Evil Omen

A Tale from the West of Ireland

Jack Flannery was a humble, hard-working shoemaker who lived quietly with his wife and their grown-up son, in a little cottage that stood by the roadside, at the edge of the village of Derryard. Trained by his father, Jack’s son had built a good reputation in the county. With such a reputation both Father and son always had plenty of work to do and were often obliged to sit up until late at night in their workshop to ensure that all the orders entrusted to them were completed.

One calm winter’s night, in early December, at about midnight, both men were, as usual, busy. They were sewing the leather at a brisk rate in one corner of the cottage’s narrow kitchen, where a turf fire was burning brightly on the hearth. Jack’s wife had grown tired earlier in the evening and had gone to bed. Everything in the house was quiet, except for the crickets, which chirped monotonously in the crevices all around chimney breast. Even the old sow and her litter of young ones, who were kept in a small corner of the cottage had stopped grunting and were asleep. The hens that were roosting on the broad beam at the further end of the cottage, near the door, had long given-up their usual cackling, and the entire house was at peace.

Jack and his son continued to sew leather in silence, which was broken only by the occasional whispered request made by one or other of the men for some article they required

I don’t know, son, but I’ll go to the door and ask,” the father replied.

Who in God’s name is there?” called the old man, on-going toward the door. When there was no reply, he asked once again, “Is there anyone there?” Again, there was no answer. “Well,” he whispered to his son as he returned to the bench and stood beside him.

There was someone there, or something, whether it was good or bad, and wherever they’ve gone to.” The two men listened in silence for a few moments in case the knocking would return, but they couldn’t hear anything that would indicate the presence of a visitor outside. But they were not disturbed again that night.

The next night, however, at the same time they were very alarmed when they heard the footsteps again. The latch was lifted as it had been on the previous night and then allowed to fall with an exactly similar click. “God preserve us!” exclaimed the old man, who immediately arose from his seat, while his son was far too frightened either to speak or move.

As he had before, Jack went to the door and demanded, “In God’s name, who’s there?” When no answer was given, he called out again, “For God’s sake,” said the poor old man in a trembling voice, “is there anyone there?

For a few moments he waited for a reply, but his wait was in vain. “Son,” said he, “we’ll get ourselves to bed now. But, don’t be afraid.” He could see that the young man was trembling in terror from head to foot, “Maybe it’s just someone playing games, and trying to scare us. But, let me tell you that, if it is and they try it again they’ll be sorry.” There was not another word spoken between them, and both men immediately went to bed and were soon fast asleep.

The third night, at the very same hour, the footsteps again came to the door. On this occasion, however, the latch was not lifted. Instead, there were three quick, sharp knocks as if the knuckles of someone’s hand were struck against the door. The old man, swearing an oath, immediately jumped to his feet, and going to the door opened it quickly, and went out into the night. He ran around the house and searched everywhere, but he could not find even a trace of anyone. Angry and frustrated, father and son went off to bed that night more frightened than they had been on either of the preceding nights. The father’s suspicion that there was someone who was trying to terrify them had given him a little more courage than the son, but now even he began to feel ill at ease. He had now begun to realize that his suspicions were incorrect, for he was firmly convinced that their tormentor could not have escaped so quickly if it was mortal. With this thought in mind, therefore, the father became very alarmed, for he felt that they had been given a warning that something bad was about to happen. But, if it was a warning, it would not be repeated, because such dire warnings are only given on three occasions.

As expected, those dread footsteps were heard no more, but this only increased his concerns, which he discussed with his wife and his son. A fortnight passed, and nothing unusual had occurred, which caused the dread that Jack Flannery, his wife, and son were feeling to considerably diminish. Then, on a Sunday night, at the of the fortnight, when old Ned McClean paid a neighbourly visit and found the Flannery family to be quite cheerful. Ned found them sitting beside a comfortable fire burning on the hearth, enjoying the pleasant glow of the blazing turf, and the pleasant experience of a quiet smoke at the end of the day.

God save all here,” said Ned as he entered the house.

And the same to you Ned,” replied Jack and his wife in unison, adding, “Sure, you’re very welcome, especially since you don’t go out much at all in the evenings.

Ned and the Flannerys were long-time friends, and although Jack and his wife had always a kindly welcome anyone who entered their little cottage, the welcome for Ned was always that little bit warmer than any given to others. Jack’s son was, as they informed their friend, “out galavanting” and that they had the pleasure of the fire all to themselves. Inviting Ned to sit, they were all soon absorbed in discussing ‘old times’, which was a great favourite with them. They became thoroughly involved in the conversation and the time passed both quickly and pleasantly. But, unfortunately, they were interrupted, which caused a cold chain of silence to drop over the company and revived a dread of approaching evil once again in the hearts of the Flannerys.

The shoemaker was in the middle of telling his favourite story about the ‘bad times,’ when the cock on the beam flapped his wings and crew once, twice, thrice. “Ned,” said the shoemaker, “you will hear some bad news before long, mind what I’m telling you.

Ned shook his head and replied, “I don’t like it at all, Jack, Lord preserve us!

Mrs. Flannery blessed herself and uttered some inaudible prayers. Nevertheless, the interruption left them all in no humour for more storytelling about the past, and that one frightening incident that had just occurred was too unnatural to think about any further. Ned, therefore, departed the cottage with a fervent “God speed” from Jack and his wife.

Ned only a short distance to go home. Then, having said the rosary, he went to bed and was just beginning to close his eyes when he heard a loud rapping at the door. He listened and soon recognized that it was Jack Flannery’s son calling. “Ned, are you asleep?

No,” the old man replied. “What’s wrong?

Oh, get up quick, my father’s dead.”

Dear God, boy, what are ye saying?” exclaimed Nicholas in amazement.

My father’s just after dying. Hurry over, for God’s sake.

It was the truth! Just about the hour of twelve midnight poor Jack Flannery’s soul had taken its leave from this earthly world. His wife had noticed that he was breathing heavily and was getting no response to her inquiries as to what was wrong with him. At that point, she called out to her son to get up at once and bring a light to the bedroom. The light finally revealed the lifeless body of a man who had been both a loving husband and a kind father.

Pooka

An Irish Spirit

I have spelt the name for this particular spirit as ‘Pooka’, but there are other spellings – púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka. However, it is spelt, the ‘Pooka’ is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore.  Some sources suggest that the origin of the name may have come from the Old Norse term ‘pook’ or ‘puki’, which refers to a “nature spirit”. The usage of the term in Ireland, however, predates the arrival of Viking settlers and may be derived from the Irish word ‘poc’, meaning a male goat, which is a form the creature is often said to take.

Pooka

‘Pookas’ are thought to bring either good and bad fortune, either helping or hindering the rural and marine communities in which they are found. They are said to be shape changers, which have either dark or white fur or hair. Because they are adept at changing their form the Pookas could take on the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. Moreover, it is not unknown for them to take human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail. There exists a brief description taken by Thomas Crofton Corker from a boy living in Killarney in which he tells us, “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous…long ago…, were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things…that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them, and that did much to harm unwary travellers.”

One theme that runs through all folklore concerning the Pooka is their constant appetite for mischief. They are said to entice humans to take a ride on their back, giving the foolish rider a wild and terrifying journey before finally dropping the unlucky person back at the place they were taken from. It is said that the rider may be able to take control of the pooka by wearing sharp spurs and using those to prevent being taken, or to steer the creature if already on its back. While such pooka stories can be found across northern Europe, the Irish tales alone specify a protective measure for encountering them. The protective power of the “sharp things,” as they are always referred to by the pooka in the tales, may stem from the Irish belief that “cold iron” has the ability to ward off the supernatural. These stories bear similarities to other Irish folk creatures, such as the ‘good people’ or the ‘fairy host’, who are said to target humans on the road or along their regular fairy routes. Pooka encounters with humans, however, tend to occur in rural, isolated places, far from settlements or homes.

On occasion the pooka is represented as being helpful to farmers, particularly in tales where the creature intervenes before a terrible accident, or before the person is about to happen upon a malevolent fairy or spirit. In several of the regional variants of the stories where the pooka is acting as a guardian, the pooka identifies itself to the bewildered human. What makes this action particularly noteworthy is that it is in stark contrast to the lore of many other folkloric beings, who guard their identities or names from humans.

There were certain agricultural traditions surrounding the pooka, and it is especially associated with Samhain, a harvest festival, when the last of the crops are brought in. Anything that remained in the fields was considered “pooka”, or fairy-blasted, and was, therefore, inedible. In some regions reapers left a small share of the crop, the “pooka’s share”, to placate the hungry creature. Nonetheless, 1 November was always considered to be the ‘Pooka’s Day’ and, therefore, the one day of the year when it could be expected to behave in a civil manner. In some areas, however, the beginning of November saw the pooka either defecate, or spit, on the wild fruits rendering them inedible and unsafe.

I have spelt the name for this particular spirit as ‘Pooka’, but there are other spellings – púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka. However, it is spelt, the ‘Pooka’ is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore.  Some sources suggest that the origin of the name may have come from the Old Norse term ‘pook’ or ‘puki’, which refers to a “nature spirit”. The usage of the term in Ireland, however, predates the arrival of Viking settlers and may be derived from the Irish word ‘poc’, meaning a male goat, which is a form the creature is often said to take.

‘Pookas’ are thought to bring either good and bad fortune, either helping or hindering the rural and marine communities in which they are found. They are said to be shape changers, which have either dark or white fur or hair. Because they are adept at changing their form the Pookas could take on the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. Moreover, it is not unknown for them to take human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail. There exists a brief description taken by Thomas Crofton Corker from a boy living in Killarney in which he tells us, “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous…long ago…, were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things…that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them, and that did much to harm unwary travellers.”

One theme that runs through all folklore concerning the Pooka is their constant appetite for mischief. They are said to entice humans to take a ride on their back, giving the foolish rider a wild and terrifying journey before finally dropping the unlucky person back at the place they were taken from. It is said that the rider may be able to take control of the pooka by wearing sharp spurs and using those to prevent being taken, or to steer the creature if already on its back. While such pooka stories can be found across northern Europe, the Irish tales alone specify a protective measure for encountering them. The protective power of the “sharp things,” as they are always referred to by the pooka in the tales, may stem from the Irish belief that “cold iron” has the ability to ward off the supernatural. These stories bear similarities to other Irish folk creatures, such as the ‘good people’ or the ‘fairy host’, who are said to target humans on the road or along their regular fairy routes. Pooka encounters with humans, however, tend to occur in rural, isolated places, far from settlements or homes.

On occasion the pooka is represented as being helpful to farmers, particularly in tales where the creature intervenes before a terrible accident, or before the person is about to happen upon a malevolent fairy or spirit. In several of the regional variants of the stories where the pooka is acting as a guardian, the pooka identifies itself to the bewildered human. What makes this action particularly noteworthy is that it is in stark contrast to the lore of many other folkloric beings, who guard their identities or names from humans.

There were certain agricultural traditions surrounding the pooka, and it is especially associated with Samhain, a harvest festival, when the last of the crops are brought in. Anything that remained in the fields was considered “pooka”, or fairy-blasted, and was, therefore, inedible. In some regions reapers left a small share of the crop, the “pooka’s share”, to placate the hungry creature. Nonetheless, 1 November was always considered to be the ‘Pooka’s Day’ and, therefore, the one day of the year when it could be expected to behave in a civil manner. In some areas, however, the beginning of November saw the Pooka either defecate, or spit, on the wild fruits rendering them inedible and unsafe.

True or not?

There are some people who doubt the existence demons and fairies, Hell, or Heaven. At a Christmas dinner last year, a woman told me that she did not believe in ghosts or fairies, in Hell or a Heavenly paradise. She was sure that Hell was an invention created by the priesthood as a means of frightening people into being good, while ghosts, she was certain, would not be allowed to go wandering all over the mortal to do whatever they willed.  The woman did, however, express a strong belief in the Fairy Folk, Leprechauns, water-horses, and in fallen an angels. At the same party I also met a man whose arms were covered in tattoos, and he held exactly the same beliefs and doubts as the woman did. Isn’t it strange that, in Ireland, no matter what we doubt, we never seem to doubt the existence of the fairy folk. But why should this be so?

There was a little girl in service to a family that lived in a seaside village along the County Down coast, beneath the shadows of the Mourne Mountains, just before the land was partitioned. Her sudden disappearance caused immediate and great excitement in the district because the rumour spread that she had been taken by the fairies. There was a story doing the rounds that a local man had struggled to keep the girl from the fairies, but they prevailed and took her from him, leaving nothing in his hands but a broomstick. The local police reacted quickly by instituting a house-to house search and advising locals to burn all the ragweed in the field from which she had vanished, believing that this action would force the fairy folk to return the girls since ragweed (bucalauns) is sacred to them. The local people spent the entire night burning bucalauns, while the police constable acted like a fairy doctor, repeating spells all the time. The next morning the little girl was discovered, wandering alone in the field. She said that the fairies had taken her far away on a fairy horse until she came at last to big river. Here she saw the man, who had tried to keep her from being carried off by the fairies drifting down the great river in a cockleshell. On the way to the river her fairy companions told her the names of several people in the village who, they prophesied, would die soon.

The policeman was right when he said it was better to believe unproved claims that appear to have little truth about them, than to deny such a claim just for the sake proof, for anyone who does this no longer has an open mind that is willing to seek out the truth. Such people have to fumble their way in a great dark and empty world in which all kinds of demons. There is no evil that can touch us if we keep a fire in our hearth and in our souls, and welcome with an open hand whatever comes to seek warmth, whether it be a man or a demon. We should not be too keen to speak fiercely to those visitors and demand that they, “Be gone!” After all, who are we to judge that our scepticism is better and more worthy than someone’s true belief.

Jim