The Spirit Horse: A Folktale of Ballyvourney, Ireland

Ballyvourney - Ireland
Tentative Location: Ballyvourney, County Cork / Map data ©2016 Google

This folktale from Ballyvourney tells the tale of Morty Sullivan, who went for a ride he would not soon forget. 

When Morty Sullivan turned fourteen, he ran away from his father and mother; a mighty respectable old couple. Many a tear they shed on his account. But search as they may, all they ever learned about him was that he went on board of a ship bound for America. They both died heartbroken for his loss.

Thirty years after the old couple had been laid peacefully in their graves, a stranger came to Beerhaven enquiring after them — it was their son Morty. His heart seemed full of sorrow when he heard that his parents were dead.

As an atonement for his sins, Morty decided to perform a pilgrimage to the blessed chapel of Saint Gobnate, in Ballyvourney.

He had not travelled far before the evening came on. There was no moon, the starlight was obscured by a thick fog which ascended from the valleys, and the mountainous country, with many cross-paths and by-ways, was difficult for a stranger like Morty to travel without a guide. Still, he was anxious to reach his destination and exerted himself to do so.

The fog grew thicker and thicker. At last, Morty became doubtful if the track he was on led to the blessed chapel of Saint Gobnate. Seeing a light nearby, he moved towards it. but when he thought himself close to it, the light suddenly seemed at a great distance. Morty felt some surprise at this, but he was not disheartened; he thought that it was a light sent by the holy Saint Gobnate to guide him through the mountains to her chapel.

So he travelled for many miles, continually approaching the light, which would always suddenly start off to a great distance. At length he came close enough to see that the light came from a fire; seated beside which he plainly saw an old woman. His faith was shaken.

“In the name of the pious Gobnate, and of her preceptor Saint Abban,” said Morty, “How can that fire move so fast? Who can that old woman be?”

The words had no sooner passed Morty’s lips than he found himself, without taking another step, close to this wonderful fire. The old woman was munching her supper. With every wag of her jaw, her eyes rolled fiercely upon Morty; angry at being disturbed. Her eyes were neither black, nor blue, nor grey, nor hazel, like a human eye, but red, like the eye of a ferret.

Stout-hearted as he was, Morty could not look upon her without feeling fear — judging that it was for no good purpose that she was supping in so unfrequented a place, and at midnight.

The woman said nothing, but munched and munched away. Morty looked at her in silence. “What’s your name?” the old hag demanded at last, a sulphurous puff coming out of her mouth, her nostrils distending, and her eyes growing redder than ever.

Plucking up all his courage, he replied: “Morty Sullivan, at your service.”

“Ubbubbo!” said the old woman, “we’ll soon see.”

Morty was so petrified with horror, that he could not move.

“Take hold of my hand, Morty,” said the old woman. “I’ll give you a horse to ride that will carry you swiftly to your journey’s end.”

So saying, she led the way, the fire going before them; it is beyond mortal knowledge to say how, but on it went, shooting out bright tongues of flame and flickering fiercely.

Soon they came to a natural cavern in the side of the mountain, and the old hag called aloud in a most discordant voice for her horse. A jet-black steed appeared from its gloomy stable, the rocky floor of which rung with a sepulchral echo to the clanging hoofs.

“Mount, Morty!” she cried, seizing him with supernatural strength and placing him upon the back of the horse. Morty tried to grasp the horse’s mane, but he caught at a shadow. The horse nevertheless bore him up and bounded forward with him; now springing down a fearful precipice, now clearing the rugged bed of a torrent, and rushing like the dark midnight storm through the mountains.

The following morning Morty Sullivan was discovered by some pilgrims (who came that way after taking their rounds at Gougane Barra). He was lying on the flat of his back under a steep cliff, down which he had been flung by the Phooka. Severely bruised by the fall, he is said to have sworn on the spot, by the hand of O’Sullivan, never again to take a full bottle of whisky with him on a pilgrimage.

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