The Christmas of 1820 I had promised to spend at Island
Bawn Horne, in the county Tipperary, and I arrived there from Dublin on the
18th of December: I was so tired with travelling, that for two days after I
remained quietly by the fireside, reading Mr. Luttrell's exquisite jeu
d'esprit, "Advice to Julia."
The first person I met on venturing out was old Pierce
Grace, the smith, one of whose sons always attends me on my shooting
excursions: " Welcome to these parts," said Pierce: " I was
waiting all day yesterday, expecting to see your honour."
"I am obliged to you, Piercy; I was with the
"So I heard, your honour, which made me delicate of
asking to see you. John is ready to attend you, and he has taken count of a
power of birds."
The following morning, gun in hand, I sallied forth on a
ramble through the country, attended by old Pierce's son John. After some
hours' walking, we got into that winding vale, through which the Curriheen
flows, and beheld the castle of Ballinatotty, whose base it washes, in the
The castle is still in good preservation, and was once a
place of some strength. It was the residence of a powerful and barbarous race,
named O'Brian, who were the scourge and terror of the country. Tradition has
preserved the names of three of the family: Phelim lauve lauider (with
the strong hand), his son Morty lauve ne fulle (of the bloody hand),
and grandson Donough gontrough na thaha (without mercy in the dark),
whose atrocities threw the bloody deeds of his predecessors completely into
Of him it is related, that in an incursion on a neighbouring
chieftain's territories, he put all the men and children to the sword; and
having ordered the women to be half buried in the earth, he had them torn in
pieces by bloodhounds " Just to frighten his enemies," added my
The deed, however, which drew down upon him the deepest execration
was the murder of his wife, Aileen na gruig buie (Ellen with the yellow
hair), celebrated throughout the country for her beauty and affability. She
was the daughter of O'Kennedy of Lisnabonney Castle, and refused an offer of
marriage made to her by Donough; being supported in her refusal by her brother
Brian Oge, skeul roa more (the persuasive speaking) she was allowed to
remain single by her father, and his death seemed to relieve her from the fear
of compulsion; but in less than a month after, Brian Oge was murdered by an
unknown hand; on which occasion Ellen composed that affecting and well-known
keen, Thaw ma cree qeen bruitha le focth (My heart is sick and heavy
As she returned from her brother's funeral, Donough waylaid the
procession: her attendants were slaughtered, and she was compelled to become
his wife. Ellen ultimately perished by his hand, being, it is said, thrown out
of the bower window for having charged him with the murder of her brother. The
spot where she fell is shown; and on the anniversary of her death (the second
Tuesday in August) her spirit is believed to visit it.
Giving John my gun, I proceeded to examine the castle: a
window on the south side is pointed out as the one from which Ellen was
precipitated; but it appears more probable that it was from the battlement
over it, because from the circumstance of there being corresponding holes in
the masonry above and below, it is evident that the iron-work must have been
let in at the time of building, and that it did not open.
Having satisfied my curiosity, I was about to quit the
room, when observing an opening in the south-east corner, I was tempted
to explore it, and found a small staircase, which led to a sleeping recess.
This recess was occupied by a terrier and a litter of whelps. Enraged at my
intrusion, the dam attacked me, and having no means of defence, I made a hasty
How far the angry animal pursued me, I cannot say; for in my
precipitate flight, as I descended the second staircase, my foot slipped, and
I tumbled through a broad opening into what had probably been the guardroom:
but the evil I now encountered far exceeded that from which I fled, for the
floor of this room was in the last stage of decay: a cat could hardly have
crossed it in safety; and the violence with which I came on it carried me
through its rotten surface with as little opposition as I should have received
from a spider's web, and down I plunged into the gloomy depth beneath. A
number of bats, whom my sudden entrance disturbed, flapped their wings, and
flitted round me.
* * * * * .
When my recollection returned, a confused sound of voices
struck my ears, and I then distinguished a female, who in a tone of the
greatest sweetness and tenderness said, "It's not wanting - it's not
wanting - the life's coming into him." Opening my eyes, I found my head
resting in the lap of a peasant girl, about eighteen, who was chafing my
Health or anxiety gave a glow to her mild and expressive features,
and her light brown hair was Simply parted on her forehead. On one side stood
an old man, her father, with a bunch of keys, and on the other knelt John
Grace, with a cup of whiskey, which she was applying to recover me.
Looking round, I perceived that we were on the rocks near the castle, and the
river was flowing at our feet. Various exclamations of joy followed; and the
old man desiring John to rinse the cup, insisted on my swallowing some of the "cratur,"
which having done and got up, I returned my thanks, and offered a small
pecuniary recompense, which they would not accept, " For sure and certain
they would have gladly done tin times as much for his honour without
fee or reward."
I then inquired how they came to find me. "Why, as I
thought your honour," said John Grace, " would be some time looking
into the crooks and corners of the place, I just walked round to talk to Honny
here; and so we were talking over matters, and Honny was just saying to me
that the boys (meaning her brothers) were just baling the streams, and had got
a can of large eels, and that if I thought the mistress would like them, I
could take as many as I pleased, and welcome, when we heard a great crash of a
' What's that ?' says I. 'I suppose,' says Honny, ''tis the ould
gray horse that has fallen down and is kilt or may be it's Paddy's
Spanish dog Sagur that 's coursing about : there 's no thinking the
plague he gives me - they're both in the turf-house, fornent us (meaning, your
honour, the underpart of the castle that Cromwell made a breach into, and
beside which the cabin stands).
"In comes Tim Hagerty there, and then we heard a
screech ! ''Tis his honour's voice, says I; 'he has fallen through the
flooring!' 'Oh! if he has,' says Tim, 'I'm lost and undone for ever: and
didn't the Squire no later than last Monday week bid me build up the passage,
or that somebody he said would be kilt - and sure I meant to do it
Well, your honour, we got a light, and we saw the Phookas
that caused your fall all flying about, in the shape of bats, and there we
found your honour, and the turf all over the place; and for sure and certain,
if you hadn't first come on it, instead of the bones that Paddy and Mick have
been gathering against the young master's wedding, you would have been smashed
All of us were mad and distracted about the wicked Phookas that were
in the place, and could not tell what to do; but Honny said to bring you out
into the open air; and so we did; and there, your honour, by care and
management, praise be to God, we brought you round again; but it was a
desperate long time first, and myself thought it was as good as all over with
The reader, it is to he hoped, will not he able to form a
perfect notion of the Phooka; for indistinctness, like that of an imperfectly
remembered dream, seems to constitute its character, and yet Irish
superstition makes the Phooka palpable to the touch. To its agency the
peasantry usually ascribe accidental falls; and hence many rocky pits and
caverns are called Poula Phooka, or the hole of the Phooka. A waterfall of
this name, formed by the Liffey, is enumerated among "the sights" of
the county Wicklow.
An odd notion connected with the Phooka is, that the
country people will tell their children after Michaelmas day not to eat
blackberries, and they attribute the decay in them, which about that time
commences, to the operation of the Phooka.
Source: Thomas Crofton
Croker - Fairy Traditions and Beliefs, first published 1825.
republished by Collins Press, Cork 1998.