The Nut-Cracker: A Local Legend of Aghadoe, Ireland

Pinpoint Location: Aghadoe, County Kerry / Map data ©2017 Google

This Local Legend from Aghadoe was collected by Thomas Crofton Croker some time before 1852. It tells the tale of Paddy Byrne, and how his ghost came to appear at his grave. 

Not far from Killarney, there once lived a poor man, whose name was Paddy Byrne. He was by trade what is called a hedge-schoolmaster, because in the summer time he preferred teaching his scholars in the clear open air, to confining them within his small cabin. Such a one was Paddy Byrne, who kept his academy by the side of Lochaune bower, under the hill of Aghadoe.

Paddy Byrne not only possessed the peculiarities common to his class, but had also many little oddities of his own: he was a grave, thickset, little man, with immense bushy eyebrows and a lame step, so that when he attempted to walk, it was with a one-two-three hoppish kind of motion: and then he was so very fond of nuts, which he was continually cracking, that he was universally nick-named the Nut-cracker. It

One fine day in the nutting season, Paddy met with his fate. He had gone to Philequilla Point, on Ross Island, in order to lay in a store of this favourite article (for Philequilla is famous for nuts,) when unfortunately, just as his bag was full, he was tempted to the edge of a rock, by a fine brown glossy bunch. Holding by a branch, and stretching at the nuts, the faithless branch gave way, and down went Paddy.

Sorely was he bruised and battered by the fall; and in this condition he was discovered by some woodmen, who procured immediate assistance, and carried him home, not forgetting the bag of nuts which was the cause of his misfortune. To make a long story short, poor Paddy died, leaving particular directions that the bag of nuts should be placed on his coffin in the tomb. A fine funeral he had; and after seeing Paddy and his bag quietly deposited together, the people, as usual, returned to their respective homes.

Among the neighbours who went to the funeral was Tim Murphy, a strong farmer, who lived at no great distance from the ruined church of Aghadoe, and in whose house there was gathered (as usual) at night a knot of people, labourers and others, who were amusing themselves as they sat round the hearth, by talking over the various news of the day. Among other things, the curious whim of Paddy Byrne was mentioned, in ordering the bag of nuts to be placed on his coffin, and buried with him; and this, of course, brought on many stories of ghosts and apparitions which had been seen at the old church.

“I don’t believe a word about such things,” said Jack Sheehy, who had been for some time a quiet listener, “I don’t believe in ghosts at all, and I’ll bet a half-pint with any of you, that I’ll go to Paddy Byrne’s tomb this very night, and bring away his bag of nuts.”

“Done,” said Tim Murphy, “it’s a bargain.”

“And done”, said Jack, as he left the house and made the best of his way to Aghadoe church-yard.

Though the moon was up, it was a foggy night, so that Jack could scarcely see a dozen yards before him, as he walked whistling along the bohereen (little road), which winds up the hill of Aghadoe and passes through the old grave-yard. Scarcely had he got there, when he heard a footstep trotting before him. ‘ Who goes there ?’ said Jack.

“Who goes there?” said Jack.

“Is that Jack Sheehy?” answered a voice which he knew to be Bill Eaton’s.

“The very same,” answered Jack, “and at your service. But where would you be going this time of night? I suppose you’re on a bit of a spree, eh! Billy?”

“Why, then, it’s the very thing I’d be after”, said Billy, “and if you’ll lend a hand you’re welcome to join me. A bit of a stray sheep is no bad thing in a poor man’s way, and Shaune an Uckrus has a few fat ones up yonder there. Where’s the harm in taking it from the likes of him? Nobody will be the wiser of it but ourselves.”

“I will!” said Jack, “for it was all his fault that my poor little family was turned out of our snug cabin and pretty garden. I know well enough he wanted it for a poor relation of his own.”

“That’s the truth for you,” said Bill, “but may I just have the boldness to ask where you was going yourself, Jack? Surely it wasn’t on a spree like myself?”

“Indeed, it wasn’t,” said Jack, and then he told him all about Paddy Byrne, the bag of nuts, and the wager.

“Well, then,” said Bill, “you stay here and get the bag of nuts, while I go for the mutton.”

Left to himself, Jack Sheehy made direct to Paddy Byrne’s tomb, and, removing the stone from its mouth easily enough, for there was no mortar ready to close it up, possessed himself of the bag of nuts. And, as he had promised to wait for Billy and the sheep, he thought it no harm in the meantime to crack a few. Now it happened that there was a little boy herding cows in the next field to the grave-yard, who, when he heard the cracking of the nuts going on, didn’t know what to make of it; so he had the courage to steal softly along the ditch, until he came opposite the place where he heard the work, and there, half seen through the fog, he perceived the figure of a man sitting on Paddy Byrne’s tomb, with a bag in his hand.

The little boy immediately concluded it to be no other than Paddy Byrne himself; so away he ran, in a great fright, to tell his master, who lived within a few fields of the place. Mick Finegane was his master’s name, and, when he heard the little boy’s story, he did not feel a bit inclined to venture out to look at Paddy Byrne’s ghost; but his old bedridden mother-in-law, who lay in a little room on one side of the chimney, also heard what the boy said.

A whimsical old hag she was, and used often to annoy Mick with her fancies; but Mick bore them all patiently enough, for she had a good purse in the toe of an old stocking. But of all the whims she ever took into her head, her present one was the oddest, and the most annoying to poor Mick. Calling him to the bedside, she vowed never to leave him as much as a penny piece, if he didn’t take her on his back to the old grave-yard, to see Paddy Byrne’s ghost. Mick had no great good- will towards the lady’s freak, yet he thought it a pity to lose the purse after waiting for it so long.

Mick had no great goodwill towards the lady’s freak, yet he thought it a pity to lose the purse after waiting for it so long. So, taking her on his back, with many an inward curse, away he went. But when he arrived at the grave-yard, and heard the cracking of the nuts going on, horror almost overpowered all other feelings.

“Is she fat?” said Jack Sheehy, who was still seated on the tomb, and, in the dim light, very naturally mistook Mick and his mother for Bill Eaton and the sheep, “is she fat?”

This was too much entirely for Mick’s nerves; so, throwing the old woman down, he roared out, “fat or lean, there’s she for you, Mister Byrne!” And away he scampered as fast as his legs could carry him.

What became of the old woman I never heard, or whether, after this, Jack waited for his share of the mutton, is more than I can say. But it’s certain he won his wager; for the next morning it was reported all over Killarney, that Paddy Byrne was seen cracking his nuts in the grave-yard. To this day, many people believe that the ghost of the Nut-cracker still appears in the old church- yard, on the hill of Aghadoe.

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