Maurice Connor was the king, and that's no small
word, of all the pipers in Munster. He could play jig and planxty without end,
and Ollistrum's March, and the Eagle's Whistle, and the Hen's Concert, and odd
tunes of every sort and kind. But he knew one, far more surprising than the
rest, which had in it the power to set every thing dead or alive dancing.
In what way he learned it is beyond my knowledge, for he
was mighty cautious about telling how he came by so wonderful a tune. At the
very first note of that tune, the brogues began shaking upon the feet of all
who heard it - old or young it mattered not -just as if their brogues had the
ague; then the feet began going - going - going from under them, and at last
up and away with them, dancing like mad ! - whisking here, there, and
everywhere, like a straw in a storm - there was no halting while the music
Not a fair, nor a wedding, nor a patron in the seven
parishes round, was counted worth the speaking of with out "blind Maurice
and his pipes." His mother, poor woman, used to lead him about from one
place to another, just like a dog.
Down through Iveragh - a place that ought to be proud of
itself for 't is Daniel O'Connell's country - Maurice Connor and his mother
were taking their rounds. Beyond all other places Iveragh is the place for
stormy coast and steep mountains : as proper a spot it is as an in Ireland to
get yourself drowned, or your neck broken on the land, should you prefer that.
But, notwithstanding, in Ballinskellig bay there is a neat bit of ground, well
fitted for diversion, and down from it, towards the water, is a clean smooth
piece of strand - the dead image of a calm summer's sea on a moonlight night,
with just the curl of the small waves upon it.
Here it was that Maurice's music had brought from all
parts a great gathering of the young men and the young women - O the
darlints ! - for 'twas not every day the strand of Trafraska was stirred
up by the voice of a bagpipe. The dance began; and as pretty a rinkafadda it
was as ever was danced. "Brave music," said every body, "and
well done," when Maurice stopped.
"More power to your elbow, Maurice, and a fair wind
in the bellows," cried Paddy Dorman, a hump-backed dancing-master, who
was there to keep order. " 'Tis a pity," said he, " if we 'd
let the piper run dry after such music; 't would be a disgrace to Iveragh,
that didn't come on it since the week of the three Sundays." So, as well
became him, for he was always a decent man, says he: "Did you drink,
" I will, sir," says Maurice, answering the
question on the safe side, for you never yet knew piper or schoolmaster who
refused his drink.
"What will you drink, Maurice?" says Paddy.
" I'm no ways particular," says Maurice;
"I drink any thing, and give God thanks, barring raw water: but if
'tis all the same to you, mister Dorman, may be you wouldn't lend me the loan
of a glass of whiskey."
"I've no glass, Maurice," said Paddy; "
I've only the bottle."
"Let that be no hindrance," answered Maurice;
my mouth just holds a glass to the drop; often I've tried it, sure."
So Paddy Dorman trusted him with the bottle - more fool
was he; and, to his cost, he found that though Maurice's mouth might not hold
more than the glass at one time, yet, owing to the hole in his throat, it took
many a filling.
"That was no bad whiskey neither," says
Maurice, handing back the empty bottle.
"By the holy frost, then !" says Paddy, "
'tis but could comfort there's in that bottle now; and 'tis your word
we must take for the strength of the whiskey, for you've left us no sample to
judge by :" and to be sure Maurice had not.
Now I need not tell any gentleman or lady with common
understanding, that if he or she was to drink an honest bottle of whiskey at
one pull, it is not at all the same thing as drinking a bottle of water; and
in the whole course of my life, I never knew more than five men who could do
so without being overtaken by the liquor. Of these Maurice Connor was not one,
though he had a stiff head enough of his own - he was fairly tipsy.
Don't think I blame him for it; 'tis often a good man's
case; but true is the word that says, "when liquor's in sense is
out;" and puff, at a breath, before you could say " Lord, save
us!" out he blasted his wonderful tune.
'Twas really then beyond all belief or telling the
dancing. Maurice himself could not keep quiet; staggering now on one leg, now
on the other, and rolling about like a ship in a cross sea, trying to humour
the tune. There was his mother too, moving her old bones as light as the
youngest girl of them all: but her dancing, no, nor the dancing of all the
rest, is not worthy the speaking about to the work that was going on down upon
Every inch of it covered with all manner of fish jumping
and plunging about to the music, and every moment more and more would tumble
in out of the water, charmed by the wonderful tune. Crabs of monstrous size
spun round and round on one claw with the nimbleness of a dancing-master, and
twirled and tossed their other claws about like limbs that did not belong to
them. It was a sight surprising to behold.
But perhaps you may have heard of father Florence Conry,
a Franciscan friar, and a great Irish poet; bolg an dana, as they used
to call him - a wallet of poems. If you have not, he was as pleasant a man as
one would wish to drink with of a hot summer's day; and he has rhymed out all
about the dancing fishes so neatly, that it would be a thousand pities not to
give you his verses ; so here's my hand at an upset of them into English:
The big seals in motion,
Like waves of the ocean
Or gouty feet prancing,
Came heading the gay fish,
Crabs, lobsters, and cray fish,
Determined on dancing.
The sweet sounds they follow'd,
The gasping cod swallow'd;
'T was wonderful, really !
And turbot and flounder,
'Mid fish that were rounder,
Just caper'd as gaily.
John-dories came tripping;
Dull hake by their skipping
To frisk it seem'd given;
Bright mackrel went springing,
like small rainbows winging
Their flight up to heaven.
The whiting and haddock
Left salt water paddock
This dance to be put in:
Where skate with flat faces
Edged out some odd plaices;
But soles kept their footing.
Sprats and herrings in powers
Of silvery showers
All number out-number'd.
And great ling so lengthy
Were there in such plenty
The shore was encumber'd.
The scollop and oyster
Their two shells did roister,
Like castanets fitting;
While limpets moved clearly,
And rocks very nearly
With laughter were splitting.
Never was such an ullabulloo in this world, before or
since; 'twas as if heaven and earth were coming together; and all out of
Maurice Connor's wonderful tune !
In the height of all these doings, what should there be
dancing among the outlandish set of fishes but a beautiful young woman - as
beautiful as the dawn of day. She had a cocked hat upon her head; from under
it her long green hair - just the colour of the sea - fell down behind,
without hinderance to her dancing. Her teeth were like rows of pearl; her lips
for all the world looked like red coral; and she had an elegant gown, as white
as the foam of the wave, with little rows of purple and red sea weeds settled
out upon it: for you never yet saw a lady, under the water or over the water,
who had not a good notion of dressing herself out.
Up she danced at last to Maurice, who was flinging his
feet from under him as fast as hops - for nothing in this world could keep
still while that tune of his was going on - and says she to him, chaunting it
out with a voice as sweet as honey -
" I'm a Iady of honour
Who live in the sea;
Come down, Maurice Connor,
And be married to me.
"Sliver plates and gold dishes
You shall have, and shall be
The king of the fishes,
When you 're married to me."
Drink was strong in Maurice's head, and out he chaunted
in return for her great civility. It is not every lady, may be, that would be
after making such an offer to a blind piper; therefore 'twas only right in him
to give her as good as she gave herself - so says Maurice,
I'm obliged to you, madam :
Off a gold dish or plate,
If a king, and I had 'em,
I could dine in great state.
With your own father's daughter
I'd be sure to agree;
But to drink the salt water
Wouldn't do so with me ! "
The lady looked at him quite amazed, and swinging her
head from side to side like a great scholar, "Well," says she,
" Maurice, if you're not a poet, where is poetry to be found?"
In this way they kept on at it, framing high compliments;
one answering the other, and their feet going with the music as fast as their
tongues. All the fish kept dancing too: Maurice heard the clatter, and was
afraid to stop playing lest it might be displeasing to the fish, and not
knowing what so many of them may take it into their heads to do to him if they
Well, the lady with the green hair kept on coaxing of
Maurice with soft speeches, till at last she overpersuaded him to promise to
marry her, and be king over the fishes, great and small. Maurice was well
fitted to be their king, if they wanted one that could make them dance; and he
surely would drink, barring the salt water, with any fish of them all.
When Maurice's mother saw him, with that unnatural thing
in the form of a green-haired lady as his guide, and he and she dancing down
together so lovingly: to the water's edge, through the thick of the fishes,
she called out after him to stop and come back. "Oh then," says she,
"as if I was not widow enough before, there he is going away from me to
be married to that scaly woman. And who knows but 'tis grandmother I may be to
a hake or a cod - Lord help and pity me, but 'tis a mighty unnatural thing! -
and may be 'tis boiling and eating my own grandchild I'll be, with a bit of
salt butter, and I not knowing it ! - Oh Maurice, Maurice, if there's any love
or nature left in you, come back to your own ould mother, who reared
you like a decent Christian ! "
Then the poor woman began to cry and ullagoane so finely
that it would do any one good to hear her.
Maurice was not long getting to the rim of the water;
there he kept playing and dancing on as if nothing was the matter, and a great
thundering wave coming in towards him' ready to swallow him up alive; but as
he could not see it, he did not fear it. His mother it was who saw it plainly
through the big tears that were rolling down her cheeks; and though she saw
it, and her heart was aching as much as ever mother's heart ached for a son,
she kept dancing, dancing, all the time for the bare life of her. Certain it
was she could not help it, for Maurice never stopped playing that wonderful
tune of his.
He only turned the bothered ear to the sound of his
mother's voice, fearing it might put him out in his steps, and all the answer
be made back was - "Whisht with you, mother - sure I'm going to be king
over the fishes down in the sea, and for a token of luck, and a sign that I'm
alive and well, I'll send you in, every twelvemonth on this day, a piece of
burned wood to Trafraska."
Maurice had not the power to say a word more,
for the strange lady with the green hair seeing the wave just upon them,
covered him up with herself in a thing like a cloak with a big hood to it, and
the wave curling over twice as high as their heads, burst upon the strand,
with a rush and a roar that might be heard as far as Cape Clear.
That day twelvemonth the piece of burned wood came ashore
in Trafraska., It was a queer thing for Maurice to think of sending all the
way from the bottom of the sea. A gown or a pair of shoes would have been
something like a present for his poor mother; but he had said it, and he kept
his word. The bit of burned wood regularly came ashore on the appointed day
for as good, ay, and better than a hundred years. The day is now forgotten,
and may be that is the reason why people say how Maurice Connor has stopped
sending the luck-token to his mother.
Poor woman, she did not live to get as
much as one of them; for what through the loss of Maurice, and the fear of
eating her own grandchildren, she died in three weeks after the dance - some
say it was the fatigue that killed her, but whichever it was, Mrs. Connor was
decently buried with her own people.
Seafaring men have often heard, off the coast of Kerry,
on a still night, the sound of music coming up from the water; and some, who
have had good ears, could plainly distinguish Maurice Connor's voice singing
these words to his pipes: -
Beautiful shore, with thy spreading strand,
Thy crystal water, and diamond sand;
Never would I have parted from thee
But for the sake of my fair lady. [a]
[a] This is almost a literal translation of a Rann in the
well-known song of Deardra.
Source: Thomas Crofton
Croker - Fairy Legends and Traditions, first published 1825
republished by: Collins Press, Cork, 1998.