The Lucky Spansel: A Folktale of Mangerton Mountain, Ireland

Mangerton Mountain, County Kerry
Pinpoint Location: Mangerton Mountain, County Kerry / Map data ©2018 Google

This folktale from Mangerton Mountain tells the tale of Billy Thompson who sought to get back his stolen cow.

There was once a poor man named Billy Thompson who rented a few stony acres on a little hill at the foot of Mangerton Mountain, in the kingdom of Kerry. Billy was a smart little fellow, about five feet high, but a very industrious, hardworking lad.

His bit of ground, when he got it, was powdered all over with huge stones, so that a weasel could hardly thrust his snout between them; and over these again there was a thick coat of furze, so that the whole place looked for all the world like a great green hedgehog.

Billy went to work with all his might, and burned the furze, and made fences of the stones, and built himself a cabin on the top of the hill. A mighty bleak place it was to build it on. However, Billy didn’t much mind that, for if he had a little body, he had a great soul, and scorned to be looked down upon by any one.

No sooner had Billy Thompson his bit of land cleared, his potatoes sown, and his cabin built, than he began to think it was time for a wife. Before long he was married to Judy Donoghue of Glanflesk, who got a good fortune from her father, including a feather bed, six rush-bottomed chairs, an iron pot, a settle-bed, a collop of sheep, a Maol cow, and a pig.

Judy was very prolific, presenting Billy occasionally with two youngsters at a time, until at last it was said of Billy, that although he was a little fellow, his family’s great.

Now it happened, unfortunately for Billy, that while Judy was increasing his family, one misfortune after another was decreasing his stock; his sheep died of the rot, and his pig got the measles, so that he was obliged to sell it for little or nothing.

“Well,” said Billy, who was a good-humoured fellow, and wished to make the best of everything; “Well, it can’t be helped, so there’s no use in breaking one’s heart, at least we have the Maol cow left to comfort us.”

The words were hardly out of his mouth, when Paddy Glissane came to tell him that the Maol cow had fallen down the cliff at Horses’ Glen.

“Ullagone!” cried Bill, “we’re ruined!”

Such was Bill Thompson’s lament, as, with a sorrowful heart, he made his way to the Horses’ Glen, intending to get the hide of his cow, and conceal the carcase under some rock, until he could borrow a horse to bring it home; for the skin would surely fetch a good price, and the meat would make fine broth for the children.

The sun was riding high by the time he got into the Glen, and it took him some time before he could find where the poor beast was lying, but at last he found her, all smashed to pieces at the foot of a big rock.

“Worse, and worse!” Bill sighed, as he began to skin the cow.

Billy Thompson was so intent on his job, that he did not perceive the lapse of time; but, when his work was finished, he raised his head, and, looking about, was surprised to see the sun had gone down.

When he heard the murmuring wind, mingled with the hoarse reply of the dark and sluggish pool, multiplied as these sounds were by a thousand hill-born echoes, his heart failed him, for his imagination converted these sounds into the aerial whisperings of the fanciful beings, with which his fears had already peopled the recesses of the gray and shadowy rocks which surrounded him.

All the tales he had ever heard, of the Pooka, the Banshee, and the little red-cap’d mischievous fairy, floated through Billy’s mind; when, by an effort expecting to end his fears, he suddenly snatched a tuft of grass, wiped his knife, and seized hold of the reeking hide, intending to make his way out of the Glen.

It is well known, that a four-leaved shamrock has the power to open a man’s eyes to all sorts of enchantment, and it so happened, that there was one in the little tuft of grass, with which Billy had wiped his knife. Whether from grief, or fear, or from both together, instead of throwing it away, he put the grass into his pocket along with the knife.

So, when he turned to take a last lingering look at the carcase of his cow, he beheld, instead of his poor Maol, a little old curmudgeon sitting upright, and looking as if he had just been flayed alive.

The little fellow called after Billy in a shrill squeaking voice, “Bill Thompson! Bill Thompson! You’d better come back with my skin; or I’ll make you remember how you have dared to skin me, you spalpeen.”

Billy Thompson, though he was greatly frightened at first, had a stout heart; so he began to muster up his courage, for he saw it was a clear case, that his Maol cow was carried away by the good people, and he thought if he was stern with the little curmudgeon, he might, maybe, get her back; besides, if the worst came to the worst, he thought he could safely defy him, as he had a black-handled knife in his pocket.

Billy Thompson, therefore, took heart, and began to discourse the little fellow; at the same time, however, keeping his hand on the black-handled knife, for fear of accidents.

“You must know this is the skin of my poor Maol cow, that died over there; a better beast never walked on four legs. Sore and sorrowful the children will be for the want of her little drop of milk; but it can’t be helped, and there’s no use in talking,” said Billy, as he pretended to take his departure.

“Billy,my boy,” said the little imp, jumping before him with the speed of a greyhound, “do you think I’ll let you walk off with my skin? If you don’t drop it in the turn of a hand, you’ll be might sorry.”

“Badershin!” said Billy, drawing out his black-handled knife, and putting himself in a posture of defence, “I’ll never give you the skin, until you give me back my Maol cow; for I know that you, and the breed of you, have got hold of her.”

“You’d better keep a civil tongue,” said the little fellow, who seemed to get quite soft at the sight of the knife, “I’d rather befriend you, for you’re a stout fellow, Bill Thompson, and if you’d just give me the skin, I might get you the cow.”

“Give me the cow first, and then I will hand over the skin.”

“There she is, you unbelieving hound!” said the little imp.

Sure enough, Billy heard his Maol cow screeching behind him for the bare life; and when he looked behind, he saw her running over the rocks, with a long spansel hanging to one of her legs, and four little fellows with red caps on them, hunting her as fast as they could.

“There’ll be a bit of a battle for her,” said the little curmudgeon, “two of the boys that are after her, belong to another faction; so, while they are fighting over her, you can drive her away fair and easy, and no one will be a bit the wiser, barring myself but I’ll be no hindrance to you, Billy Thompson.”

Billy was quite delighted with the hope of getting his cow back, though he was afraid the little fellow intended on playing him false. Nevertheless, no sooner did the four little chaps with the red caps come up with one another, than they began to fight.

In the meantime, the Maol cow ran towards Billy, who, throwing the skin on the ground, seized the cow by the tail, and began to drive her away as fast as he could.

“Not so fast,” said the little imp, who stuck close by his side, “I gave you the cow, I didn’t give you the spansel that’s hanging to her leg. I’ll call the boys that are fighting below there, and five to one will be more than a match for you, Billy Thompson, as cunning as you think yourself with that black-handled knife. But I don’t want to be too hard on you, so if you want to buy the spansel, I’ll sell it for the little tuft of grass in your pocket.”

“Done,” said Billy, who had got to the top of a cliff, from whence he could see his own farm, in the distance, shining in the clear moonlight, while directly beneath him lay the deep hollow of Cown na Coppul, where the four red-capped fairies were fighting. Now Billy Thompson was fond of a bit of a skirmish, so finding himself at a safe distance, he thought it no harm to stop a bit, just to see how the good people handled a fight.

The glen resounded with the shouts of the fairies, and the clash of their sticks. But there was one of the little fellows who fought ten times better than all the rest, striking double-handed blows right and left. Billy, forgetting his cow and the necessity of silence, shouted as loud as he could, “Well done, redcap!”

The glen echoed with the deep tones of his voice, and the astonished combatants, looking up, perceived the cause of their contention was gone, and set off at full speed to recover the cow.

“Give me the tuft of grass, and I’ll lend you a hand,” said the little imp.

“Take it,” said Billy.

No sooner was it out of his hand, than he received a blow, which dashed him to the ground with such force that he was quite stunned. When he came to himself, the sun was shining; and he was lying near the ditch of his own farm, with his Maol cow grazing beside him. Billy Thompson could hardly believe his eyes, and thought it was all a dream, until he saw the spansel hanging to his cow’s leg; and that was the lucky spansel to him.

From that day out, his cow gave more milk than any six cows in the parish. Billy began to move up in the world, and take farms, and purchase cattle, until at last he became as rich as Darner; but the world would never after get him to return to the Horses’ Glen.

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