The Giant’s Stairs: A Folktale of Carrigmahon, Ireland

Pinpoint Location: Monkstown, County Cork / Map data ©2017 Google

This folktale from Carrigmahon tells the tale of Robert Kelly, who freed a boy in service of Mahon Mac Mahon.

On the road between Passage and Cork there is an old mansion called Ronayne’s Court. Here it was that Maurice Ronayne and his wife Margaret Gould kept house, as may be learned to this day from the great old chimneypiece, on which is carved their arms. They were a mighty worthy couple, and had but one son, who was called Philip.

Immediately on his smelling the cold air of this world the child sneezed, which was taken to be a good sign of his having a clear head; and the subsequent rapidity of his learning was truly amazing. On the very first day a primer was put into his hands he tore out the A, B, C page and destroyed it, as a thing quite beneath his notice. Both father and mother were proud of their heir, who gave such indisputable proofs of genius.

One morning, however, Master Phil, who was then just seven years old, was missing: servants were sent in all directions to seek him, but they returned without any tidings of the boy. A large reward was offered, but it produced no intelligence, and years rolled away without any satisfactory account of the fate of the lost child.

There lived at this time, near Carrigaline, a blacksmith named Robin Kelly. His abilities were held in high esteem by the lads and the lasses of the neighbourhood; for, independent of shoeing horses, and making plough-irons, he interpreted dreams for the young women, sung at their weddings, and was so good-natured a fellow that he was gossip to half the country.

Now it happened that Robin had a dream about young Philip Ronayne. He saw the boy mounted upon a beautiful white horse, and was told that Philip became a page to the giant Mahon Mac Mahon, who had carried him off to his court in the hard heart of the rock.

“Seven years — my time of service — have passed,” the boy said, “release me this night and you will be richly rewarded.”

“How do I know,” Robin asked, “that this isn’t just a dream?”

“Take this as a token,” said the boy, and the white horse gave poor Robin such a kick in the forehead that he woke up calling a thousand murders. He found himself in bed, but bore the mark of the blow; the regular print of a horse-shoe upon his forehead.

Robin was well acquainted with the Giant’s Stairs. They consist of great masses of rock, which, piled one above another, rise like a flight of steps from very deep water, against the bold cliff of Carrigmahon. Common tradition of the country placed Mac Mahon’s dwelling within the cliff up whose side the stairs led.

Robin determined to put his dream’s truth to the test. Putting a a plough-iron on his shoulder, off he marched, in the cool of the evening, through Glaun a Thowk (the Hawk’s Glen) to Monkstown. Here an old gossip of his, Tom Clancey by name, lived, who, on hearing about Robin’s dream, promised him the use of his skiff, and offered to assist in rowing it to the Giant’s Stairs.

It was a beautiful still night as the little boat glided swiftly along, with only the regular dip of the oars breaking the quiet. The tide was in their favour, and soon Robin and Tom rested on their oars under the shadow of the Giant’s Stairs.

Robin looked anxiously, but in vain, for the entrance to the Giant’s palace. After waiting a considerable time in a state of suspense he exclaimed to his companion, “A pair of fools we are, Tom, for coming all this way based on a dream.”

At the moment he spoke a faint glimmering of light proceeded from the cliff, which gradually increased until a porch big enough for a king’s palace unfolded itself almost on a level with the water. They pulled the skiff towards the opening, and Robin Kelly, seizing his plough iron, boldly entered.

Wild and strange was that entrance; which appeared formed of grim and grotesque faces, blending so strangely that it was impossible to define any: the chin of one formed the nose of another; what appeared to be a fixed and stern eye, if dwelt upon, changed to a gaping mouth; and the lines of the lofty forehead grew into a majestic and flowing beard.

The stony expression of this crowd of faces assumed a savage ferocity as Robin’s imagination converted feature after feature into a different shape and character. Losing the twilight in which these indefinite forms were visible, he advanced through a dark and devious passage. Poor Robin felt afraid.

“Robin, Robin,” he said, “if you were a fool for coming here, what in the name of fortune are you now?” But he had scarcely spoken, when he saw a small light twinkling through the darkness like a star in the midnight sky.

Tobin moved towards the bit of light, and came at last into a spacious chamber, from the roof of which hung the solitary lamp that had guided him.

Several gigantic figures sat around a massive stone table, as if in serious deliberation, but no word disturbed the breathless silence which prevailed. At the head of this table sat Mahon Mac Mahon himself, whose majestic beard had taken root, and in the course of ages grown into the stone slab. He was the first who perceived Robin; and instantly starting up, drew his long beard from out the huge piece of rock with so sudden a jerk that it was shattered into a thousand pieces.

“What seek you?” he demanded in a voice of thunder.

“I come,” answered Robin, with as much boldness as he could put on, “to claim Philip Ronayne, whose time of service is out this night.”

“Then single him out from among my pages,” said the giant, “but if you fix on the wrong one, your life is the forfeit. Follow me.”

The giant led Robin into a hall of vast extent, along either side of which were rows of beautiful children, all apparently seven years old, dressed exactly alike.

“You are free to take Philip Ronayne.”

Robin was panicked; for there were hundreds upon hundreds of children, and he had no clear recollection of the boy he sought. But he walked along the hall, by the side of Mahon, as if nothing was the matter.

“A fine wholesome appearance the children carry,” remarked Robin, hoping to make friends with the giant, “Tenderly you must have reared them!”

“That is true for you. Give me your hand, for you are, I believe, a very honest fellow.”

Robin did not much like the huge size of the hand, and therefore presented his plough-iron; on seeing this all the children burst into laughter. In the midst of their mirth Robin thought he heard his name called; and all ear and eye, he put his hand on the boy who he fancied had spoken, crying out at the same time, “This is young Phil Ronayne.”

“It is Philip Ronayne — happy Philip Ronayne,” said his young companions; and in an instant the hall became dark. Crashing noises were heard, and Robin found himself lying at the head of the Giant’s Stairs with the boy clasped in his arms.

Robin had plenty of gossips to spread the story of his wonderful adventure: Passage, Monkstown, Carrigaline — the whole barony of Kerricurrihy rung with it.

“Are you quite sure, that it’s young Phil Ronayne?” was the regular question; for although the boy had been gone seven years, his appearance remained the same as on the day he went missing. He had neither grown taller nor older, and he spoke of things which had happened before he was carried off as if they had occurred yesterday.

“Well, that’s a strange question,” was Robin’s reply, “Phil has the blue eyes of his mother, with the foxy hair of his father; to say nothing of the wart on the right side of his little nose.”

The worthy couple of Ronayne’s Court bestowed on their son’s savior a reward that equalled their gratitude, and Philip Ronayne lived to be an old man; and he was remarkable to the day of his death for his skill in working brass and iron, which it was believed he had learned during his apprenticeship to the giant Mahon Mac Mahon.

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