The Wonderful Tune: A Folktale of Iveragh, Ireland

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

This folktale from Iveragh tells the tale of Maurice Connor, who drank too much and became king of the fishes. 

Maurice Connor was the best piper in all of Munster. He could play jig and planxty without end, and Ollistrum’s March, and the Eagle’s Whistle, and the Hen’s Concert, and odd tunes of every kind. But he knew one tune, far more surprising than the rest, which had the power to make everything dance, no matter if it were dead or alive.

At the very first note of that tune, the shoes began shaking upon the feet of all who heard it, then the feet began going — going — going from under them, and they danced like mad! There was no halting while the music lasted!

Not a fair, nor a wedding, nor a patron in the seven parishes round, was worth speaking of without blind Maurice and his pipes. His mother, poor woman, used to lead him from one place to another.

One day, Maurice Connor and his mother were travelling through Iveragh; a place of stormy coast and steep mountains, where it is easy enough get yourself drowned, or your neck broken. But in Ballinskellig bay there is a neat bit of ground, and down from it, towards the water, a clean smooth piece of strand.

Here Maurice’s music had brought a great gathering of young men and women, for it was not every day the strand of Trafraska was stirred up by the voice of a bagpipe.

“More power to your elbow, Maurice, and a fair wind in the bellows,” cried Paddy Dorman, a hump-backed dancing-master, who was there to keep order. “Did you drink, piper?”

“I will,” said Maurice.

“What will you drink, Maurice?” Paddy asked.

“If it’s all the same to you, a glass of whiskey.”

“I’ve no glass, Maurice,” said Paddy, “Only the bottle.”

So Paddy Dorman trusted Maurice with the bottle.

“Nice whiskey,” said Maurice, handing back the empty bottle.

“We must take your word for it, as you’ve left us no sample to judge by.”

Maurice Connor was fairly tipsy, and puff, at a breath, he blasted his wonderful tune; everyone began to dance, whether they wanted to or not.

Even Maurice himself could not keep quiet; staggering now on one leg, now on the other, trying to humour the tune. His mother too, moved her old bones as light as the youngest girl of them all.

Down upon the strand, fish were jumping and plunging about to the music, charmed by the wonderful tune. Crabs of monstrous size spun round and round on one claw with the nimbleness of a dancing-master.

Dancing among the outlandish set of fishes was a beautiful young woman. She had a cocked hat upon her head; from under it her long green hair — just the colour of the sea — fell down, without hinderance to her dancing. Her teeth were like rows of pearl; her lips for all the world looked like red coral; and she had an elegant gown, as white as the foam of the wave, with little rows of purple and red sea weeds settled out upon it.

She danced toward Maurice, and said, with a voice as sweet as honey;

“I’m a Lady of honour
Who lives in the sea;
Come down, Maurice Connor,
And be married to me.

“Silver plates and gold dishes
You shall have, and shall be
The king of the fishes,
When you’re married to me.”

Drink was strong in Maurice’s head, and out he chaunted in return;

“I’m obliged to you, madam:
Off a gold dish or plate,
If a king, and I had ’em,
I could dine in great state.

With your own father’s daughter
I’d be sure to agree;
But to drink the salt water
Wouldn’t do so with me!”

In this way they kept at it, framing high compliments; one answering the other. Well, the lady with the green hair kept on coaxing of Maurice with soft speeches, until at last she persuaded him to marry her, and be king over the fishes, great and small.

When Maurice’s mother saw him, with that unnatural thing in the form of a green-haired lady as his guide, dancing down so lovingly to the water’s edge, she called out after him to stop and come back.

Maurice soon reached the rim of the water, but he kept playing and dancing as if nothing was wrong. A great thundering wave came in towards him, but he could not see it.

His mother saw it plainly through the big tears that were rolling down her cheeks; but she kept dancing, dancing, to that mysterious tune.

Maurice only turned the bothered ear to the sound of his mother’s voice, fearing it might put him out in his steps, and all the answer he made back was — “Mother, I’m going to be king of the fishes down in the sea; but as a sign that I’m alive and well, I’ll send a piece of burned wood to Trafraska, every year on this day.”

The strange lady with the green hair took firm hold of Maurice, and the wave curling over twice as high as their heads, burst upon the strand, with a rush and a roar that might be heard as far as Cape Clear.

A year later a piece of burned wood came ashore in Trafraska, and another each year for over a hundred years. But Maurice’s mother never received any of them; she died three weeks after the dance — some say it was the fatigue that killed her, other blamed her passing on the grief of losing her son.

Seafaring men have often heard, off the coast of Kerry, on a still night, the sound of music coming up from the water; and some could plainly distinguish Maurice Connor’s voice singing these words to his pipes:

Beautiful shore, with thy spreading strand,
Thy crystal water, and diamond sand;
Never would I have parted from thee
But for the sake of my fair lady.

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