Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde, the mother of Oscar Wilde, was a poet and writer in her own right. She was a great supporter of the nationalist movement; and had a special interest in Irish Fairy Tales, which she helped to gather. Her collection of Irish fairy tales has been published since the mid-19th Century. She is solely responsible for the translation from Irish of these tales into English so that the tales would not be lost forever.
Lady Wilde wrote: “The tales and legends told by the peasants in the Irish vernacular are much more weird and strange, and have much more of the old-world colouring than the ordinary fairy tales narrated in English by the people, as may be seen by the following mythic story, translated from the Irish, and which is said to be a thousand years old.”
Here are two examples of “rescued” old Irish fairy tales. Enjoy the read!
The Horned Women
A RICH woman sat up late one night carding and preparing wool while all the family and servants were asleep. Suddenly a knock was given at the door, and a voice called, “Open! Open!”
“Who is there?” said the woman of the house.
“I am the Witch of the One Horn,” was answered.
The mistress, supposing that one of her neighbours had called and required assistance, opened the door, and a woman entered, having in her hand a pair of wool carders, and bearing a horn on her forehead, as if growing there. She sat down by the fire in silence, and began to card the wool with violent haste. Suddenly she paused and said aloud, “Where are the women? They delay too long.”
Then a second knock came to the door, and a voice called as before, “Open! Open!”
The mistress felt herself constrained to rise and open to the call, and immediately a second witch entered, having two horns on her forehead, and in her hand a wheel for spinning the wool.
“Give me place,” she said; “I am the Witch of the Two Horns,” and she began to spin as quick as lightning.
And so the knocks went on, and the call was heard, and the witches entered, until at last twelve women sat round the fire – the first with one horn, the last with twelve horns. And they carded the thread, and turned their spinning wheels, and wound and wove, all singing together an ancient rhyme, but no word did they speak to the mistress of the house. Strange to hear, and frightful to look upon were these twelve women, with their horns and their wheels; and the mistress felt near to death, and she tried to rise that she might call for help, but she could not move, nor could she utter a word or a cry, for the spell of the witches was upon her.
Then one of them called to her in Irish and said, “Rise, woman, and make us a cake.”
Then the mistress searched for a vessel to bring water from the well that she might mix the meal and make the cake, but she could find none. And they said to her, “Take a sieve and bring water in it.”
And she took the sieve and went to the well; but the water poured from it, and she could fetch none for the cake, and she sat down by the well and wept. Then a voice came by her and said, “Take yellow clay and moss and bind them together and plaster the sieve so that it will hold.”
This she did, and the sieve held the water for the cake. And the voice said again, “Return, and when thou comest to the north angle of the house, cry aloud three times and say, ‘The mountain of the Fenian women and the sky over it is all on fire.’”
And she did so.
When the witches inside heard the call, a great and terrible cry broke from their lips and they rushed forth with wild lamenta¬tions and shrieks, and fled away to Slievenamon, where was their chief abode. But the Spirit of the Well bade the mistress of the house to enter and prepare her home against the enchantments of the witches if they returned again.
And first, to break their spells, she sprinkled the water in which she had washed her child’s feet (the feet-water) outside the door on the threshold; secondly, she took the cake which the witches had made in her absence, of meal mixed with the blood drawn from the sleeping family. And she broke the cake in bits, and placed a bit in the mouth of each sleeper, and they were restored; and she took the cloth they had woven and placed it half-in and half-out of the chest with the padlock; and lastly, she secured the door with a great cross-beam fastened in the jambs, so that they could not enter. And having done these things she waited.
Not long were the witches in coming back, and they raged and called for vengeance.
“Open! Open!” they screamed. “Open, feet-water!”
“I cannot,” said the feet-water, “I am scattered on the ground and my path is down to the Lough.”
“Open, open, wood and tree and beam!” they cried to the door.
“I cannot,” said the door; “for the beam is fixed in the jambs arid I have no power to move.”
“Open, open, cake that we have made and mingled with blood,” they cried again.
“I cannot,” said the cake, “for I am broken and bruised, and my blood is on the lips of the sleeping children.”
Then the witches rushed through the air with great cries, and fled back to Slievenamon, uttering strange curses on the Spirit of the Well, who had wished their ruin; but the woman and the house were left in peace, and a mantle dropped by one of the witches in her flight was kept hung up by the mistress as a sign of the night’s awful contest; and this mantle was in possession of the same family from generation to generation for five hundred years after.
The Legend of Ballytowtas Castle
In old times there lived where Ballytowtas Castle now stands a poor man named Towtas. It was in the time when manna fell to the earth with the dew of evening, and Towtas lived by gathering the manna, and thus supported himself, for he was a poor man, and had nothing else.
One day a pedlar came by that way with a fair young daughter. “Give us a night’s lodging,” he said to Towtas, “for we are weary.”
And Towtas did so.
Next morning, when they were going away, his heart longed for the young girl, and he said to the pedlar, “Give me your daughter for my wife.”
“How will you support her?” asked the pedlar.
“Better than you can,” answered Towtas, “for she can never want.”
Then he told him all about the manna; how he went out every morning when it was lying on the ground with the dew, and gathered it, as his father and forefathers had done before him, and lived on it all their lives, so that he had never known want nor any of his people.
Then the girl showed she would like to stay with the young man, and the pedlar consented, and they were married, Towtas and the fair young maiden; and the pedlar left them and went his way. So years went on, and they were very happy and never wanted; and they had one son, a bright, handsome youth, and as clever as he was comely.
But in due time old Towtas died, and after her husband was buried, the woman went out to gather the manna as she had seen him do, when the dew lay on the ground; but she soon grew tired and said to herself, “Why should I do this thing every day? I’ll just gather now enough to do the week and then I can have rest.”
So she gathered up great heaps of it greedily, and went her way into the house. But the sin of greediness lay on her ever¬more; and not a bit of manna fell with the dew that evening, nor ever again. And she was poor, and faint with hunger, and had to go out and work in the fields to earn the morsel that kept her and her son alive; and she begged pence from the people as they went into chapel, and this paid for her son’s schooling; so he went on with his learning, and no one in the county was like him for beauty and knowledge.
One day he heard the people talking of a great lord that lived up in Dublin, who had a daughter so handsome that her like was never seen; and all the fine young gentlemen were dying about her, but she would take none of them. And he came home to his mother and said, “I shall go see this great lord’s daughter. Maybe the luck will be mine above all the fine young gentlemen that love her.”
“Go along, poor fool,” said the mother, “how can the poor stand before the rich?”
But he persisted. “If I die on the road,” he said, “I’ll try it.”
“Wait, then,” she answered, “till Sunday, and whatever I get I’ll give you half of it.” So she gave him half of the pence she gathered at the chapel door, and bid him go in the name of God. He hadn’t gone far when he met a poor man who asked him for a trifle for God’s sake. So he gave him something out of mother’s money and went on. Again, another met him, and begged for a trifle to buy food, for the sake of God, and he gave him something also, and then went on.
“Give me a trifle for God’s sake,” cried a voice, and he saw a third poor man before him. “I have nothing left,” said Towtas, “but a few pence; if I give them, I shall have nothing for food and must die of hunger. But come with me, and whatever I can buy for this I shall share with you.” And as they were going on to the inn he told all his story to the beggar man, and how he wanted to go to Dublin, but had now no money. So they came to the inn, and he called for a loaf and a drink of milk. “Cut the loaf,” he said to the beggar. “You are the oldest.”
“I won’t,” said the other, for he was ashamed, but Towtas made him.
And so the beggar cut the loaf, but though they ate, it never grew smaller, and though they drank as they liked of the milk, it never grew less. Then Towtas rose up to pay, but when the land¬lady came and looked, “How is this?” she said. “You have eaten nothing. I’ll not take your money, poor boy,” but he made her take some; and they left the place, and went on their way together.
“Now,” said the beggar man, “you have been three times good to me to-day, for thrice I have met you, and you gave me help for the sake of God each time. See, now, I can help also,” and he reached a gold ring to the handsome youth. “Wherever you place that ring, and wish for it, gold will come – bright gold, so that you can never want while you have it.”
Then Towtas put the ring first in one pocket and then in another, until all his pockets were so heavy with gold that he could scarcely walk; but when he turned to thank the friendly beggar man, he had disappeared.
So, wondering to himself at all his adventures, he went on, until he came at last in sight of the lord’s palace, which was beautiful to see; but he would not enter in until he went and bought fine clothes, and made himself as grand as any prince; and then he went boldly up, and they invited him in, for they said, “Surely he is a king’s son.” And when dinner-hour came the lord’s daughter linked her arm with Towtas, and smiled on him. And he drank of the rich wine, and was mad with love; but at last the wine overcame him, and the servants had to carry him to his bed; and in going into his room he dropped the ring from his finger, but knew it not.
Now, in the morning, the lord’s daughter came by, and cast her eves upon the door of his chamber, and there close by it was the ring she had seen him wear.
Ah,” she said, “I’ll tease him now about his ring.” And she put it in her box, and wished that she were as rich as a king’s daughter, that so the king’s son might marry her; and, behold, the box filled up with gold, so that she could not shut it; and she put it from her into another box, and that filled also; and then she was frightened at the ring, and put it at last in her pocket as the safest place.
But when Towtas awoke and missed the ring, his heart was grieved.
“Now, indeed,” he said, “my luck is gone.”
And he inquired of all the servants, and then of the lord’s daughter, and she laughed, by which he knew she had it; but no coaxing would get it from her, so when all was useless he went away, and set out again to reach his old home.
And he was very mournful and threw himself down on the ferns near an old fort, waiting till night came on, for he feared to go home in the daylight lest the people should laugh at him for his folly. And about dusk three cats came out of the fort talking to each other.
“How long our cook is away,” said one.
“What can have happened to him?” said another.
And as they were grumbling a fourth cat came up.
“What delayed you?” they all asked angrily.
Then he told his story – how he had met Towtas and given him the ring. “And I just went,” he said, “to the lord’s palace to see how the young man behaved; and I was leaping over the dinner-table when the lord’s knife struck my tail and three drops of blood fell upon his plate, but he never saw it and swallowed them with his meat. So now he has three kittens inside him and is dying of agony, and can never be cured until he drinks three draughts of the water of the well of Ballytowtas.”
So when young Towtas heard the cats talk he sprang up and went and told his mother to give him three bottles full of the water of the Towtas well, and he would go to the lord disguised as a doctor and cure him.
So off he went to Dublin. And all the doctors in Ireland were round the lord, but none of them could tell what ailed him, or how to cure him. Then Towtas came in and said, “I will cure him.” So they gave him entertainment and lodging, and when he was refreshed he gave of the well water three draughts to his lordship, when out jumped the three kittens. And there was great rejoicing, and they treated Towtas like a prince. But all the same he could not get the ring from the lord’s daughter, so he set off home again quite disheartened, and thought to himself, “If I could only meet the man again that gave me the ring who knows what luck I might have?” And he sat down to rest in a wood, and saw there not far off three boys fighting under an oak-tree.
“Shame on ye to fight so,” he said to them. “What is the fight about?”
Then they told him. “Our father,” they said, “before he died, buried under this oak-tree a ring by which you can be in any place in two minutes if you only wish it; a goblet that is always full when standing, and empty only when on its side; and a harp that plays any tune of itself that you name or wish for.”
“I want to divide the things,” said the youngest boy, “and let us all go and seek our fortunes as we can.”
“But I have a right to the whole,” said the eldest.
And they went on fighting, till at length Towtas said, “I’ll tell you how to settle the matter. All of you be here to¬morrow, and I’ll think over the matter tonight, and I engage you will have nothing more to quarrel about when you come in the morning.”
So the boys promised to keep good friends till they met in the morning, and went away. When Towtas saw them clear off, he dug up the ring, the goblet, and the harp, and now said he, “I’m all right, and they won’t have anything to fight about in the morning.”
Off he set back again to the lord’s castle with the ring, the goblet, and the harp; but he soon bethought himself of the powers of the ring, and in two minutes he was in the great hall where all the lords and ladies were just sitting down to dinner; and the harp played the sweetest music, and they all listened in delight; and he drank out of the goblet which was never empty, and then, when his head began to grow a little light, “It is enough,” he said; and putting his arm round the waist of the lord’s daughter, he took his harp and goblet in the other hand, and murmuring, “I wish we were at the old fort by the side of the wood.” In two minutes they were both at the desired spot. But his head was heavy with the wine, and he laid down the harp beside him and fell asleep. And when she saw him asleep she took the ring off his finger, and the harp and the goblet from the ground and was back home in her father’s castle before two minutes had passed by.
When Towtas awoke and found his prize gone, and all his trea¬sures beside, he was like one mad; and roamed about the country till he came by an orchard, where he saw a tree covered with bright, rosy apples. Being hungry and thirsty, he plucked one and ate it, but no sooner had he done so than horns began to sprout from his forehead, and grew larger and longer till he knew he looked like a goat, and all he could do, they would not come off. Now, indeed, he was driven out of his mind, and thought how all the neighbours would laugh at him; and as he raged and roared with shame, he spied another tree with apples, still brighter, of ruddy gold.
“If I were to have fifty pairs of horns I must have one of those,” he said; and seizing one, be had no sooner tasted it than the horns fell off, and he felt that he was looking stronger and handsomer than ever.
“Now, I have her at last,” he exclaimed. “I’ll put horns on them all, and will never take them off until they give her to me as my bride before the whole Court.”
Without further delay he set off to the lord’s palace, carrying with him as many of the apples as he could bring off the two trees. And when they saw the beauty of the fruit they longed for it; and he gave to them all, so that at last there was not a head to be seen without horns in the whole dining hall. Then they cried out and prayed to have the horns taken off, but Towtas said, “No; there they shall be till I have the lord’s daughter given to me for my bride, and my two rings, my goblet, and my harp all restored to me.”
And this was done before the face of all the lords and ladies; and his treasures were restored to him; and the lord placed his daughter’s hand in the hand of Towtas, saying, “Take her; she is your wife; only free me from the horns.” Then Towtas brought forth the golden apples; and they all ate, and the horns fell off; and he took his bride and his treasures, and carried them off home, where he built the Castle of Ballytowtas, in the place where stood his father’s hut, and enclosed the well within the walls. And when he had filled his treasure room with gold, so that no man could count his riches, he buried his fairy treasures deep in the ground, where no man knew, and no man has ever yet been able to find them until this day.