The Old Man and the Nervous Cow

An Old Tale of the West of Ireland

 

“There once was an old man who said,

“How Shall I escape from this horrible cow?

“I will sit on the stile,

“and continue to smile, “

which may soften the heart of the cow.'”

The old man was walking thoughtfully through the field, with his hands behind his back, when the nervous cow saw him. She wasn’t ordinarily a bad-natured cow, but she was very angry just then, for an aggravating fly had been biting her half the morning. Then, on top of all that aggravation, just as she was drinking at the stream, a frog had jumped up with a cry and bitten her on the nose. These things had completely unsettled her nerves, and she was ready to run at anything. With the old man being the only living thing in sight, she rushed toward him.

Nervous Cow 1What could the old man do? He was a short, stout old man, and could not run very fast. Although he tried his best, the old man just managed to reach the stile and plump himself down on it, all out of breath, as the cow neared him. Then he suddenly recalled reading somewhere that if you were to look an animal directly in its eyes, it would run away from you. “Ah!” he thought to himself, “I’ll look her straight in the eye, and if I smile at the same time, she won’t have the heart to hurt me.” So, he put a smile on his face, even though it was not a very attractive smile, and he stared straight into the cow’s eyes. When the cow saw that smile, ugly though it was, it so touched her heart that she stopped in her tracks. She sauntered back a little way, but the memory of that aggravating fly, and that awful frog, proved too much for her poor nerves and, turning around, she dashed madly forward again. Within a minute, the poor old man; his cane, little legs, smile and all, was up in the air.

He landed on top of a chestnut-tree. One branch grazed his eye, while two ran into his legs, and another held his smile stiff and straight. The old man stayed this way until he was sighted by an eagle, which immediately pounced down on the poor man, and flew off with him to her nest, built on a huge rock that rose straight up into the cold air and reached the summit of a mountain. Can you imagine how astonished the eagle’s chicks were when the old eagle dumped the little old man down into their nest? They opened their beaks as well as their eyes, and cried out to her, “What’s this, mother? What is this?”

Oh! it’s only a man,” cried the old eagle. “I found him roosting in the top of a tree. I don’t know how he got there. Maybe he thought that he could fly, and suddenly discovered he couldn’t. Tell us how it was, old man.

Can he talk?

Talk!” said the eagle. “Of course, he can talk. And I bet he can tell all sorts of stories. So, if you like, you may keep him to tell you stories.”

Oh, wont that be nice! Tell us a story, right now,” the chicks all screamed at the old man, as they pulled the old man down into the nest.

But it’s so dirty here,” complained the old man, looking around, with his nose turned up a little. “Just let me sit on the edge of the nest, won’t you? And I’ll tell you all the stories you want.”

You’ll fall over.”

Oh no, I won’t. I’ll hold on with my cane and my legs. Now just shut your beaks, so you won’t look so savage, and listen carefully.” So, the old man perched himself on the edge of the nest and the eaglets took strong hold of his coat with their beaks, to prevent him from falling. Then, sitting comfortably, he began to tell them the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves“. and when that was ended, another, and then another. The old man did not eat much supper that night, for there was nothing he cook on, and he didn’t sleep well, for whenever one of the eaglets woke up during the night, it always pinched him with its beak, to make sure he was there. Tired of this, the old man quickly resolved to get away as soon as it was possible. But he didn’t seem to have any chance of escape, and so he stayed where he was and told stories until he began to yearn to wring the necks of the gaping birds that kept asking him for more.

Now, all this time, the cow had been getting more and more nervous. Every day she thought of the poor old man and his meek little legs, and his sweet old smile, and just how his coat-tails looked as he went up in the air. Finally, she sadly laid her head down on a tuft of grass by the stream and began to cry. After relieving her sadness in this way, she became calm, and, getting up from the ground said, “I’ll go to his house and find out how and where he is, if I can.” So off she started. But the house was closed, and there was no one there except for the cat, which became very frightened when the cow pushed up the pantry window with her horns.

Through the window she bellowed, “Where’s your master?

I don’t know,” replied the cat nervously as he retreated into a far corner, with his back up. “I haven’t set eyes on him since last Sunday.

Oh dear!” sighed the cow, dropping the window with a crash that broke two panes of glass. “What shall I do?

What’s the matter with you? And what do you want of the old man?” asked Tabby, bounding out through one of the broken panes. The cow told him.

Well,” said Tabby, stroking his whiskers reflectively, “I guess I’ll go with you and help you look for the kindly old man.” So, they walked on, asking everybody they met about the old man. But nobody knew where he was, until finally they came across an old crow who knew everybody’s business.

An old man?” he asked. “Sure, the eagle took an old man the other day. Did your old man have thin legs?

Yes, yes!” said the cat and the cow together. “With a sweet smile on his face?”

Yes, yes!” cried the cow.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          “He went up with that smile, and it has been haunting me ever since,” she said as she burst into floods of tears.

Well,” said the crow, “he’s in the eagle’s nest telling stories to the eaglets, and I’m sure the man sore and tired of that business by now, if I’m not mistaken.”

Where is the nest?—and how can we get there?”

It’s up at the very top of that mountain over there. Go straight ahead, and you can’t miss it.

Nervous Cow 3
Bill Doyle Bill Doyle was born in Dublin in 1926 and has lived here all his life. From an early age Bill was involved in photography, but it wasn’t until after he won the Daily Telegraph Magazine Photographer of the Year Award in London, in 1967, that he took up freelance photography as a fulltime career. He won this for a collection of photographs of the Aran Islands, many of which were included in the major retrospective held in the Gallery of Photography in 2007 and which toured to Ennis and to Inis Oirr in 2008. Doyle has won numerous awards and has exhibited his work in Japan, Germany, England, Australia and the USA. His books include The Aran Islands, Images of Dublin ??? A Time Remembered and Bill Doyle???s Ireland.

So straight ahead they went until they came to the rock where the eagle’s nest was, and wondered what should they do next? They could hear the old man’s little, thin voice telling stories to the birds, but they knew he wouldn’t chance to come where the cow was, even if he could clamber down that steep rock. Finally, Tabby suggested that the cow should hide herself, while he climbed up into the nest and persuaded the old man to come down. So, as the cow hid, the cat scrambled his way up to the nest and carefully poked his head into it. “Ah, master!” he whispered, “climb down the rock to-night, and I’ll show you the way home.” And then he disappeared. But his visit bolstered the old man’s courage, and when the mother-bird came home he calmly told her that he thought he would sleep at the foot of the rock that night, and she unsuspectingly took him in her talons and dropped him gently on the ground.

As soon as the Eagle had gone, the old man looked all about him, and called “Tabby, Tabby,” very softly. Tabby came out from under the roots of a tree and bounded on his shoulder, and told him how sorry the cow was, and how she was waiting in a thicket ready to carry him home, if he wanted to go. Of course, the old man wanted to go home, and in a moment the cow had come out from her hiding-place, had cried a little. But she took the old man on her back, and started down the mountain at full speed, with the cat chasing after her. It was a long way to the old man’s house, and tired out they finally reached it, got something to eat, and then they went to bed, where they slept right through the next two days. On the morning of the third day they all got up together, full of life, and, after eating a hearty breakfast, they all agreed that they would live together for the rest of their lives. This is the way that they have lived ever since that day, in perfect peace and harmony.

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.”