The Soul Cages: A Folktale of Doonbeg, Ireland

Pinpoint Location: Doonbeg, County Clare / Map data ©2017 Google

This folktale from Doonbeg tells the tale of Jack Dogherty, who became friends with a Merrow, and saved many a soul.

Jack Dogherty lived on the coast of county Clare. Jack was a fisherman, as his father and grandfather before him had been. Like them, too, he lived all alone (but for the wife), and in exactly the same spot.

People used to wonder why the Dogherty family were so fond of that wild location, so far away from civilization, and in the midst of huge shattered rocks, with nothing but the wide ocean to look upon. But they had their reasons. The place was the only livable spot on that part of the coast; there was a neat little creek, where a boat lay as snug as a puffin in her nest, and out from this creek a ledge of sunken rocks ran into the sea.

When the Atlantic was raging with a storm, and a good westerly wind was blowing strong on the coast, many a richly laden ship went to pieces on these rocks; and then the fine bales of cotton and tobacco, and the pipes of wine, and the puncheons of rum, and the casks of brandy, and the kegs of hollands washed ashore!

Dunbeg Bay was just like a little estate to the Doghertys. They were kind and humane to a distressed sailor, if one had the good luck to get to land. Many a time indeed did Jack go out in his little corragh, to help the crew from a wreck. But when the ship had gone to pieces, and the crew were all lost, who could blame Jack for picking up all he could find?

“Where is the harm in it?” he said. “The king is rich enough already without getting what’s floating in the sea.”

Jack, though a hermit, was a good-natured, jolly fellow. No other could ever have coaxed Biddy Mahony to quit her father’s snug and warm house in the middle of the town of Ennis, to go so many miles to live among the rocks. But Biddy knew that Jack was the man for a woman who wished to be comfortable and happy; no woman ate, drank, or slept better than Mrs. Dogherty.

Many a strange sight did Jack see, and many a strange sound did he hear, but nothing daunted him. Far from being afraid of Merrows, his greatest wish was to meet one. He had heard that luck had always come out of an acquaintance with them. Whenever he thought he saw Merrows moving along the face of the waters, in their robes of mist, he steered course toward them.

Many a scolding did Biddy, in her own quiet way, bestow upon Jack for spending his whole day out at sea, and bringing home no fish. Little did she know the fish Jack was after!

It was rather annoying to Jack that, though living in a place where the Merrows were as plenty as lobsters, he never could get a good view of one. What vexed him more was that both his father and grandfather had often seen them.

One day when Jack strolled a little farther than usual along the coast, he saw something he had never seen before; perched upon rock sat a creature with a green body, holding a cocked hat in its hand. He gave a loud whistle and a hail, but the Merrow got startled, put the hat on its head, and dived down from the rock.

Jack’s kept returning to the spot, but the sea-gentleman with the cocked hat was nowhere to be seen. Thinking and thinking about the matter, he began to believe he had been dreaming. One very rough day, however, when the sea was running mountains high, Jack saw the strange thing again; cutting capers upon the top of the rock, and then diving down, and then coming up, and then diving down again.

Jack could now see a Merrow whenever he wished, so long as it was stormy day. But this did not satisfy him. He wished to get acquainted with the Merrow.

One tremendous blustering day, the storm came on so furiously that Jack was obliged to take shelter in a cave along the coast. To his astonishment, he found a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig’s eyes. It had a fish’s tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins; it wore no clothes, but had a cocked hat under its arm, and seemed to be deeply lost in thought.

Jack, took off his hat, and made his best bow.

“Greetings, sir,” Jack said.

“Greetings, Jack Dogherty,” the Merrow answered .

“You know my name?” Jack asked.

“How could I not? I was friends with your grandfather; that man could drink! I hope,” the old fellow said, with a merry twinkle in his little eyes, “you take after him.”

“I do believe that I do,” Jack said.

“Well then, you and I must be better acquainted, if it were only for your grandfather’s sake. Perhaps you would like to see my wine cellar?”

“I’m sure,” Jack answered, “it is worth looking at.”

“You may say that, Jack,” the Merrow said, “meet me next Monday.”

Jack and the Merrow parted the best friends in the world. On Monday they met, and Jack was surprised to see that the Merrow had two cocked hats with him, one under each arm.

“Come and dine with me,” the Merrow said.

“At the bottom of the ocean? I’ll drown! What would poor Biddy do without me?”

“Who cares for Biddy’s squalling? Your grandfather would not have talked in that way. Many times he dived down boldly after me; and many a snug bit of dinner and good shellful of brandy he and I shared.”

“I’m every bit the man my grandfather was! Let’s go!” Jack cried.

“Very well, come along, and do as I do.”

They left the cave, walked into the sea, and then swam until they got to the rock. The Merrow climbed to the top, and Jack followed him. On the far side it was as straight as the wall of a house, and the sea beneath looked mighty deep.

“Put this hat on your head, take hold of my tail, and keep your eyes open.”

The Merrow dashed in, and Jack followed him boldly. Down and down they went, and Jack thought they’d never stop. He held the Merrow’s tail tightly, slippery as it was, until they got out of the water, and he found himself on dry land at the bottom of the sea.

They landed in front of a nice house; slated very neatly with oyster shells!

Jack could hardly speak. He looked around and could see no living things, barring crabs and lobsters, of which there were plenty walking leisurely about on the sand. Overhead was the sea like a sky, filled with fishes instead of birds.

“Why don’t you speak, man?” the Merrow said. “Are you smothered, or choked, or drowned, or are you fretting after Biddy? Come along and let’s see what there is to eat.”

Jack really was hungry, and he followed the Merrow inside. There he saw a good kitchen, well provided with everything. There was a noble dresser, and plenty of pots and pans, with two young Merrows cooking. His host led him into the livingroom, which was furnished with nothing but planks and logs of wood to sit on, and eat off. There was, however, a good fire blazing on the hearth — a comfortable sight to Jack.

“Come, I’ll show you where I keep — you know what,” the Merrow said, with a sly look; and opening a little door, he led Jack into a fine cellar, well filled with pipes, and kegs, and hogsheads, and barrels.

“What do you say to that, Jack Dogherty?”

“It’s simply amazing!” Jack said, with a convincing smack of his under lip.

They returned to the livingroom, and found dinner laid. The finest fish was there. Turbots, and sturgeons, and soles, and lobsters, and oysters, and twenty other kinds, were on the planks, served with the best foreign spirits.

Jack ate and drank until he could eat no more. Then, taking up a shell of brandy, he said: “Here’s to your good health, sir. Though, begging your pardon, it’s mighty odd that as long as we’ve been acquainted I don’t know your name.”

“My name’s Coomara.”

“Here’s to your health, Coomara, may you live for fifty years to come!”

“Fifty years?” Coomara repeated. “If you had said five hundred, it would have been something worth wishing.”

“You knew my grandfather, and he’s been dead for over sixty years. This must be a healthy place to live.”

“Indeed, but come, Jack, keep the liquor stirring.”

Shell after shell did they empty, and to Jack’s exceeding surprise, he found the drink never got into his head, owing, he supposed, to the sea being over them. Old Coomara sung several songs; but Jack never could remember more than:

Rum fum boodle boo,
Ripple dipple nitty dob;
Dumdoo doodle coo,
Raffle taffle chittibob!

At length the Merrow said to Jack, “My dear boy, I’ll show you my curiosities!” He opened a little door and led Jack into a large room, where Jack saw a great many odds and ends that Coomara had picked up at one time or another. What caught his attention, however, were things like lobster-pots ranged on the ground along the wall.

“Well, Jack, how do you like my curiosities?” said old Coo.

“Mighty impressive! What are these things that look like lobster-pots?”

“The Soul Cages, you mean?”

“The what?”

“These things here that I keep souls in.”

Souls, sir?” Jack said in amazement.

“The souls of drowned sailors. When I see a good storm coming on, I set a couple of dozen of these. When the sailors are drowned their souls seek out my pots for shelter, and then I bring them home, and keep them here dry and warm.”

Jack was thunderstruck. He did not know what to say, so he said nothing. They went back into the dining-room, and had a little more brandy, and then, as Jack knew that it must be getting late, and as Biddy might be uneasy, he stood up, and said he thought it was time for him to be on the road.

“Take a duc an durrus (parting cup) before you go; you’ve a cold journey ahead of you.”

Jack knew better manners than to refuse the parting glass, and when it was finished Coomara took one of the cocked hats, put it upon Jack’s head the wrong way, and lifted him up on his shoulder to launch him up into the water.

“You’ll come up in the same spot you went down; throw me back the hat.”

Jack shot up like a bubble, until he came to the very rock he had jumped off. He found a landing-place, and then threw the hat, which sank like a stone.

The sun was just going down in the beautiful sky of a calm summer’s evening, and the waves of the Atlantic flashed in a golden flood of light. Jack set off for home; but when he got there, he did not tell Biddy where he had spent his day.

The state of the poor souls cooped up in the lobster-pots troubled Jack, and how to release them cost him a great deal of thought. Coo was a good fellow, and did not think he was doing any harm. Jack thought his best plan would be to ask Coo to dinner, and to make him drunk, if he was able, and then to steal the hat and dive down to release the souls .

Jack returned the rock to give the appointed signal to Coomara, which was throwing a big stone into the water. Jack threw, and up sprang Coo!

“Good morning, Jack,” he said, “what do you want?”

“Come and take a bit of dinner with me. Say one o’clock?”

“I’ll be there,” Coo said.

Jack went home, and cooked a noble fish dinner, and got out plenty of his best foreign spirits; enough to make twenty men drunk. Just to the minute came Coo, with his cocked hat under his arm. Jack plied old Coo well with brandy, and encouraged him to sing, hoping to put him under the table. But he forgot to keep his own head cool, and Coo reeled off home, leaving his entertainer as dumb as a haddock on a Good Friday.

Jack woke the next morning, and then it dawned on him that Coo probably never had a drop of poteen, as old as he was. So he asked Coo over again, and Coo laughed at him for getting drunk the day before.

“Try me again,” Jack said.

“Anything in my power to oblige you.”

At this dinner Jack took care to have his own liquor well watered, and to give the strongest brandy he had to Coo. At last, he said, “Did you ever drink any poteen — any real mountain dew?”

“No,” Coo said, “what’s that, and where does it come from?”

“That’s a secret,” Jack said, “but it’s good stuff. Biddy’s brother just sent me a present of a little drop. As you’re an old friend of the family, I kept it to treat you with.”

“Well, let’s see what sort of thing it is.”

The poteen was first-rate, and had the real smack upon it. Coo was delighted; he drank and he sung Rum bum boodle boo over and over again; and he laughed and he danced, till he fell on the floor fast asleep.

Jack, who had taken good care to keep himself sober, took up the cocked hat, ran off to the rock, leaped in, and soon arrived at Coo’s house. Not a Merrow old or young was there. He went and turned over the pots, hearing a little whistle or chirp as he raised each of them. Having done all that he could do for the souls of the drowned sailors, he set the pots as they were before.

Jack began to think of returning; he put the hat on, as was right, the wrong way; but when he got out of the house, he found the water so high over his head that he had no hopes of reaching it without Coomara to give him a lift.

At last he saw a spot where the sea hung lower than anywhere else. Just as he came to it a big cod happened to put down his tail. Jack jumped and caught hold of it, as the cod gave a bounce and pulled him up. The minute the hat touched the water, Jack shot up like a cork, dragging the poor cod, that he forgot to let go, up with him.

Jack got to the rock in no time, and hurried home, rejoicing in the good deed he had done.

Meanwhile, Biddy had returned home from a trip. When she entered the house and saw the things lying thrie-na-helah (topsy turvy) on the table before her. Hearing an outlandish kind of grunt, she looked down, and saw Coomara lying under the table. Biddy rushed out of the house, when she heard the well-known voice of Jack singing a merry tune. Jack was obliged to tell her all, and Biddy, though she had half a mind to be angry with him for not telling her before, admitted that he had done a great service to the poor souls.

Jack woke up Coomara; and perceiving the old fellow to be rather dull, recommended him, by way of cure, to swallow a hair of the dog that bit him. Coo, however, seemed to think he had drank quite enough; and went off to cool himself by a jaunt through the salt water.

Coomara never missed the souls. He and Jack continued the best friends in the world. However, one morning, on Jack’s throwing in a stone as usual, he got no answer. He flung another, and another, yet still there was no reply. Without the hat, Jack could not go down to see what had become of old Coo, but he believed that the old Merrow had either died, or had moved away from that part of the country.

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