In midsummer, with the crops in bloom, all farmers can do is hope that the crops will make it to harvest time. And it is the Púca who decide whether the crops will be bountiful or fairy-blasted.
Púca is a specifically Irish word and concept, straight out of Irish folklore. Roughly translated, a púca is a type of fairy that can appear in any form, but they are closer to a goblin rather than to a Tinkerbell-type fairy. It is the uncertainty of the púca that caused worry: they can bring either good fortune or bad fortune. They were mainly associated with rural communities and fishing folk, and their appearance always caused concern: for if a púca ruined a harvest or a catch then there would be much misery to come over the cold months after the opportunity to grow crops had gone.
It is this anxiety around reaping the crops that engendered the most deference to the púca. After the crops were brought in, during the harvest festival, anything inedible remaining in the fields was considered to be tainted by the púcas. It was known as fairy-blasted, and inedible. To counteract this, many farmers left a small portion of the edible crop for the púca during the harvest, to keep goodwill going. In fact, November 1 is púca day, the one day that people know that the púca will behave in a civil manner.
Throughout history, Irish people have been somewhat afraid of the local púca. Humans did their best to not upset them, because a mad púca is the last thing you need in uncertain times. There are a few accounts of older folk saying that púcas used to be everywhere, and they were wicked-minded, and black-looking. They would often be seen in the form of wild black horses, goats rabbits, or other animals, but their fur would always be black. And the big give-away is their luminescent gold eyes, that were a haunting view into their soul. Travellers on back roads were particularly at risk of contact from a púca.
The name púca is unique in Irish, although it does have some close relatives in other Celtic languages. The Welsh have a pwca or pwwka, in Cornish, it is the Bucca. On the Channel Islands, people spoke of the pouque – fairies who lived around ancient stones. Linguists think the term púca name may have come from the Old Norse term pook or puki, which refers to a ‘nature spirit’.
Many times children were warned not to eat overripe blackberries. Their parents assumed that a púca had befouled them with its excrement or its spit. (It was probably more of a case of avoiding childhood diarrhoea.) But legend has it time and time again that the púca appear most frequently on Samhain, specifically to befoul the blackberries! It is, after all, this time of year where the berries pretty much have had their day. (Good luck to the púcas …in most neighbourhoods, all the blackberries have been savaged off the bushes by the local kids long before Halloween!)
If a person meets a púca on their travels, the púca will try to entice the human onto its back. If this happens to you, you should accept. The human will get one ride wild. The agreement of accepting a ride comes with the clause that the púca will not harm the human on this wild ride. It is said that Brian Boru, a High King of ancient Ireland, successfully rode a púca. He managed to do this by making a bridle which incorporated some of the púca’s tail hair. This confused the púca and tamed it somewhat.
On rare occasions, the púca is said to have the power of human speech. They used human words when they needed to lead a human away from harm. This is why humans were so afraid of púcas: they could bring terrible misfortune, or they could save your life. When you met them, you weren’t ever sure which twist of fate to be ready for.
As with the variety of accents in Ireland, the púca has different behaviours according to which county it appears in. In some regions, as long as the púcas are given due deference with offerings at harvest time, then they are respected and seen as helpful, particularly in areas of mountains and hills. In County Down, the púca is known as a short, disfigured goblin who demands a share of the harvest. In County Laois, it is dreadfully feared and is monstrous in appearance, while in County Waterford and Wexford the púca appears as an eagle with a huge wingspan. In County Roscommon it is widely known in legends as a wild black goat.
Either way, many people still (quietly) believe in showing deference to the púca. And why not? On Halloween night, leave a little grain in the garden for the púca. You never know, your strawberry crop in the back garden could do marvellously well the following year.
Here is a very old tale, about the púca, translated from the Irish by Douglas Hyde in 1888, from the book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. It was these kind of tales that were told over the centuries here in Ireland that were taken as true.
The Piper and the Puca
by Douglas Hyde
In the old times, there was a half fool living in Dunmore, in the county Galway, and although he was excessively fond of music, he was unable to learn more than one tune, and that was the “Black Rogue.” He used to get a good deal of money from the gentlemen, for they used to get sport out of him. One night the piper was coming home from a house where there had been a dance, and he half drunk. When he came to a little bridge that was up by his mother’s house, he squeezed the pipes on, and began playing the “Black Rogue”. The Púca came behind him, and flung him up on his own back. There were long horns on the Púca, and the piper got a good grip of them, and then he said, “Destruction on you, you nasty beast, let me home. I have a ten-penny piece in my pocket for my mother, and she wants snuff.”
“Never mind your mother,” said the Púca, “but keep your hold. If you fall, you will break your neck and your pipes.” Then the Púca said to him, “Play up for me the ‘Shan Van Vocht’.
“I don’t know it,” said the piper.
“Never mind whether you do or you don’t,” said the Púca. “Play up, and I’ll make you know.”
The piper put wind in his bag, and he played such music as made himself wonder.
“Upon my word, you’re a fine music-master,” says the piper then; “but tell me where you’re for bringing me.”
“There’s a great feast in the house of the Banshee, on the top of Croagh Patrick tonight,” says the Púca, “and I’m for bringing you there to play music, and, take my word, you’ll get the price of your trouble.”
“By my word, you’ll save me a journey, then,” says the piper, “for Father William put a journey to Croagh Patrick on me, because I stole the white gander from him last Martinmas.”
The Púca rushed him across hills and bogs and rough places, till he brought him to the top of Croagh Patrick. Then the Púca struck three blows with his foot, and a great door opened, and they passed in together, into a fine room.
The piper saw a golden table in the middle of the room, and hundreds of old women sitting round about it. The old woman rose up, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, you Púca of November. Who is this you have brought with you?”
“The best piper in Ireland,” says the Púca.
One of the old women struck a blow on the ground, and a door opened in the side of the wall, and what should the piper see coming out but the white gander which he had stolen from Father William.
“By my conscience, then,” says the piper, “myself and my mother ate every taste of that gander, only one wing, and I gave that to Moy-rua (Red Mary), and it’s she told the priest I stole his gander.”
The gander cleaned the table, and carried it away, and the Púca said, “Play up music for these ladies.”
The piper played up, and the old women began dancing, and they were dancing till they were tired. Then the Púca said to pay the piper, and every old woman drew out a gold piece, and gave it to him.
“By the tooth of Patrick,” said he, “I’m as rich as the son of a lord.”
“Come with me,” says the Púca, “and I’ll bring you home.”
They went out then, and just as he was going to ride on the Púca, the gander came up to him, and gave him a new set of pipes. The Púca was not long until he brought him to Dunmore, and he threw the piper off at the little bridge, and then he told him to go home, and says to him, “You have two things now that you never had before–you have sense and music.
The piper went home, and he knocked at his mother’s door, saying, “Let me in, I’m as rich as a lord, and I’m the best piper in Ireland.”
“You’re drunk,” said the mother.
“No, indeed,” says the piper, “I haven’t drunk a drop.”
The mother let him in, and he gave her the gold pieces, and, “Wait now,” says he, “till you hear the music, I’ll play.”
He buckled on the pipes, but instead of music, there came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. He awakened the neighbours and they all were mocking him, until he put on the old pipes, and then he played melodious music for them; and after that he told them all he had gone through that night.
The next morning, when his mother went to look at the gold pieces, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant.
The piper went to the priest, and told him his story, but the priest would not believe a word from him, until he put the pipes on him, and then the screeching of the ganders and geese began.
“Leave my sight, you thief,” said the priest.
But nothing would do the piper till he would put the old pipes on him to show the priest that his story was true.
He buckled on the old pipes, and he played melodious music, and from that day till the day of his death, there was never a piper in the county Galway was as good as he was.