The kitchen of some country houses in Ireland presents in
no ways a bad modern translation of the ancient feudal hall. Traces of
clanship still linger round its hearth in the numerous dependants on "the
master's" bounty. Nurses, foster-brothers, and other hangers on,
are there as matter of right, while the strolling piper, full of mirth and
music, the benighted traveller, even the passing beggar, are received with a
hearty welcome, and each contributes planxty, song, or superstitious tale,
towards the evening's amusement.
An assembly, such as has been described, had collected
round the kitchen fire of Ballyrahenhouse, at the foot of the Galtee
mountains, when, as is ever the case, one tale of wonder called forth another;
and with the advance of the evening each succeeding story was received with
deep and deeper attention.
The history of Cough na Looba's dance with the black
friar at Rahill, and the fearful tradition of Coum an 'ir morriv (the
dead man's hollow), were listened to in breathless silence. A pause followed
the last relation, and all eyes rested on the narrator, an old nurse who
occupied the post of honour, that next the fireside.
She was seated in that peculiar position which the
Irish name " Currigguib," a position generally assumed by a
veteran and determined storyteller. Her haunches resting upon the
ground, and her feet bundled under the body; her arms folded across and
supported by her knees, and the outstretched chin of her hooded head pressing
on the upper arm; which compact arrangement nearly reduced the whole figure
into a perfect triangle.
Unmoved by the general gaze, Bridget Doyle made no change
of attitude, while she gravely asserted the truth of the marvellous tale
concerning the Dead Man's Hollow; her strongly marked countenance at the time
receiving what painters term a fine chiaro obscuro effect from the fire-light.
"I have told you," she said, "what
happened to my own people, the Butlers and the Doyle, in the old times; but
here is little Ellen Connell from the county Cork, who can speak to what
happened under her own father and mother's roof -the Lord be good to them
Ellen, a young and blooming girl of about sixteen, was
employed in the dairy at Ballyrahen. She was the picture of health and rustic
beauty; and at this hint from nurse Doyle, a deep blush mantled over her
countenance; yet, although "unaccustomed to public speaking," she,
without further hesitation or excuse, proceeded as follows : -
"It was one May eve, about thirteen years ago, and
that is, as every body knows, the airiest day in all the twelve months. It is
the day above all other days," said Ellen, with her large dark eyes cast
down on the ground, and drawing a deep sigh, "when the young boys and the
young girls go looking after the Drutheen, to learn from it rightly the
name of their sweethearts.
"My father, and my mother, and my two brothers, with
two or three of the neighbours, were sitting round the turf fire, and were
talking of one thing or another. My mother was hushoing my little sister,
striving to quieten her, for she was cutting her teeth at the time, and
was mighty uneasy through the means of them.
The day, which was threatening all along, now that it was
coming on to dusk, began to rain, and the rain increased and fell fast and
faster, as if it was pouring through a sieve out of the wide heavens; and when
the rain stopped for a bit there was a wind which kept up such a whistling and
racket, that you would have thought the sky and the earth were coming
It blew and it blew as if it had a mind to blow the
roof off the cabin, and that would not have been very hard for it to do, as
the thatch was quite loose in two or three places. Then the rain began again,
and you could hear it spitting and hissing in the fire, as it came down
through the big chimbley.
" ' God bless us,' says my mother, 'but 't is a
dreadful night to be at sea,' says she, 'and God be praised that we have a
roof, bad as it is, to shelter us.'
"I don't, to be sure, recollect all this, mistress
Doyle, but only as my brothers told it to me, and other people, and often have
I heard it; for I was so little then, that they say I could just go under the
table without tipping my head.
Anyway, it was in the very height of the pelting and
whistling that we heard something speak outside the door. My father and all of
us listened, but there was no more noise at that time. We waited a little
longer, and then we plainly heard a' sound like an old man's voice, asking to
be let in, but mighty feeble and weak.
Tim bounced up, with-out a word, to ask us whether we'd
like to let the old man, or whoever he was, in - having always a heart as soft
as a mealy potato before the voice of sorrow. When Tim pulled back the bolt
that did the door; in marched a little bit of a shrivelled, weather-beaten
creature, about two feet and a half high.
"We were all watching to see who'd come in, for
there was a wall between us and the door; but when the sound of the undoing of
the bolt stopped, we heard Tim give a sort of a screech, and instantly he
bolted in to us. He had hardly time to say a word, or we either, when. the
little gentleman shuffled in after him, without a God save all here, or by
your leave, or any other sort that of thing that any decent body might
We all of one accord, scrambled over to the furthest end
of the room, where we were, old and young, every one trying who'd get nearest
the wall, and farthest from him. All the eyes of our body we're stuck upon
him, but he didn't mind us no more than that frying-pan there does now.
He walked over to the fire, and squatting himself down
like a frog, took the pipe that my father dropped from his mouth in the hurry,
put it into his own, and then began to smoke so hearty, that he soon filled
the room of it.
"We had plenty of time to observe him, and my
brothers say that he wore a sugar-loaf hat that was as red as blood: he had a
face as yellow as a kite's claw, and as long as to-day and to-morrow put
together, with a mouth all screwed and puckered up like a washer-woman's hand,
little blue eyes, and rather a highish nose; his hair was quite grey and
lengthy, appearing under his hat, and flowing over the cape of a long scarlet
coat, which almost trailed the ground behind him, and the ends of which he
took up and planked on his knees to dry, as he sat facing the fire.
He had smart corduroy breeches, and woollen stockings
drawn up over the knees, so as to hide the kneebuckles, if he had the pride to
have them; but, at any rate, if he hadn't them in his knees he had buckles in
his shoes, out before his spindle legs.
When we came to ourselves a little we thought to escape
from the room, but no one would go first, nor no one would stay last; so we
huddled ourselves together and made a dart out of the room. My little
gentleman never minded any thing of the scrambling, nor hardly stirred
himself, sitting quite at his ease before the fire.
The neighbours, the very instant minute they got to
the door, although it still continued pelting rain, cut gutter as if Oliver
Cromwell himself was at their heels; and no blame to them for that, anyhow.
It was my father, and my mother, and my brothers,
and myself, a little hop-of-my-thumb midge as I was then, that were left to
see what would come out of this strange visit; so we all went quietly to the labbig
[Labbig - bed, from Leaba. - Vide O'Brien and O'Reilly]
scarcely daring to throw an eye at him as we passed the door. Never the wink
of sleep could they sleep that live-long night, though, to be sure, I slept
like a top, not knowing better, while they were talking and thinking of the
"When they got up in the morning every thing was as
quiet and as tidy about the place as if nothing had happened, for all that the
chairs and stools were tumbled here, there, and everywhere, when we saw the
Now, indeed, I forget whether he came next night or
not, but anyway, that was the first time we ever laid eye upon him. This I
know for certain, that, about a month after that he came regularly every
night, and used to give us a signal to be on the move, for 't was plain he did
not like to be observed.
This sign was always made about eleven o'clock; and then,
if we 'd look towards the door, there was a little hairy arm thrust in through
the key-hole, which would not have been big enough, only there was a fresh
hole made near the first one, and the bit of stick between them had been
broken away, and so 't was just fitting for the little arm.
" The Fir darrig
continued his visits, never missing a night, as long as we attended to the
signal; smoking always out of the pipe he made his own of; and warming himself
till day dawned before the fire, and then going no one living knows where: but
there was not the least mark of him to be found in the morning; and 't is as
true, nurse Doyle, and honest people, as you are all here sitting before me
and by the side of me, that the family continued thriving, and my father and
brothers rising in the world while ever he came to us.
When we observed this, we used always look for the
very moment to see when the arm would come, and then we'd instantly fly off
with ourselves to our rest. But before we found the luck, we used sometimes
sit still and not mind the arm, especially when a neighbour would be with my
father, or that two or three or four of them would have a drop among them, and
then they did not care for all the arms, hairy or not, that ever were seen.
No one, however, dared to speak to it or of it
insolently, except, indeed, one night that Davy Kennane - but he was drunk -
walked over and hit it a rap on the back of the wrist: the hand was snatched
off like lightning; but every one knows that Davy did not live a month after
this happened, though he was only about ten days sick. The like of such tricks
are ticklish things to do.
"As sure as the red man would put in his arm for a
sign through the hole in the door, and that we did not go and open it to him,
so sure some mishap befell the cattle: the cows were elf-stoned, or
overlooked, or something or another went wrong with them.
One night my brother Dan refused to go at the signal, and
the next day, as he was cutting turf in Crogh-na-drimina bog, within a mile
and a half of the house, a stone was thrown at him which broke fairly, with
the force, into two halves.
Now, if that had happened to hit him he'd be at this hour
as dead as my great great-grandfather. It came whack-slap against the
spade he had in his hand, and split at once in two pieces. He took them up and
fitted them together and they made a perfect heart.
Some way or the other he lost it since, but he still has
the one which was shot at the spotted milch cow, before the little man came
near us. Many and many a time I saw that same; 'tis just the shape of the ace
of hearts on the cards, only it is of a dark-red colour, and polished up like
the grate that is in the grand parlour within.
When this did not kill the cow on the spot, she
swelled up; but if you took and put the elf-stone under her udder, and milked
her upon it to the last stroking, and then made her drink the milk, it would
cure her, and she would thrive with you ever after.
But, as I said, we were getting on well enough as long as
we minded the door and watched for the hairy arm, which we did sharp enough
when we found it was bringing luck to us, and we were now as glad to see the
little red gentleman; and as ready to open the door to him, as we used to
dread his coming at first and be frightened of him.
But at long last we throve so well that the landlord -
God forgive him - took notice of us, and envied us, and asked my father how he
came by the penny he had, and wanted him to take more ground at a rack-rent
that was more than any Christian ought to pay to another, seeing there was no
When my father - and small blame to him for that -
refused to lease the ground, he turned us off the bit of land we had, and out
of the house and all, and left us in a wide and wicked world, where my father,
for he was a soft innocent man, was not up to the roguery and the
trickery that was practised upon him.
He was taken this way by one and that way by another, and
he treating them that were working his downfall. And he used to take bite and
sup with them, and they with him, free enough as long as the money lasted; but
when that was gone, and he had not as much ground, that he could call his own,
as would sod a lark, they soon shabbed him off. The landlord died not long
after; and he now knows whether he acted right or wrong in taking the house
from over our heads.
"It is a bad thing for the heart to be cast down, so
we took another cabin, and looked out with great desire for the Fir darrig to
come to us. But ten o'clock came and no arm, although we cut a hole in the
door just the moral (model) of the other. Eleven o'clock ! - twelve
o'clock ! -no, not a sign of him, and every night we watched, but all would
We then travelled to the other house, and we rooted
up the hearth, for the landlord asked so great a rent for it from the poor
people that no one could take it; and we carried away the very door off the
hinges, and we brought every thing with us that we thought the little man was
in any respect partial to, but he did not come, and we never saw him again.
"My father and my mother, and my young sister, are
since dead, and my two brothers, who could tell all about this better than
myself are both of them gone out with Ingram in his last voyage to the Cape of
Good Hope, leaving me behind without kith or kin."
Here. young Ellen's voice became choked with sorrow, and
bursting into tears, she hid her face in her apron.
rev. John (Lageniensis), Irish Folklore: Traditions and Superstitions of the
country. first published 1870, republished E.P publishing Ltd., 1973.