Legend of Bottle Hill: A Folktale of Mallow, Ireland

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Pinpoint Location: Mallow, County Cork / Map data ©2016 Google

This folktale from Mallow tells the tale of Mick Purcell, who traded his only cow for a bottle, and did not regret it. 

In the good days, when the little people most impudently called fairies, were more frequently seen than they are in these unbelieving times, a farmer, named Mick Purcell, rented a few acres of barren ground in the neighbourhood of the once celebrated preceptory of Mourne.

Mick had a wife and family, but, while they all did what they could to help, the poor man had no grown up child to help him with his work. All poor Molly could manage was to care for the children, milk their only cow, boil the potatoes, and carry the eggs to the market at Mallow.

It was hard on them to pay the rent. They managed it for a while, but then a bad year came. The harvest was spoiled, the chickens died of the pip, and the pig got the measles — she was sold in Mallow, but fetched almost nothing. Poor Mick couldn’t pay his rent.

“Molly,” he said, “what’ll we do?”

“What can we do? Take the cow to the fair of Cork and sell her,” she replied.

“But what’ll we do when she’s gone?” Mick said, sorrowfully.

“I don’t know,” Molly said, “but surely God won’t leave us.”

Next day, Mick left, instructed to sell the cow at the highest possible price.

He drove his cow slowly through the little stream which crossed the road by the old walls of Mourne. It was a fine day, and the sun shone brightly on the walls of the old abbey as he passed under them; he crossed an extensive mountain tract, and after six long miles he came to the top of that hill — Bottle Hill it is called now, but that was not the name of it then. Just there a man overtook him.

“Good morrow,” the man said.

“Good morrow, kindly,” Mick replied, looking at the stranger.

It was a little man, you’d almost call him a dwarf. He had a bit of an old, wrinkled, yellow face, for all the world like a dried cauliflower, only he had a sharp little nose, and red eyes, and white hair. His eyes never were quiet, but looking at everything; they made Mick feel quite cold.

Mick did not like the little man’s company, and drove his cow faster, but the little man kept up with him. Mick noticed his fellow-traveller did not seem to walk like other men, putting one foot before the other. Instead, he seemed to glide over the rough road.

Mick’s heart trembled, and he wished he hadn’t come out that day, or that he was on Fair-Hill, or that he hadn’t the cow to mind, that he might run away, when, in the midst of his fears, he was again addressed by his companion.

“Where are you going with that cow?”

“To the fair of Cork,” Mick replied.

“Are you going to sell her?” the stranger asked.

“Why else would I take her to the fair?”

“Will you sell her to me?”

Mick was afraid to say no.

“What’ll you give for her?” he asked.

“This bottle,” said the little one, pulling a bottle from under his coat.

Mick looked at him and the bottle, and, in spite of his terror, he could not help bursting into a loud fit of laughter.

“Laugh if you will,” said the little man, “but this bottle is worth more than the money you will get for the cow in Cork — ten thousand times as much.”

“Do you think me a fool?” Mick said, laughing.

“Give me the cow, and take the bottle — you’ll not regret it.”

“What would Molly say? I’d never hear the end of it.”

“Take the bottle, and give me the cow. Last chance, Mick Purcell.”

Mick started. How did the small man know his name?

“Mick Purcell, I know you. Do as I warn you, or you may regret it. How do you even know your cow won’t die before you get to Cork? How do you know that you’ll not get a bad price? Or get robbed when you are coming home? But why should I try to convince you, when you are determined to throw away your luck, Mick Purcell.”

“Oh! no, I would not throw away my luck,” said Mick, “if I was sure the bottle was as good as you say, I’d give you the cow in the name —”

“Never mind names,” said the stranger, “give me the cow. I would not tell you lies. Here, take the bottle, and when you go home do exactly as I instruct.”

Mick hesitated.

“I can stay no longer. Take my deal and be rich, refuse it and see your wife and children in poverty. That will happen to you, Mick Purcell!” said the little man with a malicious grin, which made him look ten times more ugly than ever.

Mick didn’t know what to do. He could hardly help believing the old man, and at length in a fit of desperation he seized the bottle.

“Take the cow,” he said, “if you are telling a lie, the curse of the poor will be on you.”

“I care neither for your curses nor your blessings, but I have spoken true, Mick Purcell, as you’ll find out tonight, if you do what I tell you.”

“And what’s that?” Mick asked.

“When you go home, have Molly sweep the room clean, set the table out right, and spread a clean cloth over it. Then put the bottle on the ground, and say these words: ‘Bottle, do your duty,’ and you will see how it works.”

“Is that all?” Mick asked.

“No more,” said the stranger. “Goodbye, Mick Purcell — you are a rich man.”

Mick retraced the road towards his cabin, holding fast the bottle. He could not help looking back, but the little man and his cow were nowhere to be seen. He went on, anxious to try out his bottle, and doubting the reception it would meet from his wife. Balancing his anxieties with his expectation, his fears with his hopes, he reached home that evening, and surprised his wife.

“Mick, are you back? Surely you didn’t make it to Cork! What has happened? Where is the cow? Did you sell her? How much money did you get for her?”

“If you’ll give me time, I’ll tell you all about it. I have no clue where the cow is now.”

“You sold her? Where’s the money? Is that a bottle under your waistcoat?” she asked, spying its neck sticking out.

“That’s all I got for the cow.”

His poor wife was thunderstruck. “All you got! Oh Mick! I never thought you were such a fool! How will we pay the rent, and what —”

Poor Molly sat down crying, while Mick told her his story. In the end, she couldn’t help believing him, particularly as she had much faith in fairies. She got up, without saying one word, and began to sweep the floor. Then she put out the long table, and spread the clean cloth, for she had only one, upon it.

Mick placed the bottle on the ground, and said, “Bottle, do your duty.”

“Look there! Mammy!” said his chubby eldest son, a boy about five years old, as he sprang to his mother’s side. Two tiny little fellows rose like light from the bottle, and in an instant covered the table with dishes and plates of gold and silver, full of the finest food, and when all was done went into the bottle again.

Mick and his wife looked at everything with astonishment; they had never seen such plates and dishes before. At length Molly said, “Come and sit down, Mick, and eat a bit. Surely you’re hungry after such a good day’s work.” Mick sat down, and they enjoyed a hearty meal, though they couldn’t taste half the dishes.

“Will those two little gentlemen carry away these fine things?” Molly asked.

They waited, but no one came. So, Molly put up the dishes and plates, saying, “You’ll be a rich man yet, Mick Purcell.”

Mick went to Cork and sold his plates, and bought a horse and cart, and began to show that he was making money; but they did all they could to keep the bottle a secret.

One day, their landlord came to Mick, and asked him where he got all his money. He insisted so much, that at last Mick told him of the bottle. The landlord offered him a great deal of money for it, but Mick would not sell it, until the landlord offered to give him his farm. Mick, who was now very rich, thought he’d never want any more money, and accepted the deal.

Mick was mistaken — he and his family spent money as if there was no end of it. To make the story short, they became poorer and poorer, until they had nothing left but one cow. Mick once more found himself driving a cow to Cork fair, hoping to meet the old man and get another bottle.

It was hardly daybreak when he left home, and he walked on at a good pace until he reached the big hill. Mick couldn’t help thinking of the little old man. And, just as he reached the summit of the hill, he was startled and rejoiced by the now well-known voice.

“Mick Purcell, I told you, you would be a rich man.”

“I was, but i’m not anymore. Do you have another bottle? I have another cow.”

“Here is the bottle,” said the old man, smiling, “you know what to do.”

“I do, indeed.”

“Farewell, Mick Purcell. I told you, you would be a rich man.”

“And goodbye to you,” said Mick, as he turned back, “and good luck to you, and good luck to the big hill, which I’ll call Bottle Hill.”

Mick walked back as fast as he could, never looking after the white-faced little gentleman and the cow, so anxious was he to bring home the new bottle. He arrived with it safely enough, and called out, as soon as he saw Molly, “I’ve another bottle!”

“You’re a lucky man, Mick Purcell, that’s what you are,” his wife replied.

In an instant she put everything right. Mick, looking at his bottle, cried out, “Bottle, do your duty.” In a twinkling, two great stout men with big cudgels emerged from the bottle, and beat poor Mick and his wife and all his family, before they went back in again.

Mick, as soon as he recovered, thought and thought. At last, he took the bottle under his coat, and went to his landlord; who happened to be holding a splendid party.

“What do you want now?” the landlord snapped.

“I have another bottle, sir”

“Is it as good as the first?”

“Yes, sir, even better. I will show it to you and all your guests.”

Mick was brought into the great hall, where he saw his old bottle standing high up on a shelf.

“Show us this new bottle,” his landlord said.

Mick set it on the floor, and uttered the words. In a moment the landlord was tumbled on the floor; ladies and gentlemen, servants and all, were running and roaring, and sprawling, and kicking, and shrieking. Wine cups and salvers were knocked about in every direction.

“Stop those two devils, Mick Purcell, or I’ll have you hanged!”

“They will never stop,” said Mick, “until I get my own bottle back.”

“Give it to him! Give it to him, before we are all killed!” screamed the landlord.

Mick put his original bottle in his bosom, and the two men jumped into the new bottle. He carried both bottles home.

Mick and Molly got richer than ever, and they died when they were very old. Their servants, fighting at their wake, broke the bottles; but the place of Mick’s fateful dealings is still called Bottle Hill to this day.

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