The Magic Quern: A Folktale of Knockanes, Ireland

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

This folktale from Knockanes tells the tale of Tom Coghlan, who acquired a magical quern from a Redcap.

Tom Coghlan one evening returned to his house, expecting to find the fire blazing, the potatoes boiling, his wife smiling, and his children merry. But it wasn’t Tom’s luck to find matters as he expected; for there was no fire, and his wife was scolding, and the children were all crying from hunger.

Poor Tom was quite dumbfounded to find matters going so badly; for though there were potatoes enough in the house, there wasn’t so much as a brosna to boil them with. After considering for some time, he thought of the great furze bushes which grew in the old fort on the top of Knockanes, and, snatching up a bill-hook, away he went.

Before he reached the top of the hill, the sun had gone down, and the moon had risen above the eastern hills. Tom Coghlan’s superstition had taught him to consider the old fort an eerie and a fearful place; the breeze which faintly rustled amid the bushes was to him a sound of terror, and the distant murmur of the deep, booming through the silence of the night, struck his spirit with a mysterious and indefinable awe.

Conquering his fear, and remembering that his children were without their supper, Tom raised his arm to fell one of the large furze bushes which grew on the embankment, when its descent was suddenly arrested by the sound of a small shrill voice.

Tom let the bill-hook drop from his grasp, as looking up to behold a little old man perched upon the furze bush, not more than a foot and a half high; his face was the colour of a tawny mushroom; while his little sparkling eyes, twinkling like Kerry stones in the dark, illumined his distorted visage, which was surmounted by a long red cap.

“Mister Tommy Coghlan?” said the little Redcap, “What did we redcaps ever do to you, that you should come cutting down our bushes?”

“Nothing at all,” said Tom, recovering a little from his fright, “only the poor little children were crying with hunger, and I thought I’d cut a bush or two to boil the praties with.”

“You mustn’t cut down the bushes, Tom,” said the little Redcap, “I’ll trade you for them. Carry this quern home, but leave the bushes alone.”

“Quern?” said Tom, giving a look of astonishment; for it was so small that he might have put it with all ease into his breeches pocket, “what good will that tiny quern do me? It won’t boil the praties for the children.’

“It will do a great deal better than boil praties, for when you turn it about, it will give you the greatest plenty of elegant meal. But remember, don’t sell any of that food, or the quern will lose its virtue.”

“It’s a bargain,” said Tom, “give me the quern, and you’re welcome to keep your precious bushes.”

Tom made the best of his way home, where his wife was trying to comfort the children, and wondering all the time what in the world could keep Tom out so long. When she saw him return without so much as a kippen to boil the potatoes with, her wrath burst out like Beamish and Crawford’s bottled porter when the cork is drawn.

“You come in without anything to boil the praties. I suppose you were at the pub, instead of minding me or the children; you nasty, drunken, beast.”

Here she paused for want of breath, and Tom, took the opportunity to put in a word. “Be easy, and see what I brought you,” he said, placing the quern on the table.

“Two little stones! Will they feed the children?” Judy roared.

“That they will,” said Tom, telling her all about the little quern, and the red capped fairy.

“We’ll try it directly,” said Judy, and they pulled the big table into the middle of the floor, and commenced grinding away with the quern. Before long, the most beautiful meal began to come from it, and in a short time they had every vessel in the house full. Judy was delighted, and the children ate plenty of the wonderful meal.

For a long time things went on very well, the quern giving them food in abundance; and they all grew as fat and sleek as coach-horses. Until, one day, Judy was at a great loss for a little money, and was tempted into selling a few pecks of the meal in the town of Tralee. From that day out, the quern lost all its virtue.

Tom couldn’t for the life of him find out the reason, for Judy was afraid to tell him about her selling the meal; so, putting his bill-hook under his arm, he returned to the old fort, determined to have revenge on little Redcap, by cutting down his bushes.

Scarcely had he commenced the work, when the little Redcap appeared. Mighty angry he was that Tom should come cutting his bushes, after having made a fair bargain with him. But Tom, undaunted, called him a deceitful little vagabond for giving him a worthless quern; and demanded a good one, lest he’d cut down every bush in the fort.’

“You’d better be easy and let the bushes alone, or you’ll pay for it. I warned you the quern would lose its power the moment you sold any of the meal.”

“I didn’t,” said Tom.

“Then your wife did; and giving you another quern is out of the question. We had but one in the fort you see, and a hard battle we fought, to get it from another party of the good people. But if leave the bushes alone, and I’ll make a doctor of you.”

The little Redcap gave Tom Coghlan a charm, and he became a great man and a greater doctor. He earned a fat purse, and procured a good future for the poor children that he left crying at home the night he first met the fairy in the old fort.

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