It wasn’t today nor yesterday that the widow woman lived in County Armagh with her two sons, who were called Diarmud and Donal. Because he was the eldest son, Diarmud was the master of the house. After their father’s death the tenancy to the large farm they lived on was passed on to them. Troubles began, however, when they were summoned to a meeting with their landlord, who told them that he needed them to pay a year’s rent on the property. It was a shock to the brothers, who were far from being prosperous, and Diarmud told Donal that he should immediately bring a load of oats to Newry and sell it at a good price. Donal immediately loaded a cart with as much oats as it could hold, put two horses in harness under the cart, and he proceeded toward Newry Town.
Donal sold the load of oats to a merchant and succeeded in getting a good price for it. But, when he was heading home again Donal, as was his habit, stopped at the small hostelry known as ‘The Half-Way House’. It was an opportunity for him to get himself a drink, rest the horses and give them a drink and a feed of oats. As he was having his drink, however, he saw two young men playing cards. Donal watched the two young card players for a while and one of the men turned to him and said, “Would you like to play a game with us?”
The two men appeared to be genuine and Donal decided he would play a few hands of cards before going home. But, when Donal began playing, and he did not stop playing until he lost every penny he had gained for the load of oats. “Dear Jaysus, what am I going to do now?” Donal asked himself, “Diarmud will destroy me, altogether. But still I’ll have to go home and tell him the truth.”
Diarmud was happy to see his younger brother back home from his trip to Newry and excitedly asked him, “Did you sell the oats?”
“I sold the entire load, and got a good price for it,” replied Donal.
“Sure, that’s a great job, now give me the money you got,” said Diarmud, reaching his hands out to receive he cash.
“I haven’t got it,” replied Donal, shamefully. “Sure, didn’t I lose every penny of it when playing cards at the ‘Half-Way House’?”
“Well, damn you for a no-good blackguard. The devil’s in you and you’ve destroyed us all,” Diarmud cursed him. In his anger he thought it better not to strike his brother but went and told the mother what foolishness Donal had committed.
“He’s your brother, and you should forgive him his foolishness this time,” she told her eldest son, “and be certain that he won’t be so foolish again.”
Diarmud went to see Donal and told him, “You must sell another load to-morrow, and if you lose the money this time, don’t bother coming home.”
On the morning of the next day, Donal put another load of oats on the cart, and he went to Newry. Again, he sold the oats for a good price for it and set out for home. When he was near to the half-way house, he said to himself, determinedly, “I will shut my eyes until I get past that place, just in case there should be a strong temptation that would lure me in.”
Donal shut his eyes tightly, but when the horses came as far as the inn, they stopped and would not take another step forward. They had become accustomed over the years to stop at ‘The Half-Way House’ on their way home from Newry, get oats and water. He opened his eyes and realised his predicament, and he gave the horses some oats and water. This done, Donal decided to go into the inn and light his pipe with a coal from the fire. But when he went indoors, he saw the same young men, from the previous day, playing cards. They asked him if he would care to play and suggested that it would be an opportunity to win back all that he had lost the day before.
For Donal, playing cards had always been a great temptation that he could not pass by and he began playing again. Indeed, such was the temptation of the game that he could not stop until he once again lost every penny that he had earned from the load of oats. “Well,” says he quietly to himself, “There’s no point in my going home now. Sure, I’ll bet the horses and the cart against all that I have lost.”
The eejit played again, and he lost the horses and the cart. Then, not knowing what he should do for the best, he thought for a moment and told himself, “Unless I go home, my poor mother will be worried about what happened to me. So, I will go home and tell her the truth, for all she can do is to throw me out of the house.”
When Donal arrived home, Diarmud excitedly asked him, “What has happened? Did you manage to sell the oats? And where are the horses and the cart?”
“I lost everything playing cards at the ‘Half-Way House’, and I would not have come back her except I needed to tell you what had happened, and to bid you farewell before I go.”
“It would have been better if you had never come back, for you have been the ruination of this family. Father, God rest his soul, would be turning in his grave with shame,” said Diarmud, “so, just go now and take your farewells with you, for I don’t want you here.”
Donal said his final farewells to his mother and left the house to seek out work elsewhere. But, as darkness began to fall, he began to feel very hungry and thirsty. Then, he noticed a poor man coming towards him, with a bag on his back. The man recognised Donal, and asked him, “Donal, what has brought you here at this time of the day?”
“I don’t know you,” replied Donal as he stared at the poor man.
“Sure, Donal, there was many a good night that I spent in your father’s house, may God have mercy upon him,” said the man, “maybe you’re hungry now, and maybe you would accept something to eat out of my bag?”
“I would, surely, providing it was a friend that was about to give it to me,” said Donal.
From out of his backpack the stranger gave Donal some beef and bread, and when he had eaten his fill, the poor man asked him, “Where are you going to-night?”
“Friend, if I had a clue, I would tell you, but I don’t,” says Donal.
“Well, there is a man who lives in the big house up there, and he gives lodgings to anyone who comes to his door after dark, and I’m heading that way, myself,” said the stranger.
“Perhaps I could get lodgings with you?” asked Donal.
“Sure, I have no doubt of it,” the poor man told him, and the two of them went off to the big house.
It was the poor man who knocked at the door, and a servant opened it to him. “Can I see the master of the house?” asked Donal politely and the servant went off. A few moments later the master of the house came, and the poor man spoke up, “I am looking for a night’s lodging.”
“It will be given to you if you do something for me. Now, go up to the castle there above, and I will follow you, and if you stay in it until morning, each of you will get ten pounds. You will get plenty to eat and drink as well, and a good bed to sleep on.”
“That’s a good offer,” replied Donal and his companion. “We will head up there now.”
The two men made their way to the castle, went into a room, and laid a fire lit it. It was not long until the master of the house came behind them, bringing beef, mutton, and other things to them. “Come with me, the pair of you, and I’ll show you the cellar, there’s plenty of wine and ale in it, and you can drink your fill.”
When the master had shown them the cellar, he went out, and he put a lock on the door behind him. Then, Donal said to the poor man, “Put you the things to eat on the table, and I’ll go for the ale.”
Donal then got a light, and a large porcelain jug, and went deeper into the cellar. The first barrel he came to, Donal stooped down to draw out a jugful of ale out of it, when a voice said to him, “Stop! That barrel is mine.”
Donal looked up, and he saw a headless little man, with his two legs straddled over a barrel. “If it is yours,” says Donal, “I’ll go to another.”
He went to another barrel, but when he stooped down to that one, little man without a head said, “That barrel is mine.”
“They can’t all be yours,” said Donal, “I’ll go to another one so.”
Donal went to another barrel, but when he began drawing ale out of it, the headless wee man said, ” That’s mine!”
“I couldn’t care less,” said Donal sternly, “I’ll fill my jug from it anyway.” This he did, and he brought it back to the poor man. He did not, however, tell his companion that he had seen the headless wee man. They immediately began eating and drinking until the jug was emptied.
Donal turned to his companion and told him, “It’s your turn to go down and fill the jug.” The poor man took the candle and the jug and went deeper into the cellar. He began drawing out of a barrel, when he heard a voice saying, “That barrel is mine.” He looked up, and when he saw the headless wee man, he let the jug and candle fall, and off he went, back to Donal.
“Oh!” sighed the poor man breathlessly, “it’s only small but I’m a dead man! For I saw a man without a head, and his two legs spread over the barrel, and he told me it was his barrel.”
“He’ll not do you any harm,” said Donal, “he was there when I went down. Now, get up and bring me the jug and the candle.”
“What? Oh, I wouldn’t go down there again if I were to get all of Ireland to myself,” said the poor man.
Donal went down, and he brought up the jug filled. “Did you see the wee headless man,” asked the poor man.
“I did,” says Donal, “but he did not do me any harm.”
They continued drinking until they were half drunk, when Donal suggested, “It’s time for us to be going to sleep, so what place would you like best, the outside of the bed, or next to the wall?”
“I’ll go next to the wall,” said the poor man, and they went to bed leaving the candle lit. They were not long in bed before they saw three men coming in, and they had a football with them. The three men began bouncing the ball on the floor, but there were two of them against one.
Donal turned to the poor man and said, “It’s not right for two to be playing against one,” and with that he leaped out and began helping the weak side, and him without a stitch on him. They began laughing loudly and walked out from the cellar. Disappointed, Donal went to bed again, but he was not long in it before there came in a piper playing sweet music.
“Get up,” says Donal, “so we can have a dance. Sure, it’s a great pity to let such good music go to loss.”
“For your own safety, don’t move,” said the poor man. But Donal leapt out of the bed, and he began dancing until he was exhausted. The piper then began laughing loudly and walked out.
Donal again went to bed, but he was not long in it before two men walked in, carrying a coffin between them. They left it down on the floor and walked out. “I don’t know who’s in the coffin, or whether it’s meant for us, but I’ll go and see.”
He leapt out of the bed, raised the lid of the coffin, and found a dead man in it. “In the name of God,” exclaimed Donal, “but that’s a cold place you have there. It would be better for you if you could rise up out of there and sit at the fire.” At that moment the dead man rose up from the coffin and warmed himself. “Sure, the bed is wide enough for three headless man,” said Donal as he moved into the middle, while the poor man lay next to the wall, and the dead man was offered the outside.
But it was not long before the dead man began crushing Donal, causing Donal to crush in on the poor man, until he was almost dead, and had to take a leap out through the window, leaving only Donal and the dead man there. The dead man was crushing Donal against the wall until he nearly-put him out through it. “To the devil with you,” shouted Donal, “you’re a terrible ungrateful man. I let you out of the coffin, I gave you a heat at the fire, I gave you a share of my bed, and now you won’t settle at all. But I’ll put you out of the bed now.”
Then the dead man spoke, and said, “You are a brave man, and it has stood you in good stead, or you would be dead by now.”
“And who would kill me?” asked Donal.
“Me,” said the dead man without any emotion, “there has never been anyone who came here in the last twenty years, that I did not kill. Do you know the man who paid you for remaining here?”
“He was a gentleman,” said Donal.
“He is my son,” said the dead man, “and he thinks that you will be dead in the morning. But come with me now.” The dead man now took him down into the cellar and showed him a great flag. “Lift that flag and you will find three pots under it, each of which is filled with gold. It is because of the gold that they killed me, but they never did find the gold. Take a pot for yourself, and a pot for my son, and the last one is to be divided among the poor.”
Then, the dead man opened a door in the wall, and drew out a paper. Giving the paper to Donal, he told him, “Give this to my son, and tell him that it was the butler who killed me, for my share of gold. I can get no rest until he is hanged or his crime, and if there is a witness needed, I will come behind you into the court without a head on me, so that everybody can see me. When he will be hanged, you will marry my son’s daughter, and come to live in this castle. Don’t have any fear about me, for I shall have gone to my eternal rest. So, farewell now.”
Donal went to sleep, and he did not awake until the master came in the morning, and he asked him if he had slept well, and where did the old man whom he left with him go? “I will tell you that another time, but, first, I have a long story to tell you.”
“You should come to my house with me,” the master said.
It was when they were going to the house that they saw, coming out of the bushes, the poor man without a stitch on him. Naked as the day he was born and trembling violently with the cold. The master got him his clothes, gave him his wages, and sent him off. Meanwhile, Donal went to the master’s house, and when he had eaten and drank his fill, he said, “I have a story to tell you.”
Then he began to tell him everything that had happened to him the night before, until he came as far as the part about the gold. “Come with me until I see the gold,” said the master. He went to the castle and lifted the flag. When he saw the gold, he said : “I know now that the story is true.”
When he got the entire information from Donal, he took out a warrant against the butler, but he kept the crime it was for concealed. When the butler was subsequently brought before the judge, Donal was there, and gave witness. Then the judge read out of his papers, saying, “I cannot find this man guilty without more evidence.”
“I am here,” said headless man, coming behind Donal.
As the butler caught sight of him, the prisoner told the judge, “Go no farther, I am a guilty man. I killed the man, and his head is buried beneath the hearth-stone in his own room.”
Then the judge gave the order for the butler to be hanged, and the headless man went away. The next day, Donal was married to the master’s daughter, and got a great dowry with her, which allowed him to live in the castle. A short time later, Donal got his coach ready and went to visit his mother. When Diarmud saw the coach coming toward the house he wondered who the great man was, travelling in it. The mother came out and ran to him, saying, “Are you not my own son, Donal, the love of my heart? I have been praying for you since you went.”
Then Diarmud asked him for his pardon and got it. At the same time, Donal gave him a purse of gold, saying, “There’s the price of the two loads of oats, of the horses, and of the cart.” Then, speaking to his mother, he said, “You ought to come home with me. I now have a fine castle without anybody in it but my wife and the servants.”
“I will go with you,” said the mother, “and I will remain with you until I die.” So, Donal took his mother home with him, and they spent a happy and prosperous life together in the castle.