Brewery of Eggshells: A Folktale From the South of Ireland

General Location: Southern Ireland and Wales / Map data ©2016 Google

This Irish folktale tells the story of Mrs. Sullivan, who endeavoured to retrieve her baby boy from the fairies that replaced him.

Mrs. Sullivan fancied that her youngest child had been changed by “fairies theft,” for in one night her healthy, blue-eyed boy had become shrivelled up, and never ceased squalling and crying.

This naturally made poor Mrs. Sullivan very unhappy; her neighbours, to comfort her, said, that her own child was taken away by the good people, and that one of theirs had been put in his place.

Mrs. Sullivan believed what everyone told her, but she did not wish to hurt the thing; although its face was withered, and its body wasted away to a mere skeleton, it still strongly resembled her own boy. She could not find it in her heart to roast it alive, or to burn its nose off with red hot tongs, or to throw it out in the snow on the road side, even though these, and several similar, proceedings, were strongly recommended to her.

One day Mrs. Sullivan met a cunning woman, well known around the country by the name of Ellen Leah (or Grey Ellen). She had the gift of telling where the dead were, and how to put their souls to rest. She could also charm away warts and wens, and do a great many wonderful things of the same nature.

“You’re in grief this morning, Mrs. Sullivan,” Ellen Leah said.

“You may say that, Ellen,” said Mrs. Sullivan, “my child was taken from his cradle, and an ugly, shrivelled up fairy was put in his place.”

“Are you sure it’s a fairy?” Ellen Leah asked.

“Sure!” echoed Mrs. Sullivan, “I cannot doubt my own two eyes!”

“Will you take my advice?” Ellen asked, fixing her wild and mysterious gaze upon the unhappy mother, “even though you’ll call it foolish?”

“Can you get me back my child?” Mrs. Sullivan asked.

“You’ll know,” Ellen replied, “if you do as I tell you.”

Mrs. Sullivan was silent in expectation, and Ellen continued, “Put down the big pot, full of water, on the fire, and make it boil like mad; then get a dozen new laid eggs, break them, and keep the shells, but throw away the rest. When that is done, put the shells in the pot of boiling water, and you will soon know whether it is your own boy or a fairy. If you find that it is a fairy, take the red hot poker and cram it down his ugly throat.”

Mrs. Sullivan went home, and did as Ellen Leah instructed. She put the pot on the fire, and set the water boiling at such a rate, that if ever water was red hot — it surely was.

The child was lying quite easy and quiet in the cradle, every now and then cocking his eye, that would twinkle as keen as a star in a frosty night, over at the great fire, and the big pot. It looked on with great attention at Mrs. Sullivan breaking the eggs, and putting down the egg-shells to boil.

At last he asked, with the voice of a very old man, “What are you doing, mammy?”

Mrs. Sullivan’s heart jumped at hearing the child speak. But she forced herself to put the poker in the fire, and to answer without raising suspicion, “I’m brewing, a vick,” (my son.)

“What are you brewing, mammy?” said the little imp, whose supernatural gift of speech now proved beyond question that he was a fairy substitute.

“I wish the poker was red,” Mrs. Sullivan thought; but it was a large one, and took a long time heating. So she determined to keep him talking until the poker was ready to thrust down his throat, and repeated the question.

“You want to know what I’m brewing, a vick?” she said.

“Yes, mammy, what are you brewing?” returned the fairy.

“Egg-shells, a vick” said Mrs. Sullivan.

“Oh!” shrieked the imp, standing up in the cradle, and clapping his hands together, “I’m fifteen hundred years old, and I never saw a brewery of egg-shells before!”

The poker was now quite red, and Mrs. Sullivan, seizing it, ran furiously towards the cradle; but somehow her foot slipped, and she fell flat on the floor, and the poker flew out of her hand to the other end of the house. She got up, and rushed to the cradle intending to pitch the wicked fairy into the pot of boiling water.

But when she got there, she saw her own child in a sweet sleep, one of his soft round arms rested upon the pillow — his features were as placid as if their repose had never been disturbed, save the rosy mouth which moved with a gentle and regular breathing.

Her heart overflowed with joy, and she wept tears of happiness.

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