Biddy’s – 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!

Using 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.

The Piper’s Tale

Many long years ago there was a man living in the village of Derrytrask, whom many considered to be a bit of an ‘eejit’. To prove their view of the man, they would point to the way he was demonstratively fond of music but had never been able to learn to play more than one tune on his pipes, namely the “Black Rogue”. In the various bars and at the local festivities he used to make a few shillings from those who would make fun of him as he played his tune. The money helped both the man and his widow mother to pay the rent on their small holding and occasionally buy some luxuries, like snuff and a bottle of stout or two.

One night the Piper was walking home from a local house, where there had been a bit of a dance, and he was somewhat the worse for wear because of the whisky he had imbibed. As he walked along the the narrow cart track road he came up to a little bridge that was close by his mother’s house. He stopped for a moment, breathed into his pipe bag and squeezed it to begin playing that one tune that he knew so well, the “Black Rogue.” From behind him, in the darkness a ‘Puca’ came upon him, grabbed him and flung him on his own back. The ‘Puca’ is a spirit creature which takes on many forms and shapes. On this particular spirit creature there were long horns and the Piper had to take a good, strong grip of these. As he grabbed the horns he cried out at the creature, saying, “Damn you to hell, you evil creature. Let me go on my way home for I have a silver sixpence in my pocket for my mother, and she wants some snuff.

Never you mind your mother, or even what she wants” said the ‘Puca’, “but concentrate your mind on keeping your hold on those horns. If you should fall from my back you will surely break your neck and those pipes you carry.” Then, more softly, the ‘Puca’ asked him, “Why don’t you play for me the ‘The Blackbird?‘”

But, I don’t know that tune,” replied the Piper.

Irish Piper

Do not concern yourself about whether you do or you don’t know the tune,” Puca snapped at him. “Just you begin playing those pipes and I’ll make certain you know the tune.”

Frightened, the Piper put wind in his bag and he began to play such fine music that it made him wonder how such a thing could happen. “Upon my word but you’re a fine music teacher,” says the Piper, adding, “now tell me where you are taking me with such speed.”

Tonight there is a great feast being held in the house of the Banshee, which stands on the top of Croagh Patrick,” said the Puca. “I am now bringing you to the feast where you will play your music and have no doubt that you will be well rewarded for your trouble.

Sure isn’t that a great thing, 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 it was me who stole the big white goose from the Martins’ farmhouse yard.

The Puca paid him no mind, put down his head and rushed the piper across hills, bogs and rough places, until he finally brought him to the top of Croagh Patrick. As they came to a halt the Puca struck three blows on the ground with his foot, and a great door opened before them. Unhesitatingly they both passed through the door and found themselves in a large, finely adorned room.

In the middle of the room the Piper saw a large golden table, around which sat hundreds of old women, and all were staring toward him. One of the old women stood up from her seat and greeted him, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, Puca of November. Who is this mortal being that you have brought with you?

This mortal is the very best Piper in all of Ireland,” said the Puca, proudly.

One of the old women now struck a blow on the ground, which caused a door to open in the side wall of the fine room. Then, very much to the Piper’s surprise he noticed, coming out of the door, the big white goose, which he had stolen from Martins’ farmyard. “It’s a miracle to me,” says the Piper, “myself and my mother ate every last morsel of that goose, except for one wing. 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. The Puca now turned to the piper and urged him to, “Play your music for the enjoyment of these ladies.” The Piper put air into the bag and began to play. He played so well that all the old women took to the floor and began to dance, dancing so lively until they were too tired to dance any more. It was then that the Puca came forward to demand that they pay the Piper. Without complaint each and every old woman took out a gold piece from their pockets and gave it to him.

By the staff of Patrick,” says the Piper, “sure I’m as rich as the son of any great lord.

Now come with me,” asked the Puca, “and I will bring you back to your home.”

They went out of the room and, just as the Piper was about to mount the back of the Puca, the goose waddled over to him and presented him with a new set of pipes. With the same speed as before the Puca 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 again and the Piper dismounted the Puca, who quietly told him that he should go home. Before the Piper left the Puca told him, “You now have two things that you have never had before. You now have sense and music.

Feeling on top of the world the Piper hurried home, and he knocked loudly at his mother’s door, calling out to her, “Mother, let me in. Your son is as rich as any lord, and I have become the very best Piper in the whole of Ireland.

“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.

The 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, but instead of sweet music 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 were all mocking him. Their mocking continued 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 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 the Piper went to see the priest and related to him the adventure he had undertaken. But the priest would not believe a word that he uttered and the Piper decided to play the pipes for him. As he did so the screeching of the ganders and the geese began once again. “Leave 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 played the most wonderful and melodious music. Such became his fame that it is said from that day until the day of he died there was never his equal as a Piper in all the west of Ireland.

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.