The Fairy-Calf: A Folktale of Knockshigowna, Ireland

Pinpoint Location: Knockshigowna, County Tipperary / Map data ©2016 Google
Pinpoint Location: Knockshigowna, County Tipperary / Map data ©2016 Google

This folktale from Knockshigowna tells the tale of Larry Hoolahan, who would herd cattle where no-one else dared tread. 

In Tipperary you can find one of the most singularly shaped hills in the world. Its peak looks like a conical nightcap thrown carelessly over your head. A large pasture once lay near the top of this hill, where a herdsman spent his days and nights among his herd.

The spot had been an old fairy ground, and the good people were angry that the scene of their light and airy gambols was now trampled by the rude hoofs of bulls and cows. The lowing of the cattle sounded sad in their ears, and the chief of the fairies was determined to drive away the newcomers.

When the harvest nights came on, and the moon shone bright and brilliant over the hill, and the cattle were lying down hushed and quiet, and the herdsman, wrapped in his mantle, was musing with his heart gladdened by the glorious company of the stars twinkling above him, she would come and dance before him; now in one shape, now in another — but all ugly and frightful to behold.

One time she would be a great horse, with the wings of an eagle, and a tail like a dragon, hissing loud and spitting fire. Then in a moment she would change into a little man lame of a leg, with a bull’s head, and a lambent flame playing round it. Then into a great ape, with duck’s feet and a turkey-cock’s tail.

She would roar, or neigh, or hiss, or bellow, or howl, or hoot, as never yet was roaring, neighing, hissing, bellowing, howling, or hooting, heard in this world before or since.

The poor herdsman would cover his face, and call on all the saints for help, but it was no use. With one puff of her breath she would blow away the fold of his great coat, let him hold it ever so tightly over his eyes, and not a saint in heaven paid him attention.

To make matters worse, the herdsman never could stir; no, nor even shut his eyes. He was obliged to stay, held by what power he knew not, gazing at these terrible sights until the hair of his head would lift his hat half a foot over his crown, and his teeth would be ready to fall out from chattering. But the cattle would scamper about mad, as if they were bitten by the fly; and this would last until the sun rose over the hill.

The poor cattle were pining away from lack of rest, and food did them no good; besides, they met with accidents without end. Never a night passed that some of them did not fall into a pit, and get maimed, or maybe, killed. Some would tumble into a river and be drowned. There seemed never to be an end of the accidents.

Soon, not a herdsman could be found to tend the cattle at night. One visit from the fairy drove the bravest among them almost mad. The owner of the ground did not know what to do. He offered double, triple, quadruple wages, but not a single man would face that horror for money.

The fairy queen rejoiced at the success of her project, and continued her pranks. The herd gradually thinning, and no man daring to remain on the ground, the fairies came back in numbers, and gambolled as merrily as before, quaffing dew-drops from acorns, and spreading their feast on the heads of capacious mushrooms.

The puzzled farmer found that his substance was daily diminishing, his people terrified, and his rent-day coming round. It is no wonder that he looked gloomy, as he walked mournfully down the road.

During one of his gloomy walks the farmer met Larry Hoolahan, who played on the pipes better than any other player within fifteen parishes. A roving dashing blade was Larry, and feared nothing. Give him plenty of liquor, and he would defy the devil. He would face a mad bull, or fight single-handed against a fair.

And so, the farmer told Larry Hoolahan all about his misfortunes.

“Put your mind at ease,” said Larry, “were there as many fairies on Knockshigowna as there are potato blossoms in Eliogarty, I would face them. I would not turn my back upon a brat of a fairy the size of my thumb.”

“Larry,” said the farmer, “do not talk so bold; you know not who is listening. But, if you make good on your words, and watch my herds for a week on the top of the mountain, I will reward you handsomely.”

The bargain was struck, and Larry went to the hill-top, when the moon began to peep over the brow. He took his seat on a big stone under a hollow of the hill, with his back to the wind, and pulled out his pipes.

He had not played long when the voice of the fairies was heard upon the blast, like a slow stream of music. They burst out into a loud laugh, and Larry could plainly hear one say, “Another man upon our ring? Go to him, queen, and make him repent his rashness.”

Larry felt them pass by his face as they flew like a swarm of midges. Looking up hastily, he saw a great black cat, standing on the very tip of its claws, with its back up, and mewing with the voice of a water-mill. It swelled up towards the sky, and, turning round on its left hind leg, whirled till it fell to the ground, from which it started up in the shape of a salmon, with a cravat round its neck, and a pair of new top boots.

“Go on, jewel,” said Larry, “if you dance, I’ll pipe.”

She turned into this, and that, and the other, but still Larry played on.

At last the fairy lost patience, as ladies will do when men do not mind their scolding, and changed herself into a calf, milk-white as the cream of Cork, and with eyes as mild as those of a lovely girl. She walked up to Larry, gentle and fawning, in hopes to throw him off his guard by quietness.

Larry was not so easily deceived. When she came up, he, dropping his pipes, leaped upon her back. She, rejoiced at this opportunity, sprung from the hill-top, and bounded clear over the Shannon, flowing just ten miles from the mountain’s base. As she landed on the distant bank, she kicked up her heels, and flung Larry on the soft turf.

He looked her straight in the face, and cried out, “Well done! Not a bad leap for a calf!”

She looked at him for a moment, and then assumed her own shape.

“Laurence,” said she, “Will you come back the way you went?”

“I will,” said he, “if you let me.”

She changed to a calf again, Larry got on her back, and with another leap they were upon the top of Knockshigowna again. The fairy once more resumed her figure, and said:

“You have shown so much courage, Laurence,” she said, “that while you keep herds on this hill you shall never be harassed by me or mine. The day dawns, go down to the farmer and tell him this. If there is anything else that you desire from me, ask and you shall have it.”

She vanished, and kept her word in never visiting the hill during Larry’s life. He never troubled her with requests, but piped and drank at the farmer’s expense, and roosted in his chimney corner, occasionally casting an eye to the flock.

Larry died at last, and was buried in a green valley of pleasant Tipperary. Whether the fairies returned to the hill of Knockshigowna after his death is more than I can say.

If you enjoyed reading this local legend from Knockshigowna, please consider keeping it alive by sharing it with your friends. You can find many more Irish folktales by visiting our dedicated collection.

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