The Captive Piper: A Folktale of Knockainey, Ireland

Pinpoint Location: Knockainey, County of Limerick / Map data ©2016 Google

This folktale from Knockainey tells the tale of Donal O’Grady, a piper who got himself captured by the small folk.

The village of Aney occupies a pleasant site on the Camogue River, not far removed from the beautiful Lough Gur. The lake contains one peninsula of about sixty acres, connected with the eastern shore by a causeway. This is called Knock-a-dun.

Donal O’Grady, a well-known inhabitant of the place, was returning home from a wedding party in the neighborhood. Considered among the best pipers in Munster, his musical skill had been heard at the party the whole night, and indeed until the day began to dawn.

At intervals between the dances and songs, which he always accompanied with the Uilleann pipes, Donal had drained an occasional tumbler of punch and some other refreshments. Accordingly, his spirits were light enough to throw energy and fantasy combined into the thrilling and lively strains of jigs, reels, and hornpipes that followed one another in rapid succession.

For his musical performances he was not only rapturously applauded, but also generously rewarded; and, at parting, all wished him a good morning and safe home.

There he might have arrived in good time, but feeling somewhat weary as he passed the enchanted rath (ringfort) of Aine, and sitting down to rest for awhile, he yoked on the pipes, when, to keep his hands and elbows in practice, he struck up a joyous reel.

He had hardly commenced the first bars of “Morieen Ruadh,” than looking towards the rath, a door on the embankment suddenly opened. Out rushed a number of liveried pigmy lackeys, and without more ado, they seized Donal O’Grady and his pipes. In the twinkling of an eye, they were whisked within the opening, and bang went the door, while to secure it a bolt was shot into the locker.

In mortal fear of what should become of him, Donal was hurried along the passage on the shoulders of the little men. At the end, another door flew open and revealed a most magnificent sight. A grand hall of vast proportions, and a ceiling of exquisite beauty supported by lofty marble pillars, were lighted by a thousand lamps, which hung over the heads of a fairy throng of men and women arrayed in the most gorgeous and fantastic costumes.

At the upper part of the hall, on a throne of state, Donal beheld a lady of exquisite beauty, who wore a gold crown, all in a blaze with diamonds and brilliants, holding a reception for the crowds of tiny creatures who flocked to pay her homage. All were chattering around, but in a language he could not understand. However, he heard the name of Aine so frequently repeated, that he guessed the Queen on the throne could be none other, especially as she was the object of so much respectful greeting.

At last it was Donal’s turn to be introduced, and the master of the ceremonies, a dapper little gentleman, appeared, and led him by the hand to the lowest step of the throne.

Not willing to be deficient in manners, but also ignorant of the etiquette practiced in courts, he had noticed how gracefully the fairy lords and ladies had approached and retired, the men bowing very low, and the women courtesying almost to the ground, then kissing the Queen’s right hand, and afterwards backing out with repeated bows and courtesies, until lost behind the groups still advancing.

However, fearing he might too awkwardly imitate those court manoeuvres, when Donal O’Grady appeared before the throne, taking off his straw hat, with the left hand, and pulling down the front lock of hair on his forehead with the right, he gave a quick jerk with the right knee, bending the left, which made the fairy courtiers giggle and titter.

Donal was annoyed at these indications of what he thought to be bad manners; but, when the Queen graciously held out her hand and smiled, he kissed it, and all his rising resentment was quickly appeased.

Aine said something in fairy language to the High-Chamberlain, and pointed to the pipes of Donal O’Grady, which he had slung over his shoulder. The Master of Ceremonies waved a white wand, and all the fairy lords and ladies retired to the elegant cushioned seats prepared for them. Donal too was led to a chair, where the pipes were removed from his shoulders and placed on his knee.

Donal understood what was required of him, and observing the Queen giving her hand to some favored gentleman, while other fairy lords began to select their partners, Donal set the pipes in motion, and finding the couples ranged in two long lines, he supposed they desired to have a sprightly country dance. He began to think what tune he might best select, and deemed the “Fairy Dance” appropriate.

The moment he began to play, glee and merriment passed along the lines of ladies and gentlemen. The Queen and her partner with the foremost couples led off, and soon the mazes of the dance were executed by the various couples in succession, to the evident delight of the performers, and to the great admiration of their musician.

Donal observed that all the fairy gentlemen, although finely dressed, were little wizened creatures; their faces old-looking, covered with wrinkles, and ugly as sin, while their bodies and limbs were for all the world like those of Daddy Long Legs. The ladies greatly resembled their lords; with the single exception of Queen Aine, who was the greatest beauty Donal’s eyes ever beheld.

Having danced a variety of jigs and reels, alternating with the country dances, all seemed to be well satisfied. A signal was given, and the Queen and all the dancers filed before Donal O’Grady with smiles of approval and with graceful salutes. Afterwards they suddenly vanished, and the lights were all extinguished.

The imprisoned piper was left alone in complete darkness. Groping about, he could not find the passage through which he had been carried. Even if it were discovered, he knew the bolt and lock had been too securely locked to allow exit.

Hours passed over in this forlorn state. After some time, however, he could observe the fairies flitting through the hall, and jabbering to one another, but he found it was not Irish — which he could understand — that they spoke.

All the fairy men seemed to congregate in military array, mounted on tiny steeds, as if bent on some outdoor expedition. A dim light began to open on their movements. Donal saw the chief draw out at the head of his cavalcade and approach the door. Then, raising his sword, the fairy leader shouted out, “Tatther Rura,” and every one of his warriors repeated “Tatther Rura.” Immediately the door opened, and all rushed out through the passage. The door closed behind them.

The imprisoned piper waited until their sounds were lost in the distance. Then he also cried out, “Tatther Rura.” The door at once opened, and he was able to rush out and gaze once more on the scenes around Knockaney. Gathering the pipes under his arm, he joyfully hastened homewards.

For many a long day, Donal O’Grady recounted his extraordinary presentation to Queen Aine and her courtiers, on the frequent recurrence of fairs, christenings, weddings, and country parties, where his admirable musical performances were still in great demand.

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