Tale of the Phooka

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. Pooka 2For 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.”

A PIPER’S TALE

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!

PookaUsing the horns, the ‘Pooka’ now threw the Piper onto his own back and spoke menacingly to him, “Pay no attention to your mother, 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.

Charlie Brennan’s Ghost

“It is sinful and painful to take a pin,
No matter how thick,
No matter how thin,

So, sang little Andy Smyth, in his loud and shrill voice.
“Jaysus, Andy. It’s bad enough listening to your singing without hearing your efforts at poetry,” laughed Harry Crowe as he patted little Andy’s flaxen-haired head in a friendly, mocking manner.
“Just talking of stealing,” said Charlie Brennan, dropping the pumpkin that he was carving into a Halloween lantern, “did I ever tell you boys about the day that I went down to old Pop Robinson’s orchard to steal apples, and came back past the black barn where the horse-thief is said to have hung himself years and years ago? The man knew that the ‘Peelers’ were after him, and that he’d be spending a long time in jail when he was caught. Even if the ‘Peelers’ didn’t get him the local farmers might, and they would string him up. Well, if I haven’t told you already, here’s a ghost story for you all, and I hope that it will prove to be a warning that you should never take anything that doesn’t belong to you, especially apples.
“Young Benny Evans and I were staying with our families at the hotel in Ardtermon that summer, and Pop Robinson’s farm was only about two miles away. He used to bring eggs and chickens and vegetables and fruit to the hotel. But, by God, he was one tight arsed bollix of a man. Stingy is too mild a description for that fellow! He wouldn’t even give a child the bite of a rotten apple, and he made sure he took the last penny off you for anything you received. Benny grabbed a punnet of strawberries from off Pop’s wagon and the old devil trembled all over with anger, and he caught young Benny and dragged him to his parents and demanded the money from them. Oh, he was a regular old miser, with lots of money in his pocket and a halfpenny to spare. But, Pop had one of the largest and best apple orchards in the district, which was ripe for the taking. After the old man had embarrassed Benny over the strawberries and caused him to be punished for his efforts at petty thievery, the boy wanted revenge. ‘Let’s go down to Pop’s orchard some night and help ourselves,’ said Benny, with a mischievous smile on his face.
‘Dogs,’ said I warily.
‘There’s only the one,’ says Benny, ‘I know him, and so do you. Its old ‘Snapper’! I gave him almost all the meat we took for bait that day we went fishing and didn’t catch any thing, but a foundering.’
‘All right,’ says I.
“Then, on the night for the raid came about, Benny was unavailable. His cousins, two girls, had come down from Belfast to visit, and Benny had to stay home and to entertain them. Now, in those days, I didn’t have much time for girls and, afraid that I might be roped-in to help entertain them, I made myself scarce. I decided that I would go alone to Pop Robinson’s orchard and carry out the planned raid. It was a great night for the adventure and I remember that the moon shone so bright that it was almost as light as day. Almost without care, I strolled down the country road, whistling a merry tune, until I got within a half-mile of the famed orchard. It was then that I stopped making noise and walked as softly as possible, until I came to the first apple-tree. It didn’t take me but a minute to shin up that tree, where I filled my bag with fine, ripe ‘Beauty of the Bath’ apples, before slid silently down the tree again. All the while that I was in that tree old ‘Snapper’ didn’t make an appearance. But, my first real difficulty came when I reached the ground and tried to lift the bag upon my shoulder, only to find that it was far too heavy for me to carry all the way back to the hotel. I was going to remedy the situation by dumping some of the apples out of the bag, until I suddenly remembered that if I made my way across the meadow to the boreen (country lane), I could make my way back to the hotel in half the time it would take me to go the way I had come.
“Comforted by this plan, I shouldered my load of apples, and was nearly across the meadow before I even thought about the haunted barn standing at the end of it. Now, it wasn’t exactly nice thought to recall for a young boy like me, but I wasn’t going to turn back now; ghost or no ghost. To encourage me, I tried to whistle again, when into my mind came that bloody song that Andy Smyth was trying to sing. Says I to myself, ‘That’s it, Charlie Brennan, you and your mates might think it’s great craic to help yourselves to other people’s apples, pears, and such things, but it’s just as much stealing as if you had gone into a man’s house and stole his coat.’ It doesn’t seem as bad when you’re going to raid an orchard, but when you’re returning, up a lonely road, all alone, at ten o’clock at night, with a lot of stolen apples on your back, and a haunted barn not far off, it seems to be a much worse situation.
“‘THERE IT IS,’ SAYS BARNEY!”
“I kept a tight hold of the bag of apples and, when I faced the barn, I was determined I would whistle even if I was to die in the effort. But, wait until I tell you, boys, I don’t think any person could have told you what tune I whistled. I couldn’t tell you myself, because I was so terrified. But, I can tell you, my heart jumped in my chest when I passed that tumbled-down old building. Then, it appeared to come to a stop when, as I marched up the boreen, I heard a step behind me. In an instant I wheeled myself around, but there was nothing at all to be seen, although the moon still shone as bright as ever. Says I to myself, ‘Jaysus, Charlie, you must have imagined it,’ and I walked on at a slightly quicker pace. All the while I listened as intently as I possibly could and, sure enough, I could hear pat, pat, pat, as the step came after me. Once again I wheeled round, but I still saw nothing. Onward I continued to walk, feeling the weight of apples growing heavier and heavier with each step. Pat, pat, pat, came the step. I began to think that it did not sound like the step of a human being, and this made it all the more frightening. ‘It must be the ghost,’ I began to think to myself, and I don’t mind telling you, boys, I never was so frightened in all of my life. Even that time that I fell overboard was nothing compared to the terror I felt that night. In fact, I had made up my mind, when I reached the bridge that crossed the little river near our hotel that I would sprint the rest of the way home. For some reason, or other, before I got to that bridge, I said to myself, ‘Perhaps he wants the apples.’ I must have said the words out loud, though I didn’t mean to, because a hoarse voice, with a horrific laugh, answered ‘Apples!’
“I can tell you, boys, you never saw a bag of apples fly so quick and so far, and I wasted no time in making myself scarce. Over the bridge I went with the speed of lightning, and ran right into Barney Reagan, one of the hotel staff, who was coming to look for me. ‘There’s something following me,’ I gasped, ‘from the haunted barn! A ghost!’
‘Did you see it?’ says he to me.
‘No,’ says I, ‘though I turned around a dozen times to look for it. But I heard its footsteps going pat, pat, pat, behind me all the way.’
‘And it’s behind you now,’ says Barney, ‘there!’ he shouted loudly as he burst into laughter. I jumped about six feet off the ground with fright when Barney, roared again, and was pointing toward Pop Robinson’s tame raven! That sly old bird looked up at me, nodding its shining black head, and croaked ‘Apples!’ as it walked off. That damned bird had followed me all the way from the barn. Every time I that wheeled around quickly, it hopped just as quickly behind me, and so, of course, I saw only the long, dark road and the moonlight reflected on it. Let me tell you all that never again do I want to be so scared as I was that night. And, if ever any of you boys go for looking to take anything that belongs to another person, make sure that you don’t count me in.”
“What became of the apples?” asked Terry O’Neil.
“Now, Terry, if you had been there I could have told you,” said Charlie.

The Old Lady’s Ghost

Ghosts? Sure, I know you don’t believe in them and neither did I at one time. I had read the books and heard the stories, but I would laugh at the very mention of a spectre, headless horseman, or a weeping woman in white. The Ghost of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas to come did nothing to change my mind and I would often make fun of those who believed in such fantasies. That was until one evening, about twenty-years ago when I had my first encounter with a ghost.
We lived in one of those old Georgian-type terrace houses where every room seemed to have stairs leading into or leading out it. On the evening in question I was downstairs in the kitchen area, sorting out some dishes, when I was suddenly distracted by the appearance of a strange woman who walked down the stairs leading into the room. I didn’t know it then, but I was to see her many times after this first appearance.
I had heard the footsteps echo on the stairs a few moments before I turned, but it did not worry me because I knew there were other people in the house. Then, when I turned to where I had heard the footsteps, I found myself looking at al tall, stout, elderly woman, who was wearing an old-fashioned bonnet on her head and a shawl over her shoulders. From under her bonnet her glittering, silver-grey hair was clearly visible, framing a face that had a warm, kind and welcoming expression. I could only just stand and gaze at her for what seemed to be five minutes but was probably more like twenty seconds. In the beginning there was not any feeling of fear but, gradually, as I stood looking at her in silence a feeling of discomfort touched me and increased until my body was filled with terror. Slowly, I stepped back and continued to retreat from the apparition until I could feel the cold, brick wall at my back. Then, as suddenly as she appeared, the apparition faded away.
This terrible feeling of terror always overcame me on all the subsequent occasions that she visited me. I am sure the feeling was brought on by the sudden unexpectedness of her appearances, which numbered at least fifteen occasions. She appeared to me over the years in every room in the house, and at every hour of the day or night. The last occasion on which I was visited by that old woman was just over ten years ago and, on that particular evening, my husband and I had just returned from a concert of Irish Traditional music. As was normal for us, on such occasions, we sat in the living-room and talked about the music we had heard and the musicians who had performed for us. After a while, for some reason I am still not sure of, I got up from my chair and went to the living-room door, opened it and found the old lady standing before me. She was bent over slightly towards the door as if she had been listening to what we were talking about. Startled by her sudden appearance I called out loudly and, almost immediately, my husband was at my side. She had gone, and that was the last time I was to see her.
I can recall that almost every time that the old woman appeared to me she expressed her strong dissatisfaction with any disorder or untidiness in the home. She also had a strong objection to anything that led to a change in the general routine of the household, particularly if guests were to spend the night in the house. Guests who spent the night in the house were shown the old lady’s disapproval by turning the chairs in their room downward to face the floor. I remember one occasion when my brother-in-law stayed with us that he had to return to his room to collect something he had forgotten. When he was coming downstairs again we could hear him muttering to himself angrily, “Jaysus! You people! What in the name of God have you been doing with the furniture? Sure, I’ve almost broken my bloody big toe stumbling over one of those chairs lying down on the floor!” Twice during that same day my husband and I had turned the chairs to their proper place and, therefore, his remarks about the chaos in his bedroom did not surprise either of us. We decided, however, that it would be better if we did not enlighten him about the cause of the disruption.
At some time during the years the old lad visited our home everyone in the family had been disturbed by peculiar knocking sounds, which they heard in various rooms in the house. Most frequently the sound could be heard on the walls or doors, but occasionally they could be heard on the furniture, close to where we were sitting. Sometimes the knocking was loud enough that it could be heard in the house next door and, on one occasion, our neighbour asked my husband what he could be hammering at such strange hours of the day.
But, I can also recall another strange and fairly frequent occurrence happening, which involved some fur coats that I kept in my wardrobe. I hardly ever wore the coats and occasionally I was conscious of an odour emanating from them. My husband told me many times that it was just my imagination but, nevertheless, I would take them out and lay them across two chairs in an adjacent room to air them. I am always particular about my clothes but, the first time that I laid the coats out, I found, to my surprise, one of the coats lying in one corner and the other in another corner. Neither of these fur coats had been handled with any care, but I did not suspect that some supernatural being was at work in this. Mary, a young girl that I employed to help me keep the house in order, was suspected and I asked her about it. She, however, assured me that she had not been in the room at all that particular day. Although I accepted what Mary had told me, I was determined to investigate the matter for myself. So, late one night I removed the furs and laid them out as usual before taking care to lock the door to the room as I left. Furthermore, as part of my investigation, I ensured that I was the first to enter the room the following morning. Once again, I discovered the furs had been disturbed and thrown across the room.
It was a few years after the apparitions and activity stopped in the house that I heard about the strange history that this house hid. About a century beforehand a young bank manager in London was assigned to a new post in Ireland, and he arranged for a house to be made ready for himself and his family. As he had to remain in London a few days to tidy up some domestic and business issues he sent his wife and two young children, along with their nurse, ahead. When the new tenants arrived at the house they found an old cleaning woman in the house, but she left very soon after their arrival.
As the mother and nurse settled in to the new house that day they discovered that several things were needed, and the nurse was sent to purchase them from a local shop. When she returned to the house she went to the mother and asked her if the children were alright. The mother told her that she believed they were fine and was puzzled as to why the nurse would ask such a question. When the nurse explained that she had seen two ghostly forms pass her on the door-step! The two women rushed up to the nursery and discovered that both of the children were still in their cots, but their throats were cut, and blood had poured from the wounds, soaking all the bedclothes. Despite an intense investigation by the police, the murderer was never brought to justice, and there was no motive ever discovered. Sadly, the unfortunate mother of those children went insane with grief and never recovered.
I wondered if this was the cause of the strange and eerie feeling that lingered in the house many months after the old lady ceased to appear to me. Was there more than the spirit of that old woman still clinging to the house, including the two little children who had been so brutally murdered. Not unexpectedly, we decided not to stretch our luck any further, sold the house to a local developer and moved many miles from the area.