Master and Man: A Folktale From the South of Ireland

General Location: South of Ireland / Map data ©2016 Google
General Location: South of Ireland / Map data ©2016 Google

This Irish folktale tells the tale of Billy Mac Daniel, who found himself in the service of a Leprechaun.

Billy Mac Daniel was a young man who feared only an empty glass, and cared for nothing but who should pay for its refill. Drunk or sober, a word and a blow was ever the way with Billy Mac Daniel; a mighty easy way of getting into or ending a dispute.

It so happened that Billy was going home one clear frosty night not long after Christmas The moon was round and bright, but although it was a fine night, he felt pinched with cold.

“A drop of good liquor would be nice to keep my soul from freezing,” Billy said to himself.

“Never wish it twice, Billy,” said a little man in a three-cornered hat, bound all about with gold lace, and with great silver buckles in his shoes, so big that it was a wonder how he could carry them. He held out a glass as big as himself, filled with good liquor.

“Thank you! Here’s to your health,” said Billy Mac Daniel, undaunted, though he knew the little man to belong to the good people. He took the glass and drained it to the very bottom without ever taking a second breath.

“You’re welcome, Billy,” said the little man, “But don’t think to cheat me as you have done others, — out with your purse and pay me like a gentleman.”

“Pay you?” said Billy, “I could pick you up and put you in my pocket.”

“Billy Mac Daniel,” said the little man, getting very angry, “you shall serve me for seven years and a day, and that shall be my payment.”

Billy began to feel very sorry for having used such bold words towards the little man, as he felt obliged to follow the little man about the country, up and down, over hedge and ditch, through bog and brake, without any rest.

When morning began to dawn the little man said, “You may go home, Billy, but meet me in this field tonight. If I find you a good servant, you will find me an indulgent master.”

Billy Mac Daniel went home, and though he was tired and weary enough, he could not get a wink of sleep. He was afraid to defy his Leprechaun master, so in the evening he went back to the field.

He was not waiting long before the little man came towards him and said, “Billy, I want to go on a long journey tonight; saddle one of my horses, and saddle another for yourself, as you are to come along.”

“Which is the way to your stable?”

“No questions, Billy,” said the little man, “go over to that bog, and bring me two of the strongest rushes you can find.”

Billy picked two of the stoutest rushes he could find, with a little bunch of brown blossom stuck at the side of each, and brought them back to his master.

“Get up,” said the little man, striding across one of the rushes.

“Are you making a fool of me?” said Billy.

“Up!” said the little man, looking very angry.

So Billy, fearing to vex his master, straddled across the rush. “Borram! Borram! Borram!” cried the little man three times, and Billy followed his example; the rushes transformed into fine horses, and away they went full speed.

Billy, who had put the rush between his legs, without much minding how he did it, found himself sitting on horseback the wrong way, with his face to the horse’s tail. Since he could not turn around, there was nothing for it but to hold on by the tail.

At last, they stopped at the gate of a fine house.

“Billy,” said the little man, “do as you see me do, and follow me closely.”

The little man then said some queer kind of words, which Billy repeated without knowing the meaning; both went through the keyhole of the door, and through one keyhole after another, until they got into the wine-cellar, which was well stored with all kinds of wine. The little began drinking as hard as he could, and Billy, liking the example, did the same.

“The best of masters are you,” said Billy, “well pleased will I be in your service if you continue to give me plenty to drink.”

Having drank their fill, they departed, through keyhole after keyhole; each mounting the rush which he left at the door, scampered off with the words “Borram, Borram, Borram.”

When they came back to the field from which they departed, the little man dismissed Billy, bidding him to return there the next night at the same hour. Thus did they go on, night after night, until there was not a wine-cellar in Ireland they had not visited.

One night when Billy Mac Daniel met the little man as usual, and was going to the bog to fetch the horses for their journey, his master said to him, “Billy, I need another horse tonight, for maybe we’ll bring back more company than we take.”

Billy, who now knew better than to question an order given to him by his master, brought a third rush, wondering who it might be that would travel back in their company, and whether he was about to have a fellow-servant.

Away they went, Billy leading the third horse, until they came to a snug farmer’s house, in the county Limerick, close under the old castle of Carrigogunniel. Within the house there was great carousing going forward, and the little man stopped outside to listen. Turning around all of a sudden, he said, “Billy, I will be a thousand years old tomorrow!”

“God bless you, sir,” said Billy.

“Don’t say those words again, Billy,” said the little old man, wincing, “But, as I will be a thousand years tomorrow, I think it is time to get married.”

“I would think so too,” said Billy, “if ever you mean to marry.”

“To that purpose,” said the little man, “have we come all the way to Carrigogunniel. In this house, this very night, young Darby Riley is going to be married to Bridget Rooney; as she is a tall and comely girl, I think of marrying her myself instead.”

“What will Darby Riley say to that?” said Billy.

The little master did not answer, but began saying the queer words which had the power of passing him through the keyhole as free as air.

In they both went. For a better view of the company, the little man perched himself up as nimbly as a cocksparrow upon one of the big beams which went across the house over all their heads. Billy did the same upon another, facing his master.

There they were, master and man, looking down upon the priest and piper, and the father of Darby Riley, with Darby’s two brothers and his uncle’s son, and both the father and the mother of Bridget Rooney, proud enough that night of their daughter, and her four sisters, with brand new ribbons in their caps, and her three brothers, and there were uncles and aunts, and gossips and cousins enough besides to make a full house of it.

Now it happened, just as Mrs. Rooney had helped his reverence to the first cut of the pig’s head which was placed before her, beautifully bolstered up with white savoys, that the bride gave a sneeze, which made everyone at table start, but not a soul said “God bless us”. All thinking that the priest would have done so, as he ought if he had done his duty, no one wished to take the word out of his mouth, which, unfortunately, was preoccupied with pig’s head and greens. And after a moment’s pause, the fun and merriment of the bridal feast went on without the pious benediction.

“Ha!” exclaimed the little man, throwing one leg from under him with a joyous flourish, and his eye twinkled with a strange light, whilst his eyebrows became elevated into the curvature of Gothic arches; “I have half of her now, surely. Let her sneeze but twice more, and she is mine, in spite of priest, mass-book, and Darby Riley.”

Again the fair Bridget sneezed; but it was so gently, and she blushed so much, that few except the little man took notice; and no one thought of saying “God bless us”.

Billy all this time regarded the poor girl with a most rueful expression; he could not help thinking what a terrible thing it was for a nice young girl of nineteen, with large blue eyes, transparent skin, and dimpled checks, to be obliged to marry an ugly little bit of a man, who was a thousand years old.

At this critical moment the bride gave a third sneeze, and Billy roared out with all his might, “God save us!”

The little man, his face glowing with rage, sprung from the beam, and shrieking out in the shrill voice of a cracked bagpipe, “I discharge you from my service, Billy Mac Daniel — take that for your wages,” gave poor Billy a furious kick in the back, which sent his unfortunate servant sprawling upon his face and hands right in the middle of the supper-table.

If Billy was astonished, how much more so was every one of the company into which he was thrown with so little ceremony. But when they heard his story, Father Cooney laid down his knife and fork, and married the young couple with all speed. Billy Mac Daniel danced the Rinka at their wedding, and plenty he did drink at it too.

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