The Lucky Guest: A Folktale of Fermoy, Ireland

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

This folktale from Fermoy tells the tale of a poor family that experienced the blessings and the curses bestowed by a Fir darrig.

The kitchen of some country houses in Ireland presented in no ways a bad modern translation of the ancient feudal hall. Traces of clanship lingered round its hearth in the numerous dependants on “the master’s” bounty. Nurses, foster-brothers, and other hangers on, are there as matter of right, while the strolling piper, full of mirth and music, the benighted traveller, even the passing beggar, were received with a hearty welcome, and each contributed a song, or superstitious tale, towards the evening’s amusement.

An assembly, such as has been described, had collected round the kitchen fire of Ballyrahenhouse, at the foot of the Galtee mountains, when, as is ever the case, one tale of wonder called forth another; and with the advance of the evening each succeeding story was received with deep and deeper attention.

A pause followed the last relation, and all eyes rested on the narrator, an old nurse who occupied the post of honour, that next the fireside. Unmoved by the general gaze, Bridget Doyle made no change of attitude, while she gravely asserted the truth of the marvellous tale she had just told concerning the Dead Man’s Hollow.

“I have told you,” she said, “what happened to my own people. Now listen to little Ellen Connell from the county Cork, who can speak to what happened under her own father and mother’s roof.”

Ellen, a young and blooming girl of about sixteen, was employed in the dairy at Ballyrahen. She was the picture of health and rustic beauty; and at this hint from nurse Doyle, a deep blush mantled over her countenance; yet, although unaccustomed to public speaking, she proceeded as follows:

“It was one May eve, about thirteen years ago,” said Ellen, with her large dark eyes cast down on the ground, and drawing a deep sigh, “when the young boys and the young girls go looking after the Drutheen 1)The Drutheen is a small white slug or naked snail, and it is the common practice of boys and maids on May morning to place one on a piece of slate lightly sprinkled with flour or fine dust, covering it over with a large leaf, when it never fails to describe the initial of “the one loved name.” A similar custom prevailed in England., to learn from it the name of their sweethearts.

“My father, and my mother, and my two brothers, with two or three of the neighbours, were sitting round the turf fire, and were talking of one thing or another. My mother was shushing my little sister, striving to quieten her, for she was cutting her teeth at the time. The day, which was threatening all along, now that it was coming on to dusk, began to rain, and the rain increased and fell fast and faster, as if it was pouring through a sieve out of the wide heavens; and when the rain stopped for a bit there was a wind which kept up such a whistling and racket, that you would have thought the sky and the earth were coming together. It blew and it blew as if it had a mind to blow the roof off the cabin, and that would not have been very hard for it to do, as the thatch was quite loose in two or three places. Then the rain began again, and you could hear it spitting and hissing in the fire, as it came down through the big chimbley.

‘It’s a dreadful night to be at sea,’ said my mother, ‘God be praised that we have a roof, bad as it is, to shelter us.’

“Anyway, it was in the very height of the pelting and whistling that we heard something speak outside the door. We all listened, and plainly heard a sound like an old man’s voice, feeble and weak, asking to be let in. Tim bounced up, without a word, and pulled back the bolt that secured the door; in marched a little bit of a shrivelled, weather-beaten creature, about two feet and a half high.

“We were all watching to see who’d come in, for there was a wall between us and the door; but when the sound of the undoing of the bolt stopped, we heard Tim give a sort of a screech, and instantly he bolted in to us. He had hardly time to say a word, when the little gentleman shuffled in after him. We all scrambled over to the furthest end of the room, trying to get farthest from him. All eyes were upon him, as he walked over to the fire, and squatting himself down like a frog, took the pipe that my father dropped from his mouth, put it into his own, and began to smoke hearty.

“He wore a sugar-loaf hat that was as red as blood. His face was yellow as a kite’s claw, with a mouth all screwed and puckered up like a washerwoman’s hand, little blue eyes, and rather a highish nose; his hair was grey and lengthy, appearing under his hat, and flowing over the cape of a long scarlet coat, which almost trailed the ground behind him, and the ends of which he took up and planked on his knees to dry, as he sat facing the fire.

“We thought to escape from the room, but no one wanted to move first, nor stay last. So we huddled together and made a dart out of the room. The little gentleman hardly stirred, sitting quite at ease before the fire. The neighbours, the very instant minute they got to the door, ran through the pelting rain as if Oliver Cromwell himself was at their heels.

“My father, and my mother, and my brothers, and myself, a little hop-of-my-thumb midge as I was then, were left to see what would come out of this strange visit. We went quietly to the labbig [Labbig = bed, from Leaba] scarcely daring to glance at him as we passed the door. When we got up in the morning everything was as quiet and as tidy about the place as if nothing had happened, for all that the chairs and stools were tumbled here, there, and everywhere, when we saw the lad enter.

“I’ve forgotten whether he came back next night or not, but that was the first time we ever laid eye upon him. About a month after that he came regularly every night, and used to give us a signal to be on the move, for he did not like to be observed. This sign was always made about eleven o’clock, and then, if we’d look towards the door, there was a little hairy arm thrust in through the keyhole.

“The Fir darrig continued his visits, never missing a night, smoking out of the pipe he made his own and warming himself till day dawned before the fire. there was never the least mark of him to he found in the morning; but my family continued thriving, and my father and brothers rising in the world while he came to us. When we observed this, we used to wait for his signal, and then we’d instantly fly off to bed.

“But before we found the luck, we sometimes ignored the arm, especially when a neighbour would be with my father, or that two or three or four of them would have a drop among them. But whenever the Fir darrig was ignored, some mishap befel the cattle. No one, however, dared to speak to it or of it insolently, until, one night, Davy Kennane — drunk — walked over and hit it a rap on the back of the wrist: the hand was snatched off like lightning; but Davy did not live a month after this happened.

“But, as I said, we were getting on well enough as long as we minded the door and watched for the hairy arm, which we did sharp enough when we found it was bringing luck. In fact, we were now as glad to see the little red gentleman — and as ready to open the door to him — as we used to dread his coming that first night.

“At long last we thrived so well that the landlord  took notice, and envied us, and asked my father how he came by the riches he had, and wanted to increase the rent. When my father refused, the landlord evicted us, and left us in a wide and wicked world, where my father, a soft innocent man, was not up to the roguery and the trickery that was practised upon him. The landlord died not long after; and he now knows whether he acted right or wrong in taking the house from over our heads.

“We took another cabin, and looked out with great desire for the Fir darrig to come to us. But ten o’clock came and no arm. Eleven o’clock! — twelve o’clock! — not a sign of him. Every night we watched, but all would not do. We then travelled to the old house, and carried away the very door off the hinges, and we brought everything with us that we thought the little man was partial to, but we never saw him again.”

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Notes   [ + ]

1. The Drutheen is a small white slug or naked snail, and it is the common practice of boys and maids on May morning to place one on a piece of slate lightly sprinkled with flour or fine dust, covering it over with a large leaf, when it never fails to describe the initial of “the one loved name.” A similar custom prevailed in England.

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