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.”

More Irish Fairies

Changelings and other Fairy beings

In the past the Irish peasantry never thought, even for one moment, that a child abducted from its home would have been killed and buried in the cold earth somewhere. In their minds they imagined that the missing child was living among the fairies, although this belief did not lessen the heartbreak felt by the parents. They were convinced that their child was now condemned to endure, if not enjoy, all the changes in circumstances they would experience in a life that was constrained by their exile from heaven and earth. When the child was not restored again to its parents, it was assumed by the entire community that the child’s life was being prolonged to an indefinite period while it lived among the fairy-folk.

The idea that the fairy-folk practiced human abduction was held as being true among the Irish peasantry of days long passed. Today, when a child goes missing, or is abducted, all sorts of alarm bells begin to ring in our society. Some are returned unharmed, but most are found alive or dead, but all suffered at the hands of evil people. But, there are still some of whom no trace has been found. In many cases within Irish peasant homes those children who suddenly became sickly, or acted strangely, were often called changelings. It was said that the original child had been abducted from their home by the fairy-folk and replaced with an old, decrepit, sickly, emaciated ugly fairy child. The human parents almost expected such a thing to happen, especially when they knew that the fairy-folk prized young and lovely mortal children.

ChangelingTo guard against such things happening to children the midwives were accustomed to giving newly-born children a small spoonful of whisky, mixed with earth, as its first food. This was a charm intended to preserve the child from any extraordinary spell that may be cast upon them by the fairies. Special care was taken to watch over all new-born babies and to guard them until after they had been christened. Only then would they be considered free from the threat of abduction, or changed for a deformed, evil fairy child.

Although the peasant woman feared for her newborn child, especially if it was a handsome, fit, and pleasing child. But, it was not only children that were subjected to abduction and forced exile from their homes. Records speak of mortal women, who had recently been confined in childbirth, were also subject to abduction by the fairy-folk, who took them to the fairy realm where they would be forced to suckle and nurse fairy-born infants.

In Irish folklore, Changelings are said to have an inclination for carrying out certain grotesque pranks. They were known to mysteriously obtain a set of pipes, which they would carry under their arm, and they would often sit up in their cradle to perform a variety of airs with great flourish, as well as some strange grimaces. When the Changeling plays lively jigs, reels and hornpipes on that instrument, the people living in the cottage immediately began to dance wildly despite their reservations. Though they might be ready to drop with exhaustion the dancers are unable to stop their dancing until the Changeling stops playing.

Despite all the hilarious whims and oddities that a changeling might possess, it was still regarded as a very unwelcome family intruder. It was not unknown for the fairy child to be thrown across the fire’s hearth to attempt to eject him from the household. He would then suddenly vanish up through the open chimney, all the while calling on vengeance and shouting curses, as well as all kinds of terrible names, against the family that had sheltered him for so long.

The other method of removing the changeling froma cabin was to use a clean shovel to pick it up and place it on the centre of a dung-hill. In the meantime, the parents still believed that their own children would be returned to them no matter how long they had been absent. Men and women with special knowledge of the fairy-folk, called ‘fairy-doctors’ were called upon to direct certain prayers that would ensure the true child would return. The verses of these prayers were usually chanted in Irish. The following are the lines of a prayer that was once used for this reason and is translated into English and recorded Rev. John O’Hanlon (1870) :-

“Fairy-men and women all,

List! – it is your baby’s call;

For on the dung-hill’s top he lies,

Beneath the wide, inclement skies,

Then come with coach and sumptuous train,

And take him to your mote again.

For if ye stay till cocks shall crow,

You’ll find him like a thing of snow, –

A pallid limp, a child of scorn,

A monstrous brat of fairies born.

But ere you bear the boy away,

Restore the child you took instead;

When, like a thief, the other day,

You robbed my infant’s cradle bed,

But, give me back my only son,

And I’ll forgive the harm you done;

And nightly, for your gamboling crew,

I’ll sweep the hearth and kitchen too;

And leave you free your tricks to play,

Whene’er you choose to pass this way.

Then, like good people, do incline

To take your child and give back mine.”

When these words, or words like them, had been recited the Fairy-Doctors would retire to an adjoining cottage, closing the door carefully behind them and await whatever might happen, while they repeated some additional prayers and incantations. Any noise, whether caused by the elements or a passing vehicle, was quickly put down as due to the approach or departure of a fairy troop. When the door was opened sometime afterwards these so-called ‘Doctors’ would confidently declare that the true child had been returned. The poor emaciated being atop of the dung-hill was then brought into the cabin, and its deluded parents were told that their child would not long survive. The subsequent death of the child through mistreatment and malnourishment appeared to confirm the prediction made by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’. Each occasion added to the reputation already established by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’ among the Irish peasantry.

Fairy ManChildren, however, were not the only occupants of the raths who had been abducted. The fairy-folk would take a fancy to the pipes used by accomplished pipers, as well as the instruments used by other famous musicians. These people would often be abducted and brought to the underground and underwater habitations of the fair-folk. Unfortunately for these musicians, they had to play their music for the finely dressed, frisky little gentlemen and ladies. While the fairies danced the musicians played, until they were almost dead with fatigue. One saving grace, however, was that the fairy-folk were very conscientious about giving out good servings of refreshments and, usually before morning, those whom they had abducted would be freed. Sometimes, however, the musician was invited to stay with the fairy-folk but, if he preferred to return home to the land of mortals, he was allowed to go freely. But, the fairies will take away the musician’s instrument and replace it with one that is much more perfect and sweeter toned. Moreover, the fame of having been abducted to the land of the fairy-folk and having been given such a gift will establish the musician’s place in society, and his future financial prospects.

Likewise, midwives were said to be abducted to the fairy raths as pillion passengers on fairy horses that conducted them into the invisible abodes of the fairy-folk. Should these women take any food or drink while they are with the fairy-folk they cannot return home. But, these women are constantly pressed to eat and drink by the fairies, who constantly presented luxurious meals and drinks to them, upon which are placed the spell of detention.

We constantly hear stories about the gifts that the fairies can and have bestowed upon mortals like us. The fairies, however, were known to be less free in bestowing the riches of gold and silver to humans as a reward. Even when such riches were offered, those people so rewarded still found it very difficult to get their hands on it. There are many stories told about ‘crocks of gold’ and other treasures given by the fairy-folk that usually turn into stones, dry leaves, old bones, or something equally as worthless.

The Irish ‘fairy-man’, or ‘Fairy-women’, sometimes called ‘Fairy-Doctors’, were supposed to hold some mysterious sort of communication and influence with the fairies that lived in the motes and raths of the country. There were, of course, many rumours that these ‘fairy-doctors’ were impostors, who were originally changelings themselves. Such was the wariness of such people by the peasantry that they were generally relegated to living an almost hermit existence and a deep veil of mystery shrouded everything that they did.

They said that they were very well acquainted with all the secret things of the past, present and future. It was, allegedly, within their power to cure all illnesses and diseases that affect both man and beast. They said they could assist in the discovery and restoration of lost property, as well as give descriptions that would assist in the detection of the thief and their prosecution. People would go to them to have their fortunes told, because it was believed that they had knowledge of all matters that were of concern to the person. It was said that the fairies could cause cream to produce great amounts of cheese and the ‘fairy-doctors’ would take great care to impress on the minds of the ignorant that it would be desirable to make friends with the fairy-folk. This would prevent any evil effects caused by fairy resentment which could sometimes be regarded as fatal to the individual against whom it is directed.

The ‘fairy-doctors’ would often collect herbs and plants over which they would mumble certain spells and then use them as charms and cures for various troubles. These plants and herbs were considered to have been specially impregnated by some mysterious fairy influence that is efficacious for the healing arts. Sometimes, ‘Knowledgeable Old Women’, also called ‘Fairy-women’, were often known to exercise charms that did not encourage people to have confidence in their success. For example, an herb, or a bit of burnt sod taken from a the bonfire on St. John’s night in midsummer was often sewn into the clothes of women. It was a charm that was supposed to protect the wearer from any fairy plots, or abductions.

It was also said that there was an ointment that midwives used to smear on the fairy-children that, if rubbed on the eye of a mortal, would enable the mortal to see the spiritless skeleton of fairy illusions in the underground halls and palaces. Old friends and neighbours would often be discovered among the fairy followers in this manner. The fairies themselves, during their dancing and singing, also became visible to the eye that was rubbed with this ointment. Should a mortal make any sign to show that they could see the, the fairies would ask, “Do you see me?”

If answered in the positive they would be asked, “Which eye?”

Once informed the fairy will thrust his finger, or even puff his breath into that eye, and blind the incautious person, causing the charm to be removed.

As a final point of interest, the ‘Fairy-man’ was also called a ‘Charmer’ or ‘Cow-Doctor’ because he undertook to remove any fairy charms from sick cattle by preparing herbs and potions by spring well. So secretive was this process that he would not allow anyone to approach the site while he was creating his various concoctions. In some cases, particularly in the West of Ireland, cows were often driven into certain natural springs or loughs that were designated as being holy. This was done, usually, to restore the normal supply of dairy milk and butter, if the owner believed it had been reduced by some supernatural means. Considered to be a necessary part of the charm a bit of fresh butter was thrown into the water while certain incantations were sung.

The Irish Fairies

There was a time, and not too long ago, that the people were immersed in fairy-lore and superstitions. In our twenty-first century such things are laughed at, being considered simple superstition and old fashioned. Today, it is not considered ‘cool’ to talk about fairies and, in some circles, the word has a quite different and denigrating meaning. But, there are Irish people who believe in the ‘Fairy-World’ and the great things they are alleged to be able to do, and its on our knowledge of this world and its folk that others depend.

Evening time, as every Irish man and woman knows, is usually the period of the day when the fairy-folk choose to move from their raths and dells to new places of habitation. Furthermore, evening is the time usually selected by the fairies to indulge in their past-times and celebrations. There are many first-hand records from people who have seen the fairy-folk and witnessed the various frolics in which they indulge. From such records and witnesses has come the poetic and popular imagery that unites all to give us the depictions we have today.

The earliest records suggest that the most ancient and earliest settlers in Ireland were known as the ‘Tuatha de Danaan’. It is these ancient people who are thought to have been the first practitioners of druidism that brought natural and spiritual magic together. Tales tell us that these ‘Tuatha de Danaan’ were transformed into the fairy-folk at some remote time in the history of this island. It was at that time, too, that they were forced to live in underground places, within green hill-sides, raths and cairns. They were spread out in such numbers that even our most remote romantic dells and woodlands have become their most favoured haunts and are called by we mortals as ‘Gentle Places’. Moreover, it is known that these ‘Gentle Folk’ are also fond of living on the banks and little green hillsides that often lie beside gently flowing streams.

Dancing FairiesThere must have been an enormous number of raths covering Ireland in those far-off times. This is evident from the large number of raths that remain, but the case is made stronger by the fact that the compound word Rath, Raw, Rah, Ray, or Ra is constantly connected to the names of over a thousand various localities within Ireland. It is known that the fairy-folk enjoy getting together in these places, but it has proved difficult to gather accurate information concerning the social life of such folk, including what amuses them most and what their leisure pursuits are.

Music, it appears, is one of their most favourite amusements and their music can be heard beside the raths on most fine evenings. But, the beauty of this music has a type of ‘syren’ effect upon mortals, which causes them to linger and listen to these delightful melodies. While danger may be very close at hand, the mysterious, magical music makes them oblivious to anything other than its entrancing strains. Occasionally, the mortals may find themselves benefitting from their encounter with the fairy-folk, who may heap gifts upon mortal beings. Such gifts may cure both men and women of their infirmities and diseases, while removing any deformities they may have, and ensuring that they do not encounter any disagreeable accidents or misfortunes. The fairies are also known to pass on their supernatural power to both men and women, and invisibly assist them in many aspects of their lives.

At the same time, it has not been unknown for fairies to have a malevolent and mischievous disposition. They have been known to abduct mortals on a frequent basis, so that they can serve some selfish and degrading service for their captors. It has been known for fairies to bring a sudden stillness to the energies of mortals and ruin any of their prospects for worldly happiness. Occasionally, it is believed, they chose to leave people with their life-long illnesses, inflicting sorrow and pain on individuals and families alike. ‘Fairy Doctors’ would often prescribe an offering of ‘Cow’s Beestheens’ (some of the thick new milk given by a cow after calving) to be poured on a rath, which is supposed to appease the anger of the offended sprites. There were, indeed, many similar practices that were considered by the ‘Fairy Doctors’ to be no less potent when they are correctly used.

Sig, or Síghe (Pron: Shee) is an Irish word that is used as the generic title that is applied to the fairy, or fairy-folk. They are spread throughout the entire island, and the nearby nations of Scotland, Wales and England, where they more commonly known as fairies, elves, or pixies. The male fairy is known as the ‘Fear Shee’, while almost every person recognises the ‘Banshee’ as being the woman fairy. There have been occasions when the term ‘Mna Shee’, or women fairies, has been used in certain circumstances to describe certain of the ‘Little People’.

It must be made clear, however, that the ‘Fear Sighes’ are chiefly alluded to in the lore of ancient and legendary times. The ‘Ban-Shighes’ are commonly recognised to be supernatural beings that can often be heard wailing for deaths that are about to occur.

Traditionally it is the males only that appear in the ranks of fairy soldier troops. Fine dressed fairy lords and ladies mingle indiscriminately with other fairy-folk who sing and dance at fairy places in the moonlight. They are, it appears, social beings whose halls are often filled with song and the strains of beautiful, rhythmic music. It is these songs and music that can entrap and transport the souls of mortals, filled with a delicious enthusiasm for the journey. The sounds cause the ear to tingle with excitement as the human listeners to those magical and melodious cadences, which haunt the memory and imagination for a long time afterwards.

In the silver beams of night, we mortals are often granted sight of shadowy troop of fairies as they flit between our eyes and the wildly shining orb that is the moon. He will see, as others have done, that these ‘gentle folk’ are especially fond of singing and dancing at the midnight hour. The wild almost mesmeric strains of their unearthly music can be heard coming from every recess in the ground, within every green hill-side, or tangled wood.

Because of the lengthened daylight hours in summer and autumn the fairy-folk choose not to undertake their usual revels. They seem to feel it is inappropriate on those bright nights to gather and conduct their dancing parties in the secluded vales, or on the lush green banks of streams where the gurgling water trickles along the sheltered courses. On occasion they choose to gather near the ivied walls of old castles, beside a lake or river, or quite often in the gloomy environment of a graveyard, under the walls of its ruined church, or over the cold, lonely tombs of the dead.

Generally, it is harvest time that appear to be the best time of the year to give us frequent glimpses of our Irish fairy-folk. But, at these times, it is also important that we remember our Irish fairy-folk are very jealous of their privacy and they take great exception to any mortal intrusion into their lives. It I not unknown for them in fact, to wreak vengeance on all those people who dare intrude into their gatherings without permission.

Tradition informs us that the wild harmonies that we hear carried on soft, gentle breezesLeprechaun are truly the murmuring musical voices of the fairy-folk as they travel from place to place. Their contests and celebrations may continue through the dark hours of the night, but the first glow of the morning sun provides them with a signal for all their festivities to cease. It is then that the fairy-folk return to their shady raths, deep caverns, rocky crevices, or old grass covered barrows, where their fabled dwellings are concealed from prying human eyes. When they arrive at, or depart from, any particular spot their quick movements through the air create a noise that resembles the loud humming of bees as they swarm to and from a hive. Sometimes we can see a whirlwind that lifts soil and loose leaves into the air, but these are also known to be raised by the passing of a fairy clan.

Some fairy-folk are heard and seen while they are out hunting, blowing their horns, cracking their whips, shouting their “Tally-Ho!”, while their horses’ hooves thunder in the air, and their dogs cry out as they chase their quarry over the land. These fairy-folk are better known as ‘Cluricaunes’ and they turn the rushes and the ‘boliauns’ (Ragwort) into fine horses. When the fairies sit astride these mounts they gallop in the hunt, or transport them in a body, or troop, from one place to another. Over hedges and ditches, walls and fences, brakes and briars, hills and valleys, lakes and rivers, they sweep with incredible speed and an airy lightness.

The strange sounds that are caused by crackling furze blossoms are often attributed to a fairy presence. They like to shelter beneath clumps of gorse thickets, because they love the scent that comes from their flowers, and they create trackways that will make passage much easier through the wiry grass that grows around the roots of these bushes. From out of the yellow cup-leaved blossoms they sip the sweet dew collected there. At the same time, the fairy-folk refresh themselves by sucking the dew drops from other leaves and flowers. They are so light-footed when they are dancing, in fact, that these de drops are scarcely shaken off, even during their wildest exertions.

Filled with a great passion and eagerness for music and dancing, the fair-folk will spend the entire night, without even stopping to take a breath, at their favourite jigs and reels. They will glide around the space in lines and in circles, dancing with each other using a great variety of steps and postures. Usually they are dressed in green clothes of various shades and hues, or sometimes they are dressed in white and silver-spangled clothing and wearing high-peaked or wide-brimmed scarlet caps on their heads. In the light of the moon they can be seen under the shade of thick, ancient oak trees, dancing on or around large globular toadstools, or umbrella-shaped mushrooms.

Interestingly, we rarely find our Irish fairy-folk regularly employed in any industrial pursuits, except for those that can be chiefly conducted indoors and do not take much exertion on their part. Their efforts are used in creating items pleasing to young Irish girls, or thrifty housewives, but their scarcity is evidence of the amount of effort put into creating them. For the fairy-folk, however, it is pleasure and social enjoyment that are the delights that chiefly occupy their time, much as it does with various elements in our society. Yet, there is no need to be envious of these folks for it is only at a distance that the fairies appear to be graceful or handsome, although there clothing is always made from rich material of a fine texture.

It appears to be the habit of the Irish fairy-folk to frequently change shape, which allows them to suddenly appear and, just as suddenly vanish. Surprisingly, these elven-folk when you look closely at them, are generally found to be aged looking, withered, bent, and to having very ugly features. This is especially true of the men, while the female of the species are endowed with characteristics that give them a rare beauty in many areas and to these the little men always pay the greatest attention. But, because of their appearance, ordinary Irish people believe that they are a mix of human and spiritual natures. It is said also that their bodies are not solid but are made from some substance that we mortals are unable to feel when we touch.

It is generally agreed that these gentle-folk are filled with benevolent feelings or great resentment, depending on the circumstances of the moment. Although, during the day, these folk are invisible to humans they continue to see and hear all that takes place among men, especially when it concerns those matters in which they have a special interest. Cautious people are always anxious to ensure that they have a good reputation among the fairies and do all in their power to maintain a friendly relationship with them. It is a deeply held belief that the only means of averting the anger of the fairy-folk is always to be mannerly and open minded. This means taking care in all the actions you undertake, for example you should not strain potatoes, or spill hot water on, or over the threshold of a door because thousands of spirits are said to congregate invisibly at such a place, and to suffer from such careless actions. It was once common for a drinking person to spill a small portion of draught on the ground as an offering to the ‘good-people’.

The ordinary Irish folk have formed an ill-defined belief that the fairy-folk are like the fallen angels, in that they were driven from a place of bliss and condemned to wander this earth until the final day of judgement. The fairies themselves are believed to have doubts about their own future condition, although they do have high hopes of one day being restored to happiness. A mixture of good and evil balances their actions and motives, making them as vindictive in their passions as they are frequently humane and good in what they do. It is not unknown, for example, that desperate battles do take place between opposing bands that are hostile to each other. They meet, like the knights of old, armed from head to foot for combat. The air, witnesses have said, bristles with their spears and their flashing swords, while their shining helmets and bright red coats gleam in the bright sunshine.

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.

Danny Burke

There are many people who have heard about the adventures, but there are only a very few who may have heard of what caused all the perils he faced, which was the error of having slept beneath the walls of the Pooka’s tower. He was a man that I was very friendly with and many were the times that I visited his house at the bottom of ‘Shields’s Hill’, where he told me his story. This tale I now write it down for you …

“Sure, I am often asked to tell my story, so this is not the first time that I relate it. The Squire’s son had finally come home from foreign parts, much to the joy of his parents. In celebration of his return the Squire organised a great meal to which all the people of the district were invited, high-born and low-born, the rich and the poor. And what a feast it was, the best of everything and plenty of it. We ate our fill, and we drank our fill, and we danced the night away. In short, as you have undoubtedly guessed, I became quite inebriated. I was as drunk as a Lord and so, as I was taking the stepping-stones to cross the river at Ballyknock, I slipped, missed my footing, and fell head over heels into the cold water. ‘Ah! Good Jaysus!’ I shouted, ‘I’ll be frozen to death if I don’t drown first!’ But, I began to swim and swim, as fast as I could. I swam for my dear life until I finally I reached shore, which I did not recognise. By some strange means I had swam to the shore of an abandoned island.

“I wandered about that island, not knowing where I was going or what I would meet, until my feet took me, stumbling, into a large bog. The moon was shining as bright as day, and my eyes searched to the east and west, and to the north and south. But, wherever I looked my eyes could only see a vast swathe of bog land. I began to scratch my head in my confusion, and I whistled a sorrowful air as I began losing hope of seeing home again. Suddenly, the sky grew darker and the moon grew black. In my fear I looked and saw something that appeared to be moving swiftly down between the moon and me, and I could not tell what it was. Down it swooped toward me, and it looked at me full-square in the face. By Christ, it was an eagle, and it stared into my face and spoke. Says he to me, ‘Well, Daniel Burke, how do you do?’

‘Very well, I thank you sir,’ says I in return. ‘I hope you’re well also.’ You can be sure that, even as I spoke to him, my mind was busy trying to reason how an eagle could speak to me like a mortal man.

‘What brings you here, Daniel?’ he asked.

‘By God, sir, I wish I knew,’ says I, ‘I only wish that I was safe home again in my own house.’

‘So, Dan, you want to go out of the island?’ says he.

‘Oh, you can be sure of that!’ says I.

‘Daniel?’ says he, ‘You know fine well that it is not the proper thing to do for you to get drunk on a feast day, but you are a decent and, normally, sober man, who attends Mass regular. You are also not one of those who throw stones at me or mine or shouts out at us when we are in the fields. So, my friend, get upon my back and take a tight grip in case you fall off, and I will fly you out of this place.’

‘Would you get away out of that?’ says I, ‘you’re trying to make an eejit out of me, Sir. Who has ever heard of a man riding horseback on an eagle before?’

‘I swear to you, Dan,’ said he, ‘I am being straight with you, so you can either take up my offer or starve in the bog. By the way, don’t take too long to make up your mind for your weight is sinking the stone in the bog.’

“Aye, it was true enough, for I found the stone sinking further and further every minute I was standing on it. ‘I thank you, Sir,’ says I without hesitation, ‘for the offer and I accept it!’  I, therefore, climbed upon the back of the eagle, and clasped my arms tightly around his throat, and up he flew in the air as graceful as you like. At this time, however, I had no inkling of the trick that he was going to play on me. Upward, upward, and upward still he flew until I lost all idea of how high we had risen, dear knows how far he flew. It came to me at this moment that, perhaps, the eagle did not know the right road to my home. ‘Excuse me,’ said I to him in a quiet and civil way. I did not want to upset him, especially when we were so high above the ground and I was so vulnerable. ‘Sir,’ says I, ‘I don’t mean to be disrespectful or discourteous, but if you would just fly down a bit lower you will find that we are just over my wee cottage, and you could drop me off there with my deepest gratitude.’

‘Are you mad, Dan?’ says he, ‘do you think me an eejit to be putting you down there? Take you a wee glance at the next field, and those two men down there with a gun! It would be quare joke on me to be shot by such men, while I helped a drunken blackguard that I took off a sinking stone in a bog.’

Well, kept, flying, flying, upward despite all my pleas to him to fly down. ‘Could you tell me, sir, just where in the world are you going?’ I asked him.

‘Ah, Dan, would you whisht (be quiet) for a minute! Just you mind your own business, and don’t be trying to interfere in the business of other people.’

“Finally, where should we come to, but to the moon itself. You can’t see it now, but there is, or at least there was in my day, a reaping-hook sticking out of the side of the moon, like this –’ (Dan began to draw the shape of the reaping-hook on the ground with the end of his stick).

‘Dan,’ said the eagle, ‘I’m absolutely exhausted after this long flight. My bloody wings are aching! I had no idea that it was so far.’

‘And, who in the name of God asked you to fly so far?” says I. ‘It wasn’t me! I was the one on your back begging, then praying and finally beseeching to stop half-an-hour ago!’

‘Now, there’s no use giving out, Dan,’ says he, ‘I’m too tired to listen, so just you get off now, and sit down there on the moon until I rest myself for a wee while.’

‘What? Sit down on the moon, did you say?’ asked I. ‘You want me to sit upon that wee round thing? Sure, I’d fall off in a minute, and be killed and split, and smashed all to bits! You are some saviour, so you are.’

‘Ah, sure don’t be like that, Dan,’ said the eagle. ‘You can take a tight hold of that reaping hook that’s sticking out of the side of the moon, and that will stop you from falling.’

‘Indeed, by God, I won’t,’ said I.

‘Maybe you won’t,’ he said to me under his breath. ‘But if you don’t, I might just give you a shake, and a slap of my wing, and send you down to the ground again, where every bone in your body will be smashed to smithereens and splashed all over the place.’

‘Well, that’s a lovely thing to say,’ I thought to myself, ‘how in the name of Jaysus did I ever get mixed up with the likes of him,’ and so I called him the worst word I could think of, in Irish of course in case he would understand what I had said. I slipped off his back, nervously taking hold of the reaping-hook, and I sat down upon the moon. That was a mighty cold seat, I can tell you that.

When he was sure that I was secure the eagle turned to face me and said, ‘Good morning to you, Daniel Burke,’ said he. ‘I think I’ve certainly got you now. You are the blackguard that robbed my nest last year, and your reward is that you are very welcome to pass the time dangling your heels from the moon. Thief!’

‘Is that it, and now this is the way I am to be, you brute?’ I shouted at him in anger. ‘You are nothing but an ugly and unnatural beast that would leave me in such a predicament.’ But, all my anger and shouting made not one bit of difference. He turned away from me laughing loudly, spread out his great wings, and flew away like he had been shot out of a gun.

‘Stop!’ I bawled after him, but I might as well have been shouting in the wind for all the attention he took. Away he flew, and I never saw him again from that day to this, may he fly into a cliff the blackguard. As for me, I can tell you I was both heartbroken and very afraid. All that I could do was angrily call out all sorts of insults to the one who had abandoned me. Then, to my complete surprise a door opened, with a great creaking noise, right in the middle of the moon. Such was the noise that you would have thought the door had not had its hinges oiled or greased in an age. But, who do you think walked out of the door? None other than the man in the moon, himself. I immediately recognised him by the beard that he wore.

‘Good day to you, Daniel Burke,’ says he, ‘and how are you keeping?’

‘I’m doing very well, thank you,’ I told him. ‘I hope you are doing well, yourself.’

‘Whatever has brought you here, Dan?’ he asked.

So, I began to tell him the whole sad and dreary tale. ‘Dan,’ said the man in the moon as he took a pinch of snuff, ‘You can’t stay here! when I was done, ‘you must not stay here.’

‘Is that right?” I replied rather sarcastically. ‘Allow me to inform you that I am here very much against my will, and I just want to go home. My only problem is that I don’t know how to get back. 

‘Well, Dan, that is your business,’ said he. ‘Mine is to inform you that you cannot not stay, so be off now as quickly as you can.’

‘Sure, I’m doing no harm,’ I insisted, ‘I am only holding on tightly to the reaping-hook, in case I fall off.’

‘That’s just what you must not do, Dan,’ says he.

‘Just a minute,’ says I, ‘may I ask you how many there are in your family, since it must be the size of the family that persuades you not to give a poor traveller a lodging. I’m sure that it is not very often that you’re troubled with strangers calling to see you, for it’s a long way to travel.’

‘As a matter of fact, I’m by myself, Dan,’ says he, ‘but you would be better letting go of the reaping hook.’

‘I know what you are saying,’ I told him bluntly, ‘but, I’ll not let go of my grip, and the more you tell me to do so, the tighter will my grip become.’

‘You had better, Dan,’ says he again.

‘Well, my wee bucko,’ says I, taking in the entire build and stature of the man in the moon from head to foot, ‘there are two words I could say to you now but won’t. I will not budge one inch from this place, but you may if you like.’

He was not at all pleased at how I had spoken to him and he sternly answered, ‘We’ll just see about that.’ He went back through the door and loudly slammed it behind him, the shudder that it brought almost convinced me that the moon would fall from the sky.

“I gritted my teeth and prepared myself for the trial of strength with him, that I was sure would happen when he came back again. And come back again he did, only this time he had a kitchen cleaver in his hand, and without saying a word he too two almighty swipes at the handle of the reaping hook that was holding me up, and with a loud crack it snapped in two.

‘Good morning and Goodbye to you, Dan,’ said the old blackguard, spitefully, as he saw me falling downward with a bit of the handle still in my hand.  ‘I thank you for your visit, and now Daniel, cheerio!’

It all happened so fast that I did not have time to answer his jibe, for I was tumbling over and over, and rolling, at such a speed that it would have taken the light from your eyes. ‘This is not good,’ said I to myself aloud, ‘for a decent man, the likes of me, to be seen in this mess! By God I am rightly f—.’ I did not get to finish what I was saying as my attention was taken by a loud ‘swishing’ noise as a flock of wild geese flew by, close to my ear. They must have flown all the way from my own bog of Ballyknock, for how else could they have known who I was?

The old gander, who was their leader, turned his head toward me and cried out, ‘Is that you, Dan?’

‘It is,’ said I, not at all surprised that he knew my name because, by this time, I had become used to all kinds of strange things happening. Besides this old gander was no stranger to me.

‘Good day to you,’ says the gander, ‘Daniel Burke, how are you keeping this lovely morning?’

‘Very well, sir,’ says I, ‘and I thank you kindly for asking. I hope you are the same, old friend.’

‘I think you are falling, Daniel,’ says he.

‘Well, I suppose you could say that,’ says I.

‘And where are you going to that you have travel so quickly?’ asked the gander.

So, I began to tell him the whole sad, sorry tale of falling into the river, the eagle taking abandoning me on the moon, and the old man in the moon causing me to fall.

‘Don’t worry, Dan’ says he, ‘Just take hold of my leg and I’ll fly you home.’

‘You are a life-saver!’ says I, though I wasn’t sure if I could trust him. But what could I do only take hold of his leg as tightly as I could. We flew, and flew, until we came over a wide ocean, which I knew well. On my right I could see Cape Clear, sticking up out of the water.

‘Friend!’ I called to the goose, ‘just fly me to land, please.’

‘That’s impossible, Dan,’ he replied, ‘because we are going to Arabia.’

‘To Arabia!’ I gasped, ‘surely that’s a foreign place, and far away. Oh dear!  There’ no man to be more pitied than me.’

‘Whisht, you eejit,’ said he, ‘would you hold your tongue. Arabia is a very decent place, not unlike Ballyknock, only with a wee bit more sand.’

Just as we were talking, a ship came in sight. ‘Ah! Would you kindly drop me on that ship, please?’

‘We are not rightly above it,’ said he.

‘We are,’ I insisted.

‘We are not, and if I dropped you now you would splash into the sea.’

‘I would not,’ says I. ‘I know better than that, for it is just under us, so let me drop immediately.’

‘If that’s what you want,’ said he. ‘There you go,’ and he opened his claw, and, sure enough, down I came right into the very bottom of the salty sea! I sank to the very bottom, where I gave myself up for ever. But, a whale now walked up to me, scratching himself after his long night’s sleep. He looked me full in the face, and said nothing except he raised his tail, splashing me all over again with cold, salt water until there wasn’t a dry stitch on my entire body.

It was then that I heard a familiar voice speaking to me and saying, ‘Get up out of that you, drunken old fool!’ Startled by the voice, I woke up, and there was Jenny with a tub full of water in her arms, which she was splashing all over me. God love her, she was a good wife to me, but she could never bear to see me drunk, and she had a bit of a fist of her own.

‘Get up,’ said she again, ‘for of all places in this parish you would have to choose to lie in drunken sleep beneath the old walls of Carrigaphooka, and I could wager that you did not rest too easily there.’

By God she had the truth of that. I was almost driven insane with meeting the eagle, the man in the moon, flying ganders, and whales. My head was astray with being driven into bogs, and up to the moon, and down to the bottom of the green ocean. I can tell you that no matter how much drink I’d taken, it would be a long time before I’d lie down in that same place again, that’s for sure.”

Lady Betty – The Hangwoman

The following is an old tale, whose source I do not know. The problem is that we do not know if it is true or simply another superstition.

The old jail of Roscommon stood, and, although now converted to other purposes, still stands in the market-place, in the centre of the town. It is a very high, dark, and gloomy-looking building, with a castellated top, like one of those ancient fortresses that we have often seen tower above the houses in many of the cities on the Continent. It can be seen from a great distance outside the town and, when added to the very extensive ruins of ‘O’Connor’s Castle’, in the suburbs, as well as the beautiful abbey that sits on the other side of the town, it appears to be another example of architecture that had been constructed during the middle-ages.

Roscommon JailThe fall from the gallows at Roscommon jail was considered by many to be the highest ‘fatal drop’ in Ireland. It consisted of a small doorway at the front of the building’s third storey, with a simple iron beam and pulley above. The gallows stage upon which the condemned stood awaiting execution was merely a horizontal door that was hinged to the wall beneath. When the appointed execution time arrived, this door was let fall by means of a sliding-bolt, which was pulled from the main wall, and the condemned person was consequently hanged. This elevated platform of execution was a fearful sight to behold for the folk of the town, and it was a unique in its construction. However, the gallows were no more unique than the person who acted as executioner and carried out their duty on that platform. This was no decrepit wretch of a human being, or a crime-hardened ruffian. Neither was it one of those secret and mysterious personages, who were occasionally produced by the authorities, disguised by mask or hood, to undertake this dreadful trade in public. Removing the most likely candidates for the role, you might wonder who was left that would not recoil from the unpleasant and terrible actions that were carried out on these high gallows. In fact, it was a female! She was a middle-aged, stoutly built, dark-eyed, swarthy-complexioned, but by no means forbidding-looking woman. She was widely known as ‘Lady Betty’, who carried out the final judgement and was regarded as the unflinching priestess of the executive for the Connaught circuit court for many years, with Roscommon being her main place of business.

Children born or reared in County Roscommon, two centuries ago, would often be frightened, when mischievous, into ‘being good,’ and going to sleep, and not crying when left alone in the dark, by the promise of a visit by a ‘Pooka’, or, by being told Lady Betty would get them. There is little firm evidence of ‘Lady Betty’s’ life and what we have learned about her is mostly hearsay. We are told that she was a person who had a very violent temper, although her manners were said to be rather above those of the common folk, and she was supposed to have possessed some formal education. It was rumoured that she was born and raised in the County Kerry, and that by her harsh treatment of her only son she drove him away from her at an early age. Apparently, he enlisted in the army and, after many years, he returned with a small fortune in his pocket, which he had gained through his many campaigns. On his return home he knocked at his father’s door and asked if he could get a night’s lodging. It appears that he was determined to see for himself whether the brutal mother he had left behind had in any way repented for what she had done. He wanted to know if she had softened her ways over the years before he would consider revealing his identity. He was brought into the house but was not recognised by anyone. The mother, however, discovered that the ‘stranger’ had quite a bit of money on him and during the night, as the man slept, she coldly murdered him. The crime was quickly discovered, and the wretched woman was sentenced to be hanged. She had to share the ‘dock’ along with the usual sheep-stealers, ‘Whiteboys’, thieves, and ruffians who had ham-strung cattle. Such criminals were usually brought into the dock seven or eight at a time and were invariably executed within twenty-four-hours after being sentenced by the court. But, on this occasion, no executioner could be found despite the best of efforts. The local sheriff and his deputy, considering themselves to be men of refinement, education, humanity, and sensibility, would not carry out such an odious duty. They maintained this attitude although it was a part of the office they had sworn to undertake, and for which they received payment. The wretched, murderous woman was the only person in the jail who could be found to perform the executions, and under the name of ‘Lady Betty’ she carried them out without mask or disguise. For many years after this she officiated as hangwoman and she used to publicly flog criminals in the streets, as a part of her office. There are numerous stories told about this woman’s exploits and we have not enough room here to relate them all. But we can mention one extraordinary feature of her character, which was the habit she had of drawing portraits of all those whom she had executed on the walls of her room with a burnt stick.

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.