and all of your family out on the road.”
“Ah, sir,” replied Liam, “I will be going to Newry tomorrow with a load of wheat to sell, and when I get it all sold, I will be able pay you all that I owe.”
Next morning, Liam put a load of wheat on the cart, and headed off to market with it. But, after he had travelled only a couple of miles from his house, he met a prosperous looking gentleman, who asked him, “Is that a load of wheat that you’ve got on your cart?”
“It is, indeed,” replied Liam, “and I’m going to sell it at the market so that I can pay my rent.”
”How much is there in that load?” the gentleman asked politely.
“There’s a ton in it,” said Liam with a certain pride.
“I’ll buy it from you,” said the gentleman, “and I’ll give you the best price that’s going in the market. Now, when you reach the cart track that’s on your left, turn down it and continue along the track until you come to a big house in the valley. I’ll be there before you arrive, and I can give you your money.”
Pleased with the deal he had struck, Liam came to the cart track he turned in, continuing on his way, as instructed, until he came as far as the big house described by the gentleman. Liam then began to wonder, when he came as far as the big house, for having been born and raised in this part of the country he had never seen this building before, and he thought he was familiar with every house within five miles of where he lived. When Liam came near to the barn that was close to the big house, a small boy came running out and said, “Good man Liam Mooney, you’re very welcome.” The boy then lifted a sack onto his back and went into the barn with it. Almost immediately another little lad came out and welcomed Liam, put a sack on his back, and went into the barn with it. Very soon various lads were coming out, welcoming Liam, and putting the sacks on their backs to carry them into the barn, until the entire ton of wheat was all gone.
It was then that all the boys came around Liam, who told them plainly, “You boys all know me, and I don’t know one of you!”
One of the boys stepped forward and replied to Liam, saying, ”Go in and eat your dinner, for the master’s waiting for you.”
Liam went into the main house and sat down at the table to eat. But he had not taken a second mouthful when he began to feel a heavy sleep overcame him, and he fell down under the table. Then this mysterious gentleman used his magic powers to fabricate a man in Liam’s image, and then sent him home to William’s wife with the horse and cart. When the false Liam eventually arrived at Liam’s house, he went into the bedroom, where he laid himself down on the bed and died.
Within a few hours the news had spread far and wide that Liam Mooney had died. The wife put some water on the fire to heat and, when it was hot, she washed the body of her ‘husband’ and laid it out to be waked. His friends and neighbours from all over the district came to the house, and they grieved for him deeply. There was also great comfort for Liam’s poor wife, who did not show much grief herself on the passing of her husband, for Liam was an older man and she was quite young.
The next morning saw the poor man’s body buried, and afterwards there was very little thought given to the man. The wife had a young house-boy, and she called him to her and said, “You should marry me, you know, and take Liam’s place.”
“Surely, it’s too early, after himself just dying and his body hardly cold in the ground?” the boy replied. “Wait, at least until Liam has been buried a week.”
Meanwhile, after the real Liam had slept for seven days and seven nights, a little boy came to him and awoke him, saying, “You’ve been asleep for a week, Liam! But we sent your horse and cart home. Now, here’s your money, and you should go.”
Liam, still confused by all that had happened to him, made his way home, and because it was late at night no person saw him. However, on the morning of that same day, Liam’s wife and the young servant lad went to the local priest and asked if he would marry them. “Have you the marriage money?” asked the priest.
“No,” said the wife, “but I have a great beast of a pig at home, and you can have her in place of money.”
The priest accepted, married the couple, and said, “I’ll send for the pig tomorrow.”
When the wife and the servant boy were going to bed that evening, Liam came to the door of his house and struck it a hefty blow. Surprised by the intrusion the newly wedded couple asked, “Who’s there?”
“It’s I,” replied Liam, “Now, open the door for me.”
When they heard the voice, they immediately recognised that it was Liam’s voice. Terrified by this knowledge the wife called out, “I can’t let you in! Sure, it’s a shameful thing for you to be coming back here again, after you have been lying seven days in your grave.”
“Have you gone mad? ” asked Liam.
“No! I’m not a mad woman!” declared the wife. “Sure, doesn’t every person in the entire parish know that you are dead, and that I buried you decently. Now, old man, go back to your grave, and I’ll have a mass read for your poor soul in the morning.”
“Wait until morning comes,” said Liam, “and I’ll give you the weight of a dead man’s boot as the price for all this foolishness!” Angrily he turned from the door and went into the stable, where his horse and the pig were, to stretch himself out on the straw and get some sleep.
Early the next morning, the priest called one of the local lads to him and told him, “Go you to Liam Mooney’s house, and the woman that I married yesterday will give you a pig to bring back to me.”
When the boy came to the door of the house, he began knocking at it with a heavy-stick but the woman of the house was afraid to open it. Instead she called out, “Who’s there ? ”
“It’s me,” said the boy, “the priest has sent me to get a pig-from you.”
“She’s out in the stable,” said the wife, “you can go gather her for yourself, and drive her back with you.”
The lad went into the stable, and he began to drive out the pig, when Liam suddenly rose up and said, “Where are you going with my pig ? ”
When the boy saw Liam he never stopped to look again, but he ran out of there just as hard as he could, and he never stopped running until he came back to the priest. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest with terror that he thought it would burst out of his chest. “What’s the matter with you? ” asked the priest. The lad told him that Liam Rooney was in the stable and wouldn’t let him drive out the pig.
“Hold your tongue, you liar!” scolded the priest. “Liam Rooney’s dead and cold in his grave this week.”
“I don’t care if you say he was in his grave this past seven years, Father, I saw him in the stable two moments ago, and if you don’t believe me, then come yourself, and you’ll see him.”
The priest and the boy then went together to the door of the stable, and the priest told the lad, “Go in and turn me out that pig.”
“What? I wouldn’t go in there for all the money you could get!” said the boy.
The priest went in instead of the boy, and began driving out the pig, when Liam rose up out of the straw and asked, “Where are you going with my pig, Father?”
When the priest saw Liam standing before him, he turned on his heels and ran as if all the devils in hell were after him, crying out, “In the name of God, I order you back to your grave, Liam Rooney.”
Liam began running after the priest, and saying, ”Father, Father, have are you gone mad? Wait and speak to me.”
But the priest would not wait for him and continued to make for home just as fast as his feet could carry him, and when he got into the house, he shut the door behind him. Liam was knocking at the door until he was tired, but the priest would not let him in. Finally, the priest put his head out of an upstairs window of the house, and called to him, “Liam Rooney, go back to your grave.”
” You’re mad. Father! Sure, I’m not dead, and I never was in a grave since I was born,” said Liam.
“I saw you dead,” said the priest; “you died suddenly, and I was present when you were put into the grave. Sure, didn’t I make a fine sermon over you?”
“God preserve us, but, as sure as I’m alive, you’re raging mad !” said Liam.
“Get out of my sight now,” said the priest, “and I’ll read a mass for you, tomorrow.”
Liam went home then, and knocked at his own door, only to fine that his wife would not let him in. Then he said to himself: “I may as well go and pay my rent now.”
On his way to the landlord’s house everyone who saw Liam was running before him, for they thought he was dead. When the landlord heard that Liam Rooney was coming his way, he immediately locked the doors and would not let him in. Liam began knocking frantically at the front-door until the landlord thought he’d break it in, and he went to a window at the top of the house, put out his head, and asked, “What is it that you want? ”
“I’ve come to pay my rent like any honest man,” replied Liam.
“Go back to your grave, and I’ll forgive you your rent,” said the landlord.
“I won’t leave this,” said Liam, “until I get it in writing from you that I’m paid up until next May.”
The lord gave him the written statement he wanted, and he came home again and knocked at his own door. But, once again the wife refused to let him in. She said that Liam Rooney was dead and buried, and that the man at the door was only a deceiver. “I’m no deceiver,” said Liam, “I’m after paying my master three years’ rent, and I’ll have possession of my own house, or else I’ll know the reason why.”
He went to the barn and got a big bar of iron, and it wasn’t long until he broke the door down. The wife and her newly married husband were terrified, for they began to believe that the ‘Last Days’ had come and that the end of the world had arrived. “Why did you think I was dead?” asked Liam.
“Doesn’t everybody in the parish know you’re dead?” said the wife.
“To the devil with you woman,” said Liam, “you’ve been humbugging me long enough now, go and get me something to eat.”
The poor woman was greatly afraid, and she sliced him some meat. Then, when she saw him eating and drinking, she said, “It’s a miracle!”
Then Liam told her his story from first to last, and she told him each thing that happened. Then, and then he said, “I’ll go to the grave to-morrow, to see the body that is buried in my place.”
The next morning Liam brought a lot of men with him to the churchyard, and they dug open the grave. They were raising the coffin, when a huge black dog jumped out of it, and ran off, with Liam and the men chasing after it. They were following it until they saw it going into the house in which Liam had been asleep. Then, suddenly, the ground opened and swallowed the house, and from that moment on nobody ever saw it again, although the big hole that it left is still to be seen unto this day. When Liam and the men went home, they told everything that had happened to the priest of the parish, and he dissolved the marriage between Liam’s wife and the servant boy. Liam lived for years after this, leaving great wealth behind him, and his story is still remembered in that border area.
An Old Tale of Ireland
There was nothing nice or polite about Neil Kelly. He simply told his wife that he was going to the forge to get a ‘doctoring instrument’ and off he went without another word being said. When he arrived at the forge he mumbled a greeting to the blacksmith, who asked him “Where are you heading to today?”
” I have come here, for to ask you to make me an instrument for some doctoring I intend to do.”
“Aye, well what type of instrument is it that you want?”
“Make me a ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’,” replied Neil.
The Smith made these instruments for him in a short period of time and Neil then returned home.
When the next day dawned, Neil Kelly rose up from his bed and prepared himself to be going out as a doctor and went out of the house. As he walked along the road, Neil met a red-haired lad on the side of the high road. The lad politely saluted Neil Kelly and Neil did likewise in reply. “Where would you be going?” asked the red man.
“I am going as far as I can to get me a doctoring job.”
“It’s a good trade,” says the red man, “It would be best for you to hire me.”
“What wages would be you be looking for?” inquired Neil.
“I suppose half of what we shall earn until we come back to this place again would be right.”
“I’ll give you that,” said Neil without hesitation, and with this agreed the two men walked on their way together.
“There’s a king’s daughter,” said the red man, “who is close to death. We should go as far as the place in which she rests, and we shall see if we can heal her.”
The two men walked on as far as the gate of a strong well-guarded castle, and the porter came to answer their call. He asked them where they were going to, and they said that they had come to look at the king’s daughter they were, to see if they could do her any good. The king, hearing this gave the visitors permission to enter the castle, and they were taken to the place where the girl was lying. The red man went to her and took hold of her wrist to check her pulse, and said that if his master should get the price of his labour he would heal her. The king replied by saying that he would give his master whatever he should award himself. In response, the red man said, “If I could have the room to myself and my master, then he could work better,” and without hesitation, the king said he should have it.
He wanted a little pot of water brought down to him, which he immediately put on the fire to boil. He asked Neil Kelly, “Where is the doctoring instrument?”
“Here they are,” said Neil, “a crooked knife and a white knife.”
He put the crooked knife on the girl’s neck, and he took her head off her body. Then, he took a green herb out of his pocket and rubbed it into her neck. Not one drop of blood came out of the wound as he took the head and threw it into the pot of water starting to boil on the fire. He boiled it for a while, seized hold of the two ears, and taking it out of the skillet, he struck it down on the neck. The head stuck on the girl’s body as well as it ever was. “How do you feel now,” he asked the girl.
“I am as well as ever I was,” said the king’s daughter.
The big man shouted for her father and the king came down to the room. When he saw his daughter, he was totally joyous, and he would not let the visitors go away again for three days. When they were eventually leaving the castle, the king brought down a bag of money and poured it out on the table. He asked Neil Kelly if there was enough there for him. Neil said that there was more than enough and that they would only take half of the amount. But the king wanted them to take the entire amount, and the two men replied, “There is a daughter of another king who is waiting for us to go and look at her.” With that, they bid farewell to the king and went on their way.
They went to look at their new patient and went to the place where she was lying ill. After looking at her in her bed she was healed in the same manner as the previous princess was healed. The king was grateful, and he said that he did not mind how much money Neil should take from him, giving him three-hundred pounds cash, and then they left to go home.
“There’s a king’s son in such and such a place,” said the red man, “but we won’t go to him. We will go home with what we have.” They were heading home, with ten heifers that the king had given them, and as they walked homeward, they came upon the place where Neil Kelly had hired the red man.
“I think,” said the red man, “that this is the place where I met you the first time.”
“I think it is,” replied Neil Kelly, “Friend, how shall we divide the money?”
“Two halves,” said the red man, “that’s what we agreed.”
“I think it is too much to give you half,” said Neil Kelly, “a third is enough for you. It was I who had the ‘crooked knife’ and a ‘white knife’, and you had nothing.”
“I won’t take anything,” said the red man, “unless I get half the money.” The two men fell out over the money, and the red man left him.
Neil Kelly was coming closer to his home, driving his share of the cattle. The day became hotter and the cattle began to scamper backwards and forwards in the heat, with Neil Kelly trying his best to control them. When he caught one or two, the rest would be off when he used to bring them back. The horse, which he used to catch the cattle, was tied to the stump of a tree while he continued to try to catch the cattle. But they all got away and he hadn’t a clue as to where they went. Then, when he returned back to the place where he had left his horse and his money, neither the horse nor the money was to be found and he did not know what he should do.
He thought that he should go to the house of the king whose son was ill, and he went head until he came to the king’s castle. He went to look at the boy in the room where he was lying, and he took his pulse. Neil said that he thought he could heal the boy, and the king told him, “If you heal him, I will give you three hundred pounds.”
“If I were to get the room to myself, for a little while,” said Neil and the king said that he would have it. He now called down for a small pot of water, which he put on the fire to boil. Then, he took his ‘crooked knife’ and went to take the head off the boy, just as he had seen the red man doing previously. He was sawing at the head, but it did not come away easily, allowing him to cut it off at the neck. The blood was pouring out as he finally took the head off the boy and threw it into the boiling water. He boiled it for a while until he considered that the head had been boiled enough. Neil then tried to get the head out of the pot and managed to get a hold of its two ears. The head fell, in a gurgling mass of flesh, and the two ears came with him. By now the blood was pouring out in great amounts, flowing down the room and seeping out from under the door.
When the king saw that the blood was flowing out from under the door of the room, he knew that his son was dead. He wanted the door opened, but Neil Kelly refused to comply with the king’s orders, and soldiers broke down the door. The young man was dead, and the floor was covered with blood. They seized Neil Kelly, whom they told would hang the next day, and they gathered a company of guards to take him to the place where he was to be executed. They went with him the next day and were walking toward the tree where he should be hanged, and he stopped his screaming. Ahead they saw man stripped and running quickly toward them with a type of mist around him. When he came up to them, the running man cried aloud, “What are you doing to my master? ”
“If this man is your master, you had better deny him, or you’ll get the same treatment,” they warned him.
“But it is me who should be suffering, for it me who caused the delay. He sent me for medicine, and I did not come in time. If you free my master, perhaps we can still heal the king’s son.”
They freed Neil and the two men were taken to the king’s house. The red man went to the place where the dead man was, and he quickly began to gather up the bones that were in the small pot. He gathered them all except for the two ears. “What did you do with the ears ?” he asked Neil.
“I don’t know,” said Kelly, “I was so frightened.”
The red man finally got the ears and he put them all together. From out of his pocket he took a green herb, which he rubbed around the head. The skin soon covered it again and the hair grew as fine as it had been previously. He put the head in the skillet again and allowed it to boil a while. The red man put the head back on the neck, where it stuck as well as it ever had done, and the king’s son rose up in the bed. “How are you now?” asked the red man.
“I am well,” said the king’s son, “but I feel terribly weak.”
The red man shouted again for the king and the king was overjoyed to see his son alive again. They spent that night celebrating and, the next day, when they were going away, the king counted out three hundred pounds. He gave the money to Neil Kelly and told him that, if he had not enough, he would give him more. But Neil said that he had been given enough and that he would not take a penny more. He bade farewell and left his blessing, and struck out, heading straight for home. When they saw that they had reached the place where they had fallen out with one another the red man pointed out, “I think that this is the place where we had our difference.”
“It is,” said Neil, and they sat down to divide the money. He gave half to the red man, and he kept another half for himself.
The red man said farewell, and he went. He was walking away for a while, and then went back. ” I am here again,” said the red man, “I had another thought to myself that I would leave all the money with yourself, for you yourself were open-handed. Do you mind the day you were going by past the churchyard, and there were four people there with the body in a coffin? Two of the people were seeking to bury the body, but the dead person owed some debts. The two men who were owed the debts by the dead man were not going to allow the body to be buried. They were arguing, and you were listening to them. Then, you went in and asked how much they were owed by the dead man. The two men said that they each were owed a pound by the body and that they would not let it be buried until the people, who were carrying the coffin, promised to pay at least part of the debts. You said, ‘I have ten shillings, and I’ll give it to you, and let the body be buried.’ You gave them ten shillings, and the corpse was buried. Well, it was I who was in the coffin that day. When I saw you going doctoring, I knew that you would not do the business, and when I saw you in deep trouble, I came to save you. I give you all the money, and you shall not see me again until the last day. Go home now, and don’t do a single day’s doctoring so long as you live. It’s only a short walk now until you get your share of cattle and your horse.” Neil went on towards home, and he didn’t walk far until he came across his share of cattle and his horse, as the red man had said. He took them all home with him. There is not a single day since, that he and his wife do not thrive on their fortune.
A Story of Lough Neagh
I will admit that the following story is a very strange tale, but I can assure you that it is not a fiction, which has been dreamed up in my own imagination just amuse you. Most of my stories are, in fact, told to me by various people throughout this land, and I give you my oath that none of these stories differ in even the slightest way from the way in which they are given to me. Although the following story, which I am about to present to you is, perhaps, one of the most remarkable, it is also one of the best authenticated stories that I have ever heard.
The person who told this tale to me was my maternal grandfather and he never doubted, even for one moment, that it was not an accurate description of facts. However, I do recall my grandfather telling the story to me in a whispering tone, almost as if the tale was too solemn a story to be spoken about in the loudness of an ordinary conversation, and too mysterious to be told in a light or flippant way. When he told me this story, almost fifty years ago, my grandfather also told me that he did not want it spread far and wide. He thought it was better not to say too much about it, but those involved in the story are now long gone, bless their souls. But, I still feel that I cannot disclose the names of those who are involved in the story, and it is not necessary to do so to relate the story accurately since the facts of the story lose nothing by the omission of names.
One fine spring morning, not too many years ago, there were two young men who lived along the shores of Lough Neagh, and they took a boat and steered it to a fair being held on the opposite shore of the great lough. As is often the case with young men, however, they took a little bit too much whisky and Guinness at the fair, in addition to the amount that they had taken with them on the boat. These two young, intoxicated men set sail before a fair wind as they began on their return journey later that same evening. Their journey back would cause them to travel just over twelve miles across the waters of the lough. Meanwhile, in the small village that they called home the two men had left behind a close friend and associate, who had been unable to go to the fair with them. Instead, this young friend had gone to the bog for turf on that fair evening, just about half an hour after his two friends had set sail for home. With great industry the young friend soon filled his creel, and got it comfortably on his back, before he started for home.
As he followed the country track towards home he had an inexplicable impulse to look around. As he did so, the young turf collector saw, sitting on a small, heather-covered mound, his two young friends who had gone to the fair. But, unknown to the turf collector, the friends had left the fair twelve miles away only half an hour before. He could clearly see that the two young men had a bottle of whisky between them and were apparently enjoying themselves. As they had made merry and laughed loudly they had spotted their friend on his way home, and they signalled for him to come and join them.
Without any hesitation he made his way over to the mound, where he sat down to get the creel more easily off his back. But, as soon as he had removed the creel, his two friends had gone, and they were nowhere to be seen! There was no doubt in his mind that he had seen them plainly. Although he had not expected them to return so early, he was certain he had seen them and could not have been mistaken. He began to believe that they were trying to play a trick on him and he looked all round in the long heather bushes that stood behind the little clumps of turf, everywhere. But, his two friends could not be found no matter how hard he looked for them!
The entire event had astonished him at first, but he then became very frightened. Taking up his creel once again he hurried home and told everyone he met about what he had seen in the bog. Worried about his friends, the young turf collector anxiously gathered a few of his neighbours, and they all made their way to the lough shore to find out if the boat had returned, or not. It was not there. In fact, the boat was not discovered until the next morning, broken into hundreds of pieces of timber, floating in a little inlet almost ten miles further away! It was not until nine days afterwards, sadly, that the bodies of the two unfortunate young men who had travelled in the boat were finally washed ashore and retrieved.
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 Pooka?”
“What’s the Pooka, did you ask?” asked the old man. “Well, sure, that’s not easy to tell. For one thing, it’s an evil sort of spirit that does be always creating mischief. But, sure it never does any serious harm to any excepting to those that deserve it, or them that speaks of it disrespectfully. I’ve never seen it, myself, thanks be to God, but there are those who have, and they say that it looks like the finest black horse that ever wore smithy shoed. But it isn’t a horse at all, for no horse did have eyes of fire, or be breathing flames of blue with a smell of sulphur, or a snort like thunder, and no mortal horse would take the leaps and bounds that it does or go as far without getting tired. Sure, it was said that when it gave Tom O’Byrne the ride it gave him, it went from Belfast to Athlone with one jump, and the next took him Galway, and the next was in Dublin, and back again be way of Limerick and Kilkenny, and he never turned a hair. How far is that? Sure, I wouldn’t know, but it’s a brave long distance, and took him right across Ireland and back again. Byrne knew it was the Pooka because it spoke to him like a mortal Christian, only its language isn’t at all agreeable and will never give you a decent word after you’re on its back, and sometimes not even before.”
“It must be a monster of a thing?” I replied, eager to move on, but the old man had not finished yet.
“Sure, Danny Burke was coming home one night. Now, I was only a boy at the time, but I mind him telling the story. He said that he had been at a fair in Galbally, where he had been having a few drinks, though some say he had a bellyful. But when he come to a rath, and just beyond it, where the fairies dance, you know, the front of the wall where that policeman was hit on the head by a poacher last winter, he fell in the ditch, completely jiggered and exhausted. Sure, it wasn’t the length as much as the wideness of the road, for he was going from one side to the other and it all proved too much for him. So, he laid still in the ditch for a bit and then tried to get up, but his legs were too weak, and his head was too heavy, and when he attempted to get his feet on the road it was his head that was on it, because his legs couldn’t balance him. Well, Burke lay on and he was entirely done, and while he was studying just how he would get up, he heard the trotting of a horse approaching on the road.
“‘Ah, sure, I’ll get a lift now,’ says he to himself as he lay waiting, and up came the Pooka. When Danny saw him, by Jaysus, he covered his face with his hands and turned away from him, roaring with fright like a mad bull.
“’Ah now, you wee sneaking blackguard,’ said the Pooka, with a mighty snort, ‘Would ever stop your bawling or I’ll kick you to the end of next week.’
“But Danny was scared, and he bellowed louder than he had before, so the Pooka, with his hoof, give him a crack on the back that knocked the wind out of him. ‘Will you be quiet,’ said the Pooka, ‘or will I give you another crack, you buck eejit?’
“Danny stopped the weeping and the Pooka began to calm himself, though his language was no less temperate. ‘Stand up, you pure-bred guzzler,‘ said the Pooka, ‘I’ll give you a ride on my back.’
“’I wish I could, but I can’t’ says Danny, ‘Sure, I’ve not been drinking at all, but smoking too much and eating, and it’s sick I am, and not drunk.’
“’You’re a drunken reprobate,’ says the Pooka, ‘Don’t you be trying to deceive me,’ lifting up his hoof again, and giving his tail a swish that sounded like the crack of a whip. ‘Didn’t I follow you for two miles by your breath,’ says the Pooka, ‘And you smelling like a poteen factory. And the nose on your face as red as a turkey-cock’s. Get up out of that, or I’ll lift you,’ says the Pooka, jumping up and cracking his hind foot like he was dancing a jig.
“Danny did his best to get up, and the Pooka helped him with a grip of his teeth on Danny’s collar. “‘Pick up your cap,’ says the Pooka, ‘and climb up. I’ll give you such a ride as you have never even dreamed of.’
“‘Ah, please,’ says Danny, ‘I’d rather walk, for riding makes me dizzy.’
“’Don’t be stupid,’ says the Pooka, ‘will you just get up out of that or will I kick the stuffing out of your cowardly body.’
“The Pooka turned around and he flourished his heels in Danny’s face. Poor Danny tried, but he couldn’t, so the Pooka took him to the wall and give him a lift onto it, and when Dennis was mounted, and had a tight hold on the Pooka’s mane, the first leap he gave was down the rock there, a thousand feet into the field you can see, then up again, and over the mountain, and into the sea, and out again, from the top of the waves to the top of the mountain, and after the poor sot from the ditch was almost dead, the Pooka come back here with him and dropped him in the ditch where he had found him, and he blew in his face to put him to sleep before leaving him. It was morning before they found Danny and carried him home. The man could not walk for a fortnight after, because of the weakness of his bones after the ride he’d been given.
“But sure, the Pooka’s a different beast entirely to what he was before King Bryan-Boru tamed him,” said the old man. “Never heard of him? Well, he was the king of Munster and High King of all Ireland, and he tamed the Pooka once and for all on that hill in front of you. You see, in the old days, the entire country was full of evil spirits, and fairies and witches, and devils, and the harm they did was almost unceasing, for they were always coming and going, like the shuttle on a loom, and without so much as a by your leave. The fairies would be dancing on the grass every night by the light of the moon, and stealing away the children, and many were those they took that never come back. The old rath on the hill beyond was full of the dead, and after nightfall they’d come from their graves and walk in a long line one after another to the old church in the valley where they’d go in and stay until cock-crow, then they’d come out again and back to the rath. There was hardly a parish without a witch, and some nights they’d have a great entertainment on the Hill, and you’d see them, with snakes on their arms and necks and ears, by way of jewels, and the eyes of dead men in their hair, coming for miles and miles, some riding through the air on sticks and bats and owls, and some walking, and more on Pookas and horses with wings that would come up in line to the top of the hill, like the cabs at the door of the theatre, and leave them there and hurry off to bring more.
“Sometimes the Old Enemy, Satan himself, would be there at the entertainment, coming on a monstrous dragon, with green scales and eyes like the lightning in the heavens, and a roaring fiery mouth like a lime-kiln. It was the great day then, for they do say all the witches brought their reports at them times for to show him what they had done. Some would tell how they stopped the water in a spring, and upset the neighbours, more would show how they dried-up the cow’s milk, and made her kick the pail, and they’d all laugh like they were ready to split in two. Some had blighted the corn, while more had brought the rains on the harvest. Some told how their enchantments made the children fall ill, some said how they set the thatch on fire, more told how they stole the eggs, or spoiled the cream in the churn, or bewitched the butter so it wouldn’t come, or led the sheep into the bog. But that wasn’t all.
“One would have the head of a man murdered by her charms, and with it the hand of him that was hung for the murder. One would bring the knife she’d scuttled a boat with and point to the sea to where the corpses laid of the fishermen she’d drowned. One would carry on her breast the child she’d stolen and meant to bring up in evil, and another one would show the little white body of a baby she’d smothered in its sleep. And the corpse-candles would tell how they deceived the traveller, bringing him to the river, and the evil spirits would tell how they drew him in and down to the bottom in his sins and then to the pit with him. And old Beelzebub would listen to all of them, with a reporter, like them that’s taking down the speeches at a meeting, by his side, writing what they said, so as when they come to be paid, it wouldn’t be forgotten.
“Those were the times for the Pookas too. They had power over those that went out after night, except it was on an errand of mercy they were going. But. Not one sinner that hadn’t been to his duty regular would ever see the light of day again after meeting a Pooka, for the beast would either kick him to smithereens where he stood, or lift him on to his back with his teeth and jump into the sea with him, then dive, leaving him to drowned, or spring over a cliff with him and tumble him to the bottom a bleeding corpse. But there were great howls of joy when a Pooka would catch a sinner off-guard and brought him on the ‘Path’ on a night that Satan was there. May God protect us, what a sight it was. They made a ring with the corpse-candles, while the witches tore him limb from limb, and the fiends drunk his blood in red-hot iron cups with shrieks of laughter to smother his screams. The Pookas jumped on his body and trampled it into the ground, and the storm would whistle a tune, and the surrounding mountains would keep time, and the Pookas, and witches, and spirits of evil, and corpse-candles, and bodies of the dead, and devils, would all jig together round the rock where old Beelzebub would sit smiling, as if saying that he could ask no better diversion. God save us, but it makes my skin creep to think of it.
“Well, as I was telling you, in the time of King Bryan, the Pookas did a great deal of harm, but as those that they murdered were drunken beasts that were in the shebeens during the day and in the ditch by night, and wasn’t missed when the Pookas took them, the King paid no attention, and sure he can’t be blamed for that.
“But one night, the queen’s baby took ill, and the king told one of his men, ‘Here, Riley, get you up and on the white mare and go for the doctor.’
“’Right then,’ says Riley. But, the king’s country house was in the break of the hills, so Riley would pass by the Rath and the ‘Black Hill’ on the way to get the doctor. ‘Well,’ says he quietly to himself, ‘I don’t want to be doing this job.’
“So, he says to the king, ‘Will it not do until the morning?’
“‘It will not,‘ says the king to him. ‘Get up, you lazy beggar, sitting and eating my bread, while the life is leaving my child.’
“So, Riley went with a great slowness in his feet, took the white mare, and off, and that was the last that was seen of him or the mare, for the Pooka took them. For those who said that they had seen him in Cork two days later, trading off the white mare, there were no lies told. They were, in fact, deceived by a trick of the spirits that made them believe it was Riley.
“Nevertheless, the baby got well again. But, because the doctor didn’t get there, the king now began to wonder what had happened to Riley and the white mare, and although he searched wide and low for them he didn’t find them. And then he realised that they were gone, because the Pooka had not left as much as a hair of the mare’s tail.
“’What’s this?‘ exclaimed the King, ‘Is it horses that the Pooka will be stealing? Well, bad luck to him and his impudence! This will never do. Sure, he’ll have us ruined entirely.’
“Mind you now, it’s my opinion from what he said, that the king wasn’t concerned too much about Riley, for he knew that he could get more Irishmen when he wanted them, but what he meant to say was that if the Pooka took to horse-stealing, he’d be ruined entirely, for where would he get another white mare? So, it was a very serious question and he retired into a room with a big book that he had, which contained some secrets. The king was very intelligent, well educated, and a mind that was craftier than that of a fox.
“So, the king read and read as fast as he could, and after reading without stopping, except for the occasional food break, for seven days and nights, he came out, and when they asked him if he could beat the Pooka now, he never said a word. He just gave a wink of his eye, as for to say he had him.
“So, that same day he went into the fields and along the hedges and ditches, from sunrise to sunset, collecting the materials for a charm against the Pooka. But, what he got I don’t know, no more does anyone for he never said, but kept the secret to himself and didn’t say it even to the queen. The king was only too aware that secrets run through a woman like water in a ditch. But there was one thing about it that he couldn’t help telling, because he wanted a certain item and couldn’t get it without help, and that was three hairs from the Pooka’s tail, without which the charm wouldn’t work. So he told a manservant he had that he’d give him a great deal of gold if he’d get them for him, but the servant pulled off his cap and scratched his head and said, ‘Dear God, your majesty, I don’t know what good the gold will do me if the Pooka gets a crack at me body with his hind heels.’ Neither would he undertake the task without a reward and the king began to fear that his plan was over before it had begun.
“But it happened on the Friday, this being on a Tuesday, that the Pooka caught a sailor that had only been on land long enough to get blind drunk, and got him on his back, and jumped over the cliff with him leaving him dead. When they came to search the sailor to see what he had in his pockets, they found three long hairs round the third button of his top-coat. So, they took them to the king and told him where they got them. The king was greatly pleased, because now he believed he had the Pooka in his grasp and could end his enchantment.
“But, as the evening came, he a doubt came into his mind and he began to wonder. If the three hairs were out of the Pooka’s tail, the charm would be good enough, but if they were not, and were from his mane instead, or from a horse instead of a Pooka, the charm wouldn’t work and the Pooka would get on top of him with all the feet he had at once and it would be the death of him immediately. So, this doubt struck the king with a great force and for a while he felt uneasy. But, with a little soul searching, he got around it. He went to confession and received absolution so that he’d be ready. He then told one of the servants to come in and tell him, after supper, that there was a poor widow in the laneway beyond the Black Hill that wanted help that night, that it would be an errand of mercy he would be on and, therefore, safe against the Pooka if the charm didn’t work.
“‘Sure, what’ll be the good of that?’ asked the man, ‘It will be a lie, and won’t work.’
“‘Don’t be worrying yourself,’ says the king, ‘just do as you are told and don’t argue, for that’s a point of metaphysics.’ It was indeed a great deal of deep learning that he had, ‘that’s a point of metaphysics and the more you argue on them subjects, the less you know,’ says he, and he’s speaking the truth. ‘Besides, even if it is a lie, it’ll deceive the Pooka, and it’s my belief that the means will justify the end,’ says he, as his thoughts turned to the white mare.
“So, after supper, as the king was sitting in front of the fire, and had the charm in his pocket, the servant came in and told him about the widow. ‘By God,‘ said the king, like he was surprised, in his attempt to completely deceive the Pooka. ‘If that’s true, I must go relieve her at once.’ So he got up from his chair and put on his soldier’s boots, with spurs on them a foot across, and he took a long whip in his hand, for fear, he said, that the widow would have dogs, then he went to his chest and took his old stocking and got a sovereign out of it, and went out with his right foot first, and the spurs rattling as he walked.
“He came across the yard, and up the hill beyond and around the corner, but saw nothing. Then up the foot path round the Black Hill and never met a soul but a dog that he threw a stone at. But, he didn’t go out on the road to the widow’s, for he was afraid that if he met the Pooka and he caught him in a lie, not being on the road to where he said he was going, it would be all over with him. So, he walked up and down between the old church below there and the Rath on the hill, and just as the clock was striking twelve, he heard a horse in front of him, as he was walking down, so he turned and went the other way, getting his charm ready, and the Pooka came up after him.
“‘The top of the morning to you, your Honour,’ said the Pooka, politely, for he had noticed by his clothes that the king was not just a commoner but was one of real quality.
“‘And good day to you,‘ says the king to him, boldly, and when the Pooka heard him speak, he became even more polite in his manner, and made a low bow and scrape with his foot. With polite greetings exchanged they walked on together and began to converse.
“”Sure, it’s a black night for traveling,’ said the Pooka.
“‘Indeed it is,’ replied the king, ‘and sure, I would not be out in it, if it wasn’t a case of necessity. I’m on an errand of charity.’
“‘That’s very good of you,’ said the Pooka to him, ‘and if I may ask, what’s the necessity?’
“”It is to relieve a widow-woman,’ said the king.
“‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, throwing back his head laughing with great pleasure and nudging the king with his leg on the arm, by the way that it was a joke because the king said it was to relieve a widow that he was going. ‘Oh,’ says the Pooka, ”It is myself that’s glad to be in the company of an elegant gentleman that’s on so pleasing an errand of mercy.’ ‘And how old is the widow-woman?’ says he, bursting with the horrid laugh he had.
“‘Ah, now,’ says the king, getting red in the face and not liking the joke in the least, for just between us, they do say that before he married the queen, he was the quare-buck with the women, and the queen’s maid told the cook, that told the footman, that said to the gardener, that told the neighbours that many were the nights that the poor king was as wide awake as a hare from sun to sun with the queen bleating at him about that topic. Even more amusing, there was a widow in it, that was as sharp as a rat-trap and surrounded him when he was young and hadn’t as much sense as a goose, and was ready to marry him at once in spite of all his relations, just as widows understand how to do. So it’s my considered opinion that it wasn’t decent for the Pooka to be laughing that way, and shows that evil spirits are dirty blackguards that can’t talk with gentlemen. ‘Ah, now,’ says the king, because the Pooka’s laughing wasn’t an agreeable noise to listen to, ‘I don’t know her, for I never seen her, but I believe that she’s a hundred, and as ugly as Beelzebub, and when her old man was alive, they tell me she had a temper like a gander, and was as easy to manage as an armful of cats. But she’s in want, and I’m after bringing her a sovereign.’
“Well, the Pooka ceased his laughing, for he had seen the king was not very amused, and says to him, ‘And if you don’t mind, where does she live?’
“‘At the end of the lane beyond the Black Hill,’ says the king, very short.
“‘By God, that’s a good bit,’ says the Pooka.
“‘Aye, that’s true,’ says the king, ‘what’s more, it’s uphill every foot of the way, and my back is broke entirely with the steepness of it,’ says he, giving a hint that he would like a ride.
“‘Will yer honour get upon my back,‘ says the Pooka. ‘Sure, I’m going that way, and you don’t mind getting a lift?’ says he, falling like the stupid beast he was, into the trap the king had made for him.
“‘Thanks,’ says the king, ‘I believe not. I’ve no bridle nor saddle. Besides, it’s the spring of the year, and I’m afraid you’re shedding, and your hair will come off and spoil my new britches,’ says he, pretending to make excuse.
“‘Have no fear,’ said the Pooka. ‘Sure, I never drop me hair. It’s no ordinary breed of a horse I am, but a most uncommon beast that’s used to the quality,’ says he.
“‘Yer speech shows that,‘ says the king, the clever man that he was, to be polite in such a way to a Pooka, that’s known to be an out-and-out devil. ‘But ye must excuse me this evening, because the road’s full of stones and is terrible steep, and you look so young that I’m afraid you’ll stumble and cause me to fall,’ says he.
“‘Fair play to you,’ says the Pooka, ‘it’s true, I do look young.’ And he began to prance about on the road giving himself airs like an old widow-man who is wanting a young woman, ‘but me age is older than you suppose. How old would you say I was,’ says he, smiling.
“‘Sure, I wouldn’t know,’ says the king, ‘but if it’s agreeable to you, I’ll look in your mouth and give you an answer.’
“So the Pooka come up to him softly and stretched his mouth as if the king was wanting to climb in, and the king put his hand on the jaw as if he was going to see the teeth he had. Then, that moment he slipped the three hairs around the Pooka’s jaw, and when he did that, he drew them tight, and said the charm crossing himself, and the hairs immediately became cords of steel, and held the Pooka tight, as if it was a bridle.
“‘Ah, now, you bloody beast of a murdering devil,’ says the king, pulling out his big whip that he had hidden in his top-coat, and giving the Pooka a crack with it under his stomach, ‘I’ll give you a ride that you won’t forget in a hurry, you black bollix of a four-legged devil and you stealing my white mare,’ and he hit him again.
“‘Oh my,‘ says the Pooka, as he felt the grip of the iron on his jaw and he knew that he was under an enchantment, ‘Oh my, what’s this all about?’ rubbing his breast with his hind heel, where the whip had hit him, and then jumping with his fore feet out to catch the air and trying to break away. ‘Sure I’m ruined, I am, so I am,’ says he.
“‘That’s true,’ says the king, ‘By God it’s the one true thing you ever said,’ says he, jumping on his back, and giving him the whip and the two spurs with all his might.
“Now, I forgot to tell you that when the king made his enchantment, it was good for seven miles round, and the Pooka knew that as well as the king and so he started like a policeman was after him, but the king was afraid to let him go far, thinking he’d do the seven miles in no time, and the enchantment would be broken like a rotten string, so he turned him up the Black Hill.
“‘I’ll give you all the exercise you want,’ says he, ‘in travelling around this hill.’ And round and round they went, the king sticking the big spurs in him every jump and cracking him with the whip until his sides ran blood in streams like a mill race, and his screams of pain were heard all over the world so that the king of France opened his window and asked the policeman why he didn’t stop the fighting in the street. Around and around and about the Black Hill went the king, lashing the Pooka, until his feet made the path that you see on the hill, because he went so often.
“And when morning came, the Pooka asked the king what he’d take to let him go, and the king was getting tired and told him that he must never steal another horse, and never kill another man, except for foreign blackguards that weren’t Irish, and when he gave a man a ride, he must bring him back to the spot where he got him and leave him there. So the Pooka consented, Glory be to God, and got off, and that’s the way he was tamed, and explains how it was that Danny Burke was left by the Pooka in the ditch just where he found him.”
“Moreover, the Pooka’s an altered beast in every way, for now he drops his hair like a common horse, and it’s often found sticking to the hedges where he jumped over, and they do say he doesn’t smell half as strong of sulphur as he used, nor the fire out of his nose isn’t so bright. But all the king did for him would not teach him to be civil in his speech, and when he meets you in the way, he speaks just as much like a blackguard as ever. And it’s out of devilment that he does it, because he can be polite as you know by what I have told you about him saying to the king, and that proves what I said to you that evil spirits can’t learn real good manners, no matter how hard they try.
“But the fright he got never left him, and so he keeps out of the highways and travels by the footpaths, and so isn’t often seen. And it’s my belief that he can do no harm at all to them that fears God, and there’s those that say he never shows himself nor meddles with man nor mortal except they’re drunk, and maybe there’s something in that too, for it doesn’t take much drink to make a man see a good deal.”